Tea Leaf Green's Reed Mathis on how improv is a spiritual discipline and an emotional art
Reed Mathis talks about improvisation like it's a mystical religion. The current bassist for the San Francisco-based quintet Tea Leaf Green and former frontman of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey sees a great deal of power in making music on the spot, and that passion will likely be front and center when the band plays a string of dates in Colorado starting tonight in Avon and running through Sunday in Breckenridge with a stop at the Bluebird Theater in Denver this Saturday in between.
While Tea Leaf Green is expecting to release a new full-length album later this year, Mathis insists that none of that music will figure into the local shows. Instead, he said, the concerts will be a mix of old and new, tracks pulled off the band's studio and live recordings, as well as fresh tunes that didn't make the cut for the new album. And, of course, there will be plenty of improv to boot. We caught up with Mathis to talk about his history before Tea Leaf Green, the future direction of the band and the appeal of making up music as he goes.
Westword: You're a late arrival, in a sense, having joined the band in 2007 after spending years fronting the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey ensemble. Can you talk a bit about your roots and your musical experiences before Tea Leaf Green?
Reed Mathis: I started playing music when I was about three. My mother and father are conductors, orchestral conductors and choral conductors, and their parents are, as well. I'm a fifth generation professional musician, but I'm the first not to be a classical musician. I was raised in that environment, and I listened to all kinds of music. When I was seventeen, I started Jacob Fred, and did that for fifteen years. And you know, we did a lot of weird shit all over the world [laughs].
Why do you think you veered away from the realm of classical music?
Because I'm an improviser. I was noticeably an improviser at the age of five. I was frequently reprimanded by private teachers and by orchestra conductors for improvising in the context classical music, and when I started trying to play rock and roll with my middle school friends, I was improvising when we were trying to play Led Zeppelin songs and stuff. They'd say, "That's not the bass line," and I was like, "I hope you know that the members of Led Zeppelin are improvising. If we're going to pay tribute to them, shouldn't we do that? Or should we just copy them?"
So I was always an improviser from the very earliest age, and that's unfortunately not a part of classical music anymore, and it's in danger of not being a part of rock and roll anymore, even though improvisation is where both classical music and rock and roll formed. So, you know, I'm kind of out on a limb. I'm one of the last in a species.
It seems like the bass wouldn't be the first pick as an instrument for someone with such a bent toward improv.
I wouldn't say that at all. I mean, all music is made on the spot.
What drew you originally to being a bassist? Maybe that's a better way to phrase the question.
My uncle had one, so he could give it to me. But my first instrument was piano and then cello ... I also saw a really cool guy playing bass when I was eleven, a high school guy. I've never really understood, to a fault, much to my detriment, all of the various role playing that various instruments are supposed to do.
You know, piano players do this, bass players do this, drummers do this. I just felt like your instrument is your voice, and you're having a conversation. You're singing a song together, and I never did crack the code of, "Here's what this instrument does; here's what this instrument does." I just thought it was, "We're all a team."
How did you get the bassist job in Tea Leaf Green in 2007?
Well, let's see: I spent a year playing guitar. I was at a festival, High Sierra Music Festival, playing guitar, and Josh Clark came over and took me by the arm and was like, "Hey man, I'd love for you to come over and sit in with my band." I came over and brought my Les Paul, and we had a rowdy jam.
I stayed up late into the night talking to their old bass player, Ben Chambers, and he kind of unburdened himself about his doubts, about the way he was living his life and where his heart wanted to go. Living on the road is a hard thing. I've been doing it for seventeen years myself. We bonded and had a real sweet heart-to-heart hang there.
I didn't hear from them for a while, and then three months later, I got a phone call. "Do you want to do some gigs? We need a bass player." So, I went in with no strings attached, no expectations, and I had a ball playing and hanging with the guys. We kind of did it on a no commitment basis for about a year, and then I decided to go all in.
Was part of the appeal a shared interest in improvisation?
Perhaps. I mean, that wasn't really the main appeal for me. For me, I joined Tea Leaf Green for two reasons: Number one, I was floored by their teamsmanship; their ability to work as a team was really inspiring. Also, they were really excellent at some musical things that I really had no experience with. Jacob Fred was my first band, so they were really good at some stuff that I'd never learned, and I wanted to further my musical education.
Not styles, really. It's really kind of impossible to talk about music when you really get down to it. They had a lot of knowledge and a skill set that I didn't have. It had been a while since I'd really been challenged, so I wanted a challenge.
You're already over the five-year mark as a member of the band. Do you think you've added a distinctive voice to the music on the three studio albums and additional live albums that have come out since you joined?
For the first two or three years that I was in the band, I basically just kind of kept my mouth shut, and tried not to interfere with what was happening. I wanted to really learn their dialect and observe their relationships. I just wanted to check that out and find out what they needed from a bass player and see if I could actually do it.
About two years ago, I started expressing myself a little bit more on my instrument. I felt like I was comfortable enough and they were comfortable enough with me for me to start opening my mouth, you know? That's been my personal progression with it. As far as the musical progression, that's almost an impossible thing to describe. It's gotten better, I can say that [laughs].
Going back to the theme of self-expression and opening your mouth more, have you been able to add more input on the more recent songs and albums?
On a lot of Radio Tragedy, there's my stamp, but not in terms of bass line, just in terms of overall sound and arrangement and pushing the band to take risks and try stuff they haven't done before. I feel like my personal taste in music is more evident than it was on earlier stuff, but not really in terms of bass playing. The new one, which we haven't put out, has a good amount of bass playing on it.
Speaking of the new album, what's the time frame for release?
The record's done. We spent 365 days on it, exactly. It's all mastered and everything. It's the greatest thing that we've ever made. Honestly, I don't know or even care if anyone else will really dig it because it works so well for me and what I want out of music. That's enough. It's really good and I'm really proud.
The release date is May 14. We're going to start a tour the following weekend in San Francisco. We've used a lot of discipline, and we have not performed any of this music yet. None of these songs have been performed. Come May 14, we're going to have a whole new hour and a half of music at our gigs, which I am very excited about.