Tea Leaf Green's Reed Mathis on how improv is a spiritual discipline and an emotional art
So for the upcoming dates in Colorado, there aren't going to be any tunes from the new record?
[laughs] Nothing from the new record, but we actually have new songs that aren't off the new record that we are performing. The writing process doesn't ever really stop. The thirteen songs off the record won't be performed, but there will be new songs, for sure. We'll be dusting off old ones, some that I'd never heard. There will be songs from the early part of the band's career that I didn't learn when I joined. Once in a while, we pull out an old one that's new to me.
Plus, the way the band has been performing and improvising, all the songs are a little bit new every night. That trait has only been increasing. I can guarantee that when we're at the Bluebird and the other Colorado shows, even people that have seen us twenty times will be surprised and hopefully thrilled. I find it thrilling. The more surprising the music is, the more excited I get, and the more adrenaline bliss feel that you get from a virtual experience; you can really get that every night if you have the space to surrender to the music, the muse.
That goes back to the power of improv for you as a musician, right?
Improvisation is really more of a spiritual discipline and an emotional art than it is a musical technique. You know, it really has a lot more to do with who you are and how you feel about the planet than it does with your instrument or the song or whatever. It's an approach to being on the earth that just happens to find form in [music].
Okay. Speaking of coming to the Bluebird, do you find that Colorado's more attuned to Tea Leaf Green's brand of music?
Of course, of course. Colorado has always brought the love for all the bands ... It's been very consistent. But with Tea Leaf Green, it's exceptionally so. The people come out, they pack the rooms, they dance and freak out and fall in love and have their hearts broken and dance and sing and cry. They know the words. They love it when we take risks. They really feel it. We feel very welcomed in Colorado every time.
You're not the only newer member of the group. Cochrane McMillan joined a few years ago. Has there been any adjustments with another fresh player in the band?
Cochrane and I have a lot of overlap in our backgrounds. We kind of came up playing a lot of the same kind of stuff and having a lot of friends in common. I met Cochrane years before he started playing with Tea Leaf Green; we had so many musician friends in common, it was inevitable. I'd been a fan of his, musically and personally, for a long time. When he joined the band, for me, it was instant, a real piece of cake, like a ripe fruit that falls when you pick it.
Shifting to looking at your discography, there are a lot of live albums. How integral do you think the performance element is to this band?
The bulk of the music we make is in front of an audience. There's nothing like performing to heat up that music to the melting temperature. The attention of the audience and the realization that you can't take back anything that you're doing, that people that don't even know you are having a very personal glimpse into the most vulnerable part of who you are; that's an irreplaceable feeling.
That being said, making music without an audience is very rewarding for different reasons. I honestly wouldn't trade one or the other. I need both. I need studio, more meditative work and the performing. The performing is haunting; you're out there with the predators and the prey. All of those primal hormones of risk are coursing through you. That's a great way to be. Going into the studio and putting your lab coat on is also a very rewarding experience. They're completely different art forms. I think this band excels at both.
This forthcoming record, then, is the latter. It's going in with the labcoats and being calculated and deliberate, right?
No, not calculated and deliberate. It's just as much off-the-cuff in the studio as it is on the stage. I personally don't ever plan out what I'm going to play when the tape is rolling. You're just capturing an essence; it's not about planning. I've heard records that are about planning, and I've even been a part of some records that are about planning, and they're kind of boring to my ear.
I've studied the Beatles extensively, and those guys were improvising; there was no master plan to what they were doing. They just had really good luck and they were really talented. You can play something that sounds organized without planning it. You just have to have enough faith and surrender. The record that is coming out -- we've spent a lot of time on it, and part of that is because we were on tour that whole year, as well. I wouldn't say that it's deliberate. It's just as accidental as a live show.
Is there a title yet that you can reveal?
There is a title, but I can't reveal it. [laughs] That's pretty fun to say, and I don't even know why. I have a secret!
In addition to the Bluebird show, the band is playing some gigs in Colorado at smaller venues. Do you have a preference in terms of the venues you play?
Yeah, I mean, different rooms have different vibes and different sized rooms have different vibes. The feel of the Bluebird is just about my favorite. It's the perfect size, and it's old but not gross. It's not so fancy that you're walking on eggshells. That's one of my favorites. Honestly, some of my favorite gigs have been in totally unlikely places, like weird restaurants and ice skating rinks and places a band doesn't belong. That juxtaposition can make the music more exciting and weird.
Do you still have chances to play gigs like that?
Oh, man, crazy shit goes down. We'll play anywhere. When you put us in different sized rooms with different sounds and different people, a different sized audience ... We'll play one kind of music in front of 3,000 people, we might play the same exact setlist in front of 100 people, and it will sound like a different fucking band.
We're like goldfish. The context shapes the music just as much as our intention does. That's the other thing about improvising: Every psyche in the room is making that music. Everybody has a role in creating that music, and we're just the idiots holding the instruments.