Barrett Martin Reflects on Mad Season, "Above", The Last Time He Saw Layne Staley, and More
Wed, 06 Mar 2013 10:29:18
"There's a quality in darkness," ponders Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees and Mad Season. "If you linger too long there, it just becomes a bleak void. I'm not sure that's what anybody wants to listen to for an extended period of time. It's wonderful when you experience bliss, but if that lasted too long, it wouldn't be as enjoyable anymore. Life seems to swing between this balance of darkness and light. Somehow, on Above, Layne Staley [Alice in Chains] sung about some dark topics but also hopeful optimism and possibility. We were able to channel the music to go with that. It was really about creating an atmosphere."
That atmosphere is as entrancing now as it was nearly two decades ago when Mad Season first unveiled Above. Merging heavy lyrics, bluesy soundscapes, instrumental meanderings, and dynamic delivery from all four players, the record became an instant classic. Timeless songs like "River of Deceit" still receive airplay today. It's partly because the melodies were so sinisterly catchy. It's really because sadness had never sounded so beautiful. Mad Season may have used a dark palette, but they painted a masterpiece in the process.
On April 2nd, the Above – Deluxe Edition drops with a DVD of their legendary Moore Theatre show and new recordings featuring The Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan on the mic. It's a must-have for not only fans of the band but all music aficionados in general.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Barrett Martin talks Above, the last time he saw Layne Staley, favorite memories, and so much more.
Mad Season truly has its own mystique apart from everybody's respective primary projects…
We made that record almost 20 years ago. We recorded it in 1994. It's really its own entity. I've never been able to fully explain the magic of the record. It's just the chemistry of those people. I do think a large part of it had to do with the bluesy nature of the album. The blues is a pretty classic format. All forms of music in the United States come out of the blues. That's their foundation. Somehow, we tapped into that. A lot of it had to do with John Baker Saunders because he came from the Chicago blues scene. He'd primarily been a blues bass player. I don't think he'd played in a rock band until he was in Mad Season. I'd always been interested in the blues. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more interested in it. Mark Lanegan is the one who turned me on to the delta blues. Screaming Trees would be rolling in the tour bus, and he'd play delta blues. A lot of it had to do with a deep connection to the blues and the mysticism of the blues. Somehow, Layne's lyric had that quality. The way we played as a band had that quality. It's make it sound more timeless than if you're playing a specific genre of music that's popular at any given time.
What were those first moments in the studio like?
In truth, the first jam sessions were pretty magical. That doesn't always happen with a new band. When you're starting a band, you try out different musicians and instruments and see what works. Mike called me and said, "Do you want to have dinner? I want to talk to you about something". It was just he and I. He wanted to start this project. He said he got this guy Baker out of Minneapolis and wanted to try some jams with him. The three of us got together the first time and worked on some ideas. Mike had started working on "River of Deceit" and Baker had been working on "Wake Up". We just played some gems that had a generally bluesy nature to them. Quickly after that, Mike said, "I'd really like to do something with Layne because he's in between Alice In Chains albums and wanted to do something". I'd just done a world tour in Screaming Trees with Alice In Chains in 1993. We opened for them right as Dirt came out, and Sweet Oblivion had been out for a couple months. Both of our records were taking off. We did a full world tour, and I'd spent six months on the road with Layne before we even did this. Layne came into the second or third jam session we had, and it was apparent we had a real chemistry that was different from any of the other bands. Something that's important to remember is Mad Season never played except those four Crocodile Café shows, The Moore Theatre show, and the "Rock Candy" new year's eve show. We only did six shows. We never left Seattle. The record sold really well without us doing anything. Of course, I attribute a lot of that to the fact we were all in popular bands at the time. That doesn't necessarily make people go out and buy a record though.
What's the story behind "Long Gone Day"?
I actually wrote the music for that. I started playing upright bass, and I still do. I was playing around with the chord progression on the upright bass. I play bass on that particular track. Mike and I built the song up and created this bed of music for Layne and Mark. I thought, "This is a strange song because it's all acoustic instruments". They loved it though. I'm happy it made the album. A lot of people cite it as their favorite song. A big reason is the lyrics. They're very pensive and retrospective. People relate to that.
For you, what does it mean?
For me, I think what it hearkens back to is it reminds us all of what it was like to be young and in the honeymoon of rock 'n' roll or the first time you had a girlfriend. We were still young when we made that record. Mike, Layne, and I are all the same age. By the time we got to make that record, we'd been on the road for years in different bands. I think everybody was realizing the music business was hard. It takes a huge amount of work and physical strength to keep doing it. That song reminds me of what it was like when you were young and naive before reality set in.
What do you remember the most from the Moore show?
I remember we were all nervous [Laughs]. I was never one to get nervous before a show. I still don't. I'm pretty steadfast like, "Let's go out and play the show". I remember we were like, "Wow, this show sold out in fifteen minutes, and it's completely packed". We'd rehearsed. It wasn't like we didn't know how to play. It was the first announced real show. The Crocodile shows were unannounced. It only held 300 people. I think the Moore is 1200 people. I do remember when we walked out on stage I'd never heard an audience that loud. They just roared with happiness. After every song, it was the same thing. The energy never waned. Also, my grandfather was at that show. He was a World War II veteran and a pilot. He was an old school tough guy. They don't make very many men like that anymore. He said, "I know you have this rock 'n' roll career, and I'd like to see this show at the Moore Theatre". He'd never gotten to see me play before. He never got to see The Screaming Trees or any of my other bands. He came to the show. He's the dapper silver-haired gentleman in the box seat [Laughs].
What was the idea behind the "Interlude"?
There's a great story. We'd done the basic tracks for "I'm Above". I'm not sure if Layne and Mark had sung on it yet, but we knew that the section after the second chorus was the guitar solo. Mike was like, "I don't know what to do". I said, "How about a classical guitar or Spanish guitar—just something that's not a distorted electric guitar?" He said, "That's a good idea!" I ran home to get one because I lived close to the studio. I got this classical guitar my mom had given me on my 16th birthday. I still have it. I brought it back to the studio. They're not easy to tune. Mike tuned it up and was working on the solo. All of a sudden, he busted out this melody thing. I said to Brett [Eliason, producer], "Go ahead and roll the tape". He recorded it. We can't remember how we forgot about it because we were mixing and mastering this record. Brett found it when he was transferring the tapes.
How were these three songs chosen for Mark to sing over?
A little over a year ago, Mike and I started to go over the material we had. The main thing we wanted to do was get Live at the Moore released as a DVD. There were a few songs that didn't make it into the original VHS tape. I don't know why that was. The beginning of the project was getting that transferred to a digital format. Mike said, "Do you have any of the rough mixes from the second album session?" Because I save all that stuff, I pulled out a CD from 1996. It was the original rough mixes we'd recorded for the second album. There was a lot of basic track material. I gave it to Mike and he asked if I could get a hold of Lanegan to sing over them. I sent him a digital file of the rough mixes. He called me a couple of days later and said, "I've listened to everything. There are three songs I really like that I definitely want to sing on but just those three. I don't want to do any more than that". He picked "Locomotive", "Slip Away", and "Black Book of Fear", which actually features Peter Buck of R.E.M. playing the tremolo guitar. Peter and his wife owned The Crocodile where we played the four secret shows. He saw at least the first couple and he loved Mad Season. He thought it was the real thing. He said, "If you guys ever record again, I'd love to play on something". When we started the tracks for the second record, we invited him to come down, and he co-wrote the song.
How did the album cover come about?
Layne did a series of art that were almost like block prints. He had three of them in a series. They were self-portraits of him in different configurations. I believe he printed them up on silk screen and gave them away to people. He presented that art to us, and everybody in the band had a set. We all thought, "Man, that is a great album cover right there!" We all just agreed. It's an iconic image at this point.
What do you think of now when you hear Above?
I don't listen to the record that often because it gets emotional when I listen to it. Those guys were really some of the best friends I'd had in my musical life, and they're gone now. When I listen to it, I hear their spirits in there, and I remember the jokes we told and the laughter. I also know the hard stuff everybody was going through. When I do listen to it, it ultimately makes me feel better. That's why it's connected to the blues. Any great bluesman sings about the shit he's went through, and the people who love the music relate to it because they've been through it too. Everybody feels a little better through that camaraderie.
When was the last time you saw Layne and Baker?
The last time I saw Layne. He and Mark Lanegan were buying a whole bunch of CDs at Tower Records on Queen Anne. That was our biggest record store in Seattle. I was going to buy records too. I was about to walk in the door, and those guys were walking out. They both had giant bags of CDs and vinyl. I was like, "Hey man, what are you guys doing?" They said, "Clearly, we've been buying records!" I laughed, "I'm about to do the same thing!" We talked in the parking lot for fifteen minutes. That was the last time I saw Layne. He was buying records, listening, and absorbing music just like you or I do. I saw Baker all the time because he lived in the same neighborhood I did. He'd come over all the time and hang out and tell stories. He was such a warm, funny guy. We had spoken on the phone the night he died. We were supposed to meet for breakfast the next morning, and early the next day I got the awful phone call that Baker had passed away that night.
What's your favorite song from Above?