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Barrett Martin’s spiritual and musical journey has spanned multiple continents and over 100 records but the drummer contends his spirituality is always evolving. Martin’s memoir, The Singing Earth chronicles his lifelong love affair with music, earning sobriety, and how his extensive studies ultimately earned the honor of being ordained a monk. The former Skin Yard, Screaming Trees, and Mad Season drummer focuses more on creating human connections and bonds with nature as opposed to crafting a tell-all memoir with strict attention to his music career.
“In 2000 I began writing travel essays and they eventually became well-received. I never wanted to write a tell-all book. Instead, I feel music is how cultures connect and how it can be a soundtrack to the landscapes of the world and we should all be reminded of that,” stated Martin.
Best known for his tenure in Screaming Trees, Martin certainly reveals the trials and tribulations the band faced but his down to earth reflection on how the Pacific Northwest garnered international acclaim highlights his charming approach to storytelling. Detailing the success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice N’ Chains Martin shies from the obligatory praises and instead, pens more casual anecdotes of the Seattle grunge explosion.“It was an incredible time, looking back to when I first moved to Seattle in 1986. Life was very social and physical connections were very strong; Being pre-Internet and all. People must realize Seattle always had a rich music history that predated Grunge. The city had a strong Blues community in the 20’s but beginning in 1987, the city’s infrastructure was very grim. I had a loft on Jackson Street with no heat but it evolved into a meeting place and eventually I was having people rehearse. Life was simple and people were supportive and that continued even during the so-called Grunge explosion in the 1990’s,” laughed Martin.
Bands such as Green River, Mother Love Bone and The U-Men arguably laid early foundations of what was later termed grunge but Martin maintains that despite former members starting Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, the tight knit community remained even as local artists were courted by major labels offering hefty advances. Martin stated newly acquired fame never impacted the local camaraderie.
“The scene evolved organically because even as bands began earning national attention they always went to see each other play. This continues today and those that cannot make it out, we kind of check in with one another. The old record label business model, which of course has completely changed had staff physically attending shows and flying out to cultivate young talent. What I didn’t anticipate was how well-received Pearl Jam was and of course, once Nirvana broke in 1991-92 but I was in Europe with Screaming Trees so at that time, I didn’t realize just how big they would become,” laughed Martin.
Screaming Trees earned their own critical acclaim after Epic selected Nearly Lost You to appear on the 1992 soundtrack for Singles, Cameron Crowe’s depiction of young Seattle couples navigating love while searching for the right career. Characters ripe with angst, lust, and perhaps ambition played alongside cameos from Chris Cornell, Alice N’ Chains, and Pearl Jam, just to name a few. The film was well received by critics and was the first of many, ‘anti-romance’ romantic dramas peppering big screens for a decade. The soundtrack resonated with its intended audience while propelling Screaming Trees into mainstream’s lexicon, even earning them an appearance on David Letterman. Throughout the pages Martin dedicates to this exciting time his objective voice remained.
“Screaming Trees have been playing since 1985 so I thought their success was well-deserved. After Skin Yard broke up I was not sure if I wanted to continue music right away, or at least rock music but I was so flattered when they asked me to join. The great saying is gaining fame is not hard but holding onto it is. Despite the single climbing the charts and Sweet Oblivion selling 350,000 copies it was our egos that stood in the way. We embarked on a number of successful tours and it was exhilarating to play in front of thousands of people but substance abuse, myself included with alcohol really took its toll,” lamented Martin.
As Screaming Trees grew their audience and continued appearing in larger European festivals, readers may get the feeling the mainstream bubble was going to burst too soon. Martin stated he and other members believed that the commercial and creative process would be simplified but that wasn’t the case, according to Martin.
“One festival appearance that stands out for all the wrong reasons was when our singer Mark Lanegan had a monitor issue and he just kicked it offstage, resulting in security violently rushing us. That incident was just total drunken buffoonery,” recalled Martin.
Screaming Trees still remain dear to Martin, as he extolled the virtues of Lanegan’s songwriting as ‘ahead of his time for a young man’ while continuing to celebrate the musicianship of Gary Lee Connor and Van Connor. However, Martin stated the band, including himself needed to get sober. His careful study of martial arts and the evolving idea that drums played such a cultural, storytelling role in continents abroad gave him pause and enough courage to forge a new path. Martin reflected on the challenges that lay ahead with sobriety and putting his career on hold to facilitate relationships abroad.
“We wanted to get control of our lives. There’s nothing rock and roll about being fucked up and having all your money siphoned off. You’re not being rebellious because rock and roll is about pushing back against a power structure and you can’t if you’re an addict. I had embraced Zen and Buddhist philosophies going back to my days living in the warehouse loft. I continued meditating and studying martial arts. I always believed music needs to be played to reinforce its connections with landscapes and so I put my career on hold to travel extensively to see what I could learn and how new connections would impact me,” said Martin.
Singing Earth remains an easy narrative to embrace, thanks to its concise length, which Martin said remained a challenge as he sifted through thousands of journal pages to seek the most impacting anecdotes. Asked if it was a unique privilege to have the ability to witness how diverse cultures embrace music as compared to the U.S. Martin quickly stated he felt blessed to have such life affirming opportunities.
“Anytime I travel and return I realize how lucky I am to have the chance to experience unique cultures many only get to read about. When you take the time to look around you see the diverse ways people communicate within different cultures. With music, I understood that it didn’t have to have the end goal of being turned into something tangible, like a record but instead be utilized through musical storytelling to preserve a community’s tradition and values.”
Martin’s extensive travels allowed him to reexamine the very instrument that gave him his livelihood. Immersing in cultures in such marked contrast from his rock & roll subculture facilitated his musicianship to evolve into directions that once seemed out of reach. He credits his music studies in Senegal and his sojourn to Africa, Brazil, and finally Cuba for permanently altering his views on just about every career foundation he previously laid.
“In Senegal I studied with drum masters and they utilize drumming to affirm traditional values within their culture, which is something I didn’t see much of in the states. I ultimately realized the instrument had such communicative power with ancient, deep meanings. I know afterward I suddenly felt rock and roll to be puny in comparison to the organic connections I was witnessing but I know I still loved rock in my heart and just had to continue playing it,” reflected Martin.
Martin maintained in contact with his Screaming Trees cohorts and with newly earned sobriety the band was poised to reconvene but they were not able to replicate their previous success. Martin believed Epic always treated the band respectfully but the group opted to dissolve their contract with the label and see if they could resume elsewhere.
“1998, that was actually a good time for the band because we were all thinking clearly and writing some of our best material. We were working hard shopping around songs, which became Last Words and I felt they were very strong but our previous reputation as being hell raisers hurt us. You can only go so far acting like that if you’re selling records but eventually you’re going to get passed over once you stop selling,” stated Martin.
Screaming Trees ultimately disbanded but Martin kept his passion for rock music parallel with self-imposed spiritual challenges. He rigorously studied to become an ordained Monk, believing the mental discipline can be similar to music but with a different end goal.
“I was newly sober and I wanted to see how far I could push myself and awaken myself. There was a lot of attention to detail and focusing, being patient. I think those are similar traits when applied to music. I apply the scripture belief to everything, which is to be very mindful of all you do,” shared Martin.
With thousands of travel miles logged Martin is still able to seek new spiritual, educational, and music career paths back in the city that was so welcoming to him: Seattle. Perhaps another creatively redeeming moment for Martin came on a Seattle rooftop back in 2015. Martin collaborated with longtime friends Mike McCready, Duff McKagan, and Mark Arm to honor The Stooges. The super group believed Pike Place’s rooftop would make the perfect makeshift venue.
“A lot of Seattle musicians were big Stooges fans and I always felt the perfect bookends to the whole Seattle sound would be them and Black Sabbath.”
Perhaps this was Martin coming full circle but he maintains personal evolution is an ongoing process. His recent marriage offers the ultimate human connection and come winter Martin will appear on a new rock record as Walking Papers prepare to follow-up their 2013 debut. Featuring Jeff Angell, McKagan, and Benjamin Anderson. Martin proudly states rock and roll is a compulsion and something he must do, even if spiritual convictions can be tested due to the subculture’s infamous acceptance of challenging egos coupled with permissive substance abuse.
“I know I have had worked with difficult personalities in my career but perhaps that comes with the territory because it takes such a special breed to play rock music. I always feel that when I let myself go and get lost in the moment I have such a transformation and the impacts are so special to me!” exclaimed Martin.
The Singing Earth is available through Martin’s imprint, Sunyata Records.
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