The marriage of landscape, culture and sound is at the heart of Seattle musician Barrett Martin’s new book, “The Singing Earth,” which comes with a soundtrack. Martin’s best known as the drummer for Screaming Trees and Mad Season.
Barrett Martin is always listening.
“I can shut it off,” he told me. “But I have always been that way.”
Martin, best known as the drummer for Screaming Trees and Mad Season, swiveled slightly on the picnic bench we were sharing on Alki Beach the other morning.
The author of “The Singing Earth” will appear at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 24, at KEXP’s Gathering Space, 472 First Avenue N., Seattle; free
“Like, even now,” he said. “Do you hear the wind in the trees, and the ocean, and the ding of the bicycle bell in the distance? The rumbling of cars? The murmur of people?
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“There’s sound,” he said. “That’s what’s amazing for me. I was lucky to grow up in a place like this and appreciate the natural landscape first, and then I became a musician. Or maybe they went hand in hand.”
That marriage of landscape, culture and sound is at the heart of Martin’s new book, “The Singing Earth,” which will be formally released Aug. 25.
On Thursday, Aug. 24, KEXP DJ Kevin Cole will interview Martin about the book at the station’s Gathering Space. He will also perform with his jazz band, The Barrett Martin Group, as well as Seattle phenom Ayron Jones and former Screaming Trees bandmate Van Conner. The event is free and co-sponsored by The Elliott Bay Book Company.
“The Singing Earth” is part travelogue, part memoir and part textbook that not only chronicles the origins of music around the world, but speaks of what could be lost if we don’t take better care of the cultures and the landscapes that birthed those sounds.
In a promotional videoabout the book, Martin says, “I wanted to understand how music helps us to connect with our natural environments, our communities and with each other.”
That quest took him to 14 musical regions across six continents, including Africa, Cuba, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He also spent time with bluesman Cedell Davis in the Mississippi Delta, and sat with Seattle musicians like Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses to talk about putting a sound to what the city looked like before tech slicked it up and tore it down.
“People are the intermediaries between earth and music,” Martin explained. “They are the conduits. People express the music of that localized place, so it’s a direct reflection of their environment.
“And that environment could be the Amazon rain forest or the African Sahel or the arctic refuge. Or it could be Detroit, you know?”
The book chronicles Martin’s travels in Central America, where he experimented with trance drumming; Brazil, where he toured with acclaimed songwriter Nando Reis; the Peruvian Amazon, where he recorded shamanic music; and the Palestinian West Bank, where he recorded in a studio surrounded by barbed wire and machine-gun checkpoints.
“You can learn everything about a culture by listening to the music,” he continued. “All of the semiotic cues of a culture are embedded in it. Everything about their culture, their spiritual beliefs, their connection to the landscape, to each other, it’s all in there.”
The book — written not in chapters, but verses — comes with a soundtrack of rare, unreleased songs from his bands and field recordings from his travels. The digital download has more than 40 songs and spoken-word stories.
“I just looked at it like maybe the Earth was asking me to visit these places,” he said, “and to write what I saw and give a message. I wrote it so that it could pull you through one long songline that circumnavigates the earth.”
Part of that message is that places are drying up and melting. When Martin visited the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, it was 80 degrees, full of streams and lakes — not snow, as it should be.
“You don’t have to be a scientist to tell what is going on with the planet,” he said. “You can see it with your own eyes. You can feel it with your body.”
Martin, 50, a native of Olympia, lives in West Seattle with his new wife, psychologist Lisette Garcia. In addition to playing drums, he has produced records for Davis, who is 91, and Jones. He’s also a Zen Buddhist and a painter.
For the last seven years, Martin has taught classes in music and culture at Antioch University in Seattle.
“The Singing Earth” was built from the research Martin did for those classes, as well as papers he wrote while working on his master’s degree in anthropology and pursuing — for now — his PhD.
Despite all his experience and knowledge — his grasp of music theory and the years he spent touring with some of the biggest rock bands in the world — Martin was humbled by the experiences he captures in “The Singing Earth.”
“You go out into the world and you meet people that do it not because they’re paid to be a professional musician or because they have a record contract,” he said. “They are doing it because it keeps them alive. Music is a lifesaving mechanism. It pulls us together and gives us a common understanding of each other.
“And that’s what helped us survive when we could have been taken out by so many things,” he said. “By wild animals, and even ourselves. Music is the thing that prevents that.”
Martin doesn’t think he could have written “The Singing Earth” if he hadn’t experienced so many setbacks. Rock bands imploding. People dying. Losing record contracts and having to start all over again.
“The breaking down of the ego and having to go through some really hard lessons tenderizes you,” he said, “and it opens your heart and makes you more open to hearing what other people have been through. The terrible things that have happened to them, to their environment, to their economy, to their jobs, to their livelihoods.
“They’ve been there,” he said. “And then you sit together and just play.”