From honing their sound and their relationship with the audience to making the world a better place, San Francisco’s Tea Leaf Green works hard and pleases the peeps.
By Casey Lowdermilk
“If we’re in a position to help somebody or something, our choice is to take advantage of that situation. Through music or whatever media you choose, it’s a powerful thing. And it feels good from the musicians’ standpoint.”
– Ben Chambers
Amid San Francisco’s thriving music scene, Tea Leaf Green forge their own distinctive legacy with soulful lyrics and powerful musicianship.
Together since 1999, the band has earned enthusiastic reviews, opened for artists including Gov’t Mule and Bruce Hornsby, and won masses of faithful fans along the way. (One devotee even created a Web site dedicated to the band’s annotated lyrics – sound familiar?) This past April they headlined the Fillmore Auditorium as part of the Green Apple Music & Arts Festival; a fixture on the festival circuit, they continue to tour the country.
Sticking with the traditional notion of a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band (drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards), their sound spotlights Trevor Garrod’s lyrical and keyboard skills and Josh Clark’s relentless guitar work. Their repertoire stretches from touching, lovelorn ballads to composed instrumentals to fast-paced, blissful rock.
Collaboration can catalyze inspiration – and Tea Leaf Green seem to jump in at every opportunity. They frequently join The Everyone Orchestra’s improvisational collaboration at festivals; at SF’s Great American Music Hall in 2004, the band’s Josh Clark and Trevor Garrod joined The Everyone Orchestra to help celebrate the Rex Foundation’s 20th Anniversary. The night was a celebration of the Rex community – and motivation for another 20 years!
This summer of 2007, the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Tea Leaf Green remain true to their forebears, giving voice to a new generation with relevant lyrics, creative improvisation and cause-driven music. They provide a new interpretation of the message and, as one of their songs puts it, have been “taught to be proud of where they’re coming from.”
At the beginning of the group’s summer tour, we had a chance to discuss social activism, music festivals and a new studio album with TLG’s bassist, Ben Chambers.
Rex Foundation: Tea Leaf Green are currently in the middle of a tour that’s hitting festivals and clubs. How has the road been treating the band?
Ben Chambers, Tea Leaf Green: We’ve been on this tour for a little over a week now. It’s been going really well.
Most of the weekends we’re doing a festival type of situation. That’s always a blast; people are there to get down and have fun. We sprinkle in some club dates, we keep going in front of more audiences, and the reception seems pretty good.
Rex: How are festivals like, say, Bonnaroo and High Sierra different?
Chambers: They’re different animals really, in many ways. Bonnaroo is just so massive. There are very high-profile bands, and mainstream stars too. It’s like watching the red carpet or something.
High Sierra is just really cozy; the community and the setting are gorgeous. That’s probably my favorite festival. Bonnaroo is just intense, especially when you’re out there in the field with the fans. But, you know, some people like that.
Rex: Has the San Francisco Bay Area influenced TLG’s development as a band?
Chambers: Yeah, definitely. I think you would say the same thing if you were from Nebraska; you’re a product of your environment.
In San Francisco, if you want to create a buzz, you gotta work hard at it. People from San Francisco are so used to good music, they get to see it all the time. I think that causes a bit of snobbery sometimes, but the people are nuts for live music out there.
It’s made us a better band. It’s made us a little more serious about always getting better and getting good.
Rex: What bands or musicians influenced you as a bass player?
Chambers: One of my biggest influences was Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers). I got into him when I first started playing bass. I like his persona and his energy, as a bass player as well as performer. I appreciated that sort of energy.
As far as the guys on the scene right now, you’ve got your Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck & the Flecktones) and George Porter Jr. (The Meters). They’re always fun to watch. There’s a bunch of guys actually; I could go on and on.
Rex: Social activism paired with live music is becoming more and more apparent in America. As a band, how do you decide what causes to support, and why do you support them?
Chambers: Actually, we don’t make those specific decisions as a band, but our management team helps to set us up with these really cool, heady organizations that have worthwhile purposes.
We’re looking to support the causes, too. One, because we support positive things, obviously, and two, because usually when you mix it in with good music, it’s a really good vibe out there. You’re doing something good, but you’re having fun at the same time. And that’s just a great way to effect positive change in our society.
Rex: Josh Clark (guitar) and Trevor Garrod (keyboard) joined the Everyone Orchestra for the Rex Foundation’s 20th anniversary concert in 2004. Also, several of the festivals on your past and future tour schedule support the Rex Foundation through a portion of ticket sales. Why is it important for Tea Leaf Green to support charity organizations such as the Rex?
Chambers: You’ve gotta have that responsibility and take advantage of it. If you’re in a position to do good things for people or yourselves, you’ve got to have responsibility and take advantage of it.
If we’re in a position to help somebody or something, our choice is to take advantage of that situation. Through music or whatever media you choose, it’s a powerful thing. And it feels good from the musicians’ standpoint, from our standpoint. To have that feeling we get when we help support a positive cause, it’s an empowering kind of feeling.
Rex: What’s in store for the future of TLG?
Chambers: Basically, we are hoping to be working on a new album. We don’t really have any plans worked out for that yet; that’s probably going to be the next step.
We’re just continually trying to improve in the live setting and doing more shows around the country. We’re kind of road warriors and we’re working real hard when we’re out on the road, you know, playing for the peeps.
Other than that, just touring and looking to put out a new album.
Rex: Have you been working on new material for the album? What’s that process like?
Chambers: We have a backlog of songs that we can do for an album – we have quite a few. We could probably cut a few albums right now if we had the resources or the money and the studio time.
But we also like the idea of going in and trying new songs, and trying to learn them in the studio, as an approach to doing an album as well. We feel like we don’t need to jump right in and do songs right away that we’ve been playing live for like a year now. We’re probably looking for a new album to be out sometime in 2008.