published Friday, March 4th, 2011

Q&A with Matt Martin of Holy Ghost Tent Revival

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Matt Martin, vocalist, guitarist and banjo player with the North Carolina-based genre-spanning band Holy Ghost Tent Revival, about how work is progressing on their next album, defying classification and why he eats his vegetables.

CP: When I spoke to you guys two years ago, Patrick Leslie told me you were going for a darker tone on your next album. That album still hasn't released. What happened?

MM: We got halfway through it. We recorded all the tracks, but it was coming across as lackluster. A few guys in the band felt like it wasn't something we could release and have everyone be really proud of.

It had to do with the process. We kind of rushed into some things and didn't make the best decisions on some tunes, writing wise or whatever. When we listened back to it, we decided, “Let's wait on this and release a live album.”

We released the EP “Family,” and then we were going to have the second album, but when that didn't work, we realized we had all these tracks from when we played one time in New York, so we were like, “Let's release this live album to at least tide fans over.”

During that period, we lost our keyboard player (Mike O'Malley) and gained a new one (Kevin Williams). We taught him all the songs that we'd written from years ago, including some that were going to go on the darker album, he kind of, by mistake, rewrote them all. He's a pretty incredible musician, and one we're very honored to have on our crew. He inherently changed a lot of our tunes.

In hindsight, it's wonderful that we didn't release that record. We got some flack from musicians and fans who said you should release stuff to represent where you are at that moment in your life, that we should release that art and of course it will change. It was more than that to us. We were like, “This doesn't even sound like Holy Ghost to us. We can't be proud of this.”

CP: So have returned to working on that album now?

MM: Yeah, exactly. We are in Scranton, Penn., and we brought some recording equipment with us. We went to a university where they had piano and uprights and what not, and our piano player recorded some tracks. We've recorded all the band tracks.

I think what drove us into a dead end the last time is that we were thinking too much concept and not enough making sure the tunes were tight.

We ended up playing live for quite a few months with this keyboard player before we laid anything down. About a month ago, we recorded 10 tracks with him. There are definitely some darker tunes on there. Lyrically and musically they're not as upbeat and poppy sounding songs as on “So Long I Screamed,” but they are a completely different approach to our songs because of our new keyboard player and because we've grown as musicians.

CP: What happened to your old keyboard player, Mike O'Malley?

MM: We're still good buds with him. He'll actually be on the album too. He just didn't want to tour anymore.

CP: Did you expect, when he left, that it would throw you guys off as much as it did?

MM: Yeah, we were a little shocked because it was still in the middle of the tour. We still had three weeks left to go, and we were like, “Alright … well, that's cool.”

We've known Kevin (Williams) for a few years now, and it was actually Mike's idea to talk to Kevin. We spent about a month, maybe, with no keys, and it was fine. It was nice to look at the guys we were standing next to and think, “Well, we're in it for as long as the road takes us. We're in it together.”

We had gotten so used to the voice of the keys, the melody and rhythm that a keyboard can add, so it took about a month, and then we called Kevin. Fortunately, he was really, really excited. The only thing he wanted to do at this point in his life was to be in a band. He was not only a good friend but a fan of our music from before. It really worked out.

CP: When did he join the band?

MM: That was in August.

CP: Do you feel like you're pretty stable again, lineup wise?

MM: Yeah, we all feel real good. We recorded this album and are playing some really good shows these days. We're starting to run into some good venues in New York City and down south. We've been seeing good numbers, and the general confidence of the group is up.

We are just kind of looking forward to getting this album out. We set too many deadlines last time. We told too many people that it would be coming out “at this time,” so we've decided to get the project done and then talk about when we'll release it to the public since that stresses people out.

The general feeling of the group is, “OK, you gotta stay strong.”

CP: Do you have any idea what you'll be playing at your Chattanooga show? Will it be new stuff?

MM: It's funny. In a lot of places, even in Asheville, N.C., it's hard for me to say what's new because we've been these for so long. The material that we're playing kind of dips into “So Long I Screamed” and there are a couple on “Family,” but the majority of what we play will be what's on the new record. To some people, that's new, and to some people it won't be because we've been playing them for a while.

We've just been rewriting them a lot. I think the biggest comment is that there are new arrangements and approaches to songs they know that makes them feel new.

CP: It seems like the word “raucous” comes up quite a bit in descriptions of Holy Ghost Tent Revival. How much of that is your natural chemistry as a band and how much is put on as a show?

MM: We're all natural performers and entertainers. I think that's what separates musicians and entertainers these days. You could be blown away by an incredible bluegrass group, but it might not be the most entertaining thing.

I'm kind of a spastic entertainer, in general. I have a hard time standing still. It's not so much a false thing as much as an expression of how the music I'm creating and these guys are creating comes out of my body. We all generally feel that way.

The way Ross plays drums, if you can't move to the way he plays, there's something wrong with you. It's pretty intense how he beats the hell out of those things.

If there are 10 people there when you're performing, you're not going to crush their faces with kicking and head banging and jumping up and down. That will still happen - you'll still dance and break a sweat - because that feels good to do. I'm not running 10 miles a day or lifting weights, so it's a form of exercise to us.

If there's a packed house, that's a way to create attention and get people to remember you because “They put on a hell of a live show, and it was fun to watch. And not only was it fun to watch, the tunes were good, too.”

It's never a false thing like we practice “Here, we're all going to head bang to the left and then jump to the right.” That's never been discussed and never will be. It's pretty damn natural the way we move on stage. As many times as we've played shows, we've seen other bands play, and you see the difference when you see another band that gets into it. How it makes you feel as an audience member is just as important (as the music).

CP: Other than your lineup changes, how is the band different from when you started in 2007?

MM: I would say that we've grown as musicians. When it was starting, it was “Here are these chords I've come up with, and here's this melody.” We just kind of introduced things, and the songs live, at that point, were sub par, I'd say. When we first started, we got a lot of comments like, “You guys are a great ska/punk band.” (Laughs.)

After many of those comments, it kind of donned on us like, “Wait, we're all natural musicians. We had two members who went to college for music degrees.” It took us two years to hone in and decide, “Let's work on these harmonies,” and “Let's work on the timing here.” From then until now, musically, we're much more focused on what's going to sound prettiest and what's going to affect you emotionally and aurally.

Also, business wise, we used to jump into things. It's not that we made horrible decisions, but we weren't used to how things worked, in general - how certain people can give off the impression of being genuinely interested in your music but then have an ulterior motive. We ran into a little bit of the negative side of things.

We grew up into recognizing that we're a business. Yeah, we're musicians, and that's ultimately what we want to be, but along with that comes the realization that you need to pick and choose who's going to represent you and who is going to talk for you. In generally, we've gotten a lot better about that.

We're more focused, too. We still stay up way too late, but in general, it's staying up late sober as opposed to staying up late and not being able to walk the next day. We've kind of honed in our priorities a little bit, like, “We've 13 dates in a row that we're playing shows, so on Day Two, let's maybe go to bed before 5 a.m.” (Laughs.)

CP: Has that more reasonable approach to the lifestyle affected your ability to be energetic on stage or does the energy for your live performances come from the music?

MM: It's both. Just this last weekend, we did 11 shows in a row, and we've done that before, but these were really successful shows in that there were a lot of people out. By the end of that, it was like you were running close to empty, physically. But the energy on stage doesn't just come from adrenaline and excitement. It has got to come from “I ate vegetables today, and I slept and I drank water today.” That really is important.

That's another thing we've realized. We now buy fruit and smoothie materials and protein. We really try and take care of ourselves. We buy groceries and don't buy fast food as much. We try and have a cooked meal, even if it's cooked by one of us.

CP: Looking at HGTR's lineup, it seems like a very normal, roots/Americana mix of instruments until you get down to Hank Widmer on euphonium and trombone. What does having those instruments in the mix give you, creatively, that you wouldn't otherwise have?

MM: It's always been another melody. He's always playing a counter melody or adding a groove to the songs that, if he wasn't there, that groove would easily turn into the bluegrass or Americana genre. When people say we're Americana, I don't even know what the hell that is anymore, but I feel like we would really easily fit into that without a horn presence.

He's really tying different parts of the song together and doing things we couldn't do vocally, either because it's out of our range or because our voices can't slide the way a trombone slides. He adds the emphasis of the New Orleans style that started off the band a long time ago when we wrote songs like “Steamboat” and “Getting Over Your Love.” It adds that whole other genre.

If we don't have horns, whether Hank stops playing horns for whatever reason, we'd have to find a new one. Not that that's going to happen, but it's been such a distinct part of our sound that, that's the one thing that really sets us apart a little bit.

CP: Somehow it does seem to perk your ears up.

MM: Yeah, it's a big deal having a horn there. It's just different enough. I'm glad it gets noticed. The worst part is that, until we have our sound guy traveling with us - and I don't know when that will happen - people are always like, “Yeah, man, I couldn't hear the trombone.” That kills me a little bit.

I think sound guys think we don't really want the trombone, so they just tuck it underneath. We've heard enough live recordings of ourselves to where it's like, “Well, Hank, thanks for standing on stage with us, at least, because we can't even hear you.” (Laughs.) It's unfortunate.

CP: Is it fair to say that you guys enjoy not being easily classifiable?

MM: Oh certainly. At first, it was fun to hear that and be told that we were genre-defying. Then, people were like, “Well, how do you describe your sound?” Coming up with adjectives to describe a sound, it's like, “I don't know.”

This time, with the way the music is going and the way it's so easy for people to lump bands together, I'm really thankful that we have elements from decades of music. We can share with people that represent from the '20s and '30s all the way to the '60s. We're still learning. We're listening to bands like Dr. Dog and Miniature Tigers and learning how they write songs. We're not stealing, but we're taking an approach to music like they would.

We've got a lot of decades covered, and we're grateful that people aren't like, “You've got to hear this great bluegrass band I know.” It's nice that if friends are describing us to other friends, they have to describe the music instead of saying, “This is a great Americana act.” It's nice, for me, that people are like, “This is a rock'n'roll band that has horns and they play fast as hell and have melody.” It's much better to have someone else's opinion on it take a few sentences, rather than just a word or two.

CP: I know you don't want to paint yourself into a corner as far as a release date, but will fans have your next record in hand by the end of the world in December 2012?

MM: (Laughs.) Yes. It will definitely be before the new year. We have a lot of things done, so yes, it will be before the Mayan calendar has predicted the world to end. But I really can't predict a date because we're still far away from being done.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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