Growing up in Olympia, Washington, burgeoning musician, Barrett Martin, who would later go on to play in the famed Seattle rock bands, Skin Yard, Mad Season and Screaming Trees, would noodle around with several “rickety” instruments while accompanying a player piano that his father bought at a garage sale.
The thing had more than 200 piano song rolls. It was capable of playing ragtime, swing, show tunes and even a few movie soundtracks. The exposure to the array of songs, coupled with his grandparents old 78s record collection, taught Martin from an early age to both appreciate myriad styles of music and that he could participate with them, too. That foundation has since taken the artist around the globe with stops in rainforests, monasteries and concert halls. Martin, whose 2020 album, Scattered Diamonds, features players from all over the world, cares deeply about the history of sound and its transformative possibilities.
“Music is by its very nature an evolutionary form,” says Martin, who has a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of New Mexico. “In ethnomusicology, you often begin with the premise that music is a life-saving mechanism. It’s a thing people can do collectively in a community.”
As a college student in the mid-80s, Martin formally studied music. He learned jazz and classical music, concentrating on drums and upright bass. When he found himself in Seattle after transferring to the University of Washington in 1987, Martin was at ground zero of a new movement. He began playing in Skin Yard with now-famed recording engineer, Jack Endino. He dropped out of school (knowing he’d get back to it later) and he played as often as he could. He brought a passion for songwriting and a subtle sense of swing to the grunge sound that was becoming more and more popular at home and abroad (a subject he and drummer, Matt Cameron, often reminisce on when in each other’s company).
“I’ve known Matt since the late 1980s,” Martin says. “Matt is also a former jazz drummer. We’ve talked about this many times – the drummer as composer.”
Martin, who won a Latin Grammy in 2017, carries with him a global sensibility for art, creativity and ideas. Pre-pandemic, he was as ready to fly to Mexico, Germany or Alaska to record or study sound as he was to produce a single in the Emerald City. His LP, Scattered Diamonds, includes musicians from Iraq, Ghana and many other regions (including domesticc with Soundgarden guitarist, Kim Thayil, and R.E.M. guitarist, Peter Buck). The record is yet another indication of Martin’s forward-thinking productive mind. While some of his contemporaries may indulge in grunge reunion tours, Martin has known for many years that a route like that was not his. In fact, there was a day when it became crystal clear.
“There was a moment in my life when everything really changed,” Martin says. “In 2004, I went to the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest to do my master’s degree field work with an indigenous tribe down there, the Shipibo.”
He chose that location because, Marin says, the tribes there experience synesthesia. They see visual patterns in the rainforest and these patterns are the basis for their music (known as Icaros, or magical songs). Martin says the shamans there blessed him with a different understanding of music, explaining how it was eternal, ever-evolving and infinite. That, like the universe, music just keeps going, expanding, folding in on itself. It’s always experiencing reinvention. When Martin returned from the excursion, he wrote his first solo album and he has since returned to the region to produce recordings for them.
“I decided to take a spiritual path,” says Martin.
Today, Martin, who was ordained a Zen Monk in 2000, has his fingers in many proverbial sonic pies. He’s a composer, percussionist, producer and writer. Born in Olympia, Washington, Martin has gone well beyond the bounds of his Pacific Northwest upbringing. When he finishes a new work, he dives right back into another and another. Martin has also recently released a new book, Poderosas: Conversations With Extraordinary, Ordinary Women, with writer and Buddhist scholar, Lisette Garcia. The tome is one more example of Martin’s diverse, eclectic interests both in taking in works and producing them.
“I’m like Jim Carrey in that movie, Yes Man,” Martin says. “Say yes to everything and let the adventure unfold on its own.”
While Martin doesn’t sit back in some easy chair pontificating on the good old days, he remains perfectly capable of reminiscing on them here or there when prompted. Throughout all his explorations, however, music often remains at the core. It’s as if he’s just adding new roles to that player piano in his extended memory. And he’s doing so in myriad sonic terrains amongst many styles. While the original player piano now lives with a family friend in Salt Lake City somewhere, the unraveling wonder that it first instilled in Martin remains strong.
“I’m collaborating with an astronomer I know,” Martin says of his next project. “He has a telescope that looks at galaxies a long ways away and I’m going to write music based on the images he finds. I have no idea what it will sound like. But that’s what’s most inspiring.”