The history of Tea Leaf Green is a fascinating journey. Like The Band, The Grateful Dead, Dylan or Springsteen, there is a mythos to their art. But unlike those old idols, there isn’t a staggering collection of biographies, documentaries, or even magazine features on this band. More still, their story isn’t over.
Our story begins with a simple twist of fate. Paris, 1900: A young and relatively unknown artist by the name of Pablo Picasso makes his first trip to the city along the Seine. He is joined by his good friend Carlos Casagemas. The two are there to see one of Picasso’s works at the Expedition Universelle. With what little money they have they set out to indulge in all the excesses Paris has to offer. In remembrance of that pivotal experience, Picasso draws a sketch; a charcoal of Casagemas and himself taking two prostitutes home.
In less than a year, Casagemas will be among friends at the Café Montmartre L’Hippodrome; he will raise a gun to his temple and end his life. From this tragedy, Picasso will enter into his Blue Period. He will create what are arguably the most compelling pieces of art the 20th century has ever known …
Half a century later, an infant Cochrane McMillan inherits a sum of money from his grandfather. His father invests a portion of that inheritance in the purchase of a sketch by Picasso, the very same charcoal sketch he created at the turn of the century. Time passes and Cochrane grows to be a young music engineer. He wants to open up his own studio, and spends the next six months cavorting with art dealers across Europe in hopes of selling his Picasso and capitalizing on that dream.
In Amsterdam, he runs into an Okie named Reed Mathis – then bassist for Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. They meet at the world-renowned Melkweg during a Jacob Fred show. During his stay, Cochrane drops acid at the Van Gogh Museum and has what he describes as the most amazing art experience of his life. Reed and Cochrane part ways. Cochrane goes on to sell the piece to Picasso’s daughter at the Picasso Museum in Paris, essentially completing the circle started so long ago. He uses the funds to open up Coyote Hearing Studios in Oakland, California.
The story picks back up in 2010, when Reed – now the bassist for Tea Leaf Green – stepped in with the rest of the band to track what would become Looking West. Days before the band’s record release party at Café Du Nord, in San Francisco, drummer Scott Rager injures his right ankle. Local legend has it while fighting with a bear. His ankle is so badly sprained that he can’t kick the kick drum. Being thoroughly involved with the recording process, McMillan seemed the obvious substitute, and so the band became a five-piece.
“My joining the band wasn’t just musical,” says Cochrane. “It was both musical and personal. It was the right timing for me in my life.”
“Obviously I joined this band because I love the music,” added Reed, “but that wasn’t my primary reason. My primary reason was because, as I got to know these guys, I had so much respect for who they were as people. We really resonated as artists. When I play the songs I wasn’t originally a part of, I’m actively honoring my friends [the band members] and the deep way in which they’ve conducted their lives.”
“At its core, Tea Leaf Green is still true to itself. The sound is still there from when we began. Reed and Cochrane have brought entirely new elements to the band, and I think we’re gaining our footing now as a new five-piece. So I think there’s both elements, there’s the old and the new. We’re the same band, and a totally different one too.”
Now, as the band is set to release In The Wake, its eighth studio album, the band is preparing to enter into its next stage.
“Our process was really different for this one,” says Trevor. “Every other time we’ve come up with songs we did them live for a while then went to the studio and tried to make a good version of it. This time we brought in songs that none of us had heard each other play before.”
“We made a solid pact on this record,” says Mathis. “We drank each other’s blood … and a cup full of each other’s tears to seal the deal. We swore not to perform a note of this music until the record was released, and that we would keep it as secret as possible. My wife hasn’t even heard the songs. In the studio, if Josh wrote the tune and did the first take by himself, even I would’ve never heard the song before. Blank slate.”
The band has been no stranger to change. A survey of their catalogue is a testament to that. With each successive album, one can witness their development from a light-hearted, good-time, stoner band to an outfit of thought-provoking songwriters who push through and into the mystic. They were very open about their process, confiding very intimate details about their own perceptions.
“When we were first starting out I was more into silly, zany things,” said Clark. “I was playing around with the instrumental aspects of music. As I got crushed through life I became more interested in songwriting. I never thought I had any kind of life experience that I could reasonably share with someone that was worthwhile … until I gained it. Then I felt like I had things I could say, so I could sing honestly, but I never thought I could honestly step in, I had to play a character.”
Reed went on to tell a story involving Clark and the new album.
“Josh had to miss some of the sessions because he’s moving and stuff, and a month ago I got to write for a string quartet and make string arrangements for four songs, and then the next day I got to have the San Francisco Jazz Mafia Brass Section, and I wrote horn arrangements for four songs. My favorite string arrangement I did was for one of Josh’s songs and he wasn’t there, so when Josh showed up and I hit play and he heard the string quartet on his song … I mean he almost fucking cried it was so perfect.”
“It was really moving.” Clark confessed.