R.E.M. is a band that everybody whose music consciousness predates the millennium would recognise. Many of their songs are everlasting, even in this age of disposability. Tracks like Losing My Religion, Orange Crush, Shiny Happy People, and The One I Love are deeply sewn into the 80s and 90s era of alternative rock. Their unique sound – from the incomparable vocal styling of Michael Stipe to the distinctive, yet classic feel to Peter Buck’s guitar work – is one that won’t soon be forgotten. This is the reason that a concert series in their honour has been pulled together, and with it some brilliantly talented musicians. The Ones We Love: Celebrating R.E.M. is a tribute to a band that helped shape a sound in music that will outlast many of its contemporaries. One of the exceptional voices to take part in the event is that of Jeff Martin – frontman of Canadian rock outfit, The Tea Party – who took the time to talk about his personal history with the music of R.E.M.

“It would go back to when I was around thirteen years old. It was maybe the second R.E.M. record, with Pretty Persuasion on it. Jeff Burrows, the drummer in The Tea Party… He’s a year older than I am and, especially at that time – in our teenage years going to the same high school – he was the cool kid, and always into all the alternative music, so he was the one who introduced me to their music,” Martin reminisced, “I’ve been playing guitar since I was around seven and I was just totally taken aback by Peter Buck’s work, the 12-string Rickenbacker jangly guitar work that was something new, because – unbeknownst to me – he was very inspired by Roger McGuinn from The Byrds. So that helped me discover that music as well. So that would be pretty much my first memory and how it came about.”

When finding songs that particularly resonated with Martin personally, he offered his reasoning behind one track specifically. “I think definitely, Everybody Hurts is a song that’s timeless. The thing that I appreciate the most in music, no matter what artist it is, is that esoteric quality of a great song that it doesn’t belong to a genre or a timeframe or anything like that. It’s simply timeless. That’s one song that comes to mind that certainly prescribes to that.”

“To be perfectly honest, no,” was the answer when asked whether R.E.M. was an influence on Martin’s work with The Tea Party, “The Tea Party was much more of a hard rock thing and also, at that time when I was nineteen or twenty years old, when The Tea Party was formed, my musical exploration and curiosity was headed more towards world music, while still… There was a big thing of the majesty and the power of Led Zepplin and all that, but I was much more diving into world music at that time. But, whenever R.E.M. put out anything of note, it was always something that piqued my curiosity.”

Paul (McDonald, from Sydney band, Glide) – who’s the musical director and also the leader of the band that will be supporting all the singers – had been in touch with my management for quite some time, trying to put it together. It was very difficult for me, because of the commitments I had to The Tea Party and my production work here at Riverhouse (Martin’s studio in Byron Bay). It was hard to find the time that I could commit to, and finally we got it all together. This timeframe of late August-early September was certainly the prime opportunity for me,” Martin recalled on how he initially became involved in the project.

“It didn’t take much convincing at all, because the only other time that I’ve done a tribute thing like this would have been the Led Zepplin thing I did maybe five, six, maybe seven years ago. I suppose – for the Zepplin thing, my fans would say, ‘well, that’s a no-brainer, makes sense that Martin would do that,’ – this one is a little bit out-of-the-box for me because not a lot of people realise that I do have an appreciation for their music and, even though it’s something you wouldn’t hear in The Tea Party’s music. That being said, the song Heaven Coming Down, which has the beautiful 12-string Rickenbacker main melody line through it – I probably wouldn’t have thought about a 12-string Rickenbacker part had it not been for my earlier influence towards Peter Buck.”

The list of names involved in this project is immense, propping Martin alongside Steve Kilbey from The Church, Died Pretty’s Ron S. Peno, Trish Young of The Clouds, The HummingbirdsAlannah Russack, Ashley Naylor from Melbourne’s Even, Greg Atkinson from Ups & Downs, Peter Fenton of Crow fame, and special guest vocalist, Amanda Brown from The Go-Betweens. When asked whether Martin had worked with any of this illustrious list of names, he responded directly. “Not a single one of them. It’s gonna be a very interesting first rehearsal, but it’s certainly exciting because you always look forward to the unknown, and you will it to happen that the chemistry will be there, which I’m it will. The collection of talents is pretty staggering, to say the least. I’m just looking forward to getting into a room with all of them and seeing what will transpire.”

The backing band – labelled The Exploding Boys – features Robbie Warren from Died Pretty, Marc Lynch and Paul McDonald from Glide, Knievel‘s Geoff Matthews, Mark Tobin from Scarlet, and Mitch Thornton. “It goes without saying that they’re pretty much crackerjacks of musicians here in Australia, some of the best in the business. It’s a great feeling going into something like this knowing that the musicianship behind you is of such a calibre. There’s a comfort level going into this already without even the first rehearsal or the first notes happening.”

In an attempt to peek behind the curtain, curiosity struck as to whether each vocalist had been assigned their songs as yet, and what Martin’s may be, but he was being tight-lipped. “Yes, every singer has their songs. I was fortunate that I got to pick early, but I’m not gonna let anything out of the bag. We want it to be a surprise for people that come to the shows. What Paul has done, especially for me and I’m sure it’s the same for the other singers, is that there’s a good degree of artistic license to interpret the songs perhaps a little bit differently than what would be expected. Essentially, you might as well just put on a CD of R.E.M. and listen to it if you’re expecting it to be the same. With the eclectic nature of the singers that’re involved, obviously everything is going to be different. My vocal range is nowhere near Michael Stipe’s, so things are gonna change. Hopefully it’ll be for the better enjoyment of the audience.”