Former grunge drummer Barrett Martin’s new book explores the power of music
Throughout The Singing Earth (Sunyata Books), Barrett Martin writes about life-changing moments. Ironically, everything that’s made his first book possible spawned from that moment when, at an early age, he sat behind an old drum kit his father scored from a local garage sale. Martin might be most familiar as the ex-drummer of Skin Yard, the Screaming Trees and grunge-rock supergroup Mad Season (as well as a session musician for the likes of R.E.M., Queens Of The Stone Age, Air, Luna and Stone Temple Pilots), but the Washington state native has also performed and worked behind the desk on countless other records spanning from rock and jazz to blues and world music. The Singing Earth clocks in at just more than 200 pages. It’s a quick read that wears many hats: tour diary, historical treatise, travelogue, environmental cautionary tale, autobiography, ethnomusicology essay, myth-and-folklore teaching tool and anti-colonial screed that extols the virtues of spirituality and straight-edge. Ultimately, it’s about the power of music—about the art form’s healing properties, how community and culture rally around formed sound, and its revolutionary possibilities, both cultural and political. As he writes, “It has shown me the power of music as a force for social justice and change.”
After the original grunge scene went belly-up in the wake of drug addiction, suicides, overdoses and the strain of having an industry on the back of Seattle and its creative 20-somethings, Martin discovered other musical genres. His innate, never-ending quest to expand his experience and knowledge base took him to six continents on which he cohabitated with locals and indigenous peoples, learning about their culture, history, myths, fables, food and, above all, their music.
“I started working on the book about seven years ago, right around the time I accepted a professorship at Antioch University Seattle,” he says about the book’s genesis. “I was doing a great deal of research in preparation, and that research, combined with the work I had already done in graduate school, blended with my personal travel stories to become the stories in the book. The hardest part was figuring out how to condense so much information. I mean, my graduate research paper on shamanic music in the Peruvian Amazon was more than 100 pages itself, so I had to condense all that down to 20 pages for the chapter on the Amazon. But music is so infinite and expansive that you can really only focus on the basic concepts. My hope is that the readers will take a gigantic plunge into whichever musical form grabs their interest and go deeper on their own.”
Martin’s writing is generally concise, which works well for historical and folkloric summations, though his prose tends toward the flowery when discussing riling topics like unfettered capitalism, environmental destruction and U.S. foreign policy. Additionally, the book is accompanied by a 27-track soundtrack that includes excerpts of Martin’s broad palette of work, everything from material by his first band (Thin Men), Screaming Trees and Amazon-rainforest recordings to his work with Cuban ensembles, Delta bluesman CeDell Davis and his own solo jazz band.
“Whenever I do research, I learn so much more than I thought I already knew,” he says about his revelations in becoming an author. “It’s part of what I love about being a musician—it makes me a perpetual student. But I suppose the biggest lesson is that culture is only as strong as the music behind it. As soon as the music fades or becomes weak or mediocre, then the culture usually starts to disintegrate; cultures with powerful music seem to thrive even under difficult, adverse conditions. It’s funny because I started as a musician who earned a living playing rock ’n’ roll, but the more I studied music around the world, I found that the most powerful music is not performed for money. It is performed for ceremony and dance, and for the joy of the people.”