On the main goal of his book, The Singing Earth
I wrote The Singing Earth as a way to teach people, through storytelling and the accompanying soundtrack, about the incredible music that exists around the world, most of which is not mainstream, popular music. I want people to understand that, for the vast majority of human beings, music is a way of life and a survival mechanism that reaffirms their identity and cultural importance. I also wanted to show, from my firsthand experience, how music is created within these sacred environments I visited, and I wanted to raise awareness about climate change, which became an important part of the book as I witnessed this happening around the world.
I was on six continents, visiting fourteen different musical regions, from the Amazon rainforest to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I saw firsthand the devastating effects of global warming and climate change. Ultimately, I want people to see their divine connection to the Earth, the beauty of our indigenous people, and the incredible landscapes and seascapes that are increasingly endangered. We can reverse this damage if we wake up and decide to take action at an individual level. It can be done, but we have to act.
On Zen and the art of drumming
I was ordained in Soto Zen. The whole time that I lived in L.A., between about 1996 and 2001, I was a student at the Detroit Street Zen Center in central Hollywood. I had this interesting life where I lived in the same building as the zendo, and I would study Zen in the morning and evening and do sessions during the day. It was almost a perfect schedule. After studying for a few years I became an ordained monk. I was actually supposed to go to Japan and study in Osaka, but that was when I decided to go back to school. So I did two learning things—this spiritual practice, and then I went back and did the academic practice.
Zen is all about being right in the moment, every moment, moment to moment. Right now, speaking to you, I’m thinking of the words I’m speaking and staying as mentally present as I possibly can. The same is true with everything in life, whether you’re cooking dinner, working on your car, cleaning your house, or laying down a drum track.
It’s particularly true with drumming, as you’re using both legs and both arms, and your rhythm has to be very precise to fit into the groove of the song—whether you’re leaning back or forward, thinking about the performance itself and about how you’re going to color the drumset with your musicality. The ability to keep your mind clear, focused, and right in the present moment, from millisecond to millisecond, really helps you improve your performance in everything.
I think many drummers do this automatically without even knowing that they’re doing it. You go into this Zen mind where you’re completely awake and conscious of what you’re doing, but you’re also in this natural fluid [state], so the rhythms and the drumming itself just flows out of your body.
On the upcoming Barrett Martin Group album
This new record is titled The Quality of Fire. It’s at least twenty songs, a double album. It’s the same core band as [my previous album] Transcendence but adding Kim Thayil [Soundgarden], Peter Buck [R.E.M.], Wayne Horvitz [Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Robin Holcomb], and probably Dave Catching [Eagles of Death Metal]. It’s literally half jazz musicians and half rock musicians, but guys like Peter and Kim, even though they were in huge rock bands, are incredible guitar players and can play anything. So this next record is the biggest record I’ve ever produced, twenty songs with all these players coming in and out of the studio. It’s a big undertaking.
On the drumset as an altar
Something a mentor of mine said that always resonated with me was that one of the greatest spiritual paths was the path of the artist; the artistic path itself is a spiritual tradition. You can make that path be a spiritual path by the message you’re trying to convey to the world.
I think about where I’ve spent the most time: It’s sitting behind a drumset, either practicing or playing a tour, and it has to have been tens of thousands of hours by now. Whenever I’m playing drums I’m trying to convey my soul through them. That’s my prime directive. When I’m a producer working with a band, I try to get the heart of the band and capture that in the recording, so it’s kind of just different perspectives of that same path.
Barrett Martin plays Tama drums, Sabian cymbals, and Yamaha vibraphones and marimbas, and he uses Vic Firth drumsticks.