It's a spectacular setting, even by Australia's breathtaking standards. Nestled in the Great Dividing Range, an hour's drive north of Sydney, lies Glenworth Valley. With its cloud-covered mountaintops, spring-fed creeks and lush, unspoiled woods and pastures, it resembles an impossibly idyllic scene from the movie Jurassic Park. More surreal was the sight of a rock festival there in late December. The two-day event, featuring more than 40 bands on five stages, proved a real success for the promoters and the 5,000 in attendance. Even an afternoon downpour on the second day failed to dampen spirits, as mud-splattered dancers moved to blues, techno and an Aussie brand of thrashing country music known as "bush punk." By nightfall, anticipation ran high at the main stage, with performances by two of Australia's top acts: Sydney singer-songwriter Alex Lloyd and Brisbane rockers Regurgitator. But it took a festival-closing set of surging, Middle Eastern-tinged rock by Canada's The Tea Party to pump up emotions to fever pitch. "The Tea Party's amazing," 16-year-old Lucas Allen shouted midway through the show. "Their power onstage is unbelievable."
Winning over audiences Down Under has become something of a habit for The Tea Party. Since its first appearance there in 1992, the trio -- singer-guitarist Jeff Martin, 30, bassist Stuart Chatwood, 30, and drummer Jeff Burrows, 31 -- has returned eight times, playing to ever-larger audiences. Two months prior to Glenworth Valley, the band headlined a 24-date tour across the country, performing to more than 30,000 people. In fact, Australia has become The Tea Party's biggest market after Canada, with each of its last four albums achieving Australian gold-level sales of 35,000 (by contrast, the band's recordings regularly surpass the Canadian platinum mark of 100,000).
The group's fifth and latest album, TRIPtych (EMI), may prove its most successful to date, spurred on by the huge success of the single Heaven Coming Down. Although the album is without a U.S. release, it has already been voted one of last year's best by Triple J, Australia's national rock radio station, and recently earned The Tea Party Juno Award nominations for single, album and band of the year (Martin, the group's leader and lyricist, received a fourth nomination as producer). Now with another single riding high in the charts, an intense reworking of Daniel Lanois's The Messenger, The Tea Party's prospects have never looked brighter.
Standing in a tent backstage at Glenworth, Martin was beaming. Looking every bit the dashing rock star in his shoulder-length hair, pencil-thin moustache and black frock coat, he spoke of how early acceptance of his group in Australia helped to offset early resistance at home. "We were criticized in Canada from the beginning for wearing our influences on our sleeves," recalled Martin. "People saw me and would say 'Jim Morrison,' or they'd hear our Middle Eastern influences and say 'Led Zeppelin.' Australians were like, 'Yeah, we hear that, but what else can you do?' They let us grow in front of their eyes." He added: "We were also very naked with our passion onstage, and Australians loved us for it."
The audiences Down Under also embraced The Tea Party's mystical side, which comes through in adventurous instrumentation (Egyptian oud, Iranian dombak, East Indian sitar) and Martin's meditative lyrics, which draw from authors such as Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse. That transcendental mix took a decidedly dark turn with the industrial crunch of the band's last album, 1997's Transmission, which features the hedonistic anthem Temptation. "You want vice, avarice, sloth?" says Martin. "It's all there, and I lived that." Asked to explain, Martin hints at a drug-induced near-death experience. "I simply didn't wake up one day," he replied. "That's how close to the edge I went. That's all I need to say."
The Tea Party, whose name derives from the marijuana-laced poetry readings of Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, lightened up considerably with the more melodic, accessible TRIPtych. Martin attributes the album's happier, romantic tone to an Australian flight attendant he met on a trip back home to Canada. The band's Aussie connections were forged two years after it formed in Windsor, Ont. The group's initial manager, Michael White, contacted a Sydney booking agent, Sam Righi, who landed them several pub gigs through which the band built a following. Now managed by Toronto-based SRO (which also handles Rush and Van Halen), the group has maintained its link with Righi, who currently books the trio into large venues in Australia.
Its success there, along with Canada and Europe, has provided an alternative to the U.S. market, which The Tea Party has yet to crack. "It's not a make-or-break situation for the group," says SRO's Steve Hoffman. "They're doing just fine without that territory." Which suits Martin, who is in the process of moving back to Toronto from the Hollywood Hills (Chatwood is based in Montreal, while Burrows lives outside of Windsor). "I don't have much faith in America," he says. "Radio is too rigid, and we don't fit their formats. I'd be amazed if any U.S. record label or radio programmer could fit us in." If they did, it would be mere icing on The Tea Party's already rich cake.
Maclean's February 21st 2000