Billy Martin‘s new album, G U I L T Y, began as a series of iPhone videos spontaneously posted to Instagram. Making his debut on bass, the Medeski Martin & Wood founder uses simple loops and drum grooves to build what he calls “a strong vibe.” Featuring guest instrumentalists Marc Ribot (guitar), Alexandria Smith (trumpet), Jen Liu (electric harp), John Medeski (keyboard), and Martin Dosh (electronics), the album was funded mostly through a Kickstarter that rewarded donors with one-of-kind pieces of art and was co-produced by Rob Reinfurt, a.k.a. Night Marcher. I chatted with Billy to get an inside look at how this project went from being a social media experiment to becoming a finished record:
Live For Live Music: Take me back to the beginning of this project. What inspired you to start using the bass in your Instagram posts, and how did Rob reach out to you to get involved?
Billy Martin: Well, I made the decision to buy a bass because I was composing more music for films and things, and I found that different instruments brought out different music in me. As a composer you pick up this and that and you kind of find ways to discover a melody or a part or something. So when I got the bass it was like, “Oh my god, this feels really cool!” And then I got a loop pedal and I started creating these riffs and adding these counterpoint parts and playing drums to them and posting it on Instagram. And then it turned into this thing where I was excited to share it, and it’s not just posting another beat like I was doing with my illy_b_eats project. And as it started to grow I started to tag it not just #illy_b_eats but #illy_b_ass because of the bass.
Then I started getting all this feedback from my followers, which is pretty cool because it’s not something I would normally be informed or encouraged by, but people were really encouraging and I got some surprising feedback that made me feel like maybe I’ll just make a record like this. At first I thought I might just make a record with my iPhone.
I started having a lot of ideas and then an old friend and fan, Rob Reinfurt, was passing through town and came to visit and he basically said, “Look, I really like what you’re doing and I would love to help you in any way. What would you think of giving me a shot at producing a track?” And I said, “Yeah, of course!” No one else was asking me that, and I was interested to see how it would turn out.
I also felt that I needed someone who could help me come up with ideas or change the form around or do something with mixing, and he’s good at that kind of stuff. So he did one or two things and I really liked what he was bringing to it, so I said, “Let’s go for it!” We had an understanding that it was my project and whatever I wanted to do, that’s the direction we would go in. He would just throw things at me and I would make comments and we would go from there. It started to build so I said let’s have this done by the end of the year.
I also liked the idea of getting someone relatively unknown involved, rather than asking someone I’ve worked with before like John Medeski, which would be an obvious choice, or hiring somebody who produces records and maybe is more popular. I wanted to find someone who deserves to get the exposure because they’re talented, and they have a thing, and they add something. It’s really just about collaboration, and whether it works or not. And frankly, it also helped that we weren’t worried about paying each other anything. It’s good for him to have a production credit on something like this, and he’s always wanted to work together in some way, and it kind of worked out because there was not really much of a budget. I did a Kickstarter and got the records made and all that, and paid for mixing and mastering.
Live For Live Music: Was it all remote? What did your creative process look like?
Billy Martin: Yeah, it was 100 percent remote. Sometimes I would just send him a very basic track with a bass loop that might have a little variation, and then a drum part playing over that bass loop, and sometimes it would be just that simple and raw. I’m always interested in a form, and sometimes in my bassline I might have somewhere I go to a bridge or I create some kind of change, but harmonically I usually don’t move around a lot. I don’t like that. That’s something that Medeski Martin & Wood kind of got into was this idea that we don’t need to jump around harmonically too much or get super complex or clever with our harmonic movement. It’s more about the individual parts expressing in counterpoint that make it sophisticated, you know—personality, and the musicians, and their lines.
But anyway, I would send him something very basic and say, “See what you can do,” or, “It needs a B section.” I would often be very simple like that. Other times it would be a little more fleshed out. And some things didn’t work at all. I would just kind of hash it out myself. Like “Hair Braid” was something I was beating my head against the wall on a lot, and Marc [Ribot] played amazing shit on it, but it really took a long time to feel comfortable with the end result. I went through many versions of how I was playing the drums on it, and how everything was falling together.
But Rob’s role was really key in the sense that he would come with a part on guitar or keyboard and just add that one little element that I just couldn’t do because I’m me and he’s him, and that was just really good having that other side come in. And sometimes I would surprisingly think, “Oh my god, that’s too Medeski Martin & Wood! That mellotron you just used, what are you thinking?” John [Medeski] plays on one track, he plays keyboard. But there are some other things where we ended up using some stuff that sounds like John playing mellotron.
Basically Rob’s role really varied depending on the track. In general, he gave the material a little bit more form than it had, and sometimes made very crucial choices. I was very open to him. The basslines are pretty static and they really create a certain feel or a vibe, and the drum parts were more varied so he had options to kind of use this part over this bassline in this section and so on. I gave him a lot of freedom to do that.
The other thing is I made it really clear that I wanted a lofi, raw, garage, punk rock approach. I don’t mean punk rock like The Clash or The Ramones, I mean just in the sense of being an outsider, DIY kind of thing. Basically it was all coming from the bass. The drums obviously have a really important role, but for me the bassline is it, it’s all in the bassline. There’s a melody, there’s a riff and that’s the hook, and I would just say, “That’s what we want to focus on.” And sometimes he would just hold it there and let it repeat over and over again to the point where I wasn’t sure if anybody could stand it because it’s repeating so much.
Live For Live Music: I think that’s what’s great about it to me, because that’s the risk with looping, but I think he did a great job with the arrangements.
Billy Martin: Yeah, and then we just went back and forth. I would kind of remix what he did and then I would send it back or I would send my version to the guy we had mixing it. I’d make stems or I’d ask him to give me stems and I would chop up the stems and chop up the form. So we were really going back and forth both sculpting together, obviously with me having the final say. But he contributed some really important lines and things that did become very hookish and added a whole other thing. And then we added Marc onto things and he would pick up on certain lines that were there, whether it was in the bassline or in Rob’s playing, and then he would sort of emphasize that more and then add other parts. Marc was incredible.
And all the other instrumentalists were remote as well?
Everybody was remote, except Jen [Liu]. I had her over and she was the only person that I tracked here. She played electric harp and it was this sort of atmospheric thing on the last track. She also played on something else, but I ended up not using that track. I probably had about thirteen tracks that we spent a good amount of time shaping into the record and then I ended up not using two of them. Jen was on one of those and the one at the end of the record. But she’s the only one I tracked here. She played guitar on one and electric harp on the other. Only the harp ended up on the record.
That’s interesting. How much of the recording was done during COVID? Were you already far along when that started?
Yeah, I was done in March. The record was basically just being mastered at that point.
So it didn’t really affect it very much?
No, no. And I don’t think it would have either way because we were so remote. Although psychically there was a period when because of COVID and then the police brutality and Black Lives Matter my energy completely shifted to where I couldn’t make music or share it, but in some way it may have been an escape for me to kind of have that. But I was already waiting for the CDs to get finished, the artwork was done, and then everything went down. So COVID didn’t affect anything.
During COVID I was actually working on my own piano solo pieces. I’m recording a lot of piano stuff, like sort of my own way of playing the piano, which is like a whole different version of music, a whole other kind of music. More classical compositional improvisational stuff.
Do you think that might turn into a similar project?
I do, well it’s not going to be similar, but it’ll be some kind of release. It’ll probably be a much more under-the-radar kind of release, like Disappearing. I did a record called Disappearing and another record called Meshes, which I did with a small orchestra, and those are both very experimental, and very challenging. Usually I’m doing a lot more of that, searching for a new way of composing, or a new way of making music, and it’s very experimental.
That’s why I started my label, to have that outlet where it’s not about being commercial or mainstream. And G U I L T Y was not something that I intended to be mainstream, but I do think this is the most mainstream thing I’ve done in a long time, and I’m actually very proud of it. I’m really excited about it. So I can have both of these worlds.
Speaking of your label, Amulet Records, I’m curious what kind of support the label offers on a project like this, in addition to the funds you raised through Kickstarter.
Well the Kickstarter keeps the label from having to find the money. The function of the label is just that it is an established catalogue. This is actually the 45th title—45 like the president ironically—and it’s astonishing that I’ve been able to keep this label going and release these things because every record is a big deal for me. It’s like you’re producing something. It’s got to be complete, you know, and it has to be delivered in some way. So basically the label holds the catalogue, and it’s my label so I own it. But it barely has any budget so I can’t really put forward very much into a project without getting some kind of funding.
And I failed to mention that the very first bit of funding came from one of my friends, executive producer Kenichi Nagatomo. He actually was the first person to buy the first record I released on Amulet Records in 1997. I had his check on my wall when I lived in Brooklyn. Kenichi is a collector of my artwork, and he’s a big fan of the downtown scene, which is where I really found myself artistically. I was also friends with John Zorn, who has always been very supportive, and he inspired me to start my own label and to be as independent as I can. He encouraged me to continue to be independent and to shun the industry. So the label kind of came out of that whole thing.
So Kenichi kind of put a down payment on whatever I was doing with G U I L T Y, and that really got the project started with a budget, because Amulet is always breaking even. I go project-to-project. If the last project does well, or if the catalogue makes money, or if some money comes to me as an artist through my label, it all goes right back into Amulet, and it sits there and waits for the next project or idea I want to produce. That’s why I created it, to sort of fund and support my crazy projects that no other label is going to be interested in.
And then structurally, Amulet has a distribution deal with The Orchard, which is one of the biggest digital distributors. I think anybody could probably distribute their record through The Orchard, I’m not sure what it’s like now. But it’s such a huge conglomerate now that it’s not such a great deal. I would say if I were an artist starting out now I would just go directly to Bandcamp and try to cultivate support that way, but it does help to have worldwide distribution and to be available on platforms like Spotify, where people can find you. So Amulet serves as a kind of conduit. And it has a reputation. It’s a real business. It has its own bank account and writes its own checks and pays its own taxes. It operates as a small business, except it’s really like a nonprofit because it doesn’t really make any profit, but I do have to pay taxes.
And it’s how I support myself. It funds projects like my book Wandering, and some projects that might not even see the light of day. It also allows me to pay people for gigs, if I have an event and I want to pay the musicians but there’s no money from the venue necessarily. Amulet could support that. And that’s what’s really cool about it, if there’s some money. I hope I’m not getting too all over the place. I can be a very open book.
No, I think it’s interesting to get that insight because on the one hand you have totally independent artists doing everything themselves, and on the other you have big record companies signing artists, and it’s cool getting to see how such a small, independent label works.
Yeah, I’m adamant about being independent, DIY. I couldn’t be more adamant that you should hold onto everything you can and try to find platforms and ways to share your music and to get it funded. Whether it’s crowdsourcing or a combination of crowdsourcing and something like Bandcamp, I think it couldn’t be easier than it is right now to create a label and just have this very independent, direct relationship between label, artist, and the fans or the customer. It used to be like, “Yeah, how do you get your music digitally distributed?” It was a hard thing to do back in the day. Now it’s not hard. It’s really easy.
Yeah I think it’s cool to share that. That’s the story I’m trying to tell really is how this whole thing got made.
Well, I think that’s good. I’m glad to hear that because of course I want people to know that I have a record and to learn about it, but I think it’s really important for musicians and people who want to know like, how the hell do you do this, you know? And there isn’t one way, but I would want to be a voice encouraging people to do it their way uncompromised and not to have some industry tell them what to do, or be looking at the industry or artists in the industry as a goal you want to go towards, because it’s always a mistake to say I want a big record deal, and I want to be just like whoever it is, or I want to have that kind of sweet deal.
Then you ask, okay well how did they write their music, what’s their formula, and all of a sudden you get into this trap of thinking people are successful because this is what they did, these are the steps they took, this is the kind of music they wrote. I’m thinking more stylistically though, because you might look at some artists and say, well they did just follow these simple steps and that did it, you know? They did a Kickstarter and they uploaded it to Bandcamp and maybe they made a cool video too, which is a whole other thing I’ve been getting into.
Yeah, let’s talk about that. You have three videos for this project?
Yeah, so there’s one video for “Geek Love”, and then my plan is to do one for “Montaukett Sky”, which is really just kind of a droney piece, but I think that’s what I’m excited about because there’s not really a narrative to the song. Actually, there’s probably more of a narrative to the video than there is to the actual composition. So that’s going to be interesting, and it’ll be more like—well I can’t even say more like what, I don’t know! All these videos are going to be very different from each other as far as my approach. The third one will be “Hair Braid”. For that one, I basically reached out to a lot of different people about filming themselves. Some of them were actors from a theater company and some were friends, and some other real career actors, and they all contributed something for “Hair Braid.”
For “Geek Love” I ended up using someone who’s not really an actress. She plays the accordion, and she ended up really nailing something for me. And then I ended up filming my son, and this dancer from Brazil. She had posted this video on Instagram of her playing bass along with an MMW thing and she tagged me so I watched her playing, but then I looked at her feed and she’s this incredible dancer so I found her on the internet. This other woman, Erica, I knew and there were a ton of other people who submitted stuff, people I had worked with or knew or friends of friends.
“Hair Braid” is going to be a whole community of people, and this is all done during COVID. But for “Hair Braid” I have a ton of footage from a lot of different people that I still have to edit together. “Montaukett Sky” will be a lot of outdoor photography that I shot in Montauk, NY, which is way out in Long Island, on the tip of Long Island. It’s kind of my spiritual place, even though it’s like a gross tourist place too. It’s also an extremely powerful, beautiful place with protected natural parks.
That track sticks out because it is so atmospheric and there are no drums. I was struck by how nicely it sits where it’s placed in the middle of the record, and how nicely the album flows as a whole. Was that something you had final say over or thought a lot about?
Yes, I chose the sequence. Rob suggested some things and I shared it with him, and he had some comments, and then in the end I kind of decided where everything was going to go. “Montaukett Sky” is like an intermission kind of thing in the sense that it separates the two sides or the two halves of the record. If there was any logic behind it, it was to separate the two halves and give a little break from the grooves—a palate cleanser.
And when people listen to this album, how would you ideally like for them to experience it?
My quick reaction is I want it to accompany them in their activities, whatever it is. I want it to be their soundtrack, whatever that means. Whether you’re driving your car or working on something. And to go deeper I would say of course there could be a narrative to it, but I kind of see this record as a record that can just kind of accompany you and be part of your life, a soundtrack to accompany whatever it is.
So not so much deep listening?
Yeah, this one is less of that. It’s an easy listen through. And I think it doesn’t require a deep listen, but I think it is deep. Like you can really get into the track. There’s a strong vibe. That was something that I was telling Rob about the music. I’d have a bassline and there was just something about it that I wanted to keep, the essence of what the bassline did. That nucleus of the thing is still there, and it’s very vibey. I think it’s really just an accompaniment to people’s lives, and in a simple way.
And of course you could go deep. You can attach your feelings to anything, right? Something may really bring something out emotionally for you, but the last thing I want to do is tell people how to listen to my music. For me the best stuff is always about each person’s personal relationship with it. To me, that’s what makes art. Nothing is art until someone experiences it, and then it resonates as art because that someone has a relationship with it and it’s unique. Then the next person comes along and their relationship with it is unique. It brings out a certain emotion and a feeling and usually that gets fixed in a way. People become attached to whatever feeling it gives them and then it becomes this medicine for them, you know. I’m just talking about music in general. Music can get you through things in life.
G U I L T Y is now available on all streaming platforms, CD, and vinyl. You can purchase it and watch the video for “Geek Love” here.
Billy Martin — G U I L T Y