The cover art of Tea Leaf Green's latest, In the Wake, features a hooded Grim Reaper-like character in the ocean, the horizon behind him. On the 13-track collection, the San Francisco band takes a noticeable step away from simple jam, pop, and rock and embraces elaborately crafted song structures. Case in point: the three-part "Space Hero" suite.
Why are these factoids relevant? Consider that the Grateful Dead's sixth studio album, 1973's Wake of the Flood, marked a similar shift in the evolution of a Bay Area band. For the Dead, it was a move from bluesy undertones to eccentric jazz, most noticeably perhaps, in the multi-part "Weather Report Suite." And on the cover of that San Francisco band's album? A hooded figure holding a sickle, with the ocean behind him.
But as obvious as the coincidences are now, the members of Tea Leaf Green didn't realize they had been inspired by the Dead's 1973 record until after their 2013 album was complete.
"We were shocked," Tea Leaf Green bassist Reed Mathis says. "The album was done before any of that occurred to us. Not only did we not plan that, we didn't even notice."
Mathis joined Tea Leaf Green in 2007, just after the departure of founding member Ben Chambers, and at a time when the band needed a jolt of energy and inspiration. Leaving behind his full-time gig with the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Mathis also walked away from a touring gig with Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann's group, 7 Walkers, in favor of focusing on Tea Leaf Green.
In 2011, the band added drummer Cochrane McMillan to the team in a mix that shadowed the Dead's dual-drummer approach. The addition of McMillan was beneficial in another way: He co-owns the Coyote Hearing recording studio in Oakland, Calif. That little perk allowed Tea Leaf Green to take a relaxed approach to recording In the Wake. Over the course of a year, and in between the band's tours, Mathis, McMillian, and company finished the record, which they released in May.
"When we weren't on the road, I was there every day. I slept at the studio," says Mathis. "When you hear about the great studios back in the day, they always talk about the vibe. Coyote has that, for sure."
While the members of Tea Leaf Green were recording In the Wake, they decided not to perform any of the songs live until they'd been recorded. Mathis says, "When you play a song live, you have to make decisions about practical things, like, 'How are we actually going to play this?' But when you don't do it live and you're in the studio, you can do anything. You're just using your imagination."
Mathis' jazz background has influenced Tea Leaf Green's live sound, as well. Over the last five years, he says he's watched "a good band with the talent to become a great band" become an outfit that challenges him nightly.
"I want real danger on stage," he says. "I come from an improvising world. When most people think about improvising, they think about soloing. That's not my concept.
"Soloing is improvising for beginners," Mathis adds. "Real group improvising has nothing to do with soloing, and it doesn't have to be a jam section of a song. You can do it anytime. I do it the whole time, and the rest of the band is starting to play that way, and that's how the Dead played. There weren't planned out parts. They were just going for it, and it worked because they trusted each other. That's how post-World War II jazz operated, and that's where I want to be."
This winter, Mathis is taking time off from Tea Leaf Green to tour with the Rhythm Devils, the side project of Dead drummer Mickey Hart. The Tea Leaf Trio, featuring Mathis, McMillan, and keyboardist/singer Trevor Garrod, will open. The condensed Trio just released Volume 1, a collection of cover songs (including the Dead's "Peggy-O" and "Mexicali Blues"), as a free download on the band's website to help promote the project and tour.
"I'm every bit as proud of that as In the Wake, because they're total opposites," Mathis says. "One thing we spent a year on, and one thing we spent a night on, and they're both awesome."
Much like the Dead, Tea Leaf Green manages to avoid mimicking anyone else's sound, including their jam band forbears. "Space Hero IV," for example, sounds more like a lost track from a Rush album than a song recorded during the Wake of the Flood sessions.
"The band is taking chances. We're taking more risks," Mathis says. "It's amazing what we've come up with in just five years. I hope it translates to the audience, because onstage, it's incredible what we're experiencing."