Knee Deep In The Groove
Repping the Downtown Scene with Billy Martin

Words by Audra Tracy

Artists come to New York to find their ‘scene’. To stake their creative flag in the pavement and declare their uniqueness to the world. For Billy Martin, best known as percussionist of iconic jazz trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood, that scene can be found in the heart of the East Village – an artist’s den with a rich history running through its rafters.

A few days before he crossed the sea for a European tour with his band Wicked Knee, Martin opened up about covering The White Stripes, breaking artistic boundaries, and how NYC has played a leading role in shaping his career.

“I love it.”, Martin says of New York’s downtown scene. “For me, it’s where I found myself. When I started playing with all these bands, I knew I found home. And I knew that’s where I could develop my own voice and my own ideas. That’s really where Medeski, Martin & Wood was formed, in that scene, and I still work with a lot of those people today and I always will. There’s just so many musicians that can play so many different styles – and they’re not afraid to improvise.”

“I’m actually working on making a movie about it”, Martin adds. “I don’t really have any financing yet but I’ve been thinking about it for years. It will be a feature film about the downtown scene – a mix of real life characters, and also actors – and performances, obviously. In my head, it’s amazing”, he laughs.

Back in 2010, some of those ‘real life characters’ joined Martin for one fateful day of filming that would inspire a new movement for restless hips everywhere. Martin was making ‘Life on Drums’, an educational DVD about the art of drumming, and invited a few of NYC’s finest brass musicians to contribute to the cause. “I wanted to have a little brass segment in there, so we put together this quick quartet”, he recalls. “And then I realized, this is it – this is the band.”

That ‘quick quartet’ featured fellow Royal Potato Family alum Steven Bernstein (trumpet) along with veteran scene-sters Curtis Fowlkes (trombone) and Marcus Rojas (tuba). A formidable dose of musical prowess, their credits combine a laundry list of legends including Iggy Pop, Dr. John,  Sexmob, and the Levon Helm Band. And while Martin, Bernstein, Fowlkes, and Rojas have been jamming together in various situations for over 20 years, Wicked Knee was officially born on film that very day. A self-titled EP emerged last year, but their latest effort is the first instance of the band captured on wax.

Wicked Knee’s full length LP Heels Over Head was just unleashed in January of 2013 via Martin’s own Amulet Records. A collection of self-proclaimed ‘ragtime funk’, it’s as colorful as the scenes that inspired it. Heels Over Head explores all avenues of artistry, from the traditional sounds of The Big Easy (‘Ghumba Zumba’) to the 20’s era jazz of Fletcher Henderson (‘Sugarfoot Stomp’) to the modern day minimalism of The White Stripes (‘Button to Button’).

“It was one of those tunes that was stuck in my head”, Martin says of the rumbling ‘Button to Button’. “I started singing another melody over it and I realized I had this really simple idea to combine my melody with this song, and it sort of just evolved. It’s sort of a vehicle for us to rock out.”

“You could be a painter, a writer, a musician, a dancer…we all improvise, really. It’s just a matter of developing your own vocabulary.”
– Billy Martin

Whether he’s experimenting with MMW, or Knee deep in the groove, there’s no question that Martin has been breaking artistic boundaries for years. So how does he keep the momentum going? What’s the secret to absolute musical freedom?

“When I teach a drum lesson, the first thing that I discuss is that I want to hear each musician bring out their own style and sort of break through any clichés or boundaries that they may have”, he explains. “Or that the audience may have too, you know – expectations. I think it’s very important for most musicians to focus on that – to find something unique to offer, and try to find and develop your language that way. You have to take risks, and you have to be able to make mistakes in front of an audience, and you have to be able to be okay with that.”

“You could be a painter, a writer, a musician, a dancer…we all improvise, really”, he goes on. “It’s just a matter of developing your own vocabulary.”

And as for Martin’s vocabulary?

“It’s changing all the time, and that’s what excites me – it’s growing, it’s evolving”, he says. “I’m not depending on a lot of things that have been done, I’m trying to create something new. It may not necessarily be anything drastically or dramatically different, but little by little, it’s sort of growing out of itself.”

As Martin approaches his 50th birthday this October, he’s planning a concert in where else but NYC to honor the milestone. And with friends like these, it ought to be one hell of a celebration. “I’m not sure where it’s going to be yet, but someplace where I can have a lot of different musicians play”, he teases. | East Village