Jason R. Martin is on a mission, maybe to your basement.
“I just know there’s groups of 16-year old kids out in the suburbs somewhere doing cool shows and recordings and stuff in their basements or dens or wherever,” the ebullient new music impresario explained over a recent hot chocolate and soup lunch at Lulu’s on Lark Street. “But I’m not quite sure how to reach them in the ways that other people reached me nine or ten years ago, since they did it via this network of independent spaces and shows that doesn’t exist anymore. Which is sad, because as a teenage weirdo with a basement band and some video cameras back then, I could go to these shows and meet people who were a bit older than I was and could teach me or guide me or give me the encouragement that I needed. And I think that was important in my growth as a musician and a performer.”
Martin obviously learned those lessons from his teen years in Niskayuna well, since he’s grown up to be one of the Capital Region’s most unique musicians and performers. Over the past decade, Martin has made his mark with Brown Cuts Neighbors (both the band and the television show), as a solo performer (garnering Metroland’s best male acoustic artist honors this year) and as a collaborator with an eclectic mix of regional and national talent. For perspective, recent Martin efforts have included: composing a soundtrack of dialog and original music for choreographer Vanessa Paige; producing a segment for WAMC on a local inventor; co-creating the Lettuce Little and RRR 500 multimedia packages with illustrator/musician Steven Cerio (the second item features a vinyl record with 500 bands in 500 locked grooves); and performing on the Horseback Solids’ collection of freeform soundtrack music, Five Hopes. (For additional information on the last three releases, see Martin’s website).
Martin also has new solo and Brown Cuts Neighbors’ records ready for release and recently took a job at Schenectady’s Public Access Television, where he holds the ominous title of Master Controller. On top of all this, he and a handful of collaborators have also begun to make waves on the area’s concert scene as event promoters, cultural propagandists and media terrorists via the mysteriously named Department of Experimental Services artists’ collective.
“The whole Department of Experimental Services thing just kinda came together really organically over a period of time,” Martin explains. “It’s definitely a collective: I came up with name but it’s not like I’m the guy that’s in charge of it or anything. It’s just a group of friends doing their own thing with this title in the background as a way of making us see something other than what’s right in front of us. We’ve tried to come up with a structure that can grow and change, so if one of us in come capacity gets more professional at what he or she is doing, it kinda helps everyone else in the group.”
While the Departments’ cast of characters expands and contracts based on the needs of each project, core contributors include Martin, Cerio, Brown Cuts Neighbors players/writers Jim Kopta and Roger Koslow, web-site designer/comic book distributor/musician Marc Arsenault, promoter/drummer Mike Lopez, image and technology specialist Pete Barvoets and conceptualist Amy Francis. While the collective has worked well together in successfully planning and executing performances to date, Martin is the first to admit that the team’s odd composition and unusual name may be off-putting to some potential patrons.
“It’s the word ‘experimental’ that gets to them,” Martin explains, laughing. “And I just put that word in there because I think it’s kind of a funny, almost satiric thing. It’s a joke, a play on words. But since a lot of our stuff doesn’t fall into traditional categories people see ‘experimental’ and they think ‘oh, it’s the weird stuff’ or ‘look, a bunch of guys making noise’ or ‘yuk, art stuff’ or ‘yeah, those are the ones who can’t play in a real band’. And that reaction is strange to me, because the rock and pop and jazz and folk scenes around here are really interconnected and supportive of each other while the so-called ‘experimental’ stuff is just really neglected these days.”
“I really become aware of that fact when I play out of the area,” Martin continues. “I did a show in a record store in Easthampton, Mass. recently that was so cool. There was this guy with a saxophone and a bunch of electronics and it wasn’t all wacky sounds, ‘look at me, I’m a crazy experimental dude’ stuff. It just wasn’t like that at all: he was a serious player who did a really beautiful piece with what he had. And then there was this other younger guy who did a solo acoustic piece that was in the same genre that I’m doing, although I didn’t know it was a genre until I heard him do it! So it was really beautiful, and I didn’t feel like I had to translate anything for this very learned subculture of kids and young adults who knew this sort of stuff and didn’t look at anyone who was performing as an oddity. Or as a genius, for that matter.”
Martin is currently working to cross-pollinate the local new music scene with sounds from both Easthampton and the thriving free jazz scene based in Amherst, Mass. “I hope that the Department of Experimental Services can get people out of their basements by bringing in some people from those other communities to play here,” he concludes. “We recently had trumpeter Raphe Malik, who’s just amazing, in town and we’re putting on an exhibition of some of the people from Easthampton soon. So to me, it’s all like saying ‘Look what’s going on, right next door! C’mon, we can do that here, too!'”
As Martin and I finish our hot chocolates, our waitress (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Icelandic pop star Bjork) approaches our table and asks Martin if he would consider bringing her favorite Midwestern noise ensemble to town to help allay her weariness with the usual local pop and rock club fare. After a stimulating conversation about the pros and cons of a variety of experimental musicians and bands, she signs up on the Department of Experimental Services mailing list and expresses great enthusiasm and gratitude for the group’s efforts in the community.
Mission accomplished, returning to basement. Over.