This time last year, Trevor Garrod's morose mood matched the melancholic tone of his mates while they hunkered down in a San Francisco studio with new songs. Nowadays, while in full swing on the national festival and club circuit, Garrod and the fellas of Tea Leaf Green are in much better spirits.
"All of us had some major life changes going on over the last two years," Garrod says. "I don't want to get too specific or too personal about it, but each one of us experienced some heavy stuff."
While Garrod, singer/guitarist Josh Clark, bassist Reed Mathis, and drummers Cochrane McMillan and Scott Rager each faced personal emotional hardships and obstacles, they managed to explore their difficulties with songwriting.
Tea Leaf Green's forthcoming album Radio Tragedy!, due on June 7, encompasses their most challenging life experiences.
"We all wrote songs separately about what we were going through," says Garrod. "Then we came together and decided where to go from there. The songs seemed like some sort of radio tragedy that we'd been acting in our lives. It's not that there's a tragedy throughout the record, but there is an undercurrent of tragedy. It's something we're trying to broadcast out of our lives."
For years, the band stuck with a more traditional approach to putting song ideas together in which Clark and Garrod, the band's main songsmiths, simply shared fully arranged sketches with their rhythm section. This time, the experience was much more collaborative and interactive.
"We also opened up the creative process through the making of this album," Garrod says. "We had the chance to approach the music differently and work on things as a group."
With Clark on raspy lead vocals, the anthemic, guitar-driven, organ-accented "The Cottonwood Tree" falls more into the quirkier side of Americana/soul territory (imagine Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers-meet-Joe Cocker) than anything the Dead or Santana were up to in their heydays. "Nothing Changes," an emotional album-closer with Garrod on lead vocals, slowly builds up from a stripped-down piano ballad into a full-band rocker with a dose of Van Morrison soulfulness and a bit of My Morning Jacket bombast.
Tea Leaf Green added a fifth member during the making of the new disc. McMillan, a longtime studio engineer, joined last year on drums and extra percussion.
"Cochrane inspired more creative input while helping us get through some of our old stalemates," says Garrod. "Our original drummer Scott also got to do everything he could come up with for the drum parts, which was something new, too."
Another new teammate was musician and studio producer Jeremy Black (of Apollo Sunshine). The band recorded all of the basic tracks and vocals with Black before leaving for a tour.
After having their hands on the knobs during previous sessions, letting go and transferring control was a leap of faith for the band, but their trust in Black's judgment was solid.
"Jeremy's work in the studio was a key part," says Garrod. "We were amazed by what he did. We did all of the stuff on tons and tons of tracks. It was all kinds of ideas, like throwing paint at the wall. He spent three weeks trying to make sense of it. He had creative control of it, and we really liked what he did."
Clark and Rager formed Tea Leaf Green as a trio in 1999 after playing in a high-school band together in Arcadia, Calif. Garrod joined shortly after, in time for the band's self-released 2001 debut Midnight on the Reservoir. In 2007, longtime bassist Ben Chambers left and was replaced by Mathis, formerly of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.
Last year, Garrod completed his own solo album titled Miss Fortune. Playing all of the instruments, he recorded songs in his home studio. The project allowed him to purge some of his more dour ditties and lyrics.
"It was just a little pet project I recorded in my room over the years," he says. "It was a total opposite from what Tea Leaf Green does. I could indulge in everything I wanted."
If Miss Fortune is a great rainy-day spin, the material on Radio Tragedy! bounces with considerably more joy and excitement. Some of the more melodic songs step far away from the West Coast style jam-rock with which Tea Leaf Green is often associated.
"We do so many live shows that it's always a strange process for us to make a recording," says Garrod. "On stage, we have this jammy sense of exploring. I don't really know how to transfer that to a recording — and I don't think I want to. It's five dudes playing from the relationships we have with each other, too. We're simply trying to make awesome music, you know?"