From The Archive: Jerry Marotta’s Iron Mountain

From The Archive: Jerry Marotta

Tribal Beats Inside Iron Mountain

Caves and caverns have a mysterious, even supernatural air about them. Pirates stashed their loot in caves, mountaineers lost in howling blizzards took refuge in caves, some surviving, some perishing - their remains to be found years or centuries later. Caves were used to bury the dead in ancient Egypt, natural vaults safe from the whiles of grave robbers, and caves were probably the first indoor dwellings of our primal ancestors. The word “cave” sends ripples of excitement running through the imagination. Edgar Allen Poe imprisoned many an unsuspecting character in caves and crypts and Injun Joe’s cave figures heavily in Mark Twain’s tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. North America’s native people saw caves as the mouths and nostrils of the Earth Mother, and considered them holy, places of great power and often the sites chosen for sacred rituals.

It was this timeless, ritualistic aspect of cave lore that sent bass and Chapman Stick wizard Tony Levin, flute and reed ace Steve Gorn and master drummer/percussionist Jerry Marotta into the Widow Jane Mine, a cave that contains an underground lake, near Woodstock, New York, in 1998 to record From the Caves of the Iron Mountain, an impressionistic journey that allowed the trio of musicians to explore the full range of their spontaneous creativity.

Marotta, who was Peter Gabriel’s drummer for nine years (1977–86) and played on hits like “Shock the Monkey” and “In Your Eyes,” has also worked with Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, and the Indigo Girls. He was inspired by his older brother, Rick Marotta, who worked with Steely Dan, and got his start in the early ’60s playing in bands that covered the soul and r&b hits of the day. In the ’70s, Marotta was captivated by the simplicity that drummers like Russ Kunkel were bringing to the records of folky singer/songwriters like James Taylor and Crosby, Stills and Nash. His first professional gig was with Orleans, still hot after their big hit “Dance with Me.”

Marotta’s work with Orleans led to his longtime gig with Gabriel, but in his spare time he added his talents to projects by Tears For Fears, including “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Joan Armatrading’s Walk Under Ladders, three Hall and Oates sets including Private Eyes, Robbie Robertson’s Storyville and Sara McLaughlin’s Fumbling Toward Ecstasy. The drummer moved to the Woodstock area after leaving Gabriel in ’87 to start a band that didn’t quite pan out. But when Levin moved into the same area, the two began talking about making noncommercial music to feed their souls. Levin had started his own company, Papa Bear records, so no matter how it turned out, the project would have a home. When Steve Gorn came to Woodstock, everything clicked.

“The cave project was Tony’s idea,” Marotta says. “We live near each other, but we haven’t really played together since we’d both left Peter [Gabriel]’s band, and that was more than ten years ago. We’ve done some sessions on other people’s albums, [including singer/songwriter Ellis Paul’s downbeat gem Carnival of Voices, which Marotta also produced, although he modestly failed to mention it.] but that wasn’t enough. Tony knew Steve [Gorn] also lived in the neighborhood and when he found out about the cave, he thought it would be a good place to record, and he was right. It turned out to be an amazing experience.”

Levin contacted the United States Park Service, the agency that runs the Widow Jane Mine, and arranged the permits necessary to play there. The mine is a former limestone quarry, excavated by the Lawrenceville Cement Company in the early 1800s. A steep downward path leads to a large open space that is now used as an underground concert hall. There is a small stage and an underground lake, and people from the local arts communities have adopted the mine for performance art, weddings and small concerts. It’s still not a major tourist attraction, but the Widow Jane Mine, named after Jane Snyder, the original property owner, does have a growing cult following.

The mine is a no-frills site, so Levin, Gorn, producer and engineer Tchad Blake and Marotta had to carry all the instruments, drums and recording equipment in on their backs. The recording was done on the shore of the underground lake, over the course of two days, and Marotta says the resonance of the cave created an almost psychic harmony between the players. “My biggest worry was that the dampness and lack of light would make the drum heads go dead,” Marotta says, “so I parked my wife’s minivan in the sun and set the drums out all over the seats. When a new texture was called for, I’d run out and grab a drum and run back down into the cave to record.”

Although Marotta still plays the “traditional” Western drum kit, he’s been exploring hand percussion for the past few years and it was his collection of tribal drums and hand percussion that gave the drumming on Iron Mountain its organic feel.

“I’ve been tending toward tribal drums, rather than a regular drum kit with cymbals, for the past two or three years,” Marotta says. “At first people gave me odd looks, but today they’re more acceptable. I’ve used them on a couple of Suzanne Vega’s records, although I also used the regulation drum kit.”

Marotta’s tribal kit was made by Taos Drums in New Mexico, a company that’s run by Native Americans, and employs traditionally trained drum makers who still handcraft the instruments from local woods using the hides of cow, goat, sheep, deer, buffalo or elk. Marotta sets up the native drums like a regular drum kit. There is a bass drum with a rich, deep tone - Marotta has several with heads varying between 24" and 30" wide, tom toms that he sets on the floor, and several smaller drums of various sizes in racks, including a couple of African hand drums from Uganda. The tribal drums are played with hands, brushes and mallets, and, on occasion, sticks, but only very rarely.

For percussion Marotta used wrist bells, called dew claws by native people; a bracelet of deer hoofs tied onto a leather thong; mallets strung with beads and seeds that make a rattling sound when they’re used; ceramic shakers - small ceramic cups that look like large walnut shells, covered with animal skin and filled with beads or pebbles, strings of glass beads, slit drums; boxes carved out of wood, with tongues of wood slit into them that sound like a small balafon or marimba; and a Garden Weasel that Marotta bought in a local hardware store. The Weasel is a tool that looks like a roller covered with large barbed-wire spikes, but when Marotta shakes it like a maraca, it produces an amazing ringing sound.

“We were also able to use the cave itself as a percussion instrument,” Marotta says. “The space added its resonance to the sound of the big bass drum and enhanced it. I was able to play off the overtones we were creating, and some of the stuff we composed in the cave is really sonically incredible.”

Marotta says that the method of recording also played a big part in the sound of the finished product. “Tchad (Blake, the producer) recorded the whole thing using the Neuman binaural head. It’s a featureless plastic head with a couple of ultrasensitive mikes placed where our ears would be and it captures an accurate representation of what the human ear would actually hear in any given situation. He set it up in front of us, and, on occasion, he’d walk around the cave with it to get different spacial effects. He also has a mike set up that he can wear on his head. Since it’s all digital, it’s extremely portable and easy to use.” Marotta says the recording was done directly to two-track stereo, with no mixing, and although Tchad did do some knob-twiddling during the sessions, “he couldn’t do anything about the volume, so what you hear is what we were actually playing.”

The sound Blake has captured on From the Caves of The Iron Mountain is often spectacular. The system really captures the separation of the instruments, an enormous depth of field, and the subtle overtones and echoes of the cavern. At times, the dynamic between Levin’s bass and Marotta’s drums can turn the listener’s ears inside out, as the sounds combine with the echoes of the cavern to blend into one mega-instrument or produce an eerie triple-voiced harmony. Marotta chuckles. “Yeah, both those things were happening, but there’s only so much I contributed to it. Tony has more control over his playing. We planned some of it when we rehearsed, but the sound in Tony’s living room and the sound in the cave is very different.

“We kept the tunes simple and kind of moody, because of the ambiance of the cave. We started with Steve doing a bit of his circular breathing thing, and some vocals. [Gorn’s technique sounds similar to the “throat singing” of Tuvan herdsmen and the Inuit singers of Northern Canada and Siberia.] You can hear some of it on the ‘Widow Jane Mine’ track. We slowly built on the harmonics we were setting up as the sound swirled around the cave. The setting made it easy to play simply, since one note lasts such a long time. I’m a simple player anyway, but all of us fell into that.”

Marotta says that the rehearsals for the Iron Mountain sessions were kept casual on purpose. “We got together in different pairs - me and Tony, Tony and Steve, me and Steve - and worked out some rough ideas, and rehearsed a bit as a trio, then went into the cave. We all take compositional credit for all the songs, even if one of us came up with the original impulse for a tune. But a lot of the stuff is totally improvised. When we began playing down there, we got into a totally natural flow. After this, I’d like to go back and do another set down there, with no rehearsal. It would be really easy to do.”

The music was recorded in long, symphonic like suites, although it was later broken down, and resequenced in the studio by the trio of musicians and producer Blake. “As I listen to the album now, a year later, some of the stuff on there still impresses me. ‘Drumming on Water’ started with Tony playing a simple bass line and Steve doing these long fluttering notes on the bansuri. I was walking around with my brushes, playing on the ground and walls, and finally found myself on the shore of the lake, which they keep stocked with ducks, by the way. I got down and started splashing on the water. ‘Glass Beads’ uses the Garden Weasel, you’ll hear what a unique sound it has. ‘Magic Meadow,’ which has players dropping in and out and a lot of tempo changes, happened naturally. I know we worked on it in rehearsal, but most of the dynamics were spontaneous. For ‘Shakers in Five’ I started playing the shakers in this rhythm I’ve been finding myself gravitating toward. Tony started playing spare, almost like a drum, and Steve joined in. I don’t know where I picked up this rhythm. I don’t go out of my way to pick up things in five, but it felt comfortable.”

Although Marotta played drums with Peter Gabriel during the decade in which Gabriel was moving his music in a more international direction, Marotta says he’s never made a conscious effort to pick up techniques or rhythms from other drummers or cultures. “Peter would play us some music he was interested in, from whatever country, but I didn’t make a conscious effort to study it or absorb it. Today, I listen to a lot of Brazilian music, mostly because it’s rhythmic and melodic and I like that combination, but whatever it may have added to my technique has been unintentional. I don’t have any particular technical knowledge about what anything is, I just pick up things I hear, if I like them. A couple of people have said some of the things I play on Iron Mountain sound like pow-wow drumming or a bolero, and while I may have heard a bolero, I couldn’t sit down and play you one. Nothing I do is premeditated.”

For more information, visit Jerry Marotta's site.
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