Monday , May 27 2024

Billy “illy B” Martin Interview

Billy Martin has split duty as drummer-percussionist for the wildly popular and successful jazz groove trio Medeski Martin and Wood, and he runs his own label, Amulet, that specializes in “the art of percussion, avant-garde and beyond…”

Billy also records for Amulet under the name “illy B,” and has a smoking breakbeats, scratches and remix CD out called Drop the Needle. He’s a busy, creative guy.

With help from our friends and readers, we interviewed Billy “illyB” Martin for Blogcritics:

Billy, Why do you think that MMW has become so commercially sucessful? Do you attribute it to a mid-90’s revival of an improvisational music market, or was it just that MMW was able to appeal to a vast audience based on your ability to blend genres?

I think more people are responding and seeking a more visceral experience from a band. We push the boundaries, have energy, take chances, are creative and get a good groove on. I think that is the appeal.

Billy, do you notice any difference in the response from the European fans that come your shows?If i hear live-shows from MMW from the States, the crowd is much more enthusiastic.
George Kanakaris

Europeans in the North tend to be less expressive with their emotions and I think they go inward which is not a bad thing. Europeans in general, I think are more educated in the international arts and cultures. So, some may seem jaded. I think the same goes for Northern United States. Colder climate – more inward. Warmer climate more outward with emotions. I like both audiences.

Billy, I’m curious about all of your cool exotic percussion instruments. How many do you currently have and where did they come from? I love when you pull out the duck call and at times, it seems that the talking drum sounds like a monkey. Keep up the good work…take care!

I probably have too many percussion instruments. I like unusual, more expressive sounds which leads me to more folk/hand made or found instruments and objects.

Billy, I am interested to know about your playing congas with the lounge lizards… what are you playing? influenced by? What are you listening to these days ?
Peace and Blessings, Mike

My congas playing with the Lounge Lizards was a turning point for me. Before LL, I used my hands and didn’t have a good technique on congas. I am really a stick drummer. So, John Lurie insisted that I play the congas even if I had to use sticks. So, I remembered seeing the drummers of Burundi at a festival in Amsterdam in the late 80s’ and that had a big influence. There sticks are very thick and have much more tone and I have been developing my techinique for the congas with that influence. You can hear a great example of that on the “percussion duets” CD with Calvin Weston and myself available at

Hey Billy, A little more specifically, I’d love to hear who you would name as having the biggest influence on your playing. If not a drummer/percussionist, would you also name the drummer/percussionist that you feel has had the greatest influence on your playing? Feel free to list more than one.

I think Max Roach, John Bonham, Nana Vasconcelos & Zigaboo Modeliste
are the best combination.

As far as taping goes, do you feel that being recorded every single time you guys take the stage has any impact whatsoever on the overall live show? Chris has commented previously on the issue of recording a live performance vs. being there and experiencing the moment for what it is. What are your feelings on the subject?

I choose to pay very little attention to that shit unless someone is right up front of the stage taping & acting like HE is the most important part of the show. I think it’s great if someone get’s a great performance on tape. But, that doesn’t effect our performance unless someone makes a fuss. There are times when I feel like people should turn off the recorder because it’s too sacred a moment. But the spirits usually take care of that!

Do any chemicals or organic substances play a role in the creative process of MMW, or yourself individually? If yes, which ones?

Every cell in my body has an effect on what I play how I interact and perceive things. I don’t believe you have to artificially alter your state in order to create something beautiful. That is an old myth. I don’t think herbs are bad and pot smoking isn’t as bad as alcohol.

I’d like to know if there are any performers out there right now that you are really into. Like, who do you go see live and such?

Usually folkloric African based music. That is a tough question. Right now I am very tied up raising my son. He is someone I’m really into watching right now.

What is the signifigance of the acoustic breakdown at the end of most shows, and when did this tradition first begin?

It is just fun to play acoustic without a PA. This began (with MMW) a couple of years ago but we have done it from the begining when we just hang out leisurely.

What do you do with Chris and John (besides playing music) in your free time for activities and leisure?

We like to swim in Hawaii. draw, cook….

What does “uninvisible” mean, how did the title come about?

Uninvisible is something, someone or a situation that you can’t ignore. It started in Hawaii with a few of us using it to describe some very unusual circumstances.

Are you going to do anything with the submissions that didn’t make the cut for Drop the Needle?


Do you have any other volumes (2,3,4) for beat records planned for the future?

Yes. I am in the process of releasing Vol.2 this spring.

Jazz is Art. How does that statement take place in your life as a visual and audio artist?
dj BPM

It just take place.

If you had to pick one, would you prefer playing structured songs over improvised jams, or vice versa?

I’m not a big fan of preconceived ideas within improvisations. Some people are masters at it. I prefer to create from scratch and if it’s really good, play it again and make sure you keep a bit of fresh energy around it.

Do you think differently about beat-and-studio-created-music than you do about the “instrument” music created with MMW?

Not really, it’s all music and expression.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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