SAINT DISRUPTION: Improvisational titan John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) and scientist and ceremonial folk healer Jeff Firewalker Schmitt had no idea they’d meet and strike up a friendship when they traveled independently to the heart of the Amazon to work with a shaman healer in 2008. But meet they did, and a collaborative creative relationship was born.
Twelve years after that fateful meeting, in the midst of a global pandemic, Medeski and Schmitt felt an urgent need to join forces and make music as Saint Disruption, a spirit-driven, soul-inspired new musical collective led by Medeski and Schmitt.
We had the opportunity to interview Jeff Firewalker Schmitt exclusively for Live Music News and Review.
LMNR: A new band is a bit of a blank slate. As Saint Disruption is a brand new project, is there any way you want to frame expectations of sound for those who have not yet experienced the band?
Jeff Firewalker Schmitt: We’re having a great time, and with this new project there have been miracles and positive responses to our work. The music is contemporary but we reach deep into the pocket of 1970s funk music, blues, and into music throughout history that has told a truth about what an artist or musician is seeing in the world.
LMNR: It’s clear that from the initiation of this band there is a spiritual and moral goal, that making music is not the only objective. Can you speak to this more, and are there guiding principles that are primary to this project?
It’s funny, we have become over the last six months less and les of a band and more of an art and music collective. We have as many visual artists and poets involved as we do musicians. The guiding principle is to support other artists in creating the best works that they possibly can with the hopes that those works somehow tell a small truth or reflect a small truth about what is happening in the world.
In my estimation, that in its essence is spiritual. This is about putting each other’s growth, each other’s clear expression in the world and where needed, we will hold up a sacred mirror to help each other grow. This has been an amazing adventure as we are not driven by necessarily making lots of money, not driven by exposure and fame, we are driven by deep artistic and spiritual instincts.
LMNR: John Medeski is obviously most famous as a keyboard player in the jazz and jam worlds. But when I listened to the first track, Choke a Man, it seemed like a more guitar driven standard contemporary blues with an edge that straddles traditional and modern blues. This is not what I expected out of a John Medeski project. Will we continue to have our expectations challenged?
I hope that the expectations would be challenged and that we will be inspired in new ways, not just John, but all of the musicians involved. John’s collaboration within St Disruption has been fantastic, not only because of his extraordinary accomplishments as a musician, but also his standing as a highly respected carrier of medicine ways. Most of the people that are working closely with us, not because of it was planned but because of the universe seems to be conspiring- are medicine people. We have dedicated ourselves to healing practices in different traditions, which is something that binds us together and helps us to create a strong sense of community and strong music.
LMNR: The world is increasingly specialized, with most people micro focusing on a particular discipline and spending their whole lives or careers in the pursuit of that one focus. You, sir- are multi-disciplined. With a history in at times opposing disciplines- folk healing and traditional science, dance and visual art, public policy and now music. What does this new project for a man of your experience, and outside of your historical endeavors, mean to you and what should it mean to your listeners?
There are a few reflections, 1) In my estimation the most interesting things in life happen at the boundaries of different disciplines, not in one discipline or another. My strength is to bring people together around a common goal with a hope of something meaningful emerging. I hope that in a sense is a foil to this hyper specialization. 2) In terms of my personal journey, music and lyricism, the poetry of music being front and center in my life right now, this is what 2020 was all about- a huge opportunity to take deep stock in what I learned as a curandero (traditional healing practitioner) and as a scientist and as someone who is interested in the philosophy and history of science and culture. Many people would argue that we are at a critical juncture of the evolution of this planet, there may never have been a more important time for the values that music offers.
LMNR: How have your diverse experiences effected the way this project is being created?
First, on a practical level, having worked in science and policy and the business of science, I am used to working with people from all around the world in various cultures. That has helped me build capacity in building teams and creating focus around mission. Also, in my lyricism, I have this luxury of being able to draw from many different viewpoints, from mythology to modern culture. I have been very fortunate to have this life, to do so many different things, I feel like now is the time where I am given this great opportunity to explore a powerful form of poetry, which is creating lyrics for songs.
LMNR: How did you and Medeski meet, and in how did it spawn this partnership?
John and I met in the most unlikely of settings, we were in Ecuador, 2 or 3 days from the nearest small town, in the middle of the Amazon jungle. This is over a decade ago, and I was there on an ethno-botany mission visiting the amazing Secoya people and I was at the house of one of the most renowned healers of the Amazon. John and his wife and a friend showed up there. I had no idea who he was, though I had been listening to him for years. We struck up a conversation and became fast friends from our commonalities. We stayed in touch for years, mostly having to do with our interests in South American native wisdom.
LMNR: How did we go from that to St Disruption?
At the start of 2020 all of my work as a teacher and advocate disappeared due to the pandemic. I got quiet and asked the spirit “What was I to do with all of this free time?” And the answer was to return to music. Shortly after that, I got into a conversation with Umar Ben Hassan, who is a cofounder of the Last Poets who were in NYC during the civil rights movement’s birth. Their innovation was to create poetry to speak to the truth of the suffering of African Americans, put to music. That music was the backdrop that helped to inspire hip hop and rap music. Many people credit their inaugural album (This is Madness) as the seed crystal for these new musical art forms.
LMNR: Let’s talk about the song Painstorms that is your collaboration with Umar Ben Hassan:
John’s work on Painstorms was the start of Saint Disruption. When I received the poem from Umar, I admit to being fairly intimidated. O My Goodness, this is important and I don’t want to blow it. I must do this right or not do it at all. If there was one musician in the World I wanted to work with me on this, John was the first person that came to mind.
That was so powerful, both John and I had a great appreciation for what Umar did, and created an opportunity to create a soundscape to Umar’s poem. We were both pleased with how it came out, as was Umar. John and I decided to do more of this, and see if we had more to say.
LMNR: You are well known in the world of folk healing- in what ways to you are music and the experience of live music performance promoting healing for both the performer and the audience?
There are so many layers- First and foremost, when people come together to share art, to share music, it is powerfully healing in and of itself. From the blues to heavy metal and classical music, we come together and experience the commonality of the art. In so doing, we feel like we are not so alone. That has been the power of the blues. We released Choke a Man as a statement of solidarity.
When a musician puts into the fields of aesthetics and beauty, something that is true and important, something that you have not experienced before, when you hear that reflected back to you it is healing. One of the most powerful things that we can do for one of another is to reflect, to know that we are seen and heard, to know that we are not alone. That is one of the most powerful things about people coming together around music. It is part of our ancient heritage.
LMNR: It is highly unusual to see a manager and producer listed in a band’s bio or list of contributors. I’ve known Aaron Kayce for a few years from the live music world, how is his role in this band different than in other bands?
Aaron is a special being. Aaron came to us and dedicated his professional life to this project because he shares a greater vision. It’s about the music, and it’s about something beyond the music. Right now, the narrative that is so present in people’s lives is that of isolation, of opposition to nature. The narrative of fear is prevalent. As a community of artists and musicians what we are hoping to say and inspire is that it does not have to be that way, that there are other ways to look at the current situation. We can look at this as a time of potency and opportunity.
Aaron Kayce and the other members of the team are all focused on how to do things differently. How can we re energize and make a small contribution to making music be a centrally galvanizing place to a culture of change. To a person, Aaron included, we are all here for the greater vision. We are having the greatest time, and we want to be around these people that have come together for this purpose, all the time.
LMNR: If all of your aspirations lined up for this musical project, what would that mean to you? How would it manifest itself? Most other artists might respond with a hit record or playing Coachella- but with the difference between this project and others musically, and your vast experience, what would wild success look like for Saint Disruption?
First and foremost, I would like to see all the people, the contributors of St Disruption and Root Doctor records, to have right livelihood
being doing what they love.
Another is that we would like to see that part of the benefit of what we do (live shows, art books, records,) for some of that profit to go back to organizations that promote positive change in the world.
This is where there is a connection with the Wisdom Keepers out of the UK. We are a collective of twelve elders who represent wisdom traditions from around the world and we are working with major festivals and gatherings around the world (Galstonbury 2019 hosted the Wisdom Keepers for instance. What we heard from young attendees is that they want to contribute to social change, but the problems are so huge that they don’t know how to plug in. We are interested in exploring how just by listening to music from this collective, that we contribute in a small way positive change. A yardstick measure of success for me, is that if every time that someone clicks on our songs, that a little bit would go toward positive social change, I would count that as a big win.
LMNR: Would you like to tease us with any previews of the album that we have yet to hear?
We are releasing something on March 4th, a video and a song titled Instant Gratification. I hope that this song is going to make you want to move, a gritty funky song with awesome lyrics spearheaded by Grammy winner Debrissa McKinney. It is a song that explores how modern consumer culture has taken everything that is sacred including sex and made it a commodity. This song explores that narrative.
I am so excited- John and I created the musical backdrop for Painstorms– we are soon to be opening an invitational for young poets to contribute their works to us, a virtual poetry slam. We want to take a poem or two a month and build a sonic soundscape around it, and then release it to help young poets get exposed. We want to help showcase the perspective of young people. We have one seventeen year old poet who just blew us out of the water. We want to use our position as elders to help young poets to come forward to express how they are experiencing the world right now.
In early April the entire album will be released and will feature a diverse lineup of artists and new material.
Motivation is everything, what is the field of shared intention That is much more important than what people believe it is. The idea that surrounding myself with people who are smarter and more capable than myself, in order to create a better world, is the greatest accomplishment I could ever have. To be able to speak something that is really true with really awesome people, that is a priviledged circumstance that not many people can have.
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