Comparing the life of a touring musician to that of a pornographer may be a stretch (at least -- one would hope.) But Trevor Garrod, Tea Leaf Green's whimsical lead vocalist and keyboardist, draws an effective metaphor when talking about the years the band spent touring on the smoky bar circuit, playing only for 21-and-older fans.
"Society was treating me as if I was worse than a pornographer," jokes Garrod. "Because a pornographer can sell to the people that are under 21. But it's not pornography -- it's music! Music should be OK for everybody."
The years of hard work have paid off for the San Francisco jam/prog rock quartet. After playing together for a decade and releasing four studio and five live albums, Tea Leaf Green has secured a solid following in the post-Phish jam world. Like their fellow improv groups, Tea Leaf Green has picked up where groups like the now defunct Phish and The String Cheese Incident left off. And unlike most bands in the jazz/ improv vein, they don't mind owning up to the "jam band" moniker.
"I used to hate it," admits Garrod, "but now I'm like, 'Well fuck it. Let's be the best jam band we can be.'"
Onstage, Tea Leaf Green lets their emotions guide their songs. "We have a tendency to space out and just let things happen," explains Garrod, who seems to laugh at the tail-end of every sentence. As a whole, Tea Leaf Green brings the same lightheartedness to the stage -- combining the build-and-release, solo-heavy jazz digression formula of bands like The Grateful Dead with the humor of modern jam bands like moe. and String Cheese. And Garrod isn't afraid to tout Phish as one of the band's influences.
"Phish kind of saved rock 'n' roll for me," he says. "They [took] the things I love about jazz like improvisation and put it into this rock 'n' roll format. It made me want to play rock 'n' roll music because I wasn't really good enough to play jazz."
The journey from being Phish fans in high school to having former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio join them onstage in 2005 sounds like the ultimate success story. But of course, the long road from college house-party band to theater-caliber jam-staple was far from perfect.
Childhood friends Josh Clark (guitar, vocals) and drummer Scott Rager met original bassist Ben Chambers and Garrod a decade ago in San Francisco, where all four went to college. After struggling in the Bay Area, they gained a following playing the UC Davis college scene in Sacramento and eventually grew a fanbase large enough for them to begin an aggressive cycle of touring, playing up to 200 shows a year.
And then a surprise: In November of 2007, Chambers decided to step down, deciding the touring life was not for him. Garrod and his bandmates took the line-up shake-up in stride. "It kind of broke this weird blood pact that you form when you start something up when you're so much younger," says Garrod. "By him leaving, it broke all those molds and freed us up to rediscover why we're here."
The band announced Chambers' departure and introduced his replacement, Reed Mathis, bassist with rival/jam-friends Jacob Fred Odyssey. Mathis was well-received for the few months he joined Tea Leaf on the road -- and then, just when fans were getting used to the idea, Animal Liberation Orchestra's Steve Adams stepped in to take Mathis' place.
"We're kind of having an open relationship right now," says Garrod about finding a new, permanent bass player. "We haven't made the plunge to get a fully committed thing going on. [Mathis and Tea Leaf Green] are still lovers. It's like a booty call."
This summer, Tea Leaf Green will tour in support of their fifth studio album, Shadows on the Edge, which sees the band going in a more concise direction. As for the title?
"It's what we feel like we are," says Garrod. "Edge of what I don't know. It could be the edge that we fall off of, the edge of Eden or the paradise we're trying to seek."
Tea Leaf Green will perform at the Neighborhood Theatre on May 1 with Moonalice. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 on the day of show. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.