Crisscrossing Tonality with Martin Archer

Martin Archer 1

Time is marked by a strong third beat in each measure as the haunting voice of Julie Tippetts mood-paints in 2015’s “Shiver Across the Soul.” She is accompanied by composer and melodic visionary Martin Archer, who creates an atmosphere of suspense on electronics.

Archer, who is also a multi-sax player and owner of the label Discus Music, leads a 12-piece ensemble Engine Room Favourites that recently released the CD “Safety Signal From A Target Town.” In it, the playful/experimental track “The Playground in the Desert” challenges the notion of song-writing, leading somewhere and nowhere all at once. Depth of rhythm comes from two fully realized drum sets; intentionally harsh sax work is smoothed out by the vibes, and the song ends in an exhausted mix of sound ideas capped off by isolated drumsticks.

Disparate melodies are stuffed into the modal explorations and primal utterances of the CD “Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites” in indescribable fashion. 

Archer’s creations occupy a spatially unexplored axis and offer a new way to hear jazz.

Martin Archer CD cover

What’s the most memorable aspect of your early music education?

I don’t have any music education. I taught myself by listening to everything and then by playing with people.  It wasn’t a musical household at all, although my aunt was a self-taught church organist and my mother could play violin and piano by ear. I got the music gene through the rural side of the family.

My earliest music memory must have been when I was maybe 4 or 5, standing in front of the TV and listening to the test card music. I knew every note and nuance by heart and used to conduct the TV. I could actually see each sound and the character of each instrument. I liked the ones where a minor key came through. 

What did you teach yourself?

It started with bands at school aged 15 when I bought an alto sax. I was on stage within about three months of buying the thing.  I learned that making music is always a co-operative situation.

I also learned that being a good player didn’t count for anything unless you had ideas as well.  I came across loads of great players who didn’t really know what to do with it.

I was not so good as a player, but I wrote all the music and organized all the gigs. 

Why did you begin playing the sax?

I was instinctively drawn to the fringes and outer details of the sound. I already knew cats who played guitar, piano, bass, drums and they were good players and songwriters. So sax was the missing element.

I’d already played recorder and I remember even at primary school I found I could just play all the tunes in the book by ear immediately. So making the transition to another woodwind was quite easy. 

Were you always attracted to abstract jazz or other genres?

Yes. Pretty much as soon as I started listening to pop music I became aware of the fringe elements – starting with CCS, Alexis Korner’s big band which featured loads of great jazz musicians. I realized you could identify each sax or trumpet player by how they played, in the same way you could recognize a vocalist. That was a revelation! After that I quickly discovered Soft Machine, East Of Eden, Henry Cow, plus Miles and Mingus and other jazz stuff via the local record library. 

What do you want to convey with your music?

Music exists on its own terms. I just want to present my version of it. There’s no message or ulterior motive. But it’s the group, not the individual, which interests me – I’m not the hero at the front of my own music, I’m the voice behind whole thing. 

When and why did you start your own label?

1988, when I made Wild Pathway Favourites. I realized that what I was aiming to do would unfold into something quite multi-faceted, and that my ambition was to mainly record rather than gig.

I guessed no label would be interested in that, and anyway my stuff was too unpredictable and left-field. Other people ’round then were running great independent labels – particularly Ogun and Cadillac – and I wanted to do the same thing. Keeping control of your stuff is important if recording is central to what you do. 

What services do you offer?

Excellence. CD/DL (CD, download).

What is the biggest mistake new artists make?

Believing that anyone actually cares about what they do…? That great reviews turn automatically into sales? That talent alone will get you opportunities without having some sort of back office to do all that for you?

How on earth can you expect anyone to care more about what you do than you do yourself?

Talk about a few of the jazz ensembles you represent and their different needs or their newest CDs.

Martin Archer & Julie Tippetts

This is my most important work.  Julie and I are making our fifth album together right now. We want the same things out of the music. We started with abstraction but then realized we could make our mark by Julie returning to the extended songforms present in her earliest solo work. We’re pushing at the boundary of what you can do with song plus improv plus structures plus electronics. She’s massively undervalued in the music world.

This group is all about recording – we’ve only done one gig and that was at the Victoriaville Festival a couple of years ago.  We burn the midnight oil in the studio, get stuck into the micromanagement of every millisecond of the music. We love it.  Our newest release is Vestigium (2015) and that neatly sums up everything we’ve done so far. The new one will be a killer if we ever finish it! It’s taken three years so far.

Deep Tide Quartet

My main gigging group. Me on reeds plus Laura Cole (piano), Kim Macari (trumpet), Walt Shaw (percussion). There are probably about 10 places in the UK where we can actually play, same as for everyone else in this music corner. We got together as a one-off studio date in a series of quartets I was making, and this one had the best chemistry. We just made 150 minutes of music in the time it took to record it, and the empathy was massive, heavy. We love doing this group.

In 2019 we’ll record again, possibly expanding the group to include Julie Tippetts and cellist Maja Bugge. I love groups where there’s a big age range. DTQ ranges from 30 thru 72. Two old blokes and two young women. We’ve trained them up in CPR.  If we keep going another 10 years, Walt and I won’t know who the other two are.

Inclusion Principle

Also a gigging group. Me and Herve Perez on saxes and laptops, plus Peter Fairclough on percussion. Here we can really explore the electronic side of things, either by manipulation of the detail in the studio or by exploring the space when we play live.

Psychoacoustics. We improvise and allow the music to develop slowly and organically. I’d say that our newest CD, “Third Opening,” is completely unlike anything else. It creates an atmosphere you just can’t pin down. We can start with a pretty small number of elements and then develop them in countless different ways.

Our next project I think is to buy some field recording gear and set up in all kinds of obscure places to play with the acoustic.

A great deal of the IP sound is down to Herve Perez’s studio skills. He has a different and very interesting take on things.


Did I say I run a thirty-voice experimental choir? Well, along with poet Alan Halsey, I do. We’ve done around 50 gigs in seven years. We get away with stuff no instrumentalists would ever get away with. It’s kind of performance poetry, sound art, a theater of voices. We even did a Radio 3 session last year with Matmos and their washing machine. It’s a lot of work, but people seem to like it when they chance across it live. I can’t describe it, you have to be there.  

How did you meet the members of Engine Room Favourites and why that name?

Well, the Favourites is a big project, and we did gig via the Jazz North/Northern Line touring scheme a few years ago. But a 10-piece band with four drummers just can’t exist as a live entity in the UK. No one can afford us and no one has a big enough stage.  

So it’s a recording project which has so far done three CDs. Not sure if we will do another. How did I meet them? They’re all friends from different prior musical situations and I gathered them all together. It started with a gig which was just a one off, me plus the four percussionists. Then I decided to record it and built the band ’round that four-percussionist idea.

Why the name? Well, it mirrors my own history.  My first solo album was called “Wild Pathway Favourites,” so it makes for continuity with that. I love words; I hate throwaway, jokey names. There has to be some poetry in it. The group is a massive ship, lost at sea. The four drummers are in the engine room keeping it going. It’s hot and sweaty down there. The rest of the cats are in the galley, playing poker, except for me and chief entertainment officer Laura Cole. We’re on the bridge, scanning the horizon for new ideas and hoping we don’t hit an iceberg. 

What inspired your CD “Safety Signal from a Target Town”?

The music was inspired by hate for the reckless stupidity and insatiable greed of the political leaders of the world, their thirst for war, their appetite for injustice and their conspiracy to drain any trace of meaningful culture, hope or aspiration from the people whose lives they control and often ruin.

It’s one piece of music across five tracks. It’s all different. It’s all ancient to the future, as my various muses would say.

As your third CD, how would you say your band and your sound have evolved?

All three are completely different! For Blue Meat, Black Diesel –  I went into the studio with only the four percussionists and we recorded a number of structures. Then back at my own studio I recorded the rest of the band – piano, violin, vibes, bass, brass – one at a time. The final music is all studio collaged; it never really happened that way.  

For the second, “Bad Tidings From Slackwater Drag,” I wrote really simple music which was designed for our live dates and had a minimum of writing and a maximum of improvisation. We recorded that live in the studio. One track though, “You Will Never Know Me,” is VERY written in multiple simultaneous layers, with the parts in different order every time it’s played.  I’m told it’s very difficult to play!

Then for the new one, “Safety Signal From A Target Town,” I went in totally the opposite direction and wrote complex scored music for the 12-piece band. I demoed all the audio at my own studio by playing every part, and Laura Cole – without whose skills I simply couldn’t have made the record – turned it all into scores that the cats could play in the studio. We decamped into Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio for three days, worked our asses off, ran up the biggest catering bill in the history of music, rehearsed and recorded the whole thing from scratch, and have probably bankrupted the label when it sells 200 copies or whatever. So it’s the most conventional process of the three. But the music isn’t conventional.

It tells a story. It brings together every element of everything I’ve ever learned about music. It harks back to an ambitious time in British jazz which, outside a small number of people, hardly exists anymore.

I’m really happy that I’ve also managed to make my own contribution to that creative orchestra tradition. I’ve seen a number of reviews of my stuff over the years likening it to the big scale music which was important to me when I was learning – “Septober Energy,” “Escalator Over The Hill,” “Soft Machine 3.”

I think I’ve put on own spin on that particular planet with this one.  I just want the listener to sit back at the end of it and feel they’ve been taken on a journey which has a purpose. It’s come out of a heavy political situation in the world. Music can’t change that, but it can fire you up and stoke your appetite for change. Social revolution and music revolution go hand in hand.

The compositions allow the improvisers to come through, but the structures “sidestep blandness and predictability” as one reviewer put it.  If I never made another record, I’d have been happy to end with this one. There’s only a handful of people working now whose music has the same scope and ambition as this to my ear. It’s a lost world. It has nothing to do with common sense, marketing or popularity.

How do you compose abstract music that doesn’t lose the listener and is accessible?

It’s not my job to teach people to like music.

What do you get asked most by audiences?

Is that a sopranino saxophone?

What software are you using?

That was amazing, how come I’ve never heard of you?

Which of all these CDs is most like what I’ve just heard?

Where will you perform this year?

We will forge our own destiny wherever there is a handful of listeners.

What reaction is your new CD receiving?

I’m very lucky and thankful to always get great reviews or sometimes simply get ignored. There’s no middle ground of middling reviews!

Other comments?

I’m incredibly fortunate to have so many great players interested in playing my stuff. Laura Cole, Kim Macari, Walt Shaw, Peter Fairclough, Herve Perez, Julie Tippetts, Graham Clark, Stephen Grew, Corey Mwamba, Johnny Hunter, Anton Hunter, Charlotte Keeffe, Seth Bennett, Dave Kane, Steve Dinsdale, George Murray, Mick Beck, Mick Somerset, Riley Stone-Lonergan, Terry Todd, Jan Todd: all of my regular crew who somehow find time to do Discus Music as well as their own music and lives. These people are all heroes, warriors in the war against mediocrity.

I and all the people above rely on you actually coming to gigs and buying our records. If you want this music to continue you have to put your hand in your pocket and support it, that’s just a fact of life. If you support begins and ends with a click like on Facebook and a free listen or two on Bandcamp, that’s not going to be enough and all those cats listed above will starve to death.  Don’t take this stuff for granted.

For more information, visit and

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Martin Archer.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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