Singled Out: Grex's Martha


The Oakland based multi-genre group Grex recently released their new album "Electric Ghost Parade" and to celebrate we asked Karl Evangelista to tell us about the track "Martha". Here is the story:

Of the many character-driven songs that Grex has written over the years, "Martha" stands alone-it has a kind of resonance with audiences that is surprising. All we wanted to do was talk about something real; as it turns out, people like real things.

"Martha" was written to commemorate the last known passenger pigeon on the 100th anniversary of her death. The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was once the most common bird species in the United States, and the creatures lived together in giant flocks that would blot out the sun for hours as they passed. In the early 20th century, with the Industrial Revolution still fresh, conservation was the last thing on the American consciousness. Overhunting and human-caused habitat loss whittled away at the passenger pigeons' numbers.

The last of her kind, Martha lived out her waning years alone at the Cincinnati Zoo. Visitors to the zoo were sometimes disappointed by the drab and palsied Martha, and they would shout at her or throw items through bars. She died in 1914, and her remains have been on and off display at the Smithsonian for the past century.

Our keyboardist, Rei, doubles as a conservation biologist, and something about this timely, tragic narrative spoke to her. Back when we were in the first stages of composing our new album, Electric Ghost Parade, the songs began to present a thematic through line-something to with the tension between death and survival, and how humans have to live with the consequences of the things that they survive (and sometimes kill). "Martha" was an easy fit.

A big part of Grex's ethos is using primordial sounds to create something at once new and deeply familiar, and with "Martha" we sought to find the simplest way to decorate Rei's bold, clear verse. The song's lumbering, insistent backbeat is meant to emulate the slow clouds of passenger pigeons that used to "darken the sky." (Props to our friend Ben Goldberg, whose piece "xcpf" inspired this musical turn.) Hopefully not too on the nose, but the guitar solo, descending into patches of jittering, birdlike noise, is a kind of half-serious, half-ironic nod to Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing."

These conceptual exercises are a normal part of our collaborative process, but on "Martha" they seem to have led to something different. "Martha" isn't even a proper narrative song-it's a series of second person verses, more like a stream of tableaus than a story. Maybe it's the stark, singular realness of the imagery, or maybe it's the relative sparseness of the music-or maybe it's just because "Martha" is a story that has meaning beyond both the song and the band-but this one gets to people. I'm happy that we get to play it.

Hearing is believing. Now that you know the story behind the song, listen for yourself right here!

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