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Published: 2004/06/29
by Jesse Jarnow

Ether / Or: The Dichotomies of Tom Marshall

Tom Marshall's songs are sung by men in suits. Granted, the suits are fraying, their ties are loose, their hair is frazzled, and they hold onto their briefcase handles as if they were children's hands while they stare in awe at the approaching light, seemingly unbothered by the wind… but, yes, they are definitely wearing suits.

Tom Marshall is not like most contemporary rock lyricists. That is partially of his own doing. But it mostly just seems like weird happenstance.

For starters, he rarely performs the work that he is best known for. As Trey Anastasio's songwriting partner in Phish, Marshall became the mega-jamband's de facto man on the inside. While his high school buddy Anastasio jets around the world hob-knobbing like the rock star he has become, Marshall has remained a 9-to-5 desk jockey, working at one of the country’s more reputable financial institutions, remaining a keen reporter in the unsexy trenches of corporate culture. Though the lyrics ring more of glades and mountains and streams and not so much of freeway overpasses, suburban tracts, and shopping malls, Marshall has on occasion tapped into an elegant escapism. Like a workaday blogger escaping down an intellectual rabbithole, Marshall pens his lyrics in his spare time.

In his sparer time, he fronts Amfibian, an ever-evolving outlet for his own work. In 1999, he released Amfibian Tales, an understated debut, featuring a host of young collaborators drawn from Marshall (and Anastasio’s) native Princeton, New Jersey, including members of RANA and The Saras. With an entirely new lineup featuring former Spin Doctors’ guitarist Anthony Krizan and Marshall’s new songwriting partner, Chris Metaxas, Amfibian has recently released From the Ether.

But what really sets Marshall apart from his contemporaries is the way that his words have been received. While Phish's 10 studio albums were always better than most gave them credit for, the real meat of their work – and therefore the place where Marshall's lyrics got their most accessible airings – was in the live setting. There, his songs co-existed not only with his own material, Phish's improvisations, stage pranks, and covers of other artists, but with the entire sweep of the Phish experience. Except for isolated moments during a given night, they were rarely the focus of Phishheads' direct attention. Instead, they were one more element in the perpetually twisting Rubik's Cube of factors that played into Phishheads' time with the band. If their meanings sometimes seem a little bit out of Marshall's control, it's also what makes them absolutely unique.

In that sense, Marshall may have gotten a bit short-changed, lyrics of simple Bob Marley-like parable (such as Farmhouse’s "Back on the Train") interpreted by Phishheads as a reflection on the Phish experience as a whole, and complex time-spanning narratives like "Walls of the Cave" being subsumed into Anastasio’s dramatic cheer-inducing composition. Indeed, listening to Phish’s music has become an all-abiding passion for many. And, with Marshall as Anastasio’s outlet, many (for better of worse) have seen his words as a sort of running commentary on the band, choosing to interpret songs like "Birds of a Feather" (" whippets they dance in curlicue dance…") as being about Phishheads massing outside an arena, or "Down With Disease" as a critique of the band’s success, or – during "Water in the Sky" – cheering for the line "filter out the Everglades" on account of Phish’s epic New Year’s performance in 1999 (and therefore missing out on Marshall’s absolutely wonderful evocation of a cool Florida evening). With no more Phish tour to sell bootleg shirts on, perhaps Marshall’s lyrics will finally get their due.

Though there will be no more Phish, it's hard to imagine his lifelong collaboration with Anastasio ending anytime soon. His work with his mercurial buddy not withstanding, Marshall's got plenty on his plate with the current incarnation of Amfibian. For whatever amateurishness From the Ether suffers, Marshall remains an unapologetically blinking beacon to daydreamers everywhere.

He recently answered some questions via his favorite medium besides songs, email. You notoriously write most of your lyrics (and conduct most of your interviews) while ostensibly working. I was wondering if you could describe that process and how you started doing it?

Tom Marshall: Ha!! This has always been the joke, but in fact I write at night when I am finally alone. I do email my lyrics to Scott Herman and he reads them while he’s at work. That must be what you’re thinking of. Does the work environment make it easier or harder to focus?

TM: I have trouble focusing on anything anywhere. My attention darts around a lot, following various thoughts. People randomly stopping by at work make it not the optimal place for artistic thought. I’d go so far as to say that work in general might not be an optimal place. Does it feel like a secret life?

TM: I feel like I do have a secret life from most of my work companions. My "hobby" is more encompassing than the hobbies of most people I know in the work place. It is so encompassing that it has surpassed the importance of work even — which is inconceivable to some. So I do keep it a secret. Some people might say, "I hear you have a band?" I’ll just say, "I fool around a bit…" and usually it ends at that…just like I’d say to them, "I hear you weave wicker into furniture?" and not really even listen for an answer. Have you considered quitting your job and doing music full-time or do you feed off the contrast?

TM: I’m always considering it…weighing the pros and cons. Right now quitting would upset the delicate balance I have achieved among work, music and family. When there’s compelling evidence that this balance is tilting too far in one direction, I’ll compensate. How is your role in new Amfibian different from your role in the old Amfibian?

TM: Now I’m no longer the keyboard/singer guy. My keyboard duties have been transferred to my friend and co-writer, Chris Metaxas. Now I’m standing in front of this cool band, delivering words of wisdom…sort of like John Kerry doing karaoke (I believe that’s how I was characterized in a review I saw). What kind of theatrics can one expect from Amfibian 2004?

TM: Very little. I had envisioned some screens above the band, and the images interacting with the music we were playing… but the video/projection stuff I was working on came with a several thousand-dollar price tag. I figured that people might not want to pay $650 per ticket, so I scaled back. Now the only theatric is Chris, who wears a mime outfit and paint and does a weird mime routine between and during songs. It’s his trademark. I don’t think I’m describing it right, nor have I gotten used to it frankly. If you can remember, what kind of music were you listening to during the period when you were recording From the Ether? What kind of books were you reading?

TM: Yeah — I was on a Steve Earle kick for a while there. He’s a great singer/songwriter. I doubt you’ll be able to hear much of his influence though, but maybe. As for books, I do remember a bunch of lyrics jammed into my book The Endurance about Earnest Shackleton’s famous voyage to the South Pole that ended with his ship getting crushed in the Antarctic ice. It then becomes an amazing story of survival…I need to read that again. Are there any contemporary lyricists that you enjoy?

TM: Oh boy…sadly he’s no longer with us, but Elliott Smith is a recent lyric-idol of mine. I think I’m still more influenced by people like [Brian] Eno or [David] Byrne than anyone newer though. You’re fairly easy to spot at Phish shows. What kind of feedback do you get from heads? What kinds of questions do they ask?

TM: I’m easy to spot, but maybe I don’t appear easy to approach or something. Or it could be that I surround myself with NJ ruffians. Seriously, I get a lot of "hello"s, but not too many questions lately. Occasionally someone will want to know something about Trey, or future Phish plans. I do my best to misdirect where possible. Politely though. When writing, are there ever certain lines that you expect Phishheads to cheer for or get turned into bootleg shirts? Or does that take you by surprise when it happens?

TM: Well… since "Chalkdust Torture," there haven’t been any real obvious ones. I guess I’m not really thinking too hard about that. Maybe I should? Do you ever write from the perspective of decidedly not-you characters?

TM: Hmm…well, often a song will be about "you," but that’s still a me-type character — does that make sense? But usually if it’s not a me-type person talking, I’m the narrator at least. There are probably a few exceptions, like "Julius." I probably should start writing more from the perspective of someone else, like say, Hilary Clinton. Do you ever have specific creative goals for lyrics? ("Now I’m going to try to write from this perspective…" "Now I’m going to try to jump between two stories…")

TM: Oh definitely. The goal will usually be to properly convey the concept… you know? In "Theme from the Bottom" the concept was to portray the relationship I was involved in as a metaphor revolving around the feeding habits of fish — specifically the relationship between top-feeders and bottom-feeders. What’s the strangest place you’ve ever written a set of lyrics?

TM: At the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas with Trey. That place lent itself to writing very naturally to me. For some reason Trey and I have chosen spots near the ocean almost exclusively when we’ve gone on writing vacations. That has certainly come through in examples too numerous to mention. Did you notice yourself consciously moving away from what Richard Gehr, I think, called your "rhinothropic microgaze period" or did it just sort of occur naturally?

TM: A little of both I guess. I mean, Trey and I have written together for 20 years now or more. I think the fact that he might choose fewer and fewer of the "word salad" kind of lyrics like "Stash" or "Cavern" and enjoy stuff like "Spices" or "Walls of the Cave" makes me churn out more like that. It’s supply and demand I think. Without Trey’s influence, I revert to my old ways more, you might find on the Amfibian CD, From the Ether, that there’s a flavor of slightly older Phish lyrics perhaps… that’s what people have told me, anyway. Has performing your lyrics with Amfibian (as opposed to handing them over to somebody else to sing) given you any new perspective on writing?

TM: No, not really, because I pulled the lyrics for most of the Amfibian songs from a batch of lyrics that Trey also has access to. I have piles of abandoned lyrics looking for a home. They don’t care whether it’s with Phish, the Trey Anastasio Band or Amfibian. However, since I know I’m going to sing them, it does affect my songwriting slightly — I usually make sure it’s in my range now rather than letting some crazy scream or falsetto vocal attempt remain in the final version. When you write with Trey or Chris, how much discussion is there of the intent/meaning/"meaning" of the lyric?

TM: More so with Trey — he’ll often delve into the meaning as we’re writing. I think Chris tends to "trust" me with the words and stay focused on the music. I’ve mentioned before that Trey’s "meaning" and mine are often vastly different, and often surprise the other. Do you do any prose writing?

TM: Well… sometimes. A short story was trying to make itself known recently after I made up a great little tale to put my daughter to sleep and I decided to write it down. It’s much harder than what I’m used to. Things have to be so much clearer and take place chronologically along with other rules. At first glance, with the whole "do something or I will" line, "Crowd Control" (from Phish’s Undermind) seems to be very much a political song — which would be a first for you (at least overtly, I think). But, if you read the lyrics, they’re fluid enough that it could also be about a relationship. I was wondering if this was a move into political songwriting, or just something that came out accidentally?

TM: I’ve been asked this quite a bit about "Crowd Control." This is another one, like "Walls of the Cave," where the meaning is so completely apparent to everyone but me. I awoke with much of the song in my head after a very vivid dream where I was standing at a Phish festival in the middle of the crowd on the lawn. The strangest thing about the dream was that the members of Phish were turned around and singing to someone or something else above and behind the stage…the "devil in the crowd" had some importance in the dream too. Read it from that perspective and you’ll see what I mean… the other political interpretation overwhelms that simple one however… and I agree, it makes a lot of sense as well. Have you ever had any "Helter Skelter"-like moments where you’ve discovered that somebody has grossly misinterpreted your lyrics? And possibly acted upon that misinterpretation? (Such as hearing "Crowd Control" and using it to justify voting for the ghost of Howard Hughes?)

TM: No thank goodness…I’ve had the opposite though, where people have told me incredibly good things that have happened to them as a result of some of the lyrics. "Alive Again," for instance, helped a woman out of her deep depression after she suffered the tragic loss of her husband. The words to Hoist told a story to a guy who dropped out of life completely after he had lost his brother in a car accident, and it helped him recover. His mother sent a thank you letter to the Phish office describing that. There have been a lot of those actually, and they’re always amazing to read and realize that the songs are not only getting out there, but they’re making a difference in people’s lives. What importance do you think lyrics have for fans in the grand scheme of the Phish experience? (Is it even possible for you to develop a sense of that?)

TM: If you listen to Junta, for instance, I think it’s apparent that the lyrics were almost an afterthought in those songs. I think Trey and I have tried to develop since then as songwriters toward songs where the lyrics and music have equal importance — in fact where you don’t even separate them in analysis like this — the song is the song and that’s that. When/how did you hear about Phish’s break-up?

TM: Trey told me in April when I was up in Vermont to play an Amfibian show at Higher Ground. I hadn’t truly digested it, though I knew he was serious. He also called me in the morning before he made the announcement on and we talked about it for a long time. What are/were your initial thoughts?

TM: Well, I had played through the scenario before quite a bit actually. I think those of us close to Trey knew something had to give… and soon. So I was relieved I’d say, and happy for Trey. I’m not really experiencing anything like sorrow yet, although I’m sure the last few shows will be pretty emotional. Was it a surprise?

TM: No, like I said before, I had been forewarned, and I knew the hiatus didn’t accomplish what Phish needed in terms of their health or happiness. Do you think it’s really possible for somebody as prolific as Trey to scale back his time on the road?

TM: That’s an interesting question. I think he’ll do more stuff like what he did with Dave Matthews and Oysterhead. That’s just a guess, but I know he enjoys sitting in with other acts and seeing what he can bring to the table. I suspect TAB will reappear soon also. But I do think he’ll try to relax for the first time in his life. Maybe he’ll succeed in that, but I doubt it! At least for Phishheads, the break-up has become an all-encompassing matter of thought recently. I was wondering if it’s the same for you, or are you able to put it aside?

TM: I was a bit shell-shocked for a day or two I must say…and I had advance warning. I can see what a bolt out of the blue it must have been for most fans, and I sympathize with them…it’s an end for sure, but I think most people will eventually see that it’s a happy ending.

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