In The Waiting Room With Rob Marscher
I first heard Addison Groove Project, oddly enough, seven years ago this week when they played a free outdoor show at Skidmore College one snowy winter day. It was my freshman year and AGP featured one of my freshman classmates, John Hall, on bass. Reveling in our little pre-SARS world, Skidmore placed a huge inflatable hot tub in the middle of our snow covered campus green and we all waddled like drunken Eskimos from our dorms to catch the all-night gig. I’m pretty sure someone constructed a giant phallic symbol out of snow, but, then again, I’m also positive someone hid a keg in a makeshift igloo.
Needless to say it was quite the introduction to college (albeit a few months late), and for the last seven years, my life has remained eerily intertwined with AGP’s music: the first article I wrote for the Skidmore News was a review of their performance at Falstaff’s (our campus bar) and the first musician I interviewed for Jambands.com was actually Brendan McGinn (their guitarist)..the first classmate I lost to cancer was John Hall and, this spring, Rob Marscher will become my first friend to welcome a child into this world,. Heck, I even scored the internship which eventually led to my job at Relix at an AGP show my freshman year of real life.
By the time the time they entered my world, AGP had already been gigging for three years and unofficially playing in various incarnations for far longer. As the story goes, McGinn, Hall, drummer Andrew Keith, and saxophonists Ben Groppe and Dave Adams started jamming together as children and, in high-school, began venturing outside the Wellesley, MA party circuit. AGP’s name is a nod to Hall’s father, their town’s local reverend, and its sound is a decidedly original mix of jazz, funk, dub, and, at times, hip-hop.
In 1997, the quintet took top honors at a local Battle of the Bands and met Marscher, who played keyboards in the competition’s second place winner. He quickly joined the band and the sextet recorded its first album as a senior project in high school. By 1999 the six musicians were enrolled in five colleges throughout the northeast and spent their weekends barnstorming New England’s keg n club circuit. Holiday breaks were reserved for rehearsals and summers for more extensive tours, including a well received outing with Uncle Sammy in 2000. AGP recorded its first live album at Skidmore in September 2000 and, the following winter, began sharing the stage with everyone from Maceo Parker to Dispatch. Along the way, the group secured choice headlining slots at Boston’s Paradise, New York’s Irving Plaza, and Burlington, VT’s Higher Ground and key spots at festivals like Bonnaroo, Gathering of the Vibes, and Berkfest. In 2002, the group issued its second studio album, Allophone (which charted at CMJ and was a "Top Add" in its first week) and, soon after, recorded Wicked Live 2 over a two-night stand at the Paradise. By the time they started gigging fulltime in 2003, the members of the group had scored degrees in such divergent fields as biology, computer science, English, and music.
As an editor at my college newspaper, I learned a great deal about journalism while covering AGP and the group’s road manager, who also attended Skidmore, has the dubious distinction of being the first of many to chide me for an embarrassing typo when I was 19. As AGP worked its way through our small club circuit, John slowly aged from a “college musician” into a “real musician,” scoring a pair of Artist of the Week nods in the Skidmore News along the way (one for his work with AGP, another for a particularly colorful party he threw one Halloween). He was our local rock-star and, unlike the rest of us, already had a job after college. John was nice enough to appear on my radio show shortly before we graduated and I remember thinking that, in addition to an incredible bass player, he’d grown into a truly great interview. He also knew how to roll his own sushi which I always thought was pretty cool.
After graduation, I took a cross-country road trip with some friends and while in Boise, ID heard that John had been diagnosed with cancer. AGP continued to play while he sought treatment and clocked in over 200 coast-to-coast gigs with Marscher playing bass on his keyboard. I interviewed him one final time for the Coventry Courier and Rob’s future wife Regan told me John passed away while we were on another road trip the following November. Last year McGinn enrolled in medical school and, after a gigging on-and-off for the past twelve months, the group has decided to formally retire this winter (though a Marscher, Keith, Groppe, and Adams will continue to record as Skinjer).
Given AGP’s connection to Skidmore, it would be easy to write-off the group’s music as the soundtrack to my college days, but, when I talk to friends from other schools, especially around the northeast, they feel a similar connection to the group and the close-knit Boston music scene which also nurtured bands like Soulive, Miracle Orchestra, and the Slip. So, it felt bittersweet, to say the least, to sit down with Rob Marscher at a New York bar last week to discuss Addison Groove Project’s new album, Waiting Room, and final round of shows. While it’s clearly a turning point in his career, Marscher, now a mature late-twenty-something, seems genuinely happy. He has his first daughter in the wings and a new studio to further the ideas hidden below his shaggy hair in the works. He’s also pretty sure someone constructed a giant phallic symbol out of snow that snowy day at Skidmore, but, then again, he’s grown a lot since then. Indeed, seven years is a longtime to know someone when you’re stuck in your mid-20s.
Below the keyboardist talks about life in the Waiting Room.
MG- Let’s start by talking about Waiting Room’s recording process. You initially began working on the album several years ago, correct?
RM- We had an album’s worth of songs back in summer of 2004 and wanted to get into the studio. But we were touring a lot that year——I think we did like 180 shows. Plus, we didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend on albums. So, it initially began with some work we did at the band Rane’s recording studio in Connecticut. We also found out that our friend Adam Kushner was in the recording program at NYU. So, he and a friend of his went in on early August 2004 and we did two overnight sessions. We started at 9AM and recorded til 4 or 6 in the morning. At that point it was just Brendan, Andrew, and I. When we did [2002’s] Allophone a lot of people were frustrated with having to redo takes because we did that album all live. One person would mess up something and then we would have to go and do another take [laughs]. We have been inspired by other bands, like Tortoise, who recorded tracks separately and pieced them together, but that has been much more of a challenge for us because we are such a live band.
So, we got that done and we got the basic structure of all the songs recorded. Over the next seven months or so—-when we had time off—-I would go in and record some keyboards or the horns would come in from New England and record their parts. We finished doing that around early February/March of 2005.
MG- Part of Waiting Room was also recorded at Trey Anastasio’s Barn with Pete Carini. How did he get involved in the recording process?
RM- Carini wanted to work with us on Allophone, but I think Trey ended up stealing our time to record his album [laughs], which I guess he has a right to do. But, then, we saw Carini at a show we did at Higher Ground in February 2005. Steve, our sound engineer, was also working up there at Higher Ground and talked to him. Carini was like, “So, I hear you guys are doing a new album. I really wanna do this one.” So, we took everything we had done in New York and brought it up to him. And his initial reaction was, “Whoa this needs a lot of work! [laughs]. So, we ended up recording things live in the Barn. I recorded most of my keyboards up there and we redid some songs.
We were still reworking the album through September 2005. He was working on Waiting Room in-between other projects. I think RAQ came in and recorded an album and he was doing some Live Phish stuff and Waiting Room was totally finished almost a year after that. We got the final mixes in early fall 2006 and then took them to get mastered here by the LivePhish guys here.
MG- Waiting Room’s cover was also pieced together from various photos of the five of you sitting in the same chair, correct?
RM- Exactly. The whole thing is pieced together. The biggest challenge is trying to make it sound that we are as cohesive as we can be live. Some of the songs we debuted the night we recorded Wicked Live back in 2002, so those are the oldest songs on the album. When listening to Waiting Room, I definitely miss playing live. If we were playing together, we could have lined up some cool things and taken the album some places. But whatever, you know? That’s what we do live. This was a chance to rethink some tracks and have like five keyboard overdubs and extra vocal harmonies.
Another thing we did with this album was that we tried to make the songs somewhat cohesive. There are eight vocal songs on the album, which is unusual because live we try to do 50/50 vocal and instrumentals. My favorite song on the album is by Ben. We kept off a lot of the slow songs that I had written during that time period—-they just didn’t fit. Maybe I’ll record that for some future solo projects.
We’re going to try and debut some stuff this week. That’s been a thing with all of our shows the last year——we play so little that we’re like each one of us should learn something new each time. I think we’re gonna get some Jennifer Hartswick to do some singing with us as well.
MG- Was John able to contribute to the album before he passed away?
RM- We were hoping that he was going to be able to, but unfortunately not. He was really nearing the end.
MG- The title Waiting Room seems to work on several levels. What does the album’s title actually refer to?
RM- I read a biography by [composer] Claude Debussy who also died of cancer. In his memoir he says that after he was diagnosed with cancer, he was just in a waiting room the whole time: both metaphorically and physically in a doctor’s waiting room, which, as John told us about, is pretty depressing. Especially for him being a young person.
MG- You also seem to personally be in a sort of musical waiting room. Do you have any projects lined up after AGP?
RM- It’s tough. I don’t know, maybe four years ago I would have loved the idea of getting something together real quick and playing funk standards and whatever. I’m kind of just not feeling that anymore. The other thing I’m really excited about is that I just bought a house that I’m setting up a recording studio in and I’ll be able to do a lot of serious recording in the studio. Last fall, when I got married, I worked with the Artemis Ensemble and we have been talking about doing some recording, which I’m excited about because I have a classical background. A lot of the stuff I have written for AGP, I might rework and bring in strings and other instruments.
MG- Are you still writing new material?
RM- It’s not so much writing [laughs]. It’s more like I have four years of stuff and it’s difficult to figure out what to do with it [laughs]. I am rearranging some material, but one thing I found out when I played a Blue Note show a few years ago is how difficult it is to bring in new musicians and teach them these songs. With AGP, we’re such good friends, I could basically show them everything and be like, “whatever guys, keep learning and suck it up!” [laughs]. I started playing with these guys my senior of High School. They were juniors and I was just finishing up high school. Dave and Ben played together in fourth grade. It is kind of crazy. I definitely value that collection which is why we’re trying to stick with things and not throw it all away.
MG- What is the status of the AGP spin-off Skinjer?
RM- We’re still trying to find what it’s gonna be. We have been doing home recordings and actually using hip-hop style production and trying things out with sampling, We are not worrying about what it’s gonna sound like live, which is totally different than AGP, because with AGP, it was all about the live show. With Skinjer we’re figuring out how to make the record first and then we’ll figure out how to play it live.
MG- Skinjer is John’s middle name right?
RM- Yeah. Only we changed the g to a j so people would pronounce it right [laughs].
MG- In retrospect what were some of your favorite moments playing in AGP?
RM- Higher Ground, when Charlie Hunter’s whole band and DJ Logic sat in with us was great. The show we did with Maceo Parker at Irving Plaza was fun also and our horn players that sat in with him. It was much better than playing with Trey for them! Every year at Berkfest was a lot of fun and playing Vibes in 2001 I remember being a big deal. The sun cleared during our set and it was great!
We certainly have a round of stories during the weddings “tour” last summer [laughs]. One time Dave took the keys to the car after a gig and drove back to Maine in college and I had to call him and he didn’t get the message til he got back there [laughs].
Jeff Waful took me to the Rising Low release party where I played with Matt Abts, Mike Gordon, Trey, and DJ Logic. Actually, Trey wasn’t even there when I first started playing. My friends told me I was playing up there and Trey was standing right behind me and I didn’t even see him [laughs]. Trey and Fishman later came down and played with AGP during the closing of the Higher Ground celebration.
MG- Do plan to release any more installments in the Wicked Live series?
RM- We have some stuff multi-tracked. We also have an HD shoot from a show at Higher Ground last year. We’re not really sure what to do with it. It costs money to edit it and put it together and we don’t know if there’s really an audience for it, but hopefully.
MG- I always smile when I think about the Boston music scene during in the late-1990s. There was such camaraderie among those bands
RM- It’s kind of funny how most of the musicians I knew during that time period were into improv, chops, and funk. Now, they’re more interested in songwriting. I guess it’s just like a getting older thing. I saw Kraz last summer and he’s working on a rock band.I guess most of the people I was friends with during that time period just kind of got over it [laughs]. Some of the guys from Actual Proof formed Dub Trio and are playing in Peeping Tom. I saw them open for Gnarls Barkley in Philly last year and their drummer plays with The Mars Volta. I think a lot of it is also discovering a lot of indie-rock that was really challenging musically. You didn’t really see it until the late-90s and, even then, it was too underground for most people to know about it. It is kind of funny how I discovered that type of music. In 2001 our house burned down and that day I was supposed to do a recording session with Johnny Trama from the Rocket Band, Miracle Orchestra’s Garrett Sayers, and his brother. I ended up doing it anyways just because I didn’t know what else to do. That day Garrett introduced me to Stereolab and that kind of turned on this whole explosion to me.
I know myself and probably a lot of other people from the jam scene have gotten into those bands. But, when they see them live, they probably wish they would stretch them out! It’s funny, because whenever I spend some time away from the improv world and then go to a show or play a show, I’m like, “Whoa this is so great!” It’s not like you totally get rid of it.
MG- After a few years in limbo, why retire AGP now?
RM- Since the summer of 2005, Brendan knew he was applying to medical school. The only one that ever seemed to really take school seriously was Brendan [laughs]. He would carry around his textbooks and study biology before gigs [laughs]. There was an option that he could maybe defer if we wanted to keep going. After John died we did a run of shows out in Colorado around New Years [2004-2005] and I think we all kind of knew that was the last time we would all go out. We all just didn’t have as much heart in it after he passed away. While he was sick we did our best to keep it going, so when he got better, he’d have an awesome band for him to come back to. It wasn’t gonna be like he gets better and then he has to figure out a job [laughs]. But, I don’t want to blame it on that. There are other factors. But it has certainly lost its heart.
I have seen some comments on the internet. I guess if you quit a band, you should become a doctor [laughs].
Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus hopes that, if nothing else, he can bribe AGP to reunite to play his wedding in 8-10 years.