The High Watermark with Tom Marshall and Trey Anastasio Part I
I first heard about Tom Marshall’s new Amfibian project around a year and a half ago. Subsequently, I began a dialogue with him about a possible feature for the site and to my delight and surprise, he offered to have me come by the studio in Brooklyn, New York to meet him, the members of Amfibian and hear some of the new material. It was all overwhelming at firstnot the least of which the fact that I lived near the West Coast and this would occasionally present logistical problems as I would return to visit Marshall on several occasions over a six-month period. Whereas most features are conducted over the trusty telephone, for whatever reason, I felt Marshall had earned the respect for a face-to-face conversation even if I had to walk a couple thousand miles to hear the good word. His timeless Phish lyrics have not gone out of fashion and, if anything, his songwriting skills have improved over time and become more descriptive in their mysterious imagery.
I was fortunate in that he felt likewise as my Jambands.com feature with Phish road manager, Brad Sands had garnered kudos from the longtime Phish and Trey Anastasio lyricist. Indeed, Anastasio would offer congratulations, as well, indicating that he liked the part about John Paluska and “the helmet at Coventry.” Suffice to say, our relationship developed into a much larger professional and personal space which would lead to a Relix magazine feature in the July issue and, more importantly for the band and Marshall, a Relix Records release in June. I played no part in the latter aspect; alas, as so often does in Marshall’s magical world, the two paths intertwined in a wonderful synergetic union that just seemed to make perfect sense.
Marshall’s new version of Amfibian4.0 as he refers to themis perhaps their strongest unit to date featuring the songwriter on vocals and keyboards, Anthony Krizan on guitar and vocals, John Hummel on drums, Kevin Hummel on bass and John Korba on keyboards. Part II of this feature will include conversations with Krizan and co-producer and engineer Tommy Camuso who both played key roles in the recording of Amfibian’s new release, Skip the Goodbyes. As mentioned, I was rather lucky that I caught Marshall at a most generous time in his life. It is a massive understatement that he took me at my word when I initially arrived in Brooklyn to meet the man. I wanted to write a comprehensive piece where he felt comfortable talking about his career working with Trey Anastasio, Phish and Amfibian. He also appeared at ease discussing the intricate details about the long recording process during the making of Skip the Goodbyes. One of my finest moments as a writer was being able to listen to Marshall describe his songwriting process without negating the beautiful mystique of hearing his songs once I knew what may or may not have fed those sonic tone poems. In the end, this may be the most deeply personal interviews I’ve ever conductedAnastasio and Marshall wrote some of my all-time favorite songsbut that fact did not keep me from my investigation into how one juggles creativity when the whole world appears to be breaking apart.
Prologue A Sunday Afternoon with Trey
As things so often do in our evolving music community, the story begins with Phish frontman and solo artist, Trey Anastasio who has worked with Tom Marshall since before the Vermont band’s inception and continues to enjoy a personal and professional relationship that has shared its own ups and downs over the years.
Trey Anastasio: I could talk about Tom until the cows come home. I love talking about Tom. I could shed a lot of light on Tom that other people probably don’t know about. I’ve known Tom and been friends with him since around eighth gradegoes way back.
RR: I became part of that history a few weeks back. He took me to the Rhombus.
TA: You went to the Rhombus?
RR: Yeah, Tom and I drove out there after walking through Princeton and the Rhombus was like goosebumps for two hours while the tape rolled.
TA: Did you get on it?
RR: Yeah, ummm, I needed help.
TA: Everybody needs help unless you’re really agile. (laughs)
RR: I felt so stupid. After all of these years, I go to the Rhombus with Tom, take three running leaps and I can’t get on top of the damn thing. He sent me a photo of my final attempt, which looks like some madman running into a black wall_on purpose_. Now, Tom made it the first time but he’s like 7’6”.
TA: Yeah, he knows how to do it.
RR: Getting down afterwards was a little treacherous, as well.
TA: Did he tell you about the time we lit the fire inside? (laughs)
RR: Yeah, you lit a fire inside of it and had a heavy percussion thing going on with shouting and pounding your hands on the exterior. He mentioned how “Divided Sky,” was written at the Rhombusyou know, the good old stories that fueled the Gamehendge legend. It definitely has a geographical sweet spot about it.
TA: Well, I’m sure Tom told you but the cool thing is that it’s on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Studies. Our friend, Aaron [Woolf] who is an incredible guy and brilliant, his dad was the Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies so he lived at the campus home. Me and Tom used to have percussion jams at Aaron’s house and I think that is probably how we discovered the Rhombus. Aaron deserves a little credit.
RR: Let’s talk about your involvement on “Skip the Goodbyes,” Amfibian’s title track for their new album.
TA: Circles? I love that song. [The word “circles,” appears frequently in the chorus.]
RR: Tom said that he sent the song and you picked up on the lyrical content right away. He felt at the time that he didn’t know where he fit into your life.
TA: He sent me that song long before, right when it was written. The way I remember it is that he sent me it and said, “I’ve got a song you should do.” That’s the way I remember getting it. I get those a lot from a lot of people, not from Tom. This time he sent me a song and when I heard it, I may have gotten a little teary-eyed.
It goes to show you that when life gives you something to write about it really raises the bar a little bit. Sometimes, I hear some of these songs. One of them that I wrote, “Billy Breathes,” which was written five days after my first daughter was born still resonates with me and the other one, “Waste,” which we wrote together, I really wanted to say that because even all the way back then, I was starting to feel a disconnection with communication with people. I think that song, “Skip the Goodbyes” was so heavy because he sent it to me like a letter. I just listened to it over and over again and I got to play on it so it was really nice.
Part I Amfibian Comes Alive
A flash of light, another moment stolen from my soul; a thunderclap I must surrender all control; sudden noises startle me and strange things in my mind – “Thunderclap,” Amfibian, vocals and lyrics by T. Marshall
RR: How have the Amfibian live dates gone so far?
TM: We played a show where we opened for a ska band, Reel Big Fish. That was our first show live as a band. We didn’t feel super rehearsed for that and we had heard that there was going to be about 2,000 people there. We knew it was just a 40-minute set as an opener for a crowd that probably wouldn’t know us or know anything about Phish. These guys were like a young ska college dancing crowd. We figured if we could get them dancing by the end of our set that we’d be happy and we did. We did learn a little bit about our ability to be an amazing live band versus what we had achieved in the studio. We practiced in Anthony’s studio and rehearsals got a tiny bit depressing because we would get bogged down on a song and then we’d play another one and feel like we didn’t cover that last one, quite well enough. When we play a concert, are we going to remember that little part? The rehearsals were sort of a sterile environment and we got over-rehearsed. We were like a thoroughbred that needed to race on a real track rather than going round and round in a little corral.
I was really happy, if nothing else, for that first concert to realize that the constraints that all of us kind of had felt in rehearsal mode were gone. Little problems that I thought that I had sort of made bigger in my mind during rehearsal were gone. I was blown away by the band. The brothers, the Hummel twins as we call themeven though they are not twins; Kevin on bass is younger than John on drumsare amazing together. They are locked like twins. Just listening to them as a skeleton for the jams is incredible. I love it. I’ve never had a rhythm section like that before. I’ve had [Jon] Fishman on stage with me before which is great and incredible. I’ve had Mike [Gordon] on stage as a bass place, which is fantastic. These guys, again, are completely different from Fishman and Mike. They are night and day different. Still, in their own ways, they are fantastic. Anthony [Krizan, guitarist] in the Steely Dan song that we cover, “My Old School,” in rehearsals, I felt that “aw, shithe’s not hitting that quite right.” Live, he just nails it.
I always get hung up about my voice. By the end of the practice I’m thinking, “oh, shit, I’m not hitting this right. I’m not going to be able to lead the band well. I’m not really doing justice to the song.” But liveit really does come together really well. I find Anthony and John Korba [keyboards] and I have a real nice listening thing when we’re all singing with each other. We have a great three-part harmony abilityorganized, I’d say, very well and very competently by John. He’s a musical director of a Broadway show, Rent. He was really good about picking our parts then, magically remembering them and sticking to them which is always the tough part. Phish could do that really well. They could come out of nowhere and just stick the harmony perfectly. I’ve never been in a band that could really do that really, really well. Now, I am and I love it. For me, the vocals and the harmonies have been such an important part and with Amfibian, it was always left for last. Now, it is first. We had separate vocal rehearsals and, finally, the focus is on the lyricsgetting them out correctlyand the harmonies. I’m really happy and the whole thing just goes up 500 times when we bring it live. In the songs that I have written, Phish could always bring the harmonies to the live performances. I never had a band that could do it and now, I do.
Having a keyboard solo ability, too [with Korba sharing duties with Marshall] is great. He’s a great keyboard player so we can have solos, which we really didn’t have before. I’ve never been a big fan of all of a sudden, there’s a kooky keyboard solo but John is a very faithful kind of player. He’s different. He’s different than Page. Page was kind of like the canvas but rarelywith the exception of something like the end of “Squirming Coil”was he in the foreground but John and Anthony weave around each other, taking
foreground and background spots. I won’t say equally. It is still definitely a guitar-dominated band but maybe 60/40 which is really nice. I really like it.
RR: You had your CD Release party at the World Cafn Philadelphia in June. How did that gig go for the band?
TM: The cool thing for me about it was that we figured out something. It’s not really a stage and it’s kind of like all our friends and everyone we invited are right there in the room with us. It’s sort of a small room and a nice place to play because it has big, high ceilings and it’s acoustically really nice and it has a nice sound system. We were thinking that the album is pretty hard hitting and John Hummel likes to play loud and Anthony has a pretty big amp that he likes to crank up. I thought in my spirit of trying to change things up as the night progresses, rather than cranking one song after the other, we’d put an acoustic set right in the middle. We would play four songs with three chairs in the middle, right at the edge of the stage, three stools. I sat in the middle between John Korba and Anthony and they both had acoustic guitars. That added a big element. Now, that’s all I think about. We build around that now. We’ll be doing that for a while.
Part II The Evolution of Amfibian 4.0
I can hear gods in the deep; but you think I’m just upstairs counting sheep – “Skipping Stones,” Amfibian, vocals and lyrics by T. Marshall
RR: How does your songwriting with Trey differ from your collaboration with Anthony in Amfibian?
TM: I honestly don’t approach songwriting with Trey that much differently than I approach songwriting with Anthony. What is important is that I’m comfortable with the person I’m writing with. As far as when it happens and whether it’s hiatus post or pre or whatever, I think obviously, I’m affected by the mood of the person. Trey and I wrote some stuff that’s pretty heavy which probably four years ago would have been extremely light and “Two Versions of Me,” would have been a jig instead. (laughter) I always say that Trey is the final editor and that wouldn’t have become a song, for example. My mindset is vastly different but whether or not that affects the melodies or anything, I don’t think so. I really don’t. Our lyrics are vastly different than they would have been. I can’t really put a finger on it. Ask me the question again. (laughs)
RR: Your songwriting process matured quite a bit from the classic era of Rift through Billy Breathes, which is considered the first peak of Phish in the studio. Farmhouse would definitely be the second peak with the final two studio albums continuing that lyrical high watermark. How has that growth process matured and how is it different from how you would have been writing with Trey?
TM: Writing with Trey, I often had a whole lot of songs prepared ahead of time. Writing with Anthony, most of these songs are written on the spot because it’s the way we work. Trey will flip through thirty of my poems and piece together songs and we’ll add stuff together. I’m still not answering the question. (laughs)
RR: Amfibian had a good problem last year as the band had enough material for an album but during the mixing process, you continued to write songs which could have been included, as well. Didn’t that complicate matters during the mixing?
TM: I’m always very happy to work a little bit on the album, do a little mixing and then, love sitting with Anthony in the corner writing new songseven if it just goes into his little digital voice recorder as an idea snippet. We probably have an hour of idea snippets. I don’t want to ever stop writing. Anthony would probably have a very practical answer about stopping writing because a) we have to finish the album, b) we’ve got to get our road show going but, to me, it’s all about being in the studio and writing music.
RR: Why were horns added at a late date in the mixing to “Bystander?”
TM: We have two sax players who went out on the road with us a couple of years ago and a trombone player. They’re our horn section. We wanted a trumpet to round it out but we ended up with two saxes and it actually sounds great because they play so well with each other. We invited them on a Wednesday; we said we needed horn parts and we thought we might get one of them and just have to painstakingly piece together horns with overdubs. All three of them came, they were very excited to hear the new Amfibian album and they indicated that they wanted to come out on the road. It was like a party and when I heard that it was such a boost. They all showed up on time, which is rare, too.
They were just ready to play. We didn’t even know that we were going to put a horn on “Bystander.” The only song we knew for sure was “Nothing New.” We listened to “Nothing New,” ad nauseum, was sort of tired of the version of the song and was not that happy. Then Anthony said, “By the way, is there going to be horn parts on any other songs on the album?” And I thought, “What about “Bystander?” I had heard, in my head, a horn part, something missing. We put [“Bystander”] on and I started humming the part. One of the horn players picked up on it, immediately translated it to the others and improved upon it, of course. Now, I can’t imagine the song without the horns.
RR: It’ll be known as the Dylan Song, toocirca 1965, “Maggie’s Farm.” I didn’t hear a horn part in my head in the prior version. It’s amazing that you heard that plus captured a sort of timeless yet modern honky tonk bar feel. The Band rears its live early 1970s head when the horns are inserted into the track.
TM: The funny thing is that when we wrote it, the song was a featherweight to me. It was totally Dylan, just a rip off. I came up with the melody and it was almost like “alright, we just wrote a Dylan song” not thinking anything would happen with it. We wrote it on acoustic and it was totally “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm, no more.” Anthony was the one who kept having faith in the song. I kept saying, “No. We’re not going to put a Dylan song on our album.” He said, “What if we change it up and add a little electric?” So we added electric and it was still Dylan. Finally, it got to the point that everyone loved it except me. I relented and said, “O.K. this one is going on the album.” Thennowwith horns, I’m all over it. It’s my favorite.
RR: I was listening to the opening track “Sheep” quite a bit last night. To me, “Sheep” epitomizes how well you write with Anthony. You can hear the dialogue between the two of you in the sound of the track. Am I hearing this correctly?
TM: No question. Right away, it’s one of those things where Anthony wrote these cool opening chords and the second I heard it, I was thumbing through some of my lyrics and it was perfect so I threw in my talking’ singing type of thing that I like to do. Rapidly, we realized that we needed a nice little Beatles break in the mid-section. Sure enough, we structured the song really fast. What gets me about this song is how perfect the other stuffthe other things that we addedfits together with a harmony sound that has a 70s flavor, a Beatles flavor, almost like a Mott the Hoople harmony.
RR: You sent Trey “Skip the Goodbyes,” because you wanted him to hear it and he ended up playing on it. Did this experience serve to initiate his desire to get back to songwriting with you, early in 2006?
TM: This may have broken the ice, you’re rightthe Cook Cabin Sessions. We went up to Gore Mountaina fantastic getaway, we’ll go back, for sureand wrote some great songs. I hope I’m not saying too much by saying Cook Cabin in Gore Mountain. I don’t think it will matter. The funny thing is that when we went last time, Trey instantly blew our cover. We went to the most country bar when we first arrived. We were meeting some friends and right away, he walked in and he was mobbedBOOM. I kind of bodyguarded a little bit. We made a corner where they had to go through me to get to him. Everyone was very nice; there was no real reason to do that. There was a mob at first but then, everyone calmed downWookish, not really college types but more like Gore Mountain locals and very nice people. The bartender rang the bell, turned off the music and made a big toastthis was during the 2006 Winter Olympicsand he made a
speech. He said, “To American athletes and toAmerican Ingenuity and toAmerican” and I said, “IDOL!” Everyone cracked up in the middle of this guy’s wonderful toast. He angrily finished, “and to American musicians,” because of Trey. He toasted but I was happy to get in “Idol” because Trey and I had both been watching it.
Watching people around Trey is really different. People have had life-changing experiences that they want to relate to Trey, they have to relate to him. He’s so used to them; he’s so good with them and can get at that level so fast and really he can be in and out of a conversation like that fairly quickly. I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve watched him go from aggressively nerdy but always a good athlete. You can’t really be a nerd and be a good athlete. He never really traveled in the nerd crowd but he was a funny, funky guy in school and then, I watched him become PHISH but it happened so gradually that I saw every level, every progression onto what it is now that I was always used to it.
RR: “See You in Sydney” is balls-to-wall rock that shakes the speakers. One of my fondest memories of the Amfibian/_Skip the Goodbyes_ sessions is roaring with satisfied laughter at the sound of Anthony Krizan slamming Jimmy Page against the wall with his guitar playing. I looked across the room at the very musician in question and saw him beaming during my moment of headbanging admiration.
TM: After “See You in Sydney,” I started turning my back on the album, thinking we needed something else; we needed a different sound, a changeup. It seemed like we had a guitar/Anthony albuma hard, in-your-face album. I forgot about the song for a while but then, I came to my senses. We changed the end to “Pieces” so it didn’t just have a trippy George Harrison“My Guitar Gently Weeps” jam. We added a structured ending and that made a world of difference to me. We wrote a couple of ballads and interspersed with the others, I saw the magic and “See You in Sydney” worked. That is such a slamming, hard song that I can’t believe I ever doubted it. I think to really love something, you might have to have a moment of doubt.
RR: “Lonely and Low” was written at the Cook Cabin Sessions in January 2006.
TM: I wrote those words for Trey, which I brought along to songwriting sessions at Gore Mountain. He skipped over them all, every single time. I had about twenty different works with me and I don’t think we used any of them. We wrote all songs off the cuff, every single one that I can remember except “Obstacle, Of Course,” which I had prepared and written the lyrics for ahead of time. Amfibian is going to do that song because Trey will never do it. Once it’s forgotten, it’s forgotten. I’ll gladly take Trey’s and my leftovers. Now and then, something will rub Trey wrong and it’ll hit a back burner and before long, it’s fallen off the back burner, behind the stove and it’s gone. He’s never had a problem with too little material. Well, maybeexcept for the Duo. (laughs)
Part III “In my CD player for the rest of my life”
Listen as she speaks to you, hear the voices flutter through the barriers arranged by you; close the shutters, draw the shades, filter out the everglades glistening with evening dew – “Water in the Sky,” music and lyrics by Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall
RR: Trampled by Lambs and Pecked by the Doves is the only album that we have where it is just Trey and Tom on this one, consistent journey. A Story of the Ghost began this process, followed by Farmhouse but Trampled was really just the two of you squaring off. If I have to harken back to the original studio work, I also think that “Ghost,” in particular, is a rich experience in its infancy.
TM: Live, “Ghost” is always amazing to me. It’s great to be in the audience when “Ghost” is played. (laughs) I love it, always.
RR: What does it feel like to hear your music back to youin a live setting, sort of morphed into 24th century music? When I listen to Amfibian, it is 100% Tom Marshall with a really good band. With Phish, the music is usurped and moved onto a different area.
TM: Being in the audience has changed. I was more anonymous at first, like at Madison Square Garden and “Bouncing Around the Room” [sings “and I awoke”]hearing everyone in the audience singing that part and it echoed off the ceiling of the Garden. It was amazing because I was still basically completely anonymous, except for less than one percent of the audience. I was truly an audience member hearing my own stuff at that time and that was amazing. Prior to that it had been at smaller venues but that’s where it hit: “WOWI’m the lyricist for a big band at the Garden and I’m hearing my song.” There’s something magic about the Garden.
Since then, it changed. I’ll be at a festival, up on a platform and I sort of feel the eyes a little bit. I crave the anonymity just to be an audience member, again and check out the music and see where it goes. Sometimes, I like watching from the side of the stage. The first time I heard “Pebbles and Marbles”I think it was at Hampton [Coliseum, 1/03]I
was up on the side balcony and very few people knew I had written [the lyrics]. To me, it was a fledging experience listening to that song and it was another great moment. There was a girl that that looked up at me and realized that I write the song and was hearing it for the first time and I really wasn’t so conscious like I would normally be because I could tell she liked the song. She was looking at me to get a reaction and she was enjoying watching me, listening to it for the first time. That was fantastic hearing that one live the first time. It’s unusual. Sometimes I feel like Trey found me and decided to play a particular song because he found me. Undeniably, there are times when he actually says something or looks at me the whole song just for fun. (laughs) That always adds an element.
RR: There is the famous quote where Trey told you that he always sort of knew how to play guitar as if he didn’t need to take lessons. Last year, in Washington D.C., he told me that was a lie because he practiced all of the time. You come out with this unique imagery, which really cannot be traced to any other writer’s influence. Somehow, it magically weds with Trey’s guitar and that’s why I like the Trampled album so much because it is the most consistent portrait of that bond. All down the line, you have these classic melodies throughout the album. When you were doing that material, at that specific moment in time, while the two of you were deep in the proverbial artistic zone, how did it feel that there was too much material and most of it would not be pursued?
TM: Well, there was UTALK [a group with Marshall, Anatsasio, Peter Cottone on drums and Matt Kohut on bass that rehearsed but never quite gelled into a touring entity] and eventually, obviously, all of these songs did get assimilated. There were some songs on Trampled that never became Phish songs.
RR: Yes but did you feel rejected at the time that the two of you had this amazing experience and yet the songs might not reach their full potential?
TM: No, no, not all. To me, always, a poem can have three births. When I write, that’s the first birthout of nowhere, from the ether, all of a sudden, there’s words on paper. Just to me, in the first incarnation they have incredible meaning some times. Some times, just silliness or it sounds cool but there it is, it came out of nowhere and it is on paper.
The next [birth], is the amazing one, while collaborating with someone it is even better, an incredible thing for that to become a song. It gives life to the song but it also gives life to the writers. It is incredible what writing a song does. That’s my favorite partthe writing, recording and creating. Whether it becomes a Phish song or not is like the bonus, an extra, the third birth. No, I never felt rejected. I always felt that a) they were good songs and b) I always felt like something would happen to them. Trey’s attitude towards them was always super-positive. That was also around the time when he was talking about coming out with his own little band, sort of like the Jerry Garcia Band. I mean we talked about the Tom/Trey band for years (laughs). I knew something would happen. I wasn’t worried and didn’t care if all that happened was that we had written them, played them and they’re in my CD player for the rest of my life.
RR: Trey has a tendency to work on material and then move on to his next set of new songs. Did you ever think that you just recorded fifteen songs and didn’t let them evolve as much as they could have?
TM: Oh, yeah, definitely. Do I feel like some were left behind?
RR: Yes, that’s what I’m getting atwere you being forced ahead into the future?
TM: There have been some along the way. Trey tends to pick the really good ones and turn them into Phish songs. The ones that are leftI couldn’t tell you right now a song on Trampled that didn’t make it, that I really wanted to have made it as a big Phish song. The “Somaton,” which they played once, I think, was never really meant to be a Phish song. “Flat Tornados” was just a stupid jam.
RR: “Blue and Shiny?”
TM: Oh, yeahto me that was just a me and Trey song. I didn’t need that to be a Phish song. It’s a totally special song for him and methe writing of it and the Beach Boys thing at the end.
RR: “No Regrets?”
TM: I often feel like that. I sang my ass off recording it. I just went for it. Incredible. (laughs)
RR: Did you ever feel like you were never allowed to reflect on the material?
TM: No. You mean once it’s written by him and me then as it takes on its new life as a Phish song, whether I should have a say like, “no, no, no, no jam here, wait until after the next verse to jam?” No, I always like to hear what he does with it or what the band does with itthe band’s ideas. If you listen carefully, they tend to pretty much follow the same idea of our initial song and original idea. The structure remains pretty true. People are surprised by that when they hearyou know, they get used to a song and hear the harmonies_Trampled by Lambs and Pecked by the Doves_ and say, “Wait a minute. That’s all here, already.”
RR: I think I’m getting around to the fact that Phish finally made a great album with Billy Breathes and then, it was forgotten by the touring machine. Story of the Ghost followed and, again, it contained strong material that was shunned due to its live offspring and an audience that clamored for new directions. Those were two key tactial errorsalbum abandonment and audience enpowermentthat hindered long term growth. Couldn’t Phish sit tight for once and say, “We just made a great album,” and let history breathe? Does that make sense?
TM: Yes. (laughs) Trey’s frustration with almost every studio album in different ways, like the need to sabotage the album in a way, I’m not sure if this is his analysis a lot later looking back or if it was immediate but, like, that picture of Mike on Billy Breathes, he thought just ruined it, ruined the whole album.
RR: It did.
TM: It did. You pick it up and say, “What the fuck is that?” It doesn’t belong there. He felt the same way with the voting process for songs on Story of the Ghost, how he kind of had a clear vision of what should go on and a great songI’m really hard-pressed to remember it, nowwas scrapped in favor of “Fikus.” He figures that, what the hell, that was a huge mistake and he was just sort of overruled or outvoted.
I felt that sort of frustration. He had various things that he felt were wrong with Farmhouse, too. I feel like he always felt like there was an album in him, an album in Phish that never, never was fully realized. Possibly, Billy Breathes was the one that got the closest with [Steve] Lilywhite and the band getting together perfectly, getting along perfectly. Everything was perfect.
In many ways you’re right, there was a musical peak right around the time; they were getting huge, they were at Bearsville [Studio] with this amazing producer and everyone was smiling the whole time. You’re right. If I’m looking back, it should have been the big album and they shouldn’t have put that picture on the front. Maybe, without that picture, is it the perfect album? No, I still don’t think so. I think Trey knows and knew that there’s always something better in him and I always think he’s still striving for that.
Part IV The Story of the Ghost
But maybe he’s still with me, the latch was left unhooked – “Ghost,” music and lyrics by Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall
RR: Let’s talk about the story of the ghost that made up the back-story for the song.
TM: Did I tell you that I’m an anti-religious person? The ghost was kind of this friend that sort of freaked me out. I found that through all of these stories through the power of prayer and all of that stuff that you can make yourself believe. I saw Live and Let Die with my mom and a friend and I was scared. How does voodoo work? My mom said, “Voodoo doesn’t work. There’s no such thing as magic unless you believe in it.” (laughs) That kind of scared the shit out of me. I thought, “Oh, wait a minuteso, it is real if you believe in it.” That means that if you believe in it because you acknowledge that it’s real, then you’re fucked because someone somewhere can stick needles in a doll that looks like you and you’ll feel the pain.
I think, basically, the story of the ghost for me came about when I was very young because I wasn’t raised in a religious household, at all. The questions about what’s out there weren’t really dinner conversations for us where they might be for other people. I was always kind of raised with science and proof rather than mysticism. I was a little bit distanced from certainly organized religion. Praying didn’t enter into the picture. There was this time when as a young kid I had this idea whereI think my dad read to me a lot. He read Last of the Mohicans to me, Tom Sawyer and _Huckleberry Finn_many things centered around a spirit. I was very intrigued by the American Indian version of the Great Spirit. I had the word spirit in my head. When I was younger, I would try to pray to this spirit just on my own, to make my own religion. I didn’t really do it regularly but it became this thing that I wanted to have around me. I wanted it when I was a kid, pretty young. As I grew older and grew up and started writing lyrics, it didn’t really enter my life anymore. I was always pragmatic.
Fast forward to 8th grade, Princeton Day School when I met Trey. I also met this other friend of mine who became my best friend, by far. [Author’s Note: Marshall chose to keep his old friend anonymous.] Never had a friend as close as this guy. He and I were completely inseparable. We had a whole lot of first experiences togethergirls, dating, parties and discovering this weird private school environment together as we were both products of public schools in different parts of New Jersey. We stuck together through everything and we were together through every second of every weekend. We developed a language at one pointthis sort of strange language but that’s a whole other story.
We even smoked pot together for the first time. The first few times nothing really happened. One time when it really did happen, there were a few other people around, everything was great and it was really fun. The thing for me that was great about it was that we really got into music, looking at the LEDs on the stereo as the music was on and really getting into T.V. and cool movies and the stars walking around at night and hearing cool things. My best friend was always about closing his eyes, talking in a completely dark room and exploring inward. It was magic and a whole other world. Being with him, he was sort of a guide without wanting to be one. He just was one.
I gave him that credit once the next day at school. He smiled and it was a little bizarre. The next time when we smokedwe really didn’t do it that often; I make it sound as if it happened all the time but I think the total together was around fifteen times from 8th grade to senior year with him. Of course, with other pals, it was a little more. (laughs)and this time, we were together and, again, there were other people around at someone’s house and there were musical instruments and music going on. He came up to me and said, “Tomyou know I’m your spirit.” I said, “What? What do you mean?” He said, “I’m your spirit.” It really kind of freaked me out because that is the exact word that I had used, the name that I had used for the thing that I had talked to when I was a kid. I said, “What do you meanmy spirit?” He smiled almost like it was a joke and pretended that he didn’t say it. He said, “What do you mean?” And then walked away. One time I insisted. He said, “You know what I am. I’m the spirit that you asked for. I’m here. Here I am.” I said, “Oh, really? So, what can you do for me?” He said, “It doesn’t work that way.” He would know enoughjust that was enough. There were other instances, crazy stuff that I still can’t really even be sure (laughs), you know, if there’s any way unlessthere’s no real explanation, I’ll put it that way, for it.
After graduating from Princeton Day School, he and I completely lost touch. I was getting a career, making money, getting an apartment and a car and he couldn’t be further from that. He drove this really old Ford Fairlane or something. It was that car that everyone drew designs on. He had that car (laughs) whereas I had a VW Rabbit that I washed everyday. He went off and did the Peace Corps-kind of thing and went to Morocco. In fifteen years we communicated by post card maybe five times. His parents were not super duper helpful. They got divorced and then, they moved. I wasn’t really able to track him down very well. Time passed, I got married and had two kids.
Suddenly, I was out with my daughter who was about three at the time in this park by my house. My wife was pregnant with our second child. I was out in the park in the snow and all of sudden this guy walks up with a sled pulling his kid and it was [my old best friend]. It was the first time I had seen him in fifteen years. It was amazing. He had called my wife and was able to track me down pretty easily. My wife said, “Well, he’s outside right now, pulling our daughter in a sled. Why don’t you come by?” He did and he had the same kind of sled in his trunk. We walked around for hours with his little girl and my little girl. We were next to each other and it was awesome. We talked and talked and talked and I don’t think it was right then but a subsequent time we since sort of drifted again. He’s in Maine, I think, as an environmentalist. He married a very environmentally-active woman and I think they have three kids.
We still have lots of parallels in our lives that we discovered. After finally catching up, I had to ask him. I said, “What do you remember about the spirit’? Can you tell me, finally? It has been this thing that has not really plagued me which implies something unpleasant but it has sort of been haunting me my whole life since it happened. Were you really my spirit? What happened and where have you been since then? Are you still my spirit?” He kind of looked at me with one of those looks like “I’ve got to resolve this now and forever.” I think that question echoed the same sentiment that I had put in these letters over the last fifteen years. Finally, he said, “Tom, I don’t really remember a whole lot of that. All I really know is that we had a really intense friendship and they were the best times of my life. We were really close and that’s what I remember about that.”
I never got a satisfactory answer. Even at the time, he implied that I wasn’t allowed to knowit was knowledge that I wasn’t allowed to have when I asked too deeply. There’s this concept of the spirit. Aside from you, right now, Randy, and my sister, Stina, Trey is the only other person that I’ve told the whole story to and the way that I told Trey first was by writing him the story of the ghost. I wrote that out in lyrics, knowing that we were
going songwriting in Vermont. I wanted him to question me about the lyrics so I said, I think I’ve never told you the story of the ghost that I once knew and talked to, of whom I’d never boast.
RR: What was Trey’s reaction?
TM: He loved it from the word go, loved it. It’s really funny because I later read that he had told someone about it, violating some sort of sanctity that I wouldn’t have wanted him to and he used the wrong guy’s name. (laughs) It was so funny. I didn’t really mind but at the same time, he was touched by it but Trey never pasted the actual ghost onto the right person, which I think is good because he’s kind of protected him. (laughs)
RR: Ten years later, have your feelings changed towards ghosts and spirits?
TM: I would be more reluctant to casually dismiss something like that now. That song is right, in a waythe end of “Ghost,” maybe he’s still with me, I simply haven’t looked, maybe I’ll look when I really need him. Actually, frankly, I don’t really want to talk too much about my current state. I’m not saying that I haven’t gone back to the well, lately. I think perhaps that, hypothetically, perhaps that could be what could get people’s wheels spinning the right way again. It is an important part of my life. It has always been a tiny bit of a disappointment to me in that it wasn’t that important to him and yet, I still think in many ways that he was not the spirit. I think that he was the medium. He wasn’t the message; he was the conveyor, in a sense, or something along those lines. I don’t know. It needed someone that close to me to receive it correctly. If you’re reading, right now“Dude, message received.” (laughs)
RR: Perhaps, as a writer, you wouldn’t have benefited if he had acknowledged the importance of it like you didthat moment in time when he was the spirit.
TM: I think you’re right. And I think it would have given more importance to our relationship. He always had a big need to get out of town, of New Jersey, away from everything. We talked about going away together. If our relationship was the big thing rather than this incident, you’re right, it would have changed the whole dynamic. I agree.
Epilogue A Sunday Afternoon with Trey
As things so often do in our evolving music community, the story momentarily ends with Phish frontman and solo artist, Trey Anastasio who has worked with Tom Marshall since before the Vermont band’s inception and continues to enjoy a personal and professional relationship that has shared its own ups and downs over the years.
Trey Anastasio: There’s a funny, magical thing that happens with Tom. He’s so brilliant and hilarious at the same time and, also, gloriously cynicalsort of butting up against my overly optimistic thing. It’s always just been magic writing with him. I really do write with a lot of people, here and there, but nothing ever like what happens with Tom. It’s funny because “Let Me Lie,” which is on Bar 17 and when we were on tour with Marco [Benevento] and Joe [Russo], Marco’s fianccame in and she had heard most of the record and she heard that one and she was talking to me about my life from the way she saw it and she said, “God, that is such a personal song.” She knew exactly what I was talking about. I said, “I know. I wrote that with Tom. I can live through his lyrics in a strange way.” (laughs) He’s incrediblean amazing guy.
RR: Let’s talk about the songs on Bar 17 and 18 Steps that were written with Tom.
TA: “Home” is another one like that. I really like that; it’s the first track on 18 Steps. “Discern” was a funny one because we wrote it and it was originally with the original TAB band and when we recorded it with the original TAB band and we got a really great version of it. Then, we did two or three times with Phish but it didn’t sound that well; it didn’t sound great so the one on the album is the original TAB version. “Discern” is a poem that Tom wrote and, again, it’s one of those straight-up poems that are really beautiful, really great. We wrote “Home” the same day we wrote “Let Me Lie.”
“Home” was another one that ended up feeling very, very personal to me but, so much, you know, where I was kind of selling my agenda. Occasionally, sometimes, I’ll start writing and I’ll have not an agenda but I’ll be sitting there with my guitar, reading lyrics, trying to get at something about how I’m feeling. That one, again, the imagery is so incredible that I was able to get at it much more through his imagery than I would have through my own. It has this thing [Trey sings this part]: if you’ve had too much and your eyes can’t see, press the pedal further down, get yourself to me. That’s one. [Trey sings another lyric] If the shadow grows and covers up your smile, we can keep the night at bay with matches for a while and another lyric with “the darkness creeping under the doorway” or “watching you over the shoulder.” I was trying to write this song describing this sense of isolation and loneliness that I was feeling at that point in time about everything and there it was in this imagery: _we can keep the night at bay with matches for a while_which is so beautiful because it is so hopeless and tiny. I love that. (laughter) Alsofrom the same song: the crack between the door and floor, you’ll see I have what you need when the night leaks slowly through. That is so nice.
The process of writing that song felt the same as the process of writing “Strange Design.” I wrote “Strange Design” up in Vermont, alonelike two or three different poems of Tom’s. I took imagery out of them and tried to sort of write about this feeling that I was having. “Words to Wanda” was like another style of Tom/Trey writing. It is me and Tom drinking too much beer and jumping around the room screaming until the lyrics come out. (laughter)
RR: That’s a shock. I haven’t seen Tom drinking beer. I wonder what that’s like?
TA: Tom could polish off a whole case of beer. (laughs)
RR: I’m kidding. We’ve experienced both extremes where we’ve had some fairly deep conversations and then, he can be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
TA: He’s hilarious. “Words to Wanda” is a Tom/Trey screamer. “No Regrets,” “Ghost,”
songs like that.
RR: Funny you should mention “Ghost.” Tom told me the real story of the ghost.
TA: His friend, right?
RR: Yes, exactly.
TA: He went to PDS with us. You seeI didn’t read it that way. That explains the process. He wrote this song about his friend. It had nothing to do withwhen I was flipping through lyrics, I thought it was about something completely different. I wrote the music or whatever and, to me, that’s where some of that magical stuff came fromthat two different people can see it in two completely different ways probably means that a thousand can see it in a thousand different ways. I thought it was about something completely different. I didn’t know it was about a friend until he told me.
RR: I think you have defined the Tom/Trey process. What did you think the song “Ghost” was about?
TA: I thought it was something utterly different and more mundane. (laughter) A lot of times they are about people I know or relationships that I have. If I can’t get it to that level, I’ll take lines out. He used to write about real personal things. “Rift,” specifically, was where he was airing out his personal life. I had to try. I wasn’t as good at it back then
and that’s why some of those are more wordy because the editing process hadn’t developed, yet. They’re cool and everything; the music is notey (laughs)it’s all pretty thick; sometimes, also with “Sparkle” and songs like that.
RR: Yes, as the story goes, you wrote the happiest music possible next to some of Tom’s more depressing lyrics in “Sparkle.”
TA: (laughs) Yeah, a little bit. That was like the battle that continued to go on and, in ways, still does. As far as “Rift,” I usually did demos of virtually all of the songs and those guys on “Rift” deserve awards for agreeing to do some of it. (laughs) That tossing the vocal thing around? The first time that I remember trying to do that was with “Bouncing Around the Room” and it really worked and then, we just ran with that all the way.
A lot of times when I would be doing songwriting sessions with Tom, I knew there would be four people so I would put four vocal lines on the demo. “Twist” is like that. That was a good one; that one really worked. Fish often said that after we did Remain in Light, we started doing that even more [Talking Heads album Phish covered on Halloween, 1996]. That album had the same quality. That was my favorite record for about five years. I must have listened to it about 5,000 times. That was the record that I would practice the guitar tothe only record. No matter what I was learning on guitar, I would put that record on and practice guitar to it. In high school, they were one of my favorite bands. I had everything they ever put out. I loved the early stuff, especially More Songs About Buildings and Food. You talk about lyricswhewwhen that record came out, it just knocked me on my ass. It still does; I listened to it again, recently.
Next month, more with Tom and Trey, including a trip to the Rhombus and additional interviews with Anthony Krizan, Skip the Goodbyes co-producer/engineer Tommy Camuso.
_-There are many people to thank in a feature this complex and encompassing several interviews in numerous settings over a vast period of time. All judgment or stylistic errors are my own, but these fine folks helped achieve the victories. I felt it would be grossly remiss if I didn’t thank the following people for helping me make this two-part feature the best that it could possibly beTom Marshall and his family, Trey Anastasio and his family, Dean Budnick, Brad Sands, Josh Baron, Mike Greenhaus, Benjy Eisen, Richard Glasgow, Anthony Krizan, Tommy Camuso, J.K. Rowling and, of course, my lovely wife, Maija Ray, who was very much pregnant and beyond with twin boys and did all she could to make sure I had what I needed to complete my work. For further reading of my other Jambands.com features, please see www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com