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Published: 2013/12/02
by Randy Ray

Tom Marshall On Phish: It Was 30 Years Ago Today

Phish lyricist Tom Marshall has been friends with Trey Anastasio since middle school, and has seen the birth of Phish from its amoeba state to its legendary status of today. Indeed, today marks the 30th anniversary of Phish, so sat down with the magical wordsmith to discuss the three decades, his collaborations with Anastasio, and the origins of some of the Phish mythology and so much more in this long and warm look back at where Phish has gone and where they are now—a very happy place.

Click here to read Tom’s take on the new Wingsuit material.

RR: How did you and Trey meet?

TM: We went to Princeton Day School, a private school, together, so I first met Trey in 8th grade. It’s funny because I had seen him around town because we were both public school kids, and, then, I guess, both of our parents, simultaneously, and this had a parallel occurrence later, when our parents influenced our education, and, again, made us met again, but I think my parents were worried that I was starting to hang out with the wrong crowd and sent me to private school. I am almost positive that was the same motivation why Trey got sent to private school. Boom, we were both in private school. I couldn’t imagine a more musical grade. We were a hundred people—50 girls, 50 boys. There were, I think, six bands in our grade. And Trey was in all of them, as a drummer. (laughs) I was like the only keyboardist who had a keyboard. Keyboards are expensive, so I was asked to be in a few, here and there, and rapidly it became apparent that I didn’t really want to do “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” type stuff, and learn how to sing Rolling Stones covers or Eric Clapton stuff. I started taking up with these guys that were definitely on some extra fringe, outside of the standard, and it was Marc Daubert and Dave Abrahams. We formed a band called And Back. We were 100% original music. That was our stipulation. We are going to be a band that records music. We are not really worried about performing it, and we are going to write all of our own songs.

Trey found out about us right away, and wanted to join and all kinds of stuff, but this was also occurring right about the same time that he was going from being a drummer to becoming a guitarist. We didn’t need a guitarist because Dave Abrahams was an incredible accomplished guitarist. He could play classical style, he could play steel-stringed acoustic, and in 8th grade he could play Steve Howe’s “The Clap” and he could play Steve Hackett’s “Horizons.” He could play these really amazing acoustic pieces, but then he was also accomplished enough to make amazing electric sounds. He had a Gibson SG and he had parents that totally supported his crazy guitar style and equipment. We found ourselves recording over there quite a bit. Trey was sort of involved, and we were involved with him, and we would bring songs to Trey, and Trey would bring songs to us, and it evolved from there. It became very apparent that I was able to contribute words and had just a wild amount of strange word-y type stuff coming out of my head, and Trey had just an overabundance of musical ideas coming out of his head at the same time, so we stayed together even when Trey left to go to Taft in 10th grade. Trey became too much for his parents to handle, so Trey went off to Taft. He was definitely not a follow-the-rules guy.

I continued to send him [material] here and there and we continued to stay in touch. Not so much in touch, but we definitely were still aware of each other’s presence. We weren’t writing songs by any means, but we saw each other when he came home quite a bit, and we sort of kept in tune, musically, with where the other was. But, it wasn’t until Trey got kicked out of the University of Vermont and I got kicked out of Carnegie Mellon for different reasons. For example, I didn’t cut the hand off a cadaver. (laughter) He and I wound up, at our fathers’ insistence, at Mercer County Community College. My dad had said if you go there and get your Associate’s Degree and get straight A’s, I’ll pay for you to finish off college at Rutgers, where he was a professor. Trey’s dad, I think, did something similar to him—you screwed up, you have to go to Mercer County, and do well, and redeem yourself as a student.

I was walking out of class one day, and Trey was walking in, and I said, “Trey Anastasio?” And he said, “Tom Marshall?” He turned around and he didn’t even go to class. He said, “Do you want to go and set up a recording studio in my dad’s basement and record music with me?” And I didn’t have to be asked twice. That was right when Trey was in this incredible creative period where “Divided Sky,” “Letter to Jimmy Page,” “Slave to the Traffic Light,” “Run Like an Antelope,” and a lot of what was on the White Album [ Phish ] , he was coming up with back then, and I was fortunate to be there when that stuff was being recorded. I played keyboards on “Slave to the Traffic Light.” I was the one who came up with see the city, see the zoo, traffic light won’t let me through. I was there when all of that stuff was going on, but that was really all Trey.

There were not a lot of lyrics; you can tell. But, he did all of that. I was just incredibly lucky and happy to be there when that was happening—and, pushing record here and there. He was so driven, and he had this amazing vision. He decided to go back, even though, I don’t think, he could go back to the University of Vermont, but Page, at that point, had somehow convinced those guys to come up to Goddard College. So, Trey went back and, soon, they were at Goddard, and soon, Phish was formed and the rest is history.

I continued at that point, realizing how incredible this music, to send him lyrics. I sent him “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters,” poems and stuff, and he stuck it outside his door, and the ones that people liked he turned into songs. (laughs) Unknowingly, I named a lot of the Gamehendge characters, even though I didn’t know he was composing Gamehendge at the time. In “McGrupp,” most of the characters are named like Tela, Wilson, and all of that stuff. Actually, Aaron [Wolf], Trey, and I had written “Wilson” before, but that’s another story; that was in high school.

RR: Along that line, describe the importance of the Rhombus.

TM: Oh, God, yes. At Princeton Day School, we were fortunate that Marc Daubert was older for the grade, and, so, he always was able to drive. I can’t quite reconcile how. He may be two years older than I am. In any case, Daubs would pick me up and somehow finagle a six-pack, and we would immediately go to the Princeton battlefield. That was just this place, and they would bring an acoustic guitar, or Daubs would sometimes bring bongos, and I would have bongos, or Daubs would have an acoustic, as well, and we just made endless music on the battlefield monuments. The ritual became—as it became darker and the battlefield closed, and the cops would show, and always splash a spotlight up on the monuments, and if you were there, they would drive on the field and bust you, so, we learned their pattern, and we learned that we couldn’t be there past dust—that we would walk behind the battlefield, where there is the Institute for Advanced Studies, where Oppenheimer and Einstein made the bomb. (laughs) There are these Institute woods that became scary and amazing at night, and so we would go back there, and that path would lead to this amazing opening, one of the Institute lawns where there is this incredible lake with sculptures around it, and one of the sculptures was the Rhombus.

And, so, before long, Trey would join us at the Rhombus, and before long, it became the primary spot for ritually creating music that resounded into the heavens. It involved pounding on this steel rhomboid solid structure. You’d get on top of it. Mounting the Rhombus is the beginning of the ritual because, inevitably, the dew had fallen already, so the grass was wet, and climbing up this thing, which was angled, was very steep, and you had to kind of know what you were doing, and be a little bit athletic. You’d get up on top of the Rhombus, and play guitar, bongos, and pound the thing. “Divided Sky” was written that way—the wind blows high; that chant was there—and a bunch of other material that worked its way into the Phish canon was written there.

RR: Much of the early material did not have lyrics, or had lyrics in a minimal way, which were written by Trey, or had them in a full-length way, but had not really taken on a shape of their own just quite yet. However, Trey, in the beginning, wrote some truly amazing compositional and arrangement masterpieces. At a certain point, a bit later on, perhaps in a very organic process, as you have described your relationship has been from the beginning, it became obvious that there was some lyrical assistance needed, and that is where you entered the picture.

TM: It’s funny. I remember a couple of my friends—myself, included—were very aware of Trey’s band, and that they had this album out, Junta. I was also aware that it really contained entire songs where the lyrics are David Bowie, or let’s go out to dinner and see a movie. While those songs themselves are incredible, you could argue that, perhaps, they needed some lyrical work. Meanwhile, Trey proved himself quite lyrically-adept with songs like “Fee” and “Esther,” which are both lyrical masterpieces as far as I’m concerned, and it showed that he was able to, but I also, just from knowing him, realized that I could save him the effort because I had so much shit pouring out of my head. I wasn’t thinking like, “hey, someday, maybe this will pay me money.” I was just thinking, “it’s just a way of writing songs,” like possibly helping Trey out and having fun in the process because that is always what it was based upon was making the other guy laugh.

Back when we wrote “Wilson,” Aaron Wolf and I (laughs) created this song, and just the word ‘Gamehendge’ made us laugh over and over at; we started oh out near Stonehedge, I lived alone; oh out near Gamehendge, I chafed a bone…—that line, Aaron and I, we were literally on the ground holding our stomachs, laughing at the word ‘Gamehendge’. Over and over and over again, we were just cracking up. Immediately, our thought was that, well, we have to perform this for other people. We played it for our friend and were met with a blank stare. We would ask, “Do you get it? He’s an evil tyrant. Do you get it?” And our friend wouldn’t get it. And we’d play it for other friends: “Do you get it?” Aaron had lots of girlfriends—I didn’t at the time—and we would sing it to a few of them and they would say, “What the fuck are you guys on ?”

And, finally we sang it to Trey. I don’t know why we didn’t sing it to him first, but he cracked up. We didn’t even have to say, “Do you get it?” It was so obvious that he got it. He was the one that it was basically meant for. It was obvious that he got it. That’s the humor. That was our goal—to make the other guy laugh. I had lyrics like that that I was more than happy to send to Trey. That is kind of the way we wrote early on. I was actually excited that on the next album, Lawn Boy, it had “Lawn Boy,” “Squirming Coil,” and “Bouncing Around the Room,” which were written in that vein. Those are just sheets of paper that I sent him; never heard the music or the song until they were complete.

Of course, we’ve changed our writing style now. We like writing together.

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