Tom Marshall On Phish: It Was 30 Years Ago Today
RR: That collaborative writing process developed over time to the point where you would take trips, away from everyone else, and work on songs together. Was that a natural, organic process, as well, where you settled into a collaborative pattern? I suppose I am now charting the years from 1992 to 2002.
TM: Right. I think as we started realizing, if you will, the import of these songs, or the popularity of these songs, we began experimenting and taking a little bit more time writing, and experimenting with different ways of writing. It turned out that writing together was the most productive and profitable. I think in ’93 or ’94 when, I believe, or, maybe it was even a little bit later, but, in any case, where we finally struck upon the formula where we would go away for a weekend. It became shockingly apparent that if you put the two of us in a room for two days with the right amount of recording equipment and instruments and frozen pizza and beer that we would create a lot of songs. That’s how the basis, from that point, the next several albums were created—for example, Ghost and Farmhouse, whereas Picture of Nectar and Rift were written in the old way—we wrote them apart; we wrote them over the phone, or Trey wrote them from a piece of paper that I would hand him, or send him, or fax him, back at the time.
The new model—from Billy Breathes, Ghost and Farmhouse, and moving forward—included songwriting trips. For example, Billy Breathes was a songwriting trip we took to the Cayman Islands. That was the era of the songwriting trip where we would go away and write together, and that is how that was born, and we realized we vastly preferred that approach, as it was much more fun collaborating in the same room.
RR: Left turn back to the ‘written in the old way’. Your thoughts on the 1993 Rift album, which featured a dozen Anastasio/Marshall compositions, and turned out to be somewhat of a concept album?
TM: Rift was one where I think Trey realized that the way the songs are coming together there was sort of a mood that linked them all. Trey came upon this separately from me. I also give credit to the producer, Barry Beckett. I wasn’t really part of the recording, or any of that, but I do remember spending hours on the phone with Trey for the first time, prior to that, for example, with “Chalk Dust Torture” from Picture, he would just accept whatever I gave him, never edit it or nothing, he would just turn it into a song. Boom, that’s “Chalk Dust Torture.” “Next?” He never once said, “What the fuck does that mean?” Because it didn’t matter.
But with Rift, oh my God, it started mattering. And I started changing my writing a little bit, realizing that “Lifeboy” [from 1994’s Hoist ] is really saying something from my heart, and so is “Rift” and the whole thing put together to Trey’s credit was this relationship unraveling kind of thing, and when the whole thing was put together in one piece, to me, it told me that (laughs) something is happening in my life that maybe I should pay attention to.
RR: Which leads me to the thought that now you have Trey dissecting your lyrical material, and you hear the song, and think, “What the hell happened to that?”
TM: (laughter) Oh God. I would love it. Whether it was like just handing him a book that Scott [Herman] and I pieced together from our e-mail conversations, which we assembled, probably around 300 poem snippets that we put together in something called The Salamander Prince. Phish has used that to create music—“Roggae” and “Meatstick” were written from that, for example. It is just this tome, and I think I might have the only remaining copy of it. Trey has lost his, or his was so dog-eared that I even gave him another one. I still have a pristine one. In any case, if he would call me and record on my answering machine (or, as the kids know it know—voice mail) a song, I would never say, “What the fuck did he do?” I would always be beaming that it happened at all.
RR: Jumping ahead, and past that new way of songwriting collaboration for you and Trey, Phish took a hiatus in October 2000, and returned in late 2002, owing two studio albums to Electra. Your collaborations with Trey were featured on Round Room and Undermind. Your relationship with Trey had changed, too.
TM: I think the short answer is that a lot of people knew what was happening with the band, and certainly Trey was going in a dark direction, and he had sort of lost direction. Trey and I, every now and then, would be able to grasp some of the magic again, had a little ember in our hands of the magic, and would blow on it and try to make a fire. We’d have songwriting sessions together, but you can hear on Undermind, they were sad.
Undermind foretells, again…like “Walls of the Cave” came out after 9/11, but that is one of the weirdest stories for me in my history, where Trey knew and everybody knew it was about the World Trade Centers, but I didn’t know when I wrote it. In any case, when you listen to Undermind, you hear that Phish is ending: there are no more fish in the sea, and all of that stuff in “Two Versions of Me.” That song, basically, describes the end of Phish. I remember my friend, David Steinberg, you know The Timer, said, “There’s a lot of rumors that the band is breaking up.” I remembered him getting worried. And I said stuff like “Oh, yeah, there’s a rumor.” I didn’t really know what to say. And David said, “Well, the only thing that is really worrying me now is that you aren’t dispelling them.” (laughs) I guess, maybe, he was calling me to dispel certain rumors. I didn’t give him the comfort he wanted, and, sure enough, we all know what happened.
But, yeah, that was sort of a sad collection of songs that I really love, and I really love Undermind. I love some of those songs, and I also like Round Room. The two of those albums get unfairly maligned. I really like them both. The recording quality of Round Room is pretty bizarre. It’s sort of a weird style, but I like it. I think there are some sound audiophiles amongst us that can hear things that I don’t necessarily hear, and don’t like it for that reason, which, to me, is bizarre because when you go and listen to a live audience recording, which is basically half audience sound, and you like that better? Those albums wound up neglected or disliked just because they accompanied the downfall of everyone’s favorite band. We didn’t know it at the time. We thought that was it. People didn’t want to listen to them. They didn’t want to be reminded. It was an old era; Phish is gone; I’m not going to listen to Round Room and Undermind. I am going to listen to Billy Breathes and Junta. Right?
RR: Right. The irony is that when Phish returned with Joy in 2009, there was criticism, and some fans went back and revisited the final two albums with Electra, and seemed to remember them quite fondly. The time between 2005 and 2007 was a transition period for you on two levels—workwise, and you were also thinking of your own future development as a songwriter, and would that include collaborations with Trey. You also released, by a long shot, one of my favorite albums of the last ten years, Amfibian’s Skip the Goodbyes.
TM: I was also trying to reassemble my own professional career, which I had sort of let slip through my fingers, realizing that I didn’t really like programming computers anymore. (laughs) The fun had left after 18 years. And, at the same time, being let go at Prudential was liberating. I didn’t want it accompanying Phish breaking up, so I was cut adrift. Amfibian was a great landing net, a safety net for me, in a way, because I was still writing strong, and Trey and I were still actually writing songs. But, Trey…he had his own…he had stuff to do. (laughs)
Amfibian…I thank you for saying it. That it is still one of your favorite albums, Skip the Goodbyes. The [title track] was written for Trey, and he knew it the second that he heard it. He asked if he could play the guitar solo on it. That is fantastic that he realized that.