Tom Marshall On Phish: It Was 30 Years Ago Today
RR: I love that story because didn’t you send it to him, and he immediately responded, which was a surprise to you?
TM: Yeah. Yeah. And we hadn’t been necessarily communicating too well. He not only identified that there is a guitar solo missing, but maybe I was hinting to him to add something to it. It wasn’t explicitly offered, but he also tuned in on the lyrics: “this is me leaving Tom behind a little bit, and, maybe, Tom feeling bad about it.” (laughs) But, it wasn’t…well, it was. It was what it was. It wasn’t that dramatic, but, in any case, that was a weird time for me, not knowing if Phish was coming back, am I just going to write with Trey, or is he now writing solo, so my musical companions that I had [in Amfibian], am I really starting a band? What am I doing here? The result was Skip the Goodbyes. It turned out to be a pretty damn good album that I am really proud of.
RR: Absolutely. As you should be. Trey comes out the other side, better than ever in some respects, in a somewhat centered state and Phish reunites in 2009. They record Joy, their first album in 2004. What was it like to collaborate with Trey at that time?
TM: Yeah, how I reached out to Trey across the gulf.
RR: “Backwards Down the Number Line.”
TM: There was a period of mandatory non-communication enforced by Trey’s program that he was in to get healthy. I guess it was deemed finally O.K. for me to talk with him by his father. At the same time, I was informed that Trey, of all people, who had never had an e-mail address had an e-mail address. I also realized it was his birthday (9/30/07). I just wrote this quick little birthday thing and shipped it over to him, and, literally (this is not an exaggeration; I’ll say 15 minutes just to be safe, so the gods don’t strike me down), in 15 minutes, Trey called back laughing/crying and played me a version of “Backwards Down the Number Line,” which was, basically, completely done. He had already written every piece. It was just phenomenal. And that is how we restarted again. I’m not saying that is how Phish restarted. That is how Trey and I restarted. Some people say that is the beginning of Phish again, and I will not go there. (laughs)
RR: Did you go on a songwriting trip for the songs that made it onto Joy ?
TM: We wrote a bit up at his place in Saratoga Springs, and he was also living in New York, and he rented us a hotel room and a beautiful suite in a nice hotel on Columbus Circle. We wrote there a couple times. Those songs were written mostly together. I was pleased that Steve Lilywhite was involved again. He seemed like an apt producer for Phish’s first album in a while [Lilywhite also produced 1996’s Billy Breathes ].
RR: Indeed. Quite a legacy. Speaking of…do you ever look back at the 30 years of Phish, and see what you’ve done with the band and Trey, and how they have all evolved as a band over the years, not to mention your own songwriting?
TM: I do. Phish is such a big part of me and I’m a big part of Phish. Phish, for many people, there are a whole group of people that Phish is nothing but a live experience. I feel like I’m as much an audience member. I’m like one of those guys. Phish has been my favorite band forever, so I get the best of both worlds. I’m not on stage. I don’t have to go on tour. Of course, “have to” is one of those First World problems. You have to stay in a five-star hotel. You have to fly on a Citation jet. You have to be pampered and treated like a king for three months. But, actually, being on the road is grueling as you know. That’s what I meant by I don’t have to go to shows. I get to go to the ones I want to.
So, yeah, I look back and see an incredible wealth of amazing history. I also see places where Phish could have crashed and burned—many places where they were incredibly lucky to have gotten up. I do remember in 2004, after the first hiatus, being asked, “Do you think there is going to be a happy ending for these guys?” I remember not wanting to answer that question. I thought, “Oh my God, that’s a great question.” (laughs) And, the band even joking amongst themselves would say, “We’ve done everything now except a plane crash.” (laughter) Talk like that in 2004, and just preceding it, was scary.
I am just so excited and incredibly elated by this amazing rejuvenation that they’ve had, especially now with the exuberance going behind the songwriting in the Halloween set and Wingsuit, and the incredible Fall tour. The West Coast shows, too [in the summer]. Put it this way, I have not stopped listening to Tahoe and the Bill Graham shows. I just love those shows. I would compare them too…it’s funny because someone online said, “Why does everyone, to this day, still get worked up over the Went Gin?”
RR: What? Are you kidding me?
TM: Yeah, the Went Gin. People were trying to answer him, but in another line, someone wrote, “I’m with you. I’m over the Went Gin. I’ve been listening to the Tahoe Gin.” And I thought, “Exactly!” Even the people that know the Went Gin and how good it is, are now listening to this new era and giving it the same weight as the old era. And that, to me, is this incredible feat that I don’t think that that person who ever wondered if there would be a happy ending for Phish could have ever predicted for Phish in the second act.
RR: I’d say it is a happy new beginning.
TM: Yes, happy new beginning is right. (laughs)
RR: I wasn’t sold on any consistent progress made by Phish until the Colorado dates in 2012. Ever since then, there seemed to be this incredible ability to be patient within songs and setlists, to allow room for air, and to create compositions, on the spot, within the jams, sometimes multiple times, and all inside one song—to create a song, or a series of multi-layered themes within a song, is not easy. I don’t think the band has ever had that form of improvisational power before. I am amazed they got to that place, and delighted they took the time to get there. I’m an old school fan. I love their jams, love the studio albums, and I think Tom Marshall is a lyrical genius. But, I wanted to see the band grow as a unit in this era. They did. Not only that, but, as Phish often does, they involved the crowd in their breakthrough moments.
TM: That is what was happening the whole night in Tahoe [7/31/13]. When that WOO! was born, you’re right, they involved the crowd. Exactly, Randy. It’s funny because in the old days, Type II jamming, I think, people defined it as where if Phish is jamming in a song and there is no apparent remnant of the song that they were in, then that is Type II jamming. They strayed so far away from the song that they were lost in another type of jam. What you’re saying is, and I agree, it is beyond that—they are creating and composing a song, and it is not just a jam. I totally feel that and I love it. It’s beautiful. People say they are cutting the jams short a little bit. I don’t feel that at all. I’m with you in that I’m a song guy. I don’t mind when they change the channel and go to the next song. I don’t like getting dragged down the same highway for too long. I like branching off another road.
RR: That’s a brilliant way to put it, too. To be honest, I’m a fan of some of that lost highway stuff, too, but I will say I don’t mind shorter jams. I just thought Phish was hesitant in taking risks, and not always playing as the four-headed beast that I loved to hear. I no longer feel that way after the last year or so. Suddenly, it isn’t just that they are playing together again, it is like you said, it is very beautiful music, music that I have not heard before, especially by this band, or any band, for that matter.
TM: Right. Something kicked in. You know what I think it is? It’s happiness. (laughs) I think they’re all happy.