Tom Marshall Shows His Scales
Tom Marshall has worn many hats in the Phish world during the past thirty-plus years. Most importantly, he’s been Trey Anastasio’s primary writing partner since the Princeton Day School friends first reconnected in the mid-1980s, but he’s also helped Phish through some of their most famous song parodies and musical gags and served as an unofficial liaison between the band their fans for many years. He even helped bring back a forgotten piece of equipment shortly before Phish’s return in 2009.
More recently, he’s ventured into the world of podcasting with his new, insightful thrice-monthly show Under the Scales. Each episode of the program focuses on a different part of the diverse Phish community, from noted statistician David Steinberg and fellow Phish songwriter Steve “The Dude of Life” Pollak to the minds behind High Times, Phantasy Tour and the cover band Runaway Gin. He also sat down with Anastasio and former Justin Bieber musical director Dan Kanter during a recent Madison Square Garden run for a lively and far-ranging conversation. (Click here for Marshall’s recent Relix-focused episode.) While gearing up for the 14th episode of Under the Scales, Marshall took a moment to discuss his new podcast, recent songwriting sessions and how his old band Amfibian helped set the stage for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.
This is the first time you have hosted your own podcast. What initially inspired you to start Under the Scales ?
It happened because of walking. I walk five miles a day most days. I have lots of different music options, but I complained to a friend that I was simply getting tired of music in general. I told him that I’d been opting for silence rather than filling my head with the same music over and over, so he opened my eyes to podcasts. This was in 2014. I never looked back. I love podcasts. It was really Analyze Phish that made me start thinking about a Phish podcast, because that one delighted me in so many ways. [In his podcast Analyze Phish, Parks & Recreation producer and comedy writer Harris Wittels tried to explain the beauty of Phish to fellow comic Scott Aukerman. Wittels, who also contributed to Relix, passed away in 2015.] I began to think of how I might be in a unique position to provide Phish info and impart knowledge to fans.
Though still new, Under the Scales has featured a unique mix of guests, from Trey Anastasio to noted voices in the Phish community and some lesser known fans that still have inspiring stories. How has the scope of who you hope to profile on the program progressed since Under the Scales initially launched?
I’m only 13 episodes deep so far. I think I’m still finding an identity, but I know that the heading “Phish Culture” is broad enough to allow me to experiment with a different mix of interviewees, as well as hopefully some different show formats before I really know what my ultimate mission is. Right now, I’m having fun and trying to bring interesting people to the mic, as long as they have some tie to Phish. Maybe that is my ultimate mission?
In certain ways, you have always been something of a liaison between the Phish fan community and the band members themselves. Can you share a story about a time you brought an idea to the band from the larger Phish community—maybe helped bring back a song, style or other change?
The Ross Compressor comes to mind. Phantasy Tour was attempting to come to grips with Trey’s “new tone” in 2009 when Phish returned. In fact, they thought it was missing something. Some eagle-eyed guitarists among the PT crowd noticed that one of Trey’s signature effect stomp-boxes on the floor in front of him as he played was no longer included in his setup. They became obsessed with getting Trey a Ross Compressor. Through a very impressive concerted effort, PT collaborated in actually buying one of these slightly expensive and somewhat rare effect boxes. Then, of course, the problem became, how to get it to Trey?
That’s when a friend of mine, Scott Gray, enlisted my aid. I delivered the compressor to Trey and photo-documented it and reported back, to the delight of PT. I’ll say that Trey was very touched that people noticed and cared that much. It was a great band-fan moment. Trey used it for a while, I understand, but continued to experiment with his tone, so the compressor now, sadly, has again been relegated to some offstage safe zone. But I do feel that this incident gave Trey even more determination to continue his quest for the perfect tone. And, I must say, I think his tone now has surpassed anything he’s achieved before.
Have you noticed any overarching themes tying your various interview subjects together thus far?
It would, of course, be cliché for me to say, “their love of Phish,” but, if anything, I am always surprised and touched when I realize how deeply a band and its music can affect people. The people I talk to are generally people who listen to the band extremely carefully. The shows are incredibly important events in their lives; the songs are the soundtrack to their lives; the band are their heroes. I try to get them to focus on me as a fan first, rather than me as part of the Phish apparatus, because that is the optimum angle of approach for Under the Scales.