Interview with Tom Marshall

Tom Marshall, whose Amfibian Tales will be out on disc very soon, agreed to answer some questions from folks working for the Mockingbird Foundation. Tom has graciously agreed to answer your questions with the assistance of Jambase.com. These questions aren’t duplicative of any you may have seen answered in other interviews with Tom, so please read on. Also, read Mockingbird contributor Chris Bertolet’s review of Amfibian Tales on JamBands.com.

Charlie Dirksen (“CD”): For those who aren’t aware, how and when did Amfibian begin?

Tom Marshall (“TM”): It began as a band called Utalk, with me, Trey, Peter Cottone on drums and Matt Kohut on bass. We’re all friends from Princeton Day School — back in the 70′s/80′s. Matt, Pete and I began practicing various songs that Trey and I wrote in anticipation of a Utalk tour. Those songs were Dirt, Farmhouse, Twist Around, Bug and Heavy Things among others. Then, after an abortive practice session with Trey up in Vermont, which spelled the end of Utalk, the NJ side of the band decided to keep the dream alive. We added a few new musicians, and changed the name to Amfibian.

CD: Why do you say the practice session “abortive”? Were things just not gelling?

TM: Pretty much. Trey had a friend come up to play second guitar in the band, and we all just didn’t find a groove, I guess. It was pretty discouraging for all of us, but it made sense at the same time.

CD: How did you meet the other musicians on “Amfibian Tales”?

TM: Pete and Matt and I go way back. So do Marc Daubert and I. Aside from that, everyone on the disk I’ve met through the local (Princeton, NJ) music scene. JP Wasicko and Scott Metzger came from Matt’s band, F-Hole. Andrew Southern I met at PDS [Princeton Day School] — he’s a recent graduate. Anna Soloway and Steph Sanders (The Saras singers) also are from PDS. That’s the main core — there are a few others whom I’ve met along the way.

CD: Who thought of the fishy name “Amfibian”? It’s exceedingly clever. And thank god you spell it improperly with an “f”.

TM: An exceedingly clever friend of mine, John Furth, came up with that when he and I were attempting to write a book which was loosely about me — and a band I had (not yet) formed.

CD: Given your experiences over the years working close to the production of Phish’s recordings, what distinguishes “Amfibian Tales” from that production?

TM: Wow. Everything. Actually, this is probably a lot closer to Trey’s “One Man’s Trash” than any Phish release. This wasn’t done in a big studio — it was all done in my tiny farm studio. I produced it there and Andrew Southern and I mixed it and then he mastered it. It’s a very small-scale studio, based around a single DA-88 digital 8-track unit.

Craig DeLucia: In that vein, how much time have you spent watching Phish and/or other bands in the studio, and how did it affect your approach to the recording process?

TM: Well, before Phish, and in conjunction with Phish’s projects, this method is something that Trey and I have used for several years: sequestering ourselves in a farmhouse with a DA-88. That’s how most of the new Phish songs were written, and how all of these “Amfibian Tales” songs were written.

Craig: Given that some of the songs on Phish’s upcoming “Farmhouse” album are partly your compositions, did you make a decision to exclude those songs from your album? Or other songs you’ve written that Phish plays extensively? (“Bug” and “Heavy Things” come to mind.)

TM: Not really. I mean, that wasn’t our thinking process. We just wrote new stuff. None of the songs on “Amfibian Tales” has been performed live yet. Trey’s name does appear as writer for one song, “Nothing,” which he and I wrote on my farm two years ago. But I don’t think it was ever considered by Phish.

Craig: Was any consideration given to including older songs that you’ve written, like putting your own spin on “It’s Ice” or any number of older songs that you wrote for Phish?

TM: No. These are all original compositions. Amfibian the band would certainly consider Trey/Tom songs as fair game for live performances, though, but I doubt that we’d focus on any Phish staples.

Craig: You’ve been writing songs for so long now. What made you choose to release some of your work now?

TM: It was kind of a timing thing. I started spending a lot of time on my farm recently, and the songs just happened naturally. People would stop by and we’d record. Eventually I needed to do something with them so I could move forward. Just listening to them once a week didn’t satisfy my urge to get them out somehow.

CD: I miss farms. My great aunt and uncle used to own a modest and old horse farm in the Lexington, Kentucky area, and I have fond memories of roaming the fields and barns and woods. I love the smell of manure. The smell of manure reminds me of vacations that I used to take as a child to Kentucky (just as the smell of patchouli oil mixed with wookie body odor reminds me fondly of being on tour with the Dead or Phish). Do you have any animals on your farm?

TM: There is the memory of animals. The way the barns are designed all reflect the fact that they once housed cows and sheep and pigs. But ever since my Grandmother and Grandfather moved in around 1930, they adapted all the buildings for human use, and leased the fields to a local farmer, whose son and grandson still farm it today.

Craig: How was “Amfibian Tales” recorded? Is it mostly ‘live-in-studio’ tracks, or solo instrument tracks with successive overdubs?

TM: It’s a mixture of both. “Dream Satellite” was recorded with all of Amfibian playing live, for example. “Sleep as it Grows,” on the other hand, was built track by track. Although, even on an entirely overdubbed song, the basic first part of the track is often done with two people playing their parts simultaneously — which imparts something of a performance vibe into the track.

Craig: Was most of the material written before you entered the studio or while the sessions were in progress?

TM: All songs were primarily written in-session.

Craig: What did you find most difficult about the recording process?

TM: Deciding what should and should not go on the final disk. The Internet makes that decision slightly easier, because the songs that get cut can still be released as MP3s, which we plan to do.

Craig: How hard was it to “let go” and decide that a particular song, or the album as a whole, was “done”?

TM: Since there was only a self-imposed deadline, it was extremely difficult. We kept adding songs, and wanting to fix the old ones.

Craig: Is this a one-shot or a possible ongoing project?

TM: Oh, definitely an ongoing thing. I’m upgrading my studio as we speak and can’t wait to get back in. I’m also hoping to have Trey down for some Phish writing soon. We’ve also been doing a lot of work with Chris Harford, another local musician/producer, and that looks really hopeful. We’re thinking perhaps of an Amfibian/Harford disk — “Live in the Barn,” or something like that. Check out Chris’s stuff at http://www.chrisharford.com/. Matt and JP are the rhythm sectionon most of his beautiful new disk, “Wake.”

CD: Any plans for an Amfibian tour to support the album? Or in the future?

TM: We’re talking about it and playing a lot lately, so it’s a distinct possibility. A co-tour with The Saras and Chris Harford might be in the works too. There’s a cool music scene going on here and it would be silly not to jump in.

Craig: We’ve seen the effect that the Phish fan community can have on the tours and live shows of other artists, from the influx of Phishheads to the MMW scene, to Son Seals recent “thank you” for our support. How has this affected Amfibian?

TM: Well, I’ll put it this way: I think 99% or more of our audience for the five shows we played were Phish heads wondering what the hell Amfibian was all about.

Craig: Some of your most memorable Phish moments on stage have been as gags and jokes. Do you worry that fans won’t take your album or band seriously, since you’re the “Tubthumping” guy or the “Shine” guy to many people who may not realize your lyrical contributions to Phish?

TM: No, I’m not really concerned. Funny, serious, who cares?

CD: I think you should be concerned about the people who seriously don’t find you at all funny. I know I am. Do you remember what you were thinking just before you went on stage for the “500 Miles” bit in the 12/30/97 Harpua? I busted a gut at that.

TM: Yeah — I was nervous as hell, as usual, before I got on stage. I was probably thinking that I wish I knew Harpua better so I’d know when to go on…

Phillip Zerbo: Your performances with Phish have always placed you in the role of the “front man in a glam rock band” (Roger Daltrey, Bruce Springsteen) or as the “straight man in an inside joke” (Shine, 500 Miles, Champagne Supernova), both very extroverted personas. Your “stage presence” in the performances with Amfibian are much more “restrained,” almost introverted. What’s up with that?

TM: Well, for Amfibian’s shows I was sitting behind a keyboard, actually pressing down on the keys now and then! This restrained me I suppose. But, boy, did I want to go and throw a stage dive now and then.

PZ: Do you pay attention to any fan reviews? What do you think of them? Do you perceive them differently when they are reviews of Amfibian, or reviews of songs you have written performed by Phish?

TM: I read them. I found them mostly positive. Phish song reviews I can distance myself from slightly, unless they’re specifically about the lyrics. Amfibian reviews I couldn’t step back from and insert another person between myself and the reviewer. In that sense, I took them rather personally and was happy to find that people in general just had a good time at Amfibian, and didn’t slice and dice each aspect of the show like they do with Phish.

PZ: Has any element of a fan review or an interaction with any fan ever made its way into a lyric of a tune that Phish performs?

TM: Hmm… no, I don’t think so. There are some aspects of the “scene” I suppose that creep in here and there, simply because it’s such a large part of Phish and, consequently, my experience… from where I’m forced to draw inspiration.

CD: What about “A Thousand Barefoot Children Outside, Dancing On My Lawn”? Wasn’t that lyric about Trey’s “interaction” — so to speak — with fans on his lawn?

TM: I’d heard that too — about how he was renting a place at the Jersey shore, I think, and kids kept appearing while his family was eating dinner or something. That really did happen, but it also really had nothing to do with that lyric. I was thinking more of the Mann Music Center’s back lawn seats, I think.

PZ: When you are at a Phish show, is there a line that you feel between being a “fan” and being a more active agent in the creative process, as it is happening on stage? Do you consider yourself a “fan” or is it something different?

TM: I’m a fan. I’m constantly reminded that there’s something else there, like getting a knowing glance from someone, or recognizing an emotion behind a lyric or something. But for the most part, when I’m in the audience, I’m a fan.

CD: As a fan, then, do you ever find yourself going “I wish they had jammed out that [name of tune] more” ? Or “Man, if I hear Trey butcher Coil like that again..” ? Or do you miraculously remain totally positive — and not in the least bit jaded — even after all these years?

TM: Ha! Well, I’m jaded in certain ways I think. Like, it’s very easy for a Phish show just to be a social event rather than a musical thing — so I might find myself talking over a song because I’ve heard it a lot, or spending too much time floating around backstage. But I think I remain positive about the music and let the band steer me where they want me to go.

CD: That’s wonderful! I found that after heavily seeing shows for years, taking a break and only seeing a handful of shows in a given year really helped me appreciate everything more (again). It became easier to “let go my conscious self” and let go all of the history in my head and not try to “steer” the band. What do you like most about the Phish community? Or the scene? Is there anything about the Phish scene that really disturbs you?

TM: No — I can’t really think of any aspect of the scene at large that bothers me specifically. It’s completely the opposite, actually. I think there’s a great give and take between the fans and the band that you don’t find elsewhere. The band keeps the ticket prices relatively low, and keeps the quality of the whole experience very high. The Phish fan community knows what a good thing they’ve got and strives to keep it that way by displaying a whole lot of courtesy and compassion and consideration for others. Walk out in the crowd and there’s rarely anything behavior-wise to complain about. When you do hear something negative, it’s the exception, not the rule, and that’s great.

CD: Is there any special interaction that you’ve had with another fan at a show that sticks out in your memory?

TM: Oh, the Benjy [Eisen] Uno card incident perhaps. He made a big spectacle out of giving me a card from some weird game I used to play in French class or something like that. I think it was at an MSG show. I refused the gift from him just because I thought there might be too much significance attached to his gesture. Later I learned that the Uno-card craze had been credited, or blamed, actually, on me!

PZ: A number of the songs on “Amfibian Tales” are co-authored by Amfibian’s bass player, Matt Kohut. How is writing a song with Matt different than writing a song with Trey?

TM: Matt and I are newer at it. That’s really all. We know each other very well, and that’s really one of the big hurdles, I think. You need to know what to expect of the other person and where you fit into his/her method of writing. Matt has tons of musical ideas, as you can see by listening to F-Hole (http://www.f-hole.net/), and can use lyrical help now and then — so it’s perfect.

Mark Toscano: I’m a big fan of Ween. What do you think of Ween? I heard that Amfibian worships the ground that Ween shits on.

TM: Ugh. That’s such a pleasant way to put it. Amfibian covered “Birthday Boy” — does that constitute worship? Matt also played bass for their “Golden Country Greats” tour. So, apart from some cross-pollination, there’s no organized prayer group or anything. I do personally worship them, however — but in private, and in sanitary, conditions.

CD: What would you say were Amfibian’s primary musical influences, if any?

TM: Amfibian is a mix of 35 year-olds and 20 year-olds. I thought it was cool when the younger guys would bring in, say, a Steely Dan or King Crimson disc that we grew up on to play for us because they had heard it for the first time. That happened a lot. The influences are consequently across the board. On “Amfibian Tales” I think you’ll hear some Tom Waits, some Band, some Beatles, some Phish perhaps?

CD: Well, as a huge Beatles and Phish fan, I look forward to hearing it! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Tom.

TM: No, thank you! I would like to mention in closing to please check out the http://www.furrythug.com/ website, which should be coming online in early April, where you’ll be able to get “Amfibian Tales” among other items. Thanks to the tireless Mockingbird crew for these questions.

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