(Another) Interview with Tom Marshall

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Tom Marshall, yet another exciting piece we’ll be featuring in the book. The complete interview we’ll be presenting in the book is far longer; these juicy snippets are presented as an appetizer. Enjoy!

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When describing Tom Marshall’s lyrical contributions to the sprawling Phish catalog, certain words come to mind — elusive, off-kilter, unpredictable, playful, intelligent, challenging — and a conversation with the band’s prolific wordsmith can elicit the same adjectives. Chris Bertolet talked with Tom in October of 1999 about where he’s been, where he’s going, and what he’s driving.

Chris Bertolet: Where does the songwriting process begin for you? Is it more a flow, or something you have to harness?

So far, I’ve never really adopted a consistent method that I’ve stuck with long enough to definitively say, “this is how I write.” For the most part, I listen to what people say, and read a lot. In the course of a week or so, a prominent idea will drift among my other thoughts that I may feel I could expand upon. I like writing on a PC because I erase and scribble too much for standard pen and paper. I’ll often construct a poem in an email to my friend and long-time recipient of my first drafts, Scott Herman.

CB: Is that the Herman who’s credited on “Limb By Limb?”

That’s him. His first credit was “Cavern”, but he actually went uncredited on the second verse of “Squirming Coil” (“I saw Satan on the beach”) and inspired “Lawn Boy”, among others. He receives my poems first. I don’t need a reply or any actual editing; just the fact that he reads them makes them real for me. It’s their first stage of life. If he does reply or happen to mention a particular one later, that just further cements it in my head as a good potential song. It helps to know that I’m writing for someone other than myself. I like the idea of provoking some sort of reaction.

CB: How long have you known Trey?

We first met in eighth grade at the Princeton Day School in New Jersey. The two of us didn’t really have any kind of relationship at the time aside from being part of the same musical gang, if you will. Many of our friends played instruments and wrote original songs and recorded them in home-made studios. He left in tenth grade and went to Taft. We lost touch and then randomly both met again at Mercer County Community College where we were forced to go since we were both kicked out of college after our Freshmen year for different reasons. It was great — we just picked up where we had left off three years earlier. We built a mini-studio in his dad’s basement, got tremendously stoned nightly and recorded lots of music, like “Divided Sky”, “Letter to Jimmy Page”, “Antelope”, etc..

CB: Was Bivouac Jaun from that era? “Little Squirrel?”

Yeah, that was one of the products of the Trey’s dad’s basement recordings. Like I said, we might not have been completely wasted the entire time we recorded, but if there were moments of lucidity, I don’t remember them.

CB: What was your involvement in the “Gamehendge” story and Trey’s thesis project?

I wrote a poem called “McGrupp and the Watchful Hose Masters”, which became the song “McGrupp”, in which most of the “Gamehendge” characters were first named. Also, I came up with the name “Gamehendge” when Aaron Wolf and I wrote “Wilson.” Aside from that, it was all Trey.

CB: What do you and Trey think about it now?

I love it! I always have — it’s incredible really, like Phish’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I never understood the plot twist that became necessary because of that silly line where Tela gets killed, though. We should have written that out. As for Trey, I think he’s still proud of “Gamehendge” too. There have been a few ideas to resurrect it — an interactive CD-ROM or something similar — so my guess is that eventually it will come to life again.

CB: What have been your favorite live Phish experiences?

The Clifford Ball was unforgettable — that and The White Album Halloween as well. I think the music outdid the spectacle and all expectations and hype. Runners-up for me are the Atlanta Halloween when they played Remain in Light, and New Years 1995 in the Garden.

CB: You mentioned that you read a lot. Books? Magazines? Bathroom walls?

Books! Currently, I’m re-reading _One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest_, by Ken Kesey. Seeing the movie is no reason not to read the book. I really like to think that the proceeds funded the Merry Pranksters’ pranks. I also really got into _Hannibal_ by Thomas Harris — it’s the sequel to _The Silence of the Lambs_. It is an unbelievably eerie, horrifying novel that has been haunting me since it came out. I also recently read _The Endurance_, named after the ship in which Sir Earnest Shackleton attempted to reach Antarctica, and then cross it on foot in 1915. Unfortunately, 100 miles from land, the ship was frozen in pack ice and crushed. At that point, it became a survival story. The ship’s photographer captured all of this. He’d taken about 200 pictures of the entire adventure and had to dive into ice water to rescue the negatives as the ship was sinking. This is a traveling museum exhibit also, and it’s currently in New York City.

CB: Any favorite movies?

The Godfather (I and II), Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket, to name a few.

CB: What do you perceive as the relationship between words and music? How is that perception evolving?

I like that you used the word “evolving” in that question. I enjoy thinking back to man’s earliest ancestors and how language was created as they evolved. I think music evolved next to and in conjunction with language, the primary instruments being voice and rhythm. So music drew upon language. But even while it encompassed and surpassed language, words were necessary for survival and progress, while music was a luxury, a means of celebration or relaxation. I think that is still essentially true today; music is a higher form of language, if you will. It sets our species apart from others.

CB: What are your favorite Phish songs?

At a show, I tend to want to hear the newest stuff — something I haven’t heard before — to gauge the audience’s acceptance maybe, or just to hear Phish’s arrangement. “Bug” was cool to hear. Since it never really caught on with the other Phish guys after Trey and I wrote it in 1997, it kind of became Amfibian’s signature tune…then Phish rediscovered it and it turned out to be the perfect Phish song. I thought so anyway. I really liked “Meat” for a while — I think I am in the minority on that one, but I think it rocks. I still never tire of “Halley’s”, “Punch” and “Sloth”, though; I’d have to say those are my unchanging favorites.

CB: Do you and the band feel pressure from fans not to change — to remain Good Ole Phish?

I don’t feel that pressure. The band might, I suppose. I do stay away from the negative subjects discussed on the Phish.net, though, because then I might feel like I had to respond. Like, the “Trey sucks now, is he on cocaine?” kind of thing. As a fan, I find that their constant change keeps things fresh and exciting, and they can always revert to old Phish when they want to. I don’t buy into the rehash-the-past crap. Forge onward. Change is built into the band.

CB: Do you ever find that when you set out to say one thing, or even nothing at all, you wind up saying something else entirely? Happy accidents, so to speak?

Constantly. I rarely sit down and say what the song is going to be about. I’ll often begin writing by putting down a line that I’ve been repeating in my head for a while. In many cases the finished product doesn’t even contain that line — or it’s been severely altered. For example, “Wolfman’s Brother” was about an ocean voyage at first — I think only the “ship that’s run aground” line was salvaged from the original. Sometimes you have to let it flow rather than steer it. That’s how I avoid writer’s block, too…I guess I’m lucky and don’t have to write, which makes a huge difference. I’m not feeding my family on my words. Actually, I am, but they’d still eat if I stopped writing for a six-month stretch, you know? I’d just have to return the BMW, is all.

CB: Why not an old, funky Benz? Something with a little more character.

I don’t like the old, funky shit. I have an M3. It laughs at cars with character.

CB: What’s the strangest interaction you’ve ever had with a fan?

I don’t fit into the standard Phishhead profile. I don’t wear the hippie uniform, the hair’s all wrong, and I’m about 15 years older than the average fan. They usually think I’m security or something, and ask me where to park. I always tell them, by the way. I find a special place for them.

CB: Let’s dive into some of your other work. “Lifeboy” seems to be a satirical poke at religion-as-crutch. What was your religious background as a kid?

I was kind of anti-religion for a while. Not because it was imposed heavily on me as a child or anything like that — in fact, I was brought up religion-free, and as such I guess I just kind of landed on the “science” side of the argument. Worshipping an invisible ghost and using it to explain away nature’s mysteries didn’t make much sense to me. I mean, before people knew what thunder was, they thought the gods were angry with them. I will say that I’m pretty spiritual, though, in many ways. I had my own religion in my head, I guess. But I found it easy to make fun of any organized religion growing up, and really enjoyed sticking it to any overly fervent, born-again Jesus freaks I encountered. I think I’ve finally grown out of that phase. I think the values and teachings one can be exposed to in church are, for the most part, harmless. In many cases, they’re wonderful — and certainly not something to ridicule in these days of school shootings and loss of morality and responsibility. I was surprised to see my sister who lives in San Diego get involved with the Unitarian Church recently with her family, and was touched to learn about how they help the poor in their community. Church isn’t for me, I don’t think, but the overall goodness and selfless vibe that Jesus taught is obviously something I want my kids to learn as well…albeit without all the God and guilt rap. I’ll give them sermons from the _Helping Friendly Book_, I suppose. That’ll send them over the edge.

CB: “Icculus is coming, and he is pissed.”

I don’t think the world needs another angry, vengeful god. How about, “Icculus is coming, and he’s giving out office supplies.” Gods never do cool shit like that anymore.

CB: Maybe that was on the tablet Moses broke — “Thou shalt not keep a cluttered workspace.” If you could write the eleventh commandment, what would it be?

“Thou shalt ignore all prior commandments and think for thineself, thou weak-minded sheep!”

CB: Have you ever written a song to someone?

All my songs are for Jesus.

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