Tom Marshall on Phish: Time to Wear the _Wingsuit_

Randy Ray on December 2, 2013

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Phish. On this occasion, Relix sat down with Phish lyricist, Tom Marshall to discuss his recent work collaborating with Trey Anastasio on songs which appeared in the second set of the Halloween show in Atlantic City, featuring all new material and titled Wingsuit. Marshall was there on that night, as he has often been throughout their 30 years, and he talks about that extraordinary set, as well as his own part in the magical process. Click here for a conversation with Tom that spans his working relationship with Trey.

RR: What did you think of the second set on Halloween in Atlantic City, where, with one exception, Phish presented an entire set of new music, featuring songs to be recorded on their new album, Wingsuit?

TM: My Halloween was so interesting. I sat down, at first, in my assigned seats in the first set, and didn’t have really a good seat. Something didn’t feel right about it, and I wasn’t around the right people or something. But, then, a friend of mine called me, and asked me to come over to his seat. It was behind the soundboard and straight on. I was so glad because the sound is so much better, and everything is so much better. When the second set started, I was in this perfect sweet spot of sound. I had never heard those songs. I heard the four that I had involvement in, but I was as taken by surprise as anyone in the room, and I was just so incredibly…just the words to “Wingsuit” completely blew me away, and put me in this amazing mood. I was feeling like the magic is happening again in a way. I talked to a bunch of older Phish heads—a couple of friends of mine that have been around; I remember 1993, 1994, 1995, we’d see each other at West Coast shows, and we’d say, “I wonder how long we can keep saying Phish is getting better and better?” Every time we’d see each other, they were just getting better and better as a band. Inevitably, some kind of peak happens, but I was feeling that kind of magic again [on Halloween], and I was so incredibly excited. Plus, the fact that the band, themselves, are as good friends as they were when they met and formed Phish. They are tighter, and you can hear it in the cohesion of their music and everything. It was just a phenomenal night. It was such a great presentation, and, by far, my favorite Halloween ever.

RR: What I found humorous was that everyone was complaining about the fact that Phish didn’t have any new material for quite some time over the last few years, so they head into Atlantic City, and everyone is expecting a cover album, of course. That was a gutsy move. And, we’re in an era where there are no secrets, but Wingsuit was on lockdown until people arrived, and they were handed the Phishbill.

TM: It’s amazing. I can’t believe that there was a certain allowed Tea Party-type minority of people who were angry. I couldn’t believe it. Wait—you people were asking for new material. You’re telling me you would have preferred Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Eat a Peach? I mean, come on. (laughter) There was a backlash, but, finally, the backlash against the backlash drowned out the haters. This feeling emerged that Phish pissed off the right people. I love that. (laughter)

RR: Let’s talk about the Wingsuit songs that you collaborated on with Trey, which were included in the second set in Atlantic City on Halloween. Let’s start with “Monica,” which was the first Anastasio/Marshall song played in the Wingsuit set.

TM: “Santa Monica” was written around a fire pit at Trey’s house. It was just the two of us there, and we were throwing out funny little word play things and trying to fit them into this framework that we had. We were calling it “Santa Monica,” which, in my mind, was about the city in California. When we sang it, we started laughing when we were calling the antagonist Saint Monica, like “sing Saint Monica, sing your song,” and so we were going to call the song “Santa Monica,” and call the woman Saint Monica. Every little verse that we came up with I was trying to make Trey laugh with a play on words: you lift me up, you hired me, then cut me off at the knees, defeatedme. Every answer had some sort of tiny, little double meaning. Trey came up with from your ivory tower, inspired me. We were just cracking up. I think the reason that became just “Monica” was because, I believe it was a production decision, when Bob Ezrin just said, “What’s up with this saint?” Because no longer was Santa included as in Santa Monica. It sort of became “Monica,” and just as Saint Monica doesn’t make sense, sing sing Saint Monica doesn’t make sense, and that part of the joke never made it into the final song. It just became sing sing Monica, and the song was just called “Monica.”

RR: “Devotion to a Dream”—is it fair to say that relates to marriages, relationships, or a bond that may be broken in some way, or am I way off base?

TM: You are not way off base. That relates to the dissolving relationship place where I find myself writing from, and, maybe, the reason that I have been able to save my relationship is that if I put it on paper then it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t come true in real life. (laughs) It possibly came from that point. But, it is also that I don’t necessarily feel that I am writing about me when I write those, but I am writing from a person that I can emphasize with that is in a relationship that is falling apart.

RR: And when did you write that?

TM: It’s interesting that you say that. That one could have been written in 1990 by me.

RR: 1990?

TM: Yeah. So, here’s the history of that one. In the very first version of my band, Amfibian I think that surfaced as a lyric to a song intended to sing, and I don’t think it ever even made it on the live stage. That was put in forever into these sheets of lyrics. I circled it, and brought it with me to many songwriting sessions, and it kind of never got glanced at for about 15 years. I finally looked back in time, recycled it and said, “Hey, we haven’t used this yet.” And that is just kind of how it is—I always come over-prepared with a lot of song ideas when I go write with Trey, and, so, at any given moment, in a weekend, if we have written ten songs, there might be 20 song pieces that never really got

looked at, but, for whatever reason, I’ve been carrying this one around for a while. I do not think anyone knows that.

RR: What did you think of the song when it was performed on Halloween? Obviously, it will take on a life of its own in the future.

TM: Well, I really like how there is a second part to it sang by Mike [Gordon] and Page [McConnell] have a call and answer, a secondary person. It’s really really great. I really like it, and I was really impressed with Page’s ability and Mike’s ability to learn lyrics really fast because that was completely verbatim. I was even thinking, as I was listening to it on Halloween, “Holy shit, how does he do it?” I was looking at Page because he was definitely confidently leading the other two through some rough lyrical moments. I think I was the only person in the audience that might have known that there is a difficult lyrical part coming up, and I just watched Page confidently sail and navigate those waters. I was always impressed by Trey. I would read him a poem and he doesn’t even have to see it. I read it to him, and sing a verse, and all it takes is for him to sing it once, and then, he’s got it. Three weeks later, he’ll remember it. He’ll say, “How about blah blah blah?” Meanwhile, I have completely forgotten it. If it is not on the paper in front of me, it’s gone. But Trey, Page, and Mike have this unbelievable and uncanny miracle to me of memorizing words. I guess it’s their job. (laughs)

RR: “Winterqueen”—the Northeast seasonal vibe, written along with “Frost.” It has a mythical tone to it, like some of your other lyrical passages. Fascinating song.

TM: Right. Thank you. That was a TAB song, just that one time, and was written for Trey’s Traveler album. I think “Frost” and “Winterqueen” were tried at the same time by TAB, and “Frost” emerged as the favorite, and the one that made it to the album. “Winterqueen” was not forgotten, but was not played again for a while. We wrote both of those songs about three years ago. For that one, it was written to Trey coming up with a new guitar chord pattern and singing it and that just came to me as he was playing guitar.

RR: “Amidst the Peals of Laughter.” There are some interesting references to Jack and Jill, but it also relates to being a drone in a work environment. I am sure we can all relate to it, but it definitely saddens me that you felt you wasted so much time while working in that type of drone-like existence. Was it cathartic to write it?

TM: I think so. It was cathartic at the time to write it, as it certainly contains memories of a darker time, which were revealed when I wrote it. It reminded me of being in a dark place. You know how that is. It is written from a happier place now, but when you are in a dark place like that, you don’t see that there is a possible way out. In some hopeful part of me, I am thinking that, maybe, I could tell, or steer, someone out of their drone state, and possibly I could help them. I don’t know. It’s also a narrative from my past.

Jack and Jill. It sounds like a childhood nursery rhyme and it is all happy and everything:

“Daddy’s going off to work!” And mom and the kids all smile and the kids grab their lunch boxes and get in the school bus. We’re in a rut, it’s a big problem we face. It is really society forcing these drones to be drones and I was trying to draw the metaphor. Jack and Jill, you know, someone told them to go up the hill and get that pail of water. It wasn’t like, “Hey, we’re just skipping happily along, and we are going to go and check out this hill now.” (laughs) It was just an occupational hazard where Jack fell down and he cracked his skull open: “Oh, too bad. He’s just a drone; someone else will get the next pail of water. Bring the honey to the queen, fertilize those eggs…it doesn’t matter if you cave your head in, just that it gets done.” It means something sinister in society when our tasks define us, become more important than us.