Dan Gladman's Interview with Tom Marshall
Thanks to Rosemary. You're the best!
To appear in Fantastic Voyage System, March issue
Interview with Tom Marshall, by Dan Gladman
Tom Marshall writes lyrics for Phish. Many of the songs fans sing at shows
are word concoctions of his. Yet, does anybody know anything of the man?
The one and only time I met Tom was in Amsterdam in July, 1996. I bumped
into Phish singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio in a coffeeshop where he, Tom
and several fans were hanging out, smoking marijuana legally and discussing
the band and that night's show. I, travel-weary and wearing my Phish tour
hat, purchased in Canandaigua, NY in 1994, spoke to Tom for several
minutes, never realizing he was the man behind the words. The guy doesn't
look like he has anything to do with a rock 'n' roll band. Of course, no
one in Phish does either.
Our interview was conducted over email exclusively from Sept. 28 - Nov.
11, 1996. I have not spoken to him since our short meeting in the summer.
To conclude an email response in October, Tom simply closed with "you
the man." I responded, "I know." When I received my copy of Doniac Schvice
for Late Fall '96, I was surprised, amused and honored to see that two
questions from this very interview were included in the 'Letters' section
of the Phish newsletter. It is true I am a fan of Phish, but I also have
taken this interview quite seriously.
As did Tom, or it appeared on occasion. Some of his answers gave some
true insight into Phish. Other answers were downright hilarious. And some
were absolutely useless. I have not included these answers in the
interview, though I admit, some of my questions were probably stupid too.
Tom Marshall is a biology professor, family man, humorist and
songwriter. His heralded sense of humor comes through in his lyrics and his
emails. I was easily confused and intrigued by him at the same time.
He is part of the insular Phish organization though few interviews of
him have been published. As a friend, contributor and rare performer, he
has an unmatched insight to the band.
DG: Is Free going to be a single? Why was that particular song chosen? Is
it not a little "trippy" for mass consumption? Has the album version been
TM: Yes - I don't know really, it always just was 'the single.' I don't think
it's too trippy, although it is certainly Phishy, and it remains to be seen
if radio listeners can digest Phish this time around. No - the single
version hasn't been remixed in any way that I know of.
DG: What is Theme from the Bottom about? I figure it is a drug message song
(Don't you see anything that you'd like to try).
TM: It's sort of about a relationship that became easy to think about in the
'bottom-feeder/top-feeder' motif. You know, the top feeders are the fish
with their eyes oriented looking downwards for prey - like some sharks.
Bottom feeders usually subsist on morsels that sink to the bottom for
whatever reason... they have flat bellies and their eyes are on top,
forever looking upwards for that scrap of food with their name on it. Not
really drugs, you take it out of context and it can mean anything, but the
whole quote may be easier to understand: "I ask you why if I'm swimming by/
Don't you see anything you'd like to try."
DG: Theme from the Bottom is about scuba diving?
TM: No - I wrote it using the bottom feeder/top feeder fish reference as a
metaphor to describe a particular relationship. Certain fish hover around
the surface of the water and are usually the more aggressive hunters as
opposed to the bottom feeders that rely on camouflage and consequence to
DG: I was surprised to hear Theme was included on the album. How did the
band decide on a definitive version of a song that has endless
possibilities on stage?
TM: I don't think they were worried about this becoming a 'definitive' version
I think they were striving for a great version which was similar to the idea
they had for it when it was first written.
DG: Why was Strange Design not included on the record?
TM: It was scrapped at the last second. The band was touring in Europe at the
time and made the painful decision there - in Italy or France I think. The
album was complete and about to be mastered. Design was the last song on
the album - after Caspian. It was a bizarre version that no one ever really
got used to. It was funny though - the second they got back to the states
and played it in their new acoustic setup it was as strong as ever. It just
couldn't be captured in the studio for whatever reason. Cutting it was one
of those great decisions - after working so long and hard on the song,
sacrificing it for the good of the album took a very wide focus - as much
thought went into cutting it as went into recording it.
DG: Will Elektra be hyping this album more than previous Phish albums? Is the
record company looking to sell a million copies? Is the band?
TM: No idea.
DG: Was Elektra satisfied with sales of "A Live One"? Rolling Stone wrote
last year that sales of live records were down considerably, though it
appeared "A Live One" sold a lot by Phish's standards.
TM: I don't have a clue what record companies think - there's so much
involved in trying to market to such a young demographic. You have to be
'hip' and yet be 'business people' at the same time. I was on the VIP
platform at The Clifford Ball when a bunch of Elektra people squeezed by.
My friend Richard Gehr, who is a music writer [for Rolling Stone] and is
always very tapped into what is going on turned to me with a "who was
THAT?" kind of look on his face - I mouthed "Elektra" to him and he nodded
and said, "They had a record company 'vibe'." He was right. I know the vibe
now and recently found myself awash in it again on a subway in New York.
DG: Is the following anecdote correct: Trey once had you say something into
the microphone during a band practice. Your words were "Marco Esquandolas."
Was it The Dude of Life who said that?
TM: I said that in the song Run Like an Antelope. The lyrics are otherwise
entirely by the Dude. It wasn't a band practice - it was in Trey's basement
when he recorded the first version of that song.
DG: Do you tour with Phish? Just on special occasions?
TM: The latter - I wouldn't want to tour all the time. I would wear out my
welcome (if I haven't already!) - everyone on tour is working all the time.
It's kind of weird to be the only guy floating around the tour with NOTHING
to do. The band gets really weird on tour too. I'll give you an example.
Most people think of the tour bus as a fun place to be, it's actually
anything but! After the bus drives away from the venue, [bassist] Mike
[Gordon] meditates in his bunk for the whole ride no matter how long it is
| - it looks like sleeping to me, but he claims it takes the place of sleep
and is much more efficient. Fish [drummer Jon Fishman] on the other hand
has quite a rigorous regimen. He gets into a skin suit and folds the
armrests up on the seat next to the driver, swivels it around backwards and
'mounts' it. I can't think of a better word for it. It's an embarrassing
thing to watch because he does this thrusting motion with his hips for at
least an hour. The other band members completely ignore it, but I haven't
gotten used to it yet. He says it's the only way to stretch his back after
drumming a whole show. [Keyboardist] Page McConnell jumps on the cell phone
and vanishes into the back room for the entire trip... leaving me to deal
with Trey. Trey sleeps in a vertical bunk in a 'low pressure/high oxygen'
atmosphere. You've never seen anything like it. It's a sealed tank that he
hangs in using those gravity boots that hook onto a bar in the tank. He
wears three donut-shaped cushions around his knees, hips and shoulders to
prevent him from hitting the sides of the tank when the bus is moving. I
(or Brad [Sands] the tour manager) help him get in, then dial the external
oxygen tank to the right setting and then turn on the vacuum pump to
decrease the pressure in the tank. Then I turn on the CD player that blasts
his choice of 10 CDs into the tank at high volume. I usually play cards
with Brad (who's quite awful I should mention) or watch videos and wait for
the trip to end.
DG: New Year's 95 at Madison Square Garden - I was not there but I've heard
the tape. Was it you who sang "Shine"? Why was that song chosen for that
moment? Was it to make fun of all the teeny-boppers in the audience?
TM: Yes I sang it. No - I sang it in protest of [Collective Soul's] Dean
Reynolds ripping off those lyrics from me. I mean, who is he fooling?
"Heaven let your light shinedown" ... Anyone who knows my lyrics should
recognize my style in that song instantly. I was hoping that the New Year's
performance would be the impetus for a huge public outcry, but it just
DG: Did you enjoy The Clifford Ball? Had that weekend been planned months in
TM: The weird thing was that it was actually all set up for a Penn and Teller
show. Penn lost his voice on the previous weekend and suggested to Fishman's
mom - whom he has dated on occasion - that perhaps Phish should just take
over. The rest is history. No one told Teller's grandfather however, and he
flew a small plane up from Indiana to see his grandson perform.
Unfortunately he arrived right in the middle of the last song of the whole
show, Harpua, and he started to shower the crowd with deadly sparks from the
plane's carburetor (an old World War I pilot's trick). Trey tried to cover
for this embarrassing episode by incorporating it into his story, but he
became flustered and eventually walked off the stage in disgust, vowing to
never perform for a 'magic show crowd' again.
DG: Who is Tom Marshall - the man?
TM: A competition vacuum specialist. A condensed version of my former self. A
gorky mother-fucker that doesn't really ever know what to do with his hands.
DG: What is your occupation? I have been told you are a biology professor.
TM: Oh, and that too.
DG: Does it bother you or the band when your name is mentioned in the same
breath as [Grateful Dead lyricist] Robert Hunter? Are Grateful Dead
references just a huge pain-in-the-ass by now?
TM: I think they might have been to the band but not really to me. I mean,
no one in the band is insulted by being compared to the Dead, it was a
they went through when they needed to distance themselves from the Dead in a
way that they don't really feel the need to do as much anymore. I remember
also a couple years ago at most where there were no articles written about
Phish that didn't mention Blues Traveler. I think it's appropriate to
compare bands to other bands, but wake up! Phish is NOTHING like either of
these bands. The scene and the audience do overlap however... As for being
compared to Robert Hunter, again, it's similar circumstances that are
really all that can be compared, although I take it as a compliment when I
hear it no matter what context it was mentioned in.
DG: What are your influences in songwriting? Tolkien? Hunter? Collective
TM: David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, maybe. Edgar Allen Poe, H.P.
Lovecraft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge certainly. I need a female on the
list... oh Emily Dickinson and her fear of death. There's two. Umm... Neil
Young... the list changes constantly. Poe stays on it though.
DG: The lyrics credit in Golgi Apparatus on "Junta" states you are part of
the immortal songwriting team from the eighth grade. Does your friendship
with Phish, ie. Trey, really go that far back?
TM: Yup. The team that was mentioned was Bob Szuter, Marshall (me) and Aaron
Wolf. We all were in the same grade with Trey along with Marc Daubert (who
was briefly in Phish and wrote The Curtain) and Dave Abrahams (who wrote
Runaway Jim among other numerous contributions).
DG: Yesterday was Anastasio's birthday. How does the Phish family celebrate
such an occasion? Is it more festive than Rosh Hashana or did you even know?
TM: I can't think of anything more festive than Rosh Hashana - I mean that guy
could party! He even has 'hash' in his name! They celebrate by spending
time hanging out, you know, vacuuming and doing dishes. Family stuff.
Boring holes in tables. Honing the cutlery. You get the picture.
DG: In Amsterdam, I don't know if you remember, I don't know how I do, you,
Trey, myself and about 4 other fans smoked hashish. I don't expect you to
tell about personal usage and its impact on your creativity (you can if you
want), but I want to ask about the heavy drug use at Phish concerts. What
is Phish's feeling about it? Mailouts really stress staying away from
nitrous oxide, but there isn't much literature about the other prevalent
narcotics (THC, LSD, ecstasy, etc.)
TM: Right. Don't stay away from that other stuff. Unless perchance you are
driving that night, or know someone who is, or are blessed with a relative
who drives or operates heavy machinery in his or her spare time. Phish's
feeling on drug use at their shows is, essentially, one of sympathy.
DG: Do you do email at 11:00 p.m. eastern standard time every other night?
TM: Yes. It's the only time I have entirely to myself...
DG: You didn't confirm if you are a biology professor or not? What school? UVM?
TM: I'm sort of a freelance biology professor, between jobs at the moment, but
willing to conduct impromptu seminars on the peltate leaf of the pennyroyal
at the drop of a hat.
DG: Do you live in Burlington? Have you always lived there?
TM: No. Yes.
DG: Are you married with children? Page and Trey are married - does that
interfere with being a "rock star?"
TM: Yes - I'm married with one child, my almost three-year old daughter Anna,
who's about to be joined by another (hopefully though with a different name)
sometime right around New Year's Eve - which, alas, might cause me to miss
my first New Year's appearance onstage for three years in a row... Do I think
marriage interferes with being a rock star? Yes. I think it interferes with
everything. I think it's a bogus institution, a leftover biblical remnant
which has no basis in how we really should live. Look at primates - our
closest ancestors in the wild - the males have several mates. Who said we
should have only one mate for the rest of our lives? Was it Jesus? What did
he know about mating?
DG: Do you write your lyrics independently of the music then send them to
Trey? Do you have books of literature which he leafs through and selects
his favorites from?
TM: Mainly, yes. I fax stuff to Trey, or give him a bunch of my recent work if
happen to see him. Then I forget about it. I'll go visit garage sales
looking for antique butterfly collections. Then on some later day, out of
the blue, the phone will ring and Trey will call with a song partially
written needing some word rearrangement. Better still are the times I come
home and find a new song on my answering machine. Trey works best at his
own pace - suddenly he'll come up with some great riff and he'll work it
out and then flip through his stack of my lyrics until he finds something
That's part one. Somtimes that's all it takes, but often he'll call me and
we'll spend the remainder of the day or week putting the finishing touches on
DG: My favorite song on"Billy Breathes" is Character Zero. Could you tell
me what the lyric is when it goes: "I-i-i-i-. . . ?" What is the song
about? I interpreted it as a response to all the free advice people give
each other. Your message seems to be: "Fuck 'em. I'll do my thing."
TM: I guess it's kind of about that - if you listen to other people enough,
eventually they will contradict each other. "I, I ought to clean the
Manmahr Cave" (a cave in southern Italy where Fishman was born).
DG: When you're backstage at a Phish show do you dance to the jamming or do
you inhale nitrous and mingle with 14-year old Phans? Basically, what's a
show like for you?
TM: Well, during the music I'm out there in my seat, or in a general admission
show I take refuge at the soundboard. Before and after the show I hang with
the band or friends backstage, but after the first set I stay out in the
crowd and I try to meet everyone whom I told I'd see at the soundboard. If
you want to meet me, that's where I'll be. By the way - don't think I
haven't noticed your skillful placement of "the drug question" here and in
that other question... Why don't you just come out and ask the question
you've been dancing around: "How do you unfreeze Fishman's lips from the
nitrous tank before the second set?"
DG: How was your day? Any interesting conversations? Who else do you converse
with on email?
TM: Robert Hunter and I have emailed. I asked him some lyricist-to-lyricist
questions. He wished me "balance..." I chat with [producer] Steve
Lillywhite online now and again. I haven't yet figured out a skillfull way
to get him to talk about Peter Gabriel's third album - my favorite. He's
hung up on "Billy Breathes" lately for some reason.
DG: Why were the lyrics to "Rift" more serious than those of the three
TM: I was going through a dark stage I think. I actually like being there
because it's much easier for me to write when the abyss beckons... but it's
harder on my family, so now I can only vacation there once in a while.
DG: I find the lyrics to Down with Disease to be cryptically prophetic.
"Waiting for the time/ When I can finally say/ This has all been wonderful/
But now I'll find my way/ Children dancing on my lawn/ Stealing all my
lines." Did you write these lyrics? Are these the most auto-biographical
Phish lyrics there are?
TM: I wrote these. They work for Phish but weren't necessarily intended to tell
their story in any way. I actually had mononucleosis - it was my favorite
sickness ever! I'm not trying to trivialize what I understand can be very
serious for some people, but it was great for me - I got to hang out in my
apartment for three weeks and do nothing. My mind spun about my little
apartment in an increasing-radius spiral. My arms were so heavy one day I
couldn't lift them - it was a trip! I wrote these words in the height of my
DG: "Hung those nasty fliers/ On all the buildings in town" Did that really
happen to you or someone or is it just a magnificent image?
TM: Just a magnificent image - a 9 or 10 on the Beaufort scale - enough to
'cause slight structural damage.'
DG: Do you follow new music other than Phish? I'm talking new, new music. Not
'alternative' music but groups like Dave Matthews Band, Rusted Root, Blues
Traveler and newer entities like moe., Medeski Martin and Wood, Leftover
TM: Yes I follow DMB, moe. and Blues Traveler - in fact I've met every member
each of those bands and am even friendly with a few! My musical taste is
weird - I listen mainly to Phish, but at work I'll borrow other people's
CDs and that's how I keep up on some of the newer stuff. Rusted Root, and
MMW I haven't been blessed with yet. I saw Leftover Salmon in NYC somewhere
| - a funny bunch.
DG: Do you think this new direction represents progression in rock 'n'
roll? Is rock a dying art?
TM: You mean - is this kind of "back to basics," "retreading old ground"? I
don't think so. I'll just talk about Phish OK? - I can't lump those other
bands with them even if you try to force me to. I hear newness and oldness
in Phish. They're forging ahead on one hand yet are using their vast
knowledge of musical styles to do so. What does this mean for the future of
rock 'n' roll? Who cares?
DG: Is there an east coast sound vs. a west coast sound? Which one's better?
TM: The west coast sounds slightly better I guess, but only because a kid broke
my right eardrum with a coat hanger when I was three and I don't hear as well
from the right side.
DG: [Another] token drug question: Do you think Frank Zappa ever inhaled?
TM: That sure is a tokin' question.
DG: Last year, driving home from Sugarbush, [Vermont] I stopped at Nectar's
for fries. It felt like pilgrimage. Were you around during those Nectar's
dayzz? What was the aura like from 1986-89? Was every show at Nectar's a
TM: I only caught one Nectar's show. And one at Hunt's. And one on campus. And
one at Hamilton College. That's all of the really early stuff I saw.
DG: What do you think of the Phish.net? Do you browse or participate?
TM: I participate now and again. I think it's really cool. If a subject title
doesn't catch my interest I skip right on by. I read album reviews,
questions about lyrics, interpretations of songs (my favorite!), etc. I'm
not into any talk about which is the best tape or stuff like that.
DG: I heard Free on a chessy local radio station today. Is Phish ready to
have a "hit single?" Will they sell publishing rights? Will tablatures
appear in Guitar World? Will Waste be played at Bar Mitzvahs in the year
TM: "Bar" Mitzvah... another hidden party reference? Oh those wacky Jews!
DG: What else was in consideration for Halloween '96 other than Talking Heads?
TM: Actually letting the audience vote for it again, although when Alanis
Morrisette was the first vote they got they decided to withdraw the offer.
DG: Brother, Wedge, Tube and Sanity. Rarities. Why are these tunes being
played commonly this fall?
TM: To revoke their status as "rarities."
DG: I broke up with my girlfriend last week. I can't stop referring to lyrics
from "Rift" ie. "As if she were the last one she thought I'd betray." Also,
Dog Faced Boy is quite stinging. Were these songs based on actual events?
Yours or someone else's?
TM: A lot of Rift may have been my relationship(s) rising to the surface...
although Dog Faced Boy was primarily written by Fishman - I just wrote the
"Dog Faced Boy" verse - he wrote all the sentimental shit.
DG: The Europe '97 itinerary seems to be conducive to college and high
school spring break. Does Phish want their hardcore fans flying over again?
Will the fans come no matter what?
TM: They'd prefer them not to fly over.
DG: How can the band grab a European audience if Americans are buying all
DG: Are you and the others aware that seeing a Phish concert in the
Netherlands is kind of like seeing the Pope speak to heaven?
TM: Yes - although most prefer when he gets an answer as well, otherwise it's
just like watching someone talk on a payphone in the station while you're
waiting for a train.
DG: There's a lot of underground music publications springing up which
cover "jam bands." Phish garners a lot of that press. What do you think
personally about the following publications and their coverage of Phish?
i)Pharmer's Almanac, ii)Fantastic Voyage Systems, iii)Relix (and their
ancient Phish photo on a recent cover).
TM: i) Parking lot shirt salesmen copy data from the Phish.net and hock it for
profit. I'm not "allowed" to talk about them anymore please, next question?
ii) One of the best titles available (I'm really just referring to the
title). iii) Pretty decent in their own way - like watching the Pope
playing poker with heaven.
DG: Earlier I asked you how it was chosen who opened for Phish on certain
dates. You replied "Open What?" What I meant was how are opening acts
chosen? For example, in 1994, the Dave Matthews Band opened some shows. In
1995, Medeski Martin and Wood opened for Phish in New Orleans. In
Vancouver, Baby Gramps has opened.
TM: I think they go through an elaborate process which involves determining if
there are any musicians in the area that night.
Dan Gladman is managing editor at The Gazette, the daily student newspaper
at the University of Western Ontario. He likes driving 8 hours before
seeing a Phish show.
Andy's Phish Page