The neon flashed "Vacancy" after guitarist Bob Martin packed a grip and skedaddled west to Chicago, leaving a hole in the Margaret Explosion the size of space. The Margaret Explosion is known for its atmospheric, borderless seek and find, and Martin was an integral component.
It is the perfect music, really; a narcotic moment in time framed by the audience's desire to take a ride. No charts, no rehearsal — it would seem the band is perfect for those who hate prep work. But that would be missing the point. Specifically, Margaret Explosion is a listening experience that requires a suspension of disbelief, like an agnostic search for god.
On a recent Wednesday evening, over the blood of the bean at The Little Theatre Café, fans kibitz and chatter excitedly to hear music they've never heard before and will never hear again. Margaret Explosion plays completely freeform, improvisational music; one and done. Tonight's lineup is Peggy Dodd on saxophone, Paul Dodd on drums, Ken Frank on upright bass, and Martin's replacement on guitar, Phil Marshall, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Now Marshall ain't Martin, nor does he claim to be. But if there's a guitar player in Rochester capable of anything, it's Marshall. And by way of guitar sent through a pedal board that looks like it came out of the cockpit of Air Force One, Marshall sounds in form as he tackles tunes he — and the band — has never heard before.
Marshall has been on the scene for eons: as a founding member of The Colorblind James Experience, La La Land, The Fox Sisters, The Phil Marshall Band; as a sideman for multiple singer-songwriters, like Annie Wells; and as a musical therapist in hospice care, giving comfort to those in the end stages of life.
CITY sat down with Marshall to discuss "Who is Phil Marshall?"; never playing the same thing twice; and how it'll be a long time before we hear him play "Stella By Starlight." An edited transcript follows.
CITY: How did you feel going into this band?
Phil Marshall: I think initially the idea was a little daunting; Bob Martin has such a history, not only with this band, but with Paul and Peggy in general going back to Personal Effects, and the Hi-Techs. When I heard that Bob was leaving, my initial thought was I wanted Margaret Explosion to carry on, to continue. And I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring.
Was there a ring?
Not that I was aware of, but I kind of assumed that Jack Schaefer would step in, but he didn't. So I said, "Look, if you guys are interested, I'm available."
What did you do to prepare?
No rehearsal. I'd sat in a few times before, and I'd seen how it kind of works. The groove gets started; Peggy states a theme — it's usually a one or two-chord progression ... I guess if it's one chord you're not really progressing anywhere, but you just figure out the key. And the idea for me is to be lush and ambient and create atmospherics.
You manipulate your pedal board with your hands. Why?
That's because I want to work it with my hands. I like to tweak the nobs. I like to treat it as if it were its own instrument. And I'm new enough to pedal boards that I don't trust my feet, especially with levels of reverb, stuff like that. I don't just want to turn it on and have that be just what I use; I want to be able to adjust it throughout and even in the context of one piece, one song.
So even if you create a memorable passage, the band won't revisit it?
No, and I think it's a philosophy in the band: every chance you play, it's a new conversation, a new dialogue. I can't be original every minute that I'm playing. But if I have something I like, a riff, I might try it again next time, but possibly on an entirely different piece of music. I really like the freedom of not having to worry about arrangements. With Colorblind James and La La Land, everything was rehearsed to a "T." There was no room for error. Once La La Land dissolved, I didn't really want to have a situation where I would have to play things the same way in my music. But I'm playing guitar in The Fox Sisters and I'm having a blast with that. We have arrangements. Sometimes we crash and burn, but nobody panics and keeps playing.
Has the Margaret Explosion ever crashed and burned?
Sometimes we'll be playing and it's like, "This doesn't feel like it's working." But that's part of it. You've got to get your hands in the clay and see if you can come up with something, because then you have the opportunity to create something better than you ever imagined. If you rehearse everything, chances are you'll play at one level — and that's a good level; you'll entertain people, you'll get the message across. Sometimes when you improvise, you bottom out, but you're also gonna go higher than you ever expected. It's like jazz players with free improvisation.
Does recording in the studio defeat the Margaret Explosion mission?
It's a document — nothing more, nothing less. Lately, I've got into this thing where all I want to do is release live albums and not play in the studio anymore. It probably won't last, but I like taking that chance. I like the risk.
Have you left any itches unscratched?
I've always fantasized about being in a jazz band, playing standards, but I suck at that. It's gonna be a while before you hear me do "Stella By Starlight." There are just too many things I like to do. I like making ambient sounds; I like clouds of reverb and looping and seeing where that goes, doing a quasi-Brian Eno kind of thing. But honestly music therapy is the one thing I think I'm qualified to do.
I've caught myself saying yes too much. I have a lot of limitations and a lot of itches to scratch, so I find myself in different things I can enjoy myself in. I'm in more bands than I've ever been in, now: I've got the R&B and soul thing; free improv; singer-songwriter. I love being a sideman. I'm a Jack of all trades, master of none. I don't think I've found "This is who Phil Marshall is when he picks up a guitar."