The Joseph Voth Interview
The following interview occurred between
writer Joseph Voth
Cubensis guitarist Craig Marshall
Voth: Is there something about the way that The Dead played that governs the way you (all) play? In other words, do you each see your role as one of interpreting the Grateful Dead - or like music - in the same way as your "counterpart" (Lesh for Bass, etc.) did/does, or do you take your appreciation for The Dead’s general playing philosophy and go from that point? I’ve provided two possibilities for this, but maybe the answer is more complicated - feel free to take what you can from the spirit of this question and go from there.
Marshall: It’s essential for any group of musicians playing together to listen to each other, for ideas that can be expanded on, for new grooves in an old song, for a different mood. The Dead were masters at that-- listening to each other, and playing off each other. Ideally, if I’m playing a lead high on the fretboard, my counterpart Nate will be noodling at the other end of the spectrum, so it becomes an extended chord that is very pleasing.

Many times any one of us is really "on his game" during a particular song, and they kind of take the lead and direct the song. It could be instrumentally, or vocally. Our philosophy is: The Music Plays the Band. The more we serve the music, by playing the right thing at the right time, the more satisfying the outcome. We have never considered ourselves to be a "tribute" band (even though that’s what we’re known as for purposes of description), but we are a "cover" band that interprets the Dead’s music OUR way, taking advantage of our interpretative powers. Tribute bands seek to provide "note-for-note" replication of a song, show after show, but in Cubensis, we NEVER do it the same way twice!

Of course, as lead guitarist, I’m going to try to evoke Jerry Garcia, but I’m not LIMITED to that. It depends on factors like, what kind of a day did I have? Am I upbeat tonight? Did I listen to some really good jazz, and is that going to influence the way I play tonight? To me, it would be boring as a musician to play the same thing the same way each night, with the same signature riffs, etc. It stifles musical creativity.

In Cubensis, we are challenged each and every performance to re-create the tunes for folks that might see us 5 or 6 times a month. And of course we have to satisfy ourselves as players. That’s why we (and the Dead) had such a following of rabid fans---familiar favorites are played with a fresh, diverse approach every show.

You can compare it to a cook who must prepare a chicken dish for his diners night after night - how shall I spice this tonight? Indian style or Mexican style? Shall I include potatoes, or carrots, or something more exotic? That’s our challenge - to cook up something new and delicious using the same main course of 120 or so tunes.
Voth: It seems that there was a division between fans of the Grateful Dead - and is for other "jam bands" of today, I suppose, like Phish and Widespread Panic, etc. - regarding who’s there for the music and who’s there for "the scene." The obvious answer for a musician is to say "I really hope they’re there for the music," but your band has an additional complication regarding audience motivation. Some are there for the music, some for the scene, but to one degree or another, everyone is there for some level of reminiscence (you might not think this is fair, which is okay - just explain yourself).

The question is: in a improvisational music-environment, how often - and to what degree - is your playing motivated by the sentiment you sense in the audience - be it reminiscence, musical observance, etc.

If there is a variation in the answers here, the next obvious question is: how do you manage to jam as a UNIT when different band members are feeling a need to address what they perceive as different audience needs/desires?
Marshall: That’s a complex question. First, on the subject of reminiscence, that’s EXACTLY why we play. In the beginning, we played because the Dead didn’t play in Los Angeles enough to suit us, and later, after Garcia passed away, they didn’t play at all. We consider ourselves Deadheads of the highest order - most of us have extensive tape collections, have seen hundreds of shows. I myself saw my first show in ‘68 at the Shrine Exposition Hall in L.A., November if I recall right.

So the question was, shall we have fond memories of these shows, or shall we create our own little "Dead show" right here? Most of the good people that attend our shows are answering that same call, to remember and re-experience the magic. Then again, many of our fans never got a chance to see the Dead live, for reasons of age or opportunity. We do offer the closest thing to that special vibe that they understand was present at the shows.

Much of it DID happen in the parking lot (the scene), but the ultimate factor was: all these people were coming together with one mind, to embrace the music. As to the apparent division between the camps, it’s mostly an issue of exposure. The youngsters who had their first musical awakening upon hearing Phish, for example, will never really know what they’re missing. They might think that Phish is the godhead, but, they would be wise to look upstream to the source.

I think everyone agrees that the Dead were at the frontier of jam rock. They were the creators, and then it was refined by the splendid bands that followed. To look at a Phish crowd mid-performance, they might as well be boogying to the Dead as far as the physical dancing manifestation goes. But I find that there is a certain spirit lacking. The music of these latter-day bands, while technically advanced and pleasing to the ear, doesn’t "DO IT" for me like the Dead’s music did. Sometimes at a Phish show, when everybody is screaming, I find myself saying, "What’s the big deal?" However, I always enjoy myself, and attend as many of these type of shows as I can, but it tends to make me miss and appreciate the Dead a little more.

As concerns audience needs, when I’m sizing up an audience, I try to discern whether they’re "family" who would really appreciate some tasty nuggets of more obscure Dead tunes, or are they "newbies" who are going to respond better to familiar, middle-of-the-road material? Therefore, some songs that are suggested by band members may be passed over that particular night, in favor of something that might be more palatable. Usually, there’s never a discussion over it - I find myself exercising the veto power, by default.

But even within those somewhat opposing approaches, there’s something for everyone. I’m not aware of us addressing this issue consciously as a unit, rather, it’s something that just naturally happens, and it comes from playing together for a long time. Incidentally, we actually play a couple of Phish songs, ‘cause people like them, and they’re not expecting them.

Now, there ARE knuckleheads who have problems with addiction or whatever who come to the shows, but never make it past the parking lot in a drunken stupor. I don’t have much respect or time for those people. They seem to be the ones that attract the authorities. They need to get some help, and stop polluting the scene for the rest of us.
Voth: I think it would be interesting to find out how you think The Grateful Dead dealt with scenarios like the one I posed. It seems like it would apply to them if for no other reason than because they had some extreme variations to deal with in terms of venue capacities.
Marshall: I think because of the scale on which they played, they were less able to address individual audience needs. They were simply outnumbered! And, they had a different approach from the beginning - playing it "their way" without much need or desire for validation. Because what they did had never been done before, they had that luxury.

Sure, it was risky, but the world was ready, and they were embraced all the more for it. Cubensis, however, needs to evaluate each show with the idea of involving the audience. Actually, the fans can make or break a show, despite our best efforts. They are truly a sixth member of the band - their response, or lack of it, determines what level we reach, in many cases.

A Cubensis show is ideally about being transported to another plane for a couple of hours. Unless everyone involved lets go of their ties and anchors, the vehicle cannot get far off the ground. The question becomes, do you want the kiddie ride, or do you want the roller coaster with 180 degree loops?
Voth: To what degree does access to a so many live Dead shows—increasing outside the tapers’ community daily with the influx of file-sharing websites—influence your playing. I think it’s obvious that unless you’re The Dark Star Orchestra, the band isn’t going to have a conversation about “doing” anything from Cornell ’77 (or Jersey City ’73, or…or…or) but anyone who likes to listen to their favorite improvisational artists’ backlog of shows will have a special tone, or texture, or phrasing, and so on, in his heart and memory. How can you avoid letting this influence you if you are going to be truly improvisational yourself? Or should you (does this even matter)?
Marshall: Actually, I FULLY let tapes (and their corresponding flavors) influence me, because this music is powerfully creative and inspiring, and the old spiritual principle applies that “you are what you eat”. If I sit at the feet of the Master (musically speaking) then I will absorb, be transformed, and then produce a musical flow that is born of that experience. It’s far different than studying a song selection to “cop a riff”.

When you position yourself in the same stream as your teacher, don’t you get just as drenched? When it comes to the tapes, there is nothing more gratifying than comparing an early “Scarlet Begonias” to one they played late in their career. Like a fine aged wine, the maturity shows, and in the damnest, most brilliant way, they still manage to make it spontaneous.

That’s our goal as well. We’re accomplishing it, although on a lesser scale and in a more compressed period of years. On the other hand, those that are content to sit at home and listen to tapes ONLY, are denying the process by which they were created. However wonderful and evocative listening to the archive is, nothing beats the experience of exchanging energies with a live band, and letting the music have its way with you.
Voth: What about the role of trying to think like The Dead thought? I saw a Dead Tribute Band (if that’s the right term, I’m not sure it would really apply to Cubensis) and they played “Us and Them” (Floyd) during the second set. It was nice and drawn out and the guitarist played really subtle phrasing that was reflective of The Man’s phrasing. I think everyone was really digging it because it seemed like the kind of humble move that that The Dead would—and used to—make. But, you see what I’m saying? In a moment that a band like yours is trying to take something to a level beyond where they found it, it also goes right back to the source, to the original band in terms of the philosophy, the approach. I guess this is really tied into what’s “tribute” and what’s “covering” and how much you buy into this as a musician fulfilling the role that you do on these particular nights. This is an easy question to dismiss, I think, but I’d really like you to examine it and feel free to take it in any direction your musings allow you to go.
Marshall: We occasionally take a cover tune and “Cubensis-ize” it, performing it Dead-style. It ends up being subject to the same interpretive influences as any other Dead song we might play. Although you can easily recognize the song, it is undeniably “our” version of how the Dead might have played it, so it gets filtered by two processes. I would hope it emerges favorably.

I’m always thinking of songs that I wish the Dead or JGB had covered---both WERE serious cover bands, after all. Sometimes, we take a stab at it, and it is usually successful on one level or another.

Regarding “thinking like the Dead thought”, I know that often we FEEL like the Dead must have felt, when the magic is happening. It’s an unsaid thing; it just takes a nod between bandmembers to acknowledge, “this is what it’s all about”. I’ve never “channeled” Jerry Garcia, and I wouldn’t want to. But I’ve felt twinges of the same power he must have held in his hands. It's kind of like picking up King Arthur's sword, only it's got six strings. Sometimes, we might reach that pinnacle repeatedly during the course of a performance, and I think, “Wow, we were great for moments on end.
Voth: Who are the bands—particularly bands that have gained recognition on one community level or another since 1995—that have an effect on the way that you view jamming? I don’t mind obvious answers, from Phish to God Street Wine to Box Set, but I’d like to especially know if anyone outside of the tofu-eating world has an affect on those musicians reinterpreting Dead songs and how, specifically, those influential bands can be have this effect if they are not themselves prone to riffing outside the box.
Marshall: I just can’t come up with a good answer for this one. I can only say that my influences are the Dead as a band, and Garcia and Weir as guitarists. Weir, because at times Nate and I switch roles, and he plays the lead, and I the rhythm. I can’t think of another BAND that influences my playing, just individual artists like Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Frank Gambale, Hendrix---all these guitarists I can’t hold a candle to. I’m lucky to get anywhere near Garcia as far as technique and subtlety. It keeps me humble and learning.
Voth: There’s certainly some connection, in the minds of those in the larger mainstream, that the Dead, and their “spawn,” was/is representative of a part of the drug culture. Big jam bands have addressed this issue in different ways: from condemnation, to informing, to asking (and hoping) for respect from an audience viewed as entitled to their freedoms, to ignoring the situation.

But whatever the case, I think it’s realistic to recognize that improvisational music has always brought with it a percentage of listeners who feel a spiritual connection between mind-altering music and mind-altering substances.

Okay—here’s the question: is this your business? Do you factor the element of some audience members’ altered consciousness into either your playing or any other element of the way that you approach doing what you do? Why or why not?
Marshall: It would be wrong to attempt to play the music of freedom, and restrict attendees from experiencing that freedom in their own way. I am an advocate of the reverent use of psychedelics and nature-based hallucinogens, and we accept the psychedelic mantle that the Dead placed on those that enjoy this music, whether listener or artist. After all, the name “Cubensis” is based on a hallucinogenic mushroom! At the same time, I find that personally, the inspiration that might come with the use of these sacraments is for me unusable in real time, because I might be so stoned that my fingers will not do my bidding (or so it appears to me).

Therefore, I rarely, if ever, play “stoned” because I feel I can play better without it, and I owe the audience my best. If we expect people to plunk down their hard-earned cash for an evening’s entertainment, then we better not disappoint them by being wasted. However, there may be members of the band, and musicians in general, who are at their peak when deeply stoned, and who am I to deny them that expression?
Voth: Obviously, The Dead had a strong connection with the Blues, Country and Western and Bluegrass (although this last one really applied to Jerry). It seems like the musical equipment of their early years kind of lent itself to playing around with those genres (at least the first two, anyway).

What about the equipment of today—specifically yours—changes the way that the songs are expanded upon? What other genres can you identify in your own playing (and what is the relationship between increasing technology and your ability to introduce them, or explore them, for your performances?)
Marshall: Just like the Dead were trailblazers in the electronic application of performing, I too enjoy and employ what today’s technology offers. A workman is no better than his tools, so I find myself trying to stay at the technological forefront by combining the newest guitar toys and gizmos with solid, reliable vintage gear.

Have you noticed that you rarely hear a guitar lead in today’s pop music? In the new radio bands, there still may be a guitar player, but he’s doing something different with it. I consider it fair to occasionally dally with that approach.

It’s not very Deadish, but it’s improvisation at its’ finest, and it might tickle the ear of someone who’s used to listening to KROQ. It might make the Dead’s music more accessible to such a person, and that’s a good thing to shoot for.