Interview: Dave Marsh

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Dave Marsh is a man of many colours. Besides his main gig as the drummer for the Joel Plaskett Emergency, he’s also a member of cult-status rockers The Super Friendz. He’s a guitarist and singer/songwriter: he makes his own records with his own band, known as Dave Marsh and The True Love Rules. Besides being a gentlemanly percussionist with a distinct stylistic flair, he’s also an entertaining raconteur. He speaks easily and seems to enjoy the art of conversation. You can imagine him socializing easily in any setting. He could swing with Gene Krupa or drink with Sinatra. He could cover himself in glitter and hang with Bowie at Ian Hunter’s place. He could chew some straw and help Roy Rogers saddle his horse. He could chill on the dock at your cottage, with a cold drink and some hot licks.

As I alluded to above, in 2008 Dave released his first solo record, “The True Love Rules”, which is also the name of his band. He was kind enough to send me a track from his next record under that name, a jaunty rocker called “She’ll Never Hear A Love Song”. The album release date hasn’t been announced yet, but Dave has assured me that it will be soon and that it will be on Plaskett’s New Scotland Records , and that it will be available on vinyl with a cd insert with bonus tracks. Check out “She’ll Never Hear A Love Song” below.

I met Dave at the Horseshoe Tavern during the Emegency’s recent five-night residency there. We spoke about his experiences in the Emergency, his solo work, his youth, the Super Friendz, his days in England, and his lifelong journey in music.

Audio Reckoning: You’ve had a lot of guests at these shows (the five night run at the Horseshoe). Were you rehearsing in advance or just working songs out here during sound check?

Dave Marsh: It’s all been done here.

I’m guessing that led to some fun and unexpected moments.

We have played with Mo [Kenney], of course, because we’ve toured with her this year. But we’ve never done like a five-song stretch with her like we did here. It was really great. And then she came out and sang “From The Back Of The Film” later in the show, and she kicked it off really quickly. None of us were ready for it and we had to catch up with her [laughs]. She really slammed it and it was great.

It must be fun for you guys, being more experienced, to watch a younger person perform and feel that energy.

Yeah, it’s fantastic. Mo is such a natural talent. And she’s a real rocker! We jam Sabbath tunes all the time.

Cool. Let’s talk about you now. You were born and raised in Halifax?

I was born in Halifax, but raised in Dartmouth.

Are you from a musical family?

Yeah, my grandfather was a drummer. He was a kettle drummer in the First World War. So maybe that’s where some of it comes from. He always used to be playing on tables with his fingers.

You have memories of that?

I have stories of that. I was really young when he died. People in my family always talk about how my drumming came from him. But other than that, music was always in the house. But my dad didn’t play or anything.

But your parents were into music though?

Yeah, there was always music on in the house. The radio was on constantly, from morning to evening. And then at parties, the Sinatra and Count Basie records would come out, and they had a lot of parties. Big band records are a very early memory for me.

That’s interesting, because drums were a big part of that sound, that era of music.

Absolutely!

So when did you start drumming yourself?

I started when I was about thirteen or so. There was this English kid in the neighbourhood, I remember, and he was the first one I knew who had a kit. A lot of boys I knew were in pipe and drum bands, and some of those guys were snare drummers, but this one guy had an actual drum kit! And that just blew my mind. And it didn’t take long until somebody got a cheap bass, and an amp. We all used to hang out and just bang around on the bass or the kit. And I didn’t understand the bass very much, but I definitely took to the kit pretty quickly.

Did you have any inkling beforehand that you wanted to play drums, or was it a happy accident?

I guess it was kind of a happy accident. I did have a drum at one point. My cousin who was older wanted to form a band when I was really young- this was in the seventies. He just said, “man, we’re forming a band! You’re the drummer!” So I had this one marching-type drum, and I said “sure, we’ll play at school and stuff.” But then one day, my stick went right through the skin, and that was that! But I do remember having an idea that drumming might be on the horizon.

Even before that though, were you one of those really music hungry kids?

Oh yeah!

The reason I ask is that you grew up in a real golden age for rock and roll. The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin- were they all a part of your world?

Oh yeah. I grew up in north Dartmouth, which is like a ground zero for The Stones and Zeppelin. At least, it was for us. And having an older brother, I had a constant supply of records coming in every week. Records at that point were like two bucks at Zellers or something, you know?

So you know, your brother would come home with five or six records, and about 2 or 3 times per week, and you would hear this [points to a speaker in the room playing Led Zeppelin]. And then you learn that Zeppelin stole a lot of ideas from the Jeff Beck Group.  I knew that when I was fourteen!

So you had one of those real rock & roll educations then, thanks to your older brother?

Yeah, and that was what everybody did, other than sports. Everybody followed football and hockey, and was into rock & roll. That was it! Nobody really had cars yet or anything, we were too young still, so that’s what we did with our time.

You didn’t even have that experience of driving around in a friend’s car listening to music. For you guys it was just the rock & roll.

Well, I did have those experiences with driving around with the old man, in the ’74 Monaco station wagon, with the Charlie Rich eight-tracks. It was a really great sound- you know, you’re in the back with the dog and suddenly Charlie Rich comes on, or Glen Campbell.

Did you respond to any other kinds of music? Or did you have a preference for rock & roll above other genres?

Well, like you said, I sort of grew up in the golden age of semi-suburban rock, which everyone was into. But I did have that background in listening to big band stuff, so I could recognize other influences in rock bands, like the jazz influences. But we were definitely rock kids first.

When you started playing drums, did you know that it was something you wanted to do for the rest of your life, or did it grow on you more slowly?

No it became a total obsession, immediately.

Were you one of those typical drummer personalities? The hyperactive, slightly wild kid?

Yup [laughs]! Absolutely. Energy was not a problem.

Did you look up to drummers who had those types of personalities, like Keith Moon or John Bonham for example?

Everybody worshipped Bonham, of course, especially when I was growing up in the mid-seventies. His drums just sounded so good. And there was nothing that he did that was chaff; everything he did had a purpose. So that was always impressive to me.

I loved Charlie Watts- he was always a big influence on me. He was just so slinky and jazzy, and tasteful. With Plaskett, he’s not so much a Stones guy, and I am. I want the power of Zeppelin, but with the looseness of Charlie Watts.

Did you read Keith’s book?

The one that came out last year? No, I haven’t yet.

Well, in the book, Keith Richards goes on at length about those qualities of Charlie Watts’ playing: the looseness, playing just a little bit behind the beat, being just a little bit funkier.  Which is what you’re describing, right?

It’s a very delicate thing, you know. I remember flying up to Toronto, to see The Who’s farewell gig in 1981, with Kenny Jones on drums. And Kenny Jones was an amazing drummer with the Small Faces, and the Faces. But you put him with The Who, and it just didn’t work. Mainly because he played hi-hat, and Keith Moon just didn’t do that! So drumming is a very delicate cocktail mixture, and if you’re not careful you can ruin it.

Right- so Watts and Bonham, those were your guys?

Yeah, and I also liked Micky Waller quite a lot. I remember my brother bought the double gatefold vinyl reissue of Jeff Beck Group’s “Truth” with “Beck-Ola”- they put out both albums together. And I realized that he was just a great drummer. He was really pub-rocky, but with a blues and jazz thing going on too.

I’ve had the opportunity to see you play up close a lot in the past year, and that stylistic mix is something that I think is really evident in your playing as well.  There’s a sensitivity and dynamics in the way you play, but also a certain amount of rhythmic flair that comes from these other styles. I think the way you work your cymbals, and the way you push and pull the tempos, definitely reflects those influence.  Are you conscious of that when you’re playing? Are you thinking, “this part needs to sound like Watts”?

A little bit, but at this point in the game, it’s all pretty natural, you know. But I am conscious of not overplaying things, or sticking to one part for too long, stuff like that. There are a lot of possibilities in a drum kit- you can play a snare drum five different ways, and you can play a cymbal five different ways.

When you’re playing shows on tour, are you adjusting those subtleties or nuances from night-to-night, or are you sticking to the same parts?

It does change a bit. Certainly, the intensity changes based on what the audience is giving back to you. If the crowd is really pushing us, we sort of jump onto that train. It’s really about serving the song- that’s the most important thing. And, you gotta have fun!

I think for a lot of performers, those energy levels can really effect whatever tune you’re trying to get across. It’s not a static thing that exists in a vacuum.

But there can be too much of it. That stadium thing, watching a drummer hit as hard as he can all night- it immediately becomes boring to me. You listen to something like Sabbath or Zeppelin, and kids sometimes think it’s all about slamming the drums as hard as you can, but there’s a lot of subtlety there too. A drummer can really make or break a tune, just by changing the kick drum pattern. Alternately, you can set a great groove and everybody will dig it. It’s really powerful.

That’s something that The Emergency does really well. I’ve seen you guys in bars, and I’ve seen you in a couple of big theatres, and it isn’t static. Sometimes the tempos of the songs will change a little bit, or things get funkier, or maybe a certain song gets played a little faster. But it’s never exactly the way it was on the record, or even at the last show. It’s great that you make room for that and embrace it.

There’s no doubt about it, “scrappy” was the right word for this last album [“Scrappy Happiness”]. I mean, we ARE a scrappy band. We don’t go out of our way to be or anything, but we just let it be.

I think you’ve got to have a certain amount of rawness in rock & roll. It has to be organic from one night to the next.

Yeah. Every night, or every performance of the song, has to be fresh. So you change it up, play it a bit differently.

Are you thinking about that rawness when you’re recording? The reason I ask is that your drum sound is very distinctive, in that it’s not the modern, super-compressed drum sound. It’s more organic and vintage sounding.

Yeah I know what you mean- it’s a little bit garage-y. That sound changes depending on the album, but I know what you’re saying. I hate the phrase “lo-fi” , but…

And I don’t want to say that either, because it’s a reductive way to frame it. But it is a very vintage, warm, open drum sound. And it’s very characteristic of your playing.

We just try to find a reasonably good mic sound, and send it to tape. It’s not going through tons of processors or anything.

Do you record to a click track?

Not very often for The Emergency. For my album, I played scratch acoustic guitar to the click track, and then I played drums to that scratch guitar track. So it still has a bit of drift to it.

So it’s not like everything is built around the click then.  It’s built off of an instrument.

I can’t play drums to a click [laughs]. I just don’t want to.

I know a lot of drummers who feel the same way. It’s a bit counter-intuitive to ask a drummer to play with a click all the time. The drummer is the time-keeper. That’s what he’s there for!

Yeah. I don’t know if my heartbeat is regular, but if it is I can’t even play to that [ laughs]! There’s got to be some sort of variance, some push and pull. So what I would do is play a guitar to the click, and then record the drums to the guitar.

But in that setup, you’re still building the foundation of the song from yourself playing an instrument, so it stays a little more human. As opposed to having everything recorded directly to the metronome, you’ve got the different sounds playing of each other.

Right- it’s scrappier, in a good way.

Let’s talk about your solo career now. I’m curious about your evolution as a songwriter. When did you start playing guitar?

Well drums came first. But I’d always wanted to play guitar. I was living in England, and there was this Scottish guy who I was playing with. I would just ask him “hey, show me a Chuck Berry riff- all I need is three chords”.  I knew I could take it somewhere if I just had three chords. Show he showed me those chords, and I went out and bought a guitar. I was probably about twenty years old at the time.

Did you start writing songs immediately?

I knew it would take some time to get comfortable enough on the guitar to do any actual songwriting. And then it just all kind of fell into place, you know?

When were the songs on your solo album [“The True Love Rules”] written? Are we going all the way back to when you were twenty?

Some were very recent, written a few weeks before the recording. We were in Australia at the time, and I had some time on my hands between shows, so I was writing there. I spent a lot of time working on stuff there. The last track on the album, “Aussie Birds”, was just me sitting out on the deck listening to the cockatoos. It was during an afternoon rain storm.

So, some of the songs were written right before I went into Plaskett’s studio. And then I had a couple of songs that had been kicking around for a few years. But there wasn’t anything super old on the record. I’d say the songs spanned about two or three years.

What was the impetus for you to do your own record?

Oh I don’t know- why does anyone spend all their money on their own project? [laughs] It just kind of had to happen. I’d had bands before anyway, and I’d been playing guitar with bands since like 1989 or something, so I had songs and stuff. But it just felt like it was time to do an album, and it just had to come out. We were quite happy with it- it turned out great.

I think it’s a great record! And there are a lot of diverse ideas and influences on it. Are you a Bowie guy? There seems to be a Bowie thing with that record…

I know- I get that all the time! Honestly, it was not a conscious effort to sound like that. But now, looking back on it, I understand that comparison. There’s definitely some Bowie vibes in the sound. And of course, he was one of the guys we were listening to as kids. We had a lot of English glam rock around- Bowie, Slade, and stuff like that…

And also, that lower style of singing that Bowie did just seemed to suit my voice at the time. It was easier for me to do that than say, Bon Scott or something.

Did you find it challenging to sing a whole record’s worth of songs?

Well, some of the songs I was really comfortable with, because they had been performed live a bunch of times. So some of them were very easy. And then there were others where I just thought to myself, “dude, you’re trying to write a song that Sammy Cahn would’ve written for Sinatra, and now you have to sing it like Sinatra!” So that was the challenge. I had created these monsters, and now I had to ride them!

You must have felt some sense of satisfaction from pushing yourself in that way, though. Once you’ve overcome what you thought were your creative boundaries, it must have felt great.

Yeah. But for me, the satisfying thing isn’t achieving the perfect vocal; it’s writing the song and getting it out into the world. Then no matter what the song sounds like, even if it sounds like a song from the forties, I’ve come by it honestly.

With the Emergency, you drum and sing at the same time. How different is it for you to be the primary vocalist?

It’s easier to sing and play guitar. You’re standing, for one. And if you have a great rhythm section, like I do, you can even stop playing guitar and just let a chord hang and just sing. With drumming, it’s the mechanical act of straining your neck over to the mic so you can sing. Especially with a song like “Nowhere With You”- it ain’t getting any easier! [laughs]

Going back to your record: there are a lot of songs on there.  It doesn’t seem like a quick, one-off thing. It seems like you put a lot of work into those tunes.

Yeah, well it had been coming a long time, you know. I put out an album every forty-two years!  It had been a while.

Is there a song on the record you’re particularly proud of above the others?

No- I don’t think there’s anything that I’m not proud of on the record. It was far-reaching. It’s eclectic in the extreme.

When you put it together, were you conscious of that? Did you know it was going to be a really deep well of musical influences?

I knew that a lot of it had been coming for so long, that the influences were going to come out anyway. So the soulfulness of a song like “True Love Rules” just comes from wherever it comes from. Who knows, you know? “Stray Cat Blues”, by the Stones, or something like that. And then the first two songs, “Backstreets Thread” and “The Way We Live Today”, those are the straight-up, garage-y, Stooges-type songs.

I was getting kind of a Stooges vibe when I was listening to the record. And then there’s a more soulful middle section, where the songs are a little more Nashville or motown…

…and then there’s some almost rockabilly tunes- I know. It must be really confusing for people who listen to it [laughs].

I think it works because the through line is your voice. You played guitar on the whole album too, right?

Yeah and I had some guests. I love having guests, either in recording or live. So I played guitar all over that, and I did most of the drums too. Plaskett plays drums on “I’ll Let Them Know You Were Here”, with his unique style. We were talking about Charlie Watts, playing behind the beat- with Plaskett the beat shows up in a cab [laughs], but it works beautifully.

[laughs] Because you are a drummer, what is it like for you to hand the drums off to somebody else? Are you really particular with drummers?

Yeah I am a little bit, in that there’s certain things that just can’t be done. I’m not quite sure what they are exactly, but I know them when I hear them.

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Returning to your solo activities: what is your approach to songwriting? Is it music first or lyrics?

It’s a bit of both. From being a drummer, I always kind of write songs with a beat in mind. I just sit down with an acoustic guitar, usually. For some reason, I write a lot in the morning. Plaskett always tells me that he likes to write late at night. That might have happened for me a couple of times with lyrics, but for the most part I just sit down with an acoustic guitar and a couple of tea, first thing in the morning. It’s kind of a fresh slate, and it just comes out.

One thing that jumps out about you as a songwriter is that your lyrics seem to contain a lot of references that are very personal to you and your own life. When you’re writing, are you intentional about putting those details into the work, or are they more subconscious?

I don’t know- I’ve never really thought about that. I just think that in songwriting, you’ve got to put something into it that connects for you, something that sets off your imagination. Something that you have to say.

I think my favourite song is “The Smoke Easy”, and I know that there’s a personal story behind that song.

Well that one definitely is a story-song, about the club that we all hung out in. And you know, if you’re like me you spend a lot of time in clubs, and you spend a lot of late nights chatting with people and listening to music, after-hours. So that’s really significant and influential part of my life. And now that place is shut down, there’s a bit of nostalgia there. I just like the expression of freedom in that song.

We’d all be hanging out and listening to music, after-hours, and everyone we knew would just show up.

Were you trying to recapture a sense of community with that song, do you think?

Yeah, that’s exactly it. A sense of your local community.

You’ve been involved in the scene in Halifax for a long time. You’ve probably seen a lot of people who started out there and maybe moved on to other places. I talked to Joel about this as well: you guys are kind of the ones who stayed. How has the scene changed for you?

Well we’ve seen it change in the sense that people who we started out with have moved away. I did a big move away myself- the day after my twenty-first birthday I moved to England. Clive McNutt, who’s a good friend of mine, was already in England, and sure enough we got a place within a couple of weeks. And then the next thing I knew, it was five years later.

Were you making music at that time as well?

Yeah. As soon as I got there, I got a copy of Melody Maker and looked for a band to join. I had just enough money to buy a cheap drum kit, and I thought “I’ve got to find a band”. That was in December of 1983.  

There must have been some exciting music going on when you got there.

Yeah there was, but things were just starting to change there too, and kind of dramatically. The whole post-punk thing was starting to die off, and New Wave was also just starting to die off. It was just before the really horrible side of the eighties had taken hold. And then one of the first gigs I saw was The Smiths. That was really impressive. But any decade has shit, and any decade has great stuff. But it was a weird time. The way people get weary of war- that’s how they were starting to feel about post-punk. People started to think “how many gigs by The Fall can we go to before we admit that it’s never going to change?”

And we were young, and it was an exciting time. I was lucky enough to meet some guys from Newcastle, who had a bit of a career from a previous band called The Carpettes, and we formed this other band called The Only Alternative. We put out an album on Midnight Records, which was Robyn Hitchcock’s label. And we got to play all the cool clubs in London, or what was left of them anyway: The Greyhound, The Half Moon, The Crown & Anchor, places like that. We became real London boys, you know.

As Canadians, did you find that people thought you were somehow exotic, like how North Americans feel about Brits?

Well, some of the ladies did [laughs]. Maybe. But we used to get mistaken for Irish all the time- I guess it’s the Maritime accent or something.

So when you came back, you ended up being the drummer in The Super Friendz. Are you surprised at the longevity that band has had? It’s become a real cult thing nowadays.

I’m not surprised, because I knew that record [Mock Up Scale Down] was of a really high quality. That album came out in 1993 or something. I came back from England around ’89, and I was playing guitar by then and had my own band- Matt Murphy was my other guitar player, and Andrew Scott from Sloan was my drummer, and Jenny Pierce from Jale was our singer. So it was cool to watch all three of those people go to immediate success [laughs] and big contracts with Geffen, but I went the other way for some reason. So in the nineties I just went back to four-tracking with my buddies. Now that I look back on it, those recordings were really priceless. Speaking of priceless, nobody ever got paid back then.

But around that time, The Super Friendz sought you out to play drums on the record right?

Yeah. Chris Murphy had been jamming with them I guess, and then he did that little cassette demo with them. It was like, four songs or something like that. And then Matt Murphy said, “we need a drummer, we want you to do this recording.” We didn’t even do that many gigs, if any, before we did the recording. We did it in this house on North Street in Halifax. And you could tell that the band gelled pretty well right away. And it was a funny little record. I mean, it had some “hits” on it, but there were some weird songs too. But I’m not surprised the thing had legs. I can still put on that record, at night if I’ve had a few pints, and hear some really quality, great stuff.

Going back to your stuff. Are you going to play any shows for your new record?

There are definitely going to be shows for this new album. It was a long time in the recording process for this one, and there’s probably enough material for a triple album. About 26 songs.

Where did you record it?

Most of it was done at Ultramagnetic, and some of it was done at Plaskett’s Scotland Yard.

You guys were on the road this year for pretty much the whole time. You must have had a busy year.

Yeah this was by far the biggest, busiest year for The Emergency.

I’m curious about what keeps you grounded when you’re touring. You and Chris seem like the kind of guys who get into life on the road. How do you stay level?

Well, we do enjoy the lifestyle of being musicians. Drumming is tough, but singing is harder. After a Plaskett show I’m usually tired, and my heart is going about 160, but to sing like Joel does every night- it’s amazingly energy-draining. And then you’re all hyped up, and you have to go have a drink or hang out with people just to let the energy go. You can’t just go back to a hotel room alone and do that.

Do you have any secret regimen that you use to manage that energy? As the drummer, you’re working pretty hard.

I just stay away from drinks before the show, and try to eat healthy.

In the last year, you’ve played big theatres and smaller pubs, and everything in between. How does it change for you as a performer, when you’re playing a soft-seater theatre as opposed to a bar?

Part of me would like to think that it isn’t any different, that our stage sound is always the same, but that’s not true. Each place is completely different. In a bar, everybody is right up front, they’re looking you in the eye and singing every word of the song. So you have to control your energy, otherwise you’ll burn it all too soon. In a soft-seater, it’s more of a presentation and you’re really playing to the back of the hall, and sometimes you can hear things a little too clearly. The Elk and I get a little verbose and like to yell at each other occasionally, and in those places you can hear it reverberating around [laughs].

Which type of venues do you prefer?

I like the dressing rooms in big theatre [laughs]. But for the gig, clubs are always going to be the bread and butter.

I think there’s something inherently weird about sitting to watch a rock band.

In some of the smaller theatres, we’ve been encouraging people to stand up and move around a little. Some people have come right up to the stage to dance and stuff. We’ve had a couple of good stage interventions in places like Lindsay, Ontario. We’re a band that thrives on interaction with the audience. So I don’t know what the theatres are like for the audience. I’m sure that the sound is better.

So what are you looking to get out of the experience when you perform? Are you looking for a perfect musical moment?

No, because that doesn’t exist. For me, it’s no different than when you started your first band as a teenager. And you got it together and invited all your friends and family, and you just wanted them to share in this thing that you were doing. So you just want to rock them and for everybody to have a good time. And I don’t see any difference now. You gotta just get up there and rock to each other, play to each other. Sounds a little Spinal Tap, doesn’t it?

Well, I think there are two schools of thought. One is, “I’m an artist and I’m going to do what I want.” And the other is to perform with an understanding of the notion that you’re essentially an entertainer. Not necessarily to pander or anything, but just to be conscious of that fact.

Joel sort of has that perspective, because it is his job to be an entertainer. Not that it isn’t for us, but we have a little more leeway. We’re not in the spotlight and on the microphone the whole time. But we never just phone it in or anything. We go hard, and people appreciate it. That’s the important thing.

Looking back, did you ever think that you would be a professional musician?

Well, I certainly wanted to have a career as a musician, but there was a long time when it did not seem possible. I might as well have said, “I want to be an astronaut.”

When did you realize that it was possible?

There were a few periods with The Super Friendz. But it was really when The Emergency formed that I knew I was riding a horse that had legs. Plaskett was coming out of a great band, and was absolutely stoked with energy to become and discover himself.

And as a band you guys have had longevity. You’ve been playing together for about ten years now, right?

Longer- since 1999. Thirteen years. But you know, when he asked me to play that first gig with him-just from that first gig I knew that we were upping our game. I knew what I was doing, and so did he, and we just had to find a bass player that could fit in. Although, we’ve gone through a few! [laughs]

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