Randall (left) and TP next to him
photo by Red Slater
Drumming the Thin Line Between Fame and NormalcyJumping back and forth between fame and quiet life, drummer Randall Marsh certainly knows the sensation of the fast and slow beats of the music industry. In the early '70's after moving to Gainesville, Florida, Marsh unknowingly stumbled upon fame with a band called Mudcrutch, featuring a young bass player named Tom Petty about to explode in his songwriting abilities. As Marsh continued to keep the beat for Mudcrutch, he and the band became the town's favorite, and made Dubs bar a frequent stomping ground. Local, home-made festivals soon followed, attracting scores of people from around the country and also the police.
Randall Marsh interview by Joshua Miller
With the band having conquered Gainesville, Marsh waited patiently while the band featuring a slightly different lineup than they began with journeyed out west to get a record deal. After releasing several singles and appearing to have found a deal, Mudcrutch fizzled out. Marsh stayed out in California and found a following with a band called Code Blue. When Code Blue broke up, Marsh's life quieted down with casual work as a drum instructor and drummer for hire status.
Two years ago, the beats came rattling back. Just casually working between drum sessions, Marsh heard the phone ring one night. He picked it up, and hearing Petty's familiar voice, he heard his long time friend excited blurt out that he was toying with the idea of reuniting Mudcrutch.
Learning that Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Tom Leadon also were aboard, he couldn't wait to start playing. He assembled in their studio with the others and witnessed what seemed to be a grand experiment that could go either way. Less than two weeks later, they had their first full album recorded and a small tour in the works for the following year. While a year has passed since their small California tour, Marsh still feels like a little kid at an expansive music store that just remembered why he's there.
PSF: First of all, could you tell me a little about getting into drumming?
Randall Marsh: I was in 5th grade and a friend of mine joined junior band. He got to get out of class to go to band practice and I thought that was pretty cool, plus I was already in love with the snare drums. It was a real basic junior band kind of thing, which was really kind of boring. I would try to play rock drums in the marching band and the leader guy was always getting mad at me. He was like "This is not a rock band Mr. Marsh!"
I would play along with records and stuff and practiced as much as I could after I got home from school. And then this local band heard I had some drums since I grew up in a very small Southern town. They came over and heard me practicing upstairs and thought I sounded acceptable. So they grabbed all my stuff and went over to their house. That was my first rehearsal; I was about 12 or 13. And been going at it ever since.
PSF: I read that after that, the band was along quite a way. Was it hard to find a band where you grew up in Florida?
RM: In my first band, the guy lived about two blocks from me. Later, as I got older in high school, that band broke up and then there was a band a long ways off, maybe 30 to 40 miles maybe more. [Laughs] Back then, there weren't a lot of musicians as there are now. Today, you can get pretty much any neighborhood in America and there's like six or eight guys or girls playing together. Back then, there wasn't so much to go around those days. Central Florida was a pretty rural place and most people were interested in being on the football team than playing music.
PSF: What feeling do you get when you play the drums?
RM: To this day, I can walk in my room and sit down and start playing the drums. Any instrument if you really love it, it's pretty neat but the drums are really different. When you don't have notes or chords, you're getting down to the basics. The simplest thing that people can do is sing because they've been doing that since they got out of the trees and you didn't need anything, you just start humming. And then they probably were beating on things to keep the beat or communicate. It feels really good that there's such a thing, knowing that humans over time invented and created a drum set. I sit there and it's like I have a bass drum pedal, I have a high hat, cymbals, etc.
It's such a neat arrangement of sounds, especially with the invention of the bass drum pedal. I used to teach a lot, drum lessons, and a kid will come in and in a lesson or two you've got them doing a beat that is common to most rock songs. And the kids are so stoked, they're like "God, this is so cool." And of course, when you've been playing for a long time, you can play more complicated things. It's such a feeling of complexity and power and sound. It's not only fun, it's like plugging into a battery. If I don't play for a few days or something comes up that I don't get to my instruments as much, I feel like a cell-phone that needs to be plugged in and repowered.
PSF: What's it like to be on the same page drumming with others?
RM: If you're playing with a band and everyone hits the same thing, then it's like going into hyperspace. If everyone tunes in together and they're connecting with their instrument that night, you kind of go into an elevated state, which can almost be probably the closest thing you could come to enlightenment or something for a little while.
I think music is probably the one, if not highest, level that humans can do because if you get in the right space, it's something indescribable that if you don't have that in your life, you're missing something. Everyone should play something at some level or sing. Everyone in my family would gather around the piano and sing. Culturally, I think we're moving away from that, that you either play it or listen to it.
PSF: How does your drumming back then compare to now?
RM: I listened to the tapes Petty had of old Mudcrutch and I had a tendency to overplay. Ringo was my hero. But I also grew up on Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Cream so I had dueling drummers in me. The real straight ahead Ringo thing and the Mitch Mitchell-Jimi Hendrix thing would come out. We were like 23 or 24 and there's a lot to learn between then and 30 as a musician. I've got my formula down better over the years to get to the meat of drumming.
PSF: Do your students know about you being in Mudcrutch, Code Blue and other musical endeavors with some big names?
RM: Oh yeah, after awhile, they catch whim of it. With any musician, no matter what your talent level is, part of it is where you're from and who you run into along your path. Some of us are really lucky to run into great musicians and writers and singers along the way. Certainly hooking up with Tom, Mike Ben, Leadon and those guys when I was really young was very lucky, to get into that caliber of talent and do what we did. I was in a band in Los Angeles after Mudcrutch broke up called Code Blue, a 3 piece group that eventually got signed to Warner Brothers and did an album and had a small tour. That was a great group too and had a great writer too. And there was the Blue Stingrays thing with Mike and [Heartbreakers bass player] Ron Blair.
PSF: What was your first reaction when Tom Petty called you about the reunion?
RM: Well, two basic things. It was a little scary, like "What if it doesn't work out?" It's kind of a pretty big deal so it was a little intimidating. It's been a while and you never know what incarnation is going to work. Mudcrutch was many things. Tom wanted to do that era of Mudcrutch before we moved out to California and lost some of the country influence.
Also, like, "Wow, yeah! Yeah let's do that thing!" Tom said he was going to play bass, which when I was in the band in the beginning, he was playing bass. With him playing bass, I thought "That would be fun," because I always had liked how he played bass and how with my drums and his bass, we never had to think about it too much since it just fit. Tom plays bass so naturally.
PSF: How did this grand experiment begin?
RM: Tom said "Let's warm up and play ‘Shady Grove.'" We did it a couple times and went to listen to the recording and we're like "Wow that sounds really good. Kind of sounds like a record already.'" So we did it once more, I don't think we did it more than two or three times and that's what ended up on the record.
PSF: Sounds like the band started off full throttle. How did the rest of that day go?
RM: I think the first day we did like three songs, pretty much running through them and recorded them. That's what ended up on CD. We synched up really nice and played together and the right feeling and mood was there. And it worked! Yet another experience working with world-class musicians and the magic just happened. That's something we can be proud of and pull it out twenty years from now and say 'that's pretty cool, we fell into something nice.'
PSF: One of the unique parts of the reunion was how it was recorded. Could you tell me about recording completely live?
RM: Tom wanted us to do it as live as we could do it so we not only did it live but also without headphones, which is not that commonplace. So we sat around in a circle, facing each other and we had to play a little quieter than normal because of feedback. But that was the reason I think it flowed so well together. I don't think I've ever done that before. I've recorded live with a band but not without headphones. And this was all happening really fast and usually with a record, it take months or years.
I think Tom's mood was he didn't want to get into a lot of overdubbing. Overdubbing can take forever, for all the people to come in and record their part and become a super complicated deal. So we broke it down the simplest you could get it. You basically put a band in a room and set up some mikes and start playing. So each day we came in and recorded.
PSF: Was it similar to how the band worked in the early days?
RM: It was really cool because in the old days, we'd get together and rehearse in the same way. Tom would always be writing songs and come in and grab an acoustic guitar and say "Here's something I've been working on" and we'd be sitting around very casual and he'd show us a tune. We'd think about it, go over to our instruments and start putting something together. That's basically the way this went.
He was writing songs in the evening back at his house, sometimes in the morning before he came into the recording sessions. He'd have most of it there but he'd still be writing the lyrics as we all were standing around. We'd listen and throw out a few ideas and go and play our instruments. It was a real interexchange of ideas between all people. We were in the studio for ten days, which is a short amount of time these days.
PSF: If you don't mind, could you tell me a little bit about the others?
RM: A lot of musicians in rock and roll can be lazy and be like "It's rock and roll, dude." But with this band, everyone takes their instruments very seriously.
Tom Leadon, guitarist – He was probably the most country-influenced in the band because his brother Bernie was in the Flying Burrito Brothers [ED NOTE: and later, the Eagles]. When we started recording, he just stepped up to the microphone when Tom was singing and sang harmony... and it was so perfect and everything blended so well with Petty's voice. He's always singing.
Benmont Tench, Piano and Organ –His knowledge of music is amazing. When he first came to play with us in the '70's, he outplayed us even though he didn't know the songs. If there were technical questions about notes, they'd go to Ben. He's like a computer; the conductor that you can turn to that you can go for all the technical questions.
Mike Campbell, Lead Guitarist – Great guy, the quietest guy in the group, kind of like George Harrison guy in the band. When he says something, it carries a lot of weight. He writes a lot of songs on his own, he's a real prolific writer. He's easy to get along with, has great ideas, and comes up with the coolest guitar licks to make a song.
Tom Petty, Singer and Bass Player –Any band needs to have a good sense of humor and Mudcrutch is serious on that matter. If he wasn't a rock musician, he could have easily been a comedian. A really laid-back guy, down-to-earth, plain-speaking guy that knows what he wants, knows what sounds he wants; there's not a lot of anguishing over deciding about things. He does it and then moves on. He's not only a great musician and writer but he's a good leader so that really helps to make things work.
PSF: Are you surprised by how well things turned out for the album as a whole?
RM: Sometimes, everything just lines up. There are times in the band or live that you experience difficulties, this breaks down or that breaks down, but for that period, everything went so well. Everything fell into place.
PSF: Speaking of falling into place, can you tell me a little bit about putting the pieces – the songs – together?
RM: Tom had said "This is Mudcrutch, not Tom Petty so you guys bring in some songs too." So everyone brought in songs except for me. I'd write but I was too intimidated to bring my stuff. The songs were all so different…Petty was writing great stories…We did all of them in pretty much one or two takes. Some highlights:
- The 9 1/2 minute "Crystal River" – For all of us, "Crystal River" was probably the most fun out of everything. Immediately, it had such a different feel. We were headed toward the country rock twang thing but "Crystal River" I see as a dreamy jam thing. When we heard the first chords, we were like "Oh this is going to be fun." That was the one and only take we did. Ben put the disc of it in and we were both like "Holy shit, this is so cool." When we did the tour, we got to jam on that every night.
- "Scare Easy" and "The Wrong Thing to Do" – When Petty brought that one ("Scare Easy") in, it was like "hit!" It's got that anthem kind of feel. Sometimes with "The Wrong Thing to Do" we'd go back and forth between "Scare Easy" and that as our favorites. They both have that Rolling Stones, country rock- you don't know which one it's in. You just know it's greasy and funky and got that backwoodsy kind of feel that's really fun to play.
- "Bootleg Flyer" – That one was Mike's and had an "American Girl" kind of feel to it. I love that beat so that was a lot of fun.
- "Topanga Cowgirl" – That one has a kind of fun little unique beat, a little different than standard rock beats. I got to do some interesting things with bass drums. That was kind of a "Sgt. Pepper" kind of beat.
- "House of Stone" – I was cracking up. Only Petty would come up with something like that. This would be the perfect song for a movie.
- "This is a Good Street" – That was one of the songs Ben came with. It's such a fun song to do live. I wish it was longer. I hope we do a second album so I can hear Ben do another song.
PSF: You guys had a small tour in California last year in April. Some of the tour dates preceded the album's release. How'd that happen?
RM: It was supposed to come out before because that's the way you really want to do it. You ideally want people to listen to it and get familiar with it and go in knowing the songs. So the first few gigs we did, we didn't even have a record out. The first gig we did was a benefit in Malibu. People showed up and we weren't sure what they'd do but it was the same all the way through. They were singing the songs even before it was out.
PSF: What was the tour like for you, being in front of a big crowd again?
RM: The fans were so supportive. The audience was so enthusiastic that you couldn't help but get a grin on your face from the beginning to the end. Let's just say there wasn't any ambivalence from the first note to encore. Look out, everyone's smiling and having a great time. We're all smiling and having a great time
One of the hardest things for me was that we were playing small venues. I was getting so hot from the lights up there and the drummer is the most physical job so I was getting really hot and had to get some fans on me. I finally ended bringing a big bucket of ice with me and between songs wipe my head off and stuff. If you're going to play the small venues, you're going to get hot. [Laughs]
PSF: Were you star struck to be playing with Tom and the other guys again?
RM: Well, there's also the Code Blue thing too. I've been going down to play with the lead singer of Code Blue who I've played with longer than the guys in Mudcrutch. I just went into rehearsal to see what would happen. When you've played that long with someone and develop a musical dialogue, it's like I started playing with this guy and it didn't feel any different, I could have played with him last weekend. I'm pretty level headed and don't worry about that star stuff and keep it with the music.
PSF: Let's turn the attention to Mudcrutch circa the 1970's. How did you find out about Mudcrutch growing up?
RM: Mike and I had a band called Dead or Alive, a psychedelic jam band. We'd do a song and then go off on a Grateful Dead jam. When the bass player quit, we were left hanging and we wanted to keep the band going but Mike wasn't a lead singer. He was writing stuff but more like epic pieces that were really long. We couldn't find anything and we were getting frustrating so we decided to try independently to see what we could find for a band. So I put my card out at the music store and got a couple calls including Mudcrutch.
PSF: What was your first audition for Mudcrutch like?
RM: It was at Jim Lenahan's garage – he was the original singer - and the first thing I noticed was Petty's bass playing. And even though they were playing a country thing, I was like "I don't know about this country thing"- they had an element of rock and rockabilly. It was played so right and had such a good feel to it that it became clear that these guys knew how to rock.
PSF: Going back to Mike, I read that you were roommates for some time. What was growing up with him like?
RM: Mike was totally consumed by the guitar. More than the average human being. Mike was not a big conversationalist and wasn't much for small talk. He stayed in his room most of the time and had a reel-to-reel tape recorder that he recorded him playing guitar. He had all these instrumentals- nothing we'd do as a band, mostly because they were Mozart on the guitar. You'd knock on his door and be like "Mike, you still alive? You should eat some food, man."
PSF: When you were playing with Mudcrutch at your place, you introduced Mike to them. What was going through your mind?
RM: We took a break and they were going like "It sounds good and stuff but we really want to have two guitar players." This was my second time playing with them and wasn't really sure I was in the band. So I go "Look, I got this friend of mine in the back room, we had a band and stuff." And I was hesitant because I didn't know if they'd like him. I knew he was a really good guitar player but they were a country rock band and I was put off at first because my head was in Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, British invasion stuff.
Did I think I was springing the next Jimmy Page? No, we were only in our twenties and we all had played in high school bands. We were just out of high school so we weren't thinking of ourselves as master musicians or anything. Mike and I were in Gainesville to find our place in this local music scene. It was just a meeting of these young kids. What he did do they were very impressed with. He knew how to play. As for the local scene, he was steps above your average twenty-year-old guitarist.
PSF: How did Mudcrutch in the beginning compare to when Tom started writing more?
RM: Petty was only singing like one song when we began. Jim Lenahan was the original lead singer and just went to the front and sang and didn't play an instrument. It was originally just a high school band. They were doing Neil Young and let's just say alternative cover songs. I didn't think they were amazing or anything. I don't think any of us were thinking we're destined for stardom here. It just had to go through a metamorphosis. It morphed into a whole different thing with Petty on vocals. As we progressed and Tom wrote more songs, it became apparent that this guy's got some real shit going on as a songwriter. We were like "We can be as good as anybody."
PSF: You and Mike lived in a farm house outside Gainesville, right?
RM: When the bass player from Dead or Alive left, we were looking for a place to live. And someone told me they had found this farmhouse. Just on the outskirts of Gainesville, there was a dirt road – and this was not too far from Dubs where we really got our start as a band and played six nights a week - and you go for a mile back there. It was this old wood cracker, what they'd call a Florida style cracker home, one story, which was really run down. We were poor and were on food stamps. It was a farmhouse in the middle of the woods.
The good thing was that we could practice there. It had a front room so when Mudcrutch came along and we joined forces, we had a place with no neighbors. It's hard for a band in its infancy or later if they don't have a place to practice. That's a big part of why Mudcrutch got to where it did and went to get to get a record deal and some of them went on to that height [of fame]. Everyone came over and practiced and we took it very seriously. It was a real godsend that we had the farm.
PSF: And then there were the festivals you had on those grounds.
RM: As we progressed, we played more varied gigs and went from being an anonymous band to the band in Gainesville. We were sitting around talking and I think it was Mike or someone that – I think we were talking about Woodstock– said "we've got all this land that we could actually do something." We weren't thinking a big deal, not really a big festival, but we were thinking "We can't always play what we want to at these places, they tell us what to do, and maybe we could throw up a stage up here. We could play a gig on the weekend." We put together a makeshift stage and got a couple of our friends' bands to come out.
The first one was more than we expected and it was cool. The next one everything changed and word spread of it. It was pretty big and that was when the police came. The third one, people were everywhere. People were parked all along that dirt road. That's when the landlady got some complaints from neighbors and evicted us. Who knows, we might have had another one. It would be too hard to replicate one today with needing security and that sort of thing.
PSF: After Mudcrutch broke up, you went off to look for a band in California and eventually found Code Blue. What were you guys trying to do with that?
RM: I auditioned for so many original things that I became so jaded because I have pretty high standards. You work with Tom Petty as a songwriter, it's a long ways down. Then Dean Chamberlain and Michael Ostendorf came along and we started playing and it was like "Wow, this is good." You could tell these guys grew up on British bands. Our music had a lot of melody in it, really sparse, and real intense. We had a raw feeling, super high energy. Petty was really excited, really knocked out the first time he saw us. We were the darlings of L.A. and had some big articles written about us.
PSF: It must have taken a lot out of you when the band broke up.
RM: We just had some bad luck. To have that band fall apart that got signed to a big label and that I had put so much work into it. After Mudcrutch fell apart, I was a little beat. I had moved out of L.A. because I couldn't handle the city.
PSF: Since then, you've done various side projects such as the Blue Stingrays with Mike and Ron Blair.
RM: I used to go to Mike Campbell's house a lot in the '90's and we were working on a lot on his demos and stuff. We recorded tons and tons of Mike's songs. He wrote so many songs and he loved to record them and experiment with them. A guy from Epigraph Records had come to see the Heartbreakers and I guess Mike did a surf instrumental in the Heartbreakers set. He approached Mike and said "You play surf music so freaking good... I'd like to have a surf record on my label." Mike wrote a bunch of surf songs and pretty much everything was original except for "Goldfinger." Ron was playing with us and the three of us went into Mike's studio and I think we did it in about three days and put it out kind of anonymously. It's actually a pretty cool record, real simple and real straight ahead surf tunes with a little bit of a rock edge.
PSF: A few more questions regarding the reunion. Besides the things written up about Mudcrutch's reunion, there wasn't too much publicity, like any talk shows, etc.
RM: Tom had said "Don't worry about publicity. Mudcrutch will grow over time." Publicity these days is very expensive. We'll have to let it grow and see where it goes in the future with Mudcrutch, if we make a second record or go out on the road again.
PSF: It's been mentioned that the Mudcrutch reunion isn't a gimmick, that it's its own band and not an altered Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
RM: Yeah. It certainly wasn't a thing where "Oh we got this thing back together, it was mediocre and we don't want to do that again." I think the band was fun for not only Leadon and I but the whole band because we were able to do a whole set of new material. When the Heartbreakers go on tour, they have to play a lot of the older songs which is great because there's so many great songs but the unique thing about Mudcrutch was that they got to go up there and play a completely new show for two hours.
I think Mike and Ben got to stretch out more than they do on some of the songs they do on the Heartbreakers tour, where they're pretty faithful to the records. It had a looser feel to it, and it wasn't like we had to be perfect. On stage, we were pretty much doing what we had done in the studio.
PSF: Any current plans in place for Mudcrutch?
RM: I talked to them and they're exploring the logistics of it and timing of where we might play, East coast, West coast, wherever. It'd be a short one like last time, maybe a little bit bigger. The intention is to do this slowly, to do a little bit bigger places and then a little bigger, and let it grow.
PSF: What are you doing in the meantime?
RM: I've gone down and did a few gigs with Dean Chamberlain's project he's working on. I'm not sure where that's going to go, just having a little fun with it. Since I've had some time on my hands, I've kind of taken advantage and gone in the studio and done some of my songs. I'm having some fun with my own songs. I wanted to do a little EP and do a cover for it and sell it on my website and stuff. I'm doing the drums and guitar myself and I'd bring a bass player in and overdub. The hardest part is the vocals because I'm not really a professional singer; I have to work harder on that. If that goes well, I might make a whole CD because I have so much fun with it.
PSF: What's the biggest lesson you've learned through everything you've done?
RM: Patience. Certain things come your way at different times in your life. It's kind of synchronicity, karma whatever you want to call it, and as a human, you always try to do the best you can, no matter what you're doing. You don't want to get too lazy or too cynical. You want to do the best you can.
But if you try to control things too much and make things happen quicker than they can or make things happen that shouldn't have happened just because you want them to, it ends up setting you back and causing you more trouble. So doing the best you can do, the most that you can day-to-day is practicing your guitar or instrument and that diligence will get you through – but you have to be patient. If you're doing the right thing and working hard, things will happen when they're suppose to.
Also see Randall Marsh's website
Joshua Miller is a freelancer for OnMilwaukee.com and Maximum Ink music magazines in Wisconsin.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|