There is one thing to know about Pink Talking Fish: They are not what you think they are.
The name is as ripe a place to start in trying to figure out what this New England band is all about. It sounds like it might have been ripped from discarded Dr. Seuss characters and its half-baked absurdity is certainly par for the course for jam-band titles (looking at you String Cheese Incident, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard).
But the origin is hiding in plain sight. The band — Eric Gould (bass), Cal Kehoe (guitar), Richard James (keyboards), Zach Burwick (drums) — takes its name from three of the most beloved bands for jam band and live music fans, whose musical collections create the foundation of PTF: Pink Floyd, Talking Heads and Phish.
At this point, “cover band” might be flashing in your heads like the red hand at a crosswalk, imploring you to not continue any further down this path. It is certainly true that PTF doesn’t play original songs and that its viability as a performing act is based on fans wanting to hear the music of their idols be played by different musicians. In that sense, PTF’s career is certainly informed by standing on the shoulders of giants.
But if you only measure a Pink Talking Fish’s genius by the belief it is a cover band, you will live your whole life being stupid. Yes, the music is sourced from these seminal bands, but the experience of how PTF deconstructs these songs and reconstructs them in its own image is wholly unique and requires a luminous musical vision.
They’ll find the musical throughline between a song like Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” and Phish’s “Sand” or drop a monumental, segue-heavy jam weaving together favorites like “Psycho Killer,” “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and Phish’s “Gumbo” while teasing Steely Dan, as they did at a recent show in Burlington, Vermont. Sometimes it’s Frankensteining David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” All notes, melodies, phrasings and songs are open for reinterpretation with PTF.
Considering the extensive catalogs of the three bands, the almost infinite number of seques and interpolations the band can create and the ability to sprinkle in some choice covers (they’ve played Beastie Boys, David Bowie and Grateful Dead-centric shows in the past), fans can almost be guaranteed to walk out of a PTF show hearing something new and refreshing.
Looking at those three bands in today’s musical landscape, they are performing with a very similar ethos to PTF. Roger Waters and David Gilmour are still finding new, theatrical ways to present Pink Floyd’s music to fans, each with their own distinct views. David Byrne has recreated his entire musical catalog into a drumline of performers on Broadaway and Jerry Harrison will be reimagining Talking Heads classics with funk titans Turkuaz this summer. Phish is still creating new music and touring, but always looking for new ways to stretch its musicality and offer new versions of songs 30+ years old. Those bands have looked to innovate and recontextualize their catalogs for fans in a live setting, which is exactly what Pink Talking Phish is doing in their own way. In that sense, Pink Talking Fish’s career trajectory is certainly aiming to stand amongst giants.
Guitarist Cal Kehoe breaks it down
What are the musical strengths of each of these bands from your perspective as a musician?
“The music of Pink Floyd, Talking Heads and Phish has stood and will likely continue to stand the test of time. If I had to focus on just one strength, simply because I am a guitarist, I would have to focus on the artistry of David Gilmour and Trey Anastasio as two of the best musicians to ever pick up a guitar. Pink Floyd wrote some of the most insightful and perceptive lyrics about the human condition. For me, having the privilege of playing some of their music is a dream come true. Gilmour’s guitar work is challenging in that I do my best to capture and recreate his music note for note, as well as replicate his tone.
“As a band, we strive to put our own stamp on the music. The fans that come to our shows realize that we’re more than just a “cover” band. With the majority of Pink Floyd’s music, there are only a few opportunities for me to create and build off Gilmour’s guitar riffs. His solos are so well known, I’m careful with where I put my take on his playing.
“With Phish, it’s both a joy and a risk to be playing music that’s still being played by the original members of the band. It takes balls to play for the Phish fans. They are a very discerning fanbase, so you can imagine the pressure that we feel to rise to the level of musicianship that Phish displays every night. Phish fans are so well studied, they know the complicated and precise compositions that the band has written by heart. Phish’s music does allow us some additional latitude to create our own unique ‘jams’ and the fans enjoy and appreciate that.”
What is the band’s philosophy on taking three sets of bands’ music, putting them together and turning it into an original concept? Since you were not there at the creation of the band, what philosophy did you have walking into the gig and how has that possibly changed since being a member?
“Interestingly enough, with other bands I played with before joining PTF, I was always writing original transitions to blend songs together in an unexpected, but familiar way. The concept of creating and building musical transitions wasn’t foreign to me and PTF has invented some new setlist segues since I’ve joined the band. There is always so much more we can explore with the songs we’ve been given by these three bands, it’s just a matter of having the time to craft the arrangements.”
For the songs that are currently in rotation with the live show, what song (s) are exciting to you in the ways they are configured and being played by the band right now? Why?
“We’re constantly learning new songs from all three bands, as well as the covers that Phish has performed in the past. We’ve added some Phish songs in rotation that PTF hasn’t previously performed. Adding one of my personal favorite songs, “Split Open and Melt” has allowed the four of us to explore a whole new way of improvising. Its odd time signatures and pacing allows us to follow the train of chaos or go down a completely different path, one that eventually leads us back to the core of the song. It’s an incredibly complicated song that showcases the musical ability of all four members of Phish.
“For Pink Floyd, there is nothing that beats performing ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond.’ The intro solo obviously had a major impact on my guitar playing and finesse as a player. It hits home in a big way because it was one of the first composed guitar solos that I learned at a young age. I’ve listened to that track millions of times and it never gets old.”
You’ve collaborated with Phish lyricist and Trey Anastasio pal Tom Marshall, including on a song called “Limbo.” What about Tom Marshall makes him someone you like to collaborate and create music with?
“Tom Marshall has become a great friend of mine since Phish’s return in 2009. His lyrics and wordplay are what make so many Phish songs so memorable and quotable. The music we collaborated on and the lyrics he provided are thought-provoking and they meld perfectly with the instrumental facets of the songs. There are so many Tom lyrics that I’ve had in my mind since the first time I heard them. I’m so grateful I’ve had the opportunity to work with him and continue to write new music with him over the years. ‘Keep what’s important and know who’s your friend…’ ”
You play a PRS guitar, which is exciting for me as I am from the same town where they make them and have had the ability to tour the facility. Why PRS guitars for you?
“I have toured the PRS facility, as well. I would encourage anyone, not only musicians, but anyone that appreciates fine craftsmanship to tour that facility. The first electric guitar I purchased with money I had earned playing at little venues was a White Strat. In 2007 at 12 years old, I read a biography of Jimi Hendrix that mentioned Jimi bought a guitar at a place called Manny’s Music in New York City. I asked my family if they could take me there after sharing with them the historical importance of Manny’s.
“On my first visit to Manny’s, I saw a Red PRS 1996 Custom 22 PRS hanging up on the top row and I had to play it. I saved all the money I earned from working odd jobs and playing guitar for tips and busking wherever and whenever I could. I was a couple dollars shy of having the money to buy that PRS and my father told me he would make me a deal: If I learned note for note the solo from ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond,’ he would make up the difference. Two days later and on my third visit to Manny’s luckily that guitar was still there and I bought it. I have since bought another PRS 408 and I use them both onstage. I still have the Strat, but I don’t travel with it much anymore as it has become very special to me.
As a side note, I was backstage at an Allman Brothers show at the Beacon Theatre one night and was lucky enough to meet Bobby Tis, who was Derek Trucks’ guitar tech at that time. Bobby showed me some of Derek’s guitars and showed me all of the signatures from musicians that Derek had collected on his main Gibson SG. Derek had just about every guitar player I could name sign that guitar. Some of the signatures had been worn away by Derek playing and sweating all over that guitar. I thought that was one of the coolest things I had ever seen and decided that my White Strat would be just like Derek’s.
“The first person I asked to sign that guitar was Derek himself, the second was Warren Haynes. I started to bring it with me to shows and had musicians and people whom I loved and admired sign my guitar and some of the signatures started to fade away. I brought the guitar to Washington, D.C., hoping to meet Eddie Vedder at a show he was playing. Not only did I get to meet him, but Eddie Vedder sat down and talked to me about writing music and playing for about 20 minutes. He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He signed that guitar and drew a wave on it. There is an added significance to that drawing that ties in directly to what he was telling me about writing. After that, I don’t bring that guitar out around much, but I do have a space saved for Trey to sign it one day, if I get a chance to sit down with him.”
Can you point to a recent show that you experienced that made you go, “Oh yeah, that’s why I love playing in Pink Talking Phish?”
“We recently had two sold out nights at Nectar’s in Burlington, Vermont, this January. Nectar’s has so much history. It was Phish’s house — still is. It’s where they workshopped songs they’d be performing to sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden every New Year’s Eve for so many years to come. There’s a specific vibe in that room that brings out a different part of me. During the Phish song ‘Roggae,’ I began teasing ‘Ooh La La’ by The Faces during my solo. The crowd’s reaction upon recognizing the song gave me chills like I couldn’t believe. ‘I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger’ — those lyrics ring so much truth and run with the lyrics of ‘Roggae’ — ‘If life were easy and not so fast, I wouldn’t think about the past.’ Both songs have always had an emotional impact on me and the hope is it that it resonates with the audience. Hearing and feeling the crowd react and send that energy bouncing around the room — that’s the payoff, that’s the magic, that’s something that stays with me for a long time, that’s the reason I play.”
— Garrett Bethmann
Pink Talking Fish
When: 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
Tickets: $20 in advance or $23 on the day of the show
Red Room after-party: Dusty Green Bones Band