By Ashley Zimmerman
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From cutting his teeth in dingy Little Haiti haunt Churchill's Pub to experiencing the spine-tingling rush of performing before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, 37-year-old musician Mike Marsh has enjoyed a career that has been an epic rock 'n' roll roller-coaster ride. Spanning 20 years, Marsh's time behind the skins started when he joined lively proto-emo Miami trio the Agency. But this raging, rhythmically centered pop-punk act never found a kind ear outside of the tricounty area. It was through a fortuitous meeting with emo wunderkind Chris Carrabba (who came on to play second guitar for the Agency) that Marsh's career as a drummer ultimately catapulted into the mainstream.
Marsh may be remembered for his ten years in Carrabba's soul-baring project Dashboard Confessional, but he's also spent time as a producer, songwriter, and engineer and lent his rhythmic talents to progressive-folk family unit the Avett Brothers on their major-label debut, I and Love and You.
A few years back, after sensing the waning success of Dashboard Confessional, Marsh, a Miami native, moved his clan out to Los Angeles in 2007 in the hopes of getting a foot in the door of the competitive music business. Instead of finding fame and fortune, Marsh and his wife of 11 years, Lori, found themselves feeling "defeated" by the City of Angels. After a few years of desperation, with his oldest daughter, Betty, chronically ill, paying three times the rent he was used to, and unable to find a steady gig, Marsh asked his wife, half-jokingly, if they should pack it up and move to Nashville. "She lit up like a Christmas tree," says Marsh.
The talented beatsmith found himself in an early midlife crisis. "Just trying to figure shit out," the garrulous singer/songwriter says from his Nashville home, where he resides with his wife and two children.
These feelings of introspection built the foundation for Marsh's forthcoming solo album, Sunbeam, released under the nom de guerre Paper and set to drop July 10. The first song Marsh wrote for the album was "Reach the End," which dealt with the traumatic experience of living in Los Angeles.
Nashville ended up being the ideal choice for Marsh's crew, though. "It's a family-friendly city, with a huge medical community and vibrant music scene," explains Marsh. The campus of Vanderbilt University presented a plethora of employment options for Lori, a pediatric nurse, and Nashville is a central hub for music. This fed Marsh's sonic ambitions.
The move also led to the creation of decidedly more uplifting songs on his solo effort. "Songs like 'Sunbeam,' 'Color,' and 'Shine' speak more of love than dealing with hardships," explains Marsh.
Indeed, the buoyantly progressive song "Sunbeam" has an existential, almost Buddhist, leitmotif. "It deals with not needing an abundance of everything in the world — a little bit of love can be enough, a little bit of friends can be enough, a little bit of sun can be enough, a little bit of food can be enough — there is no need to be gluttonous all the fucking time," he explains.
Besides nesting the elements that begot Sunbeam, the move to Nashville proved fortuitous in the most random of ways. A chance call from "Rick Rubin's people" came Marsh's way just one week after relocating eastward. Dashboard Confessional's management team, Hard 8, called to explain that Rick Rubin, producer and copresident of Columbia Records, had expressed interest in hiring Marsh for a session the next morning.
The fact that Marsh had just moved to Nashville had completely escaped the Hard 8 team, and an initial panic set in. "OK, well, we don't have to call Rick Rubin's people and tell them that. Let's figure out how we can make this work," Marsh told the management team. He hung up and, with Lori at his side, began searching flight options.
"I don't care what it takes — this is the call, this is the one!" exclaimed Lori after hearing the news. Unfortunately, overnight flights from Nashville to Los Angeles were financially out of reach.
"We just put a down payment on a house and were shocked at how ridiculously high the flights were," Marsh says. "Honestly, I would have only made about half of the cost of the flight for this session." In a matter of minutes, Dashboard Confessional's management team called back with news: " 'Listen, we have a flight booked for you, we'll send you the info later, you just have to go and do this.' This was a huge moment for me, not just as Mike Marsh the drummer but as a member of Dashboard Confessional," Marsh admits.
"I got on the plane the next morning, landed, and immediately got hustled into this big black car, which drove me out to Malibu, to this villa studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean." Marsh walked down the driveway, encountering what he called "two hillbilly-looking dudes." These two "dudes," it turned out, were Scott and Seth Avett, whom Marsh describes as "total Southern gentlemen."
After some chitchat, Marsh made his way to the mixing room, where he discovered Rubin's noted producer Ryan Hewitt (of Red Hot Chili Peppers' fame). Marsh's nerves began to set in. The famed studio whiz went on to play a few of the Avett Brothers' tracks for Marsh. Astounded by their gifted songwriting skills, he thought to himself, "I can't believe I got called for this." It was at this point that someone elbowed Marsh and pointed out that Rubin had arrived.