Music News

Dashboard Confessional's Mike Marsh Talks Rick Rubin, the Avett Brothers, and New Release Sunbeam as Paper on Limited Fanfare Records

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.

"We all walk out to the driveway, and there he was, this huge, bearded sight of a man," says Marsh, who ultimately spent six hours with Rubin, but he'll tell you it felt like an entire week. "There was this mellow aspect to him; he almost stretched out the minutes."

Marsh compared these sessions to time spent with Daniel Lanois (producer of several platinum U2 albums), whom Dashboard Confessional used to record the 2006 hit Dusk and Summer. "You want every minute to last with people like this," the musician said of recording with Lanois and Rubin. "I can feel the coffin now; as a musician, I can die."

Another pivotal moment in Marsh's career came in 2005, when Dashboard Confessional played before a sold-out crowd in New York City's Madison Square Garden. Marsh says this was the "coup de grâce" of a lifetime behind the drum kits. "I remember going out onstage and, as the kabuki dropped, thinking I was John Bonham." As a child, Marsh used to obsess over a Led Zeppelin VHS tape filmed at the same location. "I had been dreaming of just being at that concert, being in the audience but never would have imagined selling it out and being behind the stage."

As for his debut solo project, Paper, Marsh admits to being particularly nervous because it is his own creation. "I think there is a little microscope on me right now — not by the world, of course, but by a specific pocket of people."

He is content with the treatment he has received from Limited Fanfare Records, the Miami-based record label that will be releasing Sunbeam on vinyl. "This is my baby, and it came out of my ass for real," he says. "I appreciate how open and honest Limited Fanfare's label head, Brian Kurtz, has been with me through this process."

Marsh is content with his decision to release his Sunbeam "baby" through Limited Fanfare because Kurtz is a genuine fan. "Brian sincerely loves this record," Marsh says, "and that is much more important than anything else for me right now."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alex Rendon