JBO gets to know Craig Marshall; Founder and Lead Guitarist of the Long Time West Coast Grateful Dead Tribute Band Cubensis | JamBandsOnline.com

JBO gets to know Craig Marshall; Founder and Lead Guitarist of the Long Time West Coast Grateful Dead Tribute Band Cubensis

Article by Steve Prussack

Photos by Ebb Eskow

JBO: Okay, well, Craig Marshall of Cubensis, we’d like to welcome you to JamBandsOnline.com.  Thanks for joining us today.

Craig Marshall: Good to be here.

JBO: Let’s begin with your background and growing up? What’s the role music played on your life? You can touch on how you were drawn to music as a musician and as a fan.

JBO: Well, as a way to meet women, of course.  That’s what all male musicians do.  Actually, I loved music from an early age.  I used to listen to Wolfman Jack in the garage at home by myself.  There was a radio up there and I got some isolation and I could turn it up a little bit and listen to all the oldies back then.  He was broadcasting pirate-style out of Mexico at the time, so it was kind of an underground situation.  That was about the first that I remember getting serious about music.  This was pre-high school so I must have been in sixth or seventh grade listening to that stuff.

JBO: So what was the first concert you saw?

Craig: First concert I saw, wow that is a good question. I don’t remember that. I remember the first album I bought. It happened to be The Doors. But the first concert I saw is lost in the haze of marijuana smoke.

JBO: What would you say was your most memorable concert as far back as you can remember?

Craig: Oh sure, well, I was seeing things like Hendrix at The Forum. I always enjoyed Alice Cooper; wherever they played I liked to go see them. The Dead, of course, who I started seeing in November, 1967 at The Shrine Exposition Hall.

JBO: Wow, you must have been just a kid.

Craig:Yeah, high school freshman, as a matter of fact.  I didn’t have a car so I was in among friends and partners who were going to the concert anyway, maybe older folks.  Those were good shows though, seeing The Doors and people like Hendrix, Cream, a lot of good bands, Zeppelin.  All the classic rockers, that was before they were classic rockers.  They were just great musicians and great bands.  There was no lack of beautiful music happening those days.  I wanted an outlet to express my love of live music. Somewhere along the line a salesman came to the door and sold my folks this cheap Italian guitar and tiny little amplifier, a little piece of crap, but for $400 they bought it for me.  It included some lessons.  The lessons were just like a block away up on Hawthorne Boulevard.  I only attended to two lessons.  There was this hippie dude up there teaching and he basically said you’ve got to check this band out – The Grateful Dead.  Then he quit teaching and so I took two lessons and I bailed because they wanted to teach you Mary Had A Little Lamb type of songs.

JBO: Right.

Craig: It just didn’t cut it.

JBO: That wasn’t going to get you women, right?

Craig:Never! No! “Mary Had A Little Lamb?” No! But I went out and got The Dead album and loved it.  I saw them and loved them more. I taught myself how to play guitar by slowing down the album to half speed and picking up the notes like that, and slowly working it back up to speed. So I always say that in a way, Garcia taught me to play guitar, which he did but he wasn’t present in the room. I really did learn from him how to play guitar.

JBO: Teaching yourself to play guitar in that way is quite a consuming process, especially if you didn’t have the training, the proper scales to learn, or anything.

Craig: Oh, I had no idea what I was doing. I was just listening, and I guess I developed my ear that way. So I’m always thankful for it, but I kind of wish I’d learned how to read music and technique and stuff like that, because it certainly would have helped me. I do a lot of scales though, but I can’t tell you what they’re called. I can say this is a mixelodeon scale and if you play it for me, I can play it for you. I use those scales all the time. But as far as the technical side of it, I don’t know what they’re called. I’m not a trained musician; I’m a self-trained musician.

JBO: I can imagine it must have required hours of practice to get to the level you’re playing at now starting from scratch like that.

Craig: No, it was overnight. I was a genius.

JBO: If only, right?

Craig: Yeah, many moons passed. And I’m still learning at Forty years of playing guitar or something like that.

JBO: So let’s talk about your first band.  Was that in high school?

Craig:That was in high school, I don’t even think we had a name.  It was just some guys getting together.  We didn’t perform very much.  We were awful.  I think we had one amplifier between us that we rented from a place called Hogan’s House of Music there in Lawndale on Hawthorne Boulevard.  The crazy thing is, I rented a lot of instruments and amplifiers from them and we’d always rent old, vintage equipment and we got to know the equipment pretty well.  A lot of old, interesting guitars went through our hands as a result.  So I played some classic guitars that I probably wouldn’t have ever had a chance to lay my hands on, so that was kind of fun.  Then eventually I was in another cover band in college.  Well, let’s not go there yet.  Still in high school I played in a band – we called it “acid rock.”  So it was just original music, original jams, and it was called Green Mourning.  We played a lot of high school parties and played a couple times in the Senior Square at high school.  We didn’t really go anywhere, but we had a lot of fun doing it.

JBO: And that was all improvisational jams?

Craig: All of it, yeah. We played maybe a few Pink Floyd songs, but mostly it was our own compositions.

JBO: Was it kind of like playing the acid parties, like the Grateful Dead did with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the early-sixties?

Craig:You know, as I picture them I’m sure it was, yeah.  There’s a lot of very high people in attendance.  I don’t take acid myslelf – I’m afraid of that stuff.  A lot of people do and God bless them.  If they can get something out of it, I’m all for it.  I never did that, except once in ’85 at a Dead show in Ventura.  I want to be in a little more control of my own brain.

JBO: Right.

Craig:But, a lot of folks were high as a kite and we certainly were the soundtrack to their trips, so that was kind of fun.  Then in college I was in a band called Widow.  We were just a cover band and we played up and down the Strand a lot.  Anybody that’d have us that wanted a dance band, it was all covers, the usual stuff.  Not a lot of Dead.  More Stones, Jethro Tull, stuff like that, classic rock.  Then Cubensis came along sometime in ’87 we got together and started practicing and rehearsing.  Early ’88 we got our first gig.

JBO: So what drew you to that idea?  Were you just a big Deadhead at the time?

Craig:Yeah, by that time I was a big Deadhead and really The Dead wasn’t playing in L.A. nearly enough so we decided we’d entertain ourselves and play Dead music and learn it and have fun with it.  The whole idea was just to entertain ourselves.  People kept saying “Why don’t you guys come over and play my party,” or “I’m having a barbecue, can you guys bring your stuff over and play?”  Pretty soon a little scene grew up around it as Dead music attracts a certain crowd.  Then we were off and pretty soon clubs were calling and it just went on from there.  It’s still the same thing.  People are still calling us to play their parties and clubs and festivals.  It’s been a great time.

JBO: So at that time, In The Dark was the Grateful Dead’s most popular album and they were progressing in ’88 with another release, Built to Last.  As they were coming out with these new albums, I imagine that added to your repertoire?

Craig:Yeah, we were pleased because we always had new songs to learn.  But then we’d often seen them in concert already well in advance of the actual album coming out.  I guess they toured just like everybody else, to support their new songs and support their album.  There were plenty of new songs all the time, all the way up until Jerry got sick and left us.

JBO: Right, well, Cubensis has had a lot of different members come and go throughout the years, similar to the Grateful Dead.

Craig: True that.  We’ve had myself – I’m the only original remaining member.  Steve Harris has been with us about fifteen or sixteen years, something like that.

JBO: And Steve Harris is the drummer.

Craig: Yes.  From time to time, other folks have come and gone; all good musicians; all good people.  We’ve worked with two drummers, a good part of their career if you want to call it that.  A lot of times it’s also just been Steve Harris on the drums doing amazing things. Drumming Grateful Dead songs is hard enough, but then he sings too. So it’s like he’s almost got to be two different musicians in one.  So that’s pretty entertaining and pretty astounding when you think about it.

JBO: And he sings primarily the Jerry Garcia songs, right?

Craig: That’s his forte, yes. God knows, I can’t sing very well, so I don’t sing much. I always blame it on a faulty memory, but the truth is I sound like a frog.

JBO: I don’t think that’s true, as someone that’s heard you.

Craig: Well, you must like the way frogs sing then.  It’s all good.

JBO: The current incarnation of Cubensis includes two drummers, here in 2010?

Craig:Right.  Ed Fletcher comes all the way from San Diego to play, which is astounding.  He’s a very dedicated musician.  The rest of the guys, we have the brothers Ryan, Larry and Tom, on bass and keys respectively.  Nate Lapointe on guitar and then when we’re lucky, Miss CeCe Sherman adds her vocal prowess and a touch of femininity to the mix.  This is probably our best lineup ever as far as the way the band sounds and all the technical – what’s the word I’m looking for – the guys in the band are very good is what I’m trying to say. On the technical side they’re very good musicians.  We’ve had other congregations of the band where it might have been more for fun or we might have had more of a family atmosphere, I guess you could say.  I remember, I wish I could tell you which year it was, but there was my friend Gene Alucino, my drummer friend from high school, he was in the band.  He passed away, unfortunately.  CW Causer was on drums and Brian Lerman playing bass.  It was just, I don’t know, it was a family feeling about it that isn’t necessarily missing right now, but it was different back then.  We actually hung out and did a lot of things together that didn’t involve playing.  Just I think maybe it was because we were younger and younger people do that more than older, “professional” musicians.

JBO: So, in 2007 Cubensis celebrated their 20th anniversary with a huge production in Santa Ana, California?

Craig: The Galaxy Theater.

JBO: What was that night like for you?

Craig:It was wonderful, because we were able to bring back many of the former players – the guys that we could still get a hold of to come and sit in.  So we started from the early days with people like Chester, who was our original singer and rhythm guitarist, he’s still available and is living up in the Reno area, but he came down for the show.  Several of our original female singers, like Susie Phelps, came out of retirement.  She hasn’t been singing much – she’s been raising a family – but she came out to sing.  Then Sam – Samantha Wayne – also was one of our singers and she was able to come out too and join Susie on stage.  And of course Brian Lerman came back and played some bass with us, as well as keyboardist Ed Lyon and guitarist Justin Pacuska.  A fellow named Tim Greutert who was a keyboardist for a while was unable to come with us because of work – he lives in Sacramento – but he sent his regards.  Anyway, it was just good to have a lot of the old players around, the ones that we are still in touch with.  There’s still a couple guys out there in the wind that we couldn’t get a hold of.  I haven’t heard from them but we hope to someday.

JBO: Well, we know there are some videos of that fantastic concert available for viewing on the internet.

Craig: Yeah, we’ve probably got access via YouTube to about seventy different videos and songs. Then our friend Tibor has a website that has whole shows available. So somebody who wants to watch a little bit of history of the band Cubensis can do it.

JBO: We’ll mention it, that’s www.cubensis.com.  And other Cubensis videos can be found on the Grunzy Channel at http://grunzychannel.net/ Any plans for the 25th anniversary coming up in just a few years?

Craig: If I survive that long, if I can get there then we’ll see what happens. Hopefully we’ll try to gather up “the clan” again and maybe do it a little bit bigger this time. I sure enjoy having these folks around. It does bring out old timers that we don’t see enough of.

JBO: So out of all these years of playing, what’s your most memorable Cubensis gig?

Craig: I would have to say some of the shows with Vince Welnick were pretty special, because just to know that he was actually in the Grateful Dead and all of a sudden sitting there on stage with us, his vocals are coming through the monitors along with us and we’re hearing his wonderful playing and hearing his tour stories and stuff, that was just a very special time. There was a three year period there where he would come out and sit with us and go on little mini-tours and whatnot. It was just a great time.  It’s just a tragedy what eventually fell him. We never saw it coming because he never played any kind of a down attitude at all. He was always very upbeat and willing to try anything. He taught us some songs as a matter of fact – just beautiful.

JBO: Yeah, how did he come into the Cubensis world?

Craig:We were playing – no, I take that back – he was playing and was opening for Jazz is Dead at the House of Blues.  Our roadie John Enriquez, “Papa John” approached him and gave him a flyer I think.  He was commenting on the flyer that it was very great work by our artist Darrin Brenner.  One thing led to another and we met him and we said “Anytime you would like to sit in with us, feel free.”  So we traded numbers and it came to pass.  It was always exciting to me to look on my caller ID and see Vince Wilnick’s name.  “Wow, this is amazing.”  He would call and would be very into doing a show.  He’d call and say “Let’s do one; I’m going to be down there on such and such a day, let’s do a show.”  So we’d arrange for that.  That was a lot of fun.  Another good show, a memorable one, was at the Roxy just after Jerry died.  A promoter named Mike Giangreco put on a free show so folks could just get together and be of one mind that night.  A couple guys from the Black Crowes, Chris Robinson and Marc Ford, came out and played with us on stage.  That place was just packed to the rafters.  I remember there was so much condensation in the room that it formed on the ceiling and it would drip down like rain almost.  There was just so much energy in the room, and it was hot and everybody was sad but celebratory at the same time.  It was just the – that was such a special show.

JBO: And the band honors the passing of Jerry annually, right?  You guys put on annual memorial – not memorial, but shows.

Craig: The shows we do around August 9th or as close as we can get to it, we donate that money to The Rex Foundation and we give people the chance to add whatever they want to to the kitty to give it to Rex since that was Jerry’s charity and The Dead’s charity.

JBO: Right, and you guys do something unique every Thanksgiving where you, Cubensis, hosts karaoke night and fans are able to sing with the band. That money too is donated to Rex Foundation.

Craig: We donated it to Rex last year, but it’s gone to other charities. It’s gone to the L.A. Times Fund and a homeless shelter in Santa Monica the year before that. We just look for somebody needy.  This year seemed like Rex, for one, it seemed to need it the most. They’re doing a lot of good. They’re giving away millions to folks in support of the arts and green-type projects. It’s very, very cool.

JBO: Now the Grateful Dead attracted a family type atmosphere with the Deadheads. Cubensis attracts something similar to that as well. Do you want to talk a little about the Cubensis family; the fact that you have a lot of people that are coming back night after night supporting the band. What creates that family environment?  I don’t know how much the actual members of the Grateful Dead came out and interacted with the fans – I know that’s a unique part of Cubensis where the band actually is very welcoming to new people that come in.

Craig: Oh yeah, because that’s just because we’re no different than the people that come see us. We just happen to be people that are playing music. To the extent that makes people feel welcome I guess is part of what causes it. I think Grateful Dead music itself draws a certain quality of people, and those people tend to be very open, accepting, friendly, loving people. I think they say birds of a feather flock together, so I think that’s what’s happening there. It’s about much more than the music. The getting together is the important thing that’s happening at our shows. The music is a side effect, I guess you could say, or a side benefit maybe. It’s wonderful, though, to see folks that used to come see us who now bring their kids, who now have a son who’s 21 and is able to get into the bar. The father and the son show up for the shows and they’re both Deadheads. That’s amazing to me. That shows we’ve been around for a while though.

JBO: That leads to the next question.  What is the inspiration to continue the band at this point?

Craig: For us, being able to create is very healthy to one’s inner being, to one’s growth. People do it all kinds of different ways. This is just the way that we happen to do it. Some people grow things, some people paint, some people do athletics, we make music and that’s what keeps us grounded but also reaching for higher consciousness. That’s what does it for me anyway. I like to play music. I like to make people dance and make people smile. What better – I just saw on Facebook that somebody said “if there’s somebody who doesn’t have a smile give them one of yours.” I think that was maybe what we’re doing with our music.

JBO: Your favorite Dead song to play?

Craig: It changes all the time. It’s usually the one I’m playing at the moment. I am a big fan, as a guitarist, of Scarlet Begonias. The structure is very interesting to me. Playing lead guitar on a song that has interesting structure like that is challenging but it’s also extremely pleasant. So it’s not like a blues song, which is fairly structured, where Scarlet Begonias is changing every few bars to a new key and you have to keep up with it or you sink in the mud. That’s a great song. China>Rider’s probably the best combo song of all of them.  There’s just something about that song, or those songs.  It never fails; I never fail to hit it out of the park with China Rider. It’s such a great beat.

JBO: On the other end of the spectrum, how about you’re least favorite?

Craig: Least favorite, I’ve never been asked that. That’s going to take some time. Let me think.  You may have stumped me.

JBO: Really?

Craig: If anything comes up, I’ll mention it.

JBO: Okay, we can just leave it out then. Let’s talk about the future of Cubensis. Goals?

Craig: I know what it was. What’s Become of the Baby.

JBO: Yeah, good choice.  And do you guys ever play that?

Craig:It was played one time, and I wasn’t there.  It’s when I had my kidney failure troubles a couple years back.  I believe it was a New Year’s show.  It was a special show where the band was going to play the album AOXOMOXOA and so they played What’s Become of the Baby and they celebrated it by putting a doll on a chair under a spotlight and then they played this song.  I’m sorry I missed that, because that sounded like fun.  That song, we could probably do without that song and nobody would ever notice, since we do have a repertoire of 250 Dead and Jerry Band songs.

JBO: We should also mention that Cubensis does something special every Halloween.

Craig:Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that.  Phish might have started it.  I don’t know; we’ve been doing it for so long I don’t know who did it first.  We do a non-Dead album every year for Halloween.  It’s always kept a big secret – it’s a “mystery album” and we do a lot of work on it and that’s been some of our only rehearsals that we only do because playing in this band is one long rehearsal if you want to think about it that way.  We’re always improving the songs as we go, reworking them constantly night after night.  For these Halloween albums, we actually get together in a rehearsal studio.  We all do our homework at home and then we come together in a studio somewhere and work everything out.  Those have been some of the most challenging things we did.  For instance, this year we did Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  That really put the singers in the band on the spot; very intricate four-part harmonies.  The boys and the girl pulled it off big time.  The music wasn’t nearly as challenging as the vocals.  As far as a challenging album, I think of Close to the Edge – the Yes album that we did a couple of years back at the Foothill, when Mr. Ed Lyon was in the band. He was in the band for ten years.  That was very difficult to perform and thank God we had Justin in the band at that time.  He’s known for the fast fingers and that was sure needed to replicate the Steve Howe parts on the Yes album.  I just couldn’t do it.  Too fast for me.

JBO: Last year you did Bob Marley’s classic greatest hits album, Legend.

Craig: That was a lot of fun. We went to school on that one, because if you think reggae music is easy to play, you’ve got to think again. That stuff is tricky to get right. There’s a lot of subtleties in there, that if you don’t acknowledge, you will get tripped up on. We took that on and said this is going to be a piece of cake, and it wasn’t by any means. A lot of things are counter-intuitive to regular rock and roll.  Some of the drum beats are almost backwards. Bass guitar lines are very intricate. There’s a lot of simplicity. It’s easy to play a lot of notes, but it’s not so easy to leave space and holes in the music.  That’s actually the mark of a great musician – knowing where to put the holes.

JBO: Let’s talk about the future of Cubensis and goals. You guys are really growing out of the smaller venues and playing in moderately sized venues now and more upscale places. It’s really incredible to see the transition. Where do you see it going?

Craig: My ultimate goal is for the band to start writing its own music. That is, I just see this great band of wonderful musicians, essentially doing our own music half the night. Every improvisation we do is original, it just happens there in front of you. I just say, why don’t we do that with our own songs and write our own songs and put our own stuff together and utilize our improvisational skills there. I think there’s a market for it, for one thing.

JBO: Do you do any of your own writing?

Craig:I used to.  We used to, when Brian Lerman was in the band we had a whole set of original music that we would play.  We’d throw in a couple of original songs a night, but we had a whole set ready.  When Brian left the band he kind of took everything with him because they were co-written and sung by him.  Those compositions are probably out of bounds right now, but we have guys in the band who can focus their musicality on new songs and I think we should be doing that.  I’ve just been a little reluctant to do it because everything’s going great right now.  Like you say, we’re moving into bigger and better venues, more and more people are coming out.  I’m not sure folks want to hear something new from us, if they want us to keep playing Dead or if they would welcome original stuff.  We might even, one day, show up on a stage somewhere as “The Tennis Shoes” and it would be Cubensis but we would be playing original music.

JBO: That would be something.

Craig: You’d never know. You heard it here first.

JBO: We appreciate the exclusivity. Well, are we ready for the last part, the fun part of the interview.

Craig: Let’s go for the bonus round.

JBO: This is the bonus round.  This is our tribute to the popular television program “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and we’re going to fire off some questions and Craig’s just going to answer what comes to mind.  That’s going to bring us to the end of the interview.  So we’ll start with this- Craig, what is your favorite word?

Craig: Barbecue.

JBO: What is your least favorite word?

Craig: Hate.

JBO: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Craig: Honesty.

JBO: What turns you off?

Craig: Overindulgence.

JBO: What’s your favorite curse word?

Craig: Fuck.

JBO: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Craig: Radio DJ.

JBO: What profession would you not like to do?

Craig: Policeman.

JBO: What is your favorite drug?

Craig: Drug?

JBO: Yeah.

Craig: Coffee.

JBO: To what fault do you feel most indulgent?

Craig: Self doubt.

JBO: What is your most marked characteristic?

Craig: Hope.

JBO: Two more. What is your dream of happiness?

Craig: Longevity.

JBO: What is your motto?

Craig: Do it.

JBO: Well done. Craig, thank you so much for joining us.

Craig: A pleasure.

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