Tony Markellis

Interview with

Tony Markellis

of the Trey Anastasio Band

Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 1.31.23 PM
R.L. Photography

Tony Markellis has toured and recorded for decades with some of the most talented musicians in the world. In fact, he’s recorded on over 100 studio albums and dabbled in every genre from country to world music to blues to jam-rock. Tony recently discussed his time with the Trey Anastasio Band, his career, playing gigs of all sizes, the current state of the music industry, and much more with Andrew McConnell of LiveMusicDaily.

Could you walk us through the recording process of Paper Wheels at the barn? Russ and James both said it didn’t require many takes for most songs since you guys had polished things up while on the road. Do you believe this album has more of a “live” feel to it compared to previous TAB studio work?

TM: We really did sail through the takes on Paper Wheels. You’ve heard correctly that we worked on most of the tunes while performing them live. This is the first actual TAB studio album; the previous two, Trey Anastasio and Traveler were basically Trey projects with us as sidemen. Paper Wheels really shows off TAB as a working unit.

Over the course of your career you have toured and recorded with some of the most iconic artists in history. How has your time with the Trey Anastasio Band been particularly unique from other endeavors? Why do you continue to give this project so much of your attention while remaining active in other groups outside of TAB?

TM: This band is, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve ever had playing music. It’s hard work driving a band like this, but it’s so rewarding to look around me every night and see the incredible caliber of musicians I’m getting to share the stage with. I have always been a big fan of variety– both in the music I listen to and in the music I have gone out of my way to play. I’ve played (and continue to play) blues, country, reggae, folk, rock, mambo, ska, jazz, bluegrass, norteño, funk, covers, and just about anything else I can get my hands on. TAB allows me an opportunity to utilize most of what I’ve learned over the years.

You’ve been featured on over one hundred studio albums, which ones did you most enjoy recording on and why?

TM: There are so many different ones, for so many reasons. My first professional recording session was with the incredible blues artist Johnny Shines in 1973. I had played with him on occasion in Ann Arbor when I was in college. After I joined the David Bromberg Band in 1973, David got hired to produce Johnny for Biograph and used us as the backing band. That record still holds up all these years later. I have produced a lot of singer/songwriter projects over the years, and thoroughly enjoy that process– especially getting to run around the country to places like New Orleans to collect just the right tracks from various contributing artists. There was one Michael Jerling album from the period when he was with Shanachie Records where, for the first time, we actually had a budget. It was a rare treat being able to afford to hire all the musicians we really wanted for the project– a dream team, if you will.

You’ve been around long enough to see the evolution of the music industry.  When you played with Kilimanjaro you had some solid radio play in the early ‘80s. The digital world has rapidly transformed the music industry and continues to evolve every day. Where do you see the future of the industry going?  While artists don’t make what they should off of album sales, do you see one benefit being that an added emphasis on live performance is becoming a necessity?

TM: When Kilimanjaro first started recording and touring, we had, as you said, strong jazz radio play all over the country, mostly in urban markets. Despite that exposure, we relied heavily on live appearances in order to sell albums. We would go out on driving tours for two months or more, in which we would travel 14,000 miles and hit, all in one trip, NYC, DC, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Santa Fe, Phoenix, San Diego, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Iowa and Ohio. We would be lucky if we broke even on those trips (on top of which I had to put three new engines in my van during those years!). I can’t say that I really understand where the business is headed today. With the advent of the digital age, a generation has come up expecting instant free access to anything and everything. The exposure afforded by that access is, without a doubt, valuable, but, as my late friend Sean O’Brien used to say, “Hundreds of people in Alaska die of exposure every year.”

You are a very dynamic player who can adapt to any given situation whether it is in a song-songwriter context, a large band with a horn section, a blues band or a country act. Was there a time early on in your career when you may have been more hesitant to play a particular genre?

TM: That’s nice of you to say so. Over the years, I’ve been thrown into some situations that were certainly more nerve-wracking than others. I played at the Philadelphia Folk Festival almost every year through the ‘70s and ‘80s. I guess I was about twenty-two at the time someone came up and said, “Professor Longhair’s bass player couldn’t make the plane– will you play with him?” What this meant was about ten minutes of rehearsal before jumping up in front of a crowd of 30,000 people with an iconic New Orleans artist whom I had never met before. The only instruction I got was, “When he puts his hand behind his back like this, the song is done– no tag or nothin’!” I lived to tell. I also got called to play with the amazing baritone sax legend Nick Brignola a couple of times. Talk about getting thrown in the deep end!

You’ve hit the road with some of the largest touring acts in the country with seasoned road crews. Jimmy Herring recently told me “If you really want to get back to the kind of player I want to be you have to be connected to the clubs.” Do you feel that maintaining a connection to the local and regional music community helps you continue to better yourself as a musician?

TM: Jimmy’s right. With TAB, I get pretty spoiled! Someone is driving me around, someone else is hauling my gear, someone else is setting it up, someone else is tuning my bass and changing my strings. Also, I’m being insulated from direct contact with the crowd. The rest of the year, I’m back in the trenches– hauling my own gear and face to face with everyone, for better or worse. The best part of playing on the local scene is getting to play with a variety of interesting musicians, all of whom have their own strengths. I’ve always believed in adapting to whatever music is being played, rather than imposing my musical personality on the gig. You tend to get called back a lot more often when you do that.

What are your non-TAB related goals for 2015 any studio sessions you’re performing, producing, or composing on?

TM: Aside from TAB, my plan for 2015 is to do more of the same. I’ll work with all the great regional artists I’ve been working with, including the Burns Sisters, Street Corner Holler, No Outlet, Bob Warren, Michael Jerling, and, whenever possible, Jo Henley. I’ll continue to do as much session work as possible. From mid-May until mid-October 2015 I’ll be doing a Thursday night series at the Mouzon House in Saratoga Springs, alternating several trios. I’ll also look forward to meeting and playing with some new players. I missed out on a vacation in 2014, so one of my main goals is to make up for that in the upcoming year. Large lobsters be forewarned!

* Special thanks to Kevin & the team at Higher Ground !

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