Pink Talking Fish – Q & A with Rick Umlah
Covering the music of another artist should always be treated with great care. Some fail tribute acts simply don’t rise to the occasion. For Pink Talking Fish rising to that occasion on any given night is no problem, they’re not your typical “cover band”. Pink Talking Fish explores the catalogs of Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, & Phish with great care and attention, weaving a mix of songs from all three bands seamlessly into two enticing sets each night.
On any given night Rick Umlah and his dreamland of keys and synths (aka the “Tower of Justice”) recreate the sounds of our most treasured bands. We recently spoke with Rick on a variety of topics ranging from Talking Heads synths to Halloween shows to having Holly Bowling on tour.
INTERVIEW WITH RICK UMLAH
Playing the music of others can be tricky, especially when they’re your favorite bands. In the beginning why did PTF choose Phish, Pink Floyd, & the Talking Heads (aside from the obvious fact that they’re all great bands)? What are each band’s weaknesses and strengths that you’ve found through really studying each band catalog?
Rick: Pink Talking Fish was created by our bassist Eric Gould. Eric started the band as a pet project out of a deep love for all three groups while living in Kansas City. He recruited some members from his former band (Particle), along with a few other local players to get PTF on it’s feet and playing some shows. When Eric moved to Massachusetts, he began his search for some players in the Northeast to continue the project, and I was suggested to him as a keyboardist and vocalist by some local talent buyers, friends and promoters.
At that point in time, my own band (Richard James and The Name Changers) was on the road touring quite a bit, and I decided to take a step back and split my time between RJNC and PTF. After the first few PTF rehearsals, I knew that this project was going to be a huge undertaking on my part, and if this was going to be done right, I would have to put my original project on hold and go all in, so i did (Only playing regionally a few times a month with my original project).
The band that I was most familiar with going into this project was Pink Floyd. As a singer songwriter, their music spoke to me in an indescribable way. Their songs take you to a special place and paint a mental picture that makes you feel fuzzy all over. Sometimes it’s a “hair raising” fuzzy, sometimes it’s a “deep in thought” fuzzy, and sometimes you’re just fuzzy because it takes you to a place of wonderful memories when you discovered their music for the first time. David Gilmour makes every note that he plays count. His guitar tone is incredibly pristine, and through his own unique way of phrasing notes he draws a certain recognizable emotion that can make even the most tone deaf person in the universe hum every note to Wish You Were Here or Comfortably Numb perfectly. As far as Pink Talking Fish goes, I believe that the “Pink Floyd” aspect is what grounds the audience. We can bring the energy up to the point where people in the audience are getting down to a big Phish Jam or Heads groove… But the moment we bring it back down and begin the introduction to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” or “Echoes”, you can hear a pin drop, and that’s the ultimate beauty of this group for me… the unknown journey that our audience members are experiencing at each show, and the strange vehicle that we provide the ride in!
The only weakness that Pink Floyd has is that David Gilmour and Roger Waters can’t get along, and that’s a damn shame.
With Phish I find myself discovering new techniques, chord patterns, finger pattern exercises and musical challenges daily. Learning their catalog has pushed me to be a better overall musician. Their music has taught me to be more open minded to the direction and flow of jam sections, to listen intently to everyone in the group, the importance of space, and most importantly to take chances. If you don’t take chances on the fly live, you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to do something that could potentially be amazing. With Pink Talking Fish, the “Phish” aspect brings a whole new level of enthusiasm and energy to both the band, and the crowd. What excites me the most is the incredibly large catalog of music that Phish has, and then realizing that we’ve only scratched the surface and already achieved such great moments musically, emotionally and transitionally.
The only weakness that I struggle with personally in regards to Phish is that there is not enough storage on my iPad setlist app to store all of the songs that we’ve learned, and sometimes it crashes in the middle of a set, and then God forbid, I have to resort to that thing inside my head behind my eyes called a brain.
Last but certainly not least, the Talking Heads. I get to, as the kids say, “Wile Out” on my keyboards during these segments. Talking Heads have the coolest synth stuff I’ve ever heard. The Soaring Synthesizers and the upbeat grooves send people into a frenzy. Adding Talking Heads as a part of this hybrid fusion tribute band was a wonderful idea in my opinion. You have the wild psychedelic journey with Pink Floyd, you have the engaging, challenging and funky stuff with Phish, and the icing on the cake was throwing in the upbeat energetic Talking Heads music to round out the overall musical experience.
The only weakness that The Talking Heads has for me is that sometimes the groove gets going so hard that I lose track of time, and by the end of my synth solo, the janitors are sweeping up the room and locking up for the night.
What have you learned both mentally and compositionally by delving further into these band’s catalogs that you’ve picked up? What strengths and expertise from other genres you’ve studied help you breathe new life to these classic songs?
Rick: I get to pretend every night that I’m Richard Wright, Page McConnell, and Bernie Worrell, which may sound weird to most, but awesome to me. I studied a lot of fusion and Jazz while I was at Berklee, and then played in a live Hip Hop group that was occasionally the live backing band for Slick Rick. Aside from writing my own original music, this has been a breath of fresh air in the studying and learning musical techniques department. I’m able to occasionally throw some jazzy chord changes in here and there (more so in Phish and Talking Heads stuff), but most of the time I’m trying to closely emulate all three players.
Your other band Richard James & the Name Changers plays what you call “whiskey-infused roots rock and roll”. You have opened for Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Edward Sharp & The Magnetic Zeros, Slick Rick, Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Could you about your with this band and what role it has played in your personal & professional life up to this point?
Rick: Richard James and The Name Changers has been my musical child over the last 6 years. I wrote the music and lyrics, managed the band, promoted the band, booked the band, tour managed, you name it. We were eventually picked up by “Hoplite” out of Burlington VT. and they booked and managed us once we built up our markets regionally and we hit the road steadily playing out. We recorded 2 records, “Along The Way” and “Cuba Street”, and we’re looking to go back into the studio to record our 3rd album in early 2016.
RJNC was a family band, not that we were actual family members within the band, but in that everywhere we went, we created an atmosphere where people were welcomed, and they knew they were going to be a part of something fun and musically interesting with other great people surrounding them. This band enforced the fact that it’s possible to make a sustainable living playing music, and made me realize that I will be making music for the rest of my life.
RJNC was quoted as being “Whiskey-infused roots rock and roll”, because if you ever come to a show, you’ll notice that we play rock and roll, and drink lots of whiskey.
The Hammond B-3, the Fender Rhodes, the hohner clav… These were gamechangers. Could you discuss what role these takes on the classic piano setup have in your creative direction as a player?
Rick: I love the sound of real vintage instruments. Try playing a clavinet patch out of any workstation or digital keyboard, and then listen to the difference in sound that a D6 Hohner Clavinet makes running through a tube amp. Steering away from those digital sounds and using the actual instruments is it for me. Hearing the horn in the leslie speaker turn on and start screaming bloody murder is exciting to me, and it enhances the overall sound and experience not only for the crowd, but for me. I use Yamaha workstations and keyboards because I believe they have great synth sounds and crisp, clean piano sounds. Another big plus for me is that they are user friendly and easily programmable on the fly when traveling and backlining gear. A gear goal of mine is to match the Page McConnell’s keyboard rig. Having that many weapons to choose from on the fly is what makes the live show exciting and new every time I step into that keyboard cockpit!
For Halloween you guys played two sold out shows at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA. The first night you performed Pink Floyd’s “Animals” (with a few Talking Heads tunes first set) and the second night was Phish’s “Gamehendge”. Could you tell us about the preparation beforehand for each of these nights? Could you go into the history of Animals within the context of Pink Floyd’s career as well as go into the significance of the Gamehendge story for Phish?
Rick: Those Middle East shows were very gratifying to complete. We spent 3 months in the rehearsal room dissecting parts and fine tuning the compositions. It took a lot of listening, counting, and chart writing to finally feel like we were ready to perform both Animals and Gamehendge live. Since these 2 pieces of music are so quintessential to both Phish and Pink Floyd’s catalog, there was an understanding between the four of us that there would be a lot of homework done before we ever even got together in the same room.
Here’s what went down on Night 1 of “Where The Wild Things Are” (View Setlist Here)
Night 1 would prove to be difficult for me personally because I shared most of the singing responsibilities with our guitarist Dave Brunyak, while simultaneously covering multiple layers of synths, pads, samples, organ and piano sounds. There were 10 songs on this set list that I had never performed live before, which was nerve wrecking enough as it was, aside from the fact that I would be playing those songs in front of a sold out crowd of over 600 people. The night was very well executed overall. As soon as we finished the encore and left the stage, it was like we were taking a page out of the Bill Belichick hand book. All of our attention was immediately focused on our next goal… “Gamehendge”.
Here’s what Gamehendge in PTF Land looked like (View Setlist Here)
Gamehendge was a beast. Difficult changes, mixed meter sections, odd time signatures, bizarre hits and challenging harmonized melodies (both vocally and instrumentally). We played straight through with no set breaks, over 2 1/2 hours of music, 8 songs of which I’ve never performed live before, again in front of a sold out crowd of over 600. The pressure was huge, but we stuck to the plan and executed the set very well.
I thought that our 2 night stand at The Middle East Downstairs was a huge success. All that hard work that we put in leading up to Halloween is going to pay off exponentially, because now we have about 15 new tunes to plant here and there in our sets.
How does Holly Bowling’s interpretation of Phish on the piano inspire you as a member of PTF? Are there any songs that she’s played that have led you to revisit how you approach that particular song? As a fellow keyboardist, what aspect of her playing to do most enjoy?
Rick: Holly is a very special talent. What I love so much about her is that she digs down deep into her favorite Phish jams and is able to regurgitate them into 1 solo piano piece. It’s almost like her left hand and right hand hate each other and want nothing to do with one another, which is generally the one aspect of playing that every piano player wishes they were better at. If you can have complete independence between your hands, you are bound to do something extraordinary as a pianist, and every time holly gets behind those keys, she wows! Not only that, but it takes some monster cahones to get up there solo and do what she does.
I would love to do some more dueling piano stuff with Holly like we did together in Philly. So much fun….
Could you discuss the upcoming show at Gyspy Sally’s after Dead & Co. in which you guys will be performing some selections from the extensive Grateful Dead catalog? Is there anything you keep in mind when performing knowing that people just saw 3 of the original members of the Dead just hours before?
We approach The Dead stuff the same way as we would approach the other three bands. Performing the pre party and after parties in Chicago for the Grateful Dead Farewell shows gave us a good idea on how to approach the GD stuff. We tried not to repeat songs that they already played, and the idea was to execute the dead segues in an interesting and fun way around our regular show. We will most likely be taking that same approach in DC… But you never know 🙂
We love this concept and we do our very best to make the setlists new, fun and exciting each night. The dead stuff just gives us a few more bullets in the chamber to make the overall experience more exciting.