By DJ Dave Hoffenberg
Pink Floyd, check. Talking Heads, check. Phish, check. If you like any of the music of those three great bands then make sure you go to the Pickle Barrel Nightclub this Thursday, March 22 to see one great band — Pink Talking Fish (PTF) — cover them all. Whether you like some of it or all of it, it’s a show not to be missed. I had the pleasure of speaking with keyboardist Richard James and we spoke of the band’s history, our love of Jerry Jam and crazy storms. He is joined on stage by Eric Gould on bass, Zack Burwick on drums and Dave Brunyak on guitar; plus tour manager, Nesto; and light guy, Finn. James said of the crew, “It’s not like they’re just random dudes. They were in the music scene with us in Boston.”
PTF has been together for four years and hails from Massachusetts. Gould, the bass player, moved there and found the rest of the guys and started the band. At the time, James was playing a one-off Pink Floyd tribute show when Gould approached him. James said, “It made sense. The psychedelia of Pink Floyd and the upbeat dancing of the Talking Heads stuff with the phonetic, out-there, wild Phish big jams. It caters to a wide range audience. It’s strong, man. Every show you get people ages 18-70. It’s very cool and a lot of fun. It’s great to see people of all ages out there enjoying themselves.”
The guys kind of all knew each other. James knew Burwick and Brunyak from the Boston music scene. They were out of Worcester and had a Phish tribute band, The Freaks. James had an original band at the time, “Richard James and the Name Changers.” James said, “We were basically playing the same circuit, even sharing bills from time-to-time. It all kind of came together.”
PTF started out in Boston and then branched out regionally. They would play some Phish after-parties, and then branch out a little bit further. They added some trips to Colorado every four to six months, and then more frequently would go to New York and Washington, D.C. James said, “That would continuously make this circle spin larger and larger. Now we’re going all over the country. It’s fantastic.”
PTF is currently on a two-month tour from New York to Wisconsin, and back to New York, and then down to Florida, and out west to California and Oregon — and everywhere in between. James said, “It’s been a pretty fantastic run so far.” His favorite show so far was Detroit on March 11, and he said, “It was a ton of fun. We had a very captive audience. Everyone was really into it, which was fantastic.” The band got a day off in Michigan and got to hang out at their tour manager’s house. For St. Patrick’s Day they were in Chicago, where they love playing. They’re touring around in a brand new Chevy van, towing a big trailer that carries all the lighting and musical gear.
The summer tour will take them to Jerry Jam, which is my (and James’) favorite festival. James elaborated, “Everyone there is just so pleasant. People are so nice and the ground is really catered to good listening of music. That big, rolling hill in the back — it’s awesome.” James also likes it because they are given a cabin on a lake, so he brings all his fishing gear, jumps in a canoe, and goes bass fishing. Ironically, he’s into Phish and fishing.
The first time I saw them at Jerry Jam was in the middle of a monsoon rain storm. James remembered that storm: “Oh my goodness. That was wild, we just kept playing. I think we were in the middle of ‘Young Lust’ and it was thundering and lightning and crazy.”
I really like it that they each warm up with a different tune. It was very cool and unique. James warmed up with “Bennie and the Jets;” Gould with “The Gambler;” and Brunyak with “God Bless America.” James said that Burwick usually just tries to make everyone laugh and is usually pretty successful with his dumb, funny stuff. James said he usually warms up with Elton John tunes and that John was a big reason that he learned to play the piano. James is very excited to be seeing Elton John on his final farewell tour when he comes to Boston.
I told James that I’m a big Floyd and Talking Heads fan, but I’ve only seen Phish twice. He said, “That’s the beauty of this. Not all people like all three bands. A lot come in liking one or two and leave saying, ‘Oh wow, I’ve got to check out Phish.’”
Talking with James was fun because he has a good sense of humor. He was talking to me while driving with the others. When I asked him who does the set lists, he said, “Generally how we do it is Eric will come up with a set and he’ll send it out to us and we’ll tell him that it sucks, rip it apart and write a whole new one.” James laughed hysterically after that. He followed up with a serious reply, “He pays attention to what we play. He knows what we played the last time we were in Chicago and makes sure we don’t play any of the same songs. On top of that we don’t play any of those tunes that we played surrounding those nights. He’ll come up with a set list that the people haven’t seen and send it out to us. We’ll make small changes, but that’s it.”
Having the catalogs of three bands gives them so much music. Most tribute bands are stuck with only one artist to cover. James said, “We have a ton of tunes we can choose from. It’s great. That’s the beauty of it, too, is it keeps it from getting old. Not only to the audience, but to us. We can filter tunes and rotate songs and keep it all fresh.”
James’ favorite Floyd tune is “Dogs.” He said, “It’s such an epic tune. It’s a journey through music that has a lot of epic parts in it. The song has two guitars, but we only have one guitar player, so I get to pretend I’m a guitar player for a little bit and play a synthesized lead guitar part. To be able to play that one is a blast.” His favorite Talking Heads song is “Nothing But Flowers.” He says that’s his favorite because his drummer has to take a solo, and he hates playing drum solos. James said. “Watching him squirm behind the kit while all eyes are on him is just an incredible thing.” Speaking of squirming, his favorite Phish tune is “The Squirming Coil.” He said, “The contrived parts are really nice with interesting chords and nice changes with nice guitar melody. It caps off with a piano outro which I get spotlighted on, which I enjoy. Every time Page McConnell does that is a beautiful thing for me to watch. To be able to get to end with that is pretty awesome.”
James (now 34) started playing the piano at age 3. He had a church organ in his living room. He said, “Whenever my grandfather would come over, he would fire it up. He didn’t know how to play at all and would just bang on the keys. My parents thought we should get a piano, so we got a piano, and one thing led to another. My father was a big Elton John fan and that’s what he was trying to learn when he bought it. I used to sit next to him and listen to him play and then I would practice those tunes. I kept up with lessons and it was always a thing in my life. It’s something that’s been constant my whole life. I wasn’t sure that I would end up doing it professionally, but I’m very glad that I did. It’s a very exciting career.”
I asked James what he loves best about his job. He said he loves the response from the people at the shows. He explained. “Not only the response in a live setting, but the response we get on social media — from all the people who come out and the people who watch us from their couch when we stream our shows live. I think people get a lot of joy from seeing us do what we do. That’s what it’s all about. It’s creating something special for people that’s unique. People can come together in joy to get away from the everyday life hustles. It’s great to be able to be someone who can create joy for other people. That’s a special thing and to be able to make a living doing it, it’s just great. I know I said ‘great’ a lot, but it’s true, and it’s a lot of fun to see the reactions from people. It’s not about us, because we’re playing other peoples’ music. It’s taking those peoples’ music, respecting it and trying to do our best job to do that music justice while putting our own spin on it, having fun with it and keeping it fresh. That will be my final answer.”