"Most bands' lives are less than a year. If you make it one year, that's a big deal, and we made it to 30," says Timothy Gassen of Marshmallow Overcoat, one of the longest running garage bands in rock 'n' roll history.
Think about what you were doing 30 years ago. For many, to say they've been doing something professionally for 30 years is either a cause for celebration or abject depression, but either way, it's something nearly unheard of in the psychedelic, so-called "paisley underground" that Marshmallow Overcoat has thrived in since its inception.
When Gassen started "The Overcoat," as fans and the musicians themselves refer to the three-decade old combo, The Gipper was still President, MTV still played music, and the summer of love was not yet 20 years old.
The band got started when Gassen (who's been called The Guru of Garage in various garage circles) got an offer from Dionysus Records in Los Angeles to put out a 7" record in 1986. It's difficult for the 55-year-old Tucson resident to fathom how far the band has come from its early days.
"It's absolutely surreal," Gassen says. "When we got together, Al Perry, who was our original guitarist, and I grabbed a couple other guys from another Tucson band (Jeff Puhl and B.G. King of The Cryptics) to go in and record a couple songs for a one-off 45. We recorded it in Dave Slutes from the Sidewinders living room. I was really getting into garage rock, and the whole thing that was happening in Los Angeles at the time."
Gassen decided on the name Marshmallow Overcoat after watching Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz.
"One of the guys from The Band talks about how they were in San Francisco in 1967 and all of the band's had these 'stupid names' like Marshmallow Overcoat. I thought, who would be stupid enough to name their band that and it was me. I didn't think I'd be stuck with it for 30 years." Gassen can barely stifle his laughter at the thought.
There really wasn't a plan to go beyond the initial recording, but the "Groovy Little Trip" seven-inch ended up selling well for Dionysus and its founder, former Tucsonan Lee Joseph. asked if Gassen was interested in doing a full-length. For Gassen, who'd been working in A&R for Bomp and Voxx Records, doing some freelance music writing, and playing in bands for about five years in Tucson up until then, this was all the impetus he needed to put together the first official version of The Overcoat.
Gassen's Overcoat again recorded in Slutes' living room and, for around $200, created, The Inner Groove in 1987. As the band began gigging around the west coast a cult following formed, especially in Los Angeles where, in some ways, '60s psych-garage sounds had never really waned. Bands like The Three O'Clock and The Fuzztones were garnering attention from the larger independent labels as well as the majors.
"The thing about '60s-influenced music is that as time goes on, it keeps coming back. Punk rock keeps coming back, and hardcore keeps coming back, and '60s music keeps coming back. It's a warm and heartfelt type of music. It's visceral. You don't really get that out of hair metal or other trendier types of music," says multi-instrumentalist producer Matt Rendon, a member of Marshmallow Overcoat since 1996, in one form or another.
"About 1990 or '91, the band went from being a one-off to having a really good lineup and we toured the U.S. several times," says Gassen, who, you'll note, has authored multiple books on the subject of garage music, including the 500-page The Knights of Fuzz: The New Garage & Psychedelic Music Explosion. "This was right before MTV started to play us (the network showed both the video for "Suddenly Sunday" and "13 Ghosts" on their show, 120 Minutes). We were getting airplay from other national TV, and we were getting offers to go to Europe. We would play in Los Angeles and there would be industry bigwigs trying to figure out what the hell we were doing."
Fortunately, at least in Gassen's eyes, the band was never signed to a major label, even after they took advice from a few of the interested labels and dropped the "Marshmallow" from their title for one album. After the experiment proved to have zero effect on the band's popularity or the major labels' ability to understand them, the "Marshmallow" was back after they released Three Chords ... And A Cloud of Dust! in 1991 on Dionysus Records. The band was able to continue what they did best, which was make records and tour.
"That was sort of a pivotal point for the band and I'm glad they didn't sign us," Gassen says. "We would have become a commercial proposition and probably would have put out one more record and that would have been it. We realized that we were always going to be an independent band and we could do whatever the hell we want. It actually saved the band, the fact that we didn't get signed in the early 1990s."
Since that era of the band, Marshmallow Overcoat has been nothing short of prolific in terms of recorded output. Gassen says the band has had somewhere around 40 records released whose material revolves around nine or 10 full-length LPs worth of songs. Even though live shows have been non-existent in the last decade, The Overcoat has continued to get together whenever possible to record, and has released new material every year for the past decade.
One band challenge is geography: Drummer Scot Gassen and keyboard player Bill Kurzenburger live in Ohio now. Scot and bass player Dan McGee have made up the rhythm section for the better part of the last 28 years, although Rendon has stepped in and played drums here and there. Scot turned 65 this year and is celebrating his 50th year of drumming in a rock 'n' roll band, which is a tremendous accomplishment if you think about it. For this 30th anniversary show, Tucson legend Perry will be joining Rendon on guitar in Marshmallow Overcoat's lineup.
"We're doing (this 30th anniversary show as) a benefit for Downtown Radio (KTDT 99.1), which is this low-power radio station in downtown Tucson," Gassen says. "Everyone who listens to that station is all under 25 years old. None of them have ever seen us live. We're hoping they come to the show and get introduced to a whole new thing that they never knew existed. If I can get one person interested in garage and psychedelic music, then my job will be done."
Of course Gassen, who has never been afraid to educate younger audiences on rock 'n' roll history, concludes with this little nugget on the power of reinvention:
"I want the 20-year-old kid in a band to kick our ass because then the future of rock 'n' roll is going to be ok."