Interview by Tim Janof
Marston Smith has introduced audiences of all ages to the infinite possibilities of cello repertoire, venturing into Rock & Roll and Trance Celtic, to High Fashion Euro Funk. His performances are renowned for his creative costuming bordering between Cirque du Soleil, Lord of the Rings, and Road Warrior. He received his Master of Music degree from the renowned cellist Bernard Greenhouse and since has appeared on national television (QVC), and has been a soloist with symphony orchestras, and played in recordings for motion picture soundtracks, record albums, and performances in Las Vegas. He currently lives on a mountain top just outside of Los Angeles with his wife and three children. As a professional cellist working in the recording industry he has recorded with Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Don Henley, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and the films “Out of Africa” and “Red Dragon.” Recently he was featured soloist in recordings by KISS, Black Sabbath, Rosie Gaines, Brandy, Paula Abdul, and Luther Vandross.
TJ: Who was your first major teacher?
MS: I was originally offered a scholarship to study with Eleonore Schoenfeld at the University of Redlands in California. My roommate — who was author James Thurber’s grandson — and I would hop on his motorcycle and get into all kinds of trouble. I was soon kicked out of school and I ended up studying math at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
I took a music class or two at UC Santa Barbara so that I could take cello lessons with Geoffrey Rutkowski. It was at that time that I got mixed up with the Little Emo, a group that played things like an electrified Brandenburg Concerto when opening for the Beach Boys. This got me more and more involved with the music school. I’m still best friends with Dr. James Sitterly, who was the violinist with Little Emo and is now the front guy for John Tesh. It was through my involvement with Little Emo that I became a music major again. Suddenly, my cello was everything to me and it became my life.
While with Little Emo, I would do funny things like play Rococo Variations while a girl, dressed up in a butterfly outfit, would dance as another girl in a Bikini would frying bacon in a pan next to a industrial fan—blowing the stink into the audience. We did all sorts of crazy skits like this and we wore lots of different costumes. We were taking classical music to places way beyond anything we had previously imagined.
TJ: Then you went to study with Bernard Greenhouse.
MS: Yes, I was his assistant. I still make a point of visiting him each year when I’m on the East Coast. He and his wife are my son’s godparents.
Greenhouse would say to never play anything precisely the same twice. We would sit in his master classes and listen to him play a Bach bourrée, noting how he’d almost seem to be playing a different piece each time he repeated. One time it would be dance, next a sad ballad, and next a tentative cry. It was amazing to watch him go through a wide palette of emotions with the exact same passage.
TJ: I’ve heard that you played the Arpeggione Sonata incredibly beautifully while studying with Bernard Greenhouse.
MS: Yeah, that piece really spoke to me. I can’t explain it.
TJ: The Arpeggione Sonata is incredibly difficult, so you must have been very talented. Why didn’t you choose to pursue a career in classical music?
MS: I would say that classical music and I gradually grew apart. It wasn’t a sudden transformation.
After studying with Greenhouse I returned to Los Angeles and started doing a lot of studio work. My first gig was to play in “The Jazz Singer” with Neil Diamond. I also did a lot of work with the famous Sid Sharp and his string section. A lot of stuff in my bio is from the days when every TV show had its own orchestra, like “BJ and the Bear” and “Battle Star Galactica.” I kept doing studio work because I was making loads of money.
I found the studio scene to be really uptight and overly political. You don’t quite have to play golf and know the latest sports scores, but you can’t be fringe at all. If studio musicians don’t feel comfortable with you, there are always plenty of others who are eager to take your chair. I found it very difficult to play the political games.
I had a great friendship with Phil Marshall, who is a son of Jack Marshall, a monster composer/guitarist in the TV/Film business and the music director for Peggy Lee and other TV shows like “The Munsters.” Jack Marshall’s other son, Frank, produced “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’ve played in hundreds of movies for Phil, all the surf films and the Disney movies. It was Phil who wrote his Hydrogen Cello Concerto for me, which I have performed with orchestras across California. It’s more a Victor Borge type of performance than a formal classical piece.
A few years went by when I didn’t do much studio work. And with the advent of sampling, studio work for live musicians ground to a halt. Now, when there are live musicians required in a sound track, they are usually recorded in Europe. My friend, Phil, recorded ten major motion picture sound tracks last year and every single one of them was done in Europe. It’s a tenth the cost.
Currently, Phil and I are recorded the sound track to the NBC TV production of “Crime & Punishment.” He played the synths while I played cello. Phil played some samples while I came in with a real distorted pulse, which matches the show’s edginess.
TJ: Were you improvising?
MS: Yes. Instead of singing cellistically, I would appear from out of nowhere, sort of hoarsely. I’d go through an entire range of sounds and feelings, using ponticello, artificial harmonics, and then I’d end up on a beautiful, warm vibrato. I was trying to run the viewer through the emotional roller coaster that occurs on screen. It was incredibly fun.
I just recorded a sound track for a new movie by Spinal Tap, called “A Mighty Wind.” It was a total blast because I was encouraged to go wherever I liked, whether Hendrix, classical, folk, or a blend of all three. I wasn’t given any music.
There’s another movie coming out soon on the Sci-Fi Channel for Composer Christopher Guest, called something like “Dead Planet” or “Death World.” He asked for my 5-string electric cello, which has an E-string on the top. He mostly wanted way out unusual sounds like crunching distorted glisses on the instrument or odd harmonics patterns. He too wanted me to run the gamut of human expression.
TJ: Your five-string electric cello must be a lot of fun.
MS: Absolutely. If you hear me play, I’m on the E-string ninety percent of the time. I often hit the lower strings when starting a sequence. I can also bounce back and forth between low and high notes, which, with a lot of delay, sounds like I am playing the treble and bass at the same time. I use this affect between my bigger numbers. It always dazzles the crowd.
I use background tracks in my bigger numbers, which, along with my bass lines, are amplified by a powered sub-woofer. I use a speaker combo amp for my high notes.
TJ: Who made your five-string cello?
MS. Eric Jensen, who lives in Seattle. I’m trying to get him to build me an asymmetrical six-string cello too. I want him to find a hunk of wood with lots of knots and bark, a very primitive/primordial “Lord of the Rings” cello. The sixth string would be a low E-string extension so that I could match guitarists in bands, who all have a low E-strings too. It doesn’t even need a hunk of wood under the E and the C strings beyond 5th, 6th, 7th positions. It could be caved in there, and the instrument could go sideways. Then I would fix my devices to it, just like medieval knights, who fixed devices to their helmets in tournaments. Another instrument Eric is building for me is a Road Warrior/Futuristic 6-string. At some point I’ve got to battle Aliens too.
TJ: You also have a 12-string cello with a pickup.
MS: You can see it on my website. It’s a yellow instrument that I’m playing while wearing a kilt. I had a Canadian maker, Dominick Zuchowicz, build it. He’s also a great maker of Period baroque instruments. I wanted a cello that I could just whale on and it certainly does the job. It has five strings — E, A, D, G, C — and seven sympathetic strings below. When I hit certain notes, like A and D, the drone strings are triggered and the cello really cranks. I’m still experimenting with the tuning of the drones, trying to find the optimal combination of notes to maximize my instrument’s resonance.
I love having all these different kinds of cellos in my arsenal. It’s just like in medieval times, when knights had an assortment of arrows in their quivers, some for armor piercing, some for puncturing chain mail, and some that have a needle-tip that can slide between pieces of metal. Likewise, I use my 12-string cello to pierce the audience members’ hearts.
TJ: You mentioned wearing a kilt. In looking at the pictures on your website, you seem to like wearing dramatic outfits in your performances.
MS: I like to wear all sorts of costumes and inhabit different characters. I become a Celtic cellist when I play an Irish tune wearing a kilt and a bear skin as in “Brave Heart.” I become a Rock & Roll cellist when I wear the leather pants and Gothic long coat. I just played for a celebrity opening of “Treasure Planet,” which is a new Disney film. Naturally, I dressed up as a futuristic pirate.
I also have some golden armor. It’s made by Tony Swatton, who’s with “Sword and the Stone.” He’s one of the greatest armorers in the world. He made the swords and armor for hundreds of films including the swords for latest Zorro movie, as well as “Hook” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He’s makes chain mail too. I’ve gone to his shop and seen Mel Gibson working with one of Tony’s tomahawks.
My armor would probably be something that one might find in the Renaissance era. The Greek warriors of 300 B.C. wore something very much like my breast plate, except hammered out of bronze. But the shoulder part is very much from the late 16th Century Italian era. When you put the two together, you get something that would have been worn in a parade during the Renaissance.
I love mixing styles. I wear leather pants and giant rocker boots with my golden armor, which is like a mixture of Road Warrior and ancient times. I have some great costumiers working on some ideas for my Las Vegas show that will reflect my ideas. I love the idea of mixing ancient past with the futuristic.
I mount my instrument to my armor so that I can run around while I play. There’s no point in being an electric cellist unless I’m wireless and I can leap and fight like a swordsman. The armor is meant to terrify my enemies and dazzle the women. Not to mention that I’m getting older and I’m not inclined to work out enough to create great abs when I can just strap them on.
You’d be surprised how popular my armor is. I was asked by John O’Hurly, who played J. Peterman in “Seinfeld,” to play at a corporate Christmas party in Alaska. I asked John if I should bring my armor. He said, “Yes, Marston, wear the armor, do your whole thing and then you’ll join me for a few Christmas songs.” That gig resulted in the two of us doing a Christmas album together, which has sort of an epic, New Age, Enya feel. My armor fits in perfectly into the ambiance of this music. Now we’re booked for several concerts. We’re also playing in Lake Tahoe with the Reno Symphony, and we hope to do a lot of QVC or Home Shopping Network spots in December.
TJ: It sounds like you meandered away from classical music and never returned.
MS: Yes, classical music became totally irrelevant in my life. I used to play in some local orchestras, but when I started playing the streets in Universal Citywalk, I found that I could make more money selling my CD’s than I was getting from my orchestra rehearsals. Of course, I have to take out taxes for the IRS, because they count every CD I make, and I also have to pay royalties to people like Michael Jackson, 8 cents per CD, because I recorded Eleanor Rigby and Michael owns the Beatles library.
Anyway, my transformation occurred gradually. It’s like when you put a frog in a pot of boiling water; it will leap out. But if you stick it in cold water and gradually turn the heat up, it will die in the pan. Basically, classical music slowly died within me. Now, it’s as if classical music doesn’t even exist. For me, if a note is already written down, I see no reason to play it.
After playing in orchestras for years, I decided that I wanted to become completely real. How does one become real as a cellist? It comes with connecting the physical gesture with the musical gesture. One’s palette of expression becomes even wider when these two are combined. When I play in front of a huge crowd in a street performance, I’m finally playing the cello the way I really need to play it.
TJ: It seems like the visual element of a performance takes on a more important role in your performances than one usually sees in the classical music world. How you look, act, and emote is an important element of your performances. By allowing yourself to move around, show your emotions, and unleash your creativity, you feel that you are able to bring more of your true self to your performances.
MS: Absolutely! Sitting in a chair while wearing a tux is death. I’m tired of not bringing all of myself to the stage. It’s no wonder classical music is struggling financially. Orchestras depend on grants for their survival, which means that there must be something very, very wrong. Meanwhile, huge things are happening in places like Las Vegas, like Celine Dion’s $100 million machine in Las Vegas. People happily hand their money over to her, but they won’t spend a dime on an orchestra concert. The classical music world needs to wake up.
I’m trying to start something in Las Vegas too. I have investors and a producer and we’re negotiating with different properties. We’re trying to put together a huge show that will attract 20,000 people per week.
TJ: You have found your own way to express yourself in your own way. You wear your golden armor instead of a tuxedo, and you mount the cello on your armor so that you can move around instead of being stuck in a chair. It seems like you found a way of playing that really suits you.
MS: When I wear my golden armor, I sort of decide that I am “Lord of the Cello.” My armor complements precisely what my music is all about. My performances need to be visually exacting in addition to being musically exacting.