Building A Body Of Work: Will Marsh On The New Gold Connections EP, Ammunition
2020 has taken so much from us, including a year’s worth of seeing our favorite bands perform at the venues we know and love. And while that separation has been painful — especially when it comes to the ability to make a living as a musician — there are artists I’ve actually ended up feeling closer to as the year comes to a close. Solo streaming sets have given us front row seats for countless house shows. Bandcamp Fridays have offered a monthly reminder that Spotify streams don’t put food on the table. And a summer of political action provided opportunities for forward-thinking artists to take a stand against systematic injustice.
Will Marsh is one of those artists I saw more clearly in 2020.
He’s the leader of Richmond-via-Charlottesville band Gold Connections, and today marks the release of his blistering new EP entitled Ammunition, available to stream. While the EP marks an important new chapter for the band — notably, it’s the first set of songs released after Marsh’s recent move to Richmond — the material was actually conceived and recorded before COVID-19 turned the world sideways, and it represents an acknowledgement that things have been sideways for some time, with lyrics expressing frustration with America’s recent political past (“There’s a time for anger / There’s a time for cursing under your breath”) and a title track that responds to the haze of nervous conflict that’s been drifting through our daily lives (“Ammunition”).
As that atmosphere heated up in 2020, Marsh responded both personally and creatively. One impetus for his relocation was a desire to be closer to the movement for overdue racial justice. “It is actually very tied into the protests that were happening in Richmond,” he said. And he saw the June release of standalone single “Iowa City” as an opportunity to take action, pledging funds from the song’s sale during that month to the National Bail Fund. In the fall, he opened up a new window into his artistic vision, outfitting two of the EP’s tracks with music videos directed by Phineas Alexander, the University of Virginia student who served as director on the video for Charlottesville singer-songwriter Kate Bollinger’s “Feel Like Doing Nothing.”
Each of those milestones offered new insight into where Marsh stands, and I had the good fortune of getting an even clearer glimpse by speaking with the Gold Connections leader over the phone about his Ammunition EP, his path through 2020, and the creative goals that he still sees over the horizon.
Do you feel a sense of distance from these songs, not being able to perform them the way you normally would?
No. I totally understand how that might be the case for some people in a similar position, but I recorded this before the world as we knew it ended, [and] I still listen to the music. I kind of carried this EP with me out of 2019, or out of the end of this era in this historical shift that happened. I’ve carried it close to my heart, and that’s how it feels. Now I’m sharing it with people, but it feels very much still part of me.
The songwriting on Ammunition dates back as early as 2016 — do you have other material waiting to surface in that way?
This has always been the project for me — building a body of work. Weaving all these songs together. And I have the next threads, or whatever. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I feel pretty centered by the fact that I have my next EP written, and I know how it’s going to relate to this one. I don’t know how we’ll do it safely, or when we can do it safely again, or when my bandmates and I will feel comfortable doing that, but I’ve got more music.
What appeals to you about the EP format?
There’s something really cool about putting out a bunch of EPs. The Beta Band’s Three EPs is something that I had in mind, or something that I want to emulate. Right now, I’m putting this EP out on cassette, because it’s cheaper and it’s faster production and everything. But it would be cool to keep putting out EPs and then do a three-EP compilation vinyl. That’s kind of where my head’s at with physical media.
But particularly what I like about EPs on their own terms is a five-song EP — that’s a pretty full listening experience if you listen to it all the way through, but it might only take you 20 or 25 minutes, and then you can listen to it over and over again. There’s something more exhilarating about an EP than there is with a 10- or 12-song album. There are lots of reasons why EPs make more sense now, with the way people approach art or media or anything… but you can really still go somewhere with five or six songs.
How did the videos for the title track and “Stick Figures” come together?
That’s been really fun. We made “Ammunition” in October, and we made “Stick Figures” in September. Basically I sent Phinneas “Stick Figures” and [asked] “Do you have any ideas for this?” We talked the next day — did a phone call — and he pitched a concept to me, and I pitched a concept I had, and we combined the two concepts. He had this idea of driving around, one-shot in a pickup truck, driving round University Circle in Charlottesville with these characters interacting with us, harassing us at times, or cheering for us. And I had the idea of this game of hangman that plays out.
With “Ammunition,” it was a similar thing where I sent him the song and he pitched this idea and we filmed it like a week and a half later.
I love the slowed down/sped up look in that one.
Phinneas had just watched Black Is King, the Beyoncé movie, and they had that effect of the sped up film with people dancing in the background… He had this general idea and these edits or tricks he wanted to play with, and he said “I have some friends who are actors, and I know people in the University of Virginia X-Tasee dance group and the Wushu Club.” And then he scheduled it, we got there, and the dance group had choreographed this whole thing on their own. They brought it, and they performed it, and we were pretty blown away. It’s pretty insane. And these two people from Wushu Club at UVA had planned a fight scene, and they did that. The two people who are in the last verse, they did this almost comic routine of screaming at each other and brought their own energy for that.
The basic idea was — and this was Phinneas’ idea — each verse would be playing out a conflict, or a fight, in different ways. And using this reverse technique, you would start with the climax of this fight, and end with the beginning of it. Just playing with time and investigating these different conflicts through each verse. He put a lot of thought into it.
Did these videos represent a different way you could connect with audiences, given that performing live is so difficult right now?
Yeah, I’ve actually been thinking about that… Music videos — it’s an art form. And one thing, especially with “Ammunition,” [is that] it was a collaboration, too. It just feels really good to show up to a spot and these other artists — these dancers — come and bring their own creative energy into this one video that I laid the groundwork for. I have the music, but it’s a collaboration. It’s different from a live show where all the bands show up and play their music, but there’s also that social element that was great. I can’t play shows [and] I don’t really feel great about live streaming. I’m not incredibly interested in doing that right now, but a music video is one way to reach out to people and express myself to an audience in a visual format.
What are the other ways you’re processing music differently right now, both as a musician and a listener?
In one way, there’s an even tougher scramble for resources. Labels are tightening up even more and running out of money or whatever, and there’s only so much space on the Twitter feed. In that sense, competition [among] bands can be even more ruthless — or there’s a sense of that. But on the other hand, I’ve felt, definitely, a lot of freedom, maybe because, for me, there’s no financial option. I’m not going to make a living doing music right now, and that’s super-clear to me. So with this new terrain in the music world, I feel like there’s a greater possibility of camaraderie. We’re all just making art, and that seems to be more the point right now. That’s how I feel. So in that sense I feel like I’m putting out music a little bit differently and receiving it differently.
How did you reach the decision to use the release of “Iowa City” to fundraise?
I had already scheduled the song “Iowa City” to be released through distribution, so this was in the works. And then there was the killing of George Floyd, and everything that followed that, and that preceded that, and I had to ask myself why I was putting out music in that particular moment. I found an answer, and I released it, but I had to ask myself that question: “Why do I have the right to put out this music right now?” I thought a little bit about the 1960s, and these times of intense social upheaval, injustice, murder and all the rest that was happening — it was also a time of rock and roll and culture, and people weren’t holding onto their music at that point. And I took that as an inspiration.
Even if “Iowa City” isn’t a protest song or anything, it is a chance — especially that kind of song — for people to feel some sort of catharsis. Music makes life more meaningful, so [it was about] giving people that. I wanted to put that money toward the National Bail Fund. Initially, I wanted to go through Richmond [Bail Fund], but they couldn’t accept any more, because they were getting too many donations. In part, I was moved by stories from my own friends who were in Richmond who were getting held overnight by police in garages illegally, and hearing these stories from people I knew really well. That played a big role.
What inspired the metaphor in the title track relating to bullets and ammunition?
It’s about the sense of combat that’s in the air. I reference rubber bullets and this violent imagery, and clearly all that’s happening. But it’s not really a literal song. I’m not calling for gun violence, and I think that’s a pretty important thing to say.
I’m singing about this fight-or-flight feeling that permeates mundane situations… Do you know Christopher Lasch? He’s a social critic, [and] he wrote The Culture of Narcissism, which was a really big hit in the 1980s… He was interested in this idea of survivalism, which is this feeling that’s kind of dominant in 20th century, 21st century culture — the idea that we’re not thinking in long term ways. Our goal is to survive a single day. Clearly there’s a climate crisis, but this is all part of it — this feeling of apocalypse. On Twitter, everyone’s talking about “It’s the end of the world” all the time, and that’s literally not true. And rather than incentivizing collective action, which might be the goal of that kind of messaging, the neverending panic we experience as a culture actually breeds fatalism and makes it more difficult to build the long term political projects we need — for instance, addressing the climate crisis. It’s this feeling that we need to survive. That the goal is simply life itself. That’s kind of what I’m talking about, and it’s something that I feel.
The book that I read that brought that up for me is called The Minimal Self, and the subtitle is Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. It’s about this minimal self, that that is the dominant personality of our time — I mean, it is a narcissistic personality — but it’s minimal in the sense that it’s in survival mode. We only feel like we’re capable of the simplest tasks, like “Today I’m going to go to the grocery store.” And that’s the big struggle for the day. And “Ammunition” is ringing the alarm bells. It’s saying “We need more than rubber bullets.”