The following interview was conducted in 2007 with then-recently elected Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for inclusion in the book PhanArt: The Art of the Fans of Phish.
Pete Mason: Phish is the pre-eminent band from the Burlington area in the past 30+ years. What influence do you see Burlington, and Vermont in general, as contributing factors to the development of a strong fan base and a close knit Phish community?
Senator Bernie Sanders: It should come as no surprise that a band like Phish came from Vermont. Its success was developed largely outside of the musical mainstream, without the aid of corporate radio stations or MTV. Like so much in Vermont, the success of Phish depended almost entirely on its appeal to what we call the grassroots, and what music people call the fan base. Phish exemplifies the remarkable power of a word-of-mouth, grassroots movement to transform the musical landscape.
Pete Mason: Over the course of your many years in Vermont public office, did you ever expect Phish to have such a profound impact on American music, and for the band to rise to such heights over the course of their existence?
Senator Bernie Sanders: I was first elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, two years before Phish played its first show at the University of Vermont. Burlington’s young people were the first members of the supportive community that would propel the band to national prominence. By the time I was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1990, Phish was already touring nationally and building a loyal following. I watched the meteoric rise of Phish with interest, and have been proud to see Phish succeed beyond all expectations.
Pete Mason: When did you first hear about Phish as being a Burlington based band, to the extent that it piqued your interest as a product of Vermont?
Senator Bernie Sanders: Burlington is not an especially large city. Nectar’s, w here they began performing, is only a block from City Hall. I don’t go to music much, but some of the young people I talk with were very, very interested in Phish. As the band’s popularity grew and it began to receive wide attention, I saw Phish as an ambassador of the state of Vermont, highlighting our independence and open-mindedness and our deep involvement with grassroots politics and culture.
Pete Mason: While many are aware of the strong fan base Phish had throughout its existence, how did such a community of people come about around just four guys playing music?
Senator Bernie Sanders: What I find unique and remarkable about Phish is the open relationship between the band and its following. This is not a band that just plays for an audience and no more. The interaction that young people kept telling me defined the Phish concert experience helped create an energetic and devoted community across Vermont and across the nation.
Pete Mason: Were you ever able to make it to any Phish concerts? If so, which ones, and what did you think of the experience?
Senator Bernie Sanders: During my (2006) Senate campaign, I listened to three-quarters of Phish play together at something called “Honky Tonk the Vote,” a fundraising event for my Senate campaign. I’d talked with Mike Gordon a number of times in recent years, and he agreed to play at this event. He did a long set, and both Page and Jon came up on stage and played with him. From what I understand, it was the first time the three of them had played together since their final show in Coventry. But for me it wasn’t about their ongoing history, but about good music, and the great feeling everyone in the audience had when they played together.
Bernie Sanders was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. Elected Mayor of Burlington by 12 votes in 1981, he served four terms. The Almanac of American Politics has called Sanders a “practical’ and “successful legislator.” He has focused on the shrinking middle class and widening income gap in America that is greater than at any time since the Great Depression. Other priorities include reversing global warming, universal health care, fair trade policies, supporting veterans, and preserving family farms.
Source: Senator Sanders Senate Website