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Interview Project Part 5: Pardon Me Doug’s Kevin Roper

The next Artist Interview Project installment features Kevin Roper, keyboardist for Pardon Me, DougThe first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

Find more information about Pardon Me, Doug on the band’s Facebook pageYou can also follow PMD on Twitter.

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I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Roper, a member of the Phish cover band “Pardon Me, Doug.” I asked him six questions of a philosophical nature based on the work we covered in our course. Kevin, who was beyond a good sport, answered each question at length, giving me great insight into his work and its place in course themes.

In my second question, I asked Kevin what he considered to be Pardon Me, Doug’s main objective. Kevin’s answer inspired connections to several topics in the course, particularly those based around aesthetics and the idea of the “sublime.” Kevin stated: “…personally, beauty is an objective of mine. I like to think of a personal experience when it comes to beauty in Phish. It was 1995 on the slopes of Sugarbush, VT on a beautiful, starry summer night. They were playing Slave and it felt completely transcendental. To me it was the epitome of beauty. I definitely strive to recreate that feeling in our music.” This reminded me of Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime.” I inferred that where Kevin uses the word “transcendental,” Kant might use the word “sublime” to describe Kevin’s experience. However, according to Kant, the beautiful and sublime are mutually exclusive. This is something my classmates and I discussed at length in our weekly discussion: why can’t something be considered beautiful and sublime at the same time? Most of us agreed that based on our own experiences, that more often than not, the sublime is also beautiful (while the inverse is not true as often). Kevin’s description of his “transcendental” experience leads me to believe he would agree as well.

In my third question to Kevin, I asked him about the role of Pardon Me, Doug in the Phish community. Throughout the interview as a whole, Kevin spoke of the importance of the community in the music making experience. He states that: “we all know that we are just sharing in the groove…in the greater community that wouldn’t be possible without Phish and our mutual respect and admiration of Phish.” Kevin uses the word “groove” in a similar manner that Elizabeth Yeager uses the word “it” in her thesis, “Understanding ‘It’: Affective Authenticity, Space, and the Phish Scene.” To put it simply, “It” is the unique feeling of “oneness” that one gets from a musical community. Later in the interview, Kevin describes this feeling of oneness in an eerily similar manner, stating “I watched the boys on stage, watched the crowd, felt the energy and turned…and said…ok, now I remember. I get it.”

The fifth question I asked Kevin was what he valued about Phish’s music/art, and whether he thinks that others should agree with him. He says that the thing he values the most is Phish’s musical talent. He says: “I do get pissed when people say blanket statements like ‘Phish sucks!’…if you don’t like the music they play, that is fine and understandable…but I don’t see how ANYONE can deny the talent that they have.” I found this connected to Dennis Dutton’s TED talk, “Darwinian Theory of Beauty.” In his lecture, Dutton discusses the psychological reasons behind what we consider art. He is quick to specify that beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder, but in the “culturally conditioned eye of the beholder,” meaning that what we learn to be beautiful within our environment is what we consider beautiful. This means that those Kevin describes as disliking Phish based on taste alone have grounds to do so. However, Dutton also states that we find beautiful is in “something done well.” By Dutton’s standards, Kevin has right to be upset.

Overall, Kevin offered some insightful words on the philosophy of Pardon Me, Doug as well the Phish community as a whole.

Interview Transcript

Do you aim to bring originality to your performances? If so, how do you do so?

This is always a quandary when it comes to being in a tribute band.  Do you try to sound exactly like the band you are paying homage too or are you just playing the songs in some fashion because you just like them in general?  I also play in a Grateful Dead band sometimes called A Band Beyond Description. Unlike a band like DSO, ABBD is up front that we are not trying to replicate the Dead, but rather cover the songs in a way that we want to express it.  Usually it is pretty close to the original version, but it leaves room for us to put our own flavor into it if we want.  However, with Pardon Me Doug, I’d say that our aim is to come as close as possible to the real thing.  We study the equipment, the effects and the styles of Phish for each song and then do our best to mimic it.  We generally listen to specific live versions to get our basic structure and then expand from there.  Whereas Phish jams can vary so much show to show or year-to-year, we definitely strive to pull from certain eras in our jams depending on the night or our mood.  For example, we might say we want to do a really funky late 90’s Mike’s Song jam or an extra fast AC/DC Bag.  Along with this though is the fact that we all hail from a lifetime of listening to tons of different music and playing in other bands previously, so we definitely add in our on interpretations…or sometimes the jams just take us to something we aren’t expecting…creating something totally original.  For example,sometimes I’ll use my synth and the jam turns into something closer to STS9 or Umphrey’s McGee than a typical Phish jam. While Page has been a major influence on my playing since I was in high school and first started listening to Phish, so many other people have filled my head with influences over the years..  Bruce Hornsby, Brent Mydland, Keith Godchaux, Jimmy Smith, Herbie Hancock, Dr. John and so on…so, I can’t help but throw in my own sort of blended, “hodge podge” style of playing, even while I’m trying to be “fake Page”.  I’ve been recognized by PMD fans in places and been called that.  Fake Page!  Instead of Page side Rage side…  It’s Rope side Dope side!  hehe!

What is your main objective as a Phish tribute band? Capturing beauty, having fun, or something else? (None of these options are mutually exclusive.)

Yes! The answer is definitely yes, as in all of the above.  Obviously we think Phish makes beautiful music, beautiful energy and beautiful community.  That is why we do it.  That is what steers us.  We see ourselves…in a VERY small way.. an extension of them… not in skill or anything close to what they have achieved… but just in the way that we provide a Phish outlet for our friends, phriends and phans in the area who want to celebrate Phish music when they can’t be seeing the real thing.  We are nothing more than fellow phans.  We just happen to be the ones on stage and are lucky enough to be playing the music in front of people who appreciate it.  I’ve always said that we aren’t popular.  Phish is popular.  We are just fortunate to be decent enough to do it justice so that people enjoy seeing us play!  The real Phish is the real reason we have a fan base!  We really do have a great fan base though that is made up of a long time friends and an ever increasing group of new friends that we’ve gotten to know and they keep coming to see us!  I guess that kind of answered the something else aspect of our main objective..  We do it not just for ourselves, but for everyone out there who gets off on what we are doing… which is really just us trying to channel what gets us off!  But personally, beauty is an objective of mine.  I like to think of a personal experience when it comes to beauty in Phish.  It was 1995 on the slopes of Sugarbush, VT on a beautiful, starry summer night.  They were playing Slave and it felt completely transcendental.  To me it was the epitome of beauty.  I definitely strive to recreate that feeling in our music.

Certainly fun is a big part of it.  Otherwise I wouldn’t do it.  Part of the reason this band was formed was that we were all great friends and like-minded souls.  I’ve been playing music with Cam, the drummer, for 17 years now.  Benny (Guitar) and I played in a band previously and Cheese (bass) and I have played in a couple different projects together as well.  When we put it all together, much like Phish, we were brothers.  The bond goes beyond the music.  I think that shows on stage.  If I didn’t like the guys or the band was a chore or a job, I couldn’t do it.  We have so much fun together, whether it is goofing off at practice, being stuck in a van together…or most importantly when we are digging deep into a jam or banging our way through a high-energy song.  Seeing the reaction of the crowd and feeling their energy only further validates the reason we are doing this.

This is where I have to be honest though.  I’ve had my ups and downs and ins and outs as a Phish fan.  When Benny approached me with the idea of starting a Phish tribute band.  My first reaction was no.  I wasn’t listening to all that much Phish at the time.  Definitely had not latched on to 3.0.  My initial thought was no way! I don’t want to be in a Phish band…but then I thought about it.  I’d been in original jam bands, including one that I led with my own material…and it was frustrating to try to get any attention with it…but knowing other tribute bands out there, like DSO again, I knew that this could be incredibly marketable!  No one in the area was doing it.  There is a built in fan base! I might be able to go somewhere with this!  Maybe not get rich, but maybe a step above where I had been. On top of that, I knew that it would challenge me musically.  I was kind of in a place of musical boredom.  This could be the thing that made me want to work at it again and get better… not to mention, I did still like a shitload of Phish and I couldn’t downplay that. Lastly, I couldn’t think of better company to be in a band with…and so I was in.

 What role do you think Pardon Me, Doug has in the Portland community? In the Phish community at large?

PMD helped fill a void in Portland.  Portland has an amazing music scene.  The talent per capita here is unbelievable..  However, jam bands were few and far between and didn’t seem to have a place amongst the growing number of millennials’ and hipsters.  We knew the heads were out there.  I’d still see them coming out to see Dead bands, but that number was dwindling and the crowds were getting older. The State Theatre seemed to bring hippies people out of the wood works, but even there, jam shows were getting less and EDM and Dub Step seemed to be taking over.  But, we knew our friends liked Phish and we knew others did.  Other than the occasional Phish band coming through from far away, like Strange Design, there was no outlet for a rabid Phish fan.  We filled that void and people seemed very appreciative.

We are well aware of many other Phish tribute bands around the country.  We’ve gotten to know some of them.  For the most part, there is little competition as we are all in it for the same reasons.  However, there is definitely a bit of an unspoken territorial understanding.  We don’t try to play their market and they don’t try to play ours.  But we all know that we are just sharing in the groove (pardon the reference) in the greater community that wouldn’t be possible without Phish and our mutual respect and admiration of Phish.  We are just adding to the community.  Some people may be jamming on an acoustic guitar in the lot at Watkins Glen.  We happen to be doing it on stage.

 How would you describe your emotional connection to Phish?

 That is an interesting question.  It isn’t easily answered, but I’ll try to give an abbreviated version.

Phish was the first band that I truly identified with. Not just in the music, but in the community as well.  I was 15 when I first heard Bouncin’ Around the Room.  It was on a mix tape that my girlfriend of the time gave to me.  It also had The Cure, The Pixies and The BeeGees. Pretty freakin’ random.  I thought it was nice, but it didn’t grab me or send me searching for more of this band, Phish.  I was still trying to figure out who I was.  I was living in my WASP-y, upper-middle class, white-bred community of Fairfield, CT.  I started figuring out that I had some different ideas of how I wanted to live or what I might believe in.  Enter some new friends, driver’s licenses, and pot.  People started identifying with different music and for some reason that seemed to define people.  In any case, some friends turned me onto some other Phish songs.  Blindly, I bought Rift.  As a somewhat dormant at the time musician/piano player, I wore that CD out!  I had a thing to identify with!  I was a Phish fan.  Not sure if “Phan” had been coined yet.  We’re talking 1993 here.  A bunch of friends were going to see Phish at the New Haven Coliseum on Dec. 29, 1993.  I figured I’d better go along.  I still knew very little other than Bouncin’, Rift and a couple things I had heard on a bootleg tape.  Yes tape.  Maxell XLII.  Had to be that or the traders would get pissy!  But I digress!  It was the first tour really where they were playing arenas instead of theaters or large clubs.  Needless to say, it was amazing and I was hooked!  I soon discovered The Dead as well…and at times, I’d say that I more strongly connected with the Dead and all that they created, but at the time and at my age, I identified with Phish more.  They were the new leaders and I was jumping on the train relatively early.  I did get to see Jerry twice before he died though, so I feel pretty lucky about that, even if I was a punk teenager seeing the Dead.  Ok, not sure where I’m going with this.  So I started seeing Phish whenever I could.  If they were anywhere close to the Northeast, I would be there.  Not sure how my parents let me drive several hours on a school night or take a train to MSG to go see a hippy show, but they seemed ok with it, so I did it.  Little did they know!  Ha!

Over the years, my interest would fade and increase at different times. The funk of the late 90’s grabbed me, but I was all over the place for a while and Phish was not a big priority for me.  The hiatus and then break up didn’t really faze me.  I figured they’d be back anyhow.  Regardless, through it all, I was a Phishy jam band music loving dirty hippy freak…or whatever label people want to put on it…as opposed to anything else. So in a nutshell my emotional connection to Phish is that they helped mold me as a person who belonged to a community of like minded people.

 What do you value from Phish’s music/art? Do you think others should agree?

The biggest thing I value is the musical talent.  I’m still in awe at certain things they do.  I will never be as good as them, but that doesn’t keep me from trying! I love the diversity in their music.  I don’t think there is a genre of music that has not shown it’s face somewhere in the annals of Phish.  I do get pissed when people say blanket statements like “Phish sucks!” I want to yell at them and ask if they have a fucking brain at all or if there is something wrong with their hearing!  Everybody has different tastes.  If you don’t like the music they play, that is fine and understandable if isn’t your thing…but I don’t see how ANYONE can deny the talent that they have individually and as an ensemble.  It’s undeniable in my opinion.  They don’t suck.  You just don’t like them!

The other thing I really value is that in a time when record companies were becoming more and more controlling and turning musicians into “product producers”, Phish was able to defy that trend and continue doing the things the way they wanted to.  Obviously they followed in the mold of the Dead, but they pretty much picked up the fading debris of Jerry and the Grateful Dead at the time and set a whole new precedent for live music, jam bands and festivals for the next 20 years and counting.

 Do you think having an emotional connection to music is required to be a good artist?

Yes and No.  I’ve played in all kinds of bands.  Funk, Folk, Country, Blues, Rock and “Jam Band” (which can mean a million things.  It pisses me off when media lumps Blues Traveler and Dave Mathews Band as the “other” jam bands in the scene). While I played in those bands, I didn’t always love the music or have an emotional connection. However, I was told I was good at it.  So, I’d say that was me being a good artist.  However, I inevitable left all of those other bands because ultimately I did not have that inner connection to it.  So I guess it might not necessarily be a requirement to have that pure connection to be a good artist, but if you want to love what you are doing and have sustained longevity in that particular thing, then I think an emotional connection as absolutely required!  I was going to stop there…but I can’t leave it without the disclaimer that having an emotional connection to the music doesn’t necessarily mean that you love every single thing you play.  There are Phish songs that I hate playing.  I simply don’t like every single song that Phish plays.  But, I know what it means to others.. in my band or in the audience.  It’s part of the bigger picture and that is what is more important.  There are songs I like that I’m sure others don’t like as well.  With as many songs that they play, it would be nearly impossible to love them all.  But that is part of what makes them so great!  Something for everyone!  I remember one time when I was feeling a bit poo poo on Phish.  I hadn’t been to a show in a little while.  But, as I stood there with Benny, and I forget what song it was, I took it all in.  I watched the boys on stage, watched the crowd, felt the energy and turned to him and said…ok, now I remember.  I get it.

Interview Project Part 4: For the Artists – Pete Mason Discusses the Phish Scene and its Art

The next Artist Interview Project installment features Pete Mason, founder of PhanArt. Pete has been a supporter of the Philosophy School of Phish since its inception. Thank you to Pete for his time, support, and energy facilitating the Artist Interview Project and engaging brainstorming sessions! The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

Check out PhanArt online at phanart.net, on Twitter (@phanart), and on Facebook.

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For the Artists: Pete Mason Discusses the Phish Scene and its Art

If you’ve been to a Phish show or two (or 200), you’ve probably noticed the art produced and sold by fans following the band. On the lot, one is bound to see a plethora of Phish-themed stickers, poster prints, “heady” pins, and tee shirts. What you may not have noticed was the man behind the scenes helping a lot of this art to get out there. That man is Pete Mason, founder of PhanArt, which is an onsite and online platform for artists in the Phish scene to promote and distribute their work. It was originally created to preserve the community that surrounded Phish after what were thought to be the final shows. Naturally, my Phish senses were tingling when I received the opportunity to talk philosophy with Mason, and he was generous enough to chat with me via Google Hangouts for over three hours.

Mason writes articles and show reviews, which are published on the PhanArt website. Since this project is titled “Artist Interview Project,” I asked him about his own art. He replied with his own philosophically-charged question, “Is writing an art?” According to him, writing is more of a craft. Either way, his craft plays an important role in the lives of talented artists in the Phish scene.

I asked what he felt his role was in the Phish scene, to which he replied, “Advocate for Art and the Artists.” The art community surrounding Phish is a responsive one, meaning that the pieces created are in some way inspired by or relate back to the music of Phish or the scene that surrounds it. Since the Phish scene can be characterized as a sort of open secret, the demographic the pieces are aimed at is rather narrow. As a result, the scene as a whole tends to fly under pop culture’s radar. Mason told me that before the internet, most Phish-themed art stayed on tour. Now, there is more Phish-themed art available than ever and much of it is online. According to Mason, “art requires that more art is made.” This means that when art is made, it influences and inspires art that comes after it. With the greater level of availability the internet has afforded to Phish-themed art, an “artgasm” has taken place in the scene over the last six years.

With so much variety out there, partly thanks to Mason, one is bound to have preferences, so I asked him what he felt made a piece of Phish-inspired art good or beautiful. In his famous Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant makes the argument that aesthetic judgment and taste are entirely subjective. He writes, “the judgment of taste…is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical, but is aesthetic – which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective” (§1). Subjectivity in this context means that when people do things like judge the value or beauty in art, they do so from their own points of view which could never be truly accessed or understood by anyone but the individuals. It is why I may like a song and you may hate it. In answering my question, Mason echoed Kant in saying that judgment of art is a subjective matter, and that when some pieces are “better” than others, it is only so in one’s mind. However, he was happy to share what he personally looks for in a piece of Phish-inspired art:

“I think availability, the intelligence behind the creation, the depth of the concept, the art and whether or not you can find it online or only at a show are some of the main factors that determines whether art is good or not. What makes it good to me is if there is some serious thought behind the art, whether or not the artist just took a background and drew a song title on it, whether the piece encompasses anything related to Phish in an artistically intelligent way, whether or not the art is widely available or just a one off, and really, whether you have a taste for that art. Some folks like one artist’s posters, dislike another’s. People are finicky and like random stuff. To each their own, but again, that’s why there is so much art – there’s so much to choose from that you’ll easily find something you love.”

That these preferences are subjective does not mean that they carry no weight. Perhaps preferences for certain objective characteristics of art are conditioned through subjective experience. Through their individual lives, people are conditioned to experience new stimuli in their own unique way.

Earlier I wrote that the Phish scene is an “open secret.” Mason agreed that all one needs to do in order to feel welcome in the Phish scene is to like the music and “not be a jerk.” My own experience in the scene has confirmed this, as I have found it remarkably easy for my friends and I with all our differences to fit in. This means the scene isn’t defined by much other than Phish. Thus, nearly anyone can feel part of the community. D. Robert DeChaine has coined the term communitas for communities such as this one, which are spontaneous and held together by little other than a communal feeling shared by participants. According to DeChaine, “barriers are lifted and defenses are lowered” (p. 93). Mason said that a lot of this communal feeling simply has to do with being kind. He said, “that whole Mickey Hart ‘please, be kind’ thing – that goes for Phish as well as dead fans. There’s a reason we have festivals with 50K people and have hardly a fight, arrest or problem with violence. It’s unheard of if you compare it to cities of like size.”

According to Elizabeth Yeager in her dissertation on the Phish scene, communitas in the Phish scene sets the stage for that feeling fans refer to as “IT.” Just add a particularly magical moment in the music, and the recipe for “IT” is complete. She writes that “IT” is an experienced affect in which Phish scene participants communally experience the musical sublime, and thus feel part of something greater than themselves, stricken with awe (p. 14-18). Mason weighed in on the physical embodiments of “IT,” and said that when the band really finds it, he feels “a chill while sweating through [his] shirt.” This is particularly interesting because while Yeager focused more on the psychological experience of “IT,” Mason described personally how this feeling can also have physiological effects.

I think that the Phish scene is strong of evidence that art is by no means a useless endeavor. The Phish scene is a reflexive art community that starts with the music Phish plays, and extends all the way to the artist who makes a pin to commemorate his or her favorite jam. The Phish scene is an incredibly positive, peaceful community with its roots in art. Participants couldn’t bask in the experience of “IT” safely without the symbiotic relationship that is Phish and its fans (and especially the artists). It is important to remember that artists dedicate their lives to their work, and that this is their job. Their important work could not be done without our support, and that is what Mason’s PhanArt is all about.

Full Edited Interview Transcript

J: Are you in Albany currently or are you off on Tour?

P: Albany yes, that’s where home is.

J: Could you tell me a little on how you fell into the Phish world?

P: In high school I liked grunge (92-95) and when I got to college it was still popular. Then, Fall 97 my friend played enough Phish to get me to go and check it out. 12/13/97 got me started, went to 3 more shows in 98, but Oswego was where I got ‘it’, and then I was hooked and wanted to know EVERYTHING. When my friends graduated and I didn’t, I was left behind (so to speak) and found the Phish community and those who liked Phish to be more welcoming than any other group I had been a part of before. we all liked the same music, and learned about more new music with the rise of jam bands, and travel and camping became part of all that, which were natural things that I already liked.

J: My own first show was SPAC ’12. Since then I really got hooked and taking this class was a great opportunity to experience the music in a new light. So you’d say we kind of have an all-inclusive, open-secret community going on? All you have to do is love the music.

P: Wow, I actually brought one of my former students to the 3rd night of SPAC. He liked it, a bit. He has Asperger’s. It was a unique experience (including being drunk around a former student).

All-inclusive? Yes (to a point). Open-secret? Yes. Love music, have an open mind, and not be a jerk.

That whole Mickey Hart ‘please, be kind’ thing – that goes for Phish as well as Dead fans. There’s a reason we have festivals with 50K people and have hardly a fight, arrest or problem with violence. It’s unheard of if you compare it to cities of like size.

J: That’s awesome. I really do think that there is a lot about the environment and community of a Phish show that contributes to the experience other than the music. And the community aspect never goes unmentioned in conversations about “IT.” What do you personally feel when the band really hits “IT?”

P: A chill while I am sweating through my shirt.

J: Right down the spine. Like the music is really connecting with your body as well as your mind. Let’s talk about PhanArt now. First of all, congratulations on the success of your show in Chicago. I love the art that is produced in response to what Phish lays down.

You have set up a program for artists to get their art “out there.” What would you say is your role in the Phish community? A Phishy job description, so to speak.

P: Advocate for Art and the Artists – There’s more to the community than just going to Phish, there’s a thriving community of artists making a living creating Phish inspired art (among other things – it’s a broad spectrum for many of them) and to promote those who bring an added artistic nature to the Phish community . They deserve to be highlighted alongside the music.

The artists and the musicians on stage share the same role, a symbiotic one. All are artists, just of different crafts. The more artists, the more beneficial the overall product is to the life and well-being of those around them.

J: Do you produce any art other than your writing?

P: Is writing an art?

Not really. I have ideas. I come up with ideas and work with artists to bring them to life. Shirts and stickers usually, sometimes a poster. I know my limitations when it comes to making art.

Not that I haven’t tried. I just am better off leaving the poster making to poster artists and shirt designing to shirt designers. I do have fun working with them which is a plus, bringing to life an idea that popped into my head. That’s a plus.

J: I think so. I guess there is a tension here between craft and art. I’ve always thought of art as non-random human creation. Do you think writing is an art?

P: I guess writing would be a craft for some, but a poet is a word artist…

Writing for me is a craft. A keyboard is not my palette and a computer is not my canvas. But that could be true for others. A craft you work on, refine, work on, refine, hone, teach, share… It’s like an art.

J: So, in a way, the music of Phish has given birth to a responsive art community? What was the PhanArt community like from 2004-2009, during the breakup? Could it thrive without the band that triggered its existence?

P: Yes the music of Phish definitely gave birth to a responsive art community. It started when someone made the Phish logo, when the first official art was made and when fans said ‘hey, I have an idea,’ and they made a poster, a sticker, a shirt, and then took off from there.

From ’04-’09 there was not much new art out there. I can attest – I made Golgi/Google shirts at the time and they sold slowly. There was no social media. No Facebook. Wanted to sell something? Ebay or make a website. Sell on message boards. Hard to make it happen. Even poster flipping was another game back then. But when Phish came back in 09….. Oh boy. It was a 5 year orgasm of awesome art waiting to happen. Quote me on that.

J: So it just builds and builds. Have any particular songs, jams, or moments of beauty inspired specific pieces that you can remember? If so, how does the music translate to the other art? (Kind of like how Kerouac’s bop-style writing responded to free form jazz) And before we move onto the artgasm, was the pain of Coventry evident in the art that responded to it?

P: I can say the YEMSG sticker that Jiggs designed came from the 12/4/09 YEM at MSG. I texted him during the jam when it came to me and he had a design for it by the end of the show. Sold them within a few weeks.

Moments of beauty? Musically there are too many to list. Some are inspiring (during the Reba night 1 of Northerly 2014 I came up with the idea for everyone to use a headless mannequin Isadora Bullock gave me, as a blank canvas and everyone could write on Henrietta during tour. She’s now fully adorned and ready for another tour!

For any artist – it depends. Some get inspiration from sick lights, from long jams, from gags, from band member facial expressions, from Kuroda, from characters in the songs they sing.

How does music translate to other art? The art interprets the music as each artist sees fit, just as each person who views a piece of art interprets the art the way they see fit. An artist could ignore one aspect of a show because it doesn’t hit their creativity switch, just as I could ignore art right in front of me because I don’t find it interesting or appealing. But when you DO find some art that inspires or appeals to you, then you latch onto it. It’s why art is such a broad spectrum. There’s something for everyone, you just need to figure out what art ‘it’ is that truly inspires you.

Was the pain of coventry evident in the art that responded? Yes. It was depressing art, but still pretty awesome. Lot of mud. Much of it was ‘farewell’ stuff, some was cute but it didn’t have the same hilarity and uniqueness IT had with the art. Coventry was a town name where a band went to die. Opposite ends of the spectrum.

J: Great thought on interpretation. I have heard several artists also say that when they create art, they are “creating the world as they like to see it, and leaving the extra out” I also think that subjectivity plays a huge role in art reception and development.

PhanArt is created in a way that in some way or another, it relates back to Phish. What do you think makes a piece more or less original when takes inspiration from something so clearly defined? Are any pieces too abstracted from Phish to be considered “PhanArt?

P: Abstract. I am sure in an artist’s mind they have to find where the line is behind being inspired by the music to create art and being inspired by music to create music-inspired art. Depends what the artist seeks to do. Do they want to make a show poster? What are they listening to? I get inspired by Phish plenty, but I get inspired by other bands to create differently. I write differently for one band than I do for another, about one thing, or about a band. It depends what direction I get steered in, I think it’s the same for artists. Ask them.

A painting or piece of art can get as abstract as it wants before no longer being about the music or something that inspired it. It depends what the artist and viewer sees in the finished product that ultimately tells you if it is abstract or has a concrete aspect to it.

I think that’s accurate about ‘leaving the extra out’. Trimming the fat of the world and breaking it down to true art. To suck the marrow out of life, to paraphrase John Keating.

J: On to the Artgasm. Would you say that the return of Phish and the technology of the information age combined to allow such a rich art community to happen?

P: The community was already here before Coventry and before Big Cypress even. It’s just a little more obvious now due to social media, increased access to technology that can help you create stickers (the internet can help you make stickers in 24 hours from idea to your door. Couldn’t do that in the past). The rich art community was here, it just wasn’t tapped yet until 3.0 arrived and Internet 2.0 and the advent of social media.

J: So it’s easier for the artists to get the recognition they deserve now more than ever? Pre-Cypress, did the art pretty much stay on tour where it could be shown to interested people and sold?

P: It’s easier for artists to make art. For those who have creativity to find a medium that works for them that may not have been as available in the past (thinking graphic designers here), but getting recognition depends on how hard they work to build their brand, their name and develop their art in a way that suits them.

Pre-Big Cypress, art seemed to stay on tour, with little other homes for it. There was no internet to buy Phish posters, beyond Drygoods and Ebay. Hard to say if it really left tour back then. It certainly does leave tour now, but some is there and only there, in the moment, and gone after

J: I’m also sure another part of it staying on tour has to do with the “open secret” of the Phish community. With a lot of the pieces, one needs to have prior experience with Phish in order to get it. Which brings me to quality: What, in your mind, makes a piece of PhanArt “good?” Does it have anything to do with how well it uses something Phish-related? Or even how available it is for people within the community to “get it”?

As always, that’s up to interpretation. So I’m really just asking your opinion on what makes good or bad Phish Art.

P: I think availability, the intelligence behind the creation, the depth of the concept, the medium of the art and whether or not you can find it online or only at a show are some of the main factors that determines whether art is good or not.

What makes it good to me is if there is some serious thought behind the art, whether or not the artist just took a background and drew a song title on it, whether the piece encompasses anything related to Phish in an artistically intelligent way, whether or not the art is widely available or just a one off, and really, whether you have a taste for that art. Some folks like one artist’s posters, dislike another’s. People are finicky and like random stuff. To each their own, but again, that’s why there is so much art – there’s so much to choose from that you’ll easily find something you love.

J: Everyone will experience a piece differently from their own subjective position, for their prior experience in life and with Phish differs. Do you think that people with a lot of shows under their belt or art experience tend to have a greater appreciation for the art? Can “going in with expectations” hinder the experience, in your mind?

P: People going to lots of shows will have greater knowledge of art, but not necessarily greater appreciation for art. Someone with 10 shows could know more about architecture and appreciate it greater, but not get Phish just yet, while someone with 150 shows could appreciate the art of Phish, but ignore architecture, for example. I think the more you see Phish the more artistic you have the potential to become, or at least interested in art to a broader degree, and the knowledge gained from seeing music and the way it can help your brain fire in different ways can lead to a greater appreciation of anything.

Going in with expectations can hinder if you only focus on what you HOPE will happen. If you go in with no expectations, you can walk out with no complaints. Sure, I wanted to hear Lushington for about 5 years, but I didn’t expect it, ever. I hoped they would play it but didn’t dwell on it or get upset when they didn’t play it at a show. Expectations can build you up and get you pumped for the show but they can turn on you if you hang your hopes on the equivalent of guessing what they play.

J: I agree. Knowing what to expect (or knowing not to expect) is different from actually expecting something to happen with hope. Having background information can help enrich an experience as long as you don’t let it make you jaded.

Anyway, on to the last topic.

I read your piece on the Phish community as a sort of religion. We make pilgrimages, experience “IT,” and form a responsive artist community. A lot of people need to have faith in something. Theists have faith in God, and we have faith in art. What is it that people look for spiritually on Phish tour, do you think? And how do you think it parallels religious following?

P: I don’t know that we have a faith in art.

Faith and religion are two different things.

I don’t know that you can look for spirituality. You find it within yourself, not in a thing or being or band.

Religiosity is a general concept that anyone can discover.

J: What I meant is that producing and appreciating art requires, in my mind, a certain amount of faith in something absurd (like having faith in a deity). If art isn’t something that requires faith, there must be some sort of purpose or ends to creating it. To you, in the context of PhanArt, what is the purpose, then, of creating/appreciating art?

To rephrase the question, how do you think Phish and the community that surrounds it (or even similar communities; think DeadHeads) helps people to discover their own general religiosity or sprituality from within?

Lastly, what is this “religious aspect” of Phish you mentioned?

P: Art doesn’t require faith. It requires a brain and the 5 senses.

There can be a purpose of creating art for art’s sake. You don’t need faith to make art. When I came up with my Phraggles shirt for this summer, I was creating a design that would sell well. Not for faith in anything in particular. I had faith it would sell, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, to have faith in what you are going to put faith into.

Art is made to satisfy a need for art. Art requires that more art is made. There will always be art inspired by art, in all forms. You can be inspired by the smallest type of art and develop it into something broader. I am still inspired by a small musical instrument I discovered in the lower reaches of the Assisi monastery we took a tour of. No one knew what it was, but I played with it (I will touch things in museums) and we learned it made noise. So the art was there, waiting for more art to be made. And I’ll likely never hear that piece of art performed like that again.

I think Phish creates an environment where fans of all types can de-clutter their minds, their being, their surroundings and be in an almost pure state where they can experience less stimuli that may prevent them from realizing any sort of spirituality. It takes time though. Not one show, not one tour, but many shows over many years.

J: I agree about how reflexive art is. Each piece in some way references something else, and pieces inspire new ones in a cycle of growth. Would you agree with that?

Nothing created in a vacuum.

So the welcoming aspect of the Phish community and their music gives people something they can truly focus on and an environment in which they can do so? I’m starting to see some parallels between attending a Phish show and certain forms of meditation, in which the process includes focusing on one thing to “get the clutter out.”

P: Yes, I would agree with that.

J: Will there be a PhanArt stand at the Mann or Magna? Also, pre-congratulations on your 200th show.

P: There will be a PhanArt show on August 12 in Philly at World Cafe Live, but not at Magnaball.

J: I’ll stop by. Happy tour!

Interview Project Part 3: Maybe Sew, Maybe Knot

In the third Artist Interview Project installment, we’ll highlight another Oregon-based artist. In this interview, you’ll read about Meredith Durham, the artist behind Maybe Sew Maybe Knot.  The first part of this entry includes the full text from the interview. It is followed by a student’s reflective analysis. 

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

You can check out Maybe Sew Maybe Knot on Facebook and Twitter (@MaybeSewMaBKnot).

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What thoughts and emotions are you portraying through your work?

I think that I am going to have to go with witty humor. I definitely want someone to look at one of my pieces and chuckle to themselves. It started because I wanted to make a custom piece for a friend and decided to make one that said “Damn it feels good to be a gangster” with a big rainbow behind it. I want my pieces to make people happy and I love it when I get a kick out of something as I’m making it. I kind of have to like what I am making because I’m going to be staring at it for a WHILE and if it’s a song, it’s definitely going to be stuck in my head. Some of the music themed stuff isn’t as focused on humor, but I think the bands that inspire me have that element to their work- that’s part of why I dig it so much. Phish certainly contains the intelligent humor that I love so much. I also like inside jokes, only stuff that a real fan will get.

What makes your art beautiful? What makes cross-stitching different from painting or composing in this quality?

Oh let me count the ways…… I love cross stitch because of the way that you plan for it. It’s like figuring out a math problem. It is so crucial that you line up everything just right. It is very difficult to fix a mistake without undoing A LOT of work. I plan my pieces by coloring on graph paper. I get great satisfaction from sketching something out on paper and then watching it take shape through a very time consuming and tedious process on a tiny scale. I don’t know why I like that so much, but I do! It makes me feel like I’m painting on a pin head sometimes. SO much tiny detail and then you step back and –boom! There’s your image. I think I also like the imagery because it has the 8 bit feel of the video games I played as a kid. I’m not super into video games, but as a kid born in 1982, Nintendo is definitely a cultural touchstone.

What target demographic are you shooting for in your work? Is it mainly for business or more of a hobby?

I make things that I like, because the odds are, someone else is going to like it too. I don’t do it to support myself, but I definitely use it as a means to pay for my travels to see the bands I love! I do think of the people I’m selling to, but those people are usually a lot like myself. I give them as gifts a lot too. It’s very old school to give someone a “cross stitch sampler” as a wedding gift. It’s very time consuming, so if I give you a cross stitch, you are loved by me!   I’ve also started making mason jar lids- much like the ones my grandmother and other ladies in the south would make when they handed out their jam and pickles as gifts. I like the unexpected- like seeing a Phish or Grateful Dead reference on an old-school medium.   I support myself as a real estate broker.

What is your role within the Phish community as an artist? What makes you so connected to this community?

Oh man, how I love this community. I have read about and dreamed of following The Grateful Dead since I was in middle school. I wasn’t able to make that happen since Jerry died when I was 12. I thought I might not be able to make it happen at all, but in 2012 I found myself in a job a really didn’t like and I had no real ties, so I quit my job and followed the Phish for the 2013 Summer Tour- Maine to Denver. I hit New Year’s in 2012 and 2013 as well. I saw 29 shows that year (one short of my goal), their 30th year as well as my 30th year on this earth. I had so many obstacles- my timing belt broke in Indiana on the way to Chicago (still made it to the show on time!). I had to get a new engine- I digress- but the point is: I had so much help! That night, I had friends to stay with in Chicago, and people in Indianapolis were offering their couch to me. I have friends in almost every major city around this country thanks to the kindness and generosity of the fan base. What a stellar crew. I know people like to talk about how rowdy and destructive Phish fans are– there is that element everywhere with any large group of people—but I have always been overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of all of us.

Do you ever get requests for pieces of art that you don’t really care to make? Does passion make one of your works better than others? Why do you think so or not?

The only thing I had a request for that I wasn’t super stoked on was one that had a quote from a book. It had the word “goddamn” in it, and I thought, “if my mom saw me stitching this, she would kill me!” but that was a custom piece, so I made it for the friend that asked for it. I usually really dig the custom requests because it allows me to figure out ways to design something that I would have never thought of myself. I just finished a piece for my friend’s dad with a wizard on it- I love the way it turned out and he was so pleased he sent me more money than I had quoted him. Customer requests definitely help me expand my creativity.

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Reflective Analysis

What is art? Leo Tolstoy pondered this question back in the 19th century. What is its function and how does it serve humanity? According to Tolstoy, the function of art is its ability to create a shared emotion between the author and audience, specifically joy. Meredith Durham, proprietor of Maybe Sew Maybe Knot, has felt a connection with the Phish community ever since the 2013 summer tour. Her art is influenced by this band and other esoteric references. The purpose of Meredith’s art is to bring joy to someone’s day. Due to the long process of cross-stitching, when Meredith presents her work as a gift it expresses her connection to the recipient.

Meredith explains how she worked a job she didn’t enjoy until 2012, so she joined the Phish 2013 summer tour. This experience changed her life. Despite many obstacles, she received significant support from the Phish community. There is no doubt that the 2013 Phish summer tour influenced her art.

While we did not specifically discuss the live shows, it is clear that Phish concerts create a special space for Meredith and other phans. In his essay, “Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience,” D. Robert Dechaine describes two types of musical space. The first is the physical space of the concert, or the “space of music as it is bounded in the site of the music” (p. 92). The second space, musical “play” takes place in the fourth dimension and is “articulated across places, bodies, thoughts, and feelings.” Meredith’s art embodies the playful nature of Phish’s music.

Meredith’s response to my first question hints at a phenomenon that Dechaine terms policing. She stated, “I also like inside jokes, only stuff that a real fan will get.” Policing, for Dechaine, is “guarding the space from ‘the undeserving,’” as if only true fans are to be counted as part of the community (p. 95). Guarding musical space is a way of creating community; there are some things such as inside jokes and esoteric knowledge shared by the community that others just won’t understand.

Some people may enjoy Meredith’s work; others will not. Immanuel Kant, in hisCritique of Judgment, determines what differentiates between good and bad taste. He writes, “All delight (as is said or thought) is itself sensation (of a pleasure). Consequently everything that pleases, and for the very reason that it pleases, is agreeable” (§3). When someone takes Meredith’s work and gets a good laugh. then her job as an artist is accomplished. Meredith’s work, in my opinion, possesses the capability of being both agreeable and beautiful. The process alone to produce a cross-stitch is beautiful and intricate; the beauty lies in the effort.

When Meredith decided to attend the 2013 Phish summer tour, she indelibly altered the course of her life. Her later cross-stitching has been influenced by the band Phish and other esoteric cultural references that some may or may not understand. The beauty of Meredith’s work lies in the connection between the artist, art, and joy it brings to her audience.

Artist Interview Project Part 2: Ryan Kerrigan

In the next Artist Interview Project post, we’ll highlight a second Oregon-based artist. In this interview, you’ll read about the art of Ryan Kerrigan.  The first part of this entry includes a student’s reflective summary of the interview. It is followed by the full interview text.

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

You can check out Ryan Kerrigan’s artwork on Facebook and his professional website

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Phish has developed a large, devoted fan base through their creative, improvisational music. A unique, devoted community unites “phans” into what John Drabinksi calls an “occasional community,” which is a community created by people who occupy one temporary place. Influenced by Phish’s music, phan artists have transformed the band’s musical expression into other artistic mediums. One such artist is Ryan Kerrigan. As a teen, he was captivated by the creativity of Phish, in particular the song Divided Sky. He instantly began touring with the band.

In 1999, Ryan transitioned from phan to phan-artist with the creation of his first poster. The reception from phans was incredible, which led him to continue creating work that is representative of the touring experience, with a direct connection to each venue.

Kerrigan begins each creation with pencil/marker. The artwork then progresses with the addition of watercolor. His original designs are transformed into other formats such as pins and prints. Ryan creates a vibrant aesthetic experience that phans can carry with them to remember Phish’s concerts.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant would describe Ryan’s work as beautiful, because his art uses colors in their simplest and purest of form. The beauty that Kant refers to can be found throughout the work of Kerrigan, whose designs use a combination of pure and impure colors to create balance and unity. Kerrigan finds connection to great artists like Salvador Dali, for his free thought within surrealist works. He is also inspired by Maxfield Parish’s creation of dreamlike imagery and Peter Max’s use of vibrancy. You can see these influences in Kerrigan’s “Happy Fish” designs as they guide you through a geographical journey of the summer 2015 Phish tour. The Bend, OR (July 21, 22) Happy Fish depicts forest scenery, while the blue tones of the Watkins Glen, NY (August 21-23) invoke images of water.

Kerrigan’s work fascinates its observer. You can easily get lost in his skillful use of color, including soft to vibrant tones, and the flowing text that creates the finished fish form. Kerrigan’s designs embody the uniqueness and freedom of Phish’s music. The aesthetic experience resulting from an encounter with Kerrigan’s creations is one that Leo Tolstoy would describe as pleasure and joy.

When asked to describe the most inspiring aspect of being part of the Phish community, Kerrigan referred to the continued growth that comes from constantly creating new works. He works in small, limited editions so that his creative power can evolve. His favorite creation is always his “next one,” because he sees his growth and change as essential to his artistic process and Phish’s music. Ryan’s artwork creates external, concrete representations of Phish’s music that phans find infectious, to use Tolstoy’s terminology. While I don’t consider myself a phan, I have found a real connection to Kerrigan’s “Happy Fish” designs.

Interview Transcript

When you first became acquainted with Phish what was it that made you want to become part of that community?

I first began hearing about Phish towards the end of high school (Manchester, NH). Somebody I worked with made me a mixed tape. It was actually Junta re-arranged in the order of her favorite songs! Divided Sky happened to be the first tune on there and I was immediately hooked. The next summer I got to see my first show (7/19/91 Casino Ballroom, Hampton, New Hampshire… Shockra opened up!). Hearing the music the first time, I was in love…hearing/seeing it live for the first time, I was forever captured.

As an artist what is your current relationship with Phish community?

I began creating music posters while in college (Penn State 90-94). While touring heavily in those years, we didn’t yet see a true lot scene where one might buy or sell artwork. It was beer and grilled cheese for the most part at that point. Summer of 1999 I created my first print to be shown on tour. It was very well received and the whole tour printing took off from there. The Phish community is so receptive to creative thinking and that extends through the visual arts you see represented throughout the tour.

When it comes to creating the different aspects of your work– from the drawings to the pins– do you make the drawing first and then transfer the work to different formats?

Everything I create starts with the drawing, hand touching paper, pen, marker, and watercolor added for color. The finished paintings are scanned or photographed and then printed.

Your style of work uses a lot of color and is very graphic. Do you have a favorite artist who has influenced your style and aesthetic?

There are so many, the masters of the 60’s poster scene are heroes just because of what they did, reviving/inventing an entire scene of art lovers within the music community (Tuten, Singer, Conklin, Mouse, Wilson, Griffin), Dali for his free thought, Maxfield Parrish for his dreamlike palette, Peter Max for his vibrancy, Georgia O’keefe for her simplistic power, and the 1970’s Saturday morning cartoons of my youth for their playfulness.

When you were creating your current work for the Phish summer tour how did you come about the decision to use the repeated element of the fish and the text throughout to make the body?

I generally like to create something entirely fresh for each project, often incorporating something geographically relevant to that particular show. I starting creating the “Happy Fish” in 2009 (just a couple) then went big with them in 2011, when I created one for every venue on tour. My mom really loved the early ones and suggested I do a whole series of them…moms always know, right? So that’s what I did in 2011. People dug them. That’s the year I began making pins of the fishes, which has now become a 4 year series of pins. This summer I decided to bring back the happy fish posters for each venue. I love them as pins, but its fun to see them as big posters!

What is the most inspiring thing about being involved with the Phish community?

The continued growth…

Everything I create is a limited edition and I like to keep the editions small. The reason for that is that I like to produce a lot of work, so I like to turn it over quickly. That way I get to move on to the next thing, the next piece. People ask me all the time, “What’s your favorite piece you’ve done?” I always say “the next one.” Being an artist is about constantly creating and recreating, and no clearer example of that is this band we follow around. Is it possible that the band we love is just now approaching their prime? Sure seems like it…and watching how their art fosters creative thinking in all aspects of our community, inspiration abounds.

Artist Interview Project: Shafty, Portland’s Tribute to Phish

In partnership with The Philosophy School of Phish and Professor Stephanie Jenkins, PhanArt is proud to present the first in a series of articles for the Artist Interview Project. We begin with a look at Shafty, the Phish cover band from Portland, OR.

To kick off the release of the Artist Interview Projects, we’ll start in Oregon. In this interview, you’ll read about Portland’s Phish Tribute band, Shafty. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary of the interview with Shafty’s Rob Sipsky and Brett McConnell. It is followed by the full interview text.

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

Check out Shafty on Facebook, visit the band’s website for upcoming tour dates, and listen to shows on Shafty’s YouTube channel!

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Rob Sipsky and Brett McConnell are both members of the band “Shafty.” Rob plays lead guitar, and Brett plays bass guitar. Interviewing them gave me great insight into their artistic world. Rob describes their music as “crunchy peanut butter,” while Brett would say it’s more of a combination of “funky, rockin’, complex, and exploratory” vibes. Both members have widely different ways of answering the same questions, even though they perform right alongside each other. Together we covered the topics of originality, musical affect, and aesthetics.

When asked about originality, both Brett and Rob had strong feelings as to why Shafty is unique. As individual musicians, Brett and Rob have their own improvisational styles that they contribute to jams. They each have unique tones on their respective instruments, but they share a commitment to surprising their audience and keep them guessing.

Surprisingly, they have drastically dissimilar affective relationships with Shafty’s music. In fact, Rob caught me off guard when asked about his emotional connection to his music. He hates it, because he is often left feeling frustrated for not reaching what he describes as perfection. Brett has a more positive experience with the music. Rob finds his enjoyment in the refinement process, while Brett has a live in the moment attitude.

Despite their varied emotional connection to music, Brett and Rob share similar views on the nature of art. Neither artist believes that art must be beautiful to be considered art. Brett said, “Art can be associated with any human emotion, no matter what the medium.” Similarly, Rob states, “Art” is expression, left to interpretation.”

These topics are central to the philosophy of art and music. Shafty’s originality is created by the band’s improvisation style and the uniqueness of their individual contributions. In her book, Why Music Moves Us, Jeanette Bicknell describes how listening to music can invoke varied emotional responses. She writes, “listeners place different cognitive or affective meaning and import on their listening experiences, depending on personality, background, life situation and other factors” (p. 55). These variations hold for the musicians of Shafty. Brett basks in the energy of his band mates and audience when performing. Rob, however, becomes self-critical and strives to reach maxim potential when performing. When it comes to aesthetics, philosopher Immanuel Kant gives us insight into this simple yet complex topic. In the Critique of Judgment, he describes beauty as three simple things agreeable, beautiful, and good. Kant states, “the agreeable is what gratifies a man; the beautiful what simply pleases him; the good what is esteemed (approved)” (§5). Neither Rob nor Brett believes beauty has a necessary connection to art.

Interview Transcript: Brett McConnell

  1. What made you decide to join a Phish tribute band?

Rob and I were performing in separate original bands in 2010 when we first started talking about forming the band, I think. In 2011, we revisited the subject and decided to form the group with a couple of other musicians. I think we all wanted to form it for the same reasons; Phish is one of our favorite bands, the music is very challenging and satisfying to play, there is a large Phish scene here in Portland (and we believed people would most likely come out to the shows), and most of all: it would be FUN. We didn’t have any idea how much we’d each commit to the group or if a community would form out of it, but we spent a bunch of time learning Phish’s repertoire over the year and eventually started doing weekly residencies at the Goodfoot here in Portland. That’s where the real fun began.

  1. What makes your Phish tribute band performance original?

 I think there are a ton of things that make Shafty’s performances original. Aside from still being a tribute band, all four of us still have original voices. Sure, some of us strive to recreate our instrumental tones to match those in Phish, but only to a certain point. Each of us still have pretty unique tones on our respective instruments… The way we play them will definitely sound like US. We may copy some licks and phrasing from the members in Phish every now and again (especially in the compositions), but we all have such long histories in our musical education and influences that we’d never be able to 100% commit to sounding like Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Fishman. All four of us sing in the band, as well, and there’s no way that our voices will ever sound like theirs… Especially the intonation part. So that’s original!

The best part of playing in Shafty is that 85% of every show is improvised music. That in itself makes a Shafty performance original. We are mainly using Phish’s songs as launch pads for musical exploration, and that gives us a lot of freedom to do whatever want. We also write out all of our setlists prior to the shows, and the way we organize that is completely different than the way Phish does it. We mix and match songs, do multiple “teases” and “fake-outs” of other songs, only play the bookends of some songs, play songs with the ending first, followed immediately by the beginning of said song… It’s a pretty wild take on Phish’s tunes, and the crowd loves the way we do it. The ultimate goal is to surprise the audience with what we play. One way we do that is fully transitioning one song into another, also known as a segue. The smoother and more harmonically sound the segue is, the better the overall performance is. Phish used to (and still occasionally) segues from song to song, but we like to make a bigger deal out of it; sometimes a whole set of music will have no breaks in between songs. It makes the audience dance more, and while we’re jamming out a song, they’re asking themselves, “What song could they possibly be transitioning into right now?”

  1. How would your describe your music artistically?

Funky, rockin’, complex, exploratory, thematic, soaring, and relentless. I could write much more about Phish’s compositions, but I think my description fits Shafty’s improvisation well.

  1. Does a performance have to be beautiful to count as art? Why or why not?

Absolutely not. Art can be associated with any human emotion, no matter what the medium. This topic/question is so big and open-ended that I’m not sure I have the time to go into it. I took a college course at Portland State University that mainly asked the question “What is art?” and I couldn’t stand it!

  1. Is there a Shafty “jam” you would describe as more beautiful or moving then all the others? What made it more beautiful/moving? Do you think there is something infectious about music? Where do you think this feeling comes from?

I’m not sure that I could pinpoint one specific jam, but the ones I like the most are when all four of us are playing very simple harmonic and melodic parts together… As if we’re playing a written-down composition that we all have memorized. Jams in which we all allow each other plenty of space to play off of each other and fill in our necessary instrumental roles. It can be sometimes hard to explain to someone what it means to feel “locked in” with your band members during improvisation, but it’s something that the audience member can hear and feel within. Those moments are beautiful and moving to me because I think it’s amazing that different musicians with different voices and influences can come together and create music that many people want to listen to and be a part of. It’s like any good team, whether it be sports related, office related, or music related. It’s really cool when multiple people can come together and speak the same language and form a telepathy for the work or art that they’re doing.

There is absolutely something infectious about music. When you listen to music you really enjoy, it makes you feel good! It can evoke so many human emotions and recover past memories. It can make you dance. Anything that makes you feel good can be infectious. I love how every person on Earth can relate to the sound of music, even if we can’t all speak the same language. One English-speaking musician could play music with a Hindi-speaking musician and they would both be able to understand each other. Not with words but just with harmonious and/or rhythmic tones/rhythms performed on instruments.

  1. Music is obviously a significant part of your life. What kind of emotional connection do you have to your musical performances? Do you think your audience shares that experience?

Musical performance usually gives me the feeling of joy and excitement. Not every note or song of an evening can thrill me, but playing music is often times more fun than not playing music. I generally have a great time on stage, especially if the material is something I wrote, helped write, arranged, or just a tune that I find great. I think the majority of the Shafty audiences share that experience, especially if they are there BECAUSE it’s a Phish tribute band. Most people who go to Phish tribute shows are people who absolutely love Phish. We have a pretty good grasp of which Phish songs people enjoy. and I think we do most of them justice. If the audience loves the tunes as much as we do, they will most likely share the joy we are feeling on stage when we perform it. Phish fans are also known for loving musical improvisation, so I’m sure most of the crowd is digging that aspect of our show, too.

  1. You have done Phish tributes, Spoken Word and Poster Art. Is there a difference in the artistic joy you get from each?

I’m not sure which aspects of our band or its performances you’re referring to when you speak of “Spoken Word,” but I definitely feel differences in artistic joys when it comes to different mediums. I really enjoy poster art (especially for concerts) because it will immediately bring me back to the show I was at or performed at. All of the emotions and (hopefully) good times I felt from that day will be brought back into my brain. Posters are also fun because the artist gets to visually portray what the music reminds them of when they hear it. Or sometimes it can be something completely unrelated to the band and it can just be its own art piece. It’s a neat aspect of shows and I like that it can bring visual and musical artists together in a creative community.

Interview Transcript: Rob Sipsky

  1. What made you decide to join a Phish tribute band?

I first had a Phish tribute in 2004, when I was planning on moving from Florida to “I don’t know where.” A group of musician friends of mine all had the desire to try it out, just to play something different than what we were doing at the time. It was extremely enjoyable, even if that lineup wasn’t the one to learn the harder compositions. When I moved out to Portland later that year, the idea stayed in my mind, but the opportunity didn’t come around again until 2011 at a music festival near Eugene, where my band Mars Retrieval Unit played after Brett’s band “Philly’s Phunkestra.” My band, which did mostly original music, had some covers, one of which we played in that set: “You Enjoy Myself.” We talked about it, and each others’ performances, and Phish… and here we are.

I guess in both cases, I would say I didn’t join one, but rather started/organized it. In this case, Brett and I put equal work into getting it up and running. The desire with a 2nd effort of Phish was to really aggressively attack the more difficult music, as a challenge, and take advantage of everyones’ improv ability. Ultimately we wanted to approach the music in a way we don’t think Phish has in a long time, and in some cases ever has or likely ever will (inverted songs, labyrinthine ins-and-outs, ridiculous teases, rare and new Secret Language, approaches to setlist and improv).

  1. What makes your Phish tribute band performance original?

The easy answer is “setlist acrobatics,” but I think the thing we do that differentiates us is that once the composed sections of songs have been played, we go into an improvisational space that belongs uniquely to Shafty. We do not typically try to do a jam the way Phish would. On rare occasion, that’s what is appropriate, but in the true form of Phish’s approach to their own music, we let our individual musical voices and our individual influences and experiences combine into our own sound. Everyone has original music projects, so those approaches certainly filter in, and many of our personal influences are quite different from those of the guys in Phish.

  1. How would your describe your music artistically?

Like crunchy peanut butter – if it was entirely crunchy, it would just be called “peanuts”, but everyone subconsciously recognizes that the crunch, the angular stuff exists within the larger flowing sea of “smooth”, which is the vehicle that carries the crunch along in the first place. In other words, purple.

  1. Does a performance have to be beautiful to count as art? Why or why not?

That can be interpreted several ways, semantically.

The way I interpret it is “does performance have to be elegant, or pretty…?”

No. “Art” is expression, left to interpretation. Sometimes (more frequent than not) I get on stage agitated with something, usually completely unrelated to Shafty or Phish, or music at all. During a performance is the exact, precise proper time frame to express that emotion. With Shafty, that will evidence itself with heavy metal improv, or more tension-release style jams (“type I”, for the internet/phishiverse-savvy). Conversely, sometimes the personal life has been going smoothly, I’m not exhausted, I’m not tense, life is properly lined up. “Waiting All Night” seems appropriate, despite its somewhat sad lyrics. There is no tension in that song of any kind.

Here’s another example: “BBFCFM” is a raw song. It’s abrupt, it has few grooves, involves borderline-incoherent yelling, and cursing. It’s mostly atonal. It’s LOUD. Everything about it screams unpleasantness. Sure, it has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to it, but sonically it’s abusive. It’s brutish, and simple. Yet, in what way is that song not art? How about “Fuck Your Face”? It tells a funny story, but is a fairly unstraightforward rock song, musically. It’s abrasive. I would never call either of these songs “beautiful”. They’re still art to me. It’s an expression, shared with others.

With Shafty, we don’t express our emotions directly through song choice, because we plan out 99.9% of our setlists a week or more in advance… so the improv has to do all the interpretation of our emotions. The sets are planned more to situation and setting than emotion. I enjoy it immensely that way. Sometimes it forces a significantly more dynamic performance of a given song, because it’s on the list, and if our emotional state doesn’t immediately fit the song, it can and will be molded to converge with it.

  1. Is there a Shafty “jam” you would describe as more beautiful or moving then all the others? What made it more beautiful/moving? Do youthink there is something infectious about music? Where do you think this feeling comes from?

—-These are a lot of different questions, some of which are unrelated, that probably need to be separated.  

a. We have played so many shows, and too many jams to truly say what single jam stands out. I really enjoyed the way that the entire 2nd set of Zodiac’s FELT (Petaluma California, June 11, 2015 – setlist below). Everything was effortless, the band played and sang incredibly tightly, with energy, and with minimal errors, miscues, or anything. That is my subjective memory of it, it may not be as clean as that…

It felt to me like I was playing the other guys’ instruments and I was listening to someone play mine. I don’t know that it was beautiful, as addressed above – I’m not into using that adjective too often, because it’s so vague as to frequently border on meaningless. It was very interesting, it was a moving experience. I like interesting and intellectual experiences, and that show was most certainly that from my perspective. Whether that translated to the audience or not is out of my hands

b. There is something infectious about music. I don’t have a good eye for visual art. It rarely affects me, but I know many people who love visual art. I presume the infectiousness spans across all art forms. If it’s good, you seek more of it, whether it’s sculpture, photography, lighting, architecture, dance, comedy, drama, acting, animation…

c. Where do I think the “infectious” feeling comes from? Stimulus and response – we always seek more of the things which make us happy. I loved heavy metal in high school. As I rambled above, that’s not commonly described as beautiful… but it was certainly something that made me want more and more. Same with stand up comedy; I can’t get enough. Once I start laughing, you can’t stop me for looking for more sources of that joy. It’s a chemical response to sensory input. I don’t think that diminishes the experience one tiny iota, but it’s definitely a gland-secretion thing.

  1. Music is obviously a significant part of your life. What kind of emotional connection do you have to your musical performances? Do you think your audience shares that experience?

I hate most of my performances, aggressively – not just Shafty, but my original music as well. I’m very self-critical, to the point where I’d prefer not talking to people during setbreak or after shows, because their experience is likely to be so vastly different from mine. I love what I’m trying to do, and I deeply appreciate how lucky I am to have these incredibly talented bandmates, but I hate that I can so rarely even remotely approach what I am capable of doing. My most commonly experienced emotion with performance is frustration. However, on occasion we all knock it out of the park, and the feeling after those shows is relief, more than anything.

  1. You have done Phish tributes, Spoken Word and Poster Art. Is there a difference in the artistic joy you get from each?

I thrive on the process of refinement that leads to releasing something into the world.

If you’re thinking “…much like giving birth…”. No! I don’t think it’s giving birth at all, because human birth is the exact polar opposite of refinement. Everyone involved is terrified, most are screaming, and a few are covered in really awful fluids – it’s the opposite of refined. The refinement part is the rest of life, so I don’t like to use that analogy. Birth in this sense… is like.. reverse-art. Release it to the world, then refine.

But I digress.

I like to work on something until the point at which any more alterations will degrade the subject being worked upon. Music is incredibly facilitative of that process. Poster art, for me, is a new hobby. I don’t create the art myself – I don’t have that ability. I do editing and refinement in visual-editing software.. I can choose color and suggest things to the artists, fix smudges or very basic errors, but I can’t create a visual thing more complex than a stick man.

I guess that’s the long way of saying that I get the same exact joy across disciplines, because my approach is one of analysis and refinement. This applies to so many things, both artistic and not. The more complex the subject, the more refinement is necessary, the more risks involved, the more analysis is required… Phish’s music fits this structure perfectly for me. Interestingly, it seems closer to the poster art editing that I do, because I didn’t create the original pieces. The difference from the posters, of course, is that I DO create my own music, and that gets the most scrutiny of all.

Announcing Collaboration with Philosophy School of Phish

The Philosophy School of Phish is collaborating with PhanArt to offer a unique opportunity for students to actively engage with their philosopical investigations while learning about the Phish community. As part of their coursework, students will conduct interviews with PhanArt artists and write essays incorporating the artists’ interviews with themes from reading assignments and course discussions.

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The Philosophy School of Phish is committed to cultivating public resources for Phish fans who want to explore theories of art and music in the context of their favorite band. To this end, the blog posts will be made available online this summer.

An exciting lineup of artists have signed up to participate. Stayed tuned for details!

Philosophy School of Phish is the nickname for a special section of PHL 360: Philosophy and the Arts at Oregon State University. Using the band as a case study, the course focuses on themes about the nature and significance of art and music. This year’s class begins June 22 and runs for eight weeks. It is a distance education course offered online through Oregon State University Ecampus and enrollment is not limited to Oregon State students. Phish fans from all over the country could participate in the course.