Last Summer as Phanart prepped for our big Baker’s Dozen Art shows Shai, a creative and devoted Phish fan, reached out to us about featuring some of his Phish inspired animations. His creativity and eagerness to share his work was uplifting and after viewing some of his early animation Shai created a unique custom Phanart Show Promo animation that was a real treat. Inspired to create, Shai kept producing animation and has made a fun little spin for the Curveball. Check it out and share the excitement!
At the PhanArt shows on December 29 at Hotel Penn and December 30 at American Beauty, you’ll find a wider array of musically inspired art like never before! Here is a sampling, updated up until the day before the shows, with some of the selections that you can find at the shows.
“Circuits in Between” is a 4-color linocut limited edition of only 100 available only at the PhanArt show on the 29th.
Ryan will have MSG 2016-17 Happy Fish t-shirts and tanks for $20 each, in sizes Small through 3XL in a very limited edition.
The Overhead View
The first poster from Bryan Kirk, this is a digital poster in a run of 50, cost is $25 each. He will also have Westworld “You’ll Never Get Out of This Maze” tee shirts.
Blazin Donuts is a new twist on donuts that melt into your experience! Featuring t-shirts, onesies, bandanas, skirts and unveiling flannel mumus, yoga pants, camisole tanks and thigh high socks st YEMSG!
East Coasters makes custom coasters & mats from upcycled wetsuit material that would otherwise end up in the trash. Each mat keeps approximately 2 Lbs of rubber from the landfill. Made in the U.S.A..
A first time exhibitor at a PhanArt show, sticker combos and Disco Ball Pins are among the items available from 415HolyGuyArt.
Paul DiLena Designs
Paul DiLena creates 3D images that are cut and folded digital prints that add a dimension of sacred geometry to the subject. They change, morph and fractalize as you move your point of view and as the light in the room changes. They hold they attention of the viewer as a rich and ever changing art piece. Smaller (8″ x 11″) pieces will be on special for $40 with larger size (11.5″ x 16.5″) on discount for $80. Larger commissioned pieces are also available, with a raffle held throughout the day.
Phunk Your Face
The guys from Phunk Your Face will have shirts including Heavy Things/Stranger Things, Donut Lightning Bolt, and Roggae Rangers among others, plus Donut + Rage Side Piano key sunglasses, Guitar Picks + Guitar Picks Earrings, stickers, Temporary Tattoos and much more! Bonus – check out the art of Avril Kumar, exclusively on December 30th!
Just like the name sounds, BagiTagit will feature lanyards, luggage tags, drawstring bags and much more!
One-of-a-kind shades are exclusives from Baba Cool, with dozens of styles to choose from!
Funky B Boutique
Catering to the lovely ladies of the Phish scene, female artists will be featured, showcasing their talents of original fine art paintings, prints, jewelry, shirts and panties by Nicoelle Danielle Designs. Subtle Scents will have aromatherapy mists and roll ons made by Dana and some super funky ruffle leggings, bootie shorts, and tops and a sexy summer dress perfect for Phish Riviera Maya made by Paola at Chacabraka.
The next Artist Interview Project installment features Andy Greenberg, guitarist for Runaway Gin. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
As part of an assignment for my philosophy course, I interviewed Andy Greenberg, guitarist for Runaway Gin. Runaway Gin is a Phish tribute band located in Charleston, SC. During the course of our interview, Andy and I discussed his motivations for joining a tribute band, thoughts about what makes a “good” cover, and experiences with Phish’s music.
First drawn to Phish when he was 12, Andy recognized some of the music was over his head, but he wanted to understand what he was hearing. Andy’s description of his love for Phish reminded me of D. Robert DeChaine’s essay, “Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience.” Writing about his experiences at an REM concert, Dechaine notes, “I recognize now, as I did then, that something crucial had transpired—in me, in the music, within the scene of that performance. Far more than a critical attitude toward music, my experience at the R.E.M. concert awakened in me an intense desire, a struggle, to untangle the why of my musical passion, my musical taste, my musical meaning” (p. 80). Andy spoke of a similar experience with Phish. Andy stated that he got into Phish because he was “a very curious person and wanted to understand what these ‘sounds’ were.” Because Phish’s music changed his life, Andy was inspired to turn others onto Phish. Phish’s music had such a profound effect on Andy that he wanted to help someone else find that level of enlightenment in music.
We also discussed what makes a “good” tribute band. The goal of a cover band, according to Andy, is to capture the spirit and experience for the music, which includes learning how to move with a crowd’s energy. This is what makes performing in a tribute band an artistic performance; rather than simply performing a song by the book, the musicians must interpret a song, catch a crowd’s energy, and create a unique experience for the audience.
While Andy found it hard to put a label on Phish because the band incorporates many diverse components: fun, classical, rock, fusion, and more. However, in describing the key features of the “Phish experience,” he includes: “positive energy, silliness/humor, spontaneity, musical diversity/variety, freedom, and progressiveness.” A blog post on Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts, “Why We Come Back,” describes the “common thread that binds all Phish fans together” as “a desire for the transcendence of self and communion with the collective unconscious.” The post continues, “For when we attend Phish concerts, our own sense of importance shrinks as we join a force greater than ourselves.” This essay resonates with Andy’s perspective on Phish.
For Andy, the role of a tribute band is to create a unique experience for every person. The music itself combines enough elements that the songs should be adaptive, full of life, and allowed to breathe. His commitment to this principle truly stood out to me during the interview. In a memorable moment, he stated: “Once a Phish song is learned correctly ‘by the book’ then one has to inject some life into it. Feel the moment of the day, of the year, of your life – feel the crowd’s energy and let it bend and shape the music. It’s like a dead body versus a living body. They both have all the same parts but the former is frigid and lifeless – the latter being adaptive and full of spirit. These songs must be allowed to breathe – it’s subtle but a key aspect of Phish.” It’s an experience that starts as abstract but then becomes solid and tangible in a way that it won’t for anyone else.
If you’d like to check out some Runaway Gin for yourself, you can listen to audio of the band’s live shows on YouTube.
Why did you want to be part of Phish tribute band? How did you know that a Phish Tribute band would work?
I was originally drawn to Phish when I was very young (around 12) and as a piano player at the time and a very curious person I wanted to understand what these “sounds” were that I liked much. When I first started learning Phish’s music on the guitar I was about 14 and looking back it was way over my head. This was a good thing as it inspired me to dig deeper and go further musically than I may have otherwise. I first put a Phish Tribute together at the request of a music venue who was looking for a weekly Phish series. I guess I didn’t really think so much about whether it would work or not, I just really looked forward to the process of learning and perfecting the music. I love the music and hence I knew that it would be fun for me and that being my definition of success I knew it would work/succeed.
I wanted to be in a Phish Tribute for two reasons 1) As I said before I knew I would enjoy the process of learning and playing the music. 2) The music of Phish changed my life and inspired me in so many ways – I figured if I could even come close to doing that for someone else by turning them onto Phish that would be a really great service I could provide.
I never really thought too much about it until we really got rolling but I really like to bring in my own ideas into someone else’s material and setlists – it’s really a different kind of thing not having to worry about writing a good song, just go out there and play it and there are hundreds to choose from – and with those songs you are free to do what you will as long as you learn it first the way it was written. It allows me to save creativity for different aspects of the production than I would otherwise apply it to. Also learning material that I love is always inspiring and teaches me so much about the writers and band – almost like doing a dissection. Also I really love to pay tribute to my favorite artists to try to return to the universe some of that positive energy and inspiration that I have received from them.
What makes Runaway Gin different from other tribute bands? What makes a good “cover” of a Phish song? Are the standards for a “good” performance different for tribute bands than for the original artist?
I think it’s important for a Tribute to first attempt to capture the spirit of the artist being “tributed.” In my estimation some the key principles of the Phish experience are: positive energy, silliness/humor, spontaneity, musical diversity/variety, freedom, and progressiveness. As a Phish tribute I always thought it was key for us to play a different show every night, also every song we played should be different each time. This goes in line with the spontaneity aspect of Phish and I think that may be the most important so I’ll start there. Tributes of other bands probably play the same songs most nights in the same order. This is appropriate considering that’s probably what the artists they are “tributing” do as well.
Phish, in my opinion, has always been about the moment and letting the energy in play from the crowd and the band effect the music to the greatest degree possible. Thus in the early stages of planning we were faced with the decision of doing a Darkstar Orchestra style tribute (recreating shows of the past in their entirety) vs. doing what we do which is original shows put together in the same ways Phish would put a show together. The choice was obvious for me. While recreating shows might be apropos for a Dead Tribute Phish, I feel, is best honored by attempting the capture the moment as they do as opposed to drawing from previous moments in time which to me would be far more limiting as an artist. So there’s that aspect and also that we play ALL THE TIME. This year , for example, we have already played fifty-six shows and it’s only July. For a band like Phish a huge part of the experience is their chemistry and ease in playing together. They converse with psychic ease within their jams and this is due not just to their virtuosity as improvisers but also to their legacy of playing so frequently in the past WITH EACH OTHER. It’s like having conversations with good friends – at some point you start to complete each others sentences and reading each other very easily by honing in that interpersonal intuition. This is something that we have worked to develop from day one. It just comes from hanging out and playing together – going on the road is a good bonding experience. Dealing with issues together and resolving them. Working well together under pressure. You just can’t fake that. This is a central part of our tribute as it is a central part of Phish.
A good cover of a Phish song I would say is based on several criteria. First and foremost – on composed sections did everyone play the right parts? If someone is playing the wrong thing or excluding or including something that Phish didn’t originally intend I’d say that is not as good of a cover. Second would be the execution of that correct part – did they play it with the right feeling, dynamic, that the moment calls for? Are they listening to everyone else playing and acting in concert with their band mates? Once a Phish song is learned correctly “by the book” then one has to inject some life into it. Feel the moment of the day, of the year, of your life – feel the crowds energy and let it bend and shape the music. It’s like a dead body versus a living body. They both have all the same parts but the former is frigid and lifeless – the latter being adaptive and full of spirit. These songs must be allowed to breathe – it’s subtle but a key aspect of Phish. Now the true improvisatory side of Phish material: Is the jam truly a jam? Are the individual members truly interacting and listening to one another or is one person soloing and the others just playing underneath without the interaction with the “soloist”? A lot of Phish jams don’t even have defined leaders but vacillate between band members as to who is directing the “ship”. This has to be incorporated into a Phish cover just as it is if Phish were actually playing the song. When it comes to the specifics of the jam sequence: did it hang in one part too long? It’s subjective but how many people got bored and stopped actively listening? It’s important to move from one musical motif or idea to the next quickly enough where that idea doesn’t lose it’s effect. Also did the group move in unison or with smoothness from one idea to the next? It has to be organic and evolve person by person or the transition can be too harsh and spoil the moment. Did the jam ever become anti-climatic? Did it peak only to come reside in a lull for the rest of the jam? You really want to avoid these anti-climatic moments in jams and even parts of jams. It’s important to have a linear build – everyone loves a rag to riches story but who likes riches to rags? It’s got to be a story – a good story, a progression, not just some haphazard moments strung together with no grand scheme.
In judging a Phish Tribute vs. Phish the band I would guess Phish would be judged more stringently than we would. That’s all about expectation. We can only really be compared to our former selves and the same goes for Phish. We have not been playing together 30 years and we did not write this music. I have a feeling that people come to our shows not expecting as much as they do from Phish and rightfully so… Our tickets are cheaper – just kidding. I think they grant us leeway because we are tributing. The audience may see us more like themselves than they do Phish because at some point we have been in the audience at Phish shows – and Phish never has obvious reason (they were on stage 😉 ). I also think in regards to us we are injecting our own personalities into the way we play this music and it shouldn’t sound just like Phish on the jams because we simply are not them. It may bear resemblance at times which is part of the tribute but I think taking it a step further is a good thing. Not thinking “what would Trey do?” but thinking “what would I do if I were Trey” if that makes any sense. Approaching it the second way would probably come across as more sincere to the audience because at that point I’m being more myself and less of a copycat.
What have been some of the biggest obstacles for the band?
I think the biggest obstacle is time. We all have jobs and other obligations so that could be seen as our biggest detractor. If this was what we all did full time we would get better much faster and also learn material much faster. I am not one to dwell on “what ifs” though. I think since we do have other things in our lives pulling us from Phish covers that we can have a better rounded life experience and appreciate the time that we are working on the Phish Tribute more. If we did it all the time we may get burnt out and not feel the same passion we do right now.
Out of all the songs you’ve done, which was the hardest/most challenging?
They are all challenging in different ways but I think you are looking for just straight up – what are the hardest to nail. I’d say probably You Enjoy Myself – but honestly it doesn’t seem that hard right now. When I was 21 trying to play it though – that was a much different story!
How would you describe your music for a public audience, unfamiliar with Phish’s music if they’ve never seen you before?
It’s definitely fun, quirky, danceable, happy, contemplative/reflective, progressive, intricate, rock. It’s the best party music ever in my opinion! You could hear anything from classical to jazz, bluegrass, reggae, hard rock, fusion, country, and even genres in between that don’t even formally exist. It is music without borders! And the moment is always the key driving force.
How did you get involved in the type of music you’re playing?
I have always loved Phish since first hearing them as a kid. I picked out the solo from the Divided Sky as best I could when I was about 15 and it really helped me start to develop my ear. Since then I have dabbled in and out of learning Phish material. My band back in 2008 did a Phish Tribute show for Halloween one year and I certainly enjoyed that. That band eventually ended up covering YEM and some other Phish songs quite regularly. In 2012 Alex Harris of the Charleston Pour House approached and asked if we could put a Phish Tribute together for weekly residency because he knew I was a big fan. Immediately I became really excited for the challenge and to play a lot of the songs live that I’d never played. Also excited to figure out more Phish songs that I love but don’t know how to play. This feeling carries on to this day. Still so much to learn! It’s been a huge learning experience for me all the way.
I am learning deep and profound lessons both musically and personally all the time. This 3 year period has been the most expansive for me of all my years as a musician. I have Phish to thank for that and for so much of my musical inspiration throughout my life. I don’t know if I’d be playing music so much were it not for Phish – they revealed (and perhaps even created) worlds for me that I didn’t know existed. I do write original music as well and in fact that’s why I started playing in the first place before I have even heard of Phish. I am just growing so much from this Phish Tribute its hard for me to interject original material right now while I have so much to learn but I do see that coming in the future. I am first and foremost a songwriter and composer who can “shit music” on command and I have never forgotten that. I’m just developing other parts of my musicality right now. Where and how it will be applied to the future will be seen then.
Since art and music have a great impact on all ages, what advice do you have for the youth of today?
My advice to the youth of today is pretty much the same advice I’d give anyone: question everything! There are a lot of lies in society that were created to enslave your mind and spirit and make sure you aren’t being duped. Find yourself – make sure to be true to what excites your soul. Be positive and accepting of others’ viewpoints – be open minded! Know that truth is the sum total of all perspectives – don’t get too caught up in your own. Life is whatever you make it, rely on yourself and only yourself for happiness. Others come and go but there will always be you; that is your gift from the powers of the universe. You always have a choice, even if it doesn’t seem so, to make the world and your life as you would have it. Work hard and surround yourself with positive like-minded people and you can do anything! Also if there is something you are worrying about or stressing about and there is nothing you can or are willing to do about it – let it go! Stress and worry can lead you down a dark and miserable road if not applied to stimulate a change. Worrying is you using your mind’s most powerful weapon, the imagination, against itself!
The next Artist Interview Project installment features Benjamin St. Clair, guitarist ofPardon Me, Doug. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
Find more information about Pardon Me, Doug on the band’s Facebook page. You can also follow PMD on Twitter.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that music is a vital human experience. My interview with Benjamin St. Clair, guitarist for Pardon Me Doug: A Tribute to Phish, demonstrates this theme. Ben grew up on a variety of music and feels that Phish’s style embodies the vastly different influences from his youth. I found it particularly interesting that Ben knew the exact day he first went to a Phish concert; this is evidence that Ben has a deep connection to Phish.
The structural components of Phish songs that cannot be changed can be described as Apollonian. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche contrasts Apollonian elements to Dionysian aspects, which character the free-flowing, experimental nature of jams. According to Ben, Pardon Me, Doug utilitzes both aspects. I could understand what this meant after watching a few Phish concerts. During the “jams,” the band exhibits flexible, spiritual playing that is more Dionysian.
Another theme I identified in my interview with Ben is the importance of community. In addition to the larger Phish community, there is a smaller, local community of fans who attend Pardon Me, Doug shows. Noting this relationship, Ben states, “Phish fans [are] feverish when it comes to the music – they know it inside and out. You miss a change they’re there to tell you about it.” This “fever” Ben refers to unites Phish fans into a unique community that has a love for both the known and unknown.
The sense of community was also apparent in Ben’s answer to my third question. Ben talks about a silent conversation that takes place between the performers and their fans. This silent conversation creates and strengthens the connection between Phish fans. This is an example of what D. Robert DeChaine calls “musical affect.” Ben describes an array of emotions when listening to Phish and when his band is performing.
Ben said that his band has certain parts (such as lyrics) that must be kept the same as Phish, while other parts (such as the tempo) that Pardon Me, Doug interprets. The way individual tribute bands modify Phish’s music reminds me of religion. Phish could be compared to a religion like Christianity. The style of different tribute bands can be compared to the different denominations within Christianity. While improvising, Pardon Me, Doug plays music that is unique, while still remaining faithful to Phish. Similarly, Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists practice different religious beliefs, but they are all versions of Christianity.
When and where did you first find out you had a love for Phish? What made you decide to perform in a tribute band?
I first was introduced to Phish around 1995 by my friend Toby, my friend Derek (both whom I went to school with) and also my older brother. I don’t recall who exactly was first, but they were all around the same time frame. During this period I was a freshman in high school and was really starting to “get into music” with depth for the first time in my life, and at this time I was (and still am) hugely into the Grateful Dead (I recently was in Santa Clara, CA for the GD50 shows at the end of June 2015). Because of my huge infatuation with the Dead at the time, and the vastness of their music catalog, scene, and backstory, I didn’t initially have the time or desire to dig too much into Phish right away. The Dead were taking up every ounce of time I had. But through ’95, ‘96, and ’97, I slowly let them enter into my world and eventually, they took it over. I think part of this was because Phish was still “alive”; they were actively and aggressively touring, and being that the Grateful Dead stopped in the summer of ’95, Phish became more available to me than the Dead were. My first Phish show was 8/16/97 at The Great Went festival in Limestone, ME. Since then I’ve seen 78 shows, and will be seeing my 80th, 81st, and 82nd shows this summer at MagnaBall, Phish’s 10th festival, being held in upstate New York at the Watkins Glen Speedway. I fell in love with Phish because of the music, but since then I’ve fallen in love with them for so much more. For the community, the way they continue to push themselves, and honestly, just for the overall way they handle themselves. They are an extraordinary group of men, and I am very thankful they came into my life because I’ve learned so much from them from afar.
The thing that made me decide to form a Phish tribute band was of course my love for their music. I picked up the guitar late, when I was 21 years old in the year 2000, and as I got better I formed a few different bands, gradually graduating my abilities both individually as a player as well as a band member. Being in a band is very much like being on a team, and someone once told me long ago to no matter what you do in life, always surround yourself with people who are better than you. It’s the most efficient and best way to improve your own ability because you’re learning from people who’ve (in most cases) already traveled on the road you’re on, so there’s usually advice and guidance they can provide, whether it be direct or indirect. The bands I was in early on were mostly cover bands, though I did have 1 really fun original project called “Small Craft Advisory” (always loved that name). I always ended up gravitating towards being the leader of the band, mostly because of my ambition and energy towards making everything happen from booking gigs to crafting set lists, handling business affairs, etc., and we’d play all kinds of music from the 40’s right up through current radio stuff, but my heart always lied in the jam band scene, so naturally the songs I brought to the bands were either Phish, Dead, and String Cheese Incident songs, or songs that I loved that I would’ve loved to hear those bands play.
My influences are vast, ranging from the classic stuff from the 60’s and ‘70’s like Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Steely Dan, and even a bunch of ‘80’s stuff from Michael Jackson, Robert Palmer, Hall and Oates, and man who doesn’t love Huey Lewis and The News?!?!, to the more obscure stuff like Stanley Clarke, Little Feat, Deep Purple, Velvet Underground, Yes; to folk artists like Chris Smither; and to bluegrass artists like Vasser Clements, David Grisman, Bela Fleck, and Del McCoury. I love most types of music, but especially thoughtful music that lends to complexity and makes you think, rather than 3 chord pop cheesy tunes that some stations play these days. My favorite kinds of music incorporate jazz, funk, bluegrass, blues, rock, reggae, folk, calypso, surf, orchestral stuff, compositional music, some rap, a little hard core stuff (I love Pantera, grew up listening to them as a kid) and even some country (the old stuff like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, etc., not the corporate crap they’re spewing these days).
That’s why I love Phish so much – they cover all of these bases with their songs. It’s amazing. So after playing in mish-mash cover bands for 12 years, I finally found a group of musicians who were good enough, had the appetite and desire for – and who have since become my best friends – to work on this Phish tribute band with me. There’s a huge appetite for it in Maine and the Northeast in general, so we knew it would work and be successful, as long as we were able to successfully tackle the tunes….which is no small feat.
As a tribute band, how is your music similar to Phish and how is it original? Are the notes, lyrics, tempo, and everything that goes into the performance the same? How do you add your own personal touches?
Great question. It’s similar because a lot of Phish’s music consists of written out complex compositions that are integral to its DNA. Specific sections, fugues, segues, chord changes, etc. that cannot be overlooked or misrepresented. The thing about Phish fans is they’re feverish when it comes to the music – they know it inside and out. You miss a change, they’re there to tell you about it. But then there’s the other side of Phish – the exploratory improvisational side that allows us the freedom to express ourselves as Pardon Me, Doug, and I love that. Typically there’s a roadmap to follow (or at least start out on), but the really cool thing is when you get to a “jam”, you’re not tethered to a concrete block. The beauty of these parts of the music is we have the opportunity to talk to the audience through our souls by way of our own instruments.
Listen, I’ll never be Trey Anastasio. Nobody ever will, just like he’ll never be Jerry Garcia or Jimi Hendrix, and just like they’ll never be Django Reinhardt. So it goes on like that. What people hear when they come to see Pardon Me, Doug is 4 guys from Portland, ME playing their interpretation of Phish. Sure when we play Divided Sky we have to play the first 8 minutes of the song exactly as it’s written because it’s a composition that demands it, but man for that last 4 or so minutes, it’s all us. Yes the band is playing through the chord changes while I solo, but I am not playing a Trey solo note for note – I’m playing what’s coming from within me, what I hear. Trey had a great quote one time, saying (and I am paraphrasing) that we’re all connected to the universe and he’s just a conduit to deliver what’s already out there (as he perceives it getting channeled through him). I love that. The ability to interpret what you hear, on the go, is amazing. The thing he wants to do most though is get out of the way of that. You don’t want it to be about “you”. Remove your thoughts completely so it’s not the audience watching “you”, it’s the audience listening to the universe allowing you to deliver what’s out there. I try to do the same when given the opportunity.
Is performing a social or individual experience for you? For example, do you tune the audience out and focus on the music you’re playing or do you allow the audience into your mind while on stage?
I think it’s very much both a social and individual experience. One of the greatest joys I have being a musician is getting everyone together for an evening of fun, song, and dance. This is a tough friggin’ world we live in, and it can really get you down sometimes. But when people go to a concert (or at least when I do), it’s like a little 4 hour vacation from everything out there. It’s a great treat that a lot of our friends come to see us play and I respect that opportunity. The older we get, with jobs, family, and just life in general getting in the way, I don’t always get to see some of these folks as often as I like. But the really cool thing is that these Pardon Me, Doug shows brings so many of them together for an evening of fun. I love that. The only thing that sucks is that I’m always playing, and therefore have very little time to partake in the social part of it that they all do! I always hear fun stories from our shows of such and such hanging with this person and the stuff that came of it, but I’m always like “man!!! I haven’t seen such and such in forever! I wish that there were two of me – one to play on stage and one to hang with all you guys in the audience!” The good thing is, we still have Phish, so even though it’s not as frequent, I can still get a little slice of that community feel when I go to their concerts because we always see a ton of people we know.
I do allow the audience in my mind – there’s no way to prevent that – and honestly I don’t know that I’d want to. There is very much a symbiotic relationship – the audience and the band – there is very much a give and take so to speak, going on with the audience when we play. We feed off their energy, and vice versa. If we’re raging in a jam, they’ll let us know and sometimes that helps us kick it up a notch even farther, or give us more confidence with the rest of the night and we’ll attack some songs with more voraciousness, and if we’re struggling, they can feel that as well. We try not to stay in that mind set and sometimes you have to have the memory of a professional baseball closer. Don’t worry about the last pitch (or song, in this case) but treat the next one as the most important and move on!
What emotions do you associate with Phish’s music? Do you think you experience the same emotions when performing a song as the members of Phish or would you consider your experience different from theirs?
Every emotion in the book comes through. Happiness, joy, exhilaration, victory, defeat, sadness, sorrow, struggle, tension, release….I would say Phish music covers the bases when it comes to human emotion. And I do think that they feel mostly the same because the songs are the songs. A heartfelt ballad like “Waste” is meant to deliver its message of love and longing desire, whereas a rocker like Chalk Dust Torture is meant to rip and blow off steam and be an electric showing of rock and roll, dance your ass off thunder! I am sure they have emotions about the songs that I don’t – after all, they did write them so there is probably meanings behind songs I’ll never understand – but the same thing can be said for me too. I may interpret a song because of a situation in my life or an event that happened to me that has nothing to do with what the song actually means, but it’s how I relate to it or it’s what the song said to me. That’s the beauty of art – in most cases there is no wrong or right, it’s all up to interpretation.
Ha….you must have seen the McGrupp YouTube video! I love that version; we played it very well and it was our first time playing it live! There’s always risk there…more on that later. Phish has a lot of songs that have very few words (e.g., in Divided Sky…the only lyrics in the 12 to 14 minute song are “Divided Sky and the wind blows high!”) and also have a plethora of songs that have what people would consider a “normal” amount of lyrics, and even a few that have a TON of lyrics (see: Esther or The Lizards). But certainly being an improvisational band at heart, there is always the chance of seeing a show where the musical content far outweighs the lyrical content. There was even a period between ’97 and ’00 where seeing a four or five song, hour and a half second set was not uncommon! And before I go on, it should be noted that Phish picked up an awesome cue from where the Grateful Dead left off: no two shows are alike. They’ve never repeated a set list in their history, which is why you see so many of us following them around the country. The show you saw before will be nothing like your next one, and the excitement of “What are they gonna do? What bust out are they gonna play?” is very much alive and thriving at each show.
I hope our audience leaves feeling like they got a little piece of Phish from Pardon Me, Doug. It’s not easy playing their music, and we’ll never be close to what they can deliver, but what we hope is that while Phish is not on tour, the folks who live around here can come get their “Phish fix” and share in the groove for an evening, dance, forget about the outside world for a little bit, hang with like-minded, chill, cool people, and just be happy. If we do that, we’ve done our job.
I think a song like McGrupp portrays a complex jazz-infused arrangement with a twist. McGrupp is part of the “Gamehendge” saga, Trey’s 9-song senior thesis entitled “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday” (TMWSIY) that he wrote while attending Goddard College.
Phish has performed the thesis in its entirety live in concert 5 times, and not once since Great Woods 7/8/94! It’s the “holy grail” of Phish shows, if you will. Everyone wants to see it, nobody knows if they’ll ever do it again.
The saga depicts an old retired colonel (Colonel Forbin) and McGrupp is his faithful companion. “Gamehenge” is a story explained by short narrations followed by songs that detail the story further. It really is remarkable. I encourage you to listen to the original if you never have. Quite something. One of the many intriguing parts of Phish that got me hooked early on.
How would you describe Phish’s music? Would you say that Phish’s music is more orderly and controlled and meant for thought? Or is it more chaotic and provides a sense of trance to the listeners?
Again I think it’s a combination of very orderly and controlled, but also extremely chaotic and can most certainly provide a sense of trance to the listeners. A song like Heavy Things can be seen as an orderly, controlled, 4 minute pop song (at least the album version, anyways). A song like Carini can be seen as very chaotic. A song like Piper can provide a space of free flow jam, perfect to disappear into for a while and forget where you are when you come out the other side. Phish really does implement all of these tools and more into their songs and concerts. Their spectrum of creativity is limitless. There are no rules when it comes to music, and Phish takes that notion to the extreme but proving this in every facet possible.
Would you consider that your Tribute Band exemplifies the five commitments of Phish that Jnan Blau describes in his article, “A Phan on Phish”? They are: flexibility, groove, play, risk, and reflexivity. If you do, could you describe in what way your tribute band exemplifies one of the commitments in more detail?
Absolutely. That’s one of the fun things about being able to do this!
Flexibility: Our set lists are always different (we try not to repeat songs from one show to the next), and we even joke that we sometimes become the “all request band” and take audience requests during our live shows. It’s the fun of it all, and obviously we want them to have a good time and be engaged as much as possible, so we aim to please as much as possible. But we’re also very flexible with the music itself, particularly when we get into jams. For instance, the last show we played at Empire here in Portland on 7/19, we played an extended version of the song “The Wedge” where we stretched out the jam at the end, didn’t really know what was going to happen once we got into it, eventually dissolved into a 3-chord progression over F#-B-E where we even threw in a couple of lines from Guns ‘n Roses “Paradise City”, and careened back into the ending of “The Wedge” without missing a beat. It was glorious and so much fun to have that type of spontaneity live and on the fly!
Groove: This isn’t a band without groove. Phish has many staples, including Tweezer, Ghost, Sand, Gotta Jibboo, Piper, Twist, Steam, and countless others that I could name that exist because of groove. It’s so much fun to be able to settle into a pocket and expound upon it. It’s you, your three band mates, and your ideas coming through….over Phish’s groove! People love the funk, it makes your hips move whether you like it or not, and Phish definitely brings the funk. The fan base even coined a phrase in ’97 affectionately known as “cow funk” which describes the deep, thick, gooey jams Phish can get into and is so well known for.
Play: Again, this isn’t a band without play. Sometimes I feel like a kid when I play with Pardon Me, Doug. I am on record with the band telling them that Tuesday’s (our rehearsal days) and gig nights are the best days of my life. It makes me so happy. It makes me happy because there’s not much more I love in this world than getting to play Phish, and especially being able to do it in front of people and having them enjoy it. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of something that brings happiness to people. That’s a pretty special thing. But Tuesday’s and gig nights make me happy because I get to play music with 3 of my best friends. I get to explore a place inside my brain and my heart and my soul that I never get to access otherwise. It’s magical. And we have so much fun, banter, joking around, and just all around good time doing it. Sometimes I just thank the universe for allowing me to be in this position. I tell the band guys that too: don’t ever forget how lucky we are. Not everyone gets to play this kick ass music, with people they love, for an audience who loves it. Wow.
Risk: playing Phish is all about risk. It’s not easy music to play. Heck, even the “easy sounding” songs are incredibly difficult. Go listen to “Silent In The Morning”. Sounds simple. In fact, the gist of it is over 4 or 5 simple chords – even a beginner guitar player could play them. But when you really start digging into it and listening, you realize all the polyrhythms going on and how no one in the band is playing the same thing. And playing one of their more difficult songs like David Bowie or You Enjoy Myself live is incredibly risky. I got nervous before doing both, and I’m glad. It means I’m still alive. It means I’m still feeling something. It means I’m treating this thing with respect and holding it with utmost importance. And I should. The folks who pay to come see us play deserve that, and the music certainly deserves it. Like I said, you miss a note or a series of notes, and these “phans” hear it. They know the songs as well as we do, but I think they’re understanding and appreciative of it and realize we’re David taking on Goliath in a sense. There’s a reason there’s only a dozen or so Phish tribute bands around the country, but you’ll find a Grateful Dead cover band or J-Geiles cover band in just about every city across America. And it’s not just popularity (though I’ll admit the Dead have an enormous lead on Phish in that sense); it’s about the complexity of the music. Not everyone can do it. Heck, there are a number of songs we haven’t tackled yet because they simply take time to learn and you can’t just whip them out in a couple of practices.
Reflexivity: You have to have reflexivity when you’re in any band, let alone a Phish tribute band. Some of Phish’s songs exemplify the tension and release that music can offer, and I think this is a great correlation to reflexivity, to cause and effect. I think Phish has very much defined an entire group of people and created their very own community. And what’s funny about that is that now, very much like back in 1997 when Trey was quoted in the Bittersweet Motel documentary….not a ton of people pay attention to Phish, yet they’re continually one of the most successful touring acts in the country year in and year out. Phish has carved out a niche and done it their own way. They didn’t do it by the “traditional” methods of radio play, hit songs, platinum albums, music videos, etc. etc. etc. They did it with a homegrown way of building it.
In Pardon Me, Doug, I think you could say we’re doing the same thing and here’s why: early on when we started, some people said the most important thing to do was to get out there on the circuit, start playing a lot of shows, build our fan base up, tour more, and set your sights on becoming the next Dark Star Orchestra (the famous Grateful Dead tribute band that successfully tours the country, playing upwards of 200 shows each year). Honestly I didn’t feel that way at all. I mean hey, if that happened someday, well then great, I guess. But I didn’t start this to become the next anything. I started it because I love Phish, I love playing Phish, and I love performing for people that love Phish. That’s it. Anything else that comes with it is gravy on top for me. But to say that “making ‘it’ to that level of success is hard” is an understatement. And here’s the thing. We’re all in our mid-to-late 30’s, have jobs, kids, responsibilities. I mean if I were 22 and at this point, hell yeah, what have you got to lose? But at this point of my life I am happy doing what we’re doing, and again, if something more comes of it then sweet, and if this is all it ever is, well I’m friggin’ tickled pink that I got this far with it! So we’re doing it our way, in a way that allows us to live our lives, do our jobs, be with our family’s, and at the same time, sneak out and live out this little fantasy of playing in a rock ‘n roll band that covers Phish music. How awesome, indeed!
The next Artist Interview Project installment features Brian Bojo, the creator of PhiftyTwo Weeks. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
For my Philosophy of the Arts course, I interviewed an artist whose artwork is inspired by the band Phish. The artist I interviewed is Brian Bojo. Bojo has always loved art and has a long-standing career as an art teacher. While he has been a fan of Phish for quite some time, his focus on Phish-themed art is a more recent development, which began after he rediscovered Phish. Bojo decided to take on a large-scale project to satisfy his creative urges and contribute to the Phish community. For his project, called “PhiftyTwo Weeks,” Bojo created a different piece of art every week of 2014. PhiftyTwo Weeks was inspired by the eclectic, ever creative and changing musical style of the band. My interview with Bojo covers his thoughts about art, beauty, and musical inspiration.
Specifically, we discussed how beauty is represented with art, how community and social life shape musical experience, and how fans can contribute to an artist’s work and build a larger community. Although not a Philosophy major or a philosopher by trade, Bojo seems to share similar ideas about these subjects as some great philosophers. Maybe artists are by nature adept philosophers!
Art, music, and beauty are concepts that are often so intertwined that they are inseparable from one another. The band Phish, seems to take these concepts literally, figuratively and metaphorically in every way one could possibly imagine. Consequently, fans of Phish who use art and music to express their enjoyment of Phish through their own creative processes come up with a myriad of ways to demonstrate how they see the world reflected through the “eyes” of Phish as a band, as an art form and as a movement.
While interviewing Bojo, I found that within his own work and others, he finds a philosophical view of beauty, one that many of us can appreciate. While the definition of beauty can often times be hard to pin-down, there are some concepts of beauty that may be universally human. For example, most people find certain landscapes, such as pleistocene savannas, to be beautiful. Beauty, from a Darwinian perspective, is based on sexual selection for mates and natural environments which are best suited for human adaptation. In his TED talk on the subject Professor Dennis Dutton states that, “I personally have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.”
Humans also find beauty within other objects such as art and ritual pieces that seem less connected to selection of evolution. Dutton brings up art such as the cave drawings in the Chauvet caves as well as Acheulian hand axes. These axes we know were not used for functional purposes, as most of them found show no evidence of wear and tear. Instead they were made as an object of pride and beauty. This type of beauty, artistic beauty, is the beauty of a job well done. And a job well done would have signaled other traits by the creator as explains Dutton on the TED stage, “Competently made hand axes indicated desirable personal qualities — intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness and sometimes access to rare materials.”
When I probed Bojo about this subject, his answer was very similar to Dutton’s perspective. When asked, “What makes art beautiful?” he answered, “Beauty. I think beautiful art is something that is earned by the artist. It is part of the process of creation and evolution as an artist/creator. Beauty is in the mastery of a concept or style, a style that the artist has developed through a series of trials and errors. In the end the artist discovers and comes into their own. I feel that I am on my way to beauty. I haven’t achieved it yet, but I am finding techniques that I identify with and really enjoy.”Beauty, as Bojo and Dutton understand it, can be found in the PhiftyTwo Weeks project. For example, this within the piece below, I see skill and mastery of this concept/style.
I also found other philosophical themes within Bojo’s work and how he connects his art to music, especially that of Phish. The Dionysian concept of music refers to music that is especially moving to the point of bringing the purest form of joy. Even though I only communicated with Bojo through email, I am able to feel his love of Phish and their music. He finds their creativity to be “inspiring,” so much so that he was able to use their music as a muse for art for 52 weeks straight, not missing one installment. He states that “Phish is the most creative band alive today,” and that he finds “inspiration and joy” from Phish. Though Bojo never explicitly mentions the Dionysian concept, I find that his words about Phish lead me to believe he feels this way about their music. As Christoph Cox explains, the Dionysian concept of course referring to music that “convinces us of the eternal joy of living.” (p. 510).
Another recurrent thread within our interview was the social nature of music and the community it can inspire. Phish, as we know, has a cult-like following. Sharing and collaboration are important within the Phish and larger art and music communities. In the text, Why Music Moves Us, author Jeanette Bicknell asserts that music is “intrinsically and fundamentally social” p. viii). Historically, music has been used for celebrations, initiations, religious ceremonies, natural rituals, births, deaths and war. Although music and art are still music and art without an audience, they both depend on the social aspect. Bojo gets this idea. He has used his art to share his love of Phish and his story of the music with others. He, like other artists and musicians in the phan community, has a specific role to play, unique to his art. He states that he is able to “contribute to the conversation that our art as a collective group speaks to the phans of the band.”
This interview really helped me to understand the community of artists and fans that follow Phish. Brian Bojo is a person who loves art and music, both of which take central roles in his life. Phish’s creativity in music is inspiring enough that Bojo was able to use different songs and moments from Phish music to create 52 unique pieces of art, sometimes utilizing techniques he had never used before. In some ways it seems that this project really ‘saved’ Bojo’s artwork stating “[I] fell out of art too. I taught art daily, heck – I made a living in art, but I made nothing that satisfied my creative side.” This project created an artistic outlet for him, which is something that may not have been possible with another band with less creative roots, eclectic and unique sound, or dedicated Phan base and community.
How does your varied art respond to Phish’s music? Does your art reflect what you hear in Phish’s music?
I chose to create art based on Phish for a number of reasons, but one of them is the crazy visuals that each song gives me. From the Gamehendge saga, to the ingredients in Reba’s concoction, to Diego stealing a Fuego, to Mike’s stolen recording device in Poor Heart… the visuals and ideas are endless! I feel that Phish is the most creative band alive today, and making art inspired by their creativity is only natural. Someone told me last year that they were so excited to see someone (me) contributing to the Phish experience by adding to it, instead of just passively listening and taking from it. However, I take from them as well – take inspiration and joy.
What do you think it means for art to be beautiful? Do you consider your artwork to be beautiful?
Beauty. I think beautiful art is something that is earned by the artist. It is part of the process of creation and evolution as an artist/creator. Beauty is in the mastery of a concept or style, a style that the artist has developed through a series of trials and errors. In the end the artist discovers and comes into their own. I feel that I am on my way to beauty. I haven’t achieved it yet, but I am finding techniques that I identify with and really enjoy. I spent the entire PhiftyTwo Weeks searching for new ways to express myself – part of the purpose of that was to find what I loved. In the ninth month I discovered and learned how to screenprint. I bought my own gear and set up a shop in my back yard. I had friends who helped me (Branden Otto and Tripp Shealy) learn the basics and I was off running. The process is so much fun. I ended up going back to college in Jan of 2015 and took a screenprinting class that also pushed me to learn new things and try new techniques. I have two new techniques that I’m currently using that really speak to me as an artist – hand painting the transparencies, and converting clay designs into screenprinted images. I am using them in my summer prints for 2015. My art isn’t what I’d call beauty yet, but I feel that I’m on to something and can’t wait to keep searching.
What is your role in the Phish community as an artist?
I feel that I have a few roles. With my commitments I am not able to hit every Phish show, but I will still hit the ones I can and each time I will contribute to the conversation that our art as a collective group speaks to the phans of the band. The internet also allows us (artists) to share our art even if we are unable to tour. A Poster, T-shirt, Pin… is an artifact for the person who purchases it. The object reminds the person of that night or that tour. The art ends up telling an entirely different story than the artist intended. How great is that!? I also feel that one of my roles it to be a “good guy.” I want to add positively to the good nature of the community. I’m in a unique position, in that I create my art just for the fun of it… I am not relying on it to pay my bills, or really even get me to the next show. I can offer my art at fair prices and love to throw in extra pieces to surprise the buyer.
How does the nature of sharing and community influence the way you do and display your art? If no one ever viewed your art, would it still be art?
I think that the community of artists is incredibly talented. Each of us has a pretty unique style. I love going to shows and visiting with the other artists. I love getting to know them and sharing my ideas with them before I go to print. This past year I’ve really been challenged and inspired by artists Marc Guertin and Branden Otto. I love the work that both of these guys create and feel that we have a healthy comradery. I am not envious or jealous of their work, I see it and say “Dang, I’ve got to step my game up!”. If no one ever saw my art, would it be art? Yeah. Art is something that you create. I create art all the time that never sees the light of day. Some of it I’d never show anyone, but I make it and learn from it. It is still art and part of the process of growth that leads to the art that people do see.
Do you listen to music when you create? Do you find that your art changes with the style of music or artist you choose? If so, why?
I do listen to music when I create. Most of my ideas for art come when I’m in the car. I generally drive about an hour each day. I listen to music both to and from work. If I hear something that inspires me, I grab a pen and make a note, or a picture (when I’m at a stop light). Sometimes in a notebook, other times on the back of a receipt. When I get home, I then take that idea and flesh it out a bit. I generally listen to music throughout the whole process – concept, to drawing, to printing. I choose different music to fit my mood – I’m not sure it changes the outcome of the art, but definitely helps with the atmosphere while I create. I guess it’s just part of the process.
I see that you used different mediums for many of your pieces of art? How did you choose each medium and in what way did each type of project bring out the essence of Phish’s music?
As mentioned earlier, part of the PhiftyTwo Weeks project was discovering or rediscovering who I am as an artist. I really needed to try different mediums. I made soup can labels, action figures, skateboard decks, pins, baseball cards, posters, t-shirts, jelly jars, carved into a whale tooth (scrimshaw), a deck of playing cards, spraypainted stencils, wood jigsaw construction, shadow boxes, oil painting, scratch boards, photography, disc golf discs, and more. I chose each method as an attempt to branch out and try new things. I am really happy with how the entire project turned out. The amount of materials and styles I used is reminiscent of Phish and their styles. They play music that ranges from classic rock, to country, to imrov jazz, to funk, to reggae… and each time they hit the stage they take risks and try new things.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can check out Ryan Kerrigan’s artwork on Facebook and his professional website.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?”
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.
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!
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 thinkthis 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.
Music is obviously a significant part of your life. What kindof emotional connection do you have to your musical performances? Doyou 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.
You have done Phish tributes, Spoken Word and Poster Art. Isthere 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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seek and Sought, a new live music merchandise company started by designer by Jennalee Cook is a Columbus, OH combines her passion for live music with every possible artistic medium she can get her hands on. Jennalee is as comfortable with a blowtorch and table saw as she is with a paintbrush or a calligraphy pen. Some of her creations you can wear, some you can hang on your wall, some are furniture or functional memorabilia, but the thread of music is woven throughout all of her work. She recently launched a company Seek And Sought doing limited runs each month of featured handmade products. Check her out on Facebook and Twitter.