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Artist Interview Project Part 8: Andy Greenberg of Runaway Gin

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.

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

Find more information about Runaway Gin on the band’s Facebook page and website. You can also follow Runaway Gin on Twitter (@runaway_gin).

andy greenberg

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.

Interview Transcript

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 [2015], 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!