The Resounding Echoes Grow is a day-long interdisciplinary symposium celebrating scholarship about American rock band Phish. The symposium will take place on Wednesday March 11, 2020 in NYU Gallatin’s Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts (1 Washington Place, New York, NY).
The symposium continues the mission of the Phish Studies scholarly community to develop research and writing on the band and the phenomenon it has spawned. The day will include a keynote, a guided viewing, two panels, and two roundtables with presenters from across disciplinary backgrounds. The event is hosted by Gallatin MA candidate Isaac Slone, and will include a musical performance by Karina Rykman. It is free and open to the public.
While the event has recently hit capacity, there is a waitlist. Inquiries can be sent to email@example.com and the schedule of events can be found here.
The Phishsonian Institute, with Oregon State University Philosophy School of Phish, and PhanArt, is proud to announce “Below The Moss Forgotten: Phish in the Pacific Northwest,” a museum exhibit about the band and its relationship with the region.
From Ashland 1991 to The Gorge 2018, Phish’s time out here perfectly mirrors the band’s evolution and growth and will be represented by fan-created art and some choice artifacts. The exhibit will be presented in the Horizon Lounge of the Memorial Union on the OSU campus in Corvallis, Oregon. It will coincide with the first-ever Phish Studies academic conference on May 17-19, 2019. This is the Phishsonian’s first exhibit with PhanArt in what it hopes will be many.
In order to make this exhibit happen, the Phishsonian Institute and PhanArt are looking for donations to help fund materials needed for presentation. To donate, please visit Go Fund Me and support this archival endeavor. If you own a business and would like to sponsor this exhibit and the Phish Studies conference, please contact Stephanie Jenkins of Oregon State at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lastly, to understand Phish’s time in the Pacific Northwest, you just have to listen to the tapes. The Phishsonian Hour on JEMP Radio will be airing an 11-part series about Phish in the Pacific Northwest leading up to the conference. It airs every Thursday at 2 PM East/11 AM West, kicking off today with selections from Spring and Fall 1991. Please tune in.
In an unprecedented collaboration between an academic journal and live music community, Phish.net, the Philosophy School of Phish, and the Public Philosophy Journal (PPJ) are soliciting abstracts for essays about the improvisational rock band Phish, its music, and fans. Selected papers that successfully complete the PPJ’s Formative Peer Review process will be published in a special issue of the Public Philosophy Journal, co-edited by Dr. Stephanie Jenkins (Oregon State University, assistant professor of Philosophy) and Charlie Dirksen (Mockingbird Foundation, Vice President and Associate Counsel).
Contributors may submit abstracts on any topic of philosophical significance related to the Phish phenomenon. Proposed essays should explore philosophical questions, problems, concepts, themes, or historical figures through connections to the music and fan culture of Phish. Topics may include, but are not limited to:
Aesthetics: beautiful; sublime; emotion
Music, performance, and lyrics: conceptual themes; Gamehendge mythology; improvisational ethos; live performance; music ontology; narrations; gags
Ethics: “phan” ethos; ticket trading and secondary market; tarping; environmental impacts of tour
Politics: fan counterculture; activism; issues of race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, and religion
Phenomenology: embodiment; lived experience of jams, “IT,” lighting, or concert space
Technology: recording; social media; RFID data and surveillance; live streaming; tape trading
This special issue is part of a PPJ pilot project that aims to reconfigure the relationship between the academy and the public. To this end, the editors seek proposals for essays that will be of interest to both audiences. You do not have to be a professional scholar or philosopher to submit.
Please submit abstracts of 250-500 words and a brief bio via this Google form. Your abstract should summarize your proposed essay, outline its argument, and identify its significance to both Phish fans and scholars new to the band.
Relevance: Responds to an issue of concern to the Phish community
Accessibility: Written clearly for a general audience, with technical terms and concepts unpacked. Does not assume previous knowledge of the band.
Intellectual coherence: Provides evidence to support arguments and identifies theoretical concepts that illuminate the philosophical problem, question, or idea under consideration
Scholarly engagement: Demonstrates awareness of ongoing dialogues within relevant scholarly and/or community conversations
Completed essays will be approximately 2000-4000 words. Formatting and citations should follow the guidelines set in the Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition).
Abstracts due: January 18, 2019
Completed papers due: April 15, 2019
Questions can be addressed to:
Dr. Stephanie Jenkins
Oregon State University, School of History, Philosophy, and Religion
PhanArt is thrilled to announce the lineup for the 2018 Fall Tour Art shows, held on Saturday, October 27 in Rosemont, IL, and Friday, November 2 in Las Vegas, NV. Admission is free to both shows, with tubes for purchase, along with an extensive variety of clothing, posters, pins, memorabilia and much, much more.
On November 2, PhanArt will return to Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas for an extensive show featuring more than 24 confirmed artists, and more to be announced! Bowling tournaments and Lunch You in the Eye will be held during the show, with artists on two floors of Brooklyn Bowl!
For the fifth summer in a row, Dr. Stephanie Jenkins will teach the “Philosophy School of Phish” course—more formally called the “Philosophy of Art and Music”— via Oregon State University’s Ecampus program. Using the band as a case study, the course focuses on themes about the nature and significance of art and music. As part of their required course work, students attend three Phish concerts— in person or via webcast— and conduct philosophical interviews with artists from the Phish community. Learning about theories of art and music experientially helps students actively engage with the philosophical content and learn more about the Phish community.
During the 2018 summer term, students will have the opportunity to participate in a field trip to attend Phish’s three-night run at the Gorge Amphitheater from July 20-22. Students will camp together at the venue. In addition to attending the concerts, students will participate in a “Phish Studies” colloquium, which will feature guest lectures from interdisciplinary scholars researching the band at other academic institutions.
Over the course of the weekend, the students will film their experiences. They will later use this video footage to complete the “Concert Field Notes” assignment requirement for the course. Dr. Jenkins and filmmaker Kelly Morris, founder of the MORE Project and Be MORE Now Films, will collaborate with the students to edit their video submissions into a film about Phish and Philosophy, to be published in the Public Philosophy Journal and circulated throughout the “phan” community.
Registration is now open! To participate in the Gorge field trip, students must be enrolled in PHL 360—offered via OSU’s Ecampus– and the corresponding one-credit lab section, during session three of OSU’s summer term (June 25–August 17). Students who are interested in this opportunity for experiential learning and contribution to faculty research can contact Dr. Jenkins at email@example.com. You do not have to be a current OSU student to take the class.
Enrolling in the lab course will give participating students the opportunity to:
Collaborate with a professional filmmaker: Kelly Morris, filmmaker and founder of Be More Now Films, will meet with students during the field trip and oversee the editing of the final public philosophy video.
Engage in communal, experiential learning: With the addition of an on-campus lab credit, students will be immersed in their learning experience together as a class. This is not possible with an online only course.
Participate in faculty research: The final film will be published in the Public Philosophy Journal. As part of this project, Dr. Jenkins and Kelly Morris will be participating, as invited researchers, in the Public Philosophy Journal Creative Writing Workshop at Michigan State University from May 16-18, 2018.
Stay up to date by following the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook and Twitter!
The next Artist Interview Project installment features Terry Werner, the artist behind Werner Art & Designs. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
Find more information about Terry Werner’s art on his website.
Phish Magnaball/Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well Matching Set. Image via artist’swebsite.
I interviewed a talented artist named Terry Werner for an assignment in my philosophy class. Terry is the owner of Werner Arts & Designs in Ukiah, California. Through his store, Terry sells his artwork, which is unique, beautiful, and eye-catching. I asked him many hard questions, which he answered thoughtfully.
In our interview, we discussed the nature of beauty and imagination. Terry’s description of what makes art beautiful is similar to philosopher Leo Tolstoy’s definition of art. Terry explains:
“As artists we all strive for our perfect expression of our vision. The beauty in the art is that struggle the artist goes through expressing his or herself. It is never perfect but almost always beauty appears somehow.”
Beauty is subjective; to one person Kandinsky’s art might be just a bunch of scribbles but to another, it may be a marvelous piece of art. Art is not perfect, but it nevertheless can be beautiful.
In his article, “What is Art?” Tolstoy argues that the purpose of art is to make us feel emotion. In fact, the transmission of emotion, for Tolstoy, defines what makes art beautiful. Terry’s answers were similar to Tolstoy’s perspective. In our interview, Terry said:
“I feel that art’s first purpose is to captivate the viewer’s attention even if it’s for just a moment… At this moment the viewer is feeling some emotion so in that respect an emotion is felt but I don’t think artists create art to make viewers feel an emotion.”
Terry’s opinion is like Tolstoy’s because he thinks art does give people emotion. However, his view departs from Tolstoy’s, because he doesn’t think emotion is art’s purpose. I appreciate Terry’s perspective, because he changed my mind! I now believe that I don’t have to feel something when I experience art; its imperfections make it beautiful.
Terry makes art for Phish fans, which certainly makes him an avid Phish fan. I noticed that his art recreates the sense of freedom and curiosity that Phish fans look for when they got to a Phish concert. In the essay, “Why We Come Back,” Mr. Miner’s blog explains:
“In their live concerts, Phish offers the promise that at any moment, anything can happen. And when they are at their best, “anything” often does. We come back to Phish because of this Freedom. Enmeshed in their live experience, this feeling returns us to a child-like state where our world is fresh and new and we are freed from the worries, obligations, responsibilities and ethical / moral compromises of our day to day selves. And like Peter Pan refusing to grow up, we crave to experience this “not knowing,” so that we may be able see the world anew, with fresh eyes and ears.”
I noticed a kind of child-like curiosity in Terry’s drawings. Or rather, his artwork produced this feeing within me! Terry has many prints and I found myself wanting to know what each one means. Their variation and color makes me feel like a child discovering a whole new world.
Terry and I discussed where he gets his inspiration. I learned that a lot of his inspiration comes from Phish community. Terry described how he was inspired to create Phish-themed art:
“The first time I was inspired to do Phish Phan-Art I would have to say it was attending Superball 9 at Watkins Glen in 2011. I was camped near an artist that goes by the handle ‘Crazy Red Beard.’ He was selling a few of his watercolor prints and matching pins very low key around his camp. I ended up getting a print/pin set from him on the final day of fest. The very next year at Alpine Valley I put out my first event phanart. One strange thing with Phish festivals is that they are any vending of any kind. The colorful and friendly community.”
Terry’s account describes how the Phish community supported the development of his artwork. In fact, Terry noted how supportive the fan base is for artists like himself. He explains, “A big thing I LOVE about the Phanart community is the respect and positive support from all the artists to each other.”
Philosopher John Drabinski describes the importance of what he calls the “occasional community,” because such spaces help us escape the monotony of modern life. Describing the lot at a Grateful Dead concert, Drabinksi writes:
“We didn’t need to know anything about one another, except we occupied this space, at this time, and that this was sufficient community of the commuter or the occasional community of the Deadhead lot is akin to exiting much of what defines modern life.”
Phish’s lot is also a place of hope to escape modern life through art, music, and community.
I learned a lot from my interview with Terry and I would like to thank him for taking time to discuss his artwork with me.
Where do you get your inspiration? Your imagination?
My Inspiration comes from a lot of places… The music first and foremost, other art works, photography, etc… But if I were to look back and find the first time I was inspired to do Phish Phan-Art I would have to say it was attending Superball 9 at Watkins Glen in 2011. I was camped near an artist that goes by the handle “Crazy Red Beard”. He was selling a few of his watercolor prints and matching pins very low key around his camp. I ended up getting a print/pin set from him on the final day of fest. The very next year at Alpine Valley I put out my first event phanart. One strange thing with Phish festivals is that they are any vending of any kind. The colorful and friendly community that almost always finds a place in the parking lots at shows is banned from THE show. There are tons of people that have tried to contact them about getting a permit or finding a way to do things legitimately but Phish/Magnaball doesn’t even respond to communication attempts. I will be there this year for Magnaball 10 and have a wonderful unofficial print for it but will be staying very low key. I am going to be trying a promotional angle by handing out my card to promote my website/print. As to my imagination… I guess I always try to create my prints with animals of some kind and some way of reflecting the venue/city by including landmarks, flags, astrology, and local foliage and wildlife. I like it to be recognizable to children and adults alike.
What makes art beautiful?
The human imperfection in expression… That’s just my own view. Art is expression and as humans we are imperfect. These imperfections are in every artwork produced ever. Even the Mona Lisa can be argued is imperfect in someway. As artists we all strive for our perfect expression of our vision. The beauty in the art is that struggle the artist goes through expressing his or herself. It is never perfect but almost always beauty appears somehow.
Do you express your feelings by art?
Yes to a point. I think the expression of feeling or emotion appears more in fine art but there are small ways an artist can put personal feelings into there poster art work. In 2013 my dog Abbie passed unexpectedly just before Phish/Dicks and Further/Red Rocks and I was able to immortalize her in both of those print sets. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about that but it meant a lot to me. The art form of performing music expresses feeling and emotion to a much higher degree than visual art… but again that’s just my personal opinion.
What makes your artwork response to Phish?
To describe my response to Phish in my prints I would have to say its kind of literal for the most part. Examples would be including characters from phish songs in my art or references to song lyrics. If a Phan can pick up on it the connection occurs and this person usually ends up supporting me by purchasing my artwork or turning on his or her friends to me. One thing I will say here is that the more artists try to hide or disguise the Phish references in their artwork the more popular said artwork becomes.
Which artist do you appreciate or feel inspired by?
Oh man the list is huge… Crazy Red Beard, Tripp, Isadora Bullock, Wilson, Ryan Kerrigan, Otto, Pollock, Taylor,… I could go on and on. A big thing I LOVE about the Phanart community is the respect and positive support from all the artists to each other. The scene has truly become flooded with artists but with all that competition the pressure is on to create the best artwork possible. You would think its competitive but it doesn’t feel that way. I am always excited to see what others are coming up with.
Do you believe that art’s purpose is to make you feel emotion?
I feel that art’s first purpose is to captivate the viewers attention even if it’s for just a moment… At this moment the viewer is feeling some emotion so in that respect an emotion is felt but I don’t think artists create art to make viewers feel an emotion. One could go so deep when talking about arts purpose and emotional response but that’s all very relative to each persons specific experiences… I think that the artist and the viewer could agree that the purpose of art is to inspire imagination. Imagination to ponder the artists vision or there own personal reflection of imagination.
In preparation for my interview with musician Holly Bowling (see fig. 1) I constructed a series of questions reflecting a mixture of our course’s themes. In this reflective analysis I will highlight a few of my favorite responses from Bowling, and evaluate each for their unique philosophical relevance to the course.
But first, some background about Bowling. Holly Bowling is a pianist and avid Phish fan. In 2013 she was at one of their shows in Lake Tahoe—a concert now famous for its performance of Tweezer (see fig. 2). The music they played that night had her “absolutely captivated.” What particularly stood out to Bowling was a thirty six minute improvisation of the song “Tweezer,” now known as the “Tahoe Tweezer.” After leaving the show she couldn’t get the performance out of her head. She “listened to it maybe three more times that night, four more times the next day on the drive home to San Francisco… and the obsession only grew from there.” Eventually her “obsession” led her to transcribe the entire performance into a solo piano composition, which has since sparked interest and admiration from many in the Phish community. Her piano composition of the Tahoe Tweezer has been released on her album, Distillation of A Dream, and shared widely across the Internet.
I was curious to know exactly what Bowling experienced that night which made such a huge impression on her. And, I wanted to know how her experience reflected some of the philosophical concepts covered in our course, in particular Nietzsche’s Dionysian state. I asked her if she could describe in greater detail what being “absolutely captivated” by the music was like for her. She said, “I’d say it’s being completely absorbed in the moment, forgetting everything else, and letting the music carry you someplace. That’s really why I go see Phish, and the feeling I get when their improvisation is really on.” Her wording here, like “being completely absorbed,” “forgetting everything else,” and “letting the music carry you someplace,” indicates a Dionysian state. For instance, in The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche states:
The ecstasy of the Dionysian state, with its obliteration of the customary manacles and boundaries of existence, contains, of course, for as long as it lasts a lethargic element, in which everything personally experienced in the past is immersed. Because of this gulf of oblivion, the world of everyday reality and the world of Dionysian reality separate from each other (Nietzsche, sect. 7).
Another philosophic concept I saw evidence of in Bowling’s responses was Kant’s definition of the judgement of beauty in relation to the improvisational style of Phish. In section four of the Critique of Judgement Kant states:
To deem something good I must always know what sort of a thing the object is intended to be, i.e., I must have a concept of it. That is not necessary to enable me to see beauty in a thing. Flowers, free patterns, lines aimlessly intertwining—technically termed foliage—have no signification, depend upon no definite concept, and yet please. Delight in the beautiful must depend upon the reflection on an object precursory to some (not definitely determined) concept.
Important in Kant’s quotation is the idea that beauty is perceived prior to a concept about the thing being perceived as beautiful. Indeed the beauty of an object is perhaps even more striking if no concept has ever laid claim to it in one’s consciousness previously. Since improvisational music has the potential to defy the expectations of a listener through spontaneous creations, the perception of beauty upon first hearing it may enhance the ability to perceive beauty itself. “That’s the beautiful thing about improvisation,” states Bowling, “it’s there, it’s gone, the music is created in an instant, and never played the same way again.” Improvisational music thus defies our expectations of what is to come, and so slows the pace in which we can conceptualize our moment to moment experience, leaving only raw beauty to be perceived unfiltered by concepts.
Lastly, I wanted to know Bowling’s views on the nature of art; what it is, and what it’s not, for an artist. Her answers were surprisingly similar to Tolstoy’s definition of art. Bowling said, “Good art makes you feel something. Bad art doesn’t make you feel anything. Good art doesn’t necessarily make you feel good. It could be disturbing or scary or sad or joyful. Art is about connection and good art is art that makes one.” Now, compare this statement to Tolstoy when, in What is Art, he writes, “In order to correctly define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life.” Here both Bowling and Tolstoy reject a definition of art where it’s merely a source of pleasure; in fact it may even evoke states of sadness, fear, or distress. Instead Bowling proposes that, “art is about connection.” This is similar to Tolstoy’s view:
Speech, transmitting the thoughts and experiences of men, serves as a means of union among them, and art acts in a similar manner. The peculiarity of this latter means of intercourse, distinguishing it form intercourse by means of words, consists in this, that whereas by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings (Tolstoy, Ch. 5).
Both Bowling and Tolstoy are saying that the purpose of art is communion. Art communicates. It transmits feelings and makes connections through its transmissions. This is not at all unlike the connection felt by Bowling when she heard the Tahoe Tweezer for the first time.
Note: The following transcript was cut, pasted, and edited from Facebook Messenger. Student’s name has been removed for privacy.
Student: Hi Holly! Hope you’ve had a good morning! You ready to get started?
Holly: Hey hey! Ready when you are!
Student: Great! Let’s start with something easy! What made you want to transcribe the Tahoe Tweezer, in specific, into a piano composition?
Holly: Well, it didn’t really happen as something I intended to do, at first.
I went to the show in Tahoe and was absolutely captivated by the Tweezer jam that night. I think everyone there was. It was incredible. I listened to it maybe 3 more times that night, 4 more times the next day on the drive home to San Francisco… and the obsession only grew from there.
I listened to it a ton and would find myself walking around singing little bits and pieces of it that were stuck in my head. Then I started playing those little bits and pieces on the piano… and then that turned into wanting to put the pieces together. So I decided to transcribe the whole thing. I was just writing out the melody line at first but once I finished that and sat down to play it, I realized I really wanted to do it justice and needed to work it into a full piano arrangement that took all of the parts into account. So it was a gradual process that grew out of a love of the music.
Since then I’ve done other jams that I really love as well. But that one was the first one that was so spectacular it made me want to spend hours upon hours with pencil to paper J
Student: To make this easy (I never want to interrupt you) how about a code when there is a space in the conversion? How about we type PHISH when we are done?
Student: Great! Can you describe the experience of being “captivated” in greater detail? Any unique feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations?
Holly: I’d say it’s being completely absorbed in the moment, forgetting everything else, and letting the music carry you someplace. That’s really why I go see Phish, and the feeling I get when their improvisation is really on.
But then, listening to the jam later, when I’m not present at a live performance, it’s that same feeling, but also I think a more analytical type of appreciation as well. As I listen back again and again and become more familiar with the music, I notice things I didn’t notice the first time around, and those things can be captivating too.
Student: Great answer! Leads into my next question!
Do you think anything about the “jam” experience itself is lost in a solo transcription of the song? Is there anything gained?
Holly: Well of course – they’re really different. Great question. I mean the Tahoe Tweezer is an amazing piece of music no matter what, but the fact that it was improvised rather than composed makes it even more incredible. And obviously when I transcribe a jam, there’s no improvisation at all, so that element is lost. There’s no unspoken communication happening between band members, no tossing musical ideas back and forth and playing off each other… no question of “where is this going to lead” because it’s just me playing, and I’m playing something that’s already been created, and we all know where it ends. But… I’m not trying to do what Phish does. I’m basically exploring and studying what they do, by picking apart their songwriting and their incredible improvisation. That part of the process is really interesting for me. There’s so much to learn. And then I’m putting it into another form, where I hope it gives people another angle to appreciate and understand Phish’s music from.
So I guess that’s something that’s gained. In the same way that I understand a jam or composition differently when I’ve studied it and listened to it a hundred times, picked it apart and transcribed it and arranged it for piano, and my appreciation and understanding of the music deepens through that process, I think (I hope!) that there’s something gained for the listener when they hear a jam in a new instrumentation or arrangement.
But with that said, it’s not like I set out on a mission to start transcribing and arranging phish songs and jams in order to give people a new way to appreciate the music. I was just doing it for myself, because every song and jam is a game, or a puzzle waiting to be unlocked, and I wanted to play.
I just really, really, really like their music.
Student: I certainly gained something from hearing it in a new form!
Holly: Okay I guess there’s something else
Student: Oh okay, go ahead
Holly: And this goes for just the jam transcriptions. Phish never repeats a jam. You get to hear it live once, if you’re lucky. That’s the beautiful thing about improvisation – it’s there, it’s gone, the music is created in an instant and never played the same way again. And that disappears in my arrangements. BUT… I think it’s really cool to have a live setting where people get to hear a jam they love recreated once more. Obviously it’s very different from being at a Phish show. But if a little bit of that energy from a really beautiful jam is captured and lives on and gets out there again in a room full of people who love that moment of music… I think that’s a good thing
So that goes in the “something gained” column I suppose.
BTW were you a Phish fan going into this project? Or was this your first time hearing the music, for this class?
Student: I’ve never been to a show, but I’ve listened to their albums on and off for years.
I really like them but I have always been more of a casual observer/listener.
What I have been most impressed with in this class, and learning about the Phish experience, is the level of community that is involved. I knew it was big, but hadn’t fully understood how, big and welcoming it was.
Holly: Yes!!! So glad you’ve gotten a glimpse of that! It’s amazing. It’s the most positive, welcoming, creative scene I’ve ever been a part of. People look out for each other in a way I don’t think you see very often these days. It’s so cool.
Student: Can you tell me a little about the relationship your music has to the Phish community? How it is influenced by it? Or how you envision it giving back to it?
Holly: Well, it definitely got spread around thanks to the Phish community – people are very passionate about everything Phish related and are pretty active online, and I’m not sure it would have gotten the reach it has without that. One thing that has been really cool is meeting all kinds of people I didn’t know before who are really into Phish for the same reasons I am. The Phish community has people from so many different backgrounds and fields that there’s a lot of angles of interesting musical discussions to be had. As far as giving back to the community – I’m doing my initial release of my album through PledgeMusic and a percentage of the album sales through that are going to the Mockingbird Foundation, which is a nonprofit founded by Phish fans that funds music education programs for kids. They’re really awesome and are tied in with a lot of phan events and projects. [Note: Interview was conducted before release of album, Distillation of a Dream.]
Student: That’s rad!
Holly: They’re really an amazing organization. Pretty cool that they’re fan founded and have done SO many awesome projects. Check ’em out. Very good people over there at Mockingbird!
Student: I don’t want to take too much more of your time. But I wanted to ask a somewhat abstract question.
Student: What roles do you think silence and chaos play in music at large, and in your own music?
Holly: Oh man.
That’s quite the question.
Student: Too much?
Holly: I could talk about that for a long time, but to try to sum it up –
I think a lot of what makes music work is the balance between order and chaos, and the movement between these two. It’s the tension and release. Setting up patterns of predictability, and then breaking them. Creating dissonance and then resolving it. You really need both. All chaos with no order and there’s nothing to grab onto. All order with no chaos and it’s boring and static. Same goes for silence. The notes you don’t play are as important as the ones you do and sometimes space with no sound in it at all – in one musician’s part, or in the music as a whole – can be a really powerful thing. You need both – sound, and the absence of it.
Actually if you want to talk about silence in music in the context of this project, look at the rests in the Tahoe Tweezer at the peak of the song. They’re so powerful. They’re just as integral to the signature section of the jam as the notes are. And, the rests created a space for the crowd to join the band and participate in the jam.
The jam would not be nearly as cool without the silence. You gotta play the rests! That silence is filled with intent focus from the entire crowd and the band both. Everyone is locked in. Those have gotta be some of my favorite moments of the band not playing. Epic rests!!!
Student: Speaking of that moment, did you make the unicorn animation during the “woo”s in your YouTube video?
Holly: Haha. That was my husband’s doing.
Student: Loved it!
Holly: I don’t know where he got it from but it certainly belongs at that moment in the video.
Student: Last question if you are still game? It has already gone over an hour.
Holly: If it’s quick! I do have to run… I have another interview scheduled in a few.
Student: Do you think that there is such a thing as good art versus bad art? Do you think art needs to be pleasing?
Holly: Good art makes you feel something. Bad art doesn’t make you feel anything. Good art doesn’t necessarily make you feel good. It could be disturbing or scary or sad or joyful. Art is about connection and good art is art that makes one.
Student: Great (and quick) answer!
Student: Thanks so much for your time! It’s been really fun!
Holly: Pleasure to meet you! Good luck with your class and hope you make it to a Phish show sometime!
Student: BTW I really enjoyed your version of the Tweezer!
Holly: Awesome!!! So glad to hear it. If you get deeper into Phish, check out the other jam transcriptions I did, and compare them next to the originals. Fun project! Good way to get acquainted with the band
As part of a PHL 360 assignment, I interviewed photographer Andrea Nusinov. In this Q&A we grapple with the meaning of time, the effects of technological change on her work, and the importance of communal and personal memory. The first section is the interview text, which is followed by my analysis.
I find photography to be a melancholic medium. Photographs are invaluable resources that allow humans to look into the past. One picture shows one moment in time. String photographs together and see an era unfold. Because we are viewing what was, photography is always of the past. A photograph simultaneously shows humanity’s conquest of time (we captured a moment!) while acknowledging our ultimate, pending defeat (the moment ends).
Why do you photograph and what makes photography an artistic endeavor?
I agree – there IS something sad about looking at a snapshot in time – especially an amazing moment that you know will never, ever return. However, when I look at the alternative (possibly losing that moment in my memory), I choose to strive to capture it. That way I can hold on to it (however desperately) and at least somewhat relive it whenever I look at the pic.
I began taking photographs at shows for this precise reason. I have a terrible memory and I always have. For some reason, events and time seem to get lost in my subconscious and it’s very difficult for me to retrieve them. After a show, I often have hundreds of photographs. Many of them are terrible and I’d never share with the world. But for ME, they help me to piece together what was usually an amazing experience.
Photography is an art form because it’s a form of self-expression. I don’t just click a few shots and post them online – I spend at least a few hours on each pic I post. My goal is to try to recreate not just the reality of what happened, but the experience of what happened. Because honestly, even with today’s advanced camera equipment, photos don’t look the way they do in real life. The vividness of Chris Kuroda’s colors combined with the intensity of the music, the buzz and energy of the crowd…all of that I try to capture when I not only take the photo but enhance it.
Is there a photographer for whom you have high regard? What makes this artist special?
I love Scott Harris’ work and he’s a good friend of mine. He has a great eye. Like me, he loves to push his photos a little over the top- they are never boring. Jay Blakesburg is an amazing photographer who is excellent at capturing people in the crowd who are completely in the moment.
What other events and landscapes do you photograph?
I like to photograph anything that inspires me. Any beautiful day with great clouds makes me want to go out and take pics. The problem is that I live in the suburbs and there’s not a lot of interesting things to photograph. I would love to be able to travel more but our budget is tight.
Does your experience photographing Phish influence how you portray other events and landscapes?
Yes, I’ve realized that everyone loves vivid colors, unusual points of view and even some distortions. People want to see the world a little differently than they see it every day with their own eyes. Truly “in touch” people realize that our 5 senses are LIMITING – that if we had extra senses we may be able to see the world in completely different ways. I try to suggest that in my pictures.
Sometimes you distort a photograph. Other times you produce a “regular” photo. Here are a couple examples:
What inspires your different takes?
I don’t love distorting people’s faces (in general) – it often makes them look creepy. I always put myself in the person’s shoes- would I want to look like that in a pic? I have taken amazing yet unflattering pics of band members that I’ve never shared for the same reason.
Therefore, when I distort pics it’s usually of the entire stage or the crowd, lights, etc.
How do you go about creating such vibrant images?
I use photo apps- in some cases I bring up the saturation but often I’m just lifting shadows and brightening things up to reveal what was already there.
I don’t use Photoshop (I don’t have it and don’t know how to use it). When I first started, it was really fun to use apps to insert things that weren’t there (like a lightning bolt or a fireball, etc.) but I don’t do that anymore.
Are there times when distortion is appropriate (artistically), and times when it isn’t? How do you determine that action?
Again, I don’t like to make people’s faces look weird so I avoid that. Honestly, I will often distort a picture if the original just wasn’t that great. When you distort it, it hides some of the flaws.
But the main reason I generally don’t distort pics anymore is because photoapps lower the resolution of the original photo. It’s very frustrating- almost all photoapps do this. If it’s a photo that I may want to print/enlarge someday and the resolution has been lowered, the photo will pixelate.
How have you grappled with recent technological changes?
I have not updated my Ipad to the new iOS because it will automatically change one of my favorite apps and render some of its key features useless. It is very frustrating!
I am not a trained photographer. I use a little Sony rx100 point and shoot camera at shows. I do not get photo passes and I have no special access. I attend shows for the experience- the music, the lights, being with friends. I take pictures to record the experience. I share them with others because people have told me that it too helps them to relive sacred experiences at shows. I think that is why people buy my prints/canvases. And it gives me such happiness to know that my pictures are hanging in people’s homes!
Do technological changes peddle or limit your photographic endeavors?
I am much more artistically inclined than technologically inclined. I’m not highly motivated to learn all I need to know to be a professional photographer. When people start to talk about camera settings, tech equipment, etc. my eyes begin to glaze over!
What new skills had to be learned as a result of technological change?
I do keep on top of the latest apps. However, like I said, most of the apps lower the photo’s resolution and are therefore not attractive to me. I generally use those types of apps on pictures I have no intention of enlarging/selling.
Are there photographic methods/lessons/skills that transcend time?
Absolutely – form, composition, lighting, etc. These things will always be crucial. Color and balance are the two things I focus on the most.
On every pic I experiment with saturation, contrast, shadows, warmth and highlights.
Ultimately I think some “skills” can’t be taught – it’s a gut instinct when to click that button and which photo of your bunch to work on and present to others.
What is the role of photography in the Phish community?
Photography is important for a few reasons. The obvious one, as discussed above, is that pictures help us to preserve the memory of the experience of being there. People describe phish as a sacred experience (some call it “church”) and they want that moment captured. Bloggers who describe and review the shows want photos to accompany their words. People want photos to share with their friends but they don’t feel good about their photo skills or they are too busy dancing to stop and take pics.
Pictures also help to connect those who weren’t there to the experience of being there. Technology in general helps bring our community closer together. I’m active on Twitter and when phish is playing, we all stream/webcast and discuss the show live. It’s pretty incredible that we can do that. People live tweet pictures of the show and, again, it helps the rest of us feel in some way part of the experience. However, I will clearly say that NOTHING ever truly replaces the experience of actually attending a show.
The genre-blending music quartet Phish has attracted numerous artists over their thirty-plus year history. In the Phish culture, “phans” have created shirts, posters, pins, publications, and a near limitless variety of other trinkets that reflect their appreciation and understanding of Phish. The band has responded in kind, producing similar items, even decorating ticket stubs with tour-varying designs. Andrea Nusinov participates in the production of Phish fan art through her photography. Her sense of community, sense experience, and time reveal something universal in the Phish experience.
In his Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant discusses notions of sublimity, beauty and profundity. He knows that reason alone cannot grasp the totality of existence, sensory experience can deceive, and imagination illuminates ideas. Nietzsche drives at a similar point in The Birth of Tragedy when he discusses Dionysian experiences:
Dionysian excitement [traditionally associated with music] inspires a whole mass to see themselves surrounded by a host of spirits with whom they know themselves to be essentially one (Section 8).
Phish music is designed to create this feeling. It is easy to get lost in a jam. Reason is subverted as one gives oneself up to the sway and rhythm of the music. Dionysian ecstasy, or connection with the sublime, develops as fans “merge with the music” (Bicknell, Why Music Moves Us, pg 51).
The Phish festival is the most potent example of this feeling. Most recently, Magnaball allowed me and thirty thousand others participated in an artistic utopia – exploring art installations, listening to improvisational music, and discussing the meaning of life. A temporary city was developed and we lived for a weekend in tune with art and in harmony with each other. Fans often speak of a sense of freedom embedded in the music. At Magnaball, we lived it. Phish has fun with their music, constantly toying with fans and themselves as music emanates from stage. It is easy I am sure, to dismiss Magnaball and the playful ethos of Phish as having little to no “real world” value. If your mind trends that way, please consider the following.
No matter how hard we try, humans without aid of technology could never soar through the atmosphere and explore the subatomic world. We are limited not only by our senses, but the laws of nature too. If you don’t believe me, toss something, preferably inanimate, into the air. Did it fall? Of course it fell. It always will. It is this consistency in the natural world that allows humans to figure things out, to know and to “advance” civilization. As happy a thought that may be to some (did you see the photos of Pluto!?), it does ring of rigidity. This oxymoronic mode of existence, humans simultaneously growing and being held back by the same forces that shape the cosmos, spurs philosophers to ponder whether or not there are other ways to know the universe.
A great leap forward in human understanding occurred when mathematicians began to play with Euclid’s Elements, particularly the axioms (common sense definitions) that he presents and builds upon in each of his geometric proofs. The book provides a thorough and decisive examination of two-dimensional space and can be effectively applied to human endeavors in 3-D. No one thought to tinker with that reality until the nineteenth century when someone(s) dared to ask, “What are the properties of a line drawn on a sphere?” Fast-forward a few decades. Einstein is troubled. His theory of relativity is not holding up to scrutiny. Did he make a grave error? Would the tyranny of Isaac Newton continue? No! Einstein was alerted to the new, playful geometry that asked “what if space is curved?” by his buddy Marcel Grossman. Through their partnership a new way to conceive and explore the cosmos was opened! Good friends with a sense of play and curiosity changed the world.
Andrea clearly understands that nothing humans know is final, and that having a sense of play when thinking is crucial to a healthy mind and life. Photography allows her to play with reality, presenting previously unseen visions of Phish to her audience, the Phish community. Her photography allows viewers to alter the way they think about their experiences. A Phish show, and reminiscing about one’s favorite show(s) and moment(s), is a completely subjective experience. Fans discuss and deepen their appreciation of Phish by being open to new experiences, new knowledge, and new interpretations. This openness is can be construed as the single most important lesson Phish and the Phish community provide. We grow together through a willingness to play, to be exposed to new perspectives – through discussion or direct experience –, to wrestle with and incorporate new ideas into our ways of knowing and being. When Phish is on stage there is a “latent potential for any moment to become meaningful.” (Blau, A Phan on Phish, pg. 4). As those moments pass they get strung together by artists like Andrea, the individual and collective memory of fans are developed.
How did Phish grow to the point where they not only affected their audience but encouraged nearly a cult following? I think the answer is two-fold: 1) the music resounding from the stage consisted of experimental instrumentation and abstract poetry tossed together in an often hodgepodge way (not always! But from my vantage point the music seemed to say it all, lyrics were merely a formality) which allowed for the 2nd stage of the answer – fans are encouraged to interpret the tunes in anyway. The fact that Phish fans are so passionate about their Phish experiences “points to the power of affect to fuse our bodies and our senses and our minds… to bring forth a new articulation of self-understanding” (DeChaine, Affect and the Musical Experience, pg. 83).
 Thomas Levenson, The Hunt for Vulcan…And How Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relatvity, and Deciphered the Universe (New York: Random House, 2015), 152.
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!