Rob is really excited to talk about Phish in the way that a stock broker would be really excited to talk about his latest D&D match. Like other marginalized groups, being a Phish fan carries a certain kind of guilt that transforms into a torrent of excitement when the environment is free of any kind of judgment. In Rob’s and my environment, this behavior is called “nerding out.” But outside the safe zone, Rob talked about “coming out” as a Phish fan as if liking the band was somehow shameful, a word Aaron Leitko chose for his 2010 article “For indie rockers, ‘jam band’ increasingly no longer a shameful term”.
“He only got the bassist from Real Estate and the drummer from Vampire Weekend to go on record,” says Rob, a freelance science and music writer who worked with Leitko on the piece. “He asked like 10 other bands if they want to talk about Phish and they all declined. Woods was one, Daniel Lopatin another. I’ve seen interviews where Lopatin said it was just a phase. Justin Vernon was in a jam band, and he doesn’t want to talk about it. It is like coming out of the closet.” Oneohtrix Point Never, a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin, said in an interview that he didn’t want to “throw [his former bandmates] under the bus” for liking Phish. Even the drummer from Vampire Weekend was hesitant about giving up other names of people who like jam bands in the Leitko article: “I don’t want to out anybody,” he said.
So it seems no one wants to be associated with Phish, the Vermont-bred jam band that essentially replaced the Grateful Dead in 1995 after Jerry Garcia’s death. I once had an opinion on Phish, and it was based on a very crunchy co-worker in college who used to get high in her car before work, out of a pipe with a Grateful Dead Bear on it, no less. And she had dreads. Before talking with Rob, Phish were a reliable punchline for my friends — a band that I could make the butt of any joke and not have to worry about a Phish fan making me seem uncool. In fact, save for that dreadlocked girl who waited tables with me, I didn’t even talk to a flesh-and-blood Phish fan until Rob.
“Everybody at some point knew a Phish fan,” says Rob, “or possibly was a Phish fan, and just thought of it as a college phase or something. I think people get caught up in the social aspects of it that they forget that there’s a band and making music that they actually might like. I’ve always thought about how to present the music free of the signifiers that say it is Phish.” If stripping away a band’s identity is essential to finding a way into Phish’s music, what makes them so unhip today?
My hypocrisy knows no bounds. I scoff at and scold people who use the word “hipster” (“What does that word even mean anymore?”), yet I have no qualms with calling this pony-tailed ne’er-do-well in front of me wearing a baja hoodie and a Zig-Zag t-shirt who’s taking too long with his coffee order a “hippie.” The rotting corpse of the hippie movement of the ’60s and ’70s still stinks of sage and patchouli, a miasma made more pungent by a lingering mix of the wholly ineffective Tom’s deodorant and skanky weed. The gaudy tie-died shirts, the dreaded hair, the hacky sacks and devil sticks, the fucking beads, the toy djembes and bongos, the rope sandals– it’s all so irrelevant now, you know? Hippies used to have huge amounts of cultural capital like hipsters do today, but now hippies are just vestiges of a former movement, hangers-on to the druggy idealism of peace, love, and understanding. And they all love Phish.
This is, of course, a stereotype. Not all Phish fans are hippies, and not all hippies are Phish fans (nor are they all as outrageous as described above), but the awareness of a stereotype doesn’t change the the prevalence of a stigma. Phish are pariahs of both mainstream and indie culture and personae non gretae on most music websites and magazines. They’re the joke that most of us can agree on, a punchline that somehow has stayed fresh for over 20 years. Even against their orthographical wishes, they are a four-letter word among fans, writers, and musicians alike.
E.g. Deerhunter/Atlas Sound indie demi-god Bradford Cox, who in a moment of unbridled mediocrity sodomization, jammed on The Knack’s “My Sharona” for over 50 minutes at a gig in Minneapolis in March. It received some press, and when Cox wanted to clarify his intentions, he spoke with Pitchfork about the performance. Among many other bumper sticker quotes, this sentence stuck out to me: “I am terrified and horrified and shocked that anyone would mention Phish in any article related to me.”
E.g. in preparation for this piece, I had been listening to a lot of Phish on Spotify, which seamlessly posts to my Facebook profile. Three friends made snide remarks on those albums, with “Why?” or “Really?” To be fair, two other friends who I had no idea liked Phish left positive comments, with one recommending another live recording I should listen to.
Now I’m still thinking about why so many people straight-up hate Phish. Does the music empirically suck? Or is it the outmoded culture associated with it? If Phish focus more on “community capital” rather than “cultural capital,” then is any kind of artistic capital fungible, even if it doesn’t align with what is hip? And so then is examining and defining this abstract “capital” a way of defining the importance of sub- or extra-cultural pockets in the music landscape? Is it possible to convince you that Phish’s fan-based and live-show model is actually one of the best models to monetize a band and build a fan base? What if you came away just actually liking Phish?
I bet Rob can make you at least not hate them. It worked with me.
Rob is 33 years old, married with child, and absolutely doesn’t match the mugshot of a stereotypical Phish fan. He’s just a well-groomed dude who writes excellently about science, sports, music, and of course, Phish, where Rob runs Tumblr and Twitter accounts with the goal of reviewing every Phish show since 1993. As of publishing, he’s all the way up to 7/21/1993 — well over 80 shows. He’s never smoked pot or done any psychedelics while listening to Phish, he openly admits Phish’s shortcomings (“I have no illusions about the fact that they have the worst band name” or “They’re not as good as they were in the late 90’s” or “They have horrrrrrible ballads.”) But his exuberance for Phish bubbled up often during our conversation. He’s an enthusiastic pragmatist, not an apologist, and I’d like to think that some of excitement echoed off me as I oscillated between a dyed in the denim skeptic and a new convert, indulging sycophantic trances of questioning like a kid in a candy store. I couldn’t help it — Phish just began to make sense to me.
We talked at length about the macro-aspects of Phish and “what they mean” in the current cultural zeitgeist and whatever, but the first door that opened with Phish was understanding that Phish is about collecting and archiving — which is right in my nerdy wheelhouse.
“The first time I heard Phish was my sophomore year of high school, and it was a girl in my US History class who gave me a tape. I think I had a Grateful Dead shirt on, and I didn’t even like the Grateful Dead– it was just something you could get at Kohl’s. They were just selling tie-dye shirts in Fall of ‘95 because Jerry Garcia had just died. I probably bought a tie-dyed shirt because it was the cool thing to do. But she was a year older, she was really cute, and I was really excited that she was talking to me. And she said, ‘Have you ever heard of Phish?’ and so she recorded two or three shows on a tape.”
Like the Grateful Dead before them, Phish encouraged amateur taping at the show, and those tapes became fan currency in the mid to late ’90s as the internet started to invent itself. Strictly forbidden for sale, fans would trade tapes over UseNet groups in exchange for other shows or blank cassettes and postage.
“It would take a few weeks for a show to get to you, and I would check the mailbox every day to see if any tapes arrived. It was the community and the projects of wanting to collect all these shows. And then also getting sucked into the sort of cult atmosphere of it because it is — when you have that many shows and this very defined culture built up around a band, it is very addictive to start finding out some of the history of the band and the mythology of the band and the culture that goes around it. People will talk about this show from ‘94 that you gotta hear and it will come in the mail and you listen to it like crazy for the next week. And so you just get caught up in that.”
The message board is archived at rec.music.phish, and you can find Rob’s first post on there from Oct 20 1995. (n.b. in the post, Rob claimed he had tapes that he “borrowed from a friend” as opposed to them being gifted by a cute girl. I chose not to fact check this. Also there is Rob’s ideas for songs Phish should cover.”‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer version, it’d be perfect!” Turns out that Phish teased it in 1998). Some of Rob’s first music writing could be found in these archives. Seventeen years ago, he was doing the same thing he was doing now: posting capsule reviews of Phish shows online for other fans in the news group since his first show in the summer of ‘96.
“People would come back from the shows and post the setlists and little capsule reviews, you know, ‘They went through this funky section, they went through this space-y section.’ It almost felt like your duty to come back and write a review. You couldn’t hear the shows right away — it would take months for the tapes to get distributed around the country. It was like a weird Internet oral history thing.”
Like a lot of kids, the first thing I collected were sports cards, specifically basketball. In our circle, it was about trading your cards to collect all the different types of cards for one player. My friend collected Jason Kidd. I collected — for some reason or another — Isaiah Rider (who incidentally had a really decent turn on the B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret comp with “Funk in the Trunk”). The thrill of opening a pack of Upper Deck cards and fanning them out on the floor still rings today.
I reconnected with that idea and started listening to all the versions of “Stash”, a relatively popular live jam, that I could find. Just at my Spotify fingertips, there are 15 versions of the songs, ranging from a little 0:55 “tease” to a 19:28 “jam.” Just like the difference between Fleer Ultra, Upper Deck, and the way shittier Topps, each “Stash” jam has its own image and worth. Maybe the ’98 Hampton Comes Alive version suits you because Trey keeps his guitar tone warm and jazzy and the band digs into the same groove the entire time. Or maybe you like the Winston/Salem version from 11/23/97 where the band skips off the planet into a space-psych jam full of looping effects, dissonant wah-wah pedal licks, and the cha-cha groove is tossed into an industrial German Can thing. No matter the version — and there are 372 of them — it seems like the audience can never decide whether to clap two times or three times during a call and response bit in the song.
In keeping with sports analogies, Rob likens the addiction to seeing Phish live to keeping up with a season of baseball: “It’s like, if you’re a big baseball fan, the rules of the game are the same, and it’s the same people and the same plays, but it’s all in a different order. You never know what’s going to happen — sometimes it really sucks. And the fact that it can be really bad makes the good games even better. You’ll watch a blowout and it’s terrible, but the next game they’ll come back from eight runs down and it’s the best game ever. And then you get hooked into it because you want to go to every show you can, because the one you don’t go to is going to be the best show ever.”
That urge to not miss something, that awareness of fleeting perfection and happenstance genius is not only part of the psychological makeup of a Phish fan, but a business model the band has ridden to comfortable fortune. After Phish’s breakup and subsequent reunion, they started putting up whole shows for download on their adjunct radio site, LivePhish.com. An hour after the show, fans can download a professional quality show for anywhere between $10 and $15. So even if you can’t get out to the actual show, it’s there ready to listen to, and serve as a comment magnet for thousands of fans over the internet almost instantly.
“People think they’re a lot more popular than they actually are because so many people go to multiple shows. They play 20,000 max venues but night to night it’s probably only 5,000 different people. So they could have 50,000 fans, but they’re all so hardcore and they all go see five shows a year minimum, and that’s all you need. And if half of those people download shows, you’re just raking in cash. So why don’t more bands — and you don’t have to sound like Phish necessarily — play a different setlist every night?”
Other than mega-acts like Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and My Morning Jacket, a lot of young indie bands stick to a fairly shallow pool of songs for their live show; to boot, they mainly just rip what’s off the record and paste it up on stage. For some bands, it works, and I wouldn’t trade a tight show for a sloppy jam-heavy show in an instant. But Phish built their initial fan base out of reverence for capital-M Music and a dynamic, ever-changing live show. For a band to do that today, it requires something more than a stand-and-deliver set every night — something that will keep people coming back to the live shows and following the band around, supporting them in the most direct way possible. One band that touched on the Phish’s live aesthetic were The Fiery Furnaces.
“Every tour, Fiery Furnaces came up with a unique set and would do medleys. They just played an hour straight of Blueberry Boat and they would play one verse of one song, and come back and play another song in reverse order. All these cool things that actually made it worthwhile to go out and see a band live. If they released a live album, that would have been a great thing to collect.”
Trying to connect cultural capital of a band that looks cool live (say, The Strokes) to the kind of capital that Phish is working with (for lack of a better term, “community”) can be strained, especially in the eyes of the vanguards. But how would it be if The Strokes reworked “15 Minutes” into a 15-minute tension and release opus that bucked their post-grunge economic predictability? How rare and seminal would the bootleg of that show be where Julian Casablancas tore off in to a “Sister Ray”-esque digression of sex and debauchery while the band and the audience fed off his drunken ramblings? These kinds of mythic events that create lore don’t happen as often as they should.
Apropos, I asked Rob what he thought about the whole Bradford Cox “My Sharona”-gate.
“It was absurd that Bradford Cox was like, ‘I’m horrified that I’m being compared to Phish,’ and then the next sentence practically was, ‘Anybody knows that at Deerhunter show we like to improvise and change it up for our fans.’ He just explained what is exactly exciting about Phish! That’s a great thing about Phish fans is that they’re open to whatever. If Phish came out and did an hour-long ‘My Sharona?’ It would be divisive, but it would just be like any other Phish show!”
The Storage Jam
The problem I initially had with Phish is while I never doubted their musical prowess, I always doubted how they used it. “With great power comes great responsibility,” and all that. Trey, Page, and Fish all studied music together at Goddard, a collegiate feel-goodery in Plainfield, VT and, including the engineering major Mike, are all nonpareil musicians on several instruments. But flaunting that kind of flex will hardly get you an invite to the cool kids table, a place Phish has never really been familiar with. They are all true chameleons, who at once can cover anything from Neil Young’s “Albuquerque” to “99 Problems” with Jay-Z to “Also Sprach Zarathustra” to even Pavement’s “Gold Soundz”. They’re disenfranchised from modern culture, yet can mimic it with ease.
This evolutionary trait, this dissembling of other kinds of music, is another kind of stigma that is hard to hurdle. There’s a difference in many people’s minds between a band that has well-defined influences, and Phish, who many think just cover them. It’s hard to pin the band down, and even harder to parse out without the patience to sit down and listen to hours and hours of live shows, but digging into a three-hour show, or a whole tour– or a whole career, as Rob is trying to do– reveals that Phish work with the same tools that all bands work with.
Which is another thing that never really occurred to me: Phish evolve just like any other band. They change their sound, adopt new jamming styles, find new ways to communicate on stage and to the audience, and due to the sheer breadth of their catalogue, even a small change in the way they trade solos or a new taste for, say, space-rock or musique concréte can have a profound effect on a show or even an entire tour. Arguably, the most famous phase in the evolution started in 1997 when Phish adopted “protofunk” or “cow-funk” or if you prefer something more didactic, Type III jamming.
“They play like a really white funk, it sounds like it should be the worst thing in the world playing funk for a bunch of other nerdy white dudes. But the genre and sound fit well with their improvisational style and it kind of burned off a lot of their excesses. The funk era streamlined them a lot, and got them back to their minimalist. It was ‘97 and bleeds earlier and later. After that they really got into Brian Eno and ambient. Around this time they covered the entirety of Talking Head’s Remain In Light live. It was revolutionary.”
Another part of the Phish mythos is their Halloween shows, where Phish don “musical costumes” and cover a famous album front to back, another form of mimicry and dissembling that’s mirrored in the “Don’t Look Back” arm of the All Tomorrow’s Parties Music Festival (though Phish preceded that trend by about 10 years). These albums include The White Album, Quadrophenia, Loaded, Exile On Main St., and Little Feat’s double live album Waiting For Columbus.
“Remain In Light is the best one,” says Rob. “And that’s right when they were experimenting with funk. That’s probably the most important Halloween album that they did because it influence their sound so much. And that’s where they learned to strip it back and be more rhythmic and have more groove.”
I know the words “groove” and “funk” might be red flags, and their decidedly alabaster versions of either still doesn’t quite jive with my tastes, but like Rob, it’s those deep-end moments in Phish songs that really catch my ear — ones that fall into my normal habitus of music. In the middle of the jam, as soon as the keyboards get little less Doobie Brothers and a little more Cluster, my ears perk. As soon as I hear hints of “Cortez The Killer” come out in a jam, my focus sharpens. I can connect with Allman Brothers, Zappa, The Dead, The Band, but somehow hearing something completely out of left field from Phish is what made me — a carrier of a modicum of cultural capital and someone who once denigrated Phish at the first opportunity — allow the band into my world.
“When Phish hold their own festival, they always play a secret set late a night — a fourth set. Last summer, they did a festival in Watkin’s Glen, NY. Everybody called it the ‘storage jam.’ It sounds like that Tortoise song ‘Djed‘.” And Tortoise would be a kind reference to what this sounds like. You could throw up Fuck Buttons, Wolf Eyes, Pink Floyd at its Meddle-est, Sun Araw, no-wave this, noise-rock that.
This was Rob’s moment to present Phish free of signifiers to philistines, to try to convince other music nerds that Phish was just like any other “cool band”. Rob put a section of the jam up on his tumblr and posed it as song called “American Storage” stemming from unsolicited submission from his mailbox from a band called Ghoti. He wrote in his post that the song had “patient explorations that transcend any -wave labels and mine the deepest psychedelic spectra. This track’s name perfectly captures the group’s sound, simultaneously evoking floor-to-ceiling sonic detritus clutter and the expansive sprawl of a suburban landscape. Headphones required.” It was not picked up by Hype Machine.
This set was an anomaly for Phish, though. It served a mask for a night, an experiment for music’s sake, at worst a masturbatory experiment, but at best a juicy hook for someone like me. It was a fantastic game of baseball, and an incredibly rare JR Rider card, and I am currently suffering serious regrets for not being able to experience this first hand and become awed by Phish in one 55 minute swoop. If you absolutely can’t swing with their “funky grooves”, but love Brian Eno, then this is the hand across the aisle.
He told me, “If it wasn’t me posting it, you probably could have gotten other people to re-post it.” I don’t doubt it for a second.
(N.b. when discussing this set with another heretofore closeted Phish fan, he told me about their second set at 6/14/00 in Fukuoka, which has some more ambient, indie sentiments to it. You can download it here, and functions as another anomalous but seminal live moment.)