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In Your Eyes: Phish and Rob

on April 10, 2012, 12:12pm
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 In Your Eyes: Phish and Rob

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?

The Problems

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.

The Cassetes

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, sportsmusic, 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.”

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21 comments
gregackerman
June 24, 2013 at 11:41 am

Enjoyed the perspective of the article in cultural terms. There was no mention however of the fact that ‘jam band” is simply a generalized label. Although “hip” muscians are loath to identify with the term jam band, the truth is all great live music performers “jam” to some extent. I agree with the assessment that being a Phish fan carries a cultural stigma more associated with not wanting to be labeled a dirty hippie, but your point is well taken, good music is simply that, good music and no one should be ashamed of that.

Thanks for a great read.

FYI, paragraph titleThe Cassetes is misspelled: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassette

Joshua
November 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Personally I’m glad there’s a stigma around Phish that keeps ‘hip’ people away. They wouldn’t know how to conduct themselves at a Phish show, and they probably wouldn’t have a good time either, because they’d end up feeling like everyone else is in on a massive inside joke that totally eludes them. Some things in life are not for everyone, and they require effort and personal diligence to even really get into, like an appreciation of fine Scotch whiskey, and I am not offended when other people simply don’t like it. And as for the people who react to social stigmas and prejudices, and regurgitate tired punchlines to eachother, they probably wouldn’t be able to appreciate Phish the way I can (as a music fan and as a student of music theory), even if they were willing to give them an honest listen. So please, cool kids, continue to avoid Phish like the plague, and I will continue to do the same with indie-pop acts like Vampire Weekend. I think we’ll all be much happier that way. ***(Actually, that’s not really true, I kind of like Vampire Weekend’s songwriting, but I don’t think I’d pay money to see them play their songs live, because they don’t improvise beyond taking solos, and all their shows are the same. Why don’t I just stay home and listen to the studio recording?) good article btw

Paul
April 30, 2012 at 10:21 pm

If you really love something, music, a woman or even a plant, you will say so with no trebidation.  I hope I spelled that right.  Love to love; hate only when you know for sure.  Fuck the rest of it, it’s never real.

George Daly
April 28, 2012 at 2:06 am

I enjoyed the article a lot, it is pretty spot on. I would say that phish going deep, and getting weird used to happen several times a show when they were at their peak. You should check out my Facebook site dedicated to the band’s spacey psych sounds. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Type-II-Jamming-/150123248385193.  

Laanderson21
April 17, 2012 at 8:54 pm

great story, but the article (along with similar articles) fails to mention anything about the band’s collective sense of humor.  11/02/98 is a perfect example.  They cover the VU’s Loaded for halloween to a sold-out crowd, many fans then decide to skip the next show in Utah where Phish plays Dark Side of the Moon to a half empty venue. 

Ian Campbell
April 14, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Great article!  I thought you guys hit on some really good points.  I particularly liked what you wrote about how part of Phish’s appeal lies in their ability to satisfy the cataloger’s impulse.

Check out “Twist” from the 6/14/00 Fukuoka show.  Beautiful jam.

Jake
May 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm

that show is linked at the bottom of pg. 2!

Dead_C
April 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm

Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney, Wild Flag, Portlandia) actually explored the whole Phish hating phenomena in 2009 through her former NPR blog Monitormix.  I believe that she even strictly listened to them for at least a week.  Here’s more on that experiment and what she determined from it.

http://wp.me/pjdCt-14k

sofaloaf
April 12, 2012 at 12:01 pm

FYI, that quote about baseball is a heavily paraphrased version of a David Gan’s quote about the Grateful Dead, but it is very applicable here too….  

http://www.levity.com/gans/baseball.html

In my early years i was hater of the band, but enjoyed the music. I think if you stripped away any reference to them and explored some of their side projects that you might be able to just get over the image. 

Balot
April 11, 2012 at 9:41 pm

I’ve been slowly getting into Phish for years now, and I’ve had my fair share of razzing. I finally get to see them for the first time Bonnaroo (w/ TWO SETS) in a couple of months. This article just got me really really excited to hit the farm in a couple of months.

Reverend Justito
April 11, 2012 at 4:17 pm

What a great read. Long Beach this summer will be #25 for me. While I could talk for hours as to why I like Phish, they were like an ipod on random long before we had ipods. You get a bluegrass song, an arena rock song, a fun cover, a country ballad, some jazz and then before you know it they are singing like a barbershop quartet. Never been ashamed to be a Phish fan, would love to point out that Festival 8 didn’t have a secret set and the best moment I have ever seen live from any band in any place was the jam coming out of “Rock and Roll” this past summer at the Gorge. 

Oh and this is one of the best Phish articles I have read from a “non phish” site in YEARS.

StacheTheGumbo
April 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Not much of one to post. But I am a unashamingly a phish-head. Although I was unfortunately not old enough to be able to see Phish in the 90s, I have been able to catch over 20 shows of phish 2.0 and 3.0 (post-hiatus and post-“retirement” tours), and listened to countless recordings of earlier phish. I appreciate this articles recognition of differences of what each show/song/jam can bring as a driver for fans coming back.
I am unsure why indie artists and fans have a stigma against phish, jambands, or their jamband pasts. I am going to guess that this is not about the music. Phish and certain other jambands technical skill and improvisational creativity should be unquestionably recognized by any musical artist or fan. Phish in particular provides a range in musical styles and depth of musical catalog that is unparalleled in all of music. So if not the music, it must be about the “scene”, the look, or the fans that reinforce this stigma.
Phish fans are not only relentlessly dedicated towards their band, but provide a surrounding community and culture that may get a bad rep from a few stinky, drugged out hippies, but is also full of positivity and comaraderie from some great individuals (majority who are productive members of society).
Despite stereotypes of narrow minded “phans”, I and other phans extend musical portfolios long beyond phish and jambands. The last few shows I have seen were alabama shakes, portugal the man, trampled by turtles, pretty lights, fitz and the tantrums, andrew bird. That being said, I have never had a musical experience that rivals phish.
Id encourage some of y’all who have yet to give phish a chance to drop perceptions and maybe even give their music a whirl… It’d be easy to make parallel prejudices to indie music, skinny jeans, thick-framed glasses, but I know better, I watched Sesame St as a kid.
I am proud and grateful to be a fan of a band that provides me with a unique musical experience each and every time I see them, and with that, a great network of friends. Thanks CoS for bringing up this issue. This has all been wonderful, but now I’m on my way.

Matt Finley
August 27, 2012 at 11:47 am

go see Jacket. they will undoubtedly rival phish’s musical experience. Jim and the boys create a spiritual realm every time they play a show. and the main reason a lot of people can’t stand phish, is because most phans don’t give the time of day to anyone who thinks someone can hold a candle to phish’s live performance. in general, people probably respect phish’s musicianship and technical ability, but phish/jam fans think that is the only aspect to measuring the greatness in music. sometimes beautifully controlled and detailed silence in between loud, ethereal wailings of a guitar or electric organ can reveal just how musically aware certain artists are. the rest of the music community would be more receptive to phisheads if phans weren’t always spouting off about how phish is the greatest band in the world and no one even comes close. that’s simply an inaccurate statement. but i do appreciate that you go see shows like andrew bird, alabama shakes, etc. i get phish, like the Dead, is all about having a laugh, dancing, and just enjoying the good vibes but the closemindedness that many phans have towards anything but phish is extremely off-putting. phish is a good jam band with a very loyal following, just like the Grateful Dead. i would never consider the Dead to be the greatest band of all time tho. phish is today’s Dead, and Jacket is like the Band of our generation. all had/have respect for each other, but the followers of phish/Dead always seem to force the idea their band is the best band of all time, while Band/Jacket fans realize that there is so much out there, past, present, and future, that making definitive declarations of superiority goes directly against what our musical icons preach.

Noah Phence
April 11, 2012 at 11:16 am

I just go for the chicks!

Emma Dozier
April 10, 2012 at 9:46 pm

For me, it’s all about the dancing! Hipster/Indie kids stand around at live shows, trying to hide the fear like the nerds they once were, while the Phish nerds embrace the nerdome (and maybe extra drugs) and dance fantastically.

Jmcwatty
April 10, 2012 at 2:57 pm

just one note of correction Hampton comes alive was ’98 not ’99

A Listener
April 11, 2012 at 10:33 am

Spoken like a true Phan

Jeremy D. Larson
April 11, 2012 at 11:10 am

Amended. Thanks!

A Listener
April 10, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Great article.

Joseph Giannone
April 10, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I believe Portugal. The Man are also bringing a good, fresh perspective on “jam bands” with their live shows. When they jam live, the indie folks lap it up! And rightfully so… 

Bhe
April 10, 2012 at 2:54 pm

War on Drugs as well!

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