Carrie Brownstein, late of Sleater-Kinney, is trying to get into Phish:
This week, your Monitor Mix host will journey down the path to conversion. But I need your help: If you are a Phish lover — and I know you’re out there — please steer me toward the right albums, concert footage and songs. Keep me sheltered from the bands’ musical missteps and anything that might impede this affection, which has been buried deep for far too long, just waiting to be awakened.
Why Phish, you ask? Well, as far as I’m concerned, Phish occupies a unique space in music: It is extremely popular with a large group of people, yet simultaneously misunderstood, judged and dismissed by another — particularly self-identified music snobs, indie rockers and a whole slew of other folks. Unlike other frequently maligned bands that have an equally maligned fan base, such as The Grateful Dead (whom I love) or the Dave Matthews Band (whom I don’t love), Phish has never had a radio hit for non-fans to use as fodder or evidence. In fact — and this is the most shocking, and what makes the band a rare breed — many Phish-phobes have never even heard Phish’s music!
Phish is a band that some people intuitively don’t like; it is the liverwurst, the Twilight book series, and the waterbeds of the music industry! And why should it be? This dismissal of Phish by a large portion of us is both unfair and unwarranted. And that’s why I’m willing to change.
So, this week, the theme is: The Conversion, a.k.a. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Phish. All week, I’ll be updating my blog with photos, video and writing about my progress. I don’t know if it’s actually possible to convert to a band in one week, but I’m going to try.
First stop: off to buy Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream. Then, to the record store!
Also over at NPR, Patrick Jarenwattananon:
Phish represents a business model for music that was ahead of its time, one that jazz could maybe take a few cues from.
I know that’s a stretch, but hear me out. For one, the entity that is Phish is generally considered inseparable from its fanbase, which ranks as among the most devoted in music. In common perception, to be a Phish fan is to be an unwashed, patchouli-wearing, psychoactive drug-consuming, somehow socially-disabled member of an unthinking herd. Phish isn’t so much a musical reference for many of its detractors as it is an allusion to a community of people who get off on comparing versions of “Bathtub Gin” or what-have-you.
For those of us with a commitment to jazz — any form of it — do you not get that stereotyping in some way? OK, so these days there are free outdoor concerts all the time in summer months, and they attract diverse crowds who largely come out to picnic on lawns with ambient noise. But the core audience, which willingly pays good money to see a jazz show in a club or a theater, is also seen as a special breed. They’re all someone’s weird uncle. They possess encyclopedic knowledge of recording dates and personnel. They wear turtlenecks and fedoras and horn-rimmed glasses. They, too, give themselves over to the ecstasy of the jam, which just looks embarrassing taken out of context. And because non-jazz people see jazz as one distinct style, rather than many different things, all dedicated jazz fans get lumped into that snooty horde.
Both are unfair characterizations, true. But at least for Phish, it comes out of a certain reality. By prioritizing live shows over studio recordings, Trey Anastasio and company made the band into a brand. Having fun was encouraged, as was amateur recording — the exchange of which only bolstered the emphasis that “you have to see them live.” Indeed, Carrie has observed this was a stumbling point in approaching the band: “many Phish fans have told me point blank that the live show is the only true way to witness this band, and that in lieu of that experience, only the recordings of their live shows (and then only certain shows) exemplify Phish at its best.” Of course, Phish even pioneered this model pre-YouTube and viral Internet distribution and widespread broadband. With the launch of LivePhish.com, where the band sells soundboard recordings of live shows, Phish even found a way to monetize the artifacts of its experience.
Now, as an Adult Approaching 30, I am decidedly out of my hippie phase. I actually hate hippies and eat their bleeding liberal hearts. OK, not really. But I do despise most of that culture.
Call it Adulthood Rebellion — the act of rebelling against your former, more immature self, ie the inverse of Teen Rebellion, where you rebel against your parents — if you want. Call it the Hippies Are Lame Theory, which I personally subscribe to. Hell, you can even call it narrowmindedness. I won’t mind.
Like most of my decisions and blanket life-generalizations, I’m having second thoughts. The crack in my hard veneer is expanding. Most likely, I was pig-headedly wrong. I’m working to correct that.
Let me explain.
It all started, as they say, when I stumbled upon an NPR blog written by Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney, one of my Top 10 bands of all time, wherein Ms. Brownstein proposed a question about which band her readers most often have to justify to their friends for liking.
And, you guessed it, most of her readers chose Phish, with several well reasoned replies, including this one from Cameron:
“I love Phish. Phish embodies what I love about all music: excitement, energy, unpredictability and fun. They play because they love it, and it shows. They do jam, but as a group, feeding each other — like Jazz instead of Jam. It’s not the solo-heavy crap that occupies most ‘jam’ music.
They have shared the stage with Neil young, Jay-Z, B.B. King, Alison Krauss and even Bruce Springsteen — so obviously fellow artists take them seriously. But amongst the public, they still carry such a stigma.
Phish turned me on to My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, Django Reinhardt, The Talking Heads, plus many more. I could recommend any of those bands to you with no trouble, but mention the band that led me to them, and I’m laughed out of the room.”
Sounds pretty open-minded right? Ms. Brownstein agreed. And so Ms. Brownstein decided to give Phish a chance.
All this week, she’s listening to live bootlegs and studio albums, watching YouTube concert clips and DVDs, chatting to fans, or phans, if you’d like, and all in all going all out in her quest to try to like the jam-oriented band.
And I’ve decided to join her. Call me crazy.
At the risk of reinforcing a stereotype and giving rock snobs more fodder for jibes, my first response to her call for advice: Smoke a joint. Yes, yes, I know: “Ho ho, music you’d have to be high to enjoy.” (I’m assuming that, unlike lame-o DC journalists and wonks, ex-rock stars retain relatively easy access to the stuff well after college.) But there’s a reason it’s a stereotype. And it does seem like it’s particular types of music that especially benefit: the long, noodly improvisational jams found especially in the live recordings most beloved of serious aficionados, say. My guess is that it has something to do with increased sensitivity to patterns—maybe one reason for the fabled paranoia—making it easier to shift from a mode of enjoyment focused on a straight melodic line to one based on appreciating subtle permutations and transformation of repeating themes. Speaking very loosely, enjoying a Phish jam is (sometimes) an aesthetic cousin of appreciating something like Philip Glass’ “Music With Changing Parts.” Except you can’t really groove to “Music With Changing Parts.”
A more strictly musical recommendation: Try the Clifford Ball DVD set they released recently. It’s been a long time, but I recall that particular set of bootleg tapes getting probably the heaviest play back in the day.