Harris Wittels passed away yesterday at the age of 30. We’re re-running this piece because it would not exist without him. This piece originally ran on July 11, 2013. -ed.
Phish performed at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday, July 14, 2013. Cale, head of BYT Productions, is a fan of this band, Phish. Brandon Wetherbee, managing editor of BYT, is not a fan of this band, Phish. Brandon is a fan of the podcast Analyze Phish and enjoyed reading the new book, “You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures with Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes” So this happened.
Cale: Any long time reader of BYT knows we’ve always been a Phish Phriendly site. But at this point, do we really have to defend that position? The band is still selling out shows 25 years later, was full on engaging the internet back when you just got that AOL account, is easily the biggest underground band in the world, has never taken themselves seriously while taking what they do very seriously, was covering bands like Talking Heads and David Bowie in the 90s before that was cool again, and has always been weird as fuck. So the next time some pretentious hipster doofus tries to dismiss them, wear your phandom with pride, remind them that Billy Breathes made Pitchfork’s first Top 100 Albums of the 90s list, and crank up those old tapes, cause Phish is awesome. Deal with it.
“PROVE IT” SAYS MANAGING EDITOR BRANDON
“OK” SAYS CALE
Any intro to Phish sort of has to start with “You Enjoy Myself” (or YEM to the phans, sucka). It’s been played live more times than any other song in the Phish repertoire and is a fan favorite. Arguably THE phan phavorite. In its current form, it first appeared on their first official studio album, released on cassette tape on my birthday in 1989. It was recorded back when Phish were still just four nerdy college friends playing small bars in Vermont. It’s very representative of their early style, and also representative of why some people, and girls I’ve dated, pretend to dislike Phish. It’s over 9 min long, has proficient guitar work, is psychedelic and proggy, contains nonsensical/funny lyrics, is generally positive and uplifting, etc. So, it’s sort of both the best and worst song to start you out with, but I stand by my choice.
So, listen to the studio version first, which is a tightly composed, intricate, multi-suite effort by primary songwriter and guitarist Trey Anastasio, and next we’ll see how they did it live, the song often being a launchpad for the extended free form jam sessions Phish is (in)famous for…
Brandon: Just because someone or something is famous from something does not make that something good. Calling cards can also be bad.
The first few minutes sound like a guitarist playing scales and the rest of the band warming up. But it’s not offensive. It’s obvious these guys are talented, but there are a lot of guys that hang out in Guitar Center all day that are talented.
This sounds like the color teal.
The color teal
Am I missing the reason why this needs to exist? Is there a sense of urgency that is hidden between the notes? Is it just too nice and perfect for person that likes rhythm and blues?
Wait, he started singing. That’s bad. That’s a bad voice. Fuck this guy. I’m sorry, Cale, but Jesus Christ, these vocals are offensive.
Is it all a Zappa parody? Did I get it?
The organ is cool. In small doses. Kinda Steppenwolf-y.
Snapping? This song ends with snapping?
Cale: Don’t be like that.
Ok, Phish would be the first to admit the studio version of YEM is lacking, and while I still dig it, it’s a whole new beast when played live. Please listen to this version recorded Dec 7th, 1994, and released on their first official live album.
A couple other points:
– Nobody ever said Phish could sing well. Plus, as David Byrne said, the better someone is at singing, the less I believe what they’re saying.
– PS. they all sing. Some of them are better than others. They specifically make Fishman (the drummer [yes, the band is named after the drummer]) sing Purple Rain when they cover it live because he’s the worst singer, which makes it funny.
– Especially in the early days they joked around a lot, but still cared deeply about the quality of what they were doing. It’s the same aesthetic of BYT, take not-taking-things-seriously very seriously.
– Plenty of those guitar center people are talented, yes. But not many of those guitar center people have the creativity and integrity to go along with the talent.
– Yes, Zappa is one of Trey’s heroes. So is Garcia. But also Pavement.
– Phish changes up styles many times over the years and studio YEM is just one snapshot of a certain time.
– Yes, just because something is famous does not make it good, but Phish became famous by being good. They didn’t sell a million albums or have music videos or get radio play. They sold out arenas first, because they played good shows and people told their friends about how good these shows were.
– Hippies suck so bad
Brandon: This intro is better. Thank god. The track is 20 minutes.
I’ll attempt to refute your points while listening to this version.
-Singing poorly is not a positive thing. Bad singing is a quirk that could be embraced and made awesome or turned into bad karaoke.
-It’s cool that they all sing. All of The Beatles sang. They were a good band.
This is a band named The Beatles. They were a good band.
-I like that they’re named after the drummer. Fleetwood Mac is named after the drummer. That’s neither good nor bad, just something I wanted to point out.
Three minutes in they start jamming. I think. A piano has replaced the organ. Damn.
Back to the points.
-The aesthetic of BYT and Phish may be the same but the execution is not. None of us have been arrested for heroin or beat up by a Hell’s Angels for taking artsy photos of a 9-year-old girl.
Trey’s guitar playing is much better when the rest of the band is taking a more rock approach to the song.
The harmonized backup vocals are much better on this track. The lead vocals still aren’t for me.
-I agree that Trey is talented, creative and possesses some integrity. That does not make his music great.
-I’m not in love with Zappa, but really like some of his stuff, Garcia doesn’t do it for me and I’m 100% indifferent to Pavement. I don’t think this stuff is in my musical DNA. But I’m trying.
This is a band named Pavement.
-That’s excellent. The best bands evolve. Hopefully I’ll come to admire and enjoy Phish’s evolution.
I’m really enjoying around 13:30 when Trey starts going off with maybe a phaser. I’m really annoyed when the bassist starts playing unnecessary funk bass around 13:55.
-And drugs. Don’t deny The Lot.
-Pot kettle black.
Do you like free jazz? I like free jazz. It took over five years for me to get a grasp of why it’s good. Maybe I just need five years with Phish.
Are they chanting? Fuck, man. Every time they do something good they follow it up with something awful.
The last three minutes of that track are completely unnecessary.
Cale: The Beatles are a good band. They’re a better band than Phish. One time for a Halloween show Phish covered The White Album in it’s entirety. They did a really good job.
I do like free jazz. I also like Trey’s free jazz album Surrender to the Air that he made with John Medeski and a bunch of dudes from Sun Ra.
Trey’s drug problems over a decade later are irrelevant to this article about their music, and he’s sober now and has made amends.
You keep bringing up whether things are necessary or not, but that’s a weird argument when talking about improvisational music. The track is twice as long as the studio version because they spend half the time adding elements on the fly to make the song, which they have played live over 500 times, unique from every other past performance of it. To me, personally, that’s commendable and interesting. In this particular iteration they did some weird chanting at the end with a crazy light show, they’re also doing a synchronized dance on mini-trampolines during one segment (listen for the seemingly misplaced crowd cheer), when Trey played the song with the National Symphony Orchestra in May he did a beautiful little vocal jam at the end with the string section, once they teased the Simpsons theme song in the middle, one time YEM clocked in at over 40 minutes, etc, etc. With some other band you could say that’s unnecessary or gimmicky, but with Phish, that’s the whole point, they have the solid songwriting and chops to back it up, so constantly pushing themselves to create a different experience for the audience every time is one of the things that makes them special. It doesn’t always work, some jams fall flat, but other times they create something that rivals what they did before.
Anyway, let’s shift gears. I do think over time the Phishy stuff will grow on you, but here is another side of the band, the title track from their first critically acclaimed studio effort, the 1996 Steve Lillywhite produced Billy Breathes, lemme know what you think:
Brandon: This is very pretty. I’m not sure if the band ever scores films, but if they have anything else like this they would be great laying down music for an indie drama set in the northeast. Maybe for something about a father-son relationship that went off the rails. Lots of people in sweaters.
I don’t think I’d ever put this on but I wouldn’t turn it off. Progress.
Cale: Super, I don’t need you to be a fan, I just want to stop the hate.
Ok – let’s continue – in 1997 Phish went off to do a European tour to play smaller venues after a marathon run of sold out arena shows. At a gig in Hamburg, Germany they spontaneously locked into a jam (during one of their songs that was originally an attempt at being radio friendly) that was funkier and slower than their typical Trey-as-guitar-god jams. It was a bit of an epiphany for the band and this jamming style stuck with them for a while. Later in the show they played “Mike’s Song” (sung by bassist Mike), one of the many fan favorite songs that has never been released on a studio album (another point that distinguishes Phish from many other bands). I like it even better than that slow funk epiphany jam. You mentioned that in the YEM jam you didn’t hear anything off-key, but that’s the thing, Phish is so in-tune with each other and so nimble that they’re able to improv in a way that sounds like it was tightly composed. But this one is a bit weirder and more dissonant. I especially love it as it’s a great example of how synced up these guys are, towards the end, without any pre-planning or on stage discussion, they all simultaneously drop in teases and covers to some famous psychedelic 60s tunes, it almost makes me believe in ESP.
Anyway, this listen deserves your full attention:
BTW , I’ve added a second short song to the mp3 file above called “Lawn Boy” (sung by keyboardist Page), cause they flow into it so perfectly from “Mike’s Song.” It’s got a little They Might Be Giants vibe to it and is a nice comedown from the previous monster jam session.
P.S.: You’re indifferent to Pavement? Jesus. Looks like we’ll have to do a Part 2…
Brandon: The length of this song is a good thing. During the middle 10-minutes I didn’t even realize I was still listening to it. I actually tapped my toes. I got lost in the music. I’m supposed to get lost in the music, right?
Then someone started talking/singing The Doors’ “The End” and I was reminded of how dumb The Doors “The End” is. At first I was annoyed because ugh. Then I realized they were making fun of it and it made it slightly better. Then Mike was introduced and played a very slow bass solo and it sounded like a dinner theater show.
Another not bad track. I wouldn’t put it on, but I wouldn’t turn it off. I can’t imagine enjoying this live, especially standing in a small club. Maybe if I was sitting with a group of friends at a large festival and we were in the way back and this was on I’d like it. That’s good, right?
Cale: Right, you are most certainly supposed to get lost in the Phish jam, but what I like is that you can also listen very actively, nerding out and trying to see where they’re going with an idea, and it’s equally enjoyable.
The dinner theater show vibe was what they were going for. I think one reason people think they don’t like Phish is that they don’t realize Phish have a sense of humor. It’s similar to people that “hate” Rush because they think they take themselves too seriously. Both Phish and Rush are composed of a bunch of prankster dorks.
Ok, we’re nearing the end, I feel like we’ve made some progress. Here are two shorter studio tracks. First, “Brian and Robert” from 1998’s follow up to Billy Breathes, The Story of the Ghost. As a whole, the album is darker and moodier and funkier, definitely a result of that European tour. It has a number of tracks, like this one, that if you played for pretentious 2004-era hipsters and didn’t tell them it was Phish they’d like it:
Then we have the title track from 2000s Farmhouse, the last great Phish studio album before they switched to hard drugs, got old, broke up, reformed, etc. There were still some moments to be had in Phish 2.0 and 3.0 but this was the end of the golden era. For me, it is a perfectly recorded and performed pop song, miles away from what they were doing in the 80s, and very very hard not to like:
Brandon: I would genuinely like “Brian and Robert” if it weren’t for the lead vocals. The backing vocals are actually really enjoyable.
I think this track really helped me pinpoint what I like and don’t like about this band. I think the drums, guitars and organs are quality. The bass tone isn’t for me. The lyrics leave a lot to be desired. The vocals are not good. You know they’re not good. They know they’re not good.
I agree that most indie rock kids would dig this song if it wasn’t from Phish. But it is from Phish. And Phish vocals are not good.
“Farmhouse,” the song that I heard way too much from rich kids in high school. Thanks for reminding me what ignited my disgust of this band.
I hated this song in high school. I hated the kids that listened to this song in high school.
Thirteen years later, I am not a fan of this song. Thirteen years later, I am very happy in my life and never think of those kids from high school. Now I’m thinking about those kids from high school.
Nope. Can’t do it. I might enjoy this as a 10-minute extended jam, but the lyrics and vocals and even the solo, are so Phishy. Sometimes hard drugs give songwriters better song subjects. Better than a farmhouse. A farmhouse. This is a farmhouse. That is lazy songwriting.
Cale: Ok, I am going to leave you with two things. First, here is Trey’s own description of how Farmhouse came about with his writing partner Tom Marshall. I guess you could describe it as lazy, but it doesn’t feel that way to me:
In the nineties Tom and I began renting houses in the Stowe area of Vermont and disappearing for long weekends to hang out together and write. To be perfectly honest, the hanging out part was even more important to me than the writing. With Phish’s exponential growth in the mid nineties came a whirlwind of confusion and frantic energy that I don’t think any of us in the band were completely prepared for. Our quiet little scene in Burlington and on the road exploded. Suddenly the idea of hiding out alone for three days and nights on a farm with one of my oldest friends became a precious idea that I anxiously looked forward to for weeks in advance of our trips. At that time I had neither a cell phone nor a computer, so when we disappeared, we really disappeared.
Farmhouse was written and recorded in the first five minutes of one of those trips. I picked up Tom at the airport in this cool old 1970’s RV that I had bought that had an eight track player in it, and we drove to the farmhouse we had rented. It was kind of late since Tom had left from work, and we pulled over for a second and jumped out next to a field. When we looked up at the sky, it was exploding with these deep greenish colors that we soon realized were the northern lights. We stood there and just stared in awe. We continued on, and found our house down a long secluded dirt road. We walked in and I ran over to the gear and picked up a guitar while Tom plugged in a Mic. There were some sliding glass doors that we opened, and though it wasn’t as intense as it had been when we pulled over, we could still see traces of the northern lights thru the door. Mostly, we were both buzzing from that magical feeling of being completely alone, and knowing that we didn’t have to talk to or see a single soul for three whole days and nights, which to both of us was heaven.
I started strumming and Tom started singing, and since he didn’t have any lyrics, he reached over and grabbed the note that the owner of the house had left for us and began reading it, verbatim.
“Welcome! This is a farmhouse, we have cluster flies, alas, and this time of year is bad…” And on it went from there. I love the chorus, “I never ever saw the northern lights, I never really heard of cluster flies!” After that I quickly constructed all the instruments. I will always to this day believe that this version of Farmhouse is the perennial version, mostly because of the genuine joy in Tom’s inspired and spontaneous vocal. Also, for the record, of course we immediately recognized that it sounded similar to “No woman no cry”, and sort of threw that “be all right” thing in specifically for that reason, amidst the frenzy of laughing and singing. It felt like the perfect sentiment for our escape. “in the farmhouse things will be alright”.
And second, I have one final epic Phish jam for you: “Stash,” recorded July 8 1994 for release on the A Live One album.
For me, it’s the quintessential Trey-as-guitar-God jam. I ask that you listen to the second half, with the crazy build and release guitar riffs, as I did a million times as a teenager: standing on my bed, with it turned up very loud, playing vicious air guitar, in my underwear. Just do it, ok?
Brandon: I enjoyed minute 9 to 11 of this song. No qualifiers, just enjoyed it. If I’m able to find those two minutes in each song, I would be a Phish Phan (that’s the term, right, Phan?). I’d eat Phish Phood and wear a Philiies hat and watch Dr. Phil and Phornicate with the other Phish Phans.
Thanks for helping me find the parts of this band that are great. Thanks for approaching this like a reasonable person and not expect me, or anyone else, to love everything about this band.
Conclusion: I do not want to see Phish. Trey Anastatio is a very talented musician that likes to noodle. A lot. I enjoy his work the most when he’s not noodling. I prefer Noodles.
2014 UPDATE FROM CALE:
Bob Boilen over at NPR gave us a sneak peak at the upcoming Phish album Fuego (the first album in 5 years). It’s called Waiting All Night. I think it is very good. Probably the best thing they’ve done since the song Farmhouse. If we had had this Phish Phite today, I’m not sure if I would have added it to the mix for Brandon, but I definitely would have considered it. He probably would have thought it was ok: