AIP: Shafty, Portland’s Tribute to Phish

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Via nectarlounge.com

To kick off the release of the Artist Interview Projects, we’ll start in Oregon. In this interview, you’ll read about Portland’s Phish Tribute band, Shafty. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary of the interview with Shafty’s Rob Sipsky and Brett McConnell. It is followed by the full interview text.

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

Check out Shafty on Facebook, visit the band’s website for upcoming tour dates, and listen to shows on Shafty’s YouTube channel!

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Rob Sipsky and Brett McConnell are both members of the band “Shafty.” Rob plays lead guitar, and Brett plays bass guitar. Interviewing them gave me great insight into their artistic world. Rob describes their music as “crunchy peanut butter,” while Brett would say it’s more of a combination of “funky, rockin’, complex, and exploratory” vibes. Both members have widely different ways of answering the same questions, even though they perform right alongside each other. Together we covered the topics of originality, musical affect, and aesthetics.

When asked about originality, both Brett and Rob had strong feelings as to why Shafty is unique. As individual musicians, Brett and Rob have their own improvisational styles that they contribute to jams. They each have unique tones on their respective instruments, but they share a commitment to surprising their audience and keep them guessing.

Surprisingly, they have drastically dissimilar affective relationships with Shafty’s music. In fact, Rob caught me off guard when asked about his emotional connection to his music. He hates it, because he is often left feeling frustrated for not reaching what he describes as perfection. Brett has a more positive experience with the music. Rob finds his enjoyment in the refinement process, while Brett has a live in the moment attitude.

Despite their varied emotional connection to music, Brett and Rob share similar views on the nature of art. Neither artist believes that art must be beautiful to be considered art. Brett said, “Art can be associated with any human emotion, no matter what the medium.” Similarly, Rob states, “Art” is expression, left to interpretation.”

These topics are central to the philosophy of art and music. Shafty’s originality is created by the band’s improvisation style and the uniqueness of their individual contributions. In her book, Why Music Moves Us, Jeanette Bicknell describes how listening to music can invoke varied emotional responses. She writes, “listeners place different cognitive or affective meaning and import on their listening experiences, depending on personality, background, life situation and other factors” (p. 55). These variations hold for the musicians of Shafty. Brett basks in the energy of his band mates and audience when performing. Rob, however, becomes self-critical and strives to reach maxim potential when performing. When it comes to aesthetics, philosopher Immanuel Kant gives us insight into this simple yet complex topic. In the Critique of Judgment, he describes beauty as three simple things agreeable, beautiful, and good. Kant states, “the agreeable is what gratifies a man; the beautiful what simply pleases him; the good what is esteemed (approved)” (§5). Neither Rob nor Brett believes beauty has a necessary connection to art.


Interview Transcript: Brett McConnell

  1.  What made you decide to join a Phish tribute band?

Rob and I were performing in separate original bands in 2010 when we first started talking about forming the band, I think. In 2011, we revisited the subject and decided to form the group with a couple of other musicians. I think we all wanted to form it for the same reasons; Phish is one of our favorite bands, the music is very challenging and satisfying to play, there is a large Phish scene here in Portland (and we believed people would most likely come out to the shows), and most of all: it would be FUN. We didn’t have any idea how much we’d each commit to the group or if a community would form out of it, but we spent a bunch of time learning Phish’s repertoire over the year and eventually started doing weekly residencies at the Goodfoot here in Portland. That’s where the real fun began.

  1.  What makes your Phish tribute band performance original?

 I think there are a ton of things that make Shafty’s performances original. Aside from still being a tribute band, all four of us still have original voices. Sure, some of us strive to recreate our instrumental tones to match those in Phish, but only to a certain point. Each of us still have pretty unique tones on our respective instruments… The way we play them will definitely sound like US. We may copy some licks and phrasing from the members in Phish every now and again (especially in the compositions), but we all have such long histories in our musical education and influences that we’d never be able to 100% commit to sounding like Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Fishman. All four of us sing in the band, as well, and there’s no way that our voices will ever sound like theirs… Especially the intonation part. So that’s original!

The best part of playing in Shafty is that 85% of every show is improvised music. That in itself makes a Shafty performance original. We are mainly using Phish’s songs as launch pads for musical exploration, and that gives us a lot of freedom to do whatever want. We also write out all of our setlists prior to the shows, and the way we organize that is completely different than the way Phish does it. We mix and match songs, do multiple “teases” and “fake-outs” of other songs, only play the bookends of some songs, play songs with the ending first, followed immediately by the beginning of said song… It’s a pretty wild take on Phish’s tunes, and the crowd loves the way we do it. The ultimate goal is to surprise the audience with what we play. One way we do that is fully transitioning one song into another, also known as a segue. The smoother and more harmonically sound the segue is, the better the overall performance is. Phish used to (and still occasionally) segues from song to song, but we like to make a bigger deal out of it; sometimes a whole set of music will have no breaks in between songs. It makes the audience dance more, and while we’re jamming out a song, they’re asking themselves, “What song could they possibly be transitioning into right now?”

  1.  How would your describe your music artistically?

Funky, rockin’, complex, exploratory, thematic, soaring, and relentless. I could write much more about Phish’s compositions, but I think my description fits Shafty’s improvisation well.

  1.  Does a performance have to be beautiful to count as art? Why or why not?

Absolutely not. Art can be associated with any human emotion, no matter what the medium. This topic/question is so big and open-ended that I’m not sure I have the time to go into it. I took a college course at Portland State University that mainly asked the question “What is art?” and I couldn’t stand it!

  1.  Is there a Shafty “jam” you would describe as more beautiful or moving then all the others? What made it more beautiful/moving? Do you think there is something infectious about music? Where do you think this feeling comes from?

I’m not sure that I could pinpoint one specific jam, but the ones I like the most are when all four of us are playing very simple harmonic and melodic parts together… As if we’re playing a written-down composition that we all have memorized. Jams in which we all allow each other plenty of space to play off of each other and fill in our necessary instrumental roles. It can be sometimes hard to explain to someone what it means to feel “locked in” with your band members during improvisation, but it’s something that the audience member can hear and feel within. Those moments are beautiful and moving to me because I think it’s amazing that different musicians with different voices and influences can come together and create music that many people want to listen to and be a part of. It’s like any good team, whether it be sports related, office related, or music related. It’s really cool when multiple people can come together and speak the same language and form a telepathy for the work or art that they’re doing.

There is absolutely something infectious about music. When you listen to music you really enjoy, it makes you feel good! It can evoke so many human emotions and recover past memories. It can make you dance. Anything that makes you feel good can be infectious. I love how every person on Earth can relate to the sound of music, even if we can’t all speak the same language. One English-speaking musician could play music with a Hindi-speaking musician and they would both be able to understand each other. Not with words but just with harmonious and/or rhythmic tones/rhythms performed on instruments.

  1.  Music is obviously a significant part of your life. What kind of emotional connection do you have to your musical performances? Do you think your audience shares that experience?

Musical performance usually gives me the feeling of joy and excitement. Not every note or song of an evening can thrill me, but playing music is often times more fun than not playing music. I generally have a great time on stage, especially if the material is something I wrote, helped write, arranged, or just a tune that I find great. I think the majority of the Shafty audiences share that experience, especially if they are there BECAUSE it’s a Phish tribute band. Most people who go to Phish tribute shows are people who absolutely love Phish. We have a pretty good grasp of which Phish songs people enjoy. and I think we do most of them justice. If the audience loves the tunes as much as we do, they will most likely share the joy we are feeling on stage when we perform it. Phish fans are also known for loving musical improvisation, so I’m sure most of the crowd is digging that aspect of our show, too.

  1.  You have done Phish tributes, Spoken Word and Poster Art. Is there a difference in the artistic joy you get from each?

I’m not sure which aspects of our band or its performances you’re referring to when you speak of “Spoken Word,” but I definitely feel differences in artistic joys when it comes to different mediums. I really enjoy poster art (especially for concerts) because it will immediately bring me back to the show I was at or performed at. All of the emotions and (hopefully) good times I felt from that day will be brought back into my brain. Posters are also fun because the artist gets to visually portray what the music reminds them of when they hear it. Or sometimes it can be something completely unrelated to the band and it can just be its own art piece. It’s a neat aspect of shows and I like that it can bring visual and musical artists together in a creative community.

Interview Transcript: Rob Sipsky

  1. What made you decide to join a Phish tribute band?

I first had a Phish tribute in 2004, when I was planning on moving from Florida to “I don’t know where.” A group of musician friends of mine all had the desire to try it out, just to play something different than what we were doing at the time. It was extremely enjoyable, even if that lineup wasn’t the one to learn the harder compositions. When I moved out to Portland later that year, the idea stayed in my mind, but the opportunity didn’t come around again until 2011 at a music festival near Eugene, where my band Mars Retrieval Unit played after Brett’s band “Philly’s Phunkestra.” My band, which did mostly original music, had some covers, one of which we played in that set: “You Enjoy Myself.” We talked about it, and each others’ performances, and Phish… and here we are.

I guess in both cases, I would say I didn’t join one, but rather started/organized it. In this case, Brett and I put equal work into getting it up and running. The desire with a 2nd effort of Phish was to really aggressively attack the more difficult music, as a challenge, and take advantage of everyones’ improv ability. Ultimately we wanted to approach the music in a way we don’t think Phish has in a long time, and in some cases ever has or likely ever will (inverted songs, labyrinthine ins-and-outs, ridiculous teases, rare and new Secret Language, approaches to setlist and improv).

  1. What makes your Phish tribute band performance original?

The easy answer is “setlist acrobatics,” but I think the thing we do that differentiates us is that once the composed sections of songs have been played, we go into an improvisational space that belongs uniquely to Shafty. We do not typically try to do a jam the way Phish would. On rare occasion, that’s what is appropriate, but in the true form of Phish’s approach to their own music, we let our individual musical voices and our individual influences and experiences combine into our own sound. Everyone has original music projects, so those approaches certainly filter in, and many of our personal influences are quite different from those of the guys in Phish.

  1. How would your describe your music artistically?

Like crunchy peanut butter – if it was entirely crunchy, it would just be called “peanuts”, but everyone subconsciously recognizes that the crunch, the angular stuff exists within the larger flowing sea of “smooth”, which is the vehicle that carries the crunch along in the first place. In other words, purple.

  1. Does a performance have to be beautiful to count as art? Why or why not?

That can be interpreted several ways, semantically.

The way I interpret it is “does performance have to be elegant, or pretty…?”

No. “Art” is expression, left to interpretation. Sometimes (more frequent than not) I get on stage agitated with something, usually completely unrelated to Shafty or Phish, or music at all. During a performance is the exact, precise proper time frame to express that emotion. With Shafty, that will evidence itself with heavy metal improv, or more tension-release style jams (“type I”, for the internet/phishiverse-savvy). Conversely, sometimes the personal life has been going smoothly, I’m not exhausted, I’m not tense, life is properly lined up. “Waiting All Night” seems appropriate, despite its somewhat sad lyrics. There is no tension in that song of any kind.

Here’s another example: “BBFCFM” is a raw song. It’s abrupt, it has few grooves, involves borderline-incoherent yelling, and cursing. It’s mostly atonal. It’s LOUD. Everything about it screams unpleasantness. Sure, it has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to it, but sonically it’s abusive. It’s brutish, and simple. Yet, in what way is that song not art? How about “Fuck Your Face”? It tells a funny story, but is a fairly unstraightforward rock song, musically. It’s abrasive. I would never call either of these songs “beautiful”. They’re still art to me. It’s an expression, shared with others.

With Shafty, we don’t express our emotions directly through song choice, because we plan out 99.9% of our setlists a week or more in advance… so the improv has to do all the interpretation of our emotions. The sets are planned more to situation and setting than emotion. I enjoy it immensely that way. Sometimes it forces a significantly more dynamic performance of a given song, because it’s on the list, and if our emotional state doesn’t immediately fit the song, it can and will be molded to converge with it.

  1. Is there a Shafty “jam” you would describe as more beautiful or moving then all the others? What made it more beautiful/moving? Do you think there is something infectious about music? Where do you think this feeling comes from?

—-These are a lot of different questions, some of which are unrelated, that probably need to be separated.  

a. We have played so many shows, and too many jams to truly say what single jam stands out. I really enjoyed the way that the entire 2nd set of Zodiac’s FELT (Petaluma California, June 11, 2015 – setlist below). Everything was effortless, the band played and sang incredibly tightly, with energy, and with minimal errors, miscues, or anything. That is my subjective memory of it, it may not be as clean as that…

It felt to me like I was playing the other guys’ instruments and I was listening to someone play mine. I don’t know that it was beautiful, as addressed above – I’m not into using that adjective too often, because it’s so vague as to frequently border on meaningless. It was very interesting, it was a moving experience. I like interesting and intellectual experiences, and that show was most certainly that from my perspective. Whether that translated to the audience or not is out of my hands.

b. There is something infectious about music. I don’t have a good eye for visual art. It rarely affects me, but I know many people who love visual art. I presume the infectiousness spans across all art forms. If it’s good, you seek more of it, whether it’s sculpture, photography, lighting, architecture, dance, comedy, drama, acting, animation…

c. Where do I think the “infectious” feeling comes from? Stimulus and response – we always seek more of the things which make us happy. I loved heavy metal in high school. As I rambled above, that’s not commonly described as beautiful… but it was certainly something that made me want more and more. Same with stand up comedy; I can’t get enough. Once I start laughing, you can’t stop me for looking for more sources of that joy. It’s a chemical response to sensory input. I don’t think that diminishes the experience one tiny iota, but it’s definitely a gland-secretion thing.

  1. Music is obviously a significant part of your life. What kind of emotional connection do you have to your musical performances? Do you think your audience shares that experience?

I hate most of my performances, aggressively – not just Shafty, but my original music as well. I’m very self-critical, to the point where I’d prefer not talking to people during setbreak or after shows, because their experience is likely to be so vastly different from mine. I love what I’m trying to do, and I deeply appreciate how lucky I am to have these incredibly talented bandmates, but I hate that I can so rarely even remotely approach what I am capable of doing. My most commonly experienced emotion with performance is frustration. However, on occasion we all knock it out of the park, and the feeling after those shows is relief, more than anything.

  1. You have done Phish tributes, Spoken Word and Poster Art. Is there a difference in the artistic joy you get from each?

I thrive on the process of refinement that leads to releasing something into the world.

If you’re thinking “…much like giving birth…”. No! I don’t think it’s giving birth at all, because human birth is the exact polar opposite of refinement. Everyone involved is terrified, most are screaming, and a few are covered in really awful fluids – it’s the opposite of refined. The refinement part is the rest of life, so I don’t like to use that analogy. Birth in this sense… is like.. reverse-art. Release it to the world, then refine.

But I digress.

I like to work on something until the point at which any more alterations will degrade the subject being worked upon. Music is incredibly facilitative of that process. Poster art, for me, is a new hobby. I don’t create the art myself – I don’t have that ability. I do editing and refinement in visual-editing software.. I can choose color and suggest things to the artists, fix smudges or very basic errors, but I can’t create a visual thing more complex than a stick man.

I guess that’s the long way of saying that I get the same exact joy across disciplines, because my approach is one of analysis and refinement. This applies to so many things, both artistic and not. The more complex the subject, the more refinement is necessary, the more risks involved, the more analysis is required… Phish’s music fits this structure perfectly for me. Interestingly, it seems closer to the poster art editing that I do, because I didn’t create the original pieces. The difference from the posters, of course, is that I DO create my own music, and that gets the most scrutiny of all.

 

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