The next Artist Interview Project installment features Benjamin St. Clair, guitarist of Pardon Me, Doug. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. 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.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that music is a vital human experience. My interview with Benjamin St. Clair, guitarist for Pardon Me Doug: A Tribute to Phish, demonstrates this theme. Ben grew up on a variety of music and feels that Phish’s style embodies the vastly different influences from his youth. I found it particularly interesting that Ben knew the exact day he first went to a Phish concert; this is evidence that Ben has a deep connection to Phish.
The structural components of Phish songs that cannot be changed can be described as Apollonian. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche contrasts Apollonian elements to Dionysian aspects, which character the free-flowing, experimental nature of jams. According to Ben, Pardon Me, Doug utilitzes both aspects. I could understand what this meant after watching a few Phish concerts. During the “jams,” the band exhibits flexible, spiritual playing that is more Dionysian.
Another theme I identified in my interview with Ben is the importance of community. In addition to the larger Phish community, there is a smaller, local community of fans who attend Pardon Me, Doug shows. Noting this relationship, Ben states, “Phish fans [are] feverish when it comes to the music – they know it inside and out. You miss a change they’re there to tell you about it.” This “fever” Ben refers to unites Phish fans into a unique community that has a love for both the known and unknown.
The sense of community was also apparent in Ben’s answer to my third question. Ben talks about a silent conversation that takes place between the performers and their fans. This silent conversation creates and strengthens the connection between Phish fans. This is an example of what D. Robert DeChaine calls “musical affect.” Ben describes an array of emotions when listening to Phish and when his band is performing.
Ben said that his band has certain parts (such as lyrics) that must be kept the same as Phish, while other parts (such as the tempo) that Pardon Me, Doug interprets. The way individual tribute bands modify Phish’s music reminds me of religion. Phish could be compared to a religion like Christianity. The style of different tribute bands can be compared to the different denominations within Christianity. While improvising, Pardon Me, Doug plays music that is unique, while still remaining faithful to Phish. Similarly, Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists practice different religious beliefs, but they are all versions of Christianity.
When and where did you first find out you had a love for Phish? What made you decide to perform in a tribute band?
I first was introduced to Phish around 1995 by my friend Toby, my friend Derek (both whom I went to school with) and also my older brother. I don’t recall who exactly was first, but they were all around the same time frame. During this period I was a freshman in high school and was really starting to “get into music” with depth for the first time in my life, and at this time I was (and still am) hugely into the Grateful Dead (I recently was in Santa Clara, CA for the GD50 shows at the end of June 2015). Because of my huge infatuation with the Dead at the time, and the vastness of their music catalog, scene, and backstory, I didn’t initially have the time or desire to dig too much into Phish right away. The Dead were taking up every ounce of time I had. But through ’95, ‘96, and ’97, I slowly let them enter into my world and eventually, they took it over. I think part of this was because Phish was still “alive”; they were actively and aggressively touring, and being that the Grateful Dead stopped in the summer of ’95, Phish became more available to me than the Dead were. My first Phish show was 8/16/97 at The Great Went festival in Limestone, ME. Since then I’ve seen 78 shows, and will be seeing my 80th, 81st, and 82nd shows this summer at MagnaBall, Phish’s 10th festival, being held in upstate New York at the Watkins Glen Speedway. I fell in love with Phish because of the music, but since then I’ve fallen in love with them for so much more. For the community, the way they continue to push themselves, and honestly, just for the overall way they handle themselves. They are an extraordinary group of men, and I am very thankful they came into my life because I’ve learned so much from them from afar.
The thing that made me decide to form a Phish tribute band was of course my love for their music. I picked up the guitar late, when I was 21 years old in the year 2000, and as I got better I formed a few different bands, gradually graduating my abilities both individually as a player as well as a band member. Being in a band is very much like being on a team, and someone once told me long ago to no matter what you do in life, always surround yourself with people who are better than you. It’s the most efficient and best way to improve your own ability because you’re learning from people who’ve (in most cases) already traveled on the road you’re on, so there’s usually advice and guidance they can provide, whether it be direct or indirect. The bands I was in early on were mostly cover bands, though I did have 1 really fun original project called “Small Craft Advisory” (always loved that name). I always ended up gravitating towards being the leader of the band, mostly because of my ambition and energy towards making everything happen from booking gigs to crafting set lists, handling business affairs, etc., and we’d play all kinds of music from the 40’s right up through current radio stuff, but my heart always lied in the jam band scene, so naturally the songs I brought to the bands were either Phish, Dead, and String Cheese Incident songs, or songs that I loved that I would’ve loved to hear those bands play.
My influences are vast, ranging from the classic stuff from the 60’s and ‘70’s like Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Steely Dan, and even a bunch of ‘80’s stuff from Michael Jackson, Robert Palmer, Hall and Oates, and man who doesn’t love Huey Lewis and The News?!?!, to the more obscure stuff like Stanley Clarke, Little Feat, Deep Purple, Velvet Underground, Yes; to folk artists like Chris Smither; and to bluegrass artists like Vasser Clements, David Grisman, Bela Fleck, and Del McCoury. I love most types of music, but especially thoughtful music that lends to complexity and makes you think, rather than 3 chord pop cheesy tunes that some stations play these days. My favorite kinds of music incorporate jazz, funk, bluegrass, blues, rock, reggae, folk, calypso, surf, orchestral stuff, compositional music, some rap, a little hard core stuff (I love Pantera, grew up listening to them as a kid) and even some country (the old stuff like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, etc., not the corporate crap they’re spewing these days).
That’s why I love Phish so much – they cover all of these bases with their songs. It’s amazing. So after playing in mish-mash cover bands for 12 years, I finally found a group of musicians who were good enough, had the appetite and desire for – and who have since become my best friends – to work on this Phish tribute band with me. There’s a huge appetite for it in Maine and the Northeast in general, so we knew it would work and be successful, as long as we were able to successfully tackle the tunes….which is no small feat.
As a tribute band, how is your music similar to Phish and how is it original? Are the notes, lyrics, tempo, and everything that goes into the performance the same? How do you add your own personal touches?
Great question. It’s similar because a lot of Phish’s music consists of written out complex compositions that are integral to its DNA. Specific sections, fugues, segues, chord changes, etc. that cannot be overlooked or misrepresented. The thing about Phish fans is they’re feverish when it comes to the music – they know it inside and out. You miss a change, they’re there to tell you about it. But then there’s the other side of Phish – the exploratory improvisational side that allows us the freedom to express ourselves as Pardon Me, Doug, and I love that. Typically there’s a roadmap to follow (or at least start out on), but the really cool thing is when you get to a “jam”, you’re not tethered to a concrete block. The beauty of these parts of the music is we have the opportunity to talk to the audience through our souls by way of our own instruments.
Listen, I’ll never be Trey Anastasio. Nobody ever will, just like he’ll never be Jerry Garcia or Jimi Hendrix, and just like they’ll never be Django Reinhardt. So it goes on like that. What people hear when they come to see Pardon Me, Doug is 4 guys from Portland, ME playing their interpretation of Phish. Sure when we play Divided Sky we have to play the first 8 minutes of the song exactly as it’s written because it’s a composition that demands it, but man for that last 4 or so minutes, it’s all us. Yes the band is playing through the chord changes while I solo, but I am not playing a Trey solo note for note – I’m playing what’s coming from within me, what I hear. Trey had a great quote one time, saying (and I am paraphrasing) that we’re all connected to the universe and he’s just a conduit to deliver what’s already out there (as he perceives it getting channeled through him). I love that. The ability to interpret what you hear, on the go, is amazing. The thing he wants to do most though is get out of the way of that. You don’t want it to be about “you”. Remove your thoughts completely so it’s not the audience watching “you”, it’s the audience listening to the universe allowing you to deliver what’s out there. I try to do the same when given the opportunity.
Is performing a social or individual experience for you? For example, do you tune the audience out and focus on the music you’re playing or do you allow the audience into your mind while on stage?
I think it’s very much both a social and individual experience. One of the greatest joys I have being a musician is getting everyone together for an evening of fun, song, and dance. This is a tough friggin’ world we live in, and it can really get you down sometimes. But when people go to a concert (or at least when I do), it’s like a little 4 hour vacation from everything out there. It’s a great treat that a lot of our friends come to see us play and I respect that opportunity. The older we get, with jobs, family, and just life in general getting in the way, I don’t always get to see some of these folks as often as I like. But the really cool thing is that these Pardon Me, Doug shows brings so many of them together for an evening of fun. I love that. The only thing that sucks is that I’m always playing, and therefore have very little time to partake in the social part of it that they all do! I always hear fun stories from our shows of such and such hanging with this person and the stuff that came of it, but I’m always like “man!!! I haven’t seen such and such in forever! I wish that there were two of me – one to play on stage and one to hang with all you guys in the audience!” The good thing is, we still have Phish, so even though it’s not as frequent, I can still get a little slice of that community feel when I go to their concerts because we always see a ton of people we know.
I do allow the audience in my mind – there’s no way to prevent that – and honestly I don’t know that I’d want to. There is very much a symbiotic relationship – the audience and the band – there is very much a give and take so to speak, going on with the audience when we play. We feed off their energy, and vice versa. If we’re raging in a jam, they’ll let us know and sometimes that helps us kick it up a notch even farther, or give us more confidence with the rest of the night and we’ll attack some songs with more voraciousness, and if we’re struggling, they can feel that as well. We try not to stay in that mind set and sometimes you have to have the memory of a professional baseball closer. Don’t worry about the last pitch (or song, in this case) but treat the next one as the most important and move on!
What emotions do you associate with Phish’s music? Do you think you experience the same emotions when performing a song as the members of Phish or would you consider your experience different from theirs?
Every emotion in the book comes through. Happiness, joy, exhilaration, victory, defeat, sadness, sorrow, struggle, tension, release….I would say Phish music covers the bases when it comes to human emotion. And I do think that they feel mostly the same because the songs are the songs. A heartfelt ballad like “Waste” is meant to deliver its message of love and longing desire, whereas a rocker like Chalk Dust Torture is meant to rip and blow off steam and be an electric showing of rock and roll, dance your ass off thunder! I am sure they have emotions about the songs that I don’t – after all, they did write them so there is probably meanings behind songs I’ll never understand – but the same thing can be said for me too. I may interpret a song because of a situation in my life or an event that happened to me that has nothing to do with what the song actually means, but it’s how I relate to it or it’s what the song said to me. That’s the beauty of art – in most cases there is no wrong or right, it’s all up to interpretation.
Your band seems more instrumental than vocal. How do you hope your audience connects to the music? What, for example, is “McGrupp & The Watchful Hosemasters” portraying?
Ha….you must have seen the McGrupp YouTube video! I love that version; we played it very well and it was our first time playing it live! There’s always risk there…more on that later. Phish has a lot of songs that have very few words (e.g., in Divided Sky…the only lyrics in the 12 to 14 minute song are “Divided Sky and the wind blows high!”) and also have a plethora of songs that have what people would consider a “normal” amount of lyrics, and even a few that have a TON of lyrics (see: Esther or The Lizards). But certainly being an improvisational band at heart, there is always the chance of seeing a show where the musical content far outweighs the lyrical content. There was even a period between ’97 and ’00 where seeing a four or five song, hour and a half second set was not uncommon! And before I go on, it should be noted that Phish picked up an awesome cue from where the Grateful Dead left off: no two shows are alike. They’ve never repeated a set list in their history, which is why you see so many of us following them around the country. The show you saw before will be nothing like your next one, and the excitement of “What are they gonna do? What bust out are they gonna play?” is very much alive and thriving at each show.
I hope our audience leaves feeling like they got a little piece of Phish from Pardon Me, Doug. It’s not easy playing their music, and we’ll never be close to what they can deliver, but what we hope is that while Phish is not on tour, the folks who live around here can come get their “Phish fix” and share in the groove for an evening, dance, forget about the outside world for a little bit, hang with like-minded, chill, cool people, and just be happy. If we do that, we’ve done our job.
I think a song like McGrupp portrays a complex jazz-infused arrangement with a twist. McGrupp is part of the “Gamehendge” saga, Trey’s 9-song senior thesis entitled “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday” (TMWSIY) that he wrote while attending Goddard College.
Read about it here: http://phish.net/song/the-man-who-stepped-into-yesterday/history
Listen to the original thesis here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_zvgj3c074
Phish has performed the thesis in its entirety live in concert 5 times, and not once since Great Woods 7/8/94! It’s the “holy grail” of Phish shows, if you will. Everyone wants to see it, nobody knows if they’ll ever do it again.
The saga depicts an old retired colonel (Colonel Forbin) and McGrupp is his faithful companion. “Gamehenge” is a story explained by short narrations followed by songs that detail the story further. It really is remarkable. I encourage you to listen to the original if you never have. Quite something. One of the many intriguing parts of Phish that got me hooked early on.
How would you describe Phish’s music? Would you say that Phish’s music is more orderly and controlled and meant for thought? Or is it more chaotic and provides a sense of trance to the listeners?
Again I think it’s a combination of very orderly and controlled, but also extremely chaotic and can most certainly provide a sense of trance to the listeners. A song like Heavy Things can be seen as an orderly, controlled, 4 minute pop song (at least the album version, anyways). A song like Carini can be seen as very chaotic. A song like Piper can provide a space of free flow jam, perfect to disappear into for a while and forget where you are when you come out the other side. Phish really does implement all of these tools and more into their songs and concerts. Their spectrum of creativity is limitless. There are no rules when it comes to music, and Phish takes that notion to the extreme but proving this in every facet possible.
Would you consider that your Tribute Band exemplifies the five commitments of Phish that Jnan Blau describes in his article, “A Phan on Phish”? They are: flexibility, groove, play, risk, and reflexivity. If you do, could you describe in what way your tribute band exemplifies one of the commitments in more detail?
Absolutely. That’s one of the fun things about being able to do this!
Flexibility: Our set lists are always different (we try not to repeat songs from one show to the next), and we even joke that we sometimes become the “all request band” and take audience requests during our live shows. It’s the fun of it all, and obviously we want them to have a good time and be engaged as much as possible, so we aim to please as much as possible. But we’re also very flexible with the music itself, particularly when we get into jams. For instance, the last show we played at Empire here in Portland on 7/19, we played an extended version of the song “The Wedge” where we stretched out the jam at the end, didn’t really know what was going to happen once we got into it, eventually dissolved into a 3-chord progression over F#-B-E where we even threw in a couple of lines from Guns ‘n Roses “Paradise City”, and careened back into the ending of “The Wedge” without missing a beat. It was glorious and so much fun to have that type of spontaneity live and on the fly!
Groove: This isn’t a band without groove. Phish has many staples, including Tweezer, Ghost, Sand, Gotta Jibboo, Piper, Twist, Steam, and countless others that I could name that exist because of groove. It’s so much fun to be able to settle into a pocket and expound upon it. It’s you, your three band mates, and your ideas coming through….over Phish’s groove! People love the funk, it makes your hips move whether you like it or not, and Phish definitely brings the funk. The fan base even coined a phrase in ’97 affectionately known as “cow funk” which describes the deep, thick, gooey jams Phish can get into and is so well known for.
Play: Again, this isn’t a band without play. Sometimes I feel like a kid when I play with Pardon Me, Doug. I am on record with the band telling them that Tuesday’s (our rehearsal days) and gig nights are the best days of my life. It makes me so happy. It makes me happy because there’s not much more I love in this world than getting to play Phish, and especially being able to do it in front of people and having them enjoy it. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of something that brings happiness to people. That’s a pretty special thing. But Tuesday’s and gig nights make me happy because I get to play music with 3 of my best friends. I get to explore a place inside my brain and my heart and my soul that I never get to access otherwise. It’s magical. And we have so much fun, banter, joking around, and just all around good time doing it. Sometimes I just thank the universe for allowing me to be in this position. I tell the band guys that too: don’t ever forget how lucky we are. Not everyone gets to play this kick ass music, with people they love, for an audience who loves it. Wow.
Risk: playing Phish is all about risk. It’s not easy music to play. Heck, even the “easy sounding” songs are incredibly difficult. Go listen to “Silent In The Morning”. Sounds simple. In fact, the gist of it is over 4 or 5 simple chords – even a beginner guitar player could play them. But when you really start digging into it and listening, you realize all the polyrhythms going on and how no one in the band is playing the same thing. And playing one of their more difficult songs like David Bowie or You Enjoy Myself live is incredibly risky. I got nervous before doing both, and I’m glad. It means I’m still alive. It means I’m still feeling something. It means I’m treating this thing with respect and holding it with utmost importance. And I should. The folks who pay to come see us play deserve that, and the music certainly deserves it. Like I said, you miss a note or a series of notes, and these “phans” hear it. They know the songs as well as we do, but I think they’re understanding and appreciative of it and realize we’re David taking on Goliath in a sense. There’s a reason there’s only a dozen or so Phish tribute bands around the country, but you’ll find a Grateful Dead cover band or J-Geiles cover band in just about every city across America. And it’s not just popularity (though I’ll admit the Dead have an enormous lead on Phish in that sense); it’s about the complexity of the music. Not everyone can do it. Heck, there are a number of songs we haven’t tackled yet because they simply take time to learn and you can’t just whip them out in a couple of practices.
Reflexivity: You have to have reflexivity when you’re in any band, let alone a Phish tribute band. Some of Phish’s songs exemplify the tension and release that music can offer, and I think this is a great correlation to reflexivity, to cause and effect. I think Phish has very much defined an entire group of people and created their very own community. And what’s funny about that is that now, very much like back in 1997 when Trey was quoted in the Bittersweet Motel documentary….not a ton of people pay attention to Phish, yet they’re continually one of the most successful touring acts in the country year in and year out. Phish has carved out a niche and done it their own way. They didn’t do it by the “traditional” methods of radio play, hit songs, platinum albums, music videos, etc. etc. etc. They did it with a homegrown way of building it.
In Pardon Me, Doug, I think you could say we’re doing the same thing and here’s why: early on when we started, some people said the most important thing to do was to get out there on the circuit, start playing a lot of shows, build our fan base up, tour more, and set your sights on becoming the next Dark Star Orchestra (the famous Grateful Dead tribute band that successfully tours the country, playing upwards of 200 shows each year). Honestly I didn’t feel that way at all. I mean hey, if that happened someday, well then great, I guess. But I didn’t start this to become the next anything. I started it because I love Phish, I love playing Phish, and I love performing for people that love Phish. That’s it. Anything else that comes with it is gravy on top for me. But to say that “making ‘it’ to that level of success is hard” is an understatement. And here’s the thing. We’re all in our mid-to-late 30’s, have jobs, kids, responsibilities. I mean if I were 22 and at this point, hell yeah, what have you got to lose? But at this point of my life I am happy doing what we’re doing, and again, if something more comes of it then sweet, and if this is all it ever is, well I’m friggin’ tickled pink that I got this far with it! So we’re doing it our way, in a way that allows us to live our lives, do our jobs, be with our family’s, and at the same time, sneak out and live out this little fantasy of playing in a rock ‘n roll band that covers Phish music. How awesome, indeed!