The next Artist Interview Project installment features Kevin Roper, keyboardist for 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.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Roper, a member of the Phish cover band “Pardon Me, Doug.” I asked him six questions of a philosophical nature based on the work we covered in our course. Kevin, who was beyond a good sport, answered each question at length, giving me great insight into his work and its place in course themes.
In my second question, I asked Kevin what he considered to be Pardon Me, Doug’s main objective. Kevin’s answer inspired connections to several topics in the course, particularly those based around aesthetics and the idea of the “sublime.” Kevin stated: “…personally, beauty is an objective of mine. I like to think of a personal experience when it comes to beauty in Phish. It was 1995 on the slopes of Sugarbush, VT on a beautiful, starry summer night. They were playing Slave and it felt completely transcendental. To me it was the epitome of beauty. I definitely strive to recreate that feeling in our music.” This reminded me of Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime.” I inferred that where Kevin uses the word “transcendental,” Kant might use the word “sublime” to describe Kevin’s experience. However, according to Kant, the beautiful and sublime are mutually exclusive. This is something my classmates and I discussed at length in our weekly discussion: why can’t something be considered beautiful and sublime at the same time? Most of us agreed that based on our own experiences, that more often than not, the sublime is also beautiful (while the inverse is not true as often). Kevin’s description of his “transcendental” experience leads me to believe he would agree as well.
In my third question to Kevin, I asked him about the role of Pardon Me, Doug in the Phish community. Throughout the interview as a whole, Kevin spoke of the importance of the community in the music making experience. He states that: “we all know that we are just sharing in the groove…in the greater community that wouldn’t be possible without Phish and our mutual respect and admiration of Phish.” Kevin uses the word “groove” in a similar manner that Elizabeth Yeager uses the word “it” in her thesis, “Understanding ‘It’: Affective Authenticity, Space, and the Phish Scene.” To put it simply, “It” is the unique feeling of “oneness” that one gets from a musical community. Later in the interview, Kevin describes this feeling of oneness in an eerily similar manner, stating “I watched the boys on stage, watched the crowd, felt the energy and turned…and said…ok, now I remember. I get it.”
The fifth question I asked Kevin was what he valued about Phish’s music/art, and whether he thinks that others should agree with him. He says that the thing he values the most is Phish’s musical talent. He says: “I do get pissed when people say blanket statements like ‘Phish sucks!’…if you don’t like the music they play, that is fine and understandable…but I don’t see how ANYONE can deny the talent that they have.” I found this connected to Dennis Dutton’s TED talk, “Darwinian Theory of Beauty.” In his lecture, Dutton discusses the psychological reasons behind what we consider art. He is quick to specify that beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder, but in the “culturally conditioned eye of the beholder,” meaning that what we learn to be beautiful within our environment is what we consider beautiful. This means that those Kevin describes as disliking Phish based on taste alone have grounds to do so. However, Dutton also states that we find beautiful is in “something done well.” By Dutton’s standards, Kevin has right to be upset.
Overall, Kevin offered some insightful words on the philosophy of Pardon Me, Doug as well the Phish community as a whole.
Do you aim to bring originality to your performances? If so, how do you do so?
This is always a quandary when it comes to being in a tribute band. Do you try to sound exactly like the band you are paying homage too or are you just playing the songs in some fashion because you just like them in general? I also play in a Grateful Dead band sometimes called A Band Beyond Description. Unlike a band like DSO, ABBD is up front that we are not trying to replicate the Dead, but rather cover the songs in a way that we want to express it. Usually it is pretty close to the original version, but it leaves room for us to put our own flavor into it if we want. However, with Pardon Me Doug, I’d say that our aim is to come as close as possible to the real thing. We study the equipment, the effects and the styles of Phish for each song and then do our best to mimic it. We generally listen to specific live versions to get our basic structure and then expand from there. Whereas Phish jams can vary so much show to show or year-to-year, we definitely strive to pull from certain eras in our jams depending on the night or our mood. For example, we might say we want to do a really funky late 90’s Mike’s Song jam or an extra fast AC/DC Bag. Along with this though is the fact that we all hail from a lifetime of listening to tons of different music and playing in other bands previously, so we definitely add in our on interpretations…or sometimes the jams just take us to something we aren’t expecting…creating something totally original. For example,sometimes I’ll use my synth and the jam turns into something closer to STS9 or Umphrey’s McGee than a typical Phish jam. While Page has been a major influence on my playing since I was in high school and first started listening to Phish, so many other people have filled my head with influences over the years.. Bruce Hornsby, Brent Mydland, Keith Godchaux, Jimmy Smith, Herbie Hancock, Dr. John and so on…so, I can’t help but throw in my own sort of blended, “hodge podge” style of playing, even while I’m trying to be “fake Page”. I’ve been recognized by PMD fans in places and been called that. Fake Page! Instead of Page side Rage side… It’s Rope side Dope side! hehe!
What is your main objective as a Phish tribute band? Capturing beauty, having fun, or something else? (None of these options are mutually exclusive.)
Yes! The answer is definitely yes, as in all of the above. Obviously we think Phish makes beautiful music, beautiful energy and beautiful community. That is why we do it. That is what steers us. We see ourselves…in a VERY small way.. an extension of them… not in skill or anything close to what they have achieved… but just in the way that we provide a Phish outlet for our friends, phriends and phans in the area who want to celebrate Phish music when they can’t be seeing the real thing. We are nothing more than fellow phans. We just happen to be the ones on stage and are lucky enough to be playing the music in front of people who appreciate it. I’ve always said that we aren’t popular. Phish is popular. We are just fortunate to be decent enough to do it justice so that people enjoy seeing us play! The real Phish is the real reason we have a fan base! We really do have a great fan base though that is made up of a long time friends and an ever increasing group of new friends that we’ve gotten to know and they keep coming to see us! I guess that kind of answered the something else aspect of our main objective.. We do it not just for ourselves, but for everyone out there who gets off on what we are doing… which is really just us trying to channel what gets us off! But personally, beauty is an objective of mine. I like to think of a personal experience when it comes to beauty in Phish. It was 1995 on the slopes of Sugarbush, VT on a beautiful, starry summer night. They were playing Slave and it felt completely transcendental. To me it was the epitome of beauty. I definitely strive to recreate that feeling in our music.
Certainly fun is a big part of it. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Part of the reason this band was formed was that we were all great friends and like-minded souls. I’ve been playing music with Cam, the drummer, for 17 years now. Benny (Guitar) and I played in a band previously and Cheese (bass) and I have played in a couple different projects together as well. When we put it all together, much like Phish, we were brothers. The bond goes beyond the music. I think that shows on stage. If I didn’t like the guys or the band was a chore or a job, I couldn’t do it. We have so much fun together, whether it is goofing off at practice, being stuck in a van together…or most importantly when we are digging deep into a jam or banging our way through a high-energy song. Seeing the reaction of the crowd and feeling their energy only further validates the reason we are doing this.
This is where I have to be honest though. I’ve had my ups and downs and ins and outs as a Phish fan. When Benny approached me with the idea of starting a Phish tribute band. My first reaction was no. I wasn’t listening to all that much Phish at the time. Definitely had not latched on to 3.0. My initial thought was no way! I don’t want to be in a Phish band…but then I thought about it. I’d been in original jam bands, including one that I led with my own material…and it was frustrating to try to get any attention with it…but knowing other tribute bands out there, like DSO again, I knew that this could be incredibly marketable! No one in the area was doing it. There is a built in fan base! I might be able to go somewhere with this! Maybe not get rich, but maybe a step above where I had been. On top of that, I knew that it would challenge me musically. I was kind of in a place of musical boredom. This could be the thing that made me want to work at it again and get better… not to mention, I did still like a shitload of Phish and I couldn’t downplay that. Lastly, I couldn’t think of better company to be in a band with…and so I was in.
What role do you think Pardon Me, Doug has in the Portland community? In the Phish community at large?
PMD helped fill a void in Portland. Portland has an amazing music scene. The talent per capita here is unbelievable.. However, jam bands were few and far between and didn’t seem to have a place amongst the growing number of millennials’ and hipsters. We knew the heads were out there. I’d still see them coming out to see Dead bands, but that number was dwindling and the crowds were getting older. The State Theatre seemed to bring hippies people out of the wood works, but even there, jam shows were getting less and EDM and Dub Step seemed to be taking over. But, we knew our friends liked Phish and we knew others did. Other than the occasional Phish band coming through from far away, like Strange Design, there was no outlet for a rabid Phish fan. We filled that void and people seemed very appreciative.
We are well aware of many other Phish tribute bands around the country. We’ve gotten to know some of them. For the most part, there is little competition as we are all in it for the same reasons. However, there is definitely a bit of an unspoken territorial understanding. We don’t try to play their market and they don’t try to play ours. But we all know that we are just sharing in the groove (pardon the reference) in the greater community that wouldn’t be possible without Phish and our mutual respect and admiration of Phish. We are just adding to the community. Some people may be jamming on an acoustic guitar in the lot at Watkins Glen. We happen to be doing it on stage.
How would you describe your emotional connection to Phish?
That is an interesting question. It isn’t easily answered, but I’ll try to give an abbreviated version.
Phish was the first band that I truly identified with. Not just in the music, but in the community as well. I was 15 when I first heard Bouncin’ Around the Room. It was on a mix tape that my girlfriend of the time gave to me. It also had The Cure, The Pixies and The BeeGees. Pretty freakin’ random. I thought it was nice, but it didn’t grab me or send me searching for more of this band, Phish. I was still trying to figure out who I was. I was living in my WASP-y, upper-middle class, white-bred community of Fairfield, CT. I started figuring out that I had some different ideas of how I wanted to live or what I might believe in. Enter some new friends, driver’s licenses, and pot. People started identifying with different music and for some reason that seemed to define people. In any case, some friends turned me onto some other Phish songs. Blindly, I bought Rift. As a somewhat dormant at the time musician/piano player, I wore that CD out! I had a thing to identify with! I was a Phish fan. Not sure if “Phan” had been coined yet. We’re talking 1993 here. A bunch of friends were going to see Phish at the New Haven Coliseum on Dec. 29, 1993. I figured I’d better go along. I still knew very little other than Bouncin’, Rift and a couple things I had heard on a bootleg tape. Yes tape. Maxell XLII. Had to be that or the traders would get pissy! But I digress! It was the first tour really where they were playing arenas instead of theaters or large clubs. Needless to say, it was amazing and I was hooked! I soon discovered The Dead as well…and at times, I’d say that I more strongly connected with the Dead and all that they created, but at the time and at my age, I identified with Phish more. They were the new leaders and I was jumping on the train relatively early. I did get to see Jerry twice before he died though, so I feel pretty lucky about that, even if I was a punk teenager seeing the Dead. Ok, not sure where I’m going with this. So I started seeing Phish whenever I could. If they were anywhere close to the Northeast, I would be there. Not sure how my parents let me drive several hours on a school night or take a train to MSG to go see a hippy show, but they seemed ok with it, so I did it. Little did they know! Ha!
Over the years, my interest would fade and increase at different times. The funk of the late 90’s grabbed me, but I was all over the place for a while and Phish was not a big priority for me. The hiatus and then break up didn’t really faze me. I figured they’d be back anyhow. Regardless, through it all, I was a Phishy jam band music loving dirty hippy freak…or whatever label people want to put on it…as opposed to anything else. So in a nutshell my emotional connection to Phish is that they helped mold me as a person who belonged to a community of like minded people.
What do you value from Phish’s music/art? Do you think others should agree?
The biggest thing I value is the musical talent. I’m still in awe at certain things they do. I will never be as good as them, but that doesn’t keep me from trying! I love the diversity in their music. I don’t think there is a genre of music that has not shown it’s face somewhere in the annals of Phish. I do get pissed when people say blanket statements like “Phish sucks!” I want to yell at them and ask if they have a fucking brain at all or if there is something wrong with their hearing! Everybody has different tastes. If you don’t like the music they play, that is fine and understandable if isn’t your thing…but I don’t see how ANYONE can deny the talent that they have individually and as an ensemble. It’s undeniable in my opinion. They don’t suck. You just don’t like them!
The other thing I really value is that in a time when record companies were becoming more and more controlling and turning musicians into “product producers”, Phish was able to defy that trend and continue doing the things the way they wanted to. Obviously they followed in the mold of the Dead, but they pretty much picked up the fading debris of Jerry and the Grateful Dead at the time and set a whole new precedent for live music, jam bands and festivals for the next 20 years and counting.
Do you think having an emotional connection to music is required to be a good artist?
Yes and No. I’ve played in all kinds of bands. Funk, Folk, Country, Blues, Rock and “Jam Band” (which can mean a million things. It pisses me off when media lumps Blues Traveler and Dave Mathews Band as the “other” jam bands in the scene). While I played in those bands, I didn’t always love the music or have an emotional connection. However, I was told I was good at it. So, I’d say that was me being a good artist. However, I inevitable left all of those other bands because ultimately I did not have that inner connection to it. So I guess it might not necessarily be a requirement to have that pure connection to be a good artist, but if you want to love what you are doing and have sustained longevity in that particular thing, then I think an emotional connection as absolutely required! I was going to stop there…but I can’t leave it without the disclaimer that having an emotional connection to the music doesn’t necessarily mean that you love every single thing you play. There are Phish songs that I hate playing. I simply don’t like every single song that Phish plays. But, I know what it means to others.. in my band or in the audience. It’s part of the bigger picture and that is what is more important. There are songs I like that I’m sure others don’t like as well. With as many songs that they play, it would be nearly impossible to love them all. But that is part of what makes them so great! Something for everyone! I remember one time when I was feeling a bit poo poo on Phish. I hadn’t been to a show in a little while. But, as I stood there with Benny, and I forget what song it was, I took it all in. I watched the boys on stage, watched the crowd, felt the energy and turned to him and said…ok, now I remember. I get it.