AIP: Marco Walsh

The next Artist Interview Project installment features Marco Walsh, President of the Mockingbird Foundation and co-editor of The Phish Companion: A Guide To The Band & Their Music (TPC3). 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.

Learn more about the Mockingbird Foundation and order your copy of TPC3 on the organization’s website.  Follow Marco Walsh (@MarcoEsc) on Twitter and the Mockingbird Foundation on Twitter (@mbirdfoundation) and Facebook.

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In an interview with Marco Walsh, president and cofounder of The Mockingbird Foundation, a non-profit organization designed to raise funds to support music education for children, I learned what it truly means to be Phish phan. His work with this unique organization in which all staff members are unpaid volunteers has led to the creation of the 3rd edition of their book, The Phish Companion: A Guide to the Band & Their Music, a highly detailed and comprehensive tome that spans Phish’s entire career. All net proceeds from the sale of the book go directly to charity.

 

Mr. Walsh’s enthusiasm for Phish and his descriptions of his early experiences at their concerts reflect the idea that to attend a Phish show is to have a Dionysian experience. It is to be so magnetically involved that it almost seems irrational. In The Birth of  Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche maintains his assertion that a Dionysian experience of music is essential to living life to the fullest. He states those who view this type of musical experience with contempt “have no idea how corpselike and ghostly their so-called ‘healthy-mindedness’ looks when the glowing life of the Dionysian revelers roars past them” (Nietzsche, 16).

This Dionysian type of experience seems to be common for Phish phans, at least if Marco Walsh is any indication of what determines a typical phan. He was gratefully forthcoming in sharing his journey from being a Deadhead to becoming a Phish phan. When asked what attracts him most to Phish, he replied:

There was so much energy in the music, speed, precision, creativity, humor. Crazy fast musical acrobatics, with turns on a dime and stops on a nickel. Frenetic lights.

To what does Marco attribute this sense of euphoria? It is partly due to the community he joined when he first started following the band. John Drabinski uses the term “occasional community” to describe concertgoers, such as Deadheads, who religiously attend concerts. He argues that despite being strangers prior to the concert, they share a space saturated with friendship, and a communal exchange that is not ordinary. Drabinski mentions that what Deadheads had in common was “a collection of humans that share something essential and decisive in common”  (Drabinski, 35).

This vibrant, occasional  community also seems to apply to the Phish scene. Marco Walsh explains it like this:

Having now been a major Phish fan for half my life, they are pretty much the soundtrack to everything I’ve lived as an adult. Their performances are pure unbridled joy, where I can soar on the energy created between performers and audience, be entranced and amazed by the creativity and talent they share, and feel truly at home among my community of fellow fans. Phish provided much of the glue that brought my wife and I together, and it’s something I joyfully share with my kids.

This sense of community is the catalyst for the Mockingbird Foundation and its ability to prosper with a staff made up solely of unpaid volunteers.

Prior to compiling The Phish Companion A Guide to the Band & Their Music, Phish internet savvy fans shared their Phish experience with each other online. Walsh recalled that there was a great deal of material to discuss such as “their unique nightly setlists, the intrigue of their songs, the whole Gamehendge saga, secret language, inside jokes, tour dates, tapes to trade, etc.” These dedicated fans’ goal was never to hold back but to freely share their knowledge of the band with others. It was this principle of sharing that evolved into The Mockingbird Foundation and the publication of their comprehensive collective book; The Phish Companion was born out of the desire to support youth music. Their hope was to inspire young musicians to become the “next Phish.” The first book did so well that a second, and now third edition has been published. It is truly a unique project, when enthusiastic fans can unite their efforts in the spirit of charity.

Walsh defines the work of the Mockingbird Foundation as art. The phans that come together to create The Phish Companion, in what he describes “a labor of love” are not merely random volunteers; they are artists. In much the same way, Leo Tolstoy believes that art is so much more than just the pleasure it gives:

Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression (Tolstoy, 2).

If art is not only defined by the pleasure one receives from it, perhaps it is also defined by the goodness it spreads. For example, one may consider The Mockingbird Foundation as a way to unify and edify the music community. Marco Walsh began working for The Mockingbird Foundation in 2000. However his work started long before that. In April of 1992, he attended his first of 111 Phish concerts, and that was the beginning of journey that would lead to the over one million dollars in funds raised by the foundation to support music programs. As Walsh states:

And when you hold the finished book in your hands, and see the love and care that went into its creation, feel the quality and beauty of its execution, experience the joy and reflect upon your past experiences with your favorite band, and realize just how awesome it is to be a Phish fan and part of a community that comes together to do these amazing things – I’d call that art!

Who can argue with that?

Interview Transcript

Background: I live in Santa Cruz, California, where after several years as stay-at-home-dad to young twins, I am now looking to return to work as a project manager in the tech industry. My first Phish show was on 4/17/92 at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, and my most recent show was last week at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, my 111th show. I joined the board of directors of The Mockingbird Foundation in 2000, and now serve as board president, where I help manage and direct the Foundation’s day-to-day activities. I am also co-editor of the 3rd edition of our book The Phish Companion, published by the Foundation in June of this year.

My first question is what one element attracts you most to the band Phish and their music?  Can you name one particular moment when you realized you had become a “phan”?

I first became aware of Phish in early 1992, as a Deadhead, college student and early internet geek. I was active on rec.music.gdead, a USENET newsgroup (the first generation of internet group discussions) devoted to Grateful Dead talk. Fairly often, enthusiastic fans would write about this young band Phish, and others would say “you kids take that talk somewhere else; this is a Grateful Dead group.” That March, fans set out to create a newsgroup to discuss Phish – a process that required a certain number of people to e-mail vote “yes” – and someone posted to rec.music.gdead asking for help with votes, saying “a lot of Phish fans are also Deadheads, and lots of Deadheads are getting into Phish.” I cast my yes vote, the new rec.music.phish was created, and I followed the talk for a few days before leaving because I had no clue what the hell they were talking about with these strange song names like “Foam,” “Tela,” “Llama” and “YEM.”

About a month later I saw that Phish was coming to town, and it happened to be on a night that I really wanted to get out to see some live music. So with third eye wide open I headed down to the Warfield to check out this “new” band.

I was intrigued from the first note. There was so much energy in the music, speed, precision, creativity, humor. When they wailed, they fuckin’ WAILED! Crazy fast musical acrobatics, with turns on a dime and stops on a nickel. Frenetic lights. Strange looking dorky guys on stage doing goofy dance steps. Looking at that setlist, it’s no wonder they absolutely shredded the last remnants of my poor brain: A grooving “Runaway Jim” opener, followed by the tricky composition of “Foam,” a 200 mph “Sparkle,” amazing latin rock jams in “Stash” (and how did everyone know to yell “WOO!” over the woodblocks?!?), then this bizarre bearded troll in a dress came out with a trombone to drive home just how much I didn’t know I didn’t know I DIDN’T KNOW THAT I WAS THAT FAR GONE!!! “Cavern” had its strange lyrics and syncopated dance. In “Reba” the lyrics got even stranger and the soaring jam was so glorious and I had no idea what “bag it tag it sell it to the butcher in the store” meant but I was all for it. “Bouncing” had the balcony moving even more than a Garcia show, “Landlady” gave us more latin rock and syncopated dance moves, and finally the set-closing “Bowie” – which I now recognize was actually one of their best ever – full of musical language (did everyone just collapse to the ground? WHAT?!? Wait, was that “The Simpsons”? What is going on here?!?) and then with more crazy lyrics (“I catapult downtown” what? “Tube in my WEEN”?!?) dropped in between these insanely fast guitar riffs, the curtain dropped on a set that truly left a smoking crater of my mind…

Frankly, after all that (plus a smokin’ set by opener Widespread Panic) I was sure they were done. After all, how could anyone follow that, right? Thankfully as I tried to leave, a friend stopped me saying “don’t go; there’s another set!” The curtain rose to a bathtub next to the drums, with weird people dancing across the stage and climbing in while the band screamed “whoooooooooooooah.” Next came “YEM” – tramps, vocal jam and all. Followed by “Fluffhead” in all his fluffy fluffy glory. A beautiful breather in “Squirming Coil,” then the robotic madness of “Tweezer,” some bluegrass, and a return of that strange troll, this time singing Neil Diamond?!?

I realize this is becoming a long answer to a short question, but bear with me. From the beginning of that first show, I knew I had stumbled onto something very special, very unique and that really resonated with me. The show echoed in my skull for weeks, months, and that summer I went to catch them opening for Santana to try and confirm that what I’d seen was real. (It was very real, and with jaw dropped and mind blown I watched Fish on Electrolux swap licks with Carlos on lead guitar.) I knew that this was gonna be my band, and I was in for the long haul. I picked up their studio albums (spent a LOT of time with Junta, Lawn Boy, Nectar and Rift in my Walkman, sometimes with one tape in the left ear and a different one in the right…), jumped back into rec.music.phish, and set off on the quest that continues to this day, to try and figure out just what the hell I experienced that April night in 1992.

What is the single element in their music that attracts me? I can’t pin it on one. It’s that perfect package of talent, virtuosity, creativity, mystery, community and humor. I also think that I better connect with Phish because we have a lot in common. Where the Grateful Dead were a generation older and drawing from earlier musical traditions, Phish was like me: suburban kids who grew up in the ‘70s listening to classic rock and watching Saturday morning cartoons. Their musical roots were my musical roots; their strange sense of humor was my strange sense of humor. They were my band.

In an abstract by Jnan A. Blau, he writes “Phish’s performances thus reach out spatiotemporally, mattering – often deeply and intensely in myriad ways to many people.” Do you experience strong emotional connections to Phish’s music and, if so, can you describe it?  What, if anything, does their music inspire in you?

Having now been a major Phish fan for half my life, they are pretty much the soundtrack to everything I’ve lived as an adult. Their performances are pure unbridled joy, where I can soar on the energy created between performers and audience, be entranced and amazed by the creativity and talent they share, and feel truly at home among my community of fellow fans. Phish provided much of the glue that brought my wife and I together, and it’s something I joyfully share with my kids (who are just about old enough to read Icculus).

I recently received a copy of The Phish Companion (Third Edition) and found it to be extraordinarily thorough in its attention to detail and quite helpful to me, a person who until very recently was quite unfamiliar with Phish. You mention that it took approximately twenty-five years to put together. To what would you attribute your perseverance for that length of time?

One of the truly unique and pioneering aspects of Phish was their Internet-savvy fan community. The first fan-run Phish mailing list started in 1989 or so, years before the internet became mainstream. When we pulled together 25 years ago to create rec.music.phish as an online home for our growing network of dedicated fans, only four other “bands” had top-level newsgroups of their own (The Beatles, Grateful Dead, Dylan and Kate Bush). Phish provided a musical experience of such quality and diversity that it was well worth discussion and analysis, and so we grabbed the nascent technology to support an online community doing so. With Phish there has always been so much to document and “figure out” – their unique nightly setlists, the intrigue of their songs, the whole Gamehendge saga, secret language, inside jokes, tour dates, tapes to trade, etc. As new fans discovered the band, they were eagerly accepted online, where they could dive in and deepen their appreciation of the band through the efforts of the collective.

As we fans documented the Phish experience, it was a very collective, collaborative thing. The core ethic was “share it, spread it, add to it but never sell it.” Fans networked and collaborated on writing down and sharing the setlists of each night’s show, which eventually became a file called the “Helping Phriendly Book” that was shared freely among fans. We made and traded live cassettes, running tape trees to get new shows out to everyone as quickly as possible. We analyzed the songs, shared our tales of the journey, made shirts and stickers, helped each other out in getting tickets, and eagerly shared and spread the latest news and rumors about Phish and the scene.

From this early online Phish community, collectively called the “Phish.net”, was born The Mockingbird Foundation. The whole show had grown huge and the fanbase far too large and wide to maintain the whole “share and share alike” ethic, and whether through opportunism or ignorance, people started to sell for their own benefit the community’s setlists, writings, and live tapes. recognizing the clear desire for books and other products that celebrate Phish, a group of volunteer Phish.netters set out to create them with all proceeds going to charity. We selected youth music education as something that both the band and fans could support, where there was great need, and with the modest hope that in some small way our efforts might kindle a spark in the kids who grow to become the next Phish.

As a fan community we were already big into documenting and writing about Phish. The charitable cause gave us a purpose around which to put these efforts into creating a book. It was a long road and a lot of work, but over time the Foundation was incorporated, a manuscript was written, a publisher was found, a book was born. Fans loved reading it, loved making it, and loved being able to give money to fund some truly amazing grants. The first book sold well, and so the team continued working toward a second, better edition. And through all this, Phish continues to make music that is worth discussing, analyzing and writing about.

This year The Mockingbird Foundation has hit some amazing milestones, always working to represent the very best in all Phish fans. We awarded our 300th grant, bringing the total amount of money we’ve raised and given away to over a million dollars. We created and published our own third edition of the book, a glorious 900-page full color beauty that truly honors the band and the community around it. This is all volunteer – we have no paid staff, salaries, offices, etc. We persevere because Phish perseveres, and because helping kids make music is an important thing to do. There are a lot of really talented people who are into Phish, and thankfully we’ve been able to pull many of them together around our charitable mission to do some really special things.

This book clearly is a work of art and as stated on page 8, “a labor of love.” Focusing solely on what you do as an editor, what defines your work as art?

It’s a “labor of love” because we are all volunteers; much like the earliest Phish.net, we are all contributing to enhance everyone’s appreciation of the band and further celebrate this thing we all do. Much of what I did (and do) as editor has been project management – lining up all the pieces that pulled together our goals for the book, finding and working with our talented designers, commissioning the beautiful illustrations, and working with all the right partners to get the book printed, sold and shipped. We’re publishing this edition ourselves, which has given us the freedom to hopefully create something truly spectacular (900 full-color pages, gorgeous linen-wrapped hard cover, the very best illustrations, photos and writing, a true celebration of the band and this community) while, if we do things right, being able to raise a lot more money to fund even more grants to help kids make music.

Most of the actual book editing – the process of pulling together our amazing team of writers and taking a band’s 33+ year career and crafting it into an engaging, entertaining read – was led by our co-editor, the talented and dedicated Phillip Zerbo. Each of the components of the book – the writing, photography, illustrations and design – they are art. The craft of editing it all into a consistent, cohesive unit requires much artistry. And even the business side of things – pulling together the project so that it makes sense, to hopefully create a beautiful product and support an important cause – there’s an art to it. And when you hold the finished book in your hands, and see the love and care that went into its creation, feel the quality and beauty of its execution, experience the joy and reflect upon your past experiences with your favorite band, and realize just how awesome it is to be a Phish fan and part of a community that comes together to do these amazing things – I’d call that art!

The photography included in the book is amazing, yet I imagine a daunting task to choose for publication. Can you tell me a little about the process in choosing which photographs to include. Were they chosen to tell a story?

As the book is presented as a chronology, one might expect to find photos throughout, in chronological order – here are the setlists from 1989, the new songs from 1989, and a bunch of photos from 1989. But our designers suggested a different path: open and close the book with big photo sections, all big full-page or two-page spreads, letting the reader dive into the visual splendor of the Phish experience. While we certainly have a wealth of amazing stage shots, we really set out to choose photos that represent the whole Phish experience…the band, fans, and whole darned scene that together we all make happen.

To find the best photos, we reached out to a lot of photographers who have been shooting the band for years. Phish is a very visual experience – their lighting director Chris “CK5” Kuroda is oft considered the fifth member of the band – and this brings out the best from both amature and professional photographers. We are very grateful to Phish and their management, who gave us permission to use many photos (most never before published) that were shot by pros under contract with the band. We also reached out to the fan community, who responded by sharing some truly amazing shots. We even got a few from one of the band’s managers, who uses his unique access to shoot brilliant photos.

As a non-profit run by Phish fans, the Mockingbird Foundation is an unusual organization. What elements of the Phish community support the extensive financial contributions, time commitment, and logistical responsibilities necessary for it to thrive?

 The Mockingbird Foundation is an all-volunteer 501(c)3 charity with a dual charter: we create and defend intellectual property about the band Phish, and we raise money to fund grants for youth music education by offering products and services to the Phish fan base. As such, we strive to represent the basic good in all Phish fans, and the overall positivity in what we do.

We strive to maintain and advance the ideals and actions of the earliest Phish online community. We sponsor and run www.phish.net, a free website hosting the Foundation’s massive collection of Phish setlists, song histories, show reviews, analysis, and more. Every day thousands of fans come to the site to read about the most recent show, find out what’s coming up, read the blog, track and see statistics for the shows they’ve seen, contribute their own reviews, and talk about whatever in the forums. It’s the continuation and evolution of the fuggles mailing list, r.m.p., gopher,phish.net, IRC EFNet #PHiSH, Netspace, Rosemary’s Digest, the Helping Phriendly Book and everything else that makes up the greater Phish.net. The Foundation provides the technology and support to keep this all running, and our open access means that many other independent sites pull their setlists and other Phish information directly from our database.

The Foundation has a pretty good track record of creating products that fans appreciate and want to support. In addition to the three editions of The Phish Companion, we produced a 2-CD tribute album that still sells plenty of downloads. Many of the top artists from the rock poster scene have created beautiful art prints for the Foundation, which are eagerly collected by fans. We’re finding it possible to create and sell more beautiful things, that in turn let us continue our charitable giving.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve raised and given away over a million dollars. Much of that was raised through our book and product sales. We also receive (and appreciate) generous donations from fans and their families who support our mission, often given to celebrate the anniversary of one’s first show. Phish has also been very generous: for the first few years of the LivePhish download service, the band donated all of their royalties to Mockingbird, and they continue to give a portion of proceeds today. And recently the band’s WaterWheel Foundation has started to support our efforts by matching some of our grants (in some cases letting us double the funds requested by grantees) and by holding pre-show events to benefit Mockingbird.
The Mockingbird Foundation exists and thrives thanks to the generosity of all Phish fans, and we do our very best to honor and return that support. Our volunteers are extremely generous with their time, including the dedicated teams who curate the phish.net setlists, blogs and more; our technical team and forum admins who keep the site running smoothly; the book marketing team who are ever pushing to get all fans to READ THE BOOK; the funding committee that evaluates thousands of requests for grants; the board of directors that awards grants and oversees our operations; the executive team who oversees day to day operations; and Phish fans everywhere who keep on sharing the groove.

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