AIP: Chad Weiner

The next Artist Interview Project installment features Chad Weiner, bassist for the San Francisco-based band, Chum: A Tribute to Phish. 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.

Follow Chum on Twitter (@ChumTheBand) and Facebook. You can also view some of their live performances on the band’s YouTube channel.

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chum

As part of my final assignment, I interviewed musician Chad Weiner, who plays bass for Chum, a San Francisco-based Phish tribute band. Our interview addressed themes I studied in my philosophy course, including art’s relationships to emotion, freedom, and community.

In his essay, “What is Art?,” philosopher Leo Tolstoy defines art by its ability to make its audience feel emotion. In our interview, Chad connects Tolstoy’s conception of art to what Jnan Blau terms the “Phish phenomenon”:

I take Tolstoy to say is that art is best measured by its ability to communicate emotions or feelings, not whether or not an artist is capable of communicating a wide range of emotions.  And you cannot watch fans at a Phish show, you cannot watch my band at rehearsal and you can not explain Phish’s enduring success without recognizing that they are creating a very strong emotional connection with their audience.

Chad describes how Phish cultivates a strong emotional connection with their audience. At the same time, he also recognizes this affective pull to Phish’s music is not necessary. Rather, Chad sometimes sees Phish’s music “emotionally one-note.” He explains:

One of my oldest friends, someone I grew up going to shows with and with whom I’ve spent hours dissecting Phish songs and jams, drifted apart from the Phish scene entirely about 10 years ago.  He’s a professional musician himself and he now finds the music of Phish to be so emotionally empty that it no longer interests him.  While I won’t call it empty, even as a huge fan of the band, I might call it ‘emotionally one-note.’

By this, Chad means that Phish’s music only occasionally ventures into the terrain of rich emotional subjects, such as relationships. However, the key point is that Phish doesn’t play music about politics and history.

We also discussed the power of the Phish community. Chad described how Phish phans make friendships on tour and that concerts are like a family reunion. Philosopher John Drabinski uses the phrase “occasional community” to describe the social aspect of Grateful Dead parking lots and concerts. He writes, “I would never say we held much in common other than the fact that… we occupied the same space. And that perhaps surprisingly, this fellow occupation mattered.” Just as Grateful Dead fans did before them, Phish phans have created a vast social network with shared values and activities.

In his own words, Chad explains this occasional community and how it relates to Chum:

Shows are more fun because we meet people there who have seen us and their gratitude for what we do is still such a shock. I mean, we just don’t take ourselves that seriously… At the same time, by putting ourselves out there, we’re inviting the occasional derision of members of the Phish community who don’t understand the value of a Phish tribute band. I get that and I’m glad there are enough people who see it differently. Most people are just incredibly kind, as you’d expect.

In my interview with Chad, I learned about the service that a tribute band provides to the Phish community. They provide events and space for phans to celebrate Phish’s music, create art, and strengthen community ties.

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Image via Chum’s Facebook page

Although Chad address why some people might not like Phish’s music, it is clear that Phish attracts a passionate fan base. In a blog post we read in this class called, “Why We Come Back,” Mr. Miner he talks about how Phish fans come back to their concerts because they feel a sense of freedom. He writes,

The common thread that binds all Phish fans together is a desire for the transcendence of self and a communion with the collective unconscious. For when we attend Phish concerts, our own sense of importance shrinks as we join a force far greater than ourselves… Phish offers the promise that at any moment, anything can happen. And when they are at their best, ‘anything’ often does. We come back to Phish because of this Freedom. Enmeshed in their live experience, this feeling returns us to a child-like state where our world is fresh and new and we are freed from the worries, obligations, responsibilities and ethical / moral compromises of our day to day selves.

I asked Chad if he thinks Phish’s music creates a feeling of freedom. He said that, while freedom isn’t the right word, there is a bit of freedom when he is playing with Chum. He explains: “There’s probably a bit more freedom in performance and without question the finest moments we have are those moments where we are, as a band, mostly free of awareness and connecting on a different kind of plane.”

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Image via Chum’s Facebook page

Later in the interview, I asked Chad why Phish phans attend so many concerts. He responded:

I think there’s a lot reasons why people return to Phish shows over and over again.  The primary reason, for me, is that every show is different and most of them have a few moments that are transcendent to me and those moments are worth the price of admission because they inspire me and teach me and shatter my expectations of the possible.  It’s also undeniable that many fans have made such incredible friendships on the road that every show feels like a family reunion to them and the experience is as much about the fellow fans as the music and the band.

There is a feeling of curiosity where the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, like a kid watching a magic show. Curiosity, which is distinct from freedom, is the reason Phish phans “come back.”

I enjoyed my interview with Chad and learned a lot about the Phish community from my conversation with him. I’d like to thank him for his thoughtful answers. I had a great experience and wish I could do it again!

Interview Transcript

How did Chum become a band? What made you want to be in a Phish tribute band?

Three of us,–Alex (fake Fish), Eric (fake Trey) and I (fake Mike)—met while just jamming with various people around San Francisco. We soon realized that we each had a particular shared affinity for Phish and thought it would be fun to see if we tackle some of the knottier composed songs; the kinds of songs that only true fans would want to put the time in to learn.

We never had an intention of playing a live show, it was really just a challenge for us. I think we learned “Stash” first and when we realized that it could be done, that you could re-create something that felt enough like “Stash” to be believable, we just started trying more and more songs. (Of course, we were also curious if we could mimic the art of improvisation that Phish has spent 30+ years refining and I’m sure we’ll cover that later on.)

After a while, we had 10 or so songs down, we’d had a few interesting (to us) jams and so we decided we’d see if anyone wanted to hear it. Our first show was on a rainy, Tuesday night and we had an incredible turnout. Out west, we’re pretty starved for Phish and so there’s an appetite to hear these songs and party with friends you’ve met on tour or through other Phish associations.

We’ve been performing through California ever since.

What distinguishes Chum from other Phish tribute bands?

We spend more time listening to Phish than to other Phish tribute bands, but one of the best things about this journey has been getting to know the members of other Phish tribute bands. We’re all trying this really, really hard thing and it’s great to have others to talk to about the experience of trying to re-create some Phish magic.

Early on, I used to send everything we recorded to Shoheen Owhady (The Lawn Boys, Uncle Ebenezer) who was a complete stranger to me and I’m forever grateful for the time he put into providing feedback and advice. He’s become a real friend. Same for Brett McConnell (Shafty, a thousand other awesome bands). He’s such a pro and incredibly gracious. He’s helped me out a ton.

When I do listen to other Phish Tribute bands, I always find something to love. I know how much work goes into what they are doing and I can hear the passion they have for the music and the fans. I learn something from all of them.

 How would you describe your relationship to playing Phish’s music live? Does it help you express any particular emotions? Is it for pleasure? Or something else?

An unquenchable thirst that is occasionally satiated by that rare, fleeting moment when I feel like we as a band have succeeded in having a true ego-less, musical moment. Honestly, learning to improvise is mostly a study in failure. And sure, we’re our harshest critics, but I think the standard has been set so high (thanks for nothing, Phish!) and we know how good it feels when we achieve that 20 sec or 2 minutes of clarity and focus that most of the time we’re just chasing that.

I don’t think the audience knows that, or cares. People seem to get what they want from a Chum show and their applause and support is enough to keep us going. I mean, we love performing. But there’s this interior thing going on for us that is probably more unsatisfied than it looks.

Does Phish’s music give you a feeling of freedom when you are in the audience? What about as a performer?

I don’t think Freedom is the word I can use.   As an audience member, my perspective is so skewed at this point. It’s always been hard for me not to analyze Mike’s playing (even long before Chum existed) but now I’m just filtering so much through the lens of “how would we do this” or more often “how come we can’t do that”?

There’s probably a bit more freedom in performance and without question the finest moments we have are those moments where we are, as a band, mostly free of awareness and connecting on a different kind of plane. But it’s hard to let yourself go when you’re putting on a show, the ego really becomes a blocker sometimes.

 How has being in Chum affected your relationship to the Phish community? Has it changed how you experience concerts?

Shows are more fun because we meet people there who have seen us and their gratitude for what we do is still such a shock. I mean, we just don’t take ourselves that seriously and every time that we play a show that is well attended or every time a stranger thanks us, it just feels so odd. We never expected this passion to have an outlet for so long.

At the same time, by putting ourselves out there, we’re inviting the occasional derision of members of the Phish community who don’t understand the value of a Phish tribute band. I get that and I’m glad there are enough people who see it differently. Most people are just incredibly kind, as you’d expect.

 Are there any other bands that inspire you other than Phish? If so, how do those bands influence Chum’s performances?

There are too many to count. Each one of us comes from a somewhat distinct musical background and this plays such a role in our ability to create new music and sometimes gets in the way of us understanding each other. But my top 10 list of new music for 2015 had nothing on it that sounded particularly Phishy. Without that outside influence I think it would be really easy to fall into a trap of old ideas.

 Do you think people make art and music to express emotion, as Tolstoys says?

This is a really fascinating question in the context of Phish, because it may be hard to find a band that is as polarizing and enigmatic to so many people as Phish.  And I suspect that many people who have listened to Phish but don’t count themselves as fans of band might find it very hard to parse the emotional content of their music.  I think I’m married to one of these people, actually 🙂

But she’s not alone.  One of my oldest friends, someone I grew up going to shows with and with whom I’ve spent hours dissecting Phish songs and jams, drifted apart from the Phish scene entirely about 10 years ago.  He’s a professional musician himself and he now finds the music of Phish to be so emotionally empty that it no longer interests him.  While I won’t call it empty, even as a huge fan of the band, I might call it “emotionally one-note”.  And I often find myself hungering for music or art that explores some of the places that I don’t Phish is particularly skilled at exposing: relationships, history, the state of the world, politics, etc.

But what I take Tolstoy to say is that art is best measured by its ability to communicate emotions or feelings, not whether or not the an artist is capable of communicating a wide range of emotions.  And you can not watch fans at a Phish show, you can not watch my band at rehearsal and you can not explain Phish’s enduring success without recognizing that they are creating a very strong emotional connection with their audience.  It may not be obvious to just anyone; it may take time to discover, and it may be largely about celebration and hedonism, but it’s there if you’re open to it and the signal is strong.  Ultimately, I think they pass the Tolstoy test.

What makes art and music pleasurable?

Count me as one of those who hopes that science might someday provide a more useful answer than I possibly can as a lay-artist without a formal background in Aesthetics, but I think Tolstoy was on to something.  We seek out art for amusement, because it allows us to feel things that aren’t readily accessible to us.  Or because it asks us questions that we don’t get asked that lead us to new thoughts and new connections.  We find humor and we find tragedy in art and we learn how to relate to those things when they happen in our own lives.

One of the albums I listened to a lot last year was Sufjan Stevens’, Carrie and Lowell, a horrifically sad album with some songs that almost always bring a tear to my eye.  And that’s why I love it.  It takes over and I taps into a range of feeling that isn’t a part of everyday existence (in this case, thankfully!).

What is the reason that Phish fans come back to these concerts? Is there a certain feeling they have and it makes them come back?

I think there’s a lot reasons why people return to Phish shows over and over again.  The primary reason, for me, is that every show is different and most of them have a few moments that are transcendent to me and those moments are worth the price of admission because they inspire me and teach me and shatter my expectations of the possible.

It’s also undeniable that many fans have made such incredible friendships on the road that every show feels like a family reunion to them and the experience is as much about the fellow fans as the music and the band.

There was a person who described Phish concerts as Hajj because everyone was there for one purpose. It didn’t matter what you wore and what you looked like you were part of that community. Do you agree? Does it give you a feeling of belonging?

For a group of people who can be ruthlessly critical of the band’s performance at times (despite showing up over and over again), Phish fans are really non-judgmental about the people sharing the live show experience with them (well, as long as you don’t talk while the band is playing or sing along with certain songs).  They are, on the whole, radically open to others in a way that is increasingly unusual in our lives.

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