The next Artist Interview Project installment features Michael Ryan Lawrence, the filmmaker behind We’ve Got It Simple and president of Philly Philms. 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.
In describing the We’ve Got It Simple film project, Pete Mason of PhanArt writes, “Mike Lawrence of Philly Philms has undertaken an impressive project…, creating a documentary that captures who Phish fans are. His film focuses squarely on the fans, not the band, a first of its kind film to be produced.” As part of the final project for my philosophy class, I had the opportunity to interview Michael Lawrence. While there were many aspects of the interview that I found fascinating, I will focus on three topics that relate to course themes: the energy of live performance, subjective power of music and music’s association with religion.
THE ENERGY OF LIVE PERFORMANCE
There is undoubtedly an energy in the air when one experiences a live performance that is different than what one experiences when listening to a recording alone. Mr. Miner, in this blog post, explains this phenomenon, stating:
Seeing, feeling, hearing, experiencing and most importantly, being a part of that process provides us with a net energy gain. This energy buffets us, providing ballast to our bodies and souls.
Michael Lawrence also encounters this vibrant energy at Phish concerts. He states:
Once the lights go down, it is a simple exchange of energy that does it for me. From the band to their instruments, the speakers to my body, the fans to the band and the fans to the fans… all exchanging volumes of positive energy that can be felt, seen even.
Specifically, Lawrence experiences an exchange of energy between the band, music, and audience. Melanie Blood, Professor at State University of New York at Geneseo describes this phenomenon. Blood writes, “In live performance, the audience reacts to the performers who, in turn, react to the audience in a constant cyclic interchange.” This exchange exists between audience members as well. As described by Blood:
Large audiences are more likely to laugh or comment out loud than small audiences, in part because of the anonymity, and in part because others’ reactions encourage and magnify your own reactions. You may laugh more, cry more, jump in your seat or respond vocally in a large, involved audience.
This is easy to see, if you have been to a live Phish concert; one person initiates clapping, a “woo,” or a chant, and others join in.
From an artistic perspective, this “cyclic interchange” of energy would be tremendously difficult to communicate through a painting or sculpture. Because We’ve Got It Simple utilizes video as a means to convey the Phish community’s story, it is able to channel the energy of a live concert. The documentary medium is effective, as it allows the viewer to be a fly on the wall for the phan experience.
MUSIC’S SUBJECTIVE POWER
My second observation, which became clear during my interview with Michael Lawrence, was about music’s subjectivity. Mike explains, “There are few things as subjective as film, but in my opinion, one of them happens to be music.” In Why Music Moves Us, Jeanette Bicknell notes, “Different individuals react differently to the same music, and one individual’s reaction to a particular work or performance may vary on different occasions” (p.87). Earlier in the book, Bicknell questions “How can we be sure that the experiences of music described in this chapter really are experiences of music? Perhaps listeners are attributing to music a power to move them, all the while being influenced by different factors” (pg. 59).
Regardless of whether the power is held in Phish’s music itself or is created by a combination of influences, it is clear that if the music is removed from the picture, these experiences would not be the same- they might not even exist at all. Music is the glue that binds the Phish community, from radically different backgrounds, together. The music acts as a focal point that brings these people together as a community, rather than a group of strangers. Based on individual influences, associations, and life history, people’s perceptions of musical experience are different. This explains why different Phish phans can have wide-ranging reactions to the same concert. So in response to Bicknell’s question about power, I would say that it is shared by the music and external factors, working together to shape an experience.
Robert DeChaine, in Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience, quotes Robert Krizek’s description of an “embodied understanding,” which “positions the event within the temporal span of one (or more) individual’s life story” (pg 81). This explains why music is so subjective; people have different contextual backgrounds from which they draw meaning. Perhaps this is why Michael Lawrence choose to create this film: to give a glimpse into what it is like to be part of this community from many different perspectives. While watching the film, even Phish “haters” may become surprised that phans’ experiences resonate with their own in meaningful ways.
MUSIC & RELIGION
Philip Alperson and Noel Carroll suggest that “music has long been used as a means to help foster certain states of consciousness in religious contexts. Perhaps this occurs because of a presumed similarity between aesthetic experience and religious experience” (pg 5). In my interview with Michael Lawrence, I learned this connection has less to do with the aesthetic value of music and more to do with the perceived energy of the community that the music creates. As Michael Lawrence explains:
It begins with a preconceived belief and understanding, that you either discovered alone, or were led to by a friend or family member. You go into the show with both expectations and hope as well as the excitement of the unknown.
This is very similar to an experience one might have when being introduced to a new church.
In our class discussions, we described these sorts of experiences as being “sublime.” Bicknell states that “in judgments of the dynamically sublime, the object or phenomenon in question is perceived as something mighty or powerful which has no power over us” (pg 33). I think a better way of understanding the sublime would be as something mighty or powerful whose power is greater than one can conceptualize. This relates directly to religion in the fact that religion often provides people with answers to questions that are beyond comprehension, such as the meaning of life or the creation of the universe.
Michael Lawrence describes how the experience of a Phish concert moves beyond the secular world. When describing the incredible energy of a Phish concert, he remarked “even non-Phish fans that end up at the show are typically moved by that palatable energy that circles the room at a Phish show. That is the Church for me.”
Mr. Miner similarly remarks that “the energy manifested at Phish shows, both internal and conjoined, is unlike any secular experience.” This experience can happen when someone attends a new religious congregation and finds the congregation and hymns to be moving or meaningful. It is also what can happen to someone attending their first Phish concert or their fiftieth. This is all possible because music uses its own sublime “language” unlike written or spoken word to connect people with themselves, with others, and with the divine. Michael Lawrence attempts to capture this magic in his documentary, We’ve Got It Simple.
As a filmmaker, what makes the Phish community a good subject for a documentary?
Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better subculture of humans to make a documentary about because the “world of Phish” is so vastly unique, interesting and even complicated in a sense. Yet I must admit I am biased because I am not only a filmmaker but a Phish fan myself, and have been since the early 90’s. However, I don’t think that my being a fan makes much of a difference in that this film, with any luck, will accomplish two things. First and foremost, it will celebrate the world that is Phish and their fans, and put on formal record the world us fans know so dearly. Fans of Phish will see themselves in the film and so there is an easy audience there. But perhaps more importantly, We’ve Got It Simple will shed some more light onto this world for those who are not inside of it, and hopefully better explain the completely compulsively and passionately unique fan base to those who fall into the group of people who “don’t get Phish” as we know there are plenty! ☺
Why did you choose to source your material for We’ve Got It Simple from phans?
The most important aspect of Phish as an entity is their fans. Sure there would be no fans if there was no Phish, but I’m not sure there would be Phish without the fans. Particularly in the early years when loyally loving fans obsessively taped, collected, traded and shared the music of Phish. Long before the internet, long before mp3’s and cd’s even, there were the fans as the roots of the band’s growth and expansion out of Vermont and into the world. A true street team to say the least.
So naturally it was my goal to have that involved spirit continue, and to have the fans be as much a part of the source material for this film as any film before. In fact, we are still actively seeking fan submitted material and will until we make our final edit. I may be the director of We’ve Got It Simple, but I am only one fan of many. We want the fans to be happy, this is their film too!
What unique aspects or attributes of Phish’s music enable it to create such a strong community of phans?
I think Phish’s music naturally attracts open minded individuals for a multitude of reasons. For one, just the idea of improv makes Phish stand out from most bands, and fans of Improv know just how difficult and vulnerable that style of music can be to play, especially live, so there is a natural attraction to it for sure. In return, the band feels comfortable taking risks and allowing their “jamming” to go places on stage that most bands would never dare to for fear of failure. While there is the never-ending comparisons to the Grateful Dead, and probably will be, they are different bands in so many ways. However, they do have a cross section of fans that is undeniable and that is most likely due to the improve-style of music both bands play, and also why they both have such strong communities.
In addition to that, I think the many years of touring, which many fans have followed at some point, has created a sense of community itself. While most music fans will see their favorite band when they come to town, Phish fans travel to towns the band is playing. This leads to adventures and experiences unlike a local show, which naturally keeps people coming back for more. Also, the away from home shows have in a way created their own little communities in the lots. Places like Shakedown Street where fans can buy food, clothing, pins and prints while enjoying a little pre-show party can only reinforce the sense and sensibilities of community.
Who is your ideal audience for We’ve Got It Simple? Do you think the film will be of interest to viewers who are not familiar with Phish?
Obviously Phish fans, this is the film about them, for them and as we discussed, made by them. They are the audience we strive to please and impress, that I won’t argue. However, the end goal is to really tell our story from the inside out and hope that those not family with Phish, or worst, the haters that certainly exist, can better understand where we all are coming from. And if not, taboot, taboot! ☺
Do you think Phish’s improvisational music and unexpected performances foster a unique culture and fan community?
You certainly have a great set of questions! I should have read them all first before answering because I am jamming multiple answers into one question. But to reiterate, yes I think the improvisational music and unexpectant nature of their live show certainly fosters a unique community, mostly because of the type of personalities such things attract. The shows are the never-ending and always changing narrative of the band and thus part of the fabric that holds us all together.
How would you describe the emotional experience of attending a Phish concert? What aspects of this experience do you hope are conveyed in We’ve Got It Simple?
Well this is only my point of view, and I’m sure the experience of seeing Phish live varies by as many people that attend, but for me seeing Phish live it a very spiritual experience. It has all the blocks checked off for what a significant spiritual experience should have, ya know. It begins with a preconceived belief and understanding, that you either discovered alone, or were led to by a friend or family member. You go into the show with both expectations and hope as well as the excitement of the unknown, as we discussed earlier.
Then you have the ritual of it all, again very much a part of all spiritual experiences. The day of, the clothes you wear, the mindset you are in, the things you do, the food and wine, the body and blood so to speak that occurs in the lot. All these things set the stage for the gathering of bodies, the eventful shared experience that looms that night. And most of all, the connections to other humans that believe the same as you do has to be the root of it all. Those are the things that are measured for me and make the experience of seeing Phish live a spiritual experience up to showtime.
But once the lights go down, it is a simple exchange of energy that does it for me. From the band to their instruments, the speakers to my body, the fans to the band and the fans to the fans… all exchanging volumes of positive energy that can be felt, seen even. This, more so than anything I mentioned above is something that is undeniable. Even non-Phish fans that end up at the show are typically moved by that palatable energy that circles the room at a Phish show. That is the Church for me. That is ultimately what keeps me going back. It’s all great, this community, the places we travel, the food, the art, the lots and the people… but at the end of the day.. it is that musical connection that keeps me going back again and again!
What, in your view, makes a documentary a successful work of art? Can a documentary be beautiful? Do you think We’ve Got It Simple will meet your criteria for success?
There are few things as subjective as film, but in my opinion, one of them happens to be music. So a film about the fans of a band’s music is a double edged subjective sword. For me, the story of the fans is a beautiful one and more importantly, one that deserves to be told from the inside out. So yes, a documentary can be beautiful both in the literal visual sense but also in the way it conveys the world around us and those who reside in it.
If I can show those outside the world of Phish fans, even a sliver of the beauty that I know this community to be, it will be a successful film. As far as my own criteria for success, I’m not sure I even have one. To me a film is art, and there are different reasons for creating art as there are for ingesting it. Sometimes they are the same, and sometimes one is more successful than the other. But to be a success, a documentary needs to change the way people think about the topic. So that might be a jaded fan who realized just how special this fan base is after watching it, or a non-Phish fan that sees the film and then “gets it” or at least understands us all better. Regardless, if We’ve Got It Simple can manage to shed some light onto the greatest fanbase in music today, it will be a success, no matter how small and independent that success may be. In the end, it really don’t matter to me, for We’ve Got It Simple, Cause We’ve Got A Band!