The next Artist Interview Project installment features Darren Rodney, guitarist for the NYC-based band, The Lawn Boys: 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.
Phish has an irresistible aspect to it that fans simply cannot get enough of. The band draws fans to attend concerts over and over. The reason? It’s different every time. Phish believes music should be free and flow. This improvisational style results in new sounds, new songs, and new variants on old songs at every playing. Phish’s live performances have such a strong appeal that other musicians have created tribute bands in the spirit of creativity and love for Phish; one such band is “The Lawn Boys.” I interviewed Darren Rodney, the lead guitarist for the band, as part of my final project for my Philosophy course.
What is immediately striking about several of Darren’s answers is that they are in line with many insights brought to us by canonical philosophers. With Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy in mind, I asked him if he would consider good music as intoxicating, orderly, or some combination of both. His response was remarkably similar to what Nietzsche himself argued; Darren stated, “I think different songs bring about different things that people love about music. Some songs are intoxicating and purely euphoric, where other songs require more thought and have a greater degree of subtly. The best thing about Phish is that they combine those two things, often in the same song.” One thing Nietzsche made clear from his writing is that the best art has a combination of order (Apollonian) and intoxication (Dionysian) (Nietzsche, Section 23). It is quite striking that this complex philosophy is so apparent to the artists who perhaps have not studied it.
In an effort to better understand the intense attractions so many fans feel towards Phish I asked Darren what drew him to the music of Phish. He replied with a statement similar to what philosopher John Drabinski calls an extra-dimensional experience: “Phish broke me out of the pentatonic scale and opened up a whole new world of possibilities. The music was complex, at times incredibly complex, but somehow they kept it melodic and danceable. It took everything I loved about rock and funk, and just expanded the language. When I heard phish, that’s when I really started to practice.” Drabinski’s philosophy states that normal life has a “leveling effect” on us. The focus work-a-day efficiency is very one-dimensional, and it leads us to seek experiences outside that dimension (Drabinski, p.32). As Darren describes it, playing Phish’s music helps him to break away from the mundane aspects of everyday existence.
Phish fans are much more dedicated fans than most. I asked Darren what makes Phans different from the average fan. He told me “I’ve always felt that Phish fans see themselves as members of a secret club. There is a bond between Phish fans; that we hear something in this band that other people don’t. And that something is very meaningful and powerful.” This again echoes Drabinski’s philosophy in what he calls the “occasional community.” Such communities allow us to escape the one-dimensionality of life by allowing us to combat the usual alienation between individuals and join in an “uncontested community.” In this space, aggression and hostility are nonexistent and excitement and friendship runs rampant (Drabinski p.33-35). This certainly sounds like a secret club to me.
Thank you to Darren and The Lawn Boys for helping me learn more about their band and the Phish community!
What inspired you to become a guitarist?
I’ve been playing guitar for about 23 years and I can tell you the exact day I decided I was going to play guitar. It wasn’t some incredible guitarist that inspired me to play; it was my friend’s older brother who was actually a terrible guitarist ha.
I was 12 years old, hanging at my friends place, and I heard his older brother practicing upstairs. He was playing stuff like Pearl Jam and GnR. And the sound of it, especially the distortion, just blew me away. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Just the look of the guitar itself in someone’s hands struck nerve with me.
I told my mom that day I wanted to start playing guitar, and I needed to have the exact guitar and exact amp that my friend’s brother had. I was pretty naïve at the time and I thought that no other guitar could sound as good as the one I heard. Yet it was a cheap Ibanez and cheap Peavey amp ha. So my mom took me to Sam Ash and bought it all for me. It’s so important to have supportive parents when learning an instrument as a young kid. It can be a very expensive hobby, especially as you get into better gear, and my parents supported me every step of the way. So I’m very grateful to them for that.
What drew you to the music of Phish?
The drummer of The Lawn Boys, Andrew Mega, introduced me to Phish. At the time, I was playing a lot of Led Zeppelin and other rock stuff. The first recording I remember him playing for me was 4-16-92. The entire 4/15 through 4/18/92 California run is incredible, highly recommended….anyway. What immediately smacked me in the face from that recording was Trey. On a lot of the songs, like Possum, he was playing forms I was familiar with; the blues etc… But he was soloing over them in a way I’d never heard before. He was taking them to a whole new level. There were all these dissonant notes, chromaticism, playing the changes the way a jazz musician would. And all with this insanely gnarly guitar tone that could just split your brain open.
Phish broke me out of the pentatonic scale and opened up a whole new world of possibilities. The music was complex, at times incredibly complex, but somehow they kept it melodic and danceable. It took everything I loved about rock and funk, and just expanded the language. When I heard phish, that’s when I really started to practice.
Not to mention songs like Fluffhead and Reba which I thought were an entirely new category of music; Music that could only be described as “Phish Music” for lack of a better term. Those early songs didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard, or heard since.
Once I got over the shock of hearing Trey’s playing, I began to appreciate the full band interplay and improvisational aspect of it all. I still learn something new from them every day that I can take to my own playing.
I also love the silly aspect of the band; that they don’t take themselves too seriously. I work in Finance at RCA Records, and there is a lot placed on the artist’s image. With Phish, it’s only about the music. There was never a conscious effort for the band to have an image, they just walked on stage as themselves and I found that refreshing.
Why did you decide to perform the music of Phish?
It started out as just something to do for fun; we had no intention of starting a phish tribute band. Myself, and our old bassist, Brad Weiger, were in another band at the time. Brad, Andrew and I decided to learn NICU, Chalkdust Torture and Reba. We just wanted to have some fun in the studio and take on the challenge of Reba. It was so much fun that we just kept learning more songs until eventually we had enough to do a gig.
From a business perspective, we felt there was a real opportunity to have a successful cover band. There are tons of phish tributes around now, seems like a new one pops up every week, but at the time when we started the group there really weren’t many; really none in the NYC area. So we were confident there would be an audience, as long as we did the music justice.
From a creative perspective, Phish’s music allowed us to go to places that our original music wasn’t allowing us to go. Some people question why would waste our talents playing other people music. But they don’t realize just how much better we’ve gotten as musicians playing Phish’s music. It challenges us, and allows us to improvise and be creative in a way that other music doesn’t.
And most of all, it’s just damn fun to play Phish songs. And music should be fun.
How would you define art? What makes sets good art apart from bad art?
I guess I’d define art as anything that moves people emotionally. Whether its music, or a painting, or just a story someone is telling. If something elicits an emotional response, I’d consider it art.
Art is totally subjective. “Good” or “Bad” is in the eye of the beholder. It drives me crazy when people argue over what good music is and what bad music is. It’s a pointless argument. Britney Spears music doesn’t bring about an emotional response from me. But there are other people out there to which her music means a great deal. Who am I to tell them it’s not good music.
What makes the music you perform in a tribute band original?
This all goes back to the heart of Phish’s music. Once you are through the written part of the song (and sometimes even during the written parts), you’re free to go wherever you want. That’s when everyone in the band could truly be themselves. Sure, we jam in the style of phish, but that doesn’t mean we don’t put our own personal touch on the jams.
I’m studying jazz guitar now, and I’d like to try and bring some of that influence into The Lawn Boys.
Is being original with phish style music easier?
This goes back to my last answer. I wouldn’t say it’s “easier”, but the free nature of their music allows us to put our own spin on things.
Being a Phish Phan, what makes Phans different from the average fan?
Phish fans are ravenous, it’s a sickness ha; same thing with Dead fans. At some point in their life, every big Phish fan couldn’t get enough of their music, and the size of their catalog, and endless recordings of live shows just fed the beast. Every version of every song is different, so when the Reba jam comes, even if you’ve heard 346 Reba jams, you’re still incredibly excited to see where the 347th is going to go.
And I’ve always felt that Phish fans see themselves as members of a secret club. There is a bond between Phish fans; that we hear something in this band that other people don’t. And that something is very meaningful and powerful. I have a few friends that hate Phish; they think its absolute garbage. But that makes it even more special to me. Like we know something they don’t know.
And Phish fans love to turn other people onto Phish, although they are not always successful. I didn’t know what my wife would think of Phish when I first played it for her. Turns out she absolutely loved it. It’s a good feeling to see someone get into Phish, it blows their mind and they have so many questions.
Why do The Lawn Boys refrain from performing during Phish tours?
It’s really just out of respect for the band. I don’t think people want to see a cover band when the real thing is touring. Plus, it gives us an opportunity to learn more songs when we’re not gigging. It’s tough to add the really difficult material to our repertoire when we don’t take any time off from gigging.
Do you feel there is a link between nature and good art?
I feel like this would be a good question from our old bassist, Brad. He’s the biggest free spirit I know and would have a great answer for this.
I do believe that good artists are usually people that respect nature. Good artists are usually very sensitive people, and nature is usually a big part of their lives. All the whacky people that surround The Lawn Boys are in touch with nature in some sort of way ha. And I do think that mindset makes for better art.
Would you say good music is intoxicating, orderly, or some combination of both?
This is an interesting question. I think different songs bring about different things that people love about music. Some songs are intoxicating and purely euphoric, where other songs require more thought and have a greater degree of subtly. The best thing about Phish is that they combine those two things, often in the same song. Take a song like David Bowie. The written section is very orderly, very structured, and almost mathematical. Then the jam comes and it’s such a release from that structure. The jam is everything that the written part wasn’t.
As a music geek, I love the odd, complex written parts. I love analyzing them. But I also love the jam that basically sits on one chord the entire time. Phish fans love it all.
Will you be performing on the west coast anytime soon?
Unfortunately there are no plans for the west coast. Financially it’s not really doable unless we got offered a really special opportunity.