The next Artist Interview Project installment features DeadPhish Orchestra drummer Chris Sheldon and bassist Brian Adams. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by an audio recording of their interview.
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.
Brian Adams and Chris Sheldon have been playing with one another since 2003. Chris is the original drummer of Phix, one of the first Phish cover bands. He’s now the drummer in DeadPhish Orchestra. Brian had 10 days to quit his bar job and learn 30 songs to go on tour as the new bassist for Phix. Today Brian also plays with Chris in Deadphish Orchestra. They estimate that they have played over two thousand shows together, thanks to the numerous bands in which they have both played. Memories of their strong friendship shone through in our interview, along with their powerful understanding of their musicianship and the roles of Phix and DeadPhish Orchestra (DPO) in the Phish community.
There is a lot of risk in trying to celebrate the work of Phish as a cover band. Phish is a well-known group with a more-than-dedicated fan base. As Chris Sheldon says in our interview, “We were really serious…We were like ‘we have to do this so good that no one else even wants to do this.’ That was…our attitude.” While it can be difficult for a tribute band to express individuality, Phix and DPO are able to do so thanks to the improvisational style of Phish. For Phix and DPO, just like Phish, “jamming” is a critical element of their live performances. In his essay “On Musical Improvisation,” Philip Alperson explains the creativity involved in musical improvisation. He writes, “Sometimes the activity under discussion seems to be a variety of performance, sometimes a kind of composition, other times a kind of editorial activity which blurs the performance/composition distinction altogether” (p.17). For DPO and Phix, musical improvisation falls under the third category where the activity is blurred.
In our interview, Chris and Brian discussed makes a Phish cover song a form of art. Chris explains:
Chris: Just like any symphony that is covering orchestra work, they are still going to breathe a little bit of different life into it than another symphony might. I make that comparison sometimes…that is what every orchestra does when they pick up a piece of music. We wouldn’t be happy in a AC/DC cover band where you playeda song the same way every time.
Brian: Dress like them, big show.
Chris: That wouldn’t be fun for us at all. The only fun part is that we get to change it and make it different.
Brian: And it really is just interpreting the improvisational section of the jams. That is a lot of fun. Just right in the moment in the mood.
Chris: Just how it goes so many different ways every time and where you hit this thing where you are like ‘Oh this is new territory that I’ve never gone to before.’ That is such a cool feeling. That’s when the improv is good– when something happens, and you all jump on it and build.
For Brian and Chris, this shared experience of musical improvisation not only celebrates a band that they respect, but also creates a new piece of art; their jamming breathes new life into each performance that is their own. In this way, they produce original artwork.
Jamming requires the overall skill of reflexivity. Reflexivity in a musical context or performance can be defined into two separate categories: formal and social-psychological reflexivity. Formal reflexivity happens when musicians consider if it is possible for them to communicate and accomplish purposeful interaction. Social-psychological reflexivity looks at the communicative act during an event in which humans interact and affect one another. In Jnan Blau’s article, “A Phan on Phish: Live Improvised Music in Five Performative Commitments,” Blau identifies five commitments of Phish’s live performance: flexibility, play, risk, groove, and reflexivity. He explains one of the two functions of reflexivity within a performance, “social-psychological reflexivity, which focuses on the communicative act within a context pervaded by humans interacting and interaffecting each other” (Blau, 2010).
When I asked Chris and Brian about the five commitments of a Phish performance in relation to their own performances, they discussed reflexivity:
Chris: Well the last one you said… the reflexivity thing, it encompasses a lot of it, because… [a jam is] a living thing. You know, you hear something, you are reacting to it and that is the ultimate… that is the only way to really improve is to listen a lot and respond.
Brian: Yeah, those guys listen and play off so well and they have done it a lot. There are little things you’ll hear someone play and it will make you react. It’s almost like riding a bike… for example, I can hear some kind of fill he [Chris] plays that I have heard him do 2,000 times and I know what he is going to do next, and we feed off that.
Chris: And that comes from playing together a lot.
The commitment to reflexivity is intimately related to that of risk. As Blau shares, “it’s inevitable that the live moment will yield mistakes. It is an ontological fact of performance that human fallibility should be inescapable. In other words, improvisation is, by its very nature, risky” (Blau, 2010). Chris made this connection in our discussion:
Chris: They [Phish] all have great ears so when they hear one thing they are able to adjust to it and create this new thing. And they’re not afraid, which is the risk thing because you have to be able to have the balls to go to that place that you have never been to… For a lot of musicians it’s hard because you want it to sound good; you don’t want to have a train wreck but you want it to sound new and fresh. So if something just happens and somebody either does something wrong or an instrument stops working or I drop a stick, it just adjusts the groove and so it makes everyone adjust slightly. But if everybody is on the same page, it is cool when those things happen. It becomes a fun thing because you are like “ok how do we like get out of this and get back to sounding like we meant to do?”… It’s all like a living breathing thing for sure when it is done right.
This is social-psychological reflexivity; Chris and Brian are not only aware of the risk within their live music, but also of the communication that happens within their performances. Through their jams, they reciprocally affect each other due to the mutually created sounds and motions. This exemplifies their strong connection as musicians, as well as their love and respect for Phish and the Grateful Dead.
Another theme from my conversation with Chris and Brian is the affective ties that their audience has to their music. I use the word affect to highlight how we feel music in our bodies. In his article, “Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience,” D. Robert DeChaine describes this concept:
Affect is the intensity that allows us to feel. It is something prior to conscious thought, a primary condition andconditioner of our ability to feel happy or sad or angry, for instance. Affect is a conduit between our bodies and our souls, and it represents an intersection of our bodies and the outside world (86).
Chris and Brian shared examples of these kinds of intense affective responses to music in their audience members:
Brian: We see a lot of joy with people. I remember there was one girl who came up to us. She was in tears and said, “Can you please play ‘Wharf Rat?’ I had a dog named August West who just passed away, and it would mean a lot to me.” So we played “Wharf Rat” and she was just balling her eyes out.
The combination of Phish and the Grateful Dead’s music with DeadPhish Orchestra also results in unique emotional responses:
Chris: Another girl came up to us– Paul and I– after a show one night, and she was like “I heard about you guys, and I trashed you so bad because I didn’t ever see you… Someone made me come to the show and I feel so bad. I’m so sorry.” She was crying. She had such an amazing time at the show that she felt so bad for talking shit about us before seeing us… She let go enough to get past her own opinion. We love turning Deadheads into Phishheads; people think they don’t like Phish before they see us and then after they see us: “Oh I never really liked Phish until you guys played it!
In these cases, the intensity at which the audience members allow themselves to feel within the moment frames their experience of the musical performance. In each example they shared, a fan’s relationship to the music was changed by their emotional connection to it.
DeadPhish Orchestra and Phix aim to celebrate and recreate the feelings and experiences that one might have at a Phish show. Being able to interview Chris Sheldon and Brian Adams was an honor because of the vast experience that they shared with me. Their passion for creating, sharing, and respecting music was evident throughout the interview. Learn more about DeadPhish Orchestra and check out their upcoming shows on the band’s website. Phix “retired” in 2008 but they will occasionally get together and perform as they did in 2017 for a reunion in Colorado. Learn more about Phix and watch for updates online. Make sure you watch DeadPhish Orchestra play Llama/Cassidy and YEM/Viola Lee Blues!