Phish and Global Mixtape Culture
When I joined the International Mixtape Project, I made two promises to myself. First, I promised myself that all mixes would have a theme and, depending on your definition of theme, I've either accomplished this goal or come pretty darn close. Second, I promised myself that I would include a Phish song on all outgoing mixes. Poor recordkeeping will forever shroud my success or failure, but the intention and its practice are far more interesting, anyway.
Most Americans have heard of Phish and choose to leave it at that. Some people will insist that they simply don't like Phish, even if they've never heard a single song. In response, most 'Phishheads' (or 'Phans') can't necessarily articulate the meaning of their love of the band, nor do they care to convince a newbie why Phish is worth their time. While some of my best friends had already traversed the United States in search of their next fix (or, lord help me, 'phix'), racking up 30 or more concerts before I had ever heard the band play even once, no one forced the band on me. Phish's music wasn't a hard sell in my case—in general, you either get Phish or you don't. As if by fate, my friend's college roommate handed me a copy of Phish's sixth studio album, Billy Breathes—he was a techno DJ and passed his promo copy off to me so fast you'd think the thing had burned a hole in his hand. Although a studio recording is the least common gateway drug to the Phish addiction, that is all it took for me to start my wild ride. Almost 10 years later, hundreds of CDs and cassettes of live recordings collect dust in the closet of my apartment in Las Vegas, Nevada, many of which I may never listen to again. But like every Phan, I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard at least a few of those live recordings and, in true Phishhead fashion, I can barely imagine life without them.
When I received that first disc with the goofy closeup photo on the cover, a new world was unveiled to me almost immediately and, as with any subculture, a new community came with it. A few short months after I found the music, I found the people. No matter if they were there for the party or there for the friends or there for the drugs, they were definitely there. Like many subcultures, Phans simultaneously take part in the norms of society and exist collectively outside it, whether 'scattered, smothered, and covered' at the local Waffle House or sleeping 10 to a room at a Motel 6. Once I belonged to the community, there was finally a relatively generic (or, at least, often repeated) label for my social deviance: "This is our son Ian. Don't worry, he's just a Phishhead." All things considered, this was a small price to pay for transcendence, as anyone who has ever blown a Friday night traveling to a tarmac in Maine can attest.
During the height of the Phish community's prominence, we all seemed to spend our time between concerts on the Internet. After all, we're talking about a band of four dorks from Vermont here. Even though Phish is on permanent hiatus, and Phans have found new reasons to flock to ski resorts and endure sunburn at multi-day festivals, the online community continues to thrive, preserving and debating the past, present, and future of a band that hasn't played a note since 2004. As the original impetus for the community becomes more dispersed, the people who populate it seem to draw closer together. Similarly, as tapes of the band sit like fossils in closets waiting to be unearthed by the next generation of musical archaeologists, so too do songs on thousands of believers' jammy mixtapes wait to be rediscovered by those on whom they are unleashed in all their noodly glory.
Like the international mixtape community, Phans have their own language, tools, and texts. However, the most outstanding similarity is technology. The band has allowed audience taping and distribution throughout its history, even after it started disseminating its own live recordings under the highly lucrative Live Phish banner. Phish and bands like it understand that the more people who hear their music, the better. Echoing Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead's famous taping policy, the band has always subscribed to the golden rule of proliferation: "Once we're done with it, the audience can have it." And as tape shrank into cassettes and cassettes morphed into CDs and Discmans became iPods, the mixtape and Phish communities always seemed ahead of the curve. Lossless formats and faster CD burners both meant the same thing: better-sounding music sooner and more often. And, like the mixtapers who will never become mix-compact-diskers, there are plenty of Phishhead purists who shun technology—the Phan popping in an ancient cassette now and again just for the hiss and druggy fidelity.
When I was a little kid, my parents would grind up my allergy medication and mix it into my dessert to mask the "Chalk Dust Torture" of pills (most Phish fans eventually get over that one, ha). I take the same approach with my mixes, hiding Phish songs between less divisive tracks on each compilation. Thematic mixes about people—try "Fluffhead" or "Suzy Greenberg". Mixes about pets got "Dog Stole Things" or "Harpua". Collections about sleep: "Lengthwise" or "Sleep" (duh). When I started an instrumental mix, I included "The Inlaw Josie Wales", but could have just as easily included any track on Phish's moodiest album, The Siket Disk. And, when Phish doesn't work just right, I have plenty of side projects to choose from: the Oysterhead power trio, the raging horns of early Trey Anastasio Band, the basement demos featuring creative partner Tom Marshall—the list goes on. This tactic is not meant to convert anyone—believe it if you feel it, accept it if you need it, or just pass it on if you don't.
Cover songs, live tracks, live cover tracks. Ballads, instrumentals, instrumental ballads. Side projects, B-sides, side project B-sides. Perhaps one reason Phish is so hard to explain to the unfamiliar and so perfect for mixtape culture is that there is no one song with which the band can be effectively represented (although, if I were to share one and only one Phish song with the rest of the world, it would definitely be "Harry Hood"... or "You Enjoy Myself"... maybe "Seven Below" instead—either way, no version under 12 minutes is worth a damn, anyway). So, it's really hard to explain the full Phish appeal. But, Phish's diversity works in the favor of mixtapes, which thrive on smooth transitions but hate sameness. Pairing Mike Gordon's imaginative nerd-rock with the Shins' emotive paisley-pop, or bookending Vida Blue's Latin period with a David Byrne salsa track keeps it all interesting. Visit a Phish message board today, and two things continue to link the community: a sincere appreciation for Phish's music and everything it brought into the lives of the Phans and a deep respect for any and all music that appeals to the mind, heart, and soul. Time will surely tell if the latter is still true of the mixtape community, if IMP's ever-growing membership hasn't already.
The most important takeaway from the Phishhead community also neatly applies to the global community of mixtapers. If there's just one song on a compilation that makes you take pause, your due diligence is necessary, and the mixer's job is done. Find out more about that band and its community. There may be a bus parked somewhere outside a Waffle House, or a black jacket covered with safety pins, or glowsticks and parachute pants waiting for you. If not, it's just another chance for you and that previously anonymous mixer to get together and create your own new community of believers. After all, every mixtape is meant to change your life.
-- Ian Zeitzer, 03/11/2007