INTERVIEW: DEAN BUDNICK
AUTHOR OF "THE PHISHING MANUAL"
by Benjy Eisen
Already in its third printing since its national release, just under a month ago, The Phishing Manual has been making waves in the ever-expanding sea of Phish fans, interesting everyone from the casual listener to the obsessive die-hard. In the protective yet supportive community that Phish fans have created, there are always questions that many have when something new appears bearing the name, or topic of, Phish. It is on this note that I bring to you this official and *exclusive* interview with the Phish.net's very own, Dean Budnick.
Q: This book comes at a time when Phish is seeing greater popularity than ever before, and with the release of "Billy Breathes," one can only speculate that the band's growth rate will continue to snowball. With that in mind, I'm sure the first question alot of people are going to be wondering when they see this book is: When did you first get hooked on Phish? More specifically, how did you first hear about * them and when was your first show?
I first heard about Phish around 1986. I heard about them through some people I knew who were into the band Max Creek. At that time Max Creek played the Living Room- the old, original Living Room with the bubble, like every Wednesday night or so. So it being Rhode Island, there wasn't too much one could do on a Wednesday night, and invariably we'd head down there. It was there that I first heard people talking about them and it was there that I first saw a sticker or a homemade T-Shirt or something that had their logo, because that logo stuck with me. And so the fisrt time I had an opportunity to check them out I did. It was probably a year later. My first time out, I enjoyed them, but I wasn't absoultely knocked on my ass. Then over the next few years I would see them if the opportunity presented itself. In 1990 I came to Massachusetts after three years in New York (I picked up my law degree at Columbia) and it was then that I really started to make an active effort to see them as often as I could. I had a decent number of tapes prior to then but that was when I started actively collecting and then taping the shows myself.
Q: How many have you seen since?
Triple figures. I've seen more shows than the Red Sox will win games this year. The truth is I'm not sure. I have all my tickets stubs from 1992 on (I really am a stupid fanboy). But I don't have stubs for a number of shows before then. Sometimes when I'm procrasting, I'll think back and try to piece it together. It's hard because I don't have all the tapes and the HPB doesn't have all the setlists.
Q: How did you write the book? I mean, what was the procedure?
Well my starting point was a tour notebook that I had. Pretty much from 1989 on I have a notebook with notes on each of the shows I've attended along with random scribblings on the band itself that I'd picked up along the way. Whenever I heard something interesting from someone, I'd scribble it down in the notebook. At times I can have a bad memory and I'll wonder where I heard something or exactly what it was. So in my tour notebook along the sides of the page I'd write in little tidbits that I'd hear about the band. Many of these are barely legible as I scrwaled them down after a show and often I'd be too exhausted and the like to really be good about it. But then again, I only did this for own satisfaction because my obsession with the band was starting to build, there was no media coverage whatsoever and I was hungry for info on the band. Many of these tidbits are from before I started reading rec.music.phish around five years ago. That was a big moment for me when I discovered the newsgroup and I finally had an opportunity to hear people talking twenty-four hours a day (or whenever I logged on) in an intelligent manner about the band. In fact, for a while, it was quite intimidating but exhilerating to realize that there were so many like-minded people out there. But I'm drifting... Okay, so I started with my tour notebook (which I've since learned that many other phans produce - one day I think it would be cool to have a bunch of us who keep tour notebooks just to get together and rap about them - how we got started, why we keep it up, etc.). Anyhow, I started with my tour notebooks but next, in order to really produce the kind of book about Phish that I would want to read, I decided that I would listen to all of Phish tapes in chronological order, in order to make notes about what I heard - so I could talk about trends, various versions of songs, etc. It was actually quite an intimidating task and I put it off for quite awhile.. But finally one night, I remember this vividly, I plunked that first tape into my walkman and went for a walk. And that's how it started. I listened to every show I had and took notes. Of course, I'm always getting tapes so they'd come in while I was doing this. So I made a first run through my tapes and then I stopped at 12/31/93 and then went back to listen to all the tapes I had picked up in the two or three months since I started. Actually, at that point I sort of cheated. I probably had listened to about 900 of the 1500 Phish hours or so that I had then, but at that point I started writing. Then during this initial writing phase when I took breaks, etc. I continued listening to tapes until I made it through New Years '95. I have about 8 notebooks full of illegible, anal notes about variations in songs, stage banter, etc. The sad thing is that very little of that work is directly represented in the book. That's one thing that I'm proud of, all the work that went into every individual recommendation of each version of each song in the book- those aren't haphazard. I mean, they're filtered through my head but given the intensive listening I did, I can guarantee you that I can distinguish variant performances of each song. I can't necessarily tell you if they're good- that's subjective (for instance the 10/7/95 Hood that some love but many loath), but I can point out distinctive versions. I think that I've done that in the Phishing Manual.
Q: Why did you write the book?
I think first and foremost I wrote the book because it would be fun. Imagine having the luxury of sitting down and thinking intently about your favorite band and then...it turned out to be quite a bit more labor intensive than I had anticipated and it was frustrating at times but all in all it was probably as fun as you'd think it would be. Beyond that, I wrote it hoping to make everyone's show experiences a bit more pleasant, or perhaps at least to make my show experience a bit more pleasant. If there's one thing that really irks me it's when people use knowledge as a weapon. I suppose I should explain: In recent years the Phish community has exploded and there is a wide range of people who attend shows, people with varied experience and information. And I was just plain sick of hearing stories about people who were cruel to others because they didn't have the same level of knowledge about the band. It started driving me crazy when people would flaunt their knowledge and use it aggressively, simply because others had no reference point -or reference book- from which to gain that core knowledge. Then over the summer of 1995 while I was driving with my sister and a couple of her friends from Telluride, Colorado out to Red Rocks, a long drive, we spent a long portion of that drive talking about Phish and as I was telling story after story and assuming shared knowledge that I realized wasn't there. I recognized that I had been attending the meetings for a long time now and that I had plenty of info to share. It's weird, I say this from time to time but when I'm at a show it really seems like I've aged but nobody else has. I'm now on the far side of 30 but everyone else seems to be in their teens or early twenties. So during that Telluride drive I started thinking that many of the people who used to see the band had moved on to other things and that I was one of an ever diminishing number who continued with this particular obsession. A second incident occurred at the Halloween '95 show in Chicago. I had worn a Rhombus costume but during the show I had taken it off - it was big and bulky, and placed it off to the side. During the show apparently, people had thought my costume was a garbage can and began tossing garbage into it. So at the end of the show when I went to grab my costume to put it back on, all sorts of crap tumbled out of it. Now this was fine by me, it did sort of look like a garbage can - it was black with a hole in the top. But this person who was with me went ballistic and started brow-beating these guys who said that they didn't "know nothing about no Rhombus." I mean yelling at those guys has the same effect as all those people telling everyone else to be quiet when Phish plays an acoustic tune - if only everyone would stop telling people to be quiet then it would be quiet. Similarly, I guess, it's crazy to yell at someone simply because they don't possess the same core knowledge that you do. The final piece in the puzzle was that interview I did with Chris Kuroda for the Phish.net in December of 1995. After I posted it people gave me such positive feedback and it had been so much fun just thinking of questions and the like for him that I decided it would be a blast to go ahead and try to write a book like the Phishing Manual.
Q: Let's talk about setlists: There's been alot of concern for the HPB Working Group in having their hard work capitalized on. There's also always talk and controversy on the net everytime a new source of setlists become available. Talk about how you acquired and compiled those in the back:
In the few weeks since the book has been released this is probably the question that I receive most often. Let me say straight out that all of those setlists I personally compiled. Everything before 1994 and everything from 1995 is from my J-Cards. Most of 1994 are from my tape covers as well but at the last minute I realized that I was missing a few so I called a few friends I know from the net and had them read me their tape covers. I appreciate everything the compilers of the HPB have done so I really wanted to make an effort to do the work on my own - and actually it was an entertaining diversion from listening to tapes and writing. I had my old Schvices so I knew the tourdates, then I just picked tapes off my shelves and typed in the lists. One more point about lists. Obviously there are plenty missing. The thing is I didn't want to write a setlist book - that wasn't interesting to me and the HPB is available anyhow. What I did want to do however was allow people who were reading the book a handy reference so that they didn't need to pull out their copy of the HPB to reference everything that is in the book. So initially I had hoped to provide set lists of every show that is mentioned in the book - every set that I introduce in passing or recommend, along with the tapes in the longer reviews section and the "bubbling under" section. However, when I started doing that I realized, or rather the publisher realized, that this would be too many lists- the book would be too long. They wanted to keep the book at around 300 pages or so which would allow them to price it at $9.95. I could understand that and frankly I didn't want the lists to overwhelm the book and all the work it represents - so what I did was to limit myself to all the shows that I mention in the "Phishing Lures" chapter and then all of the sets from 1994 and 1995. I included all of those so that phans could have a good sense of the ebb and flow of the lists for two entire years.
Q: You devote an entire section of the book to "preferred listening" shows. Off the top of your head, what are just three shows that you've attended which really stand out to you?
Let me say that attending a show is a somewhat different experience from listening to one on tape. There are many factors that can influence one's enjoyment. But for the total package - music and intangibles, good vibes, karma, etc., the three most recent shows I attended that really just kicked me in the ass were the Clifford Ball, Halloween '94 and the Bomb Factory show, 5/7/94. The Bomb Factory was a big one for me and I must admit it plays off of the entire experience I had getting to that show, my drive from Houston where the show the night before had been moved from a theater to a pretty small bar which brought back a lot of fond memories for me, and then making it to the Bomb Factory after checking out some baseball at the Ranger's new ballpark called the Ballpark, crossing Dallas and then walking into this old warehouse -or I suppose it was an old Bomb Factory- with plenty of room to tape and move and then just hearing something in that second set that finally made me realize that Phish had taken it to another level. The summer before there were some fine, fine shows and wonderful moments but that Bomb Factory set just blew me away. I listen to it now and I get chills, as I place myself back in Dallas on that night, just amazed with the band's skill and playfulness as they segued from style to style, song to song. There may be better shows (I rarely listen to that fisrt set) and there may be better sets, but in many ways my Phish experience peaked on that evening in a way I think that Mike's experience peaked during that 11/23/85 Goddard College Cafeteria show. So all in all if I had to list my most recent three live experiences those would be them. I could go back a few years and come up with three more. And three more...Oooh here's one more though that was real epic to me. Stowe, 7/25/92 standing out there right around sunset on the mountain as Carlos Santana and Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo joined Phish onstage during You Enjoy Myself. That meant a lot to me at that time- Carlos doing Phish the honor of coming on with them during their opening set...after the band members had expressed musically their feelings for him over the years...and on top of that of course, the end of the set rips. And as I go back there are more moments before that one...In fact I think that's the way it goes for many of us who are into Phish; it's been a ride, a crescendo of meaningful moments for the band and for ourselves. And the amazing thing is you get the sense that all of us, everyone in the audience, you, me, Fish, Mike, Page and Trey are enjoying this together, as if they're there with us watching and listening and enjoying this experience as they channel this amazing music with an increased fluidity over the years. And ultimately I think that's why so many people return to show after show is to expereience those peak moments and move from crescendo to crescendo along with the band.
Q: Some more questions on the author: Throughout the Manual, you reveal yourself to be versed fluently in musical history as a whole, and not just limited to pure "Phishtory." Who else do you listen to on a fairly regular basis?
My tastes vary. I don't just listen to Phish (despite what some of my friends think). I enjoy other jam-oriented bands, straightforward rock, bluegrass, jazz...but above all I love blues. There's something about the blues, when it's performed with passion...To me a wonderful blues guitarist even if he's just playing straight 4/4 blues, can move me. If you want me to name someone I'll give you the name of one artist who is known primarily as a blues man but who's style encompasses all of the genres I've mentioned. His name is Ronnie Earl. He has a number of discs out on Rounders' Bullseye Blues label. If someone wants to check him out any of his past four discs since he decided to go ahead without a vocalist are the ones to hear- Still River, Language of the Soul, Blues Guitar Virtouso Live In Europe and his latest- Blues and Ballads (which includes a song inspired and dedicated to Duane Allman and one for Carlos. He performs in quartet, all instrumental, no vocals. And his guitar is so fluid and expressive - it floors me. To see him live too, with his band the Broadcasters, along with their originals they'll play both Coltrane covers and T-Bone Walker stuff. He's also sat in with Santana and the Allman Brothers. In fact he was in Europe with Santana this past summer and I was hoping against hope that I'd receive a setlist in my e-mail one morning this summer, saying that Ronnie had come on stage with Phish. If I were to have a musical fantasy, I suppose that would be it.
Q: Phish is a band whose members are always acknowledging their influences and who always encourage their fans to check out certain bands. Has this encouragement led you to any discoveries?
Bluegrass. I had always abided Bluegrass -occasionally I listened to Old And In The Way but I never really enjoyed it- the style seemed too hokey or something; it reminded me of being at someone else's house while their brother or sister was watching Hee Haw. Finally a few years ago I had a breakthrough - or maybe a Breakaway (to make a pun from the name of Gordon Stone's old bluegrass band). Anyhow, this was right after Phish started playing "Paul and Silas" - except they were singing the tune as "Hall In Solace." Well I really enjoyed this tune, which was eye-opening enough but then one night I was at a show standing next to someone who just started cracking up when they started playing it. So at the set-break I asked her why she was laughing so hard. She told me that Phish must have learned the song wrong because she knew the song and she damn well knew that it was called "Paul and Silas" not "Hall In Solace." So immediately I knew I had to hear the original (that's the kind of little factoid that I would love to have in my show notebook). Anyhow, I had some troubles finding it. Eventually I decided to drive in to my local college radio station one Saturday morning because there was a bluegrass show that had been running for a number of years. I struck up a conversation with the d.j.'s. They were older guys who continued playing this music because there really is not much other outlet for it in the area. They played Earl Scruggs's version of "Paul and Silas" for me and I hung out for awhile. Over the next few weeks, I found myself listening to the station because these guys seemed pretty cool and they were entertaining and soon enough I was checking out some stuff that I'd hear them play. Since 1994 when that Bill Monroe boxed set came out I don't think a week has gone by that I don't throw it on and listen to some of it for a while. I suppose I've come to realize that there's more to it than Hee Haw.
Q: Dean, you are currently a graduate student at Harvard University, studying American Civilization. Has this come into play at all in creating the Phishing Manual?
I think my role as a student of history certainly influenced me. I think it's my drive to record facts and information, which is why I enjoy being a history grad. student, that led me to begin my tour notebooks. That same drive inspired me to build up my tape collection. I also think that this desire led me to write this book. In fact the history section of the book evolved out an an article on Phish that I wrote with the intent of publishing in a history journal that some friends of mine had started.
Q: In reading this book, it is immediately apparent that you put hours upon hours of research into it. The Phishing Manual appears at once comprehensive and, at the same time, dedicated to complete accuracy. Phish phans more than any others are "fact-freaks," often using free-time to tally up setlist statistics of shows they've seen and showing off knowledge of band history tidbits. For them, this book is a dream come true. How much of the information that you've accumulated has been the result of personal inquisitiveness and how much has been solely for the sake of "the Manual?"
I would say 100% was for personal inquisitiveeness. The truth is that every little fact is in there because it's something that had interested me. I invested a lot of time and energy in putting together the chapters two and three on the songs that Phish performs in concert because certain questions and issues presented themselves to me and I wanted to pursue them. Those were the chapters that took the longest and even after I had submitted the book to Hyperion I was still fine-tuning them. If I had a chance I would fine tune them today.
Q: As a follow-up to that last question: At many of the more recent shows that you've attended, you obviously must have been taking mental notes for the book as well just trying to enjoy the music. Did you ever find that the book actually got in the way of the enjoyment?
No, it didn't. The only time I had trouble enjoying the music of Phish was during that period of time when I was listening to tapes 10-14 hours a day so that I could finish listening to my collection. At times by the end of the day I would be a little frayed.
Q: Sometime after initially being turned on to the music of Phish you started passionately taping their shows and respectively preserving their music, being careful to keep the integrity of every note played intact. How has this art form (taping) affected the way in which you appreciate Phish?
More than the writing of the book, the fact that I do tape and collect shows so fervidly has influenced my perspective on the band. The bottom line is this - when I go to a show I often find that I've listened to many more versions of each song than many others in attendance. So at times I can become jaded and it can be hard for me to get as excited as everyone else about performances of particular tunes This is compounded by the fact that often I'm back in the taper's section where people tend to be mellower and to gripe a little more. That's why at times I'll move out of that section to stand by other people. The difference is amazing and telling. When Phish plays Sparkle for instance, some people in the taper's section will sigh or roll their eyes, but in the general concert population, while there are some people who feel they've heard the song too many times before, there are many people who really enjoy the song - whose squeals and fevered dancing are contagious. At times, I'll be near these people and they'll remind me that Sparkle is a fun song that the band tears through. It should bring smiles to our faces. In truth one of the things about Phish phans that bugs me the most are those people who attend a long run of shows and then gripe about the setlists as opposed to griping about the band's performances. If your enjoyment at a Phish concert is derived solely from the fact that you want to hear rare songs or don't want to hear repeats then my suggestion is to go to fewer shows. I think it's quite possible to hear repeats and enjoy the subtle variations in tone and texture provided by the band (although arguably maybe not in a song like Sparkle and in this case just ride it out - or try to remember what it was like for you when you first heard that song or really loved that song which is what I often do).
Q: The Phishing Manual's scope is vast. So much in-fact, that the complete Phish novice and the seasoned Phish veteran can both find many points of interest in it. When writing the text, did you have any specific audience in mind?
Yes, I had an audience of one - me. At least I was my primary target. First and foremost I wanted to write a book about Phish that I would find interesting. One filled with all of the obscure little facts and facets of the Phish experience that interest me - mostly involving variations in songs. Then, I tried to answer questions that some of my friends often ask me - ones that I hear time and again, for instance: "Did Phish ever play Silent without Horse" (yes, twice so far), "Did they ever play Horn with horns" (not yet) "How about Simple with a Saxophone" (once, with Cameron McKenney- although this past Halloween Dave Grippo did come out and hold up his Sax during the song -the ultimate tease- and very funny). Then, I tried to make my the story I told general enough so that everyone could enjoy it. As I said earlier, my intent in writing the book was to prevent people from abusing their knowledge of the band - using it as a weapon. Well one aspect of this was my hope that people who were new to the band, or weren't necessarily new to the band but were new to thinking about the band in the obsessive way that I think about the band, could catch up real quickly by reading the book. I received the ultimate flattery along these lines when someone told me that he had agreed to spin some tapes for a newer phan, a friend of his brother, and the kid came over to their house to inspect their tape collection with my book under his arm.
Q: Phish's musical legacy is vast and indeed all-consuming. It is a legacy rich with treasures and has certainly started to spawn "Phish scholars" such as Charlie Dirksen, Brian Lipman and yourself. Part of the reason why the legacy is so rich is because resources, in the form of new shows, are constantly being added to it, and the Phish-treasure chest just keeps getting replenished at a seemingly exponential rate. Since the completion of your book there has already been a summer and a fall tour bringing new gems, new dimensions and new music to the fold. How do you plan on accomodating for this with the Manual?
Well, let's just wait and see. Obviously that's the problem in chronicling an ongoing endeavor. But as I was writing that I kept that in mind. I think there's enough background information and tape recommendations and the like to keep people happy even as Phish continues to perform new material and reach new musical crescendos.
Q: Where and when will people be able to buy a copy of "The Phishing Manual?"
They should be able to buy one at any bookstore. If it's not in stock they can order from the publisher through the bookstore. Let's see, the ISBN number is 07868-82034
Q:) Finally: What now - for you and for the Manual?
Well, I'd like to finish my dissertation and find a job as a history professor. As far as writing - my publisher suggested a project that I'm considering. As for Phish, I keep on listening to tapes and attending the meetings. In fact the other day my wife and I were driving in the car and I popped in a tape, one of the November shows, and she said to me "I thought you were through writing the book." "Well," I told her, "the writing may be over but not my obsession." Phish is my favorite band and they been my favorite band for many years now. Just because I'm done writing the book, doesn't mean that I'll stop listening to their music, jotting down entries in my notebook and wondering if they'll whistle during Reba.
I'd like to thank Dean Budnick for taking the time to complete this interview, and to all of you who read it. Hope you enjoyed it and as always,
Walk with light my friends, Benjy