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My Secret Jam Band Life

Friday, September 10, 2010

Phish at Alpine Valley, August 2010 (eytonz/flickr)

For years, indie rockers who loved jam bands lived in the shadows, sharing their love of guitar solos and 20-minute songs with only their most trusted friends. Now, musicians in the Pitchfork set are speaking out about how Phish, the Grateful Dead and others have influenced their work.

Aaron Leitko of the Washington Post and Alex Bleeker of the band Real Estate join us to share their thoughts.


Alex Bleeker and Aaron Leitko

Comments [27]

Reuben from Brooklyn, NY

I just listened to the podcast, so I'm getting to this late. Seems to me the conversation was beating around the bush the whole time. All the bands mentioned (Phish, the Dead, String Cheese Incident.....the host mentioned Michael Franti and then stretched to include Animal Collective), all these bands are a part of an ethos or a presumed ethos that fans gravitate toward. I don't want to try and define it too precisely, but I will say that it stems from the 60s, or a way of seeing the 60s through a very current lens. There's an idealism, an optimism, a drug culture, and a simplified (purposely I think) liberalism. None of that is bad, but that is what I think is the reason that all those bands (as drastically different as they are musically) can be lumped together.

Oh, and yeah, people are often judgemental if I say that I dig Phish (as a studio band mainly), that some Grateful Dead songs would make great covers for a punk band, or that I love Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. But, you know what, screw 'em. I love music, all kinds. And I wear that love with pride. Maybe that pride will make others take a second, closer look at the music they pre-judge. I think that would be great.

Sep. 14 2010 10:43 AM
andrew j r

One thing I will say is that the Grateful Dead and Phish were and are two very different bands. There is a connecting thread in the spirit of improvisation, certainly. In some ways though the Dead were better songwriters and tended to noodle more when they 'jammed'. Not that they weren't fantastic live musicians, they were. But apart from a handful of very lively nights with good quality recordings, I listen to the 'Dead for their songcraft and its execution, and Jerry Garcia's presence especially.

Phish certainly don't have the perceived reputation of being "cool." There are a lot of probable reasons for this, but let's just say that Trey's is a bit quirkier than Jerry, even though he's arguably the most notable Born in the Usa Guitar God of the late 20th century, a semi-tragic Jimmy Page/Hendrix/Clapton style hero. If you go to a show in 2010 you may see a glimpse or a glimmer of that side of things, but if you saw this guy play guitar in 1994 your weren't likely to "not get it." The one thing Phish don't get credit for, usually, is just how badass and cool the highlights of their improvised pieces (and the frenzy of the dance parties) were in the late 90s and through the millenial turn. Their “songs” took up only about thirty percent of all the music they played live, they rest was just about “cool “ as music can get. Electric and electronic, symphonic, melodic, energetic, organic, enchanted. Most people never hear that side of them, at least not in the right context, which is partially why this conversation persists in this way.

As for "jam bands" and "indie bands", I will say this: there is certainly a difference between a band that improvises as a premise of their live show, who is more interested in getting up there and "jamming".. than a band like Animal Collective, who, during their live sets might extend the musical tapestry, put on a spectacle, etc.. but that jammy element is not blossoming from some incredible musicianship and real improvisation. Animal Collective make much better records in the studio than Phish ever did; but Phish's real studio was the road, and Phish could get up and do an Animal Collective song in about two minutes, whereas you'd be hard pressed to see the members of Animal Collective successfully cover a 'classic' Phish 'song.' And nor who you want to hear the latter. It's not a knock on Animal Collective at all. They have a narrative or 'jam' of a different tempo and type; they are emotional threads carried through their record; it's heartfelt and strange and has transformed into frenzied ecstasy as rapidly as a Phish jam, and just as galactic (they were a "folk" band not six years ago were they not?). And it's amazing, it's great music, hallejujah, they keep making this great "music "stuff" People get off on different things in music. Isn't the goal to be able to get off on all of it?

Sep. 11 2010 10:25 PM
joe from princeton, NJ

this whole conversation is absurd, ridiculous, and insulting to fans of Music (and i use the broad term of "Music" because no one has the right to tell you what is "OK" to like and listen to).

is it really news to talk about how indie rockers are now declaring among themselves that it's "OK" to listen to jam band music?

i mean - i suppose it's typical of the indie rock scene and its adherents to march in lockstep with an in-group, elite consensus (e.g. pitchfork media) as to what is "hip" or "cool" and socially acceptable...

But I think the really interesting question to be asking here - the discussion we should be having - is why the average mainstream american listener has so many prejudices against the jam band music scene to begin with:

why is it that so many people are so dogmatically resistant to giving the dead or phish a chance? what is it about jam band music (and their fans) that makes it so anathema, so offensive to contemporary mainstream tastes? (and yes, that means you, indie rockers: you are mainstream).

don't deny it: most everyone has a preconception as to what a "phish-head" or "dead-head" is like, and how this reflects on what they are like as people. it's almost as if we've been brainwashed to consider jam bands and all their fans, to be fringe freaks; acid-tripping hippies; relics of a counter-cultural revolution that failed... and that, by giving this music a chance, that we will somehow become "one of them," or at least, be grouped in the same category as them by others, heaven forbid...

jam-bands have become something of a dirty word... an oft-slandered group, something no one wants to be associated with. (not unlike the way in which people react to words and labels like "communist")

perhaps the Dead were too revolutionary in their music and values; perhaps they hit on too central a nerve, and inspired a backlash from respectable, mainstream society that has lasted until today.

Sep. 11 2010 11:27 AM

I think that some of the things that I love so much about Jam Bands — the embracing of virtuosity, genuine musicality, attention to form, harmonies and dynamics — are the same things that make me so indifferent to so much of indie music out there today, which seems to cool and too emotionally indifferent to show genuine interest in much of the music that they seem to be making.

Sep. 10 2010 10:26 PM
Laura from NJ

I grew up loving the Grateful Dead. Now I'm a big indie rock fan. I didn't know the two were mutually exclusive. I always thought improvising was something that took a special intellect and the ability to think on one's feet. I guess being 51 gives you the wonderful ability to not care what anyone thinks.

Sep. 10 2010 10:19 PM
Willi from NY

Phish is intolerable. No excuse for that. I have recently been listening to alot of Grateful Dead albums and sort of rediscovering music I loved before it became uncool in my teenage years and my early twenties. I love it, but I've noticed every time I put it on inevitably someone starts recommending bootleg albums to me. I'm not interested really. I'll stick to the studio stuff, and not the drugged out excess "jam band" aspect of it.

Sep. 10 2010 03:21 PM

haha, yeah! the dead were hardcore about their independence! until their label tanked hard, which I believe is when they signed to Arista... which may've still been indie at the time too, although I'm not sure.

the dead were also pretty punk rock in their early years, antics-wise. I think due to their later career moves, people don't necessarily know just how out there they were in the beginning. tape experiments, multimedia performances, etc.

Sep. 10 2010 02:26 PM
Christine from Mendham

As a 40-year-old with two young girls, I am back to letting it all hang out (after years in the closet). We listen to the Grateful Dead channel only in the car and I can't wait to bring them to see this region's finest jamband--NJ's own From Good Homes. Jambands are totally underrated--the music is high quality and the energy of a live jamband concert is like nothing else.

Sep. 10 2010 02:25 PM
Tommy B from upper west side Manhattan

Don't forget The Allman Brothers Band!!

Sep. 10 2010 02:23 PM

Thanks to J. Big difference!!
Spend sometime in a college town such as New Paltz; you will hear indie bands who play their stuff and then cover a dead song. Its a great sound!! Besides, wasnt the dead an indie band...way back then??

Sep. 10 2010 02:22 PM
John from Manhattan

Jam bands have terrible style - I caught an 80's Dead show on TV the other night and was so distracted by Phil Lesh's sweatpants, Bob Weirs short shorts and Micky Hart's purple tanks tops. Just saying

Sep. 10 2010 02:21 PM

I hate the label "jam" band. I hate the labe "indie" too.....It used to be that all bands knew how to jam. It just means interacting and creating a chemistry amongst the players in the band. That being said I wouldn't want to hear too many "indie" bands "jam"....they can't...because "playing" isn't "cool" in the indie world, so turn up the reverb, bury the vocals, jangle away on those guitars and write obscure tunes that have as little staying power as the worst Phish jam.

Sep. 10 2010 02:20 PM
lizzylovejoy from Brooklyn Heights

What about the ultimate Indy rock band Yo La Tengo - guitarist Ira Kaplan (the Jewish Jimi Hendrix) is notorious for his long guitar solos and beloved by the Indy scene.

Sep. 10 2010 02:18 PM
matt from manhattan

great! Now I can come out of the closet with my Dead. This is pointless drivel

Sep. 10 2010 02:18 PM
lizzylovejoy from Brooklyn Heights

What about the ultimate Indy rock band Yo La Tengo - guitarist Ira Kaplan (the Jewish Jimi Hendrix) is notorious for his long guitar solos and beloved by the Indy scene.

Sep. 10 2010 02:18 PM
David from nyc

Let's not forget also about all the great current indie bands that love extended jams. Two nights ago I saw the bands Birds of Maya and Wooden Shjips...they take more of an influence from acid rock than the jam band tradition, but there has been a jammy aspect to indie rock since Sister Ray took up an entire side of an LP on the Velvets' White Light/White Heat. And, hello, Sonic Youth!?!? The demarcation btw "jamming" and hippie folk rock is not so clear as this show seems to imply!

Sep. 10 2010 02:18 PM
gradeoneirony from Manhattan

No doubt that Phish and formerly the Dead are guilty of concert excesses that rightly jar with indie rockers' collective love of pop songcraft. But any indie rocker who claims to love Fleet Foxes or Band of Horses and dismisses Dead albums like American Beauty is nothing more than a hypocrite.

Sep. 10 2010 02:17 PM
David212 from East Village

This is the worst bit of news I've heard in years. Ugh. Double-ugh.

Sep. 10 2010 02:17 PM
Sam Goofus from Airmont, Rockland Ny

As far as I'm concerned, the early and late versions of the Grateful Dead are still alive and practice in my head.

Maybe that means I'm old, maybe that means I'm strange, but hell, I can still type about it!

Sep. 10 2010 02:16 PM

YAY!!! - aren't adults supposed to have grown up past the tyranny of "cool"

Sep. 10 2010 02:13 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

Aren't so called jam bands part of the Axis of Evil?

Sep. 10 2010 02:11 PM

I've seen the Grateful Dead at least 100 times. Some of the concerts were the best I've ever seen - Radio City Music Hall, Dylan and the Dead - but I do not mention this to anyone I deal with on a professional level.

Sep. 10 2010 02:11 PM
Robots Need to Party

A stigma well deserved.

It makes perfect sense that musicians might find inspiration in the work of other musicians. I just hope they don't expect the average fan to share in this appreciation of ancient jam bands and god forbid that it inspires any new jam bands.

Sep. 10 2010 02:06 PM
Kim from Brooklyn

I guess I thought I had to hate the Grateful Dead, among my indie rock friends. So I remained an "in the closet" deadhead for the past 15 years. It's nice to be free now!

Sep. 10 2010 02:04 PM

A) can we please distinguish between the dead and phish?

B) can we please not distinguish between "drugged out live excesses" and "actual rock n roll bands"?

Sep. 10 2010 02:02 PM
Eric K from Brooklyn

Phish and the Grateful Dead are fine...on record. Maybe, hopefully, perhaps, Indie folks love these bands not because of the drugged-out live excesses but because of the short, smart studio work. After all, at the heart of a live jam band is an actual rock n roll band.

Sep. 10 2010 02:00 PM
Jim from Manhattan

I'll never forget the look on my boss's face back in February when i told her that I was going to see "Furthur" (the legacy band of the Grateful Dead that includes original members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh) at Radio City. Utter disgust. Though it hasn't affected her overall opinion of me, perhaps I should have stuck to the old lesson of keeping my musical tastes my little secret. I am no hippie, but the stigma still very much exists.

Sep. 10 2010 11:11 AM

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