In July 2000, Ellis Godard interviewed Ben "Junta" Hunter, the band's first manager/agent, for whom the double-CD Junta is named. The following exerpts from that interview were published in the second edition of The Phish Companion. Additionally of note, this is the 500th blog post on the site!
EG: How did your association with Phish begin?
BH: My “official” association with the band began when we rented a nightclub called Molly’s in Allston, Massachusetts, on 11/3/88. It was the kind of place that had live music only one night a week. If memory serves, they had Dead cover bands and the like on Sundays, and the rest of the time it was a rather, if you’ll excuse the expression, “Euro-trashy” type of dance club.
I would say my primary strength was my ability to proselytize – to spread the good Phish word amongst my friends – and act as sort of a “Johnny Appleseed.” The band’s name was on my lips in nearly every conversation I had during the several years in which I was affiliated with them. I was friendly with the band Ninja Custodian and promoted a gig for them at the Paradise in Boston (with not such terrific results), in late 1990 or early 1991. In fact, it was their drummer, Mike Billington (he of the permanent antic disposition), who first turned John Paluska and myself onto Phish.
EG: What interested you about them so early on?
BH: I was immediately fascinated by their songs. Their originals sounded so familiar to me that I thought they MUST be covers, and their covers were always interesting and well chosen – often more intense than the original versions, as far as I was concerned.
EG: What did they NOT have early on, that made them hard to book? Or enjoy?
BH: From my perspective, Phish was easy to enjoy from the very beginning. However, I would say that early on they were just a little too weird or sophisticated for many talent bookers to stomach. A good number of them just hadn’t heard (or booked) many bands whose music had the complexity of Phish’s. I think Phish was one of the first “jam bands” many talent bookers had heard. They were really important groundbreakers in the whole post-Dead movement, which now lives on in an entire generation of young bands. But in those days Phish was quite an anomaly. They weren’t doing a set of really straight-ahead tunes, and they weren’t easily classifiable, which made them hard to enjoy for people who weren’t very forward thinking or progressive in their musical tastes.
EG: What gave you the idea to rent Molly's on 11/3/88 and 12/2/88?
BH: Tell you the truth, there was a band called Chuck & Helen who used to play a couple of times a week at several Allston (the part of Boston affectionately dubbed “the student slums”) bars (they probably still do). They played some Dead songs and all the other predictable covers – “Love the One You’re With,” “Moondance,” etc… Anyway, they always played to a packed house, which meant a hundred, maybe a couple of hundred people on Friday and Saturday nights. They were a merely adequate outfit and they did very well in terms of people coming out to see them, so I knew there was a market of hungry music fans just waiting for a quality band like Phish. But since they hadn’t played any gigs in the area they weren’t an attractive booking for any local clubs. I thought to myself, Why not just rent a room and tell all my friends and basically throw a huge party with great entertainment? As it turned out, at both those shows there were hundreds of people who showed up.
EG: What would you have done differently about those shows, knowing what you know now?
BH: Ha! I think I would’ve had a guy on our team at the door counting how many people came in! As I said, there were a few hundred people in attendance at those first Boston gigs, and I’m sure many more than the club told us had come. As I recall it, we actually took the club’s word for how many people were there. That was a pretty naïve way to do things. But by the same token, I don’t think anyone has any regrets about those early shows, and no one is too concerned at this point about how much more cash could’ve been made had we counted heads at the door. At five bucks a ticket no one’s gonna get rich anyway. But those shows were pretty heady affairs from my perspective.
EG: Was the scene at early Phish shows different only in degree, or have things changed in other ways?
BH: I think the general vibe is the same, although of course it’s now much less intimate than it was back in the old days at small places like The Stone Church or something. But the band, for as long as I’ve been seeing them, has always had a really strong bond with whatever fans were at the particular gig—whether it’s sixty people or sixty thousand people. Of course the band was much more hungry for recognition in those days, and you can really hear their burning desire if you listen to those tapes.
EG: What you can you tell us about "the Zoo"?
BH: It was the house Paluska lived in his junior and senior year at Amherst College. It was a communal living situation where like-minded students cohabitated. They had a common kitchen and all took turns cooking meals for the group – stuff like that. It was quite progressive, as you might expect at such a liberal bastion of higher education. Anyway, they would also have rollicking parties every time there was a full moon. It was at one such party Phish was first introduced to the western Massachusetts faithful. I found a “Zoo” t-shirt recently I used to wear that said “The Zoo” on the front with a Matisse print, and on the back it said, “Every full moon has its dark side.”
EG: How did you meet Paluska?
BH: John is my oldest, dearest friend. We grew up in Maine across the street from one another starting at age 2.
EG: What was he like in college?
BH: I’d classify him as a typical boy-genius fuck-up. He’s extremely intelligent and highly regimented, but fun. He likes things a certain way and wants to be in control of every situation – and fully admits these things about himself. Nice thing is, he isn’t afraid to laugh about it. But he’s got great taste, a great sense of humor, and a great sense of the absurdity of life. All in all, he’s a very honorable fellow – a man of his word and a helluva guy to call a “best-friend” type.
EG: Who chose the name Dionysian Productions, and why?
BH: That would have been myself, actually. John and I were driving in my pickup truck, trying to think of provocative names for the company, and Dionysian seemed to fit because we would often talk about our fondness for “Dionysian reveling.” It was actually called Dionysian Productions Limited, originally. We had business cards printed up that had little fish on them. It’s pretty funny in retrospect. If I do say so myself, I can’t imagine the company being called anything but Dionysian Productions. It makes perfect sense given the sensibility of the company’s one and only client.
EG: What was the first "office" like?
BH: It was the kitchen table of my junior-year apartment in Boston, at 19 Craig Place. It was actually in Brookline, Massachusetts, to be exact. The toilet in that place made a piercing, high-pitched feedback noise that was loud enough to break glass every time you flushed it. After a while it started happening all the time, in the middle of the night, whenever – even when it hadn’t been flushed for a long time. It got so bad that one day I bashed the hell out the toilet with a hockey stick trying in vain to make it stop. I don’t think we got our security deposit back on that place.
EG: How did you and John share duties?
BH: In the early days, he booked and promoted gigs in western Mass, and I booked and promoted the gigs in Boston. One thing I do remember is we always tried to “think big.” No matter what small-time club gig we were trying to book at the time, the intention was always to get very popular on the road, and the record deal and everything else would come later.
EG: Mike reportedly handled a lot of the business end at the beginning. How did the transfer to Dionysian take place?
BH: By the time we took over the band’s management they were already very organized and together. They had a whole press packet – promotional materials and the works. Mike had spearheaded a lot of those efforts, but Paul Languedoc also had a hand in the “actual” business (i.e., money handling) side of things. Often times he would collect the money at the end of gigs and he’d write checks to us for our services. Eventually (and incrementally) the band entrusted their precious promo material to Dionysian, and we would dutifully send it out to club owners and talent bookers, hoping to get a positive response and a subsequent booking. When Phish realized Dionysian was going to be the management company for the long haul, they turned over their “stash” of band bios, press photos, demo tapes, and the sacred sheet we’d send to clubs which listed the many, many original and cover songs the band performed.
EG: When did you first get a sense that Phish could be successful?
BH: It may sound obvious now, but the first time I saw them I thought they could be really successful. They really had their thing together! I knew they had great taste and great songs right away. I believed in their talent immediately, and started a furious search to collect bootleg tapes of gigs they’d done. It’s difficult for me to describe how powerful and profound that first experience seeing them live was.
EG: When did you realize just how successful they were (are) going to be?
BH: I think I started to get the picture on how successful they could be around 1989, when they started to consistently play venues with hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people in the audience. When I’d see people freaking out the same way I did when I first saw them, I knew the band was on to something special.
EG: Why is your nickname Junta, and how do you pronounce it?
BH: My nickname involves a long and mysterious story whose origins I’m not at liberty to discuss. However, I say it “Joon-tah” (the o’s sound like they do in “look”). Most of my friends and relations say it that way too, as does the band, with the exception of Page, who says it “June-tah.” So you’ve heard it here first, Phish’s first album is called “Joon-tah,” not “hoon-tah” as I’ve often heard it referred to.
EG: Is Junta your favorite Phish album?
BH: Actually, it is my favorite, not because it’s named after me, but because it evokes a period of time when the band was the most exciting, most important thing in my life. It’s also the album that I believe the band’s “hunger” to be successful comes through the most resoundingly. The songs are great, very “Phishy” in their complexity, and the performances are a bit raw, but therein lays the charm in my opinion. Having said that, everyone always spends a lot of time mythologizing a band’s “early days” as their halcyon period, which I think is kind of lame because it’s like looking for something that’s already found you. Funny thing is, this happens with every band – every phenomenon really – that gets very popular after a period of time. Everyone always sits around saying, “I remember what this thing was like in the early days, it was so great then, now it’s not what it used to be and blah blah blah.” What good would things be if they never changed? Pretty boring by my estimation. C’mon, “What’s Become of the Baby” is an early Grateful Dead song, but that doesn’t mean I ever need to hear it played again, live or on record. As far as I’m concerned, Phish is still writing good songs and putting out good albums and playing good shows, so people should be happy they’re evolving, not staying in their Junta period forever. But let’s face it:, “Bowie” has a passion and verve that’ll be hard for the band to ever match.
EG: Can you think of any ways in which you directly influenced the way Phish does something in their live show?
BH: I taught them how to play their instruments and perform onstage the exact way they do now—every chord, every riff, every synchronized dance step, the works. But I don’t really consider those things to be really major aspects of their live show.
EG: Do you ever wish you had stuck with managing Phish? Why or why not?
BH: I ‘m pretty sure band management is not my thing in the final analysis. It would be nice from a monetary perspective to still be involved, but had I continued managing, I know many wonderful things that have transpired in my life wouldn’t have happened at all.
EG: What was your most memorable show and why?
BH: Those first Paradise shows in Boston were pretty special, just because I felt like I was staking my personal reputation on the fact that Phish was, in fact, a great band. I had told just about every person I knew, literally, about that gig, and most of them came to it! As a result, I felt personally responsible for everyone’s good time and wanted the band to play better than perfectly. I remember cringing and thinking, “C’mon boys, do it right” when they didn’t quite perform the initial worked-out section of their opener (I think it may have been “YEM”?) with absolute perfection. In retrospect, I guess it didn’t really matter too much, did it? Everyone loved it and had a great time.
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February 21, 1991
26 years ago
Encore: Suzy Greenberg
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