David Calarco, a.k.a. “Mr. Miner,” is perhaps the most well-known Phish blogger. Since 2008, Dave has been blogging about Phish on his very popular Phish blog, http://phishthoughts.com/, though he got his start writing about the band in 2000, reviewing Phish shows from Japan (and elsewhere) for JamBase.com. Dave's opinions on shows are highly regarded by many fans and, whether you enjoy reading his work or not, "Mr. Miner" knows his Phish, having seen hundreds and hundreds of shows since his first show in 1995. As you likely have already heard, Dave has published a 600+ page book, Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts, and he agreed to speak with me about it. It is available for purchase here, and it would make a great gift for the Phish fan(s) in your life. Happy holidays. -charlie
CD: What inspired you to write Phish Thoughts? Who or what gave you the idea for writing it?
DC: I see the book as a natural extension of my blog. After writing a new piece daily for almost two years, I realized that I had tons of writing buried in the tombs of the Internet, and most all of the pieces I had written were first drafts, edited once for errors, and posted. I thought that by exhuming these pieces, and re-working and polishing them with an editor, I could make a great volume that not only documents a place in time in the storied career of Phish, but also reflects on the band’s history and the power of their live experience.
Regardless of what one’s opinion is on the music of 2009, the year represented a special time in the hearts and lives of Phish and their fan base, because the band had just returned from a five year “retirement.” I found this to be a fascinating time in Phish’s career, and the band’s “re-evolution” provided a natural narrative for the 2009 section of the book; a perfect entry point into the band’s rich musical legacy.
CD: How is the book structured? I believe you told me that it is written and compiled in such a way that one doesn't have to read it start to finish, but can jump around to different sections.
DC: First off, the book has two main sections. The first chronicles the comeback through 2010, and the second is split into subsections of historical essays—Tours & Eras, Shows, Songs & Jams, and Culture—that look back at the band’s career.
However, the book also contains an internal navigation system as well. With such an extensive anthology of writing, I had to think of a way to unify the pieces, and what resulted were “connections,” or the “choose your own adventure” format. Let’s say you are reading an essay that describes a scorching “Reba,” or a facet of the old days such as tape trading. Through these connections you will be guided to other essays that touch on similar subjects, and thus your journey begins. Here’s a specific example taken from the “How-To” section of the book:
The essay, “A Portrait of Post-Hiatus,” about the band’s 7/30/2003 Camden performance, contains four different connections. The first is to an essay in the “Tours and Eras” section” entitled, “Summer 2003: A Return to Glory.” The second connection brings the reader to an essay in the “Shows” section of the book called “The Tower” that chronicles Phish’s “secret set” at 2003’s IT festival. The third connection takes you to an article entitled “The OPhishal Welcome Back Party” that appears within the section of the book, “2009: The Return.” This piece examines the band’s return to Camden in their comeback year of 2009. Finally, the fourth connection is to a piece in the “Song and Jams” section called “The Nassau Tweezer,” a closer look at one of the post-hiatus’ peak moments. Then, once you choose which essay you’d like to read, you will be presented with a new series of topical connections that will continue to take you through the book however YOU choose to read it! Just as Trey sings, “The only rule is it begins.”
CD: Thank you for explaining this. What were the most challenging aspects of writing this book? The most rewarding?
DC: I think the most challenging aspect to writing the book had to be the proofing process and attention to detail within the context of an almost 700 page book. Catching all the minute errors became the biggest “job” that developed. I worked with a fantastic team designing and editing the book, but I was the sole authority on anything factual. Thus, the attention to detail became excruciating with so many dates and setlists, etc. And even with multiple pairs of eyes checking and rechecking, I’m sure we didn’t catch every last thing. Such is the nature of being human.
CD: If most of the material was written about shows just after they happened, did you find that you changed your opinions about the music of certain shows later on, after subsequent shows in a particular tour had occurred?
DC: The post-show reviews are a very in-the-moment thing—much like a Phish show itself. The essays in this book must be understood within the context that they were written. The reviews provide an emotional take on the performance that just occurred while providing a glimpse into the musical highlights and contours of the night. They are not seeking to do anything more than that. But they must be understood in the context in which they were written.
For example, the Red Rocks reviews reflect an incredible enthusiasm for the band’s improvisational steps forward that they had made from June ‘09. But in comparing the music of Red Rocks to the music of Super Ball, you’re looking at a totally different band. You can’t separate the 2009 reviews from the set and setting in which they took place. The year 2009 was an exciting time in the lives of everyone who loved Phish, and that emotion is infused within the reviews. I think people often forget that looking back at past performances is far more effective if done in the context of the tour and the year in which they were played. The 2009 section of the book takes readers through the year with a first-hand perspective of someone living it as it happened. I didn’t go back and edit the 2009 reviews from a 2011 perspective. I don’t think that would have made a heck of a lot of sense when trying to document a moment in time.
In addition, in terms of the book’s totality, only the 2009 show reviews were written just after they happened, and this material merely represents one part of the book. Most of the time, when editing the 2009 reviews that I wrote the night of the show, my opinion of the music (especially in context of when it was played) didn’t change much at all. We all have particular strengths in our memory, and I have an ability to vividly recollect what happened at Phish shows, even though I often can’t remember what someone said to me yesterday. Thus, when I write my reviews on the same night as the show—often with a re-listen under my belt—I feel that I have a solid understanding of what went down. I don’t think I adjusted my fundamental take of any the shows whose reviews transferred to the book.
CD: Do you have any favorite part(s) of the book?
DC: The historical section of the book is probably my favorite, as the topics span so many aspects of Phish’s career. Touching on past eras, shows, songs, and jams from all sorts of angles feels like a trip down memory lane for me, and I hope for many others as well. The final section of the book—“Culture”—allows readers to engage with material that is not so specifically focused on the band’s music or performances. I think these essays provide a nice break from the many music-focused pieces that appear throughout.
CD: Did you learn anything about Phish while writing this book that surprised you or at least amused you?
DC: I read a lot of old interviews online actually, and lots of them were quite amusing! They were mostly from 1993 through 1996 when Trey (and others) would talk openly about improvisation, music, and the band’s onstage intentions—real talk that he shies from nowadays for whatever reason. But back then, he would talk people’s ear off for pages and pages of an interview about all sorts of topics, often very deep stuff. I pulled some great quotes from these old pieces, quotes that really get to the essence of things. There is a great online archive of old Phish articles, I can’t think of the URL right now, but I spent a few days digging through that—highly recommended!
CD: You’re talking about Julia Mordaunt’s amazing archive: http://phisharchive.com/.
DC: Right. Exactly. To be honest, though, this wasn’t a very research-based book where I was uncovering lots of new facts and such, so I guess I didn’t learn anything brand new, per se, in writing it.
CD: Really? Did you not consult any song histories on Phish.net, for example, in the course of your work, that may have given you facts about particular songs of which you weren’t previously aware? Or maybe I should ask a related question instead. Did you learn anything new about yourself in writing this book that surprised you?
DC: Well, I certainly referenced the work of Phish.net and The Mockingbird Foundation in the form of The Phish Companion all the time. That thing is in shambles on my desk now! Between referencing dates, setlists, and song histories, The Companion served as an factual encyclopedia whenever I needed to check anything at all. But again, a lot of essays were started over the course of three years, so there was a heck of a lot more reworking, editing and polishing than there was starting from scratch. A lot of the new writing in the book is commentary from a more current perspective in the form of “narratives” that lead off each 2009 chapter, and an extended section about 2010.
You know, I forgot, I actually did do quite a bit of anthropological research for parts of my introduction. I looked at the phenomenon of Phish from a much more macro and humanistic perspective, particularly in terms of man’s universal quest for transcendence and how that ties directly into the Phish experience and the idea of Phish tour. To attain this more academic perspective, I looked at both anthropologists’ research as well as that of shamanistic scholars. I definitely logged some time in the library and found interesting parallels between indigenous and modern day ritual in society.
In terms of myself, I’m proud that, with the help of very few other people, I was able to pull off such a massive project. In addition, in writing so personally about Phish, I feel that I share a lot of myself as well in this book, and it’s both humbling and exciting to be able to give back to a band and a community that has defined so much of my life.
CD: That’s great. Did you speak about sections of the book or any parts of the book with any band members or knowledgeable folks like Tom Marshall?
DC: Nope. I very much stuck to the philosophy “By A Fan For The Fans.” I think that by sharing my perspective as a passionate fan, many people can connect to my writings in a very personal way. If writing from a neutral, journalistic perspective, emotion is drained from the words, and for me, the Phish is all about emotion.
CD: The best Phish books in my opinion give fans a greater appreciation for the music and the experience of a show. Do you think Phish Thoughts does this, or is its purpose different? What would you like readers to get out of it?
DC: I think this is—exactly—the crux of the book. One of the central purposes of Phish Thoughts was to focus on the substance of the Phish experience—the music as received and interpreted by the fan. The backdrop of the anthology is very much about the powerful, profound, and spiritual experiences people have at Phish shows. The introduction to the book delves into this phenomenon in depth, looking at why people continue to return to Phish shows hundreds of times over and the internal dynamic that occurs while there. The introduction provides an understanding of my perspective of the Phish experience that, inherently, informed all of my essays, and therefore gives a context in which to understand the anthology. All of the essays in the book are written from the perspective that Phish shows are not merely concerts, but places of personal and communal discovery and revelation. Regardless of what an essay is topically about—a jam, a show, or tape trading—this understanding is implicit throughout the book. I feel that the introduction to the book is an integral piece of the massive jigsaw puzzle that is “Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts.”
Beyond discussing the experience of shows, one of the main facets of the book is musical analysis. Whether taking the form of a show review, an era piece, a song history or an anecdote, much of the book’s focus is on the music of Phish. Though several books have been written about the band, none of them directly discuss the band’s music and their changes in style and musical developments throughout their career. I think my book changes that pattern by looking, specifically, at the music Phish has played throughout the years and how it has changed and developed over time. Through essays that deal with the specifics of the band’s performances, eras, tours, and jams, readers will be able to access different parts of Phish’s musical legacy and see how they connect. While my perspective is woven into the essays, I rarely speak of my personal show-going experiences, in order to reach an understanding of what went down musically.
CD: When you say that Phish shows are not “merely concerts, but places of communal discovery and revelation,” you seem to be making a religious analogy. Are you yourself religious, or spiritual, or...?
DC: I wouldn’t consider myself religious in any dogmatic sense, but spiritual—absolutely. In terms of the analogy, I find that there are a lot of similarities between people’s motivations to go to church or temple and the reasons why they scour the country for Phish shows. It all comes down to being part of something larger than, and beyond, the self. The introduction to my book— ”What is Phish?”—has several sections to it, and one of them is called “A Spiritual Temple” in which I discuss this very topic.
CD: One last question: does the theme that signals the end of the jam segment of "Taste," which Trey played for two measures at 5:55 in the 7/17/98 "Weekapaug," tease "Taste," "NICU," "WTU," and/or "Norwegian Wood?"
DC: Taste. No question.
CD: But what about the fact that "NICU" came first (before "Taste"), and part of its theme is teased by this theme -- that is, the theme that Trey plays to signal the end of the jam segment of "Taste"? Or do you not hear -- and therefore dispute -- that "NICU" is teased in this same theme? Oh forget it. Thanks so much, Dave, for your efforts on Phish Thoughts and for engaging in this brief “Q&A”!
DC: I totally understand what you’re saying, but I think Trey is basically quoting the end-of-”Taste” signal in those measures. He phrases it almost exactly the same and while it may be a similar melody as “NICU,” I think there is little question as to his intent. My $.02. ;)
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