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Phish Stories: An Interview with Jon Fishman (Relix Revisited)

Christophe Rossi | February 24, 2011

Back in July 1996, Christophe Rossi, editor of France’s percussion magazine, Batteur, interviewed Jon Fishman during Phish’s European tour. Nearly 15 years later, now that Phish has announced its upcoming summer tour, we’ve pulled this one out of the archives.This article appeared in the October 1996 issue of Relix.

We met Jon Fishman after Phish’s opening show on July 10 at the Zenith in Paris where the band performed with Santana. (The Zenith is also the same venue that the Grateful Dead played during its last European tour in 1990.) Interrupting his chat with Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, who by chance was on holiday in France, Fishman graciously answered the following questions posed by a Phrenchman turned Phish Head.

What would you have called the band if your name was Wolfman – Wolph?

Fishman: (Laughs) No, actually when it was time to decide a name for the band, I suggested the sound of an airplane taking off – “phssssh.” But then we thought that we needed a vowel. Imagine people saying, “We are going to see Phssssh tonight…” We had already designed the logo and the “i” fit perfectly in the middle. So Phish was not named after me.

What is your brand of vacuum cleaner?

Fishman: Electrolux, 1956. I am into vintage vacuum cleaners, you know, the new ones just suck your face right off. These old Electroluxes last forever, they never die, they have good motors. I brought mine for this tour in Europe. I may use it tomorrow in London, and I will definitely use it in Amsterdam.

Is your mom following the band on this European tour?

Fishman: How do you know she’s a Phish Head? (Laughs) No, we told her to stay home. My mother, she’s out of control. We kept her locked at home with chains. She’s not only into Phish, but into ten different bands now. She travels around, goes on tour, crashes in motel rooms. She is 60, and I think that when she has no more responsibilities; she has fun. My parents were no musicians, but they were very encouraging – they let me use the basement to practice drums. They were kind of scared that I would starve being a musician, but now that everything worked out okay, they’re happy.

Were they also afraid of the drug scene that often surrounds a musician’s life?

Fishman: I was never heavily into drugs, even if I was in a couple of phases taking drugs, but nothing to the point where my parents would get worried. My drug is music! Drugwise, I ended up stopping quickly, because I would have one experience or another where drugs would end my ability to play. Of course, my first experiences inspired me to play – it was like graduating. But very soon it would get in my way to play. The drug becomes a pain in the ass when you have to go do your homework and learn something new, and then it blocks you up and makes it harder to learn something. Also, when you’re high, your playing seems to sound better, but when you listen back to the tapes, it sucks!

You are always dressed in a funny way on stage, especially for Halloween shows…

Fishman: Actually, I have been naked on stage a few times. I don’t know if I should do that in Europe.

How many songs do you have in your repertoire?

One hundred and fifty. We pick some up to build a set list in which there’s some singing, good different grooves and feels. Then we actually perform 30 or 40 percent of this set list, because we change it according to the feeling onstage. Tonight in Paris, we played the first three songs of the list and then changed. For instance, “David Bowie” was not on the list, but we saw a sign written “David Bowie” in the audience and Trey just mimicked “Bowie.” And then, when we finished the a capella song, Trey said, "Let’s play “Good Times, Bad Times.” (An amazing cover of this Led Zeppelin song rocked the Zenith as an encore.)

There is always a Greenpeace booth at your shows. Are you very involved in this fight? Does the band take a political stand?

Fishman: Carlos Santana said not so long ago that when you get any kind of fame in this society, you have a certain amount of responsibility. Whether you like it or not, you are an example for the people. I don’t think we are a very political band. Our songs are more music for the sake of music. But given the fact that we have some recognition, we have a certain responsibility for doing something. It’s a good organization. It’s important. We live in this world. I’m the most hot-headed person in the band as far as political things go. But sometimes you don’t want to go too far. For instance, we had a political candidate back home running for Congress we supported. He wanted us to play a benefit for his campaign. Finally, we didn’t play the concert. Supporting a single person, a political candidate, is different than doing a gig for the Rainforest or something that everybody shares. But even in these conditions, it may be strange. We did a benefit once for Pro-Choice, and then we got a lot of mail from some Pro-Life people – not fanatic people like the ones who blow up hospitals, not even religious people. And I found a lot of their arguments rational. If I had stood on the stage and said what I thought, it would have been different from what the people running that thing said. Like, they set up this “wall of shame” in the band room with pictures of congressmen or senators who are anti-abortion and who were “evil.” Maybe these guys had a personal reason to be against abortion; that doesn’t necessarily mean these persons are evil. I didn’t ask for that shit in my dressing room! I am supporting the right for a person to make a choice. I don’t like the “us and them” mentality. There are very few instances in our history where it is clearly clear cut. It’s too easy. We’d better find common ground and have some discussion. Maybe we will not agree, but at least we’ll have respect for each other. After that show, I felt really bad being just thrust on one side of the fence. I’d rather be a person on Earth and vote my vote.

In our organization, we have money that we set aside for charity. A certain percentage goes to two specific things we support in Vermont: one is cleaning up Lake Champlain; the other is the King Street Youth Center where kids who hang out in the street can get support. In our society, there’s nothing for teenagers. Kids from 14 to 18 don’t get much attention. The teenagers fall into the crack between young kids and adults, and people judge them more harshly than smaller people. And most of the money from public funds goes to younger kids’ programs. So it is a good thing that there is a spot where they can go to play an instrument or do some sports, do something creative and not sit around getting bored and get into trouble.

In addition to the money we give these two programs, this year every one of us in the band has $2,500 to give to any charity organization we want to support. So, if I personally want to support this politician to go to Congress, I can do it. In that way we can avoid getting into these controversial situations. Because when it comes to politics, it is a very personal thing. Some people are more activist than others. I am somebody who is more likely to get involved in a group of things. For instance, Page would rather vote his vote and keep his opinion and not stand up. If the band is supporting Greenpeace, it is because it is a broad organization that supports many environmental things, some of which may be less efficient than others, and I guess that whenever you support an idea, you take some kinds of risks. But there are things that you can see they have done. We are not giving them money – we just invite them to our tours to be exposed to a crowd. Everyone can make this choice. It’s not like a Republican convention! We are not onstage saying, “Go look at Greenpeace.” It is just a presence, but not necessarily representing us.

Phish Heads seem mature enough to understand that. They’re like an extension of the band, like Deadheads with the Grateful Dead…

Fishman: I hope so. I saw that at my first Grateful Dead concert in the ‘80s. It is really a group thing. There is a higher purpose to the whole thing. Music suggests higher ways of living. I like the feeling we have on tour with people following us. I wish we would play more gigs. We used to play 180 gigs a year, now we only play about 90.

One last stupid question… How do you spell Vive la France?

Fishman: V-i-v-e l-a F-r-a-n-c-e.

You passed the test – you didn’t spell it with a Ph.

Fishman: Oh no, I would not do that to France. I have too much respect for other people’s countries.