The following piece originally appeared in the Sunday edition of the Festival 8 Express.
December 1 is the official release date of Phish: The Biography. The author, Parke Puterbaugh, began his association with the band while on assignment from Rolling Stone in May 1995. He continued his relationship with Phish even after the piece finally ran (in the Feb 20, 1997 issue with Gillian Anderson on the cover). Over the years, Puterbaugh helped the band with any number of writing projects (including the 1996 Phishbill) and has now opted for the long-form approach. In the following conversation, Puterbaugh talks about his first meeting with the band, his approach to the book and about the stonewalling on his part that allowed him to fold in an account of the group’s return in 2009. He’s out there walking the grounds of Festival 8 this very weekend, so if you somehow you happen upon him, be sure to extend a greeting (his first name Parke, rhymes with lark).
Your initial connection to Phish came through a Rolling Stone assignment. Were you altogether unfamiliar with them at that point?
I was pretty unfamiliar although I wouldn’t say I’d never heard a note. At that point in time they hadn’t registered across my screen, in part because I was in graduate school and a lot of my time and energy was going towards pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science. So I wasn’t delving as deeply into new music as much as I would typically. I was familiar with the name and a bit of the story but until I got the assignment and found out for myself, I was largely ignorant of what they were all about and probably subject to many of the same myths and preconceptions that everyone else was.
And you first met them prior to a rehearsal?
That’s right. I rolled up in my rental car. Dionysian [Productions] wasn’t even in Burlington at that point, so they faxed me directions to Paul Languedoc’s house where they were rehearsing. This was a few weeks after the Voters for Choice concert [5/16/95]. I followed those directions out to the countryside, rolled up into the driveway and they were literally hanging out in front of the house waiting for me to show up. Then I got to spend the afternoon at their rehearsal. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was because those weren’t open rehearsals. Not too many people got to see them do the exercises and stuff.
Do you recall your initial reaction to that?
I didn’t know anything about what I was in for or what I was seeing but I was taking it all in and furiously making notes. I wish I had turned my tape recorder on but I was too polite. It was a room above a garage workshop where Paul built guitars, nothing fancy, and they were just sitting around going at it. I had never seen anyone do anything remotely like that. And from watching them play with dynamics, get real loud or real soft and do these exercises where they would try to fill holes and stay out of each other’s holes, I could see over time why were such incredible four-way improvisers because they really worked at it off stage. It was a rather profound thing to see them go through all those rehearsals and make really great-sounding music out of thin air.