Though the indie rock and jamband scenes often seem worlds apart, members of many of todays most popular hipster buzz bands actually cut their teeth on seminal jambands like Phish, Widespread Panic and the Grateful Dead. For the June issue of Relix, Executive Editor Mike Greenhaus sat down with Vampire Weekend, The Decemberists, The National, MGMT, Animal Collective and other indie elite to figure out why indie rock is more of an outgrowth than a reaction to the jamband scene.
The Thursday night of Manchester, TNs four-day, multi-genre Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is traditionally reserved for some of the years most blogged about bands and the spring of 2008 was no exception. In the span of only four hours, the overflowing This Tent played host to such indie elites as African-influenced pop stars Vampire Weekend, instrumental weirdos Battles and synth-rock royalty MGMT. The tent and its surrounding areas are filled with the usual mix of early arrivals: college kids, industry reps, groupies, journalists and fellow musiciansand the Olsen twins arent far behind. But instead of the disaffected industry chatter one might expect at an indie showcase, the conversation backstage has turned surprisingly, um, heady.
We discussed playing a 45-minute version of China Cat Sunflower, said MGMT guitarist James Richardson with a straight face shortly before his set, sporting a well-worn tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt. I think pretty much everybody in MGMT secretly loves jambandswell, not so secretly. We always have.
A few yards away his bandmates are catching up with Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson, who despite his band receiving an impressive 8.8 ranking by seemingly devout hippie-hater website Pitchfork, is proudly decked out in a T-shirt that meshes the Phish and the Philadelphia Phillies logos. When it was announced and the bands names were listed, I remember thinking that everyone was going to playing there, he reminisces about his experience at the first, more jamband-oriented Bonnaroo in 2002.
_Vampire Weekend’s Chris Tomson represents at Bonnaroo 2008- photo by Julie Schnee_
But, shortly after that gathering of the tribes, something started to change. As the jam scene started to fragment stylistically, indie rock continued to mature musically and a generation weaned on Phish and Grateful Dead began to grow older while a younger generation began to look at other genres given the sudden dearth of arena-sized jamband draws.
Too many bad imitators of Phish ruined that whole thingeverybody really wanted to be indie, Richardson muses.
Indeed, though both the blogosphere and the mainstream media are quick to make it seem like hipsters and hippies are as different as hair gel and hemp, in reality some of the days most popular indie bands have at least one direct tie to the jamband worldnot theyre openly citing String Cheese Incident as theyre favorite band on Facebook. Yeasayers Ira Wolf Tuton played in Disco Biscuits associates The Ally, Band of Horses Bill Reynolds was a member of jam-friendly roots rockers Donna the Buffalo, Brazilian Girls Jesse Murphy had another life in John Scofields Uber-Jam, Leslie Feist sang on The New Deals Gone Gone Gone, New Deals Dan Kurtz doubles in the electo-pop band Dragonette, all three members of the Lake Trout spinoff Big in Japan serve as the backing band for UNKLE and even the members of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Interpol have name-checked Phish.
Portlands The Decemberists, who stress lyrical nuance over instrumental virtuosity, boasts two alumni of the 90s jamband Calobo: keyboardist Jenny Conlee and bassist Nate Query. Calobo helped me with my technique and how to listen because when youre improvising you always have to be aware of what is going on around you, Conlee says.
So despite being often cast as diametrically opposed, the sound of a surprising number of popular indie rock groups is not just a reaction to their Phish and Dead-influenced youth, but rather a natural extension of the millennium-era jamband movement. In the other words: When did skinny jeans and songcraft start replacing tie-dyes and epic jams?
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Moments in a Box: Indie-Royalty Wax Poet on the Jam Scene
*Geologist, Animal Collective *
I was only 14 or 15 when I saw The Dead, but remember they played Wharf Rat and The Other One, so I was psyched on that. Even if you were a young kid going to your first show people seemed to welcome you and the community didn’t feel exclusive. I never liked Phish though, and the only reason I went to their show was because it seemed like an easy place to take part in other recreational activities I was into at the timejust kidding, sort of. A good friend named took me to see them, and I gave it a shot because he always said I had to see them live, and I figured if I didn’t like it, I could probably find something fun to eat. I didn’t like the music at all, so I had to go with the back up plan.
Hank Sullivant, Kuroma
My first Phish show was July 29, 1998 outside St Louis. I had heard Junta at my summer camp, so knew they had really long, orchestrated songs but I didnt know how much they improvised until they opened with this amazing, 25-minute version of Bathtub Gin. Andrew and I were listening to so much Grateful Dead and Phish around then that our music sort of came off as jam-funk even though we had these really good funk arrangements.
*Jay Farrar, Son Volt *
In high-school I had a friend who was into skate-punk like the Germs and, for some reason, he also had a side that was into the Grateful Dead. I think that speaks to the appeal of The Deadthat they can cut across party lines. But at that time we kind of had to hide our love of The Deadwe just listened and put it on compilation tapes and whatnot. It was kind of a guilty pleasure.
*Hardy Morriswe, Dead Confederate *
I went to see a bunch of Widespread Panic shows with my brother, who is our manager now, and some of the guys in our band were really into Phish. But, as opposed to the other our jambands, I was drawn to the dark side of Widespread Panicthey would do things like cover Vic Chestnut. I always knew Dave Schools was a rock guy deep down.
*Ethan Miller, Howlin Rain *
You can say you dont like The Dead of Jefferson Airplane, but you cant deny they are part of musical historyand beyond that, I love those bands. There was some stuff on our first record where I tried to pull a little American Beauty vibe. I wasnt necessarily trying to copy the chords, but channel a little bit of that sorrow and a little bit of the beautiful imperfections of Jerry Garcias singing. I also love Jormas guitar, especially on Jefferson Airplanes Surrealistic Pillow
*Jenny Conlee, The Decemberists *
Matt Butler recently asked me to play a show with the Everyone Orchestra, but I chickened out because last time he asked me it was Stanton Moore and all these heavy-hitters. I can’t hold up to the people who do that every day, but I do like to think that I can live in both worlds a little bit.
*Nels Cline, Wilco *
My twin brother and I tried to carve distinct identities musically because people looked at us a lot like half of a personality. I think the only time we crossed over was The Dead. He started out with the early Dead albums and started moving away when Workingman’s Dead came out, but that record was close to me right away. That is really the only time we sort of switched.
*Ryan Kirkpatrick, Red Cortez *
In 97 I saw Phish play throughout Italythe camaraderie amongst those there was amazing. Another amazing experience was seeing MMW in Los Angeles touring on their record, Tonic. When Medeski began the play the piano, those first few notes of Hey Joe. To this day, if any un-addressed sadness is lingering inside of me, listening to their version of that song will take it out.
*Jason Isbell *
I have noticed some people at my shows and Truckers shows in the past who seem to be fans of bands like Panic, Phish, Gov’t Mule, etc. These people seem to enjoy a wide range of music, though, and music in general clearly occupies a large space in many of their lives. It seems to me that jamband fans are some of the most devoted. That’s certainly a good thing for the bands themselves.
Seth Olinsky, Akron/Family
The Dead capture the free American spiritfrom Tom Constanten and the avant-garde to blues motorcycle dudes to hillbilly music. It technically just doesnt work perfectly, but the heart is what holds it together.
Brandon Boyd, Incubus
Phish was one of the first bands I got really, really into. I’d drive halfway across the country to go to one of their shows, and wed always make an adventure out of it. The personalities created in that band are so unique.
*James Petralli, White Denim *
Its kind of taboo to take a long solo these days, but I listened to Eat a Peach a couple days ago and was pretty thrilled by it againI think we all really geek out on great playing.
Jose Pasillas, Incubus
Mike Einziger and I used to like to play Llama, since it was pretty simple for a Phish song. I also used to like to play Riftwe would bastardize their songs,
*Colin Stetson, Sway Machinery/Arcade Fire/Tom Waits *
Somewhere in my straight-edge brain, I assumed that because acid was seemingly much more crazy than anything I’d gotten into and the Grateful Dead were synonymous with acid, then transitively, the Grateful Dead were far too ‘crazy’ for me. Years later, I did do acid, and after that, I finally did listen to the Grateful Dead. Needless to say, the letdown was immense.
James Richardson, MGMT
Too many bad imitators of Phish ruined that whole thingeverybody really wanted to be indie.
*Johnny Beach, Bowery Presents *
There is a reason that Radiohead and Phish are probably my two favorite bandsthey have the ability to cut across genres and bring in all sorts of fans.