Read our Q&A with Wally Holland, soon-to-be author of the new 33 1/3 on Phish’s A Live One!
I was born in San Juan, grew up near Houston and then near Buffalo, and have lived in Boston/Cambridge since 1997. I have a Bachelors in Comparative Media Studies/Computer Science and finished (but never finished paying for) a Masters in CMS, both from MIT. My graduate research involved designing games to teach science/engineering content to high schoolers, and my thesis was an unholy mix of educational theory, half-digested cog-sci jarble, and reader-response literary analysis – a theory of ‘imaginative stances’ I never did anything with, but which seeps into a lot of the writing I’ve done in the last decade+.
My wife and son are much the better part of me.
I’ve self-published a handful of books, all available from Amazon (hint hint): The Allworlds Catalogue, a weird collection of interlocking short stories sorta shaped like an almanac of imaginary worlds; an essay/story collection called Falsehoods, Concerns; and a Phish book primarily for fans, A tiny space to move and breathe. The Phish book is a collection of interlinked essays about the individual shows of a single tour (Fall 1997, my pick for the band’s supernatural once-in-a-lifetime peak). It revolves around the music, to be sure, and no matter how much you know about the tour you’ll learn something about Phish from the book; but deep down it’s about looking back at something you desperately love, something that’s helped make you, and realizing you’re no longer that person anymore – and never will be again. (Both Tiny space and Allworlds can be read as uhh indirect meditations on being a stay-at-home parent of an infant/toddler, which – if you’re doing it right – strips away everything you think constitutes you.)
I’ve written or co-written a bunch more books – Office 2013 training courses, chemistry study guides, grade school English/math supplements, that sort of thing.
On Twitter I’m @waxbanks.
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
It had to be Phish—the only band I’m uniquely qualified to write about, though I’d have loved to take on Miles’s On the Corner, which helped invent contemporary music—and A Live One effectively captures an interesting moment in Phish’s evolution as improvisers. Improv has been essential to their musical project since the mid-80s. ALO was their attempt at a Definitive Live Statement at the moment they transitioned from cult band to the biggest live act in the country (it dropped the summer Jerry Garcia died); tellingly it’s their only live collection—after ALO, they’ve only put out complete shows (and a beloved single disc culled from a turning-point night in March 1997 called Slip, Stitch, and Pass).
Most fans don’t listen to Phish’s studio stuff much, though the band has put out one superb studio album (Billy Breathes), one brilliant near-miss (Rift), one fine late work (Fuego), and several gloriously weird/weirdly glorious studio projects that aren’t necessarily ‘great albums’ in the mainstream-critical sense—along with plenty of other albums not to be spoken of here. They thrive in an improvisatory setting, and their greatest strengths come out onstage rather than on record.
So it had to be a live album. I think it does the band a disservice to say ‘live Phish is Phish,’ but for nearly every one of their fans, that’s how it is. I didn’t want to write about their late-90s ‘cow funk’ era, since I’d already written a mostly-for-hardcore-fans book about that stuff, and I wanted to cover something that more than a handful of hardcore fans have actually heard. That meant A Live One.
Which works out nicely for me, since ALO is the one I first fell hopelessly in love with, the one that inspired me to go to my first rock concert. It changed all my musical categories. Summer 1995 I was at Johns Hopkins, far from home for the first time ever. I discovered MUDs, Discordianism, the Whole Earth Catalog, and improvised music all at once. I had A Live One in my Discman pretty much nonstop for a month. It was perfect with me, and (I felt) vice versa.
Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
I’m getting in touch with folks who go back a ways with the band, and trying to arrange a band interview. The process of assembling A Live One isn’t itself that interesting to me – those moment-to-moment decisions were made ages ago and the music speaks for itself – so I don’t particularly want ‘behind-the-scenes’ details about the album itself. But I’d love to learn more about the band’s formative years in Vermont in the 80s, as part of this insane experimental music/art scene that doesn’t fit the pop narratives about the band. The book is necessarily an account of their live music in general as much as ALO itself.
I’m so used to writing in nightmarish hallucinatory isolation that I’ll probably do most of this book that way out of habit. Stick with what you love.
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another? Be as specific and detailed as you’d like.
I assembled my pitch somewhat hastily; I’d forgotten about the open call for submissions, and threw it together in a couple of days at the end of the submission window. If you’re thinking of submitting, don’t do that. Among other things, you end up making plans and promises you haven’t fully thought through.
A Live One is a grab bag, every track in a different genre/style/mood, and so is the book I pitched. I’ve already written a Phish book for fans, and there are plenty of those around; what’s missing is a serious, sustained look at the music itself—the improvisatory methods the band employs during their justly famous live shows. I’m comfortable with music-theoretic talk, but I’m confident I can get into the nuts’n’bolts of the music without using much scholarly jargon (which has its place—just not in this book). My pitch emphasised that angle, but also pointed to other topics: a bit about the fandom, a bit about the band’s relationship to its influences, a lot of talk on the singular experience of seeing—taking part in—a 30-minute ‘psychedelic’ improvisation. There’s even a chapter dealing with Phish’s reputation as an infamously ‘white’ band – my rough draft uses the words ‘appropriation’ and ‘syncretism’ and ‘Baobab’ and ‘jive “poetry”’ and ‘that’s what God is’; it’s the most personal of all the book’s chapters so far, and not coincidentally the least shapely at the moment.
I pitched a book that would make it clear to new listeners and non-fans exactly what’s going on when Phish ‘jam,’ and hopefully both convey and unpack the extraordinary love that the band’s true believers have for this music. Explaining how their music works on its listeners, in both analytical and poetic terms. At first I half expected to include transcriptions of some of Phish’s jamming, honestly.
Funnily enough, though, it’s the musicultural history that’s grabbed me during the months-long research process. Digging into their roots, the music(s) that served as their early template, has really altered my view of the band. Phish shouldn’t be thought of as the Grateful Dead 2.0—that myth does a disservice to their project, and it’s part of the reason they’re poorly thought of by so many critics (well, ‘critics’). This is a band whose mid-80s demo tape was a mix of weirdo tape collage, prep-school funk, hermetic prog-space oddities, psych-folk lullabies, and a song called ‘Fuck Your Face’ that sounds like King Crimson and Captain Beefheart drunkenly copulating (in a healthy consensual way).
So I’m writing more or less the book I pitched, with the chapters weighted a bit differently than I expected. In other words, everything’s going according to plan.
What do you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
OK so Phish are connected to a lineage that connects musicians as far-flung as Mwandishi, Ornette, Metheny, Jarrett, Soft Machine, Can, and 1970s Miles on one (improvisatory) hand; Genesis, Yes, The Who, Zappa, Zeppelin, and Crimson on the (bombastic/theatrical/pretentious) other; and, say, Talking Heads, the Flaming Lips, and They Might Be Giants on the (MTV-era weirdo culture) third. And Beefheart, who was daft and is everywhere. And the Dead, complicatedly.
That’s an unusual pool of influences, and Phish combine them with a genuinely unique approach to collective improvisation. No one else has pulled off that mix. So the bands that seem most similar to Phish to me, in the idiosyncrasy of their projects and their approach to world-mixing, don’t necessarily sound much like Phish.
(Actually, thinking about the Lips and TMBG and other strangeness is what convinced me there was a book in here somewhere.)
Anyhow, this lineage is really interesting to me – not a ‘movement’ or ‘scene’ but a subterranean current, an expansive idea (of America or a ‘generation’ or whatever) that manifests in wildly varying artworks of Weird complexity and joyful private perversity. Art that shares a difference, if you catch my drift.
But what brings me back to Phish is their improvisation, which has something that no one else quite catches. Phish play for a singular set of improvisatory stakes (a term explained at length in the book, I promise), constantly pushing at this boundary of how much freedom you can have as improvisers and still maintain cohesion. Their tendency is to collapse toward new forms, however distant from the source material of their improvisation.
[I had a long bit about their/everyone’s debts to Ornette Coleman and Mwandishi here but this is already way too long.]
Phish’s improvisatory approach, coarsely understood, is to set democratic free improv against/amidst densely worked-out prog-rock structure – to try hard to make sense, or at least careful nonsense, even when getting deeply abstract. They get accused of self-indulgence all the time, but they’re fantastically disciplined players; it’s just that what they’re disciplined about is maintaining a high degree of freedom. It can be a bit hard to talk about.
For a variety of reasons, this stuff – the historical material that illuminates Phish’s origins and intentions, and the analytical stuff that unpacks how they do what they do in concert – just doesn’t make it into pop analysis of the band. Phish are experimentalists, yet they’ve always been covered nostalgically, for decades(!), which sure won’t stop now that they’re venerable. Writing about them for 33-1/3 will let me focus on aspects of their project outside the scope of their usual (intermittent) media coverage.
(There’s one awesome Phish book, quite sensibly called The Phish Book – a collection of band interviews edited together into something like an ongoing conversation. I love it. But there’s never been a sustained print analysis of their music as such.)
What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
My MIT friend Geeta Dayal wrote a really great book on Brian Eno’s Another Green World—that’s what finally lit a fire under me to submit a pitch. It shocked me. It manages to dig deep into every facet of Eno’s album, throwing bright light on Eno’s working methods, his influences, his evolving unified creative project—and Geeta got there by taking Eno’s methods seriously, by letting an idiosyncratic associative logic guide the writing. After reading her book, I came to Eno’s work with new ears. It makes new sense to me now, and I listen more openly, more generously, more curiously. What more can you ask for?
I remember reading Douglas Wolk’s book on James Brown back in the day. Great, great stuff. Wolk’s Understanding Comics was important to me in grad school, but I liked his 33-1/3 book better, not least because I knew a lot more about comics than about James Brown, so I didn’t need to roll my eyes at his 33-1/3…
I dug into the Achtung Baby book a few years ago too. It’s exactly the kind of book 33-1/3 should put out; I admire it a great deal, though I found myself shaking my head more than nodding as I read.
What was your first concert?
Phish, I’m a bit embarrassed to say. 7 December 1995 in Niagara Falls. I was a junior in high school. My mom drove Fred (who was in a rock band and did exciting drugs), Fred’s brother, and me to the Convention Center. It was a couple-hour drive. After dropping us off she headed for the factory outlet mall nearby, and bought me my first electric razor. A real coming-of-age day. Fred took/drank/smoked something terribly interesting and during the second set he found me in the crowd and yelled ‘This is great! I’m gonna go make out with that glitter chick some more’ and disappeared. I think I remember seeing the ‘glitter chick’ in question but who knows.
I remember the music as impenetrably strange and joyful, and the crowd just the same. We all danced for three hours straight, it seemed. Late in the second set, during one of the all-time great versions of Mike’s Song > Weekapaug Groove, I sat down on the bleachers and tried to figure out what the hell was going on, but couldn’t. Eventually I caught on.
I’ve seen the band 30+ times in the last 20 years. I don’t have the time, inclination, or money to ‘tour’ with the band, but I hear most of most of the shows, and have collected their live recordings since just after my second show (Buffalo 1996: standard high-energy show, nothing too memorable).
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? And could you tell us why?
MP3, almost exclusively, with a bit of CD on the side. I’ve never owned my own records, only listened to my parents’, and I never unpacked my cassette player after moving house a few years ago. I’m of two minds about digital entertainment—I tolerate PDFs and cordially dislike ebooks, yet I can’t imagine going back to physical media for music. MP3 is too convenient.
I do miss the scratches and pops of my parents’ record player, I’ll tell you that.
My Phish obsession was deepest in the late-90s, at the tail end of the cassette-trading era, when you’d request a fellow fan’s tapelist, then send off a handful of blank 90min Maxell XL-II’s with requests for specific sets or shows. Sometimes you’d sign up for a ‘tape tree,’ agreeing to dub N copies of a given show for other folks, with the lower-generation spots on the tree reserved for the traders with the best cassette decks. Getting tapes took ages, ‘bad trader alerts’ abounded, but I loved it. That personal connection was essential to my fandom—I grew up in a very small town in western New York, and the nationwide fan taper/trader network made me feel connected to something big and generous and Weird. One of the best afternoons of my life involved taking my dual-well tape deck on the T to Porter Square from my house at MIT, and meeting a bunch of fans to listen to the then-weeks-old 12/30/97 II, making multiple copies at once by daisy-chaining all the decks (so we all got second-generation analog copies of the digital audience source, i.e., ‘DAUD-2’ tapes).
Come to think of it, that might’ve been the first time I ever saw adults in the ‘real world’ smoke weed. It was a nice day. Our host David lent me Live-Evil and some Dead tapes.
That physical trading network is gone; now you can download HQ soundboard recordings of show the night it’s played, before the stage is even broken down. It’s so fast and easy. You know how it is: much is gained, something incomparable is lost.
Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
‘Boy! Man! God! Shit!’
No one listens to Phish for the lyrics, c’mon. Still, that line sounds like something David Lynch would shout out during sex (along with ‘Marvy!’ and ‘Gee!’) and therefore for reasons far too complex and humiliating to explain it’s extremely relevant to the album itself, my Discman-walks at Johns Hopkins, the show in Niagara Falls, this Q&A, the last few months of writing, and in fact just about everything else in the whole universe.