Jon Fishman: Phish Plays The Rolling Stones
by Michael Parillo
In the cover story of the September issue of MD, out now, Phish drummer Jon Fishman holds court on topics ranging from the breakup and reunion of his band to how milking a cow can help you maintain your drumming chops. In this online exclusive interview, he adds to the conversation with a reflection on covering the Rolling Stones’ 1972 masterpiece, Exile On Main St., at Phish’s Festival 8 in Indio, California, on Halloween 2009.
It’s tough to imagine popular rock bands more different than Phish—with its wide stylistic range, lengthy exploratory jams, and friendly stage presence—and the Rolling Stones—with their chiseled blues-based purity and otherworldly rock-god status. But Phish has made a habit of expanding its comfort zone, especially when choosing a “musical costume” for a Halloween show. Past performances have found the band covering the Beatles’ White Album (1994), the Who’s Quadrophenia (1995), the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light (1996), and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded (1998). And though it wasn’t technically a Halloween show, a few days after the Loaded performance Phish covered Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon.
In our previous cover story on Fishman, in October 2000, Jon—who’s as much a jazz drummer and historian as he is a rocker—mentions a famous quote by saxophonist Charlie Parker: “Study, learn everything about music, and then forget all that and play.” This idea remains alive and well in the Phish camp, as you’re about to see as you read Fishman’s words on covering entire albums, copping Charlie Watts’s drum parts, and hitting the stage with a five-string guitar, as Keith Richards famously does.
MD: What did you learn from playing Exile On Main St.?
Jon: When Keith Richards says the blues guys were their heroes and everything they ever did was lifted from Chuck Berry and stuff, when you learn Exile On Main St., you really feel how true that is. They have managed not to over-intellectualize anything. They didn’t choke the life out of the music by doing anything fancy production-wise. The instruments sound good, they’re playing the shit out of the songs. No one’s going to accuse Mick Jagger of being overly technical, although he’s very aware of his technique. From everything I’ve heard, he’s a very cerebral guy, but he’s able to let go of all that and just play.
Keith Richards, I don’t think he’s ever been doing anything but letting go his entire life. When Trey was doing the tunings for the guitar, he was like, “That’s great—get rid of that sixth string; that thing is just in the way!” It’s just capos and open tunings the whole time. It’s almost like Keith Richards eliminated all need for any kind of technique. He just did whatever he needed to do to the guitar to minimize even the use of fingers. It gets your brain out of the way entirely. When you look at the way he approaches the guitar, it’s like he didn’t even bother learning in the first place—he just forgot it right away and got right to the playing.
Charlie Watts, man, I don’t even know what to say. I always liked his drumming, and I always thought it was the greatest thing for the Rolling Stones. You never looked to him to be the Steve Gadd.
MD: You’ve covered a lot of distinctive drummers in your Halloween shows: Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Moe Tucker….
Jon: Everything in nature, like flowers that grow in the garden, is its own individual species; there are individual things that make up its beauty. The greatest thing about the Halloween records is that you end up learning so much more than you ever thought you would.
I would highly recommend to any band in existence not only to cover other people’s music but to take your favorite album and learn it cover to cover. Whether you actually go out and perform it publicly is almost irrelevant. To learn someone else’s album note for note is as much of a musical course as you could ever want to take. In terms of learning Exile On Main St. and trying to do every Charlie Watts fill, first of all, if you truly apply what you learn from the record, you forget all that shit and you just play, so you don’t end up playing his fills note for note in the performance.
MD: What kind of insight into Charlie Watts’s playing did you get from this experience?
Jon: What I got more than anything was that this guy’s head is so completely immersed in the song and in the support of the vocals that it felt like there wasn’t any thought. I completely understand now why Keith Richards says, “As far as I’m concerned, as long as Charlie’s there I’ll be in the Stones, and when Charlie’s gone I’m gone too.”
I couldn’t hear one thing Charlie Watts did that wasn’t directly connected to something else happening in the music. There’s not a single moment where he’s doing a fill to stand out, to prove anything, to do anything other than respond to something else that just happened. He’s the consummate team player.
MD: Phish and the Stones are such different bands.
Jon: Phish, as a group, has always attempted musical forms that we’re not good at. We used to have these coaches go with us on the road, people who would get us a little bit deeper into certain forms. We’d hire a bluegrass specialist to come and teach us proper bluegrass singing in one microphone. Karl Perazzo came out and taught us Latin rhythms for a couple weeks. We had a barbershop quartet coach. And we may do more of that in the future. We’ve had a bit of debate in the band too: Are you better off becoming a band like the Stones, who are really good at one thing?
They’re masters of this form that they inherited from the early blues artists, and they’re so good at conveying that human expression is the most important part that it’s like a master class. By trying to incorporate all these different things into your music, do you run the risk of being really mediocre at a bunch of things and never really getting good at any one thing?
The lesson I took from the Stones that really took it a step further was the notion that, while you’re learning all these different technical skills and allowing yourself to be influenced by all these different kinds of things, when you’re out on the stage and your homework is done, forget all that shit and play. Be like Charlie Parker and be like the Rolling Stones, and just forget all that and play.
The Stones went from being a band I really liked and admired to being my heroes in some ways now that they weren’t before. And not just because they made that album. Though the full thing, from cover to cover, is the most soulful, least mental album, and it sounds like the sound of fun. But as I’m getting older and I’ve been in a band now for twenty-five years, I look at the Stones with nothing but reverence. You understand why U2 is an opening band for the Stones.
To be in my situation, in a band that’s been together only twenty-five years, and to look at them, you go, “Wow!” They’re playing really well, and their values are in the right place. I feel like I can look to the Stones now as an example of almost everything to do right. There are so many examples of what not to do, and they’re all part of the boneyard. So, by deduction, it’s: I’m not gonna do what Hendrix did, and I’m not gonna do what the Grateful Dead did, and I’m not gonna do what the Beatles did…. I don’t want to fight about money, and I don’t want to sleep with anyone’s wife like Fleetwood Mac did, and I certainly don’t want to be the Eagles…. [laughs] Here are the pitfalls to avoid, but where’s an example of how to do it right? The Stones!