Interview with Dave Abrahams

Dave Abrahams has had a hand in writing several Phish songs, and is the  “Dave” referred to in “McGrupp.” If you enjoy this interview, or have additional questions for a possible follow-up interview, please be in touch with cdirksen@earthlink.net. Special thanks to The Mockingbird Foundation and of course Dave Abrahams for making this interview possible.

A copyright is claimed on this interview by The Mockingbird Foundation. This interview is being published in its complete form exclusively on Rec.Music.Phish and on the Mockingbird web page for the benefit of fans. This interview may not be republished anywhere in any form — online or offline — without the express written consent of the Foundation. Both Dave and I encourage you, however, to link to this Interview from your Phish page.

We realize that you may want to circulate this interview to your friends online, but please, out of respect for The Mockingbird Foundation and its non-profit mission, simply circulate or link to the URL. (The address is http://www.phish.net/mockingbird/book/interviews/abrahams.html.)

Charlie Dirksen: When and where did you first see Phish play?

It was at a bar in Burlington, Hunt’s I think. Year? Aeons ago – mid ’80s. There may have been two such early concerts I went to; I can’t recall. At the time Marc Daubert was living in Burlington; I don’t know if that helps you pin it down at all. I went up with Tom to visit Trey and Marc. I remember that there were some people sitting at tables around the outside of the room. Pretty much the entire dance floor was available, so I took full advantage. Trey still talks about the time I ran towards the stage, dropped to my knees, and slid with my hands hosannah in the air for one of his solos. I think in those days a little audience participation was extra welcome. I also remember some woman talking to her friend on the phone at the back of the room about the upcoming act (Phish) saying “I don’t know; it’s some grateful dead cover band,” so you can see that they were already getting stuck with an inaccurate label in those days. At least one of these shows involved two guys from an R&B/reggae band, much bigger than Phish, who showed up and took over the stage, hijacking Mike’s bass and driving the music in their own particular aggressive direction. After watching the reggae guy play his three well-executed, but ultimately uninteresting 2-note bass riffs for an hour and a half, Mike was heard to say sardonically, “well, at least I learned some reggae bass lines.”

CD: When did you first meet Trey?

We were in school together for a few years, you know, but I don’t know if we ever really communicated much until he went away to Taft. When he came back for the summer as a rhythm guitarist for Space Antelope our mutual interest in music drew us together. One personal interaction stands out in my mind, though. When we were in 8th grade, there was a sort of class camping trip. Trey was still a drummer then, and hadn’t started playing guitar yet. During one of the free periods, I wandered up on a little huddle of guys listening to a cassette on a boombox. It was Steve Howe, playing “The Clap”. When I heard the free way he seemed to be playing I was blown away. “My God” I exclaimed, “he’s just improvising!” Trey shot back “Shut up, he’s great!” Rather than try to explain what I meant I just sat there in silence, taking in the music’s twists and turns. Learning to play that tune would become one of my proudest early achievements on the guitar.

CD: Does it kinda bother you when people take Phish too seriously? It must amuse you that some folks still wonder why it matters that someone looks too much like Dave. They want to be in on the joke.

It doesn’t bother me, but there has been an amazing amount of meaning read into things that were written just because they sounded silly, or just because the words bounced off each other in a particular way. But if someone can find religious meaning in “McGrupp,” well then I’m happy for him. I do want people to understand what an incredible amount of (constructive) idiocy all of us got away with, only sometimes in the name of art. I hope that people will be inspired (and I mean moved to act) by Trey’s boundless enthusiasm for making something, and his undefeatible conviction that it’s going to turn out great.

CD: It seems to me that most people — not necessarily Phish fans — would rather share in the groove than make the effort, and take the risk, to create their own. Everyone has the potential to be creative, of course, and everyone is creative in some way, shape, or form, but listening is an objectively passive (but subjectively active) activity after all. I certainly hope people learn from Trey’s example.

One way in which this came up with Trey was when I saw him backstage one night, and he told me a bunch of phans wanted to find the rhombus. He said that people had written to him, and they really wanted to know where it was; it was a kind of pious impulse on their part to go visit it. He asked me if I thought he should tell them. His first reaction was that it was a bad idea. He was thinking of gangs of kids defiling the place with graffiti or something, but he said the people that were writing to him seemed pretty thoughtful and sincere. Even so, I said that other people visiting the rhombus was somehow missing the point. “They should make up their own mythology,” I offered. Trey really keyed into that point. I remember him saying “that’s exactly right.”

Tom and Marc and I found this place and made it meaningful. Trey became a part of that story through shared experience. I’m a huge fan of many other artists and musicians, but we have our own magical experiences which are deeper than any kind of contact with the people I’m a fan of could be. I think, ultimately, many fans are trying to access that kind of personal magical experience, but don’t know it. For these people, sole pursuit of Phish or anyone else’s creative juice is forever unsatisfying.

CD: I believe that a lot of fans do get “it” and share in the magic, hence why they spend lots of money to see every show they can wherever and whenever they can. They want to be a part of the Experience, to share in the Joy. Which is great. But at the same time, the most intense magic is that which you create yourself. I bet that Trey would say that the “audience” helps create “the magic” of course, and I’d obviously agree.

Yes, he would. And it’s a great attitude to have.

CD: But there’s a big difference, in my opinion, between helping to create magic as part of the Herd, and creating it as an individual will.

Being in the audience and participating in the show is a totally authentic way to be a part of it. I do worry when people start trying to connect with the artist on a more personal level; to capture some part of the artist’s personal experience to the exclusion of, or as a replacement for, their own creativity.

CD: There’s a “Bivouac Jaun” tape that has been circulating, which appears to feature yourself, Trey, Tom and Marc Daubert on a few tunes. What was “Jaun” all about? I’ve heard that “Bivouac” was the name of a band — Marc, Trey and Tom — but where did you fit in?

For the most part, I didn’t. Tom, Trey, and Marc all coincidentally took some time off from college at the same time. While I was away at school in Philly, they were getting busy. I had a really hard time with it, because Tom and Marc had been my steadfast creative partners and because the product was so good. Trey had blossomed into a brilliant guitarist in a very short period of time (I had been playing at least twice as long). I was lucky enough to be able to participate a bit on some weekend visit home or maybe a Thanksgiving break. That’s what you hear on the tape.

CD: How well do you know the members of Phish other than Trey?

I’m friendly with everyone, since I first met them over 10 years ago and have seen them regularly since then. We say hi when we run into each other backstage; I’m sure you can imagine how it is.

CD: I can imagine it, but what is it “like” backstage, anyway? Care to de-mythologize it at all? Most people reading this interview probably have not had the privilege of being at an aftershow or, for that matter, in any of the even more privileged backstage areas. I imagine that unless you already knew people backstage, had friends backstage who you wanted to hang out with, then it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as the lot scene post-show.

It’s more like an obstacle course of oversized rusty buzz-saws than anything else. There is, as you describe, a hierarchy of privileged areas, with the band, family members, and staff (and anyone else who has managed to scam or grovel for an all-access pass) occupying the most protected area. Often the band will not venture beyond this border. There are plenty of polite but firm security personnel who don’t know you from Adam whose duty it is to keep the borders sealed. Usually my only reason to be backstage is to spend a couple of minutes catching up with old friends. Unless Trey happens to venture into the greater mob and I am lucky enough to catch his eye, I slink away unrewarded. Can you tell how excited I am about the backstage scene?

CD: Sure! What were your musical influences growing up? What instruments did you play? What’s ANDBACK?

Andback is the name of a band founded by Marc Daubert, Tom Marshall, and me in about 1980.

On my thirteenth birthday my brother got an electric guitar. We had just returned from summer vacation in Colorado where my dad had a regular position at the Aspen Center for Physics, and our house was in an unlivable condition. The renovations, which were supposed to be finished while we were away, had taken longer than expected. We were camped out in the architect’s (also unfinished) place of residence and my parents were obviously stressed. As the elder son, I was expected to be mature and understanding that my birthday celebration would be postponed… but somehow Jonathan got an electric guitar, that very day. I don’t remember what I got for my birthday that year, but I do remember that guitar. I remember asking an experienced guitarist who was babysitting my brother to teach me a song from a Bee-Gees songbook. Wisely, I think, he refused.

My parents were open-minded classical music heads and had actually bought copies of a few other things like Quadrophenia and one of the more unlistenable Zappa albums (“Lumpy Gravy”) at the urging of friends. I discovered these after exhausting my appetite for the steady diet of Beatles music which had been available to me. Another great album which I listended to as a kid was an electronic version of “Peter and the Wolf”. It featured, among others, members of Brand X and the incredible Stephane Grapelli.

My brother later decided he liked acoustic guitar better, and when he finally lost interest in that I had two guitars. I tried to play everything I could lay my hands on in those days. The next summer I hung around in a Colorado music store obsessively playing all their guitars and trying to soak up some of the bluegrass picking that was the local lingua franca… until the owner politely suggested that I exercise a few of my other interests, elsewhere.

I had no serious ideas about writing music until a few years later. One day in gym class I heard Tom Marshall and Marc Daubert practicing a harmony: “Moons, moons/ sons of moons/ die in dark hallways,” they sang. It sounded cool, but I didn’t recognize the song. Excited, I asked them what it was. “andback”, Tom said. When they told me that andback was the name of their band I was incredulous at first, then blown away. At the time it was more of a songwriting project than a band, but it wasn’t long before they asked me to join them and we got something going. Tom had a tiny Casio keyboard – really a palm-sized toy – and Marc had an acoustic guitar and a drum kit. I was into electronics in those days and built a crude synthesizer from a kit for Tom to use. We made up songs and recorded them live onto cassettes using my boombox. We listened to them constantly, driving through the farmland that surrounded Princeton in Marc’s International Scout, howling with laughter.

My relationship with Tom and Marc will always be one of the most amazing creative experiences I have ever had. Every minute we spent together in those days was an excuse to write some new bit of music, poetry, or often just a strange incantation. We went camping and shared wild nights building fires and myths of polyhedra. When the creative juices ran dry, we became arch critics, panning our own exploits and cracking ourselves up at the irony of it. Behavior on anyone’s part that was considered embarrassing or out-of-line to the others was a good enough excuse for some sort of sick torture, but somehow that never killed the atmosphere of spontenaeity that we had made for ourselves. In fact, spontaneous torture could arise for its own sake: the “air-conditioned nightmare”, in which an unsuspecting rear-seat passenger was subjected to open windows and full A/C in the dead of winter at high speed, needed no excuse. Then, of course, there was the incident on Aunt Molly Road, but I digress… It’s probably worth noting that punishment was not meted out equally: Marc probably got the worst of it, and Tom was often strangely exempt, though it would be easy to see Tom’s current sad condition as a form of kharmic come-uppance.

In that time I also started to discover new music. In a 500-seat venue at Princeton University, Tom and I saw the Pat Metheney group (its greatest incarnation, with cymbal-master Dan Gottlieb and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos) and King Crimson on its “Discipline” tour. We stood in the little hall face-to-face with Adrian Belew and let the music rip through us. I remember leaving the concert in a state of shock: though a willing participant, I was also totally done-to.

Marc started gravitating more towards guitar playing and songwriting, experimenting with open tunings and slide on his acoustic, and it became clear we needed a full-time drummer to complete the band. We invited Peter Cottone to fill that role and brought in Roger Holloway on bass.

I didn’t really get to know Trey until after he had already gone away to school at Taft. At PDS he had always been one of three drummers (the other two being Pete and Marc), but when he came back one summer playing guitar it was clear that his drumming background had given him incredible grounding. He had been playing rhythm guitar in a cover band for about a year, and while he seemed to repeat the same Grateful Dead material a bit, he really knew how to lock into a groove. For a guy who didn’t “really play lead guitar,” he was impressive. I began living in fear.

“Runaway Jim” originated that summer with Marc and I sitting out by Princeton’s largest fountain. I had been fooling around with the basic song structure, showed Marc how to get that bluegrass rhythm sound with the emphasis on the bass notes, and the lyrics just popped into my head. I guess it’s really true that we’re conduits for the music. I had a couple of single-note lines that I wanted to go between the vocal parts, one of which sounded just like the kind of stuff Trey had been playing. I don’t know how we arranged it, but I do remember being back at the fountain, working out the song between the three of us. For some reason I never understood, the song was causing Trey frustration that day. During Trey’s hiatus from school years later, and also for some reason I didn’t understand, we had this short conversation:

“Hey Dave, remember that song Runaway Jim?”
“Yeah…”
“What a stupid song [laughter]!”

So imagine my shock when Phish opened a concert at the Somerville Theater with my tune! Trey had added a verse and a chorus, but it was basically the same song.

[talk more about your other influences, and the instruments that you play]

CD: What’s the story behind “Dave’s Energy Guide?” You are “Dave,” after all.

First, Tom Marshall and I went to see King Crimson play at Alexander Hall at Princeton University. It was an incredible show in a 500-seat round church (that’s also where I saw my first Pat Metheny Group concert, when they were in their incredible Dan Gottlieb/Nana Vasconcelos configuration). Not a bad seat in the place. They played cuts from “Discipline” and even a few from “Beat”, which hadn’t been released yet. A revelation.

*** Begin Guitar-Geek Material ***
I was blown away by Adrian Belew’s free, spare, avant-garde style and by Robert Fripp’s intricate, precise picking patterns. I tried to emulate both of them, but mostly I wanted to improve my technique to Fripp’s level. I invented one of the DEG themes as a picking exercise. Because it is easier to play some patterns which skip between strings beginning with an upstroke or downstroke I arranged the exercise to force me to repeat the same patterns in both directions. The pattern is built out of repeating parts which are extended to keep the total number of notes between repeats always an odd number. The pattern is 5-6-5-7, and sounds a *lot* like something you’d hear on “Discipline.”
*** End guitar-geek material ***

One summer Trey and I went to a guitar camp, the National Guitar Summer Workshop. I studied Jazz and bluegrass. I think Trey was doing Jazz and classical… maybe. Anyway, they had a performance night, and Trey and I decided to make the DEG pattern into a tune for performance. We put the pattern together with one of us playing 5-6-5-7 and the other one playing 5-6-5-6, so they would go out of synch and eventually come back together in synchrony after 22 repetitions. This is a standard King Crimson trick. There were also a few shifts where we’d go into harmony, etc. I don’t know if it had a name, but it wasn’t called “Energy Guide” or “Dave’s” anything. We played it twice, and messed it up both times. It’s really easy to drop a note and if you lose track of where you are in the pattern, God help you. Some kid went up on stage and played an acoustic solo piece he had written, and we decided our thing was formulaic B.S. We left the hall shivering with delight.

At some point Trey formed Phish and the next time we played together he showed me another part to the DEG song, whatever it was called. He said he had walked into a party and seen Fishman sitting on a couch playing this diamond-shaped pattern on the guitar. Trey seized on it and incorporated it into the song. Meanwhile, I had written another part, but I don’t think that ever made it into a Phish rendition of DEG. When I finally got up to Burlington to see them perform it, Trey hung a yellow diamond-shaped sign (promotional material for Con Edison or something) on the mic stand. It said “Energy Guide”.

And that’s the story. I don’t think they play it much anymore partly because it’s really a two-guitar song – it must be hard to get the right sound with guitar and keys.

CD: It sounds fine to me with guitar and keys. I wish they played it more often, frankly. Ok, for the record, who is Guy Forge?

Some tennis player guy, I don’t know. I think he has a pyromaniac girlfriend named “Bubba”.

CD: You’ve written some Phish lyrics and helped write several of their songs, but what’s your regular job?

I trash other people’s living rooms so they can collect the insurance.

CD: What are you listening to these days? Have any favorite bands?

I hardly listen to music anymore.

CD: Do you pay attention to on-line criticism of the band’s music, including songs that you had a hand in writing? Are you a subscriber to the phishnet digest?

Nope. I do own a personally autographed copy of “George Bush’s Boyhood Dream”, though.

CD: That rocks.

That does not “rock.” His boyhood dream is all wet inside.

CD: You live in Boston. Do you have a favorite music store in town, e.g., the Newbury Comics/Tower combination?

Not really; I seldom buy CDs. I guess you could say I’m basically an unmusical person.

CD: Uh-huh. What was your most memorable Phish show?

There was one show at the Providence Civic Center about 4 years ago which just made me so… happy. There wasn’t a single detail I could seize on to say that it made the difference, but that night I decided I would try to see Phish whenever I got the chance.

CD: Is there a story behind the “Looks too much like Dave” line in “McGrupp”?

Nope. Tom wrote it and I didn’t know until I heard Trey say it on stage.

CD: Who is Guelah Papyrus? Who are Elihu and Lemore, who are mentioned in “Sample”?

Well, my mother’s name was Geulah. I don’t know who Guelah is, but coincidentally (?) it’s pronounced the same.

Elihu is my dad’s name. They used the Israeli pronunciation in the song, but in my dad’s case the accent is on the first syllable. It’s an unusual name, but he’s being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences this fall with an unbelievable two other guys named Elihu, so it can’t be all that kooky.

All in all, I’m surprised I didn’t end up with a name like “Schmecky”.

Lemore, I think, is the name of Tom’s first love. I’m not sure I want to say any more, though; you might have to ask him about that.

CD: Can you name all of the Phish songs that you helped in some way to write? Any special stories behind the genesis of any of them?

On albums:

“Glide”:
Trey, Tom, and I were sitting on a bronze Henry Moore sculpture on Princeton University campus late one night. I don’t remember how the words came up. I’m not sure I actually had anything to do with it, but they generously gave me an album credit.

“Slave”:
This was written during the “Bivouac” phase. Trey had this whole instrumental thing he had worked out around just singing the title of the song. I tried to imagine what it might mean to be a slave to the traffic light, and riffed the other line. I thought it was pretty stupid, and was almost embarrassed when Trey siezed on it and put it in the song. Trey has a talent for finding the greatness in the inane.

“Fast Enough For You”:
was first recorded by Trey, Tom, and I at my parents’ house: I wrote one line (see if you can guess which). The Wedge, which Trey changed completely after that recording (definitely for the better) was also recorded that day but I didn’t write any part of it.

CD: “Fast” is one of my favorite of Phish’s slow, soulful tunes. By the way, what did you think of the huge “Runaway Jim” that Phish played in Worcester in Fall 1997?

I am proud anytime they play that song, and I’m deeply gratified that it has turned into such an opportunity for amazing jams… but, you’ll probably be shocked to hear, I don’t remember that particular version.

CD: Do you have any “personal favorite” versions of the songs that you helped to write?

Not being a tapey-head Phish trivia weenie, I don’t have such a mental catalogue of individual performances. I’ve heard a few amazing live concert tapes, though.

CD: Do any particular Phish lyrics hold special meaning to you?

The one that immediately pops into my head is “Julius”. That song paints an incredible picture of a emperor who is about to fall, and it stands out among Tom’s lyrics as being written from a character’s perspective. But that doesn’t really answer your question, does it?

Hmm, the first time I heard “Horn” it really affected me deeply. Everything Phish had done before seemed so… peppy. It was great to hear them play melancholy as well.

I don’t know about meaning, though. I don’t relate to art on the concrete level much. For me, it’s all about how it makes me feel or think.

CD: Disco Saul, a legendary Phish fan who loves plants, has a croton plant which he has had since Earth Day his freshman year, which is named after you. How does that make you feel? (This was due to a certain “strange” experience that he had with the 5/13/94 McGrupp, about a year after he acquired the plant.)

Holy chlorophyll, Batman! That is probably a step up the evolutionary ladder for Davekind. It makes me feel all meaningful inside.

CD: Excellent! As well it should. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy life for this interview, Dave!

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.