Islands In The Stream: A Conversation with Phish Archivist Kevin Shapiro
Recently, as part of its ongoing livephish.com project, the Phish organization put out the four shows from 1998 dubbed "The Island Tour" (as the four performances took place first on Long Island, and then in Rhode Island). Kevin Shapiro has been Phish's archivist for quite some time, and has been instrumental in all of the livephish.com releases including the recent The Island Tour release. The shows, as few would argue and Kevin points out, were a high point in Phish's illustrious career. Boundary-bursting improv, inspired playing and an all around playfulness permeated all four shows.
The concerts have been at the top of favorite show lists for years, and so the announcement of their release was met with great enthusiasm from Phish’s fans, and rightfully so. While some argued that their audience sourced copies were more than sufficient, the vast majority welcomed the soundboards with open arms. The crisp, clean sound represents an upgrade over the well circulated audience copies, and now, listening to the shows with headphones on (as music should be listened to), one can hear with an even greater clarity, the power these four individuals were wielding during that period of time. Page’s layering, so important to Phish’s live sound, is of such prominence on the discs, that purchasing the soundboards to better hear his contributions alone would be a worthy decision.
I caught up with Kevin Shapiro to discuss the releases, as well as a variety of other topics. For some of you this should be worth reading if only to learn about the status of a possible Cypress video. Enjoy.
Dan: Just to clarify at the outset, what exactly is your role within the Phish organization?
Kevin: I have two titles, archivist and in-house counsel. The counsel role is mostly transactional and intellectual property law while acting as a liaison to a variety of outside attorneys.
Dan: How does the Live Phish series get wrapped up into that?
Kevin: They’re overlapping roles. It took me a while to understand why they wanted one person to do both those jobs, but they complement each other. There are legal issues that come up when releasing live shows and archival tasks like cataloging, preserving and releasing shows have also been part of the job since I started. Releasing shows is a collaborative effort with help from band, fans and family.
Dan: What goes into picking a particular show for release? And at the same time, I would guess that there are shows that are more "desirable" by the fan base, so how does something like the 7.15.98 show, which was quite a surprise, get brought into the mix?
Kevin: Obviously if a band member wants to release a show, we release it. Beyond that, there are a few tests. One that Fish made up is the show must achieve "significant, transcendent moments" in each set. I’d take that a step further to say that those high moments should be achieved in each disc. Another is a scale I made up that incorporates Fish’s test and considers a show’s energy, musicality, flow and transcendence. The last is the "goosebumps" test, which is a good overall baseline. A show that doesn’t give us goosebumps probably won’t make it. It’s still subjective to a large degree. One person’s favorite show is another’s overrated and that’s part of the challenge.
7.15.98 (U.S. tour opener in Portland, OR) was part of a series of shows Mike picked to release based on notes from journals he’s kept throughout Phish’s career. We talked back and forth about which four shows he thought were best for the series. He asked to hear his favorites based on shows he had noted at the time. On those shows I mostly acted as a sounding board and helped choose the filler. The result was great. The four shows he chose (LP17-LP20 or "Mike’s Picks") are smoking hot.
Dan: How long is the process from the moment you decide to release more shows, to the actual release date?
Kevin: It depends. I advocated putting out the Island Tour for quite a while before it happened. Hampton was bounced around among the band members and the release happened pretty soon after. It depends on the circumstances and how ramped up we were. Some of the releases from later rounds of the Live Phish series are shows the band or I had suggested from earlier rounds of releases. So some are sort of on-deck from previous listening, but others start as requests or just a whim to listen to a specific show or era. As far as production timing, if we decide today we want to release something (audio), we can have it out in a couple of months on CD or faster as a download.
Dan: One of the main criticisms of the Live Phish series is that, in comparison to the Dead organization, Phish’s releases have been far more sporadic and unpredictable. I understand that to some degree its apples to oranges, but is there a reason that releases don’t occur more often?
Kevin: I can think of a few reasons. The biggest is that up until last summer, there was always a total focus on the future and little or no focus on the past. The band thought to hire an archivist to preserve the music and history, so they respected their past enough to make those plans. But as far as the release program, they were purely forward looking for most of their career. It wasn’t until A Live One, thirteen years into their career, that Phish put out a live album. Contrast that with The Dead who released records of famous live shows a few years after the band began. That’s one general difference between those bands throughout their history.
There are also different views of how much material is absorbable between the band and management and the hardest core fans. The Live Phish series was four or six shows at a time and that’s a lot of music. I don’t know exactly how that compares to Grateful Dead, who are putting out tons of music. I’m sure they face the same questions when deciding to put out so much material. I was lucky to have befriended Dick, and David (Lemieux) is also a friend of mine, and they always impress me with how much music they put out for Deadheads. I respect those guys a lot. They have managed to expand the archivist’s role to include being a player in production of live releases. It’s amazing to be able to walk in those shoes at all, let alone to have my work compared to theirs. They do a great job with the GD legacy.
Until very recently, Phish’s focus hasn’t been on the legacy at all. The band always concentrated on what was next and there have always been great things around every corner. Maybe because of that forward focus, we’ve also never settled on an organized program, as you pointed out. For example, Grateful Dead mix all their multi-tracks for release and refuse to release any 2-track sources of shows from which they have multis. Phish started releasing live material with A Live One, which is from multiple shows and is mixed and sweetened from multitrack tapes to a great result. When Phish started releasing full shows with Hampton Comes Alive, the decision was made to use 2-track sources despite having the ability to remix the shows. Since then, we’ve mixed some releases and some we have not. That’s mostly Paul’s decision since they’re ultimately his mixes but other factors can affect it including a desire to present the reference mix as a live document of the show.
At this point I should also point out we’ve released six excellent shows in 2005 (two from 11/94 plus Island Tour) and that’s respectable when you consider Trey and Mike’s studio releases are due out this year. I hope we’ll release more Phish audio and video from the archives this year, but there are lots of considerations that affect the flow.
Dan: As long as you implied a market saturation of sorts, and I know you mentioned you’ve been pushing the Island Tour for a while, have you found the number of downloads for these four shows has met your perceived demand?
Kevin: We didn’t really know how to judge it. We’ve never put out an archival release on both download and CDs like this. Until The Island Tour this summer, we hadn’t released any live shows on CD since 2003, when we re-mastered and released three very hot livephish.com downloads (2.28.03 Uniondale, NY, 7.15.03 West Valley, UT and 7.29.03 Burgettstown, PA) on CD. That, and the fact that the Island Tour is four complete consecutive shows made this round of releases sort of a wild card. We’re thrilled with how these turned out production-wise and I don’t even need to talk about the quality of the shows. They’re all so good you can play any CD from any show over and over again and still find more groundbreaking material with every listen. In that sense, these shows speak for themselves and response has been excellent from everyone who’s heard them.
Dan: Don’t get me started because I’ll talk forever about these shows.
Kevin: (laughs) I just want to add, though I may not speak for the band or anyone else here, that I don’t think saturation is a major concern. It’s only been months since the band stopped playing and we closed our offices and re-opened a very skeleton operation. It’s really just barely enough to keep things flowing. Given that and how rough the past year has been, I’m happy with what we’ve done in the meantime and most of what we did when our team was in full swing. Our archival releases as a whole represent many of the best moments in Phish history, and the Island Tour probably isn’t the end of this year’s live releases. The skeleton home office that’s left probably diminishes quantity and speed of releases but not quality and that’s most important. Size of operation is as valid a reason for the number of releases as saturation though. We do our best under the circumstances. Our dedication is very high so if the result is releases this good that help people remember or even discover the magic of Phish, we’re a huge success.
Dan: To shift gears to something else of relevance, I wanted to talk for a little about DVDs. For starters, can you clarify exactly what Phish’s policy is with regards to the trading of unauthorized DVDs?
Kevin: Video was never allowed. Since I’ve been seeing shows, the band actively discouraged videotaping at shows. However, they never took a stance against trading of video even though by definition, most of it was never allowed to exist in the first place. More recently, people started to sync amateur DVDs with sound from official Phish releases and that’s when we had to look into it. Any time anyone is selling or producing Phish products without permission, they are infringing on the band’s rights. When that happens, legally we don’t have a choice except to follow that up. That’s a high priority. Dealing with what fans can and can’t trade is much less a concern. It only comes up when there is a trend that could diminish the band’s rights, like commercial sales or open, unauthorized copying of official releases.
For example, there was a point where show security asked me to request that fans not to trade CD’s or DVD’s in the lot because it looked like they were selling them. It was something fans had been doing with no problem for years, but because of changing circumstances, we had to discourage it so staff trying to stop commercial bootlegging on the lots could do their jobs. Unauthorized trading of DVD’s was a similar thing relating to where and how they are offered. It really only became an issue when people began trading DVD’s online en masse with audio illegally copied from official releases. All we really did in response to that was ask some of the people who run fan sites to spread the word that it is not kosher to trade DVD’s that contain Live Phish, livephish.com or other officially released audio (or to copy any official releases in any way). Hopefully people copying the releases got the message.
Dan: But with the advent of Bit Torrent, can you realistically stop people from trading those discs?
Kevin: Well, there are two questions. The first is what should our policy be about this? What should we tell fans is an acceptable way to trade Phish music? We have to make that clear for the same reason we are required to enforce our rights against commercial bootleggers. If we don’t, theoretically those rights can be weakened or lost. And certainly the band wants to protect the rights to their creative output.
The second question is how to enforce the taping policy, which we updated to reflect the change in technology and to clarify what was okay so people would not get the idea that because it’s easy to copy DVDs sync’d with official audio, that its okay to do. The only limit the band ever placed upon fans trading with each other is to ask that people not copy officially released material. That’s the heart of the taping policy and has been the rule since long before there was any written policy. It’s not a demand that people purchase anything (audience tapes are always free) but it is the one thing that’s not allowed. In a nutshell, the band said from the beginning "You can’t use our music for anything commercial and please don’t copy our records." For years, fans copying official releases never even came up in discussion, because I think fans understood that 99% of the band’s output was out there to trade freely. The only things they asked not be traded are those the band chose to represent them officially and that includes the packaging and the whole thing. It’s perfectly fair that they should get paid for the releases they choose to market. We also wanted to make it clear that moving officially released audio onto a DVD or anywhere else does not change the rule that you’re not supposed to trade that stuff.
You know, we just released the Island Tour and some people immediately said "Sweet! Now we can sync this up with our DVD’s". To me, it seems that fans of a band that’s been so generous through the years and has set so few limits with their live material (i.e.: "don’t copy official releases") should not just disregard that because it’s easy. When some new trend becomes an avenue to skirt the taping policy, we have to address it, hopefully in a tasteful way that leaves the community aware of the limits. That’s the goal.
Dan: I hope this comes out right, but is it fair to say that to some degree the band has fostered the current climate surrounding DVDs? Because there is clearly a demand for full shows on video and by not releasing anything official, they’ve sort of…I mean, people who want something are going to find it.
Kevin: I think a lot of things contribute to it. Video of the band has been traded as long as audio. That’s not a new thing and it never got much attention until the explosion of DVD synced with official audio sources. I enjoy watching video, as do most people. It’s fun to see what the band looked like and how they were playing. I’m sure the amount officially released may contribute to some degree, but I don’t think anyone is trying to not release official video. To the contrary, I’m almost always working on some video or another we’d like to release and we’ll get more out as we go. I should say there’s generally a lot more scrutiny of the video releases so they take longer. Video projects generally involve lots of band member participation, and basically a lot more desire to edit footage and make it more special – to be more creative producing it. Those things can all be positive, but video releases cost more and take longer as a result. Live audio carries less baggage. It’s more straightforward so it’s easier to satisfy demand.
Dan: If I can interrupt, if that’s the case, that there is more scrutiny, then what about the Vegas DVD?
Kevin: The Vegas DVD was our first attempt to release a full show on video. Like I said, with video releases, the band has always tried to create art within art. IT, Bittersweet Motel and Tracking fit that mold. Vegas was the first Phish video release that’s entirely about the show.
Dan: Are you happy with it?
Dan: Because the quality is not the best…
Kevin: Yeah I know, speaking from a production standpoint. Ironically, we released Vegas because it was technically the best quality of what we had from recent shows. The desire was to release a recent show so it was a question of what we had in terms of multi-camera shoots so we could create the best possible full show release. And the answer was Vegas. I stand behind Vegas (9.30.00) because I love the show. I find that show to be extremely important for a bunch of reasons. Because of the things Trey said during it, the song selection and the quality of the performances. It’s an inspired show that’s more than worthy of release. It’s where we discovered that Gamehendge is a state of mind! Seriously, if all things had been equal in terms of video sources, we might have gone with another show. But we didn’t have multiple cameras for the other candidates, and there has been a historical desire to only release video we can make as special as possible. Vegas had some problems with the cameras but overall it’s a great, high-energy, historically significant show that sounds killer and looks as good as we could make it. We edited it together carefully, added some killer bonus footage from Phoenix (10.1.00) and a 5.1 mix and I think it’s a good 1st live DVD.
Dan: Are there any additional, official DVD’s in the works to be released?
Kevin: Yes. Not enough to satisfy everyone, but we’ll definitely release more full shows on video. Maybe some song-by-song clips too we have some great material and lots of plans.
Dan: The last question I’ll ask you with respect to DVDs concerns the likelihood of seeing a complete, unedited Big Cypress multi-DVD box set at some point in the future?
Kevin: If you were asking my opinion I’d say 99%. Unedited or uninterrupted is the only way I’ve ever presented the idea. I think that’s how Cypress deserves to be presented. And no one has ever disagreed with that in principle. But that’s a very meaty video release. I don’t doubt that somewhere along the way, someone will suggest that we should release less than the whole thing. And by advocating a full-show release, I don’t think we rule that out. We could do it in full length, either in parts or altogether and still do a documentary or more creative piece on it too. I hope we do it in full even if it takes other forms as well. Nobody disagrees with the magic of Cypress. It’s a great show; a landmark event and we have excellent quality audio and video. It would be sick! The holy grail.
Dan: So now, on to the Island Tour, the whole reason we’re talking now. The first question is; what took so long? And I ask that because in my own mind, I imagine these shows would’ve been among the first releases in the series.
Kevin: You asked earlier sort of how the shows came out, so the answer doesn’t have as much to do with the Island Tour, as it does with what we were trying to do with releasing live material in the first place. Really up until Slip, Stitch and Pass, there was never much desire to focus on any one show from the past and it wasn’t until then that we did so (and even that isn’t a complete show). Then came Hampton Comes Alive, which was like the breakthrough. Other than those more album-based releases, when we got into the Live Phish series, we tried to focus on different eras of the band’s progress. In that sense, the Island Tour wouldn’t have really fit with what we were trying to do within any one series in terms of highlighting landmark Phish performances spread over time. What The Island Tour does show is how unbelievably well they were communicating and playing and how amazing the crowd was in that snapshot of 1998. That they were not in the middle of a tour makes the performances that much more stunning.
Dan: So what happened now, that made the shows releasable? What was different this time than say last time?
Kevin: When the band started playing again in 2002 and LivePhish.com was started, so did that forward-thinking process. At that point, archival releases, relatively speaking, fell by the wayside. This goes back to a number of things we’ve been talking about. The desire in launching Live Phish Downloads at livephish.com was to fill the demand for full recent shows. The idea wasn’t to focus attention backwards toward the archives, but to focus on what the band was doing right then, post-hiatus. That continued through last year when they stopped touring. Since then we’ve entered an era where we’re specifically not looking forward at Phish’s future as a touring band. So the idea of releasing four incredible shows in a row and focusing on that one moment in time in 1998 is no problem. All bets are off so it’s totally natural now. Maybe next time we’ll go with four from 1996, or two from 1997. We could release a whole run of late fall 1997 shows or a dozen shows from a single venue over time. The focus is entirely different now. For better or worse, this is an exciting time from an archival standpoint and the Island Tour signals that. It’s a perfect kickoff for the legacy. These four shows taken as a whole may leave you dancing in the street or twitching in the corner but after you’ve listened to The Island Tour, you’re ready for more Live Phish.
Dan: If you’re saying there is this change of focus, and more was available to look at, then what were the other shows that came up in the discussions before you settled on these four? What shows did they beat out?
Kevin: The short answer is they beat out a hundred great shows. I have a long list of shows I’d like to see released, as do the band members and fans. Some we agree on and some we may not, but hopefully these shows hit the crossroads of everyone’s lists. Without speaking for anyone else, I think they do exactly that. They are crushing. If you like Phish, you’ll love the Island Tour.
Dan: What are your personal feelings on the shows?
Kevin: I’m thrilled to see them out. They are an obvious highlight of Phish’s career. The four shows fit perfectly together. They were four insular shows with no other gigs surrounding them. There aren’t many examples of that – Red Rocks or some of the New Year’s runs like Miami. These four shows are so musical and flow so well. The risks the band is taking, the way they are playing and the degree to which they are hanging on each and every note is amazing. And the clarity of the mastered recordings is killer. I discover something new with every listen.
Dan: I don’t think they’ve ever reached the pinnacle that they do during the initial moments of the "Nassau Jam" when Trey first begins using his wah pedal (at 2:04) in response to Page’s layering using the same pedal. Up until 4:08 of that jam, they are locked in, in a manner I don’t think they’ve ever equaled. I honestly think it’s the best example of what they’ve repeatedly tried to achieve, in terms of both being egoless and really listening.
Kevin: I love that set. The fun they were having with the "Carini’s Gonna Get You" gag, the exquisite transitions, the emotion that’s pouring off the band and crowd is massive. The "Nassau Jam" that forms out of "Roses are Free" is a huge, intricate, collective composition. It’s just stunning and egoless is a great way to describe it. But there are a number of incredible sets and songs so, not to take anything away from what you said, but I think many of the Island Tour jams qualify as some of Phish’s best, like the beautiful melodic jam in (4.2.98) "Stash," the fearsome space-travel of (4.2.98) "Twist" and the soaring (4.3.98) "Weekapaug Groove" to name a few. And I can’t forget to mention the "Possum" > Funk "Cavern" (4.5.98) and the soundcheck jams. I could go on forever.
Dan: Fair enough.
Kevin: The textural style of jamming you mentioned was a definite goal as the band came out of the early 90’s. They’ve always tried to listen to each other more as they went along, to groove more and to create a more interwoven sound. They achieved those goals almost perfectly during this run. It worked constantly throughout all the nights. There are so many jams of such variety, that it’s tough to even make a list. And that’s what strikes me most about this run – how successful they were stylistically, and how well they were able to layer their parts to achieve those unique moments. They were completing each other’s musical thoughts, finishing each other’s sentences and even syllables. The "Nassau Jam" personifies that, as do many others throughout the run. I was spellbound over and over at the shows and I still find something new every time I listen to them. And the sound mastered from Paul’s reference mixes is so good. It nearly knocks you over. Paul (Languedoc front of house engineer) and Fred (Kevorkian – mastering engineer) did an incredible job capturing and presenting it.
Dan: Speaking of the "Nassau Jam," what goes into separating a "jam" from the song it originated from?
Kevin: The one, overriding reason is that it (the jam) departs so far from the original song, that it’s really its own original Phish composition instead of a groove on the song that brought them there. It departs so far, that they’re composing a new piece of music in real time. Publishing plays a role because it involves crediting composers of a piece to determine royalties, but most important is recognizing a jam that is its own entity, rather than a part of what spawned it. The band deserves credit for creating that kind of magic on the spot.
Dan: I would certainly not disagree with that. But, at the same time, wouldn’t royalty payments increase as the length of the cover increases? I mean, would you have to pay more for a thirty minute "Roses" than you would for a four-minute version?
Kevin: Perhaps. But, and I can’t stress this enough – the jams come out of songs, whether covers or originals, and become their own entity and so we label them as such. It’s done to give credit for what is ultimately an original piece of music, regardless of where it comes from.
Dan: That makes sense.
Kevin: Yeah, it’s a common question.
Dan: Okay, and now for my favorite question in the world. What did you think of Coventry?
Kevin: (pause) I thought the event itself was (pause) given circumstances surrounding the festival, where it was, when it was, how it was, given factors that were out of anyone’s control…I thought it had a lot of beauty. I also think that what it was, namely the last gig, set the band up, the gig up, the fans up for…
Kevin: For a guaranteed difficult experience. Probably there are many different views of this I can only share mine, but the last gig ever had to be difficult. The relationship between Phish and Phishheads is pure magic and the sum is exponentially larger than the parts. When it ended, that realization came rushing in and it permeated everything. The hope was for a musical celebration in Vermont of all that was Phish. Phish was such a pure musical endeavor. I wonder if any band ever walked on stage with as few contrived thoughts in their head. "Will they like our single?" "Will it get played?" "Are we selling enough tickets?" "Is there some industry cat in the audience and will he or she like us?" "Should we not say ‘stink kind’ on stage because people will think we’re weird?" "Should we not let our drummer suck on a vacuum mid-show?" I don’t know if any band ever maintained that sort of total group selflessness. They were seeking those high, magic moments with the audience without regard to what anyone outside the room was thinking. For me, the hallmark of Phish was and is purity.
Coventry was intended to be a celebration of that on Phish’s own turf, but the fact that it was the end of Phish as we knew it weighed heavily. The fact that it was the last show guaranteed a difficult experience and those emotions were multiplied by horrible weather leading up to it. An already-emotional experience was turned into an almost insurmountable one. I can say firsthand it was very difficult to try to explain (over the radio) to friends and family who traveled from around the world to pay respects to a band that shared so much with us. In the face of all the difficulties, the way everyone came together one last time is inspiring and I’ll never forget it.
Coventry had a surreal beauty about it. We all banded together and went the extra mile to attend because it was the last hurrah and we overcame terrible odds to do it. Maybe there’d have been less beauty if so many people didn’t hike so far to get in or if the band didn’t have to sign thousands of books to apologize for bad weather or if the shows had been perfectly played. Maybe that’s a perfectly fitting and perfectly pure ending to the most incredible experience I may ever share with so many friends and strangers. Despite how it ended, Phish is the best and I’m glad we’re able to look back on it together and remember all the magic that led up to it – those moments that never end.