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Published: 2012/08/17

How Justin Bieber Found His Way to Phish: A Conversation with Dan Kanter

Toronto-bred musician Dan Kanter started performing in clubs when he was only 15 and, over the past 16 years, has collaborated with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana, Usher, Miley Cyrus, Drake, Ludacris, Boyz II Men, Mary J Blige and Busta Rhymes. He’s appeared on programs such as Saturday Night Live, Oprah, American Idol, MTV VMA’s, Late Night With David Letterman, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Ellen, The Today Show and Good Morning America. He’s also played Madison Square Garden six times. But after Wednesday night, he will forever be known to at least one sect of concertgoers as the man who brought Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez to a Phish show. For the past three years, the 31-year-old musician has worked with Bieber, serving as his Musical Director and lead guitarist. He also co-produced Bieber’s platinum-selling album My World Acoustic, appeared in the major-motion picture Justin Bieber: Never Say Never 3D and co-wrote/co-produced the song “Be Alright” on his smash album Believe.

While he’s certainly a fan of pop music and musical theater, Kanter also has deep roots in the jamband scene and has seen Phish live around 60 times (including one New Year’s Eve when he booked it to MSG to catch the Vermont Quartet after performing in Times Square with Bieber and Carlos Santana). After playing him Phish’s music for several years, Kanter finally brought the teen idol to a show in Long Beach, CA on Wednesday night. The Twitter world picked up on the story rather quickly and, soon after, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Phish LD Chris Kuroda would work on Bieber’s next tour. Two days later, Kanter talked with Relix/ about his personal journey with Phish, his upcoming shows with Kuroda and the time his wife taught Bieber when to clap during “Stash.”

The first time I remember hearing your name is when Bob Weir brought his daughter to see Justin Bieber. From what I heard, Justin didn’t recognize Bobby but you came right over to him.

Right on, right on! That was amazing. I think Bob’s been to two Justin Bieber shows now. What a trip, meeting him at a Justin show. He’s really nice and his daughter’s a huge fan, so it’s really exciting that when we play in the Bay Area and he comes out. It’s hilarious to be onstage playing with Justin and see him out in the third row. I go up, and I just throw guitar picks at him all night and he laughs. I was in San Fran last year with my wife for Outside Lands, and we went out with him. Bob took us out for dim sum and then to TRI [Studios], which is a really cool set up, [with] all the streaming that they’re doing. It’s really cool out there. It’s amazing that he’s so ahead of the game.

Let’s talk a bit about your musical history before we talk about Phish and your work with Justin Bieber. I heard you started playing live when you were only 15. What type of music were you playing at that time?

My musical tastes have always been all over the place. I grew up studying classical piano, listening to the Beatles and Elton John and grunge music. I’m a huge metal head as well. But my dad directed musicals and he’s also obsessed with Dylan. So, growing up, I could sing all of Phantom [of the Opera] and Les Miserables, and I could sing all of “A Hard Rains Gonna Fall.” From seeing my dad’s shows at an early age, I really learned to appreciate music and production—how the lights worked and the wardrobe staging came about. I love a band, but I was always equally interested with the whole show. After university, when I started doing some session work for artists— and I started playing with some up-and-coming artists’ bands—I couldn’t help but sort of get my hand in what they were gonna wear, how they were gonna work the audience—even recording things and going over to the lighting guy and seeing the list of cues.

So I really got heavy into the whole show aspect of it, and that’s how I started directing shows. For some reason, I think maybe because I was a camp counselor for so long, I worked with a lot of teenagers, and I really loved working with young artists. Then, when Justin needed somebody, the record label recommended me to him, thank god, and he and I just hit it off. We’ve been working together for over three years now.

When you first started playing out under your name in different bands as a teenager were you playing harder music? Or was your initial group more of a pop project?

All sorts of different things, really. I was in my own band, which was basically a mix of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Metallica and Ozzy, and then I started working on a lot of musical stuff. But I was always a huge Michael Jackson fan. I heard the “Beat It” solo [by] Eddie Van Halen, and it sort of all came together for me—all that incredible musicianship but still with the pop sensibility. So that’s when I really got into that. For me, that would have been my ideal show to work on, and [his shows] would have the best of both worlds.

Of all your credits, there are two that seem of particular interest to our readers: Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana. Interestingly enough, though we’ve covered both artists in Relix for many years, they both also have second lives as pop entertainers. Could you talk about your experience with those two musicians in particular?

Well, Santana was very, very exciting. It was quite the night for two reasons. The first is, we were playing in Times Square for New Year’s Eve and Phish was doing the Garden run, so I went to three nights at the Garden. Then, on New Year’s Eve, I handed my guitar to my tech and started running to the Garden after our show. So my [biggest] memory from that night was thinking, “How am I gonna run through Time Square and make it to the Garden before the third set?” I still have shin splints from that run to this day!

Also, we did “Let It Be” and that was a song that was really important to Justin. He really wanted to put it in our [setlist] last tour, and when the guitar solo thing came up and we wanted a guest guitar player, Santana’s name was mentioned. Everyone was very excited that he was interested in doing it. It was really nice to meet him. He’s an incredible player—at rehearsal, we were just kind of looping the chords, and he was just soloing. Sort of the same thing as when I listen to Derek Trucks—there are moments where I go weak in the knees, and I could fall over while I’m playing.

It was also interesting to see his take on the song, and I wondered whether he was going to play the George Harrison solo or whether he was going to embellish it and play an original solo. Every time, he changed it and every time it was amazing. It was neat. Justin and I had a really great conversation with him, and he told me that he never plays a single note unless his mind, body and soul are into it. I thought that was really awesome. I told him, “I will tell my grandchildren that you told me that!” So it a was really, really exciting night?

How about Stevie Wonder?

He’s joined Justin and I a couple of times. He played with us on The Voice for one of Justin’s Christmas songs, and Justin and I also played at his benefit show over Christmas at Nokia Theater in LA. That was an incredible experience. I got to work out harmonies and on a musical arrangement with Stevie. On the one hand I was trying to direct the arrangement but at the same time I’m thinking in my head, “It’s Steve Wonder! How can I tell him what to do?” We sort of threw in space for him to take a harmonica solo. That was incredible to listen to. The best moment was at the Nokia for his Christmas special with Justin doing a duet on his song “Someday at Christmas.” We were all down in Justin’s dressing room, just about four of us, hanging out and it was such a rush. We couldn’t find time to make it to sound check, to rehearse, so Stevie came down and they set up a piano in Justin’s dressing room, and they ran through the songs together. After that, we all just started shouting out songs, and he just sang them for us. It was unbelievable. Definitely a lifelong memory.

You mention that you grew up listening to all sorts of music and are clearly a big Phish fan. What was your gateway into the Phish/Dead/jam world?

When I was in high school, I never knew the Dead were a jamband. I sort of listened to them in the same respect that I obsessively listened to Beatles, Neil Young, Elton John and [Pink] Floyd. I really only later learned about the improvisation aspect of the whole scene.

But I got into it when I was at summer camp. I have a lot of friends who got into all that music—Blind Melon and the Dead and Allman Brothers—at summer camp. The first jamband that I loved and followed was Dave Matthews Band. They were very important to me back in the day. I can see now how they’re not as much of a jamband as some other bands, but they were the first band that got me into the scene, almost in the same respect as Pearl Jam. They both switched up their set lists and had extended solos. I was quite young, and I had never seen that before. It was the first time where I’d hear something as simple as one little high hat pattern different between nights, and it made the whole show for me. That got me really excited.

And then from there, at summer camp when I heard “Divided Sky,” it was all over. That just took it to the next level. While I love the Dead, Phish is a band that I discovered myself, and I just got knee deep in it. At the same time, I’ve always been involved in pop music, where everything is quite scripted and rehearsed. That’s almost the complete opposite. It’s a release when I go to a Phish show: completely spontaneous, I have no idea what’s coming up next. So it’s really been important to me to have both of those worlds in my life.

My wife is also a huge Phish fan. She’s been listening to Phish longer than I have. She was in university when they played [on the marquee] at The Late Show with David Letterman and went to that show. My brother-in-law, he’s seen over a hundred shows—he’s completely obsessed. So now Phish is our family bonding, too. As soon as we have a break from anything Bieber, the first place we all meet up is at a Phish show. I’ve actually tried to plan our entire tour schedule [and rehearsals] around the summer tour. I think we have four or five more weeks to get this show together and then we begin the never-ending tour. [Laughter.]

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