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Published: 2012/08/17

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

What shows have you seen this summer?
I went to a bunch on the first leg, and I saw two great shows at Alpine—I’d never been there before. I’m gonna go Saturday and Sunday to San Fran, and then down in Denver. Not enough!

I started seeing them during the 2.0 years. I sort of fell into them in a weird time. I was up in Canada, so really when my parents would let me go and I had the means to follow them, they weren’t playing [up here]. I saw a whole bunch of Trey’s solo shows, but I was sort of in a weird position. It was really 3.0 where I think I’ve seen 50 or 60 shows. I’m just making up for lost time!

I’m also a big fan of The Allman Brothers, Skynyrd and bands like that. My favorite guitar player growing up—and still to this day—is Zakk Wylde from Ozzy’s band. And the deeper I got into Zakk, the more I learned he was a Southern rock guitar player. He incorporates all those chicken pickin’ country licks into heavy metal and so—through him—I got heavy into Allman Brothers and Skynyrd. I’m a huge fan of Derek and Susan [Tedeschi]. He is unbelievable and his playing is next level. It’s so cool that they’re touring together with an incredible band behind them. Their band is fantastic. I’ve been to a bunch of other [jamband] shows, too like Umphrey’s [McGee]. My friend Jeff Kravitz [a noted celebrity photographer with Phish roots] turned me on to a lot of these bands. We’ve become good friends—my wife and I are close friends with his family, and he’s been pushing all these great bands on me. I just heard the [Alabama] Shakes yesterday for the first time ever because of him. I think that’s a band where I’m definitely going to get deep into their music. Also, I used to go to a lot of Béla [Fleck] shows. I love the Flecktones.

But Phish is different. They are like the Beatles, Metallica or Dylan for me. Listening to them invokes so many memories, not just jams. It’s a life-changing, memorable experience.

You mentioned that you’ve had this dual background in rock music and musical theater. Another person who actually has roots in both those worlds is Trey Anastasio. I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to talk to him about his own background in theater and how you personally see Trey’s musical theater background fitting into his work with Phish?

That’s very interesting. We’ve never talked about it. I actually haven’t hung out with Trey that much. It’s really Mike [Gordon] that I’m really hanging out with the most. We met somehow a while ago and became friends with him and his wife. They are wonderful people. It’s funny: Phish wasn’t even a band that I actually wanted to meet. I just wanted to go to a show and be in the audience and enjoy.

I’ve never spoken to Trey about it, and I’ve never thought about it in that way, either. But I definitely see it in a lot of their music. People call them a chameleon band, and I think I love that about musicals, too—there’s so many different types of styles within one musical. [At a Phish show] the music really takes you on a trip like that. There’s not just slow songs and fast songs, but dark songs and glorious songs and little musical interludes that are almost chasing…especially with the lights. Their music is very visual and cinematic.

It is obviously the same thing most fans say but I still see the lights when I’m not there. I feel it all encompassing me when I’m just driving in my car.

You finally got Justin to a Phish show this week. Have you been trying to get him to go to a show for a while, and if so, did you try to get him there by playing him any specific live tapes or albums? Or was it just something he wanted to check out as a fan of pop culture and music?

Well, Justin obviously knew about me and my wife’s obsession with Phish since we met. He’s very fascinated. I would show him videos of things, and we would just talk about it and he was very fascinated by the whole world and how they’re so big that they can sell out the Garden four nights in a row, but they don’t really have videos or radio play. Well, they have one video [“Down with Disease”] but it’s just such an opposite world than what he lives in that he’s quite fascinated by it. And also, Justin is quite spontaneous for someone that people sort of expect is a typical pop star.

He and I do all these acoustic shows where we have no setlist, and he’ll just call songs out like Phish does. We played a really great show last year at Massey Hall in Toronto, just the two of us, and I wasn’t sure if we were going to play even thirty minutes. We ended up playing two hours acoustic, calling out every song he had. One song he called out onstage and I said, “I don’t know how to play that,” so he sang it a cappella. He’s quite funny like that.

And also, with Justin, under all this phenomena, he’s first and foremost a musician. He’s a fantastic guitar player, drummer and piano [player], and he’s only getting better. And I think he really appreciated the musicality of Phish. I’ve been begging him to come to a show with us for a long time and this one was perfect. It was really unbelievable. It was totally what I would have expected.

I think the Phish audience was very respectful to him while he was in the audience. We had it all set up with security so he could go right to the front of the house, but we all just hung out right in the middle of the floor where we were all dancing—and not one person came up and really bothered him. It was actually the first time I’ve ever been with him in public where not one person bothered him—it didn’t turn into a frenzy of people taking pictures. It was really exciting. We were all dancing and my wife taught him how to clap his hands during “Stash.” I brought a thousand glowsticks with me and had a spot so they could throw them out and pass them out. It was amazing. It [will] definitely not [be] his last show. He would have stayed all night, but Selena [Gomez] had to be on set at 1 a.m. to film a movie, so they had to leave before the encore.

It was definitely worlds colliding. Two worlds I love so much and mean so much to me. There were so many funny moments throughout the night. When we walked to the band room so Justin could meet some of the guys, as we were walking in there was this monster list of 500 songs—the band’s song list—and Justin says, “Is this the list of songs that they have to know?”

Another great moment is when we walked into the band room, and Fishman was playing drums with headphones on probably fifteen minutes before the show, and he stood right up and said, “Hey guys, hey Justin. It’s really nice to meet you. Sorry to be anti-social, but I have to do my homework before the show starts,” and he sat back down again and started playing.

Obviously, it’s been very exciting for me. There have been a couple of nasty, stupid comments, but pretty much everyone has been so positive. I’ve just been following all the [tweets] and all the reviews all day about him being there. Everyone’s been talking a lot about [Chris] Kuroda, and that’s another thing: for him to see Chris was amazing. Justin’s very hands-on, and we both want everyone to dance and every musical moment to have a musical accent and a lighting accent with it. I’ve been bugging our production manager, this guy named Tom Marzullo, who’s done tours like [Prince’s] Purple Rain, to get him to do lights for Justin.

I’ve been bugging him awhile now about getting—or at least speaking to—Kuroda, and when the ball started rolling and they were able to work it out that he could work on our tour but also not miss any Phish shows, it was absolutely a no-brainer. Justin had taken my word for it, but at Long Beach, he was completely blown away by Kuroda. He’s not going to miss any Phish shows so it has been the best of both worlds, for sure.

It is funny, in certain ways I still feel like Phish is the biggest secret in the world. It’s amazing. Well, maybe it is not a secret now that Justin blasted them to all of his Twitter followers [Laughter.]

It is funny that Phish are one of the few bands where it is a news story whenever a celebrity comes to one of their shows. I am sure tons of pop stars and movie stars go to every Madonna show and they sort of blend into the scene.

And like I said, everything I’ve read has been so positive. Everyone there backstage and in the audience was so nice and welcoming and gave them their space. Not one person took a picture in the audience. Like I said, I’ve never seen that before, and I anticipated it and knew it would be fine. I think he really enjoyed not just the music and the whole scene, but he knows now that he could show up in a general admission floor and sort of hang low and have the best time ever.

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