Peter Katis and Phish: "You Can Have Fun Without Being Silly"
Peter Katis is The Rosetta Stone of the modern indie-jam scene. As a producer and engineer, he’s helped craft some of modern rock’s most important records, including key releases by The National, Interpol, Tokyo Police Club, Mercury Rev, The Swell Season, Jónsi, Sharon Van Etten, The Head and The Heart, Tapes ‘n Tapes, Oneida and Mates of State. (A picture of The National performing “The Geese Of Beverly Road” at his wedding decorates the cover of their album Boxer. ) You can also see his finger prints on collaborations with Guster, Moby, Caravan of Thieves and many others. His longtime indie-rock band The Philistines Jr. have had a profound, if subliminal, impact on the current wave of art rock bands, too, thanks in part to their mixture of rich, melodic soundscapes and playful, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics.
Katis formed The Philistines Jr. as a student at the University of Vermont in the mid-1980s, and their first gig was actually an opening spot for Phish in front of a sparse crowd on UVM’s campus. Almost three decades later, Katis hooked up with Trey Anastasio once again to produce his 2012 studio album Traveler, which featured a mix of the Phish guitarist’s usual collaborators as well as several of the indie/experimental musicians who have become part of Katis’ extended musical family.
The Connecticut-based musician was not only a witness to some of The Vermont Quartet’s earliest shows but also to a pre-hipster Burlington art-rock scene that blurred the lines between punk, jam and indie, produced bands like The Pants, and influenced a generation of future musicians. As part of our Phish anniversary celebration, Katis looks back on Phish’s earliest days and the classic Burlington club scene.
You grew up in Connecticut and attended UVM in the 1980s, where you formed The Philistines Jr. Do you remember the first time you saw Phish perform?
The Philistines Jr. formed in Vermont when I was a freshman at UVM in 1985. Phish were already around. My earliest memory of seeing Phish was either at Nectar’s in the fall of 1985 or at Slade Hall on campus the winter of 1985-1986. The one time I know, for sure, I saw them early on was on Earth Day, April 1986. They played on the sidewalk, right behind my dorm and the UVM library. I remember they played a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Quinn The Eskimo.” There were about 30-40 people there, and I was impressed. At the time, they were just another local band. By the time I graduated, in the spring of 1989, they were definitely the biggest local band, the kings of Burlington.
They started to draw big crowds. They were starting to play shows in other places. I remember that we played some venue in Boston, and they only paid us a measly $5.00. They were like, “Why can’t you draw a lot of people like Phish?” I was like, “Geez.” Already by then you could feel something building.
Though Phish were quickly pegged as part of the neo-jamband and hippie scenes, I’ve heard that in the ‘80s their audience also contained a large faction of more art rock and “proto-indie” fans somewhat removed from the Grateful Dead scene. Would you say that is an accurate assessment? What was the music scene like at UVM/Burlington in the late 1980s and how would you say that Phish fit into that scene when you attended UVM?
The music scene didn’t seem quite as segmented back then. It wasn’t like everyone loved everything, but it was definitely less split up because there was a genuinely thriving music scene in Burlington. It was more about people just being excited about any kind of new music. People weren’t as quick to put labels on everything. I remember there was a band called The Joneses. They were an actual Grateful Dead cover band. But with Phish, they may have been on that side of things, but they were all original—they would play covers like everyone did, but they were about making original music. It was also the waning days of punk rock/hardcore. There were bands that came more from that direction like The Hollywood Indians and Screaming Broccoli and the legendary Wards. Most of the really good local bands weren’t college bands, they were local people. There was an amazingly talented guy named Sean Kelly who went on to start a band called The Samples [who went on to be a major part of the jamband and H.O.R.D.E. scenes].
Given that The Philistines Jr. have been around for so many decades, what type of music were you playing at that point? Was is it similar stuff to the stuff you’ve released during the past 20 years or was it a different sound?
To be honest, I think that The Philistines Jr. became the band it is now right after UVM. At UVM we were just learning to be a band at all. I remember there was a little resistance on our part toward Phish because we were quite intimidated by their virtuosity. These were guys who could actually really play, and we were indie rockers still trying to figure out how make music that mattered in some way. When you ask about how they’ve evolved, even back then in the mid-1980s they were pretty fully formed. They were very ambitious in everything they tried to do.
Another Burlington band you have a long association with is the alt-punk band The Pants, who played with Phish regularly in their early days. Can you describe The Pants for readers who are unaware of them and how they fit into the Phish world during your time with them? Also, how would you say they influenced Phish’s songwriting (I know Trey played with them again the late 1990s as New York! When his own songwriting was shifting a bit).
I produced their Eat Crow record. It’s a weird record, I haven’t heard it in a while, but I think it still holds up. We kept playing in Burlington after we graduated in the early ‘90s because we considered it our home away from home. We played sometimes with The Pants, and they were getting more and more popular. They became one of the biggest local bands pretty quickly. It turned out that I ended up making a record with them, really about the time they were poised to explode. They were a great band with a lot of momentum. Then in the middle of recording that record, they broke up! I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I ended up playing drums on the last two songs out of sheer necessity. But we finished the record, and it’s really something special. It falls oddly between genres or categories. There was something about the style or sound of the band that didn’t fit them perfectly into anything. I think that appealed to Trey’s sensibility. It was really compelling music, like I said the record will stand the test of time. Eat Crow might sound a little dated, production wise, but it is of an era, the mid ‘90s. It was recorded in my parents’ basement on ADATs. I think Trey actually paid to press the CD he was such a fan of the band.
In an interview with Relix last year, Trey Anastasio said he first met you when The Philistines Jr. opened for Phish at UVM in the late 1980s. Can you tell us a little bit about what you remember about that particular performance?
It’s weird. When people ask me if I remember the first show we ever played, I say, “Yes. We opened for Phish!” We played first and there was really no one there. There was another band I was in called Jazzin’ Hell that played second and there were 20 or 30 people, and Phish played and there were 30 or 40 people. And I thought, “Hey, pretty good show.” Jazzin’ Hell was fronted by our mutual pal, James Kochalka Superstar. If you don’t know who that is, you should. That might be too long a story for this interview. A truly insane performer. Certainly not for everyone. He’s a very well-known comic book artist now, and he was my year at UVM. I don’t know how he became buddies with Trey, but they’re connected through the whole Burlington scene.
We were playing in this lame little room. It was your typical no big deal college show. The benefit was for the Union Of Concerned Students. Some sort of attempt to have a social/political event on campus. What it led to I don’t know. It’s funny that it’s this crappy little show and all these years later to be working together [with Trey]. It’s strange how those things work. I didn’t know Trey at all at the time. I knew Mike Gordon a little bit—he was active in the film department a couple years ahead of me. They always seemed like nice, friendly guys. I kind of felt like I knew Trey because our bands were around each other a bunch. When we actually became friends over twenty-five years later, it felt like we knew each other better than we actually did.
I remember Mike Gordon did sound for us (The Philistines Jr) at this big, ridiculous frat party once. I remember I said, “I’m headed to the cafeteria do you want any food?” He said, “Yeah, but I’m a vegetarian.” This is 1987-88. I said, “Ok, well what if they don’t have anything that’s vegetarian, what do you want?” He said, “I don’t eat anything with meat.” I said, “I know, but what if they don’t have anything that’s vegetarian, what do you want?” I was still getting used to people not eating meat.
Another funny Mike Gordon story. He was about to graduate, he was a couple years ahead of me. I was sitting in the film room and asked, “What are you guys going to do after you graduate?” He was like, “we’re going to do the band.” And I was like, “That’s cool but what are you going to do for money?” he said, “We’re going to do the band. That’s it.” I remember thinking, “Ha ha, the band? You’re going to do your band for a living? Good luck buddy.” I thought it was so unrealistic. It’s like people saying they’re going to play for the Yankees. Needless to say, he had the last laugh.