Of Jambands, Twittered Reviews, and Suburbs: A Chat With Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum

Even casual readers our site may notice the affection and attention we lavish on bands that dabble in improvisational rock.   We do this because we unabashedly love these  bands, though not at the expense of all other music.  It seems, however, that fans of jambands can't get a break when it comes to respectability amongst more "serious critics."

Recently, though, there has been a bit of a breakthrough, a subtle change of attitude where it comes to the importance and prominence of the bands we love in critical circles.  With some acts (even the proverbial critical darlings) coming out as being appreciative and even influenced by jambands, the music has taken on a greater acceptance and the quirks and eccentricities of its fans have been legitimized.  Now, more than ever, the music of Grateful Dead, Phish and others can be seen as one critical component to a wider puzzle of musical interest -- from traditional forms and idioms to innovative new sounds.  It is the "gateway" that leads to a greater understanding of the global musical landscape, and the critics seems to be catching up to this fact as well.

One such critic, Pitchfork's Rob Mitchum, wears his Phish fandom on his sleeve.  His dedication to the band and its music has manifested itself in one of the most intriguing critical projects to come out of the Phish world -- a review, via twitter, of every show the band has performed since 1993.  This ongoing project has many of the qualities that has made Phish beloved:  innovative use of an emerging medium, a sly and perceptive wit, a crisp expressiveness and the ability to set apart and distinguish the sublime from the mundane.

Tweezer / Twitter Shirt via PhanArt.org

As a tentative tweeter myself, not quite adjusted to the contours of the twitter verse, I have chosen my "follows" carefully and exist at the fringes of the network.  However, by chance I happened upon one of Rob's non-review tweets that made a casual mention of Downer's Grove, a town just a few miles from The Barn's homebase of La Grange.  It was then I knew that had to reach out -- since our site has a tangible focus of  Chicago suburbs, it just made sense to chat with Rob about his experience in Downers, in Chicago and his approach in to music general.

The Barn:  Growing up in Downers, did you get a sense of any local music community?  Phish fans or otherwise?

Rob Mitchum:  Jamband-wise, I don't remember much community out in the 'burbs, other than the upperclassman hippie girl who gave me my first Phish tapes in our social studies class in Fall '95. My friends and I formed a groundbreaking indie-rock jamband called Hypersonic (we played both "Cut Your Hair" and "AC/DC Bag") and were big hits on the graduation party circuit. The one truly Phish-related thing I remember doing in Downers was seeing Son Seals play at the brewery in downtown Downers in 99ish, he didn't play Funky Bitch until the second set (I think he knew why we were there).

Any other gathering places or local record stores that stand out?

Most of my musical upbringing in Downers Grove was focused on learning to drive as soon as possible then driving downtown as often as I was allowed for shows. But closer to home, I have hazy memories of punk shows at Naperville churches and alternative-rock knockoff bands from my high school playing at the YMCA (two of whom, Lucky Boys Confusion and Swizzle Tree, are still gigging, impossibly).

I was a frequent buyer at Music Warehouse in Downers, and begged my parents to drive me to downtown Naperville to go to Bizzy Bee whenever possible (better selection). A lot of musical maturation happened as I was DJing over all 10 watts of WDGC, the shared North/South High School station. I did my first band interview there (with Champaign's Poster Children...it was sooo awkward and horrible), and stumbled onto dozens of tiny indie bands that came in the mail.

Nowadays who are some of your favorite local Chicago area bands?

I think my favorite Chicago scene is the Umbrella Music/Immediate Sound scene, the Wednesday nights at the Hideout in particular. I don't go as often as I should because I'm old and tired, but it is the most consistently mind-blowing and unique musical experience I know. It covers pretty wide ground between classic jazz and really, really out, avant-garde jazz (which I can only take so much of), but it's always interesting. There's not really specific bands that stand out, it's just a great community of people playing together in different combinations and trying out new things and one of the few local places I can get the improv I crave.

There honestly aren't a lot of Chicago rock bands that blow me away, which is something I've always felt guilty about. The closest is probably the Fiery Furnaces, who are originally an Oak Park band, but have lived in New York since they made it indie-big.  I love all the suburban Chicago imagery in their songs though; such a kick hearing about Wolf Road and the Ferrara-Pan factory.

What do you consider the best part of Chicago music scene that sets it apart from other cities?

What I love about Chicago is how it's a hub of great music, whether it's based here or just passing through, but it's insulated from the industry influence of New York and Los Angeles. Trends and scenes and micro-genres and whatever get here on a delay from NYC and LA, sure, but that allows us the time and perspective to call bullshit on them when necessary. NYC is such a huge echo chamber: 10 people hear about a band and all of a sudden it's the Greatest Thing in the History of Music. That doesn't happen here (as much, and maybe this is less true now that we have the Internet), because we can take a breath and say, "Really? This?" That's my theory on why Pitchfork was able to establish itself as a site of critical integrity rather than just a hype machine; it's always been based in the Midwest, and not as subject to the PR clusterfuck of the coasts.

Your twitter review project demonstrates a level of dedication and borderline obsessiveness about one band that is seemingly atypical for a Pitchfork writer.  What is it about Phish that inspires this type of commitment for you?

I don't know how atypical it is for Pitchfork writers to fixate on one band, actually. It's mostly just that twitter gives me a good outlet to trumpet my own particular obsession. But Matthew Perpetua had a blog where he was reviewing every REM song and Scott Plagenhoef has written a book about Belle & Sebastian, and so on. I actually worry that people think I listen to *only* Phish - I listen to a lot of Phish, granted, but I listen to music all day, so there's a lot of time to listen to other bands. I just don't talk about them as much, because I don't have much to add to 1 million people saying "Kanye is awesome!" on twitter. (He is awesome though).

Pitchfork vs. Billboard InfoGraphic via Very Small Array

I've thought a lot about what attracts me to Phish specifically, and I think it honestly has a lot to do with why I write about music. I obsess about the bands that I love, as I think most music fans do, and I want to hear *everything* and dig into the catalog as deep as possible and try to understand every single detail about it. But with most bands, that's a finite process - eventually you run out of albums. With Phish, you can pretty much never run out of new things to listen to, and analyze, and think about. I pretty much think of them as having 1300 albums, some of which are terrible, some of which are great, all of which are worth hearing at least once. And it hits me right in the bullseye of my music addiction. The twitter project is a way to really take that on at a micro-scale and explore how the band evolved night-by-night. It's been tougher than I imagined ('93 didn't mix things up as much as I thought), but it's great fun too, and I'm excited people care about it.

Any other bands inspire a similar passion for you?

I'll go through shorter obsessions with other bands - this year, my favorite record was Titus Andronicus' The Monitor, and I saw them four times in about six months. I'll periodically binge on bands like Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youth or Neil Young or Destroyer or Harry Nilsson, but it's not the same feeling. On my external hard drive will all my music I have two folders: "Phish" and "Music". That pretty much says it all.

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