For indie rockers, 'jam band' increasingly no longer a shameful term
By Aaron Leitko
On Saturday, Vampire Weekend will headline at Merriweather Post Pavilion. It will be the New York-based indie-rock quartet's first gig at the Maryland amphitheater, but for the band's drummer, Chris Tomson, the show will mark an anniversary of sorts.
"My first Phish show was at Merriweather Post Pavilion," the 26-year-old explains over the phone, from his home in New York. "That was September 17th of 2000. Karmically, in some weird way, I feel pretty awesome about that."
Vampire Weekend is a cool band. The group's members dress like Lacoste models. The band's most recent record, "Contra," is filled with spring-loaded three-minute pop songs that have made it a constant presence on music blogs. B.o.B., a rapper, even cribbed from the band's "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance" for a tune on his debut record.
But Tomson is also a fan of jam bands such as Phish and the Grateful Dead . And he's not ashamed of it. A decade back, such an admission might have caused a cred-withering flap among indie rock fans, but these days Tomson has plenty of company.
It's not that jam bands -- i.e. improvisation-oriented rock groups such as Phish, moe. or the mother of them all, the Grateful Dead -- aren't popular. On the contrary, the genre has an enormous audience -- the bands regularly sell out clubs, arenas and weekend festivals.
But they've never been cool. Jam bands are largely ignored by radio, MTV, mainstream magazines, music blogs and, really, any publication that isn't exclusively dedicated to their funky, impulsive, psychedelic genre. Maybe it's the tie-dye shirts, the stench of the patchouli oil or the less-than-sexy noodle-bodied dance moves.
Whatever the reason, hipsters, and especially indie rockers, have long disavowed jam bands and their followers. Bring up "Live/Dead" or "Lawn Boy," they gag, scowl or tune out altogether. From time to time, Phish will cover an indie-rock song -- Pavement's "Gold Soundz" or, more recently, Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" -- but these peace offerings generally fall on deaf ears. With the exception of a few outliers -- Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn or Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo -- it's rare to find outsider musicians who will cop to digging Jerry Garcia.
But those prejudices are starting to, well, mellow out. Tomson's Vampire Weekend bandmates do not share his guitar solo sweet tooth, but many of his music-world peers do. New York psych-rock group MGMT -- whose debut record, "Oracular Spectacular," has gone gold -- admits to liking the Dead. Indie faves Animal Collective recently licensed the first-ever official Grateful Dead sample for their song, "What Would I Want? Sky." There are others, too.
"I would say that jam bands and jam band culture has been a giant influence on me in my musicmaking," says Alex Bleeker, 24, bassist of Real Estate. His band plays mellow, spacey, slacker-rock songs, mostly about its native New Jersey suburbs. Its self-titled debut record was a big hit on indie-music-focused Web sites such as Pitchfork and Stereogum. During high school, Bleeker was a devoted Phish and Grateful Dead fan, and he credits the bands with getting him deeper into music.
"I listen to a lot of music that people consider experimental now, but stuff like Phish and Pink Floyd was my original influence," he says. "The first time I heard weird music wasn't from weird music bands, it was from more mainstream people." According to Bleeker, his friends and tour mates, such as electronic drone artist Oneohtrix Point Never and lo-fi rockers Woods, have similar backgrounds.
Rob Mitchum, 31, a Chicago-based science writer and a music reviewer for the Web site Pitchfork (disclosure: I'm a contributor to Pitchfork, as well), was a fan, too: "I kind of kept it secret for a while. It was an embarrassing thing to tell people." But when Phish reunited last year he relapsed. Since then he's set a goal of reviewing every one of the band's concerts, from 1993 onward, via Twitter. "I thought maybe people would take it as a joke," he says. "But a lot of people really responded to it."
One of those people was Mike McGregor, 26, the Brooklyn-based blogger who runs the underground-music site Chocolate Bobka. He liked the concept so much that he reprinted a series of Mitchum's tweets in his biannual journal.
"There's definitely a lot of people I know in Brooklyn who are like, 'Oh, I was at that Phish show in '03.' But I still think a lot of people are afraid to admit it, " he says.
In McGregor's opinion, jam bands were an important phase for budding music nerds, himself included. For instance, when Phish covered the Beatles' "White Album" at a concert in 1994, it helped him turn a corner. "I never grew up listening to the Beatles. I got into the Beatles through Phish covering them."
The hippie caravans that followed the band around proved equally eye-opening. "Phish rolls into town and that changes everything for the whole day. Everybody knows about the show. There's traffic. All these weird people are coming to town that nobody [has] ever seen before," McGregor explains. "To me, it was like an intro course to left-field outsider culture -- a steppingstone into a whole new world of drugs and art."
And the lessons learned through jam band fandom -- Internet promotion, bootleg cassette trading -- are readily applicable to artier, D.I.Y. music. "I run a tape label right now. I'm just sitting in my apartment dubbing tapes for days," McGregor says. "That's exactly what I did as a 14- or 15-year-old, only I was listening to Phish."
Jesse Jarnow, 31, a freelance writer and regular contributor to Relix -- one of the few magazines dedicated to the jam band scene -- has been watching and writing about this phenomenon for a while.
To him, it seems natural. "The Dead and Phish, to some extent, were the top-grossing summer touring bands every summer that they went out during their peak years. By sheer numbers alone, so many people were exposed to their music," he explains. "I think it's more of a surprise that it wasn't already an influence."
Not that many of these indie bands jam. MGMT, Vampire Weekend and Real Estate largely stick to predetermined arrangements. And there's still a little bit of stigma. More than a few bands approached about this article neglected to call back. Vampire Weekend's Tomson is upfront about his jam band days but protects the identities of others. "I don't want to out anybody," he says.
But Bleeker sees greater acceptance on the horizon. It will be a vibe-heavy, groovy new world, where nobody will be ashamed to let their songs soar past the seven-minute mark. "I don't want 'jam band' to be a dirty word in the indie-rock community anymore," he says.
September 3, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories: In today's Post | Tags: Grateful Dead, MGMT, Phish, Real Estate, Vampire Weekend
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