Sunday, September 20, 2015

Five Questions with DeadPhish Orchestra's Paul Murin (High Country Guitar)

Paul Murin
Paul Murin is the guitarist for DeadPhish Orchestra, a tribute band that bridges the gap between the music of Phish and The Grateful Dead. He is also the creator of High Country Guitar, an online resource for guitar players interested in improvising and composing. His formal study has included the Jazz and Commercial Music program at the Lamont School of Music at the U. of Denver, where he graduated in 2002.

These qualifications mean that Paul knows as much about the music of Phish and the guitar playing of Trey Anastasio as anyone not named McConnell, Gordon, Fishman or Anastasio. Plus, he is approachable and affable. So, fortunately, he was happy to answer the following Phishy questions.

How does Phish’s improvisation differ from jazz improvisation? How is it similar? 
Well, if you're talking about the classic, bebop style of jazz improv, which most true jazz musicians are familiar with (and I, by the way, do not consider myself a jazz musician at all, although I have studied jazz fairly extensively), then I would say it's a LOT different. Jazz is very sophisticated, harmonically--chords tend to be complex, and there are usually a lot of them in a typical jazz piece. Phish's harmony tends to be much simpler, more in the vein of rock, blues, etc., and more static harmony and mode-based as opposed to improvising over a long series of chord changes.

However, jazz did take a turn for the simpler (largely thanks to Miles Davis) starting in the late '50s, and even more so in the 60's and 70's. The crazy-complicated chords of the bebop era got scrapped, and improvisation became more modal, and more groove-based. Here, I do think you could draw some parallels in Phish's improv style, and I would imagine the guys in Phish would cite much of this music as being influential. But Phish's influences come from a lot of places, and this is only one of them. 

Are there specific songs or performances that exemplify Phish’s improvisational style(s)?
I would look to some of their best-known jams as being exemplary. Like the 2013 "Tahoe Tweezer" or the "Tweezer > Prince Caspian" from the Magnaball Festival this summer. I guess some people call these "Type II" jams, though I'm frankly not 100% certain what that means, exactly. The jams start with the key and groove of the song, but before long they stretch out into different feels, and different keys and modalities. And they may or may not return to the original feel. 

I have noticed some interesting chord progressions in some of their newer songs--Waiting All Night has a really interesting chord progression for Trey's solo, as does Wingsuit and Halfway To The Moon. So it seems to me like they are trying to explore some new improvisational territory. 

Compositionally, are there any traits or themes you’ve noticed in Phish’s written music that you’d like to point out?
Off the top of my head, one thing that I see frequently in Trey's older compositions is that a melody will be cycled through several different keys. It happens in David Bowie, Golgi Apparatus, Squirming Coil, Foam, etc.--the same melody played in several different keys. Sometimes there will be slight variations, making things less predictable. 

Another "trick" that you see is that phrases will sometimes be odd lengths. Normally stuff happens in twos, fours, etc., but in Mango Song, for example, each phrase is 5 measures long. And in Runaway Jim, the phrases of the guitar solo are 3 measures long. Again, I think this makes things a little less predictable. 

As a musician, what is the biggest thing you’ve learned by listening to Phish?
They taught me that it's worthwhile to get as good as you can at your instrument, and to never stop learning and improving. 

How might one go about incorporating some of Phish’s writing style and improvisational techniques into his or her own music?
That's actually a tough one--I was in a band in my 20's that was heavily influenced by Phish in our songwriting, and when I listen to it now, it mostly just sounds like second-rate Phish to me. So you do have to be careful, if you're influenced by Phish, not to make that influence too direct. Instead I would recommend reading up on the guys in the band and looking at the music that influenced them. Absorb some of that stuff, as well as the other music that you love. Study it all (at least a little bit), learn to play as much of it as you can. And as you do that, hopefully your own voice develops out of it.

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