Dan Kanter: Bringing Bieber to Phish and Joining Weir Here

Mike Greenhaus on December 17, 2013

Justin Bieber’s guitarist and musical director talks about bringing a bit of jam to the pop world.

Bob Weir, Dave Schools, Dan Kanter and Jason Crosby at TRI

Bringing Bieber to Phish

Justin came with us to see Phish at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. [on Sept. 1]. I brought him to see Phish in Long Beach, Calif. last year, but this time was even better. Going to your first Phish show can be quite overwhelming but, now, he knew what he was getting himself into. Justin is an amazing musician so he’s there for the same reasons as everyone else—to listen to Phish’s incredible musicianship and enjoy it with his closest friends. We had a VIP box set up for him—and he had access to the side of the stage—but he wanted to be right in the general admission floor with all of our friends. This time, a lot of people recognized him and it wasn’t as ‘out there’ to see Justin Bieber at a Phish show. And what was really neat was, this time, Justin brought some of his friends along like Poo Bear, who is actually a very successful R&B producer. He wanted them to see how great the show is. He’s really caught the bug. We had a really nice visit at set break in the band room with [lighting designer] Chris Kuroda and the band.

Our Song

Backstage at our shows, I always play “Divided Sky” on my acoustic guitar, and I sneak the slowed-down section into our show all the time. It’s Justin’s favorite Phish song. And at one point during the Sept. 1 concert, Justin and his friend went to stand with Chris, and I stayed with my friends. And then, “Divided Sky” started and I looked at my wife and said, “I gotta find Justin,” and I started running through the crowd to get to the soundboard. When I got there, his security said, “We don’t know where he went, he just started running and we lost him.” He had gone looking for us! We finally met up during the long pause in the middle of the floor, and we hugged it out and he was like, “It’s our song! My first ‘Sky!’”

Hooking Up with Kuroda

I convinced [Justin’s team] to bring Chris in to do the lighting design for our tour. Justin really wanted the lights to be busy and that’s how we ended up with Chris. Justin is very hands-on with his projects and he always complained, “How come the lights don’t hit with the band and the dancers?” And I would always say, “You need to see Phish because Chris Kuroda is a master at this.” What’s cool about what he’s doing with our show, versus Phish, is our show is scripted. With Phish, there are songs like “Bowie” and “Fluffhead” where Chris has a design ahead of time but, with Bieber, he gets to do that for the whole show. There were moments where Justin would say to Chris, “I want more pops here,” and Chris would say, “Well, I didn’t do more pops because you wanted the spotlight on you so everyone could see you.” And he’s like, “No, no, no. This part here is about the music and it’s about the pops, so I don’t care if we’re blinding the audience.”

The Secret Language

When we were rehearsing or soundchecking, I would just play little Phish riffs to make Chris laugh. And then, he would start doing the lights to my riffs on songs like “NICU.” So I started sneaking Phish riffs into the show to make him laugh, and it escalated from there. The Phish world is so on top of things that they picked up on it. Then it was just a challenge to see how many Phish songs we could sneak in. When I’m onstage, I constantly refresh Phish’s setlists on my phone so I always see what they’re playing—I’m dreading the night where I’m onstage and I flip my phone and it says “Col. Forbin.” There is a time when Justin is doing a quick change offstage so I would play these different Phish songs while he is in his dressing room listening. One time, Trey came to a show with Tom Marshall, and another time Mike Gordon and his family came to a show. There may be 18,000 screaming girls, but you can still say, “That’s ‘Punch You in the Eye.’”

Another Type of Improv

My wife and I have become close with Mike and his family. I’m a touring musician and my wife and I want to have a family, so spending time with Mike and his family is inspiring. Mike invited us on a blues bar-hop on his bus after the first night of Phish’s 2013 Chicago run. Then, they called the show due to weather. The night before, Mike had met some people from Second City, and mentioned to me that we were gonna meet Fishman there and musically accompany the cast. I played guitar with them, and it was completely improvised. Mike and Fish are such a solid rhythm section—they’ve been playing together so long—but all of us were more focused on accompanying the actors.

Teenage Wasteland

I met Bob Weir and his family because they come to a lot of Bieber shows. I played with him and Dave Schools at TRI [for a Weir Here webcast]. We did a really fun Q-and-A bit where we took questions from Deadheads and Beliebers. You’d get one question from a 50-year-old man about writing a Dead setlist and then, a question about Justin Bieber’s perfume. Mike Gordon and Bieber both made surprise video cameos. We chose a few songs on the spot—“Monkey and the Engineer,” which Bob hasn’t played very regularly, and Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time.” My dad is obsessed with Dylan and that’s probably our favorite Dylan song. Bob does a version with Bruce Hornsby that I love, so I tried to recreate some of the piano lines that Hornsby plays on guitar. I think, for a lot of Justin’s fans, this was really their introduction to the Grateful Dead.