J. Willis Pratt: Where the Wild Things Are

Mike Greenhaus on September 15, 2020
J. Willis Pratt: Where the Wild Things Are

Phish drummer Jon Fishman, guitarist John Kasiewicz and filmmaker Greg Hemmings celebrate the unusual rise of a true Vermont original—J. Willis Pratt.

J. Willis Pratt & We’re Bionic hold a singular place in the annals of Phish’s arena-rock arc—the last opening act.

“I kept nagging Fish, and, eventually, he asked the guys,” Pratt says with a hearty laugh, as he describes how he convinced the band’s drummer and partial namesake, Jon Fishman, to help him nab the coveted gig. “And then, one day, it actually happened.”

Though Phish occasionally employed opening acts, including friends and contemporaries like Dave Matthews Band and Medeski Martin & Wood, as they started packing event centers and large auditoriums nationally, they had eliminated support acts altogether by the fall of 1997. That is until Pratt and his “rubber metal” band scored a rare slot before The Vermont Quartet at Albany, N.Y.’s Pepsi Arena on Dec. 13, 1997.

“Willis had been saying for years: ‘We’ll open for Phish,’” Fishman recalls “He’d been a little bit of a broken record about it. And then, one day, Trey [Anastasio] or Page [McConnell] finally said, ‘That Albany show would be a good gig to have Willis open.’ I said, ‘He’s gonna fucking lose his mind.’ My one real regret is that I didn’t play drums with him. Maybe it was some sort of hang-up like, ‘You can’t be in the opening band and the headliner.’”

Besides a few festival engagements and a theater show in Japan, the Albany concert marked final time Phish used an opening act. The unexpected booking, which took place with the house lights on, fulfilled a lifelong dream for Pratt—and one he certainly didn’t see coming when he first encountered the young musicians at Goddard College in the 1980s.

“I didn’t like Phish when they started,” he says, while quarantining at his home in Vermont, where he’s growing his China Cat weed strain. “I happened to stumble into the Haybarn [Theatre] where they were playing. I talked to Trey first—Page was around, but he wasn’t quite a member of the band yet, and they had a guy named Jeff [Holdsworth] on guitar. Trey’s hair was a bit longer then and they were tripping. The second time I saw them I thought, ‘Not too bad—they sound like the Grateful Dead,’ and I’m a big fan of the Dead. And they just got better from there.”

The shaggy, charismatic, brash Willis befriended the members of Phish after Fishman and Anastasio transferred from the University of Vermont to Goddard in the mid-1980s. A punk-rocker whose original music ended up sounding more like metal, Willis’ sound felt worlds away from the carefully charted jazz-fugues and improvisational vehicles Phish were gravitating toward at the time. Yet, he formed a close bond with the nascent group and started to develop his own deep catalog of unique originals.

“The first time Fish and I hung out, he was talking with a group of young ladies,” Willis says, “If you’re a guy trying to talk to Fish when there are beautiful ladies around, then forget it. But, I played him [my song] ‘Wild,’ and he loved it. The rest was history.”

Willis remained an Easter egg in Phish’s orbit long after the members of the band graduated. He popped up in the liner notes for 1995’s A Live One, Fishman produced and played on his 1990s albums The Lost Paradox and Bleeding in a Sharks Tank and Phish plugged the records in their Doniac Schvice newsletter. The group even gave him a shoutout when they were interviewed by David Byrne for his Sessions at West 54th program.

“In that interview, Trey talks about how Willis’ timing is weird,” says John Kasiewicz, who plays bass in We’re Bionic and handled guitar duties in the melodic trio Raisinhill for years. “When we soundchecked in Albany before Phish, Trey or Fish said, ‘Willis, when did you learn how to keep time?’ It was something about me practicing with him for two weeks before that. We played five hours a night and maybe I helped pull a little more of a groove out of him, which was a turning point.”

As he is recounting Willis’ brush with arena notoriety, Kasiewicz—who, like Anastasio, studied with composer Ernie Stires—is in the midst of a Zoom meeting with Fishman and filmmaker Greg Hemmings, discussing their new short documentary, When You Are Wild: A Day in the Life of J. Willis Pratt. As the music industry remains on pause due to COVID-19, everyone is sheltering in place at home: Kasiewicz in Connecticut, Hemmings in Canada and Fishman in Maine. A mix of spouses and children dart in and out of the frame; Fishman’s wife Briar makes a point to mention that she wishes she used her recipe for shepherd’s pie instead of fish cakes for a recent “Dinner and a Movie” pairing.

The Hemmings-directed film, which tracks Willis, Fishman, Kasiewicz and guitarist Chris Martin as they prep for a 2018 We’re Bionic appearance, arrives as its subject continues to battle cancer. The disease has not only caused his friends to reflect on their long, fruitful collaborations with Willis, but also energized them to spread his music beyond their social circles.

“Fish and I have been, independently, thinking about this for a longtime,” Kasiewicz says. “But it really began with the cancer diagnosis. We started putting together a benefit concert, which happened in June 2018. About a month before that, I said, ‘This would a great opportunity to show Willis in his best form, which is onstage and performing his music.’”

“After we did the concert. I went back to Phishland, my familyand my work as a [selectman in Maine],” says Fishman, “But I realized that what I could do, besides throw a little money behind the project, was help get his music out there.”

The Phish drummer has long supported his old Vermont running buddies; he recently helped musician Richard Wright, the author of Phish concert staples “Halley’s Comet” and “I Didn’t Know,” get home internet access. He admits that Willis—who has faced poverty and was even homeless for a time—has had the most difficult life of anyone he knows. Yet, his commitment to spreading Willis’ music goes far beyond helping out an old pal.

“Honest to God, he’s one of the best songwriters that’s ever lived,” Fishman says. “I’d put him up there, lyrically, with the Neil Youngs and Joni Mitchells of the world. It’s a different style; it’s not that intellectualized, introspective style. It’s really direct. ‘Wild’ sums up my life, too. When I was growing up, people would say, ‘What are the chances you’re gonna be able to play drums for a living?’ I heard all these discouraging voices, but those negative voices need to go in one ear and out the other. You can’t just push back on them. That song conveys the necessity of finding your inner voice and not letting yourself be smothered by these voices telling you otherwise. That song, to me, is an amazing, pure expression of the testament of the human spirit.”

John, you sought out Willis after relocating to Vermont to attend Goddard. How did you first connect?

JOHN KASIEWICZ: The first week I got to Goddard, I was eager to find out what was happening in the area. I was coming from the University of Miami in Florida—a huge jazz school with thousands of people—to a school where there were 50 students. The town of Plainfield, Vt. is small, so I was concerned that I wouldn’t find anyone to play with. Then, somebody handed me [Willis’] The Lost Paradox. Willis had a prominent reputation on campus for not only being a punk rocker, but also being a wild character. He’d show up at parties on his little motorbike. I never saw the bike because, legend has it, he crashed while riding it into one of Goddard’s buildings.

I listened to the entire tape that day and I went back to the person who gave it to me and said, “Where does he live? What does he drink? What can I do to inspire a meeting with this legend?” I knew he was going to become an inspirational person in my life. So I went down to his place with two 40s, and that night led to us becoming good friends over the next two years. It started out with music, but I never thought I was going to be in his band—until that fateful day when Fishman called asking him to open. Willis didn’t really have a full-time band—We’re Bionic was always piecemeal—so he asked me to play bass.

JON FISHMAN: Up until John came along, I always felt like I was the only person that really understood Willis’ approach—the way that you had to follow him. I always make the analogy that it’s like trying to hit pitches during a baseball game. You don’t get through one take and go, “We screwed this up and that up so we should go back and redo these parts.” You just do it from front to back and say, “Was the batting average high enough to be acceptable?” And, every once in a while, there are these incredibly serendipitous moments, where you say, “We smacked three or four out of the park.” If you can chain them together, it’s incredible because it all seems on purpose. [Lawn Boy engineer and Willis collaborator] Dan Archer told me this story about when Gabe Jarrett—a fantastic drummer—came into his studio when we were working on Bleeding in a Sharks Tank. He was listening to “Death Angel,” which has a couple of weird twists and turns, but it stays cohesive. It’s all done live without overdubs. Gabe listens and says, “Did they write this out?” But, of course, we didn’t. That’s where we got the idea for the back cover photo of Archer just spreading this fake sheet music onto the soundboard.

I also found another photo of us from the same time and it looks like the Marine Corps pulling up on the beaches of Normandy version of rock-and-roll. You’re just trying to stay alive under fire.

GREG HEMMINGS: The part in the film that I absolutely love is when Willis tells a story about Fishman calling the band “rubber metal” because it’s so not tight. But during that 2018 show, Willis said, “We were tight tonight.”

Fish and John, both of you have technical backgrounds, yet you’ve always gelled with Willis’ more punk-rock approach. Why do you think your jazz-oriented training meshes so well with his DIY ethos?

JK: Willis knows when a gig is bad or when a recorded track is off. He knows exactly how it’s supposed to sound. We just have to figure out how we fit into this because the 1s, 2s and 3s are not where they traditionally go.

JF: It’s like learning his language. He’s got this vision—you just have to get inside his head. He doesn’t think in terms of the traditional musical lexicon. You have to be willing to go there. I’ve never bothered to sit down to go, “What exactly is the timing of the chorus of ‘Wild?’” There’s that Zappa tune “Keep It Greasey” that shaves off a 16th note every time around. Willis might do a measure of 19/16, but you’re never going to say to him: “It’s cool that section is in 19 because, next time, it’s going to be in 17.” You’ve just got to learn where those spots are going to be. 

Willis has been a mythical character around Vermont for years and is a thread throughout Phish’s history. Before he started cancer treatment, what was his musical life like?

JF: Willis’ gigs, in terms of band activity, are generally few and far between. He might have a gig once every five years or some crazy shit like that. He had a few parties and things that he was going to do this year before [the current global pandemic]. He’s always like, “Well, it would’ve been good to rehearse ahead of time,” but it hardly ever happens. Recently, it’s been rough because he’s been sick but— up until these last several months when he’s been debilitated by the cancer—he’s been playing at home. If you go on his Facebook page, there’s videos of this guy sitting in his house, writing songs and singing in front of the camera. One of the newer ones is about being mad at God.

That’s his daily life. He lives it, and he lives for the next gig, which is amazing because it can be years before another gig happens. But he’s still in his apartment writing tunes. He just inhabits that. He’s a real inspiration for me because sometimes—in terms of my own personal discipline to practice my instrument and my craft—I can get lazy. I have all these different distractions—kids and everything. He reminds me that consistency over time is a formula for success. He’s relentless. The guy just lives to rock. And he’s always rocking, even if it’s just on an acoustic guitar with three strings on it. 

Fish, you must get offers from friends and musicians to play all the time. What about Willis makes you consistently say yes?

JF: What Willis brings to the table—other than writing all these songs and these incredible hooks—is this energy. The intent is so unstoppable. It’s so pure. Col. Bruce Hampton had this great musical rating system. He said, “Everything is intent, release and recovery.”

Everything starts with the intent and then, it’s about how you let go and bring it back home. Willis’ intent is probably the most intense and straight-ahead of anybody I’ve ever played with. You’re immediately pulled into his vortex, and you’re immediately in service of that intent. You’re reaching for that in yourself, thinking, “How do I get behind this?”

“Wild” is his statement; that’s his entire life in one song. It’s a two-way conversation between the voice in his head—who he is— and the external voices that he’s been hearing his whole life. One side is like, “You’ve got to be responsible, grow up, act your age,” and the other side is saying, “Fuck that. I’m going to rock.”  

GH: He’s got these incredible lyrics. “Angry About T.V.” is about being in jail for throwing a television out the window and mistakenly killing somebody.

JK: Willis has written 300-400 songs. They’re documented in different ways; some are only in his head. But, during a rehearsal, he can remember a song from 20 years ago on the spot.

He has a song called “Living on Fishman’s Time”—being in a band with Fish for 23 years or so, you learn that it doesn’t hurt to remind Fish when he’s got to be somewhere. You get distracted by all sorts of people and things.

JF: His ability to distill feeling—I don’t think anyone who’s ever hitchhiked before and gotten frustrated with that could write a better song than “I Don’t Like Hitchhiking.” The way that he delivers it—the sound, the music, the directness of the lyrics—I can picture myself standing on the road. The few times I’ve hitchhiked—watching these cars go by—that’s exactly how I’ve felt. He’s able to instill songs with a certain empathy. I’ve never been poverty-stricken, but I’ve heard songs about poverty, and some of them have been pretty intense. But when Willis sings “Prison by Poverty,” it makes me feel empathetic. It’s not somebody complaining in a way that isn’t legit or whining. It’s like, “I can feel that this is something that isn’t in his control. I can feel his frustration about the situation.” That’s the thing about good songwriting—if it is relatable, then it’s not alienating or offputting. Willis is just amazing at that.

JK: Willis always has a crowd of thousands is mind. Technical things aside, it’s just so much fun to play with a guy who just explodes immediately. We could be playing in his apartment, we could be playing in front of a hay barn or we could be in the middle of a bus tour, and it’s just the same guy, all the time. 

Phish advertised Bleeding in a Sharks Tank in their newsletter and invited Willis to open an arena date. Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon even appeared on the record under the pseudonyms Big Red and Cactus. Why do you think his music never really broke through in the “mainstream underground” world?

JF: Willis’ musical approach is very raw. It’s unusual in a lot of ways and, to appreciate it on a purely musical listening level, you have to have eclectic tastes. You have to be somebody who’s into Captain Beefheart. I love that type of music, but I’ve definitely realized its not mainstream. For years, Willis has been saying, “When’s Phish going to cover We’re Bionic?” And I’m like, “I’m not so sure that we’re the ones to do it.” But lately, as we’ve been facing Willis’ mortality, I’ve been thinking in different terms. It did occur to me, “If Willis dies, no one’s ever going to hear this shit.” I started thinking, “If Phish were to cover one of Willis’ songs in memorial, or in homage, then what would it be?”  

JK: You guys could play “Escalator to Hell”—Page could sing that or Trey could sing “War of the Worlds.” Part of the original idea for this film was that, throughout the soundtrack, we would have other artists cover Willis’ songs. If somebody with a more traditional approach covered one of these beautiful songs, then people might gravitate toward his music more easily. I’ve always tried to think, “How can we get people to accept something that’s a little less traditional, but still so potent musically and lyrically?”

JF: It would be amazing to get KISS or The Scorpions to cover one of his tunes—I should get our management on that. That would really convey it. People would say, “That sounds like a great Judas Priest tune.”

GH: People are still trying to figure out who Willis is and who We’re Bionic are. There’s no boundaries and no barriers for where this film could actually go. It could be a longer film later.

Fish, despite your own thoughts on their music, you and Trey brought Willis to a KISS concert a number of years ago. How did you end up there?

 JF: That was his dream, and we basically kidnapped him. He had a job at the time—he was washing dishes at a diner, and he’s a very dedicated, dependable guy. So he was worried about losing his job. We went to his bosses and told them what we were up to. We wanted it to be a secret, but he freaked out so bad that we had to tell him where we were taking him partway to Massachusetts. He kept saying, “They’re going to fire me,” and we were like, “Don’t worry about it; you’re covered.” I don’t think he believed us until we got there. I love Willis’ account that it was me who threw up on the way back. But he was pounding Coke and Southern Comfort. We got there and he was just beside himself. 

Then, when we got to our seats, there was nobody in our section, but a security guy came up to us with a flashlight and was like, “You’re in the wrong section.” We’re like, “Does it fucking matter?” And Willis starts kind of pushing back at the guy, and he’s like, “Move along.” I thought we were gonna get booted right after we actually got him to the show. That’s our rapport right there.