Smells Like Hippie Spirit: Uncovering Indie Rock’s True Jamband Roots (Relix Revisited)

Mike Greenhaus on June 26, 2020
Smells Like Hippie Spirit: Uncovering Indie Rock’s True Jamband Roots (Relix Revisited)

Photo by Dave Vann

By Mike Greenhouse


Since its first year in 2002, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has been a place where the indie and jam worlds coalesce. Sadly, the 2020 edition of the festival has been canceled, but it will be back in 2021 with a vengeance.

In honor of Bonnaroo, we are taking a look back on this piece from our June 2009 issue, which explores the connection between the indie and jam scenes through the lens of the legendary festival.

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The Thursday night of Manchester, Tenn.’s four-day, multi-genre Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is traditionally reserved for some of the year’s most blogged about bands–and the summer of 2008 is no exception.

In the span of only four hours, the overflowing This Tent plays host to such indie elites as Africa-influenced pop stars Vampire Weekend, instrumental weirdoes Battles and synth-rock royalty MGMT. The rent and its surrounding areas are filled with the usual mix of early arrivals: college kids, industry reps, groupies, journalists and fellow musicians–and the Olsen twins aren’t far behind. But instead of the disaffected industry chhatter one might expect at an indie showcase, the conversation backstage has turned surprisingly, um, heady.

“We discussed playing a 45-minute version of ‘China Cat Sunflower,’” MGMT guitarist James Richardson says with a straight face, sporting a well-worn tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt. “I think pretty much everybody in MGMT secretly loves jambands–well, not so secretly. We always have.”

A few yards away, his bandmates are catching up with Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson, who is proudly decked out in a T-shirt that meshes the Phish and the Philadelphia Phillies’ logos, despite the fact that his band received an impressive 8.8 ranking by seemingly devout hippie-hater website Pitchfork. “When [the festival] was announced and the band’s names were listed, I remember thinking that everyone was going to be playing there,” he reminisces about the first, more jamband-oriented Bonnaroo in 2002. 

But, shortly after that gathering of the tribes, something started to change. The jam scene started to fragment stylistically and a generation weaned on Phish and the Grateful Dead began to grow older. At the same time, indie rock continued to mature musically and a younger generation was looking to other genres in response to the sudden death of arena-sized jamband draws.

“Too many bad imitators of Phish ruined that whole thing–everybody really wanted to be ‘indie,’” Richardson muses.

Though both the blogosphere and the mainstream media are quick to make it seem like hipsters and hippies are as different as hair gel and hemp, in reality some of the day’s most popular “indie bands” have at least one direct tie to the jamband world–not that they’re openly citing The String Cheese Incident as their favorite band on Facebook. Yeasayer’s Ira Wolf Tuton played in Disco Biscuits’ associates The Ally, Band of Horses’ Bill Reynolds was a member of jam-friendly roots rockers Donna the Buffalo, founding Brazlian Girls’ bassist Jess Murphy had another life on John Scofield’s Uber-Jam, Ra Ra Riot’s Wes Miles spent time in the funky band Sweaty Etiquette in college, Leslie Feist sand on The New Deal’s Gone Gone Gone, the New Deals’ Dan Kurtz also plays in the electro-pop band Dragonette, all three members of the Lake Trout spinoff Big in Japan serve as the backing band for UNKLE and even the members of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Interpol have name-checked Phish.

Portland’s The Decemberists, who stress lyrical nuance over instrumental virtuosity, boast two alumni of the ‘90s jamband Calobo: keyboardist Jenny Conlee and bassis Nate Query. “Calobo helped me with my technique and how to listen because when you’re improvising you always have to be aware of what is going on around you,” Conlee says.

And it’s not just indie-rockers who have exposed roots in the jamband scene: Members of the pop-rock group Maroon 5 grew up going to Phish shows, American Idol star Taylor Hicks played in a Widespread Panic cover band and everyone from Hassidic-reggae star Matisyahu to redheaded singer/songwriter Brett Dennen credit the jam scene with their own musical growth.

Despite often being cast as diametrically opposed, the sound of a surprising number of popular indie rock groups is not just a reaction to their Phish and Dead-influenced youth, but rather a natural extension of the Millennium-era jamband movement. In other words: When did skinny jeans and songcraft start replacing tie-dyes and epic jams?

By the time Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment teamed up to host the inaugural Bonnaroo in 2002, the jamband scene had already expanded well beyond what was stereotypically considered as “Grateful Dead/hippie-rock.” Phish, heir apparent to that scene’s improvisational style and grassroots approach, owed as much to proto-indie rockers Talking Heads as it did to Frank Zappa and Jerry Garcia–and like the Grateful Dead, it was never shy about paying tribute to all forms of American music: from roots musicians including Son Seals and Bill Monroe to seminal indie groups such as Velvet Underground and Pavement.

Phish’s music introduced a new generation of budding musicians not only to bluegrass, funk and classic rock, but also to avant-jazz Stephen Reich and Brian Eno. By the time the modern jamband scene fully emerged from Phish’s shadow–early rock-based improvisers like Blues Traveler had given way to a legion of bands that flirted with such varied styles as country, electronica, folkd, world and even punk. When Les Claypool formed Oysterhead in 2000 with Trey Anastasio of Phish and Stewart Copeland of The Police and started playing events such as Gathering of the Vines, jam-oriented festivals became a welcome halfway house for left-leaning groups once classified as “alternative” like Week and The Flaming Lips. And, by 2002, it felt just as natural for Warren Haynes to sit in with Claypool as it did for Michael Jang to play with moe. 

In fact, at a time when commercial radio was ruled primarily by rap-metal and sugary pop, one could argue that the hippie-rock circuit was the only place for underground and experimental music to shop for new fans. Everyone from world music icon Angélique Kidjo to politically-charged singer/songwriter Dan Bern to jazz freak John Zorn and electronic act Amon Tobin played jam-oriented festivals.

“I did Bonnaroo and I remember learning about the whole jamband world,” says guitarist Tommy “TNT” Brenneck of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings of an early trek to the festival as a member of the Afro-beat collective Antibalas.

“Everyone in The National pretty much all grew up listening to jambands besides Matt Berninger,” says the band’s guitarist Aaron Dessner. “My brother and I even started playing guitar because of the song ‘Jessica.’ Once, in high school, [National drummer] Bryan Devendorf borrowed my car and went to a Phish show at Deer Creek without telling me–I was so pissed!”

Even multi-platinum rockers Incubus are Phish geeks. “Phish was one of the first bands I got really, really into,” says lead singer Brandon Boyd. “I’d drive halfway across the country to go to one of their shows, and we’d always make an adventure out of it.”

It was a good time to follow a band around the country, too: Gas cost a relatively reasonable $1.43 per gallon and people could buy essentials like beer and burritos with the simple equation of 1-for-3, 2-for-5.

And with the term “alternative” growing increasingly stale, it seemed like commercial record stores might be reorganizing their stock to accomodate a jamband section. But, while the jamband scene had returned to the popularity it enjoyed in the 1970s, it was also more disjointed than ever.

In 2004, both Phish and The Dead broke up and Widespread Panic—the scene’s next large draw—was still reeling from the untimely loss of guitarist Michael Houser. While Phish’s leap from cult-heroes to cultural torchbearers was a direct result of Garcia’s death in 1995, the third and fourth generation jambands like Umphrey’s McGee, Yonder Mountain String Band and SoundTribe Sector 9 were too stylistically and geographically fragmented to make the move to the national arena-circuit that was home to Phish and The Dead. So without a sturdy arena act, jam fans began looking elsewhere for that large scale, collective group experience.

“I dig jambands and I was really influenced by Jerry Garcia,” admits Peter Walker, who played in a Grateful Dead cover band before co-founding Dangerbird Records in 2004, home to Silversum Pickups, Sea Wolf, The Dears and his own band Eulogies. “He was really speaking through the guitar, as he might say, and whatever he did was affected by everything around him. That definitely carried over into my guitar playing.” 

“We started [the indie label] Secret City in Montreal in 2005, around the time I was looking for something to fill the void Phish had left in my musical life,” says Andrew Rose, who also works with the band Plants and Animals. “I’ve been a Phish fan for 15 years, though that comes up surprisingly little in my music career these days.”

At the same time, rock music was beginning to make mainstream waves for the first time since the end of the alternative era and garage-music in particular—as ushered in by The Strokes—helped brand the burgeoning hipster movement as more than just a fashion and lifestyle trend. Likewise, Radiohead’s 2000 release Kid A helped seed a new type of progressive rock band. In fact, the album’s reviews reference a striking number of musicians that also influenced the most recent class of jambands, from the experimental jazz of Miles Davis to the Reich minimalism of the post-rock genre to the Eno.Talking Heads collaboration Remain in Light. Suddenly, indie rock included everything from the freak folk of Akron/Family (who cover “Turn on Your Lovelight”) to the popular electro-pop by Of Montreal (who have covered the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street”).

“Kid A was huge for me,” says Hank Sullivant, who played in the jam/funk band Accidental Mersh with MGMT’s Andtew VanWyngarden as a teenager, co-founded garage-rock band The Whigs in college, toured a s a member of MGMT and now fronts Juroma. Like many of his peers, Sullivant grew up listening to alternative music, found the Grateful Dead and Phish during high school and later added Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and Pavement to his list of influences. :At the end of high school, I decided I wanted to start an indie band, and in college we met all these people that taught us that there was a lot more out there.”

Johnny Beach, a talent buyer for uber-hip New York indie promoters Bowery Presents who got his start at the jamband incubator Wetlands, feels “There is a reason that Radiohead and Phish are probably my two favorite bands: They have the ability to cut across genres and bring in all sorts of fans. There was a time when a steady stream of strong jambands were sort of coming through the ranks like the Disco Biscuits, The New Deal and Sound Tribe Sector 9. But with the exception of Umphrey’s McGee, it has been a while since a jamband has really reached that level.”

And Dangerbird’s Walker has similar sentiments about jambands’ influence: “I was so immersed in The Dead and the culture of Northern California, but at the same time I am really grateful that I took what I got from that and moved on. I still enjoy that music, but I started to broaden my vision a little bit.” While the popularity of Phish and the Grateful Dead served as a gateway for new fans to discover other jambands below the pop culture’s radar in the past, the influx of new jamband fans began to slow without the scene’s two largest draws. 

At the same time, class acts like The White Stripes and Arcade Fire started appearing on the radio and teenagers looking to experience guitar-rock for the first time no longer had to go to jambands shows to experience authentic musicianship. Instead of joining jambands, many young Phish and Panic fans formed indie rock bands. 

“Everyone in Vampire Weekend knew general pop music, but we all had specific focuses—one of mine was jambands,” acknowledged Tomson, the band’s drummer, in a 2008 Jambands.com interview. “My first Phish show was definitely a huge moment in my life. I’ve also seen String Cheese Incident a bunch of times and drove up to Wetlands [Preserve club] right before it closed—I really liked the shows and the whole experience.”

Politically and economically America was also becoming a different place, and as with any time in history, popular culture, reflected the country’s climate. If the jamband scene felt like a reaction to the excess of carefree MTV ‘90s, the indie movement became the soundtrack to a country plagued by a sluggish economy and the insecurities of a post 9/11 world. Phish once sang, “Thoughts follow my vision and dance in the sun/All my vasoconstrictors they come slowly undone/Can’t this wait till I’m old?/ Can’t I live while I’m young?” And a few years ago MGMT seemed to update the same theme: “I’m feeling  rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life/Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives”…”This is our decision, to live fast and die young. We’ve got the vision, now let’s have some fun.”

The generation of music fans that came of age with the third-generation jambands like Leftover Salmon Galactic and The String Cheese Incident were also growing older and moving to urban pockets around the country—and their music started to reflect a different, and at times darker aspect of the coming of age experience. While the jam scene’s idealistic nature and freeform approach once felt like an appropriate soundtrack to young adulthood, many musicians’ tone began to shift in the face or harsher post-college realities. 

“Our band dabbled in jam stuff for a while, but there was this huge shift when college ended, and we moved to this big concrete city,” says Dead Confederate’s Hardy Morris. “Your friends are gone, and you are forced to decide if you want to play music for a living or get a job in some shitty city. Some of that carefree spirit and desire to show off your chops kind of went away—and with reality came heavy songs,”

Singer/guitarist Jason Isbell, a former member of the Drive-By Truckers who has sat in with Widespread Panic several times couldn’t agree more: The older I get, the more important songcraft becomes to me. When I was first learning to play and listen to music, instrumental virtuosity was attractive because it gave me something to emulate. I think as a listener wisens up, they always develop a stronger appreciation for songs. It becomes important to relate to someone else’s experiences rather than just escape from your own.”

Amrit Singh, the executive editor of the widely popular indie music website Stereogum, believes that blogs—perhaps the ultimate device in expediently sharing experiences with a mass audience—helped catalyze the indie movement (much like message boards united the jam community). And though his tastes have changed, Singh still occasionally references the communal experience of some of Phish’s more well-known concerts on his site: “You don’t go to Plattsburgh and The -Great] Went and spend one New Year’s under a giant udder ball at MSG and another with a choir singing “Bohemian Rhapsody’ in Boston without being intrigued by recent happenings.”

Musicians were also facing new challenges as the music industry’s paradigm shifted from selling albums to selling tickets and, suddenly, the festival circuit—the communal hallmark of the contemporary jamband scene—became an economical way for bands and emerging artists across all genres to reach thousands of new fans in a single day. After all, the Disco Biscuits aren’t that different from LCD Sound-system, just like Yonder Mountain String Band has a lot in common with The Avett Brothers. 

“It makes sense—[indie and jam] are both essentially styles of rock music, both tend to have a certain amount of sincerity and neither are particularly aggressive,” says Animal Collective wiz Brian “Geologist” Weitz who notes that he was wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt when he met his future Animal Collective partner David Portner. It seems like almost any genre can interface with the jam scene. 

“I feel like what I do is jamming,” says laptop DJ star Gregg “Girl Talk” Gillis who has made his name mashing up every genre under the sun (he also has a side-project called Trey Told ‘Em which he named after Phish’s lead guitarist). “I have certain songs I want to get to each night but how I get there is improvisation based on a certain structure. Animal Collective and Bat-tles are jambands to me, so I’d love to see them play festivals like Camp Bisco.”

Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, who grew up listening to the Grateful Dead and Traffic and later played at High Sierra music festival as a jazz musician thinks, “The fact that John Scofield is a hot on the jamband scene is a marvelous because there’s a guy who can actually play incredible music in a groove way. He can be electronic, he can be un-electronic—and the same goes for MMW who actually really improvise.”

Further genre blending can be seen with post-jambands like The Benevento/Russo Duo, The Slip and Brothers Past, as well as roots-oriented indie groups like Wilco and My Morning Jacket—all of whom were able to establish dual citizenship on both sides of the once great indie/jam divide.

2009 is poised to be the jam scene’s strongest year since 2004 with the return of Phish, The Dead, moe., the String Cheese Incident, the 40th anniversary of The Allman Brothers Band and new studio albums from both the Disco Biscuits and Umphrey’s McGee. Although Pitchfork will likely continue to hate on jambands in its own snarky way, there is no denying that the party line between indie and jam has loosened since the time when it felt controversial for Phish to cover Pavement.

“There used to be a harsh boundary between pink, pop and jam music,” Conlee reasons. “Now, it’s a blur and you have Ryan Adams playing three hour shows.” Ryan Kirkpatrick of Red Cortez, perhaps the only band to play High Sierra and tour with Morrissey in the same year, sees a similar fusion: “The migration that is happening is because the people no longer feel compelled to be myopic in their palate of musical taste. Remember the Monterey Pop Festival? Otis Redding, The Mamas & The Papas, Jimi Hendrix—it was happening back then!”

So, while you probably won’t hear MGMT bust out Phish’s Moma Dance” anytime soon, and Peter Walker isn’t going to fold Dangerbrid so he can go back on Dead tour, perhaps the time has finally arrived for the indie and jam scenes to purposefully rub elbows with one another.

“Segregation has existed too long between the jambands and the artsy-fartsy bands, and it doesn’t need to be there,” MGMT’s Richardson says with a smile before taking the stage at Bonnaroo last June in front of 10,000 people. “I just want to break down those barriers.”

Moments in a Box: Indie Royalty Wax Poetic on the Jam Scene

Hank Sullivant, Kuroma: “My first Phish show was July 29, 2998 outside of St. Louis. I had heard Junta at my summer camp, so [I] knew they had really long orchestrated songs but I didn’t know how much they improvised until they opened with this amazing 25-minute version of ‘Bathtub Gin.’ Andrew [VanWyngarden] and I were listening to so much Grateful Dead and Phish around them that our music sort of came off as jam-funk even though we had these really good funk arrangements.”

James Petralli, White Denim: “I grew up reading Relix and listening to everyone from Bill Frisell to Jimi Hendrix and The Allman Brothers Band. I like great riffs, and I like really technical rhythm changes a lot. Though it’s kind of taboo to take a long solo these days, I listened to Eat a Peach a couple days ago and was pretty thrilled by it again—I think we all really geek out on great playing.”

Nick Radford, Annuals: “High school was filled with Phish. I am also a huge Dave Matthews Band fan and some of the other guys in the band are too—same with Rusted Root. When I started taking music seriously I would try to imitate immediate Carter Beauford’s beats. The whole indie thing has become more popular so people started switching over to that, but jamband music is more fun to play.”

Jenny Conlee, The Decemberists: “Matt Butler recently asked me to play a show with the Everyone Orchestra, but I chickened out because last time he asked me it was Stanton Moore and all these heavy-hitters. I can’t hold [a candle]to the people who do that every day, but I do like to think that I can live in both worlds a little bit.”

Matthew Million, Department of Eagles: “A lot of indie bands cover The Dead, and I think it must be because so many people, who end up making all kinds of very different music, have a lot of affection for that band, and they have a lot of really, really good songs. AT SXSW, we covered “Fire on the Mountain,” but they were trying to cut us off before we even started that song, so we pretty much did it straight through like the record version, instead of the 10 minutes-plus we’d hoped to do, which was a bummer.”