Over the past year, NBC News‘ Katy Tur has left an indelible mark on the Phish community. When her life as the go-to, on-the-road correspondent covering the Trump campaign came to an end in late 2016, Tur shifted into the role of anchor, holding down her very own hour each afternoon on MSNBC, which she promptly started filling with tongue-in-cheek references to Phish lyrics. The fun quotes, presented as a sort of inside joke, quickly made their way around the internet and turned Tur into one of the most visible public Phish fans in the community.
With the release of her book Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, Tur details her months on the road covering over five-hundred Trump rallies on the way to Donald Trump’s unlikely election. The book also describes how being a verbal punching bag for Trump and his supporters led her to rediscover her love of Phish. Recently, our own Gideon Plotnicki spoke with Tur about Unbelievable, her on-air lyrical references, her favorite show from this summer’s Baker’s Dozen residency at Madison Square Garden, and a variety of other Phish-related topics. See below for the interview in full, and keep watching MSNBC Live with Katy Tur at 2:00 PM!
Live For Live Music: In your book, you make reference to turning on a Phish song when you get on the plane to come back from the Trump campaign. It alludes to the fact that, after such a long journey, that it kind of led you to re-discover the love for Phish that you had in college. Would you say that’s a fair assessment? Was there something about that specific timing in your life that pushed your love of Phish to the forefront?
Katy Tur: It’s definitely a fair account. At the end of the campaign, in the press, we were getting screamed at and getting spit on and called liars. People would literally walk up to the press pen and stick up their middle fingers at us, or they would say condescending or inappropriate things, or they would yell, “You’ve gotta put on more makeup because you’re ugly!” I mean, just hideous things. I felt like the world was a really heavy place, and I wasn’t finding the everyday little joys in things that I used to.
Not to sound hippie-dippy, but I thought back to being seventeen and sitting on a beach—I think I was in Fiji with my parents who were covering the Mier Space Shuttle that was re-entering the atmosphere. At that point, I was heavily into Phish. I remember listening to Billy Breathes and thinking, “What a great soundtrack to life.” I mean, it was beautiful—the area was beautiful, I’m full of hope, I’m a teenager and haven’t been beaten down by life quite yet. I also would listen to Billy Breathes in my car as I was driving around Los Angeles—I just thought it was a really beautiful album to look at the world with.
So, when I’m sitting in the press pen, and Backstreet Boys—not that I don’t like Backstreet Boys—but Backstreet Boys is being played on loop at 95 decibels, I’m losing my mind—my fingers are clenched, I’m gritting my teeth, I’m five hundred days into the campaign, I live out of a suitcase. I just racked my brain to find a way to calm myself down. And I was looking through my phone, and I thought “I’ll listen to Billy Breathes again. It’ll cool me off.” So, I re-downloaded the album, and I stuck my earphones as deep as they went into my ears, and I would play that album at eleven. Suddenly, the arena that I would be in—the Trump rally—would be transformed, and I would walk around in what felt like a very different space. It kind of got me through the end of the campaign. It’s silly, but it helped me relax and helped me re-center myself, I guess.
L4LM: You’re very visible and have let your love of the band become part of your public persona. Are there any other people at NBC or in the news world that are also Phish fans?
KT: Yeah, it’s so crazy. I tweeted something about Phish, and I got quickly welcomed into a group of Phish fan journalists in New York City—there’s a whole listserv among us and we’re constantly sending live concerts, live recordings, articles, or rumors about upcoming shows to each other. There’s also a bunch of other phans at NBC, but they’re all behind the scenes and not on-air people. You would recognize Jake Sherman from Politico—he’s always on my show. Steve Lacy, the anchor of Fox 5 in New York City at 10:00 PM. Robert Costa from the Washington Post—he’s very earnest and serious, but he’s actually a huge Phish fan. There are a few others: The editor of Gothamist, Jen Carlson. They’re out there!
L4LM: We’ll have to start reading all of their articles and watching all of their news pieces for Phish references!
KT: Exactly! We’re trying to make Kasie Hunt here at MSNBC into a fan because she has a new show on Sundays called “Kasie D.C.”, and I have decided to name it “Kasie/D.C. Bag”.
L4LM: This Phish scene is very niche, so your public persona makes you into somewhat of a celebrity within the scene. Outside of the Phish scene, you’re on television and seen by millions of people every day. Is there a difference in your celebrity in the everyday news world versus the Phish world, and is there stuff that you like or don’t like about either?
KT: Well, I will take issue with the wording of it. I don’t think journalists are celebrities. If people know and are familiar with my work, I’m super happy about it. When people stop me on the street, they will reference either my book or something I did on the campaign trail or on my show, and I think that is awesome. That means they’re paying attention to the reporting and they’re engaged in the political dialogue, and that is wonderful. When I’m at a Phish concert and the same thing happens, I’m also really excited, although I’m completely stunned by it! I cannot believe that so many Phish fans are big MSNBC viewers.
L4LM: Maybe it shouldn’t surprise you that many Phish fans are bleeding-heart liberals.
KT: I wouldn’t classify all MSNBC viewers as bleeding-heart liberals, I would be at Trump rallies, and people would come up to me and say, “Oh, I saw you on TV with Chris Matthews. You know, we really like you, and we know you really love Trump!” A lot of people in the Trump administration actually secretly love Rachel Maddow. Rachel is so smart. She makes her points in a very thoughtful way, and she’s never calling anyone names—it’s hard to not like her.
L4LM: Going back to the very first time you included Phish references in your show, was this something you let your producers know was going to happen? Did it happen on the fly?
KT: I think the first time—and I might be muddying the waters in my brain because I have a tough time remembering what I had for lunch on a daily basis—I had discovered that Jake Sherman was a Phish fan. Jake was on my show, and all of a sudden, as I was tossing to him, it popped into my head to say, “’My Friend, My Friend’, Jake Sherman,” and you can see on his face that he’s trying hard to contain himself. And then he came back with “Bouncing Around The Room,” I think, and that was how it was born.
Or, it could’ve been when we used to have to do these very silly viewer polls on my hour. There would be questions on all sorts of topics, and there was one day where the question was about legalizing Marijuana, either in Colorado or potentially nationally, and I saw it as a good opportunity to [laughs] embed some Phish lyrics—for reasons that nobody can understand. I don’t remember what the script exactly said, but there was “run like an antelope out of control”—there was a bunch of stuff in there. I was new to anchoring, and one of my bosses called my executive producer and said, “Wow! Katy is really having a lot of fun with this today.” He had no idea what I was talking about, but he liked my enthusiasm!
L4LM: There was a quick response to your Phish references from the internet, as well as from Live For Live Music and other websites and publications that cover Phish and jam bands and live music. You decided to continue including references in your show; did you let your producers in on what was going on in terms of the response you were getting? Clearly, once Meet The Press started tweeting about your references, at some point NBC had to have been clued in.
KT: Yeah, unfortunately, I think they were a little too bang on the nose with that. I was like, “No! C’mon! It’s subtle, you can’t just tell everyone!”
L4LM: If Meet The Press is tweeting about it, the shark may have been jumped, so to speak.
KT: I think a few people said that when that went out, and I was like, “Oh no, I gotta pull back!” My producers certainly caught on—it was hard not to because I would just say these totally random things that seemed so out of left field. In the end, they were on board with it and thought it was funny. They mostly rolled their eyes. I don’t have another Phish fan on my staff—I’m working to convert them but so far I haven’t had any takers. They’re cool with it, MSNBC is totally cool with it, too. A couple of guys in the marketing department are big Phish fans, and they cut a promo of me dropping Phish lyrics and put it online saying, “This is how we Phish for stories” or something. The video found its way to the band, and apparently, the band was watching all of the lyrics drop while they were backstage for the Baker’s Dozen—they got a kick out of it, I’m told.
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) September 5, 2017
L4LM: I wouldn’t be shocked to see you end up interviewing Phish at some point soon.
Katy Tur: Oh please, that’d be my dream come true! I would die. I would have to make sure Jake Sherman could sit-in on it with me so we could tag-team it.
L4LM: If you can get the Trump interview, I think you can get the Trey interview.
KT: I feel like the Trey interview is much more difficult, but I would try.
L4LM: Everyone is always wondering about people’s stats—how many shows they’ve been to, what’s their favorite, etc. So, I have a couple of different questions about that. First of all, when was your first show?
KT: Valentine’s Day 2003—it was at The Forum in Los Angeles. I went with my college boyfriend, and it was the most fun I had ever had in my life. And then they went on hiatus, and they abandoned me! So I went to a bunch of Trey concerts when he was touring, including one at The Greek Theatre. And then, you know, I fell out of touch because Phish was gone for so long, and I moved to New York and got into news. News kind of took me away from Phish. We’re such dorks in this business—we’re not cool dorks, we’re regular dorks—so I lost touch with Phish. They would come to New York for New Year’s Eve, and I would stare longingly at Ticketmaster, but then I was like, “No one’s going to go with me.” None of my friends would go!
L4LM: I don’t think you’d have that problem anymore!
KT: Listen to this! So I had one vacation over the summer, and it was on Cape Cod. I was standing on the beach, and my fiancé and his two kids were building a giant sandcastle and a big moat around the sandcastle. There’s something about holding a shovel and digging a hole on a beach that attracts other fathers, and so these other dads kept coming up and talking. Somehow, one of the dads mentioned Phish, and we became friends just because he was a big Phish fan. We ended up going to a bunch of Phish shows together during the Baker’s Dozen. So, it all worked out well!
L4LM: What was the first show you attended after re-discovering the band?
KT: Holes and Boston Cream nights during the Baker’s Dozen were my first two shows back. Boston Cream was awesome.
L4LM: Moving on, what is your favorite Phish song?
KT: I love “Divided Sky,” although I’ve never seen them play it live. I specifically love versions where they include part of the All In The Family theme.
L4LM: What’s your favorite jam or show to listen back to?
KT: I really enjoyed listening back to all of the Baker’s Dozen shows this summer, specifically Boston Cream, I’ve listened back to that a few times. My go-to is the Hampton Comes Alive box set. It’s filled with really, really great versions of many of their songs. It has an awesome “The Mango Song”—I love that song.
L4LM: Finally, what’s the one Phish song or experience that you’re chasing?
KT: For my real fantasy to be fulfilled, I want to see Gamehendge. When they play their last show ever, they have to play Gamehendge in its entirety.