Phish is For Lovers, “Bureau de Change!”, “First Sets are Absolutely In Play”: A Conversation with Longtime Phish Veterans Ali & Max Medina

Ali and Max share a moment in the rain underneath the Empire State Building after Saturday’s Strawberry show.

Read the Baker’s Beat’s third in a series of phan profiles (spoiler: it’s with two love birds and longtime California Phish aficionados) below. A big thank you to Max and Ali for opening up for this feature. Hope you enjoy it! 


Hello Baker’s Beat readers & Phish phans everywhere! It’s Tuesday, July 25th, otherwise known as jam-filled Tuesday. Here we are with another installment of our phan spotlight series and today we are being joined by Ali and Max Medina, two friends of mine that also hail from Oakland.

Welcome Max and Ali, thank you so much for joining me.

Ali: Thanks for having us.
Max: Thanks for having us.

Sure! Introduce yourself to our listeners and friends. Tell them where you’re from, what you do if you want to put that out there, and a little bit about your history or background with Phish.

A: I’m Ali Medina. I’m originally from LA but I came up to go to Cal, where I met Max in 1996. I graduated from Cal and Max and I have been here in Oakland since then. My background with Phish is kind of funny. I was a huge Grateful Dead fan and then Jerry died in ‘95, which crushed all of us. About 6-8 months later, I met Max and a bunch of my soon-to-be friends who were his crew and they got me into Phish very reluctantly. I didn’t want to jump on the Phish bandwagon, but ended up realizing after my first show how very different Phish and the Dead are. So I’ve been seeing them since December 1996.

M: Very similar to Ali, I grew up in Los Angeles and left in 1992 to go to Cal in Berkeley. I had never heard Phish growing up in Los Angeles and southern California, but within about a week, two weeks of being at Cal there was someone who was playing Lawn Boy on a CD in the dorm hall. “Split Open and Melt” was on and, it’s funny, that horn section that’s only on the studio album really caught my attention. I really geeked out on that album….. for about a year . The following summer, Phish came to Berkeley. In summer 1993 they ended their summer tour at the Greek, so a bunch of us went. The rest is history and Ali filled you in – I would meet her a few years later and reel her in, so to speak.

Wonderful! Long-timers for sure. I would love to hear your favorite moment, or pinnacle Phish experience, whether it’s from a show or not. What comes to mind in terms of your best memory or experience involving Phish?

A: For me, there have been so many frickin’ amazing experiences. I was thinking a little about this: I have a personal one, which is Max and I actually got engaged at a Phish show! I can’t help but snicker a little bit about that sometimes. It sounds so incredibly cheesey but it was very spur-of-the-moment and romantic during “Seven Below” at the Phish comeback show at Madison Square Garden. That was amazing.

And then, just in terms of my favorite show moment, oh my god. We went on Europe ‘97 Phish tour. It was my second through ninth shows. Right, Max? Something like that…

M: Mmmhmm, yep.

A: …and there was a moment in Prague during the “Antelope” where there was such a frenzy and a peak during that song. One of our friends that was with us turned around and starting yelling, “Bureau de Change!” because we had been traveling around these these countries before the Euro. It was such a moment of complete and utter joy. All that could come out of his mouth was “Bureau de Change!” That has been a rallying cry for our whole crew ever since then. Since 1997, twenty years later, if we’re at a Phish show together and he’s there, everybody turns around at one point and we’ll just starting yelling “Bureau de Change!” We still to this day don’t know what or why he said that, but it was such a funny thing. It was pretty much one of the best moments ever at a Phish show for me.

(All: Laughing)

M: For me, there’s a lot of pictures going through my head right now of seminal Phish moments in my life. My first show at MSG in ‘95 during that New Year’s run comes to mind. Ali’s first show, which was the 1996 summer tour closer – or no, excuse me: fall tour closer at the Aladdin Theater in Vegas with the “Harpua” encore. They brought out a bunch of special guests, it was a pretty wild night.

A: All the Elvises.

M: All the Elvises came out, that’s right. The Amsterdam show that summer of ‘97 that Ali talked about, those two…

A: Oh my god, amazing.

M:…were really, just incredibly psychedelic, just really out there. That was some really fun Phish at the Paradiso. That particular venue is this 500 year old church. The way the lights were playing on some of the stained glass in there made for some extra fun visuals and music. Those two nights, June or July of ‘97.

Obviously, for anyone who was at Big Cypress, that’s always going to be in the top of best Phish show moments. That whole experience was unbelievable. Obviously, getting engaged at MSG, like Ali mentioned. Those are some highlights for what has been a pretty long Phish career.

A: I would say too, Max, that most recently – Shawn, you remember this because we were working together at the time – when they played “Walfredo”…

M: Oh yeah! For Adam.

A:…for our friend Adam Berger who passed away way too early. We basically started a campaign. He ran a phan website: We started a grassroots campaign with all of our friends. It started with a blog post, then a Twitter campaign, then people started to actually run into band members and approach the guitar tech and Fishman’s drum tech and all these people. They fricking opened that show with “Walfredo” and in the middle said something like, “This is for you, Adam.” There was not a dry eye in the house. At that very moment, I was like: “These are the best human beings on the planet.” I can’t believe they would do that in his honor. I think that brought a lot of closure for a lot of our friends who – we just lost Adam really suddenly and too soon and tragically. I could choke up right now thinking about it.

Wow. What a collection of memories spanning a lot of different emotions and stages of your life. You’ve been seeing the band for over 2 decades. I’m curious if or how their music has aged on you over the course of time. For example, do you find yourself returning to certain eras or albums now that you didn’t find as compelling in the moment? Max, you mentioned “Split Open and Melt” and the horn section being a hook as an example of what got you into Phish. How has your appreciation of Phish changed since they came onto your radar?

M: It’s funny. I’m not one who’s very hypercritical about how the band is playing. I really have enjoyed all the eras. The music has most definitely changed. When I started seeing them in ‘93, then ‘94 with a little more of Machine Gun Trey-type of licks. The long, extended jams were not as common. I remember summer ‘94 when “Tweezer” was a pretty big vehicle, but now it seems like almost any song can go anywhere with the super extended soundscape that wasn’t present early on. I know there are some people who miss that era.

So I, for one, have enjoyed it all. I do go back to some of the early ‘90s stuff, before I even started seeing the band – 1990, 1991 era – every now and then because I’m amazed at how fast Trey could play back then. That may not be something he wants to do now, but back in some of those days and in some of those jams, his ability to go up and down the neck of that guitar, it was something super human. It was a rawer sound and not as full as it is now. Page has a lot more to work with now, so on and so forth. But especially from a musicianship standpoint, the stuff that they were doing in the early 90s is mind-boggling how fast they could play back then.

A: For me, I was really lucky when I came onto the scene. We went to Europe where they debuted 8 songs maybe…Max?

M: It was The Story of a Ghost, that whole set of songs they debuted that summer.

A: So I got to see the first versions – the first time they played those songs, we got to see them. That’s wonderful. I can’t even imagine that twenty years later I would still be listening to those songs and where they have evolved to. What they sounded like in Dublin at that first show, which was only my second Phish show with 200 people in the room – they don’t sound anything like that very first one because they’ve come so far.

I also feel like the beginning of my Phish life was downright dirty and funky Phish. It’s funny because it coincided with when we got into going to Jazz Fest and seeing band like Galactic and the New Orleans bands. I’m not one to parse songs. I think the hiatus was really good for them to take a break and really come back as a crisper version of themselves and of the music.

I don’t see as many shows as I used to, maybe three a year, since Makenna our daughter was born, in the last five years. We haven’t seen quite the volume we used to see. But I do notice that they’re slower with a lot of the songs. Even some of the stuff we just saw in New York, I was like, “Wow!”. The tempo is much slower and I’m really enjoying it. It was something that I remarked to myself during that Saturday show.

M: I would call it slower, sure, but there’s a lot more patience.

A: Yeah! Patience, right?

That’s a good way to put it. In terms of slower tempo, I can think of one moment immediately over this weekend. When they started “AC/DC Bag” during the second set on Sunday, I was like, “Whoa! Slow ‘AC/DC Bag’!” A few of the people around me were like, “It’s not any slower than it normally is!”. I’m like, “Yeah it is, it’s definitely slower!”.

A: I thought it was slower too!

There you go! They can get really slow and really funky, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a matter of dexterity. They are getting older, it’s a natural process.

Anyway, let’s fast forward to the present day. We just finished the first weekend of the Baker’s Dozen. We didn’t see the shows together but got to briefly check in before they kicked everything off on Friday. We had the opening night, of course, coconut. Saturday we had strawberry. Sunday we experienced red velvet. I’m wondering what you thought musically of the first weekend. What’s one or two things that stood out to you from the shows you saw opening weekend?

M: What stood out to me is first sets are absolutely in play. I don’t think this is going to be a run of shows where you’re only going to find these big jam vehicles occurring in the second set. There have been plenty of songs in the first set – the “Moma”, “It’s Ice, I’m sure I’m forgetting others – that have been extended and have gone off. At any point in any one of these shows – first set, second set – it’s not going to matter. There is always a chance for something really special to happen.

A: I’ll admit, the first half of the first night I wasn’t that in love with the song selection. I was prepping myself to sit back, thinking “Maybe this is going to be a really mellow weekend.” It’s the first weekend, maybe they’re going to take it slow. Then that totally changed halfway through the first set!

Then, Saturday: that was a really special show. The way they played, song selection. For me, “Cities” – we saw that song at a bunch of shows in Europe ‘97 where we met one of our best friends, Scott Bachman. He was at the show with us, at MSG, for that “Cities” on Saturday. I couldn’t help but feel so thankful and nostalgic. They raged that “Cities”, that whole encore was just a great way to go. I know everyone has their different opinions about what you prefer, but a lot of people I was with felt that the enormity of that whole night was…they did a great job.

I didn’t get to stay for Sunday, but I audio streamed it on a long drive to drop Makenna off down in Salinas. At one point, I was alone in the car and I felt myself go, “Yeaaaaah!”, and I looked around and realized I had shouted out loud like I was at the show. I was cracking up at myself, just bursting out like that in a moment. “That was sick!” I am always pleasantly happy. It’s hard for me to go an entire year without seeing them and being jazzed up when I go into that first show when I haven’t seen them in a whole year. They really did a great job, you guys are going to have such a great rest of the run.

I was telling everyone at the office on Monday morning, the first words out of my mouth were, “I am SO jealous of Shawn!” and everybody started laughing. “I wish I was Shawn! If I was 29, I would be Shawn right now!” They were all – Robert and all our co-workers – were cracking up.

It’s fun because the Baker’s Dozen is giving an opportunity for us to educate them a little bit about the band. Through the quirks, I think people on the outside are really interested. They can’t believe that: A). A band is doing 13 nights in one place; B). Theming it around these donut flavors; and C). Not repeating, at least up to this point, any of the songs. It’s fun to get the outside perspective for you to really appreciate how truly unique the experience is. That’s been my experience sharing it out with people at work, it’s been fun.

Max, I’m interested in what you expect for the rest of the residency. What are some possible arcs that are playing out in your mind for the rest of the Dozen?

M: I think the only expectation, honestly, is to have zero expectations at all. I’ll take that back – one expectation I have: I don’t think they’ll do any repeats. I think “Tweezer Reprise” will close the whole run. That’s about it.

It seems that the donut theme is really going to allow them to go wherever they want, whatever flavor it is. I would start Googling if there’s bands that have that flavor name, or songs or what have you. I think a lot of that’s in play. Like I said earlier, I think that anything can happen at any moment in this specific run just because there’s going to be so many songs (if they’re not going to do any repeats) to fill between now and the end that it’s going to provide for some really special moments to occur at any point. First set, second set, encore. It’s going to be a real treat.

Right. A couple things that come to mind related to the no expectations thing: I agree. What Phish does in general is they set us up to have certain expectations and set up certain routines, only to break them later and pull a fast one.

The first weekend there was, by my count, 3 songs per show that referenced the night’s theme. I believe each night it was two covers and one original. Part of me believes that they will, eventually, totally break that once people are comfortable. That may even been tonight with jam-filled. I just read a prediction in which the person guessed that they would play “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brothers and weave it throughout the second set.

Point being, the whole formula of three references to the theme each night…now I’m expecting them to break that routine, so maybe I’m not listening to my own advice, but I’m thinking that they’ll deviate from that a bit. I guess we’ll see.

M: They may deviate from that in terms of the exact number of songs, but I think that each set will have some kind of a reference to the donut. Tonight, that one’s up in the air because “jam filled” can go in so many different directions. I’m really curious to see how that’s going to play out.

Right. My last take on the repeats part: my favorite theory that I’ve read online is that they won’t do any repeats up until the last night. Then for night 13, everything is on the table. The experience would be this compressed version of the first 12 nights all in one night, drawing from everything that final Sunday. That seems conceivable to me as well.

M: Absolutely, I wouldn’t put that pass them.

To close, I’d like to ask you a hypothetical: If you could ask the band either: A). a question, or B). a song request, and you knew, it was guaranteed, they would answer the question or fulfill the song request, which would you pick and what would you ask?

M: I think I would go song request versus ask the band a question. I’d be torn. Like most Phish heads, I run my stats every now and then and have been chasing songs throughout my career. For the most part, I’ve seen every song I’ve wanted to see.

There is one that I haven’t seen that they stopped playing a long time ago. It’s a cover, a jazz standard called “Take the A Train” which I would love to see them play. That, or I haven’t seen “Harpua” in forever, so I would be torn between which one I would ask for. Most heads would say, “You have to ask for ‘Harpua’!”, but I might want to see the jazz standard “Take the A Train” get played, so I think that’s what I would ask for.
Max! You’re a man after my own heart. I was joking the other night about them playing “Take the A Train” because I’m up here in Inwood Park, the second to last stop on the A train. Every single day for the last week and every day for the next two weeks I’m going to be taking the A Train to Madison Square Garden. So, I was joking with my friends, “Oh! They should play that!” We got into the hypothetical and I said I wouldn’t actually put that request in, but damn would that be cool if they did play that. It would feel like it was a personal reference. That’s funny, we’re on the same frequency.

M: I feel that it’s the only song left that I’m chasing. My Phish career will be complete from a songs heard perspective if somehow they can sneak in a “Take the A Train” in there.

You’d think if they were to do it, it would be here at Madison Square Garden where the A Train is.

M: That’s right!

Max, thank you and Ali for joining us today. Have a wonderful rest of the summer. Enjoy the Baker’s Dozen from your living room and couch in Oakland. Again, thank you so much.

M: It was my pleasure, Shawn.