Phish Fans and Juggalos: New Book Explores Unexpected Similarities

Author and former Onion writer Nathan Rabin talks to THR about his experiences with two of music's most fascinating subcultures.

When Nathan Rabin, the former head writer of satirical publication The Onion's decidedly non-ironic criticism pages known as the A.V. Club, decided to research a book project on derided musical subcultures, he never thought he'd be dragged into those scenes himself.

The tome that resulted, You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures With Two of Music's Most Maligned Tribes, is both a love letter to the two disparate groups (Rabin proves they're more similar than one would think), and a sort of Gonzo therapy session for the author, who realizes while in between shows and acid trips that he might be crazy in love with his girlfriend -- and just plain crazy, himself.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Rabin in Chicago to find out if he's still on board the Phish boat, how to prepare for your first Gathering of the Juggalos, and whether he thinks fans of the two bands are truly mental.

The Hollywood Reporter: It's hard to think of two bands more diametrically opposed than Phish and ICP. Was there an aha moment when you realized their similarity, in terms of a misunderstood fan base?

Nathan Rabin: Well, originally the focus of this book was a lot bigger and a lot broader; it was going to be about fans of cultures in general. It was going to be about Phish. Then you’ve got Insane Clown Posse. It was going to be about my experiences on Jam Cruise, and Disco Biscuits festivals, and the Kid Rock cruise and the Motley Cruise as well. So it was going to be about all these weird subculture-y things. It took me a year of writing a book to realize I had no idea what I was doing, and that I completely lost the plot. And I kind of entered into this period of addition by subtraction, and I figured out what I didn’t need, and I figured out what I did, and I kind of pared everything down to the very core. And what was at the very core was Phish, and Insane Clown Posse, and myself -- and that connection and sense of community.

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THR: Why did you settle on ICP rather than, say, Kid Rock?

Rabin: I felt an incredible disconnect from Kid Rock fans. I felt like I was looking at them as an anthropologist, as a sociologist, and I was kind of looking at them through a lens of irony, and a lens of superiority. That was an interesting factor -- and was actually the last thing that got cut out of the book. But the tone of it was wrong because I didn’t connect with them on an emotional level. I didn’t see myself in those Kid Rock fans. I felt like one of the things that Phish and Insane Clown Posse share -- beyond the sense of community [and] the honest, incredibly devoted fan base -- is that they both unintentionally freed me from myself.

THR: The book is also about a relationship -- but your girlfriend, Cadence, doesn't come to the Phish shows with you, even though she introduced you to the band. Was that purposeful?

Rabin: Almost nothing was on purpose. Orson Welles has the famous line, “Directors preside over accidents.” You don’t have control over what you do, it just kind of happens spontaneously -- and that’s entirely what happened with this book. It is a collection of bad mistakes, judgments, wrong turns and horrible errors in judgment. Frankly, Cadence and I were broke, she had to work. She couldn’t take the time off. I think she also didn’t realize what a terrible state I was in. I think I didn’t realize what a good job I did at holding it together, or at least pretending to hold it all together, until I realized that “Oh yeah, I’m having a nervous breakdown.” I’m also kind of glad that she didn’t accompany me because I made a lot of terrible mistakes that she would have prevented me from making, had she been there. Yeah, had I done things the right way, it would have been a really boring book about a guy who left every show at 10 o’clock because he was tired and had to get up early and drive to another town the next day. I made it a whole lot more interesting by driving myself nearly insane.

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THR: Were you intimidated going to your first Gathering? The Juggalo seem seems scary from the outside.

Rabin:  Beyond all the face paint, they’re a lot of latchkey kids from broken homes who’ve had very difficult lives, and don’t have a whole lot. And the music and this community means a lot to them, and gives them something to look forward to, something to identify with, something to find themselves with. So it didn’t take me long to realize, “Oh my God, these are overwhelmingly really nice people, and they just want to be understood. They want to not be reviled. They want understanding and acceptance.” And I think that’s what everybody wants -- all of humanity. Hopefully, with my book, I'd like to try and make them be understood a little better.

THR: So what tips would you have for someone's first Gathering?

Rabin: First of all, don’t be scared. Don’t think you’re going to be sexually assaulted. Don’t think you’re going to get stabbed. Don’t think you’re going to get shot. Something bad happens at the Gathering every year, but that’s because it’s a music festival. Everybody I know who’s gone to a Gathering --  they’ve all had positive experiences. I’ve never met anybody who’s like, “Yeah, I went there as an outsider, and everybody was super mean to me." If you open yourself up to these people and to the experience, then you will have a good time.

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THR: Similarly, what about someone's first Phish show?

Rabin: If you go to a Phish show expecting them to play four-minute songs with really strong melodies, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

THR: What's been the response from fans on both sides, now that the book is out?

Rabin: So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, which is really surprising to me. I thought a lot more people would have problems with the book. I thought there’d be a lot more hostility. I thought there’d be more, “What the fuck are you doing? What possible connection do these groups have?” But for the most part, people have really, really understood it, and it’s been really wonderful, especially with the Phishheads. I actually recently saw the brother of an ex-girlfriend of mine, and I never really bonded with him while I was dating his sister. He was a Phishhead and a Deadhead, but he was just kind of this stoic, kind of quiet, internal guy, that I didn’t really connect with before, so it was really interesting to see him come to a reading. He was so happy that I had written about Phish. He felt that I had done justice to the experience of falling in love with Phish, and falling in love with that community, and discovering that there’s this whole world out there that can bring you incredible, incredible joy and togetherness.

Twitter: @THRMusic