Farmer, Father, Drummer, Pol

Jon Fishman

Photograph by Rene Huemer.

In Lincolnville, Phish percussionist Jon Fishman marches to many beats.

By Will Grunewald

Phish formed at University of Vermont in 1983. Its members based in Burlington for years. Ben & Jerry’s named a flavor for them. So, all in all, the group is pretty Vermont-y. But the hard-touring jamband has a long history in Maine too. A 1991 show at an Auburn farm set the template for decades of famously madcap Phish festivals. From 1997 to 2003, the band played three such festivals at the former Loring Air Force Base, in Limestone, each drawing more than 60,000 fans.

In 2006, drummer Jon Fishman and his wife, Briar Lyons, bought a farm in Lincolnville. Now, they’re raising their five kids, tending 30 acres of organic blueberry barren, and running the nearby Lincolnville General Store. Lyons serves on the school board, Fishman on the select board. And Fishman lately dipped into statewide politics, popping up on TV to advocate for ranked-choice voting. Before setting out on a tour that includes two nights in Bangor, Jon Fishman stepped away from his drum kit to talk about how Maine became home.

Why move to Lincolnville?

Maine was such a huge part of Phish’s formative years, but I never imagined I’d end up a resident. That’s marriage, you know? My wife’s family has a lot of connections to the area. When Phish [temporarily] broke up in 2004, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but Briar had ideas about wanting to farm, to provide food for our family, and I was game for that. We found the farm down a dead-end road in Lincolnville. It’s beautiful.

How’s the farm doing?

Our blueberries had a banner year last year. We got at least 8,000 pounds off the field. Previous years, there were still a lot of weeds out there. To be honest, I did not pick a single weed myself — I don’t want my wife to read this and go, “What are you talking about? You didn’t effing weed!” We also have a milking cow, and we do wool and meat from sheep. It’s a working farm, even though it’s not our main livelihood. On the whole, I think the farm is a little bit in the red, but it’s putting the land to good use.

And you have the general store.

Well, when the kids are at school, I’m pretty much drumming. These days have been some of the best of my whole life in terms of practice and development. So the store is really Briar’s domain. It demands a lot of her time and energy. Sometimes, I loiter — that’s my involvement. My only input is like, “Hey, can you guys make that curry chicken salad again?”

How’d you get into town government?

I was always spouting off about stuff, and the woman who manages our store is the head of the select board. She started working on me: “Hey, you’ve got a lot of opinions. Why don’t you run for select board?”

Any broader political ambitions?

I don’t think so, but I’ll always go to bat for ranked-choice voting. It gets me really mad when someone like [former congressman] Bruce Poliquin gives the impression that ranked-choice voting is somehow partisan. I mean, in ’92, with Perot running, Bush could have beaten Clinton with it. In 2000, with Nader running, Gore could have beaten Bush. Poliquin is a smart man, and he’s lying to the public.

Are local politics any more civil?

You know, being on select board is kind of like being in a band. The reason Phish is doing well today isn’t because we’re a great band and we’re great musicians. It’s because we actually all love each other. We can still hang out. That’s why we’re writing some of our best material now. When bands only play songs from 20 years ago, it’s because they can’t stand each other and don’t want to write anything together. So, on select board, I get to apply skills that, lo and behold, I developed from being in the band: you have to put care into personal relationships. On social media, it’s like we’re all a bunch of animals. Face to face, we still reach for our better selves.

There’s a sense of community.

Here, I became part of a community for the first time since Phish formed. For more than 20 years, I was on the road. Then, from ’06 to ’09, while there was no band, I think what happened is that Briar and I planted roots, and the roots took. For a while, once the band was back, we moved between Vermont and Maine like 12 or 13 times — it was nuts. We actually put the farm on the market, but it’s a big property, and it’s midcoast Maine, so it sat for a long time. And every time we moved to Vermont, we moved to a different place. Every time we moved to Maine, we moved back to the same farm. There was even a betting pool in town about how long it’d take until we came back — money changed hands. By the time of our last move, it was like, “Who are we kidding? This is home.”


Will Grunewald

Will Grunewald is a senior editor at Down East magazine.