WELKERPEDIA: David, I’m kinda freaking out over here. This interview is the stuff of dreams as a fan of yours. Thank you immensely! RIFT is, without question, your most famous work. Many fans of Phish knew your work through that album and thumb-tacked poster for years before we knew your name. I know it hung above my bed through every apartment in college. Now that $10 poster is worth hundreds and the beautiful high-end art giclee is worth thousands. RIFT is big business in the Welker world. You sent your fans into cold sweats at the mention of the continuation of the series last fall, so thank you for satiating us today!
DAVID W: I think it’s important to satiate cold sweats and freak-outs with thumbtacks.
WELKERPEDIA: Let’s do a little background build-up first. You know we love the stories. We start with you in Boston in 1989 where you see Phish for the first time. Three years later, you catch them again at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City in 1992. In past talks, you’ve said it was that 1992 show when you really connected with the lyrics/mood of Phish and decided you wanted to reach out to them, right?
DAVID W: I had a flash moment during “Harry Hood” at Roseland in 1992. That song seems to inspire that sort of thing.
WELKERPEDIA: Totally. And you had an art show actively happening on Broome Street around the same time you saw them at the Roseland, which is how the LEVITATOR and STATEN ISLAND FERRY show cards came into play. You famously mailed those to Phish’s fan mail address, and then you got a message on your answering machine from Trey Anastasio, lead singer and guitarist for Phish, which eventually led to their request for you to do the album cover art for RIFT.
DAVID W: Yeah, it was fun driving up to Burlington the next day and seeing the postcards in this shoe box on the couch in the recording studio with a small pile of fan mail. Those were very different times.
WELKERPEDIA: Oh to be a fly on the wall while they fed you spaghetti and the concept behind RIFT! You said that each song is represented in the artwork for RIFT except “Horse.” Why is that again?
DAVID W: Well, the lyric sheet they sent me was famously missing “Horse,” and the band members seemed to all have other priorities as we developed the art, so that song got unintentionally snubbed. I remember asking Trey what the main character should look like and he said, “Think of Martin Sheen having that nervous breakdown in Saigon in Apocalypse Now.” And I remember Mike called a couple times with mental notes on how the mound should appear in the painting. He gave me a series of one line phrases. I recall one off hand: “A boy cut his bloody gum on the mound.”
WELKERPEDIA: LOL! I’m sure that was helpful. Okay, so I’m going to skip over the Billy Breathes album art and the multitude of gig prints you’ve done for Phish and stay with the RIFT-specific works. Flash forward to 2015 and the release of the follow-up image MOUND. This time it is a screenprint instead of a giclee, and we are 20+ years into the fictional future of the main character. What urged you to revisit him?
DAVID W: Well, this MOUND was a fan-based commission with the intent of revisiting the setting of the original piece from a different perspective. The song seems to suggest that if the main character does not choose love that he will continue to bury regrets in the metaphorical ground, and that as an old man he will be haunted by his decisions and actions. The song “All Things Reconsidered” leads into “Mound,” and the title implies that this is a moment of reckoning for the main character. The tone is very ominous and haunting, so the art reflects that.
WELKERPEDIA: And then later in 2015, with the re-release of RIFT as an album, you gave us APPROACHING A RIFT. What was your thinking on that one? The prominent horse is impossible to miss. (laughs)
DAVID W: The band commissioned this piece to go in the vinyl record sleeve. I think the edition was around 5,000 prints released at that summer’s Magnaball event. The concept was to represent that moment when the dream sequence starts to spin out of control.
WELKERPEDIA: If we are thinking in terms of a timeline for the RIFT character and this series, it would obviously begin with APPROACHING A RIFT, or before the break-up, when they still slept lengthwise and together. Then we have RIFT, where she’s clearly leaving via the back courtyard, and then twenty years later we have MOUND with the dilapidated house and continued refusal to confront his issues. Where do you envision this new piece, MAZE?
DAVID W: Well, I’m just beginning a conceptual drawing from the standpoint of the song “Maze” as another moment in the dream sequence when the main character has to come to terms with the mental loops and patterns we all struggle with. So we’re back inside the room when the maze itself starts to come alive and expand. The main character is the old man rowing his boat against the currents. The female character is shown in three stages of realization. She’s standing pensively in the doorway looking both inside and outside. Her image is also magnified onto the walls of the room as the man might consider her in a sort of dreamlike version of reality. And then she is again in the courtyard mirroring the phrase, “I spied wings of reason herself taking flight.” So again the hypothetical question is raised that the main character needs to somehow appease her or risk being stuck in the maze forever. Minotaur is in the maze waiting for him.
WELKERPEDIA: I love the inclusion of the obvious literary references to the Greek myth “Theseus and the Minotaur” and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, both works that allude to personal battles and confronting and working through one’s problems in the maze of human existence. Is it fair to say that MAZE falls somewhere between RIFT and MOUND in our protagonist’s life?
DAVID W: The album plays out like a series of realizations that cause self-reflection and decision-making. Tom Marshall doesn’t over-romanticize anything about this relationship. It’s a gritty and sordid story line with allusions to petty behavior and noble behavior. Between his lyrics and Mike’s lyrics on two of the songs, there is a dry, almost morbid, sense of humor about how the main character views his own treatment. More than once he describes skin being pulled back off the bone or scraped in a very injurious way. So I see this as a sort of midpoint of the dream sequence. And from my own experience seeing them play this live, it often seems to be played mid-set. I could be wrong about that, but it’s my recollection.
WELKERPEDIA: Incredible work as always. Does this conclude the RIFT series for you? Will there be more?
DAVID W: I feel like the first RIFT piece has affected many of my compositions on a subconscious level over the years, so it’s always alive in one way or another. I think this piece brings the story full circle for me, so I’d say yes, this is the last one.
WELKERPEDIA: Okay, now for some print specifics: Will this be a painting and then a giclee? Or straight to screenprint? Are there still plans for this to be a timed edition? Any idea on time frame? Will you take my money now?
DAVID W: Right now it’s just a conceptual drawing. I’d like to see where the drawing winds up visually before making any decisions about other mediums or editions. I’m hopeful that it will eventually become something that I can share with collectors.
WELKERPEDIA: David, thank you, as always, for taking time with us. It’s always a pleasure. MAZE is a beautiful conclusion to this 20+ year RIFT odyssey, and I know I speak for many when I tell you I’m glad you’ve been the captain of this ship. We look forward to many more artistic journeys with you at the helm.
DAVID W: Thanks to everyone for caring about my work!