This piece was originally published in early 2021 but has since been updated.
Chuck Gagne thinks it was maybe in 1992 when he got his first Phish t-shirt, a shirt he may or may not have stolen from his older brother who was (and still is) a big fan of the band. As younger brothers are prone to do, Gagne eagerly listened to the music his big bro was into and very quickly became a fan himself. In 1997, Gagne attended his first Phish show, The Great Went in Limestone, Maine.
“My parents surprised me with tickets,” Gagne said. “My very patient and generous sister got to watch after me, her 12-year-old culture-shocked younger brother. Ha!”
As the years went on, Gagne, originally from way up at the top of Maine, continued following Phish and began forging his own musical path. He and a couple of his fellow northern Maine dudes descended upon Portland in the early ’00s, forming the psychedelic rock group Dominic and the Lucid. About a decade or so later, Gagne was participating in Spencer Albee’s annual Beatles celebrations at Portland’s State Theater before joining The Mallet Brothers Band towards the middle of the century’s second decade.
The Mallet Brothers Band formed somewhere around 2010 and over the course of the decade have developed a solid following both in their home state of Maine and in pockets of the country, winning people over with their gritty, shit-kicking version of alt-country mixed with a touch of sittin’-round-the-campfire-ready folk music. For the most part, the band members weren’t big Phish guys with the exception of Gagne, so they were all collectively a little surprised when Jon Fishman, Phish’s drummer, reached out to them in May of 2016, asking to stop by a show of theirs to stump for then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and sit in on a few tunes.
From that point on, a friendship developed between Fishman and the band. They connected while both playing shows in New York City a few months later and in the fall of 2017, when the general store in Lincolnville, Maine that Fishman and his wife had purchased and re-opened hosted a grand opening party, the band set up and played with Fishman again sitting in. Fishman would even later sub in for Gagne a show at a fair in Maine when the drummer couldn’t make it.
“After (the store opening), we were partying, hanging out with Jon, when we started talking about maybe doing a little tour together someday,” said Will Mallett, one of the brothers at the center of the band. “We didn’t think much of it, then we got a call from our booking agent saying Jon wanted to do a tour.”
During breaks from touring, it’s pretty standard for the members of Phish to hit the road on their own and with the band having some time off in the spring of 2018, Fishman wanted to head out with his new friends The Mallet Brothers Band. And this wasn’t a situation where Fishman would swing by shows, traveling on his own in a style he was more accustomed to. He’d be hoping in the van with everyone else.
“Everything was just seemingly quite natural for the most part (besides the fact that I’d have to pinch myself every once in a while to make sure it was really happening,” Gagne said, adding that yes, “it really happened.”
It wouldn’t be a long tour; just a short little jaunt up and down the east coast with stops in New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland in addition to a hometown show in sunny Portland, Maine. Besides getting to reap the benefits musically of bringing in a second drummer, the inclusion of Fishman gave the band the opportunity to play some bigger rooms, such as Brooklyn Bowl in New York City.
Fishman was a quick study of the band’s material with Gagne in the wild position of teaching parts to someone he had looked up to for the majority of his life. The two talked drums, various drummers they liked and Gagne did his best to play it cool when Fishman would compliment one of his parts in a song. Or as Gagne said, “I’d explode on the inside but just try and play it cool.”
From a sound standpoint, the band had always steered heavily toward their southern rock/alt-country side when performing live and with two drummers on stage, they did so more than usual. They also elected to open things up more than they normally would, letting Gagne and Fishman take songs in directions they wouldn’t normally go. They weren’t going to become Phish by any means, but they were looking to explore some new musical terrain, something that both sides talked about before heading out.
“We’re not going to change our sound to be more like Phish,” Mallet said at the time. “And he doesn’t want to change our sound.”
As far as good people to hang out with, any Phish fan would quickly tell you that Fishman is at the top or damn near close to the top of their list and after touring with him. That would totally make sense if you asked Gagne, who fondly recalls sitting in the van with Fishman in a hotel parking lot until 6am drinking Tequila and blasting King Crimson. It’s all fun and games until the hotel staff comes out and tells you to take things inside though. At a show in Maryland, Gagne fondly recalls that when his fellow drummer hit the stage, he “wore a cheap, orange fedora made of plastic and a pink feathery boa,” a look that is actually kind on brand for Fishman, a man known to rock a crazy outfit or three.
Now a couple years later, Gagne is fresh off a run playing drums for another popular Maine band, The Ghost of Paul Revere as the Mallets original drummer, Brian Higgins rejoined the group a year or so ago. In October of 2019, both Gagne and Fishman joined the band on stage in Portland as they celebrated their tenth anniversary.
But for the band and Gagne, their time spent traveling and playing with Fishman left on a mark on them. For the Mallet Brothers Band, Luke Mallet (the other brother) later said that the shows with Fishman “helped get us into some rooms we wouldn’t have played and expand our audience.” Adding that “it was a pretty fun time.” The Mallet Brothers Band released their seventh studio album Gold Light on in 2021 and continue to tour regularly.
Gagne remains in contact with Fishman, albeit sparingly. For the most part, their communication usually involves Gagne dropping Fishman a line to see if he’s heard of an obscure band that came across his radar or knew of a certain drummer.
“I sent him a clip of JD Beck. He hadn’t heard of him, and then we both went off about how the kid is so good it’s maddening. I won’t repeat exactly what he said, but it was hilarious.”
Some of the lessons Gagne learned from the Phish drummer definitely stuck with him. Yet the lessons were often not delivered in words but by actions. Gagne said that any words of advice or nuggets of wisdom were expressed “mostly by example,” add that Fishman “was always so cool, down to earth, and extremely humble.”
“The guy is wildly successful, but he never made anything about him. It was always about how he could play into what we were doing as a band, or how he could support what I was doing on drums. He could have, at any time, just taken over on the kit and steamrolled what I was doing. He never did that. He only added to or highlighted what I was playing. He’s just a brilliant musician in that regard.”
Fishman also stressed to Gagne that above all, what matters the most is the song. If the song is good, then “once you have that, the possibilities are infinite. Without a solid foundation and structure, it makes it difficult to explore options and really expand on them.”
Songs are important and all, but we should never diminish the importance of a good feather boa and cheap fedora.
With both drummers out traveling the country on a regular basis, there’s bound to be a text exchange or two and if luck would have it for Gagne, a hotel parking lot out there suitable for late-night Tequila-drinking and King Crimson-blasting sessions. Yet even if that doesn’t happen, Gagne still considers himself “the luckiest drummer I know, to have had that opportunity” to play alongside Fishman, something that young 12-year-old Chuck wouldn’t have believed possible.
And let’s be honest. Gagne definitely stole that shirt from his older brother but it’s cool, we won’t say anything.