Interview: Phish Touring Team Rep Mike Rutz

Mike Rutz is one of our Phish Touring Team Representatives. Previously, Mike registered voters with HeadCount on Dave Matthews Band tour in 2004 and Jack Johnson tour in 2008. Mike wants to see young people become more active in shaping society. To volunteer with Mike at Phish head here.

HeadCount: Tell us a little about yourself and the tour you are on.

Mike: I have been a volunteer with HeadCount since pretty much the beginning. I’ve volunteered at tons of shows--too many to count. I’ve also done two other previous tours. I did Dave [Matthews Band] in 2004 and Jack Johnson in 2008. So currently I’m on the Phish tour. I’m going to be doing both legs, so East Coast and West Coast basically.

When you started, George W. Bush was seeking a second term. Now Barack Obama is completing his second. How, from your perspective, has the political vibe of the country changed during that span?

I would say that things have definitely gotten more partisan even since George W. Bush was the president. So it seems like issues have become even more polarized and seen more black and white and less with nuance. So I have noticed that, but I also have noticed that President Obama encouraged a lot more younger people to get out the vote and I believe also even you could consider the current presidential race where Bernie Sanders also inspired a lot of young people to get involved. So I would say that young people are more engaged probably than they were previously so that’s good, and then I would say also that there continues to be probably some barriers to some people registering to vote or even getting to their polling place and voting. Those are just some things that I’ve definitely been paying attention to over the past ten or fifteen years.

How has HeadCount changed since you first started doing this?

They’ve become a completely well-oiled machine I would say. They’re extremely professional – not that they weren’t before – but they have taken a lot of effort to create an image that has resonated with bands and musicians, an image that has resonated with fans, and an image that’s resonated even with our political representatives. Their name is out there, they have a really positive image.

People think that what we do is really important and people are really supportive and I think that’s due to the hard work that Andy and everyone else have engaged in since the early 2000s to make HeadCount not only the biggest voter registration organization, but also one that has an extremely good reputation with people who’ve come in contact with it. I’ve even noticed little things since 2004: we have a lot more branding, we have a lot more structure. Of course that’s always going to happen over the long-term, but those are some things I believe that HeadCount’s worked really hard to achieve and they’ve definitely accomplished that.

What do you do outside of HeadCount?

I’m a Professor of Sociology in Richmond, Virginia so volunteering with HeadCount absolutely fits in with my goal to make students more engaged with society, civically engaged specifically, and hopefully to get them to become more active citizens and shape the society that they want to live in so I think that this is just one way that I can get people to do that. Then I take these experiences into the classroom and use that to help my instruction of students so there’s definitely some overlap there. I also volunteer at a community radio station in Richmond so I do local music reviews, DJing, community events, and stuff like that. That’s kind of like my other volunteer gig.

Why did you sign up for this? What motivates you?

I believe that the upcoming election people are really passionate about it, people are really involved. But I think that even when you have the passion and you’re involved it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve been registered to vote. It doesn’t mean that you know about voting. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to vote so I think that we can--on this tour especially--translate that interest in the election into higher voter turnout and I feel that my experience on other tours and my experience with HeadCount over the years is beneficial to hopefully making this a very successful voter registration tour and making sure everything runs smoothly. I thought my experience could really help get people registered and, in an election year where people are paying attention a lot, making sure that that voter registration translates to an increase in actual voting.

What is your favorite memory of this tour so far?

I’d say probably SPAC (Saratoga Performing Arts Center). It’s kind of funny, my favorite memory originates from actually a pretty tough night. On the first night of SPAC it downpoured. We set up our tent, our table, and broke them down in downpours. It was really good because what it did is actually – we met a couple of volunteers who did that with us and they became really close partners to us. They were there to help us that night and then they came back and registered voters the next night and the next night, and we might see them at a couple of other shows on this leg of the tour and so we really built some strong relationships with volunteers who are obviously very dedicated so I made some really good friendships and connections that night. Then Phish came out knowing that people had withstood this downpour and they were on fire that night. In fact, they actually played Fire by Jimi Hendrix. About the time I said, “they’re on fire tonight,” they played that song. So all in all, we started at kind of a low point: getting drenched in the downpour and all of our stuff getting wet but it really turned into a positive thing. And then of course the rest of the weekend was really fun too.