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Phish - New York Times article


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***This article on Phish was taken from the Sunday's NY Times.***

Phish Is Happily Reunited to Go Against the Grain




On a Tuesday afternoon in early November, Phish didn't look like a band on a deadline. It had exactly one day to finish mixing its new album, "Round Room." Elektra Records was rushing to release the album on Dec. 10, three weeks before Phish's return to performing — after a two-year absence — with a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve.

Yet Phish, a notoriously meticulous band, wasn't agonizing over last-minute details. "These rough mixes seem to be turning into album cuts," said Bryce Goggin, the band's producer. Trey Anastasio, Phish's guitarist and lead singer, was on the telephone with Mike Gordon, Phish's bassist, who was in nearby Burlington, on tour with the guitarist Leo Kottke. "We're kind of un-mixing right now," Mr. Anastasio told him. Jon Fishman, Phish's drummer, was touring with his band Pork Tornado.

While Page McConnell, Phish's keyboardist, conferred with Mr. Goggin, Mr. Anastasio showed a visitor around the Barn, the studio where "Round Room" was made almost inadvertently. In true jam-band fashion, Phish is reappearing with a combination of strategy and serendipity.

The Barn is a century-old barn that Mr. Anastasio has moved and reconstructed on a hillside with a panoramic mountain view. The interior is dotted with architectural artifacts: a stained-glass window here, a carved Indian doorway there and an iron-mesh catwalk overhead. With its homey exterior and the eccentric touches within, the Barn is a lot like the genial and intricate music Phish has been making since 1983. "It's an improv barn," Mr. Anastasio said.

At a time when recording companies are struggling to fabricate blockbuster hits, Phish is a countermodel, with modest recording and promotion budgets, profitable album sales, insatiable fans and a symbiotic relationship with the Internet. Although its albums are released by a major label, Phish doesn't depend on radio hits or music videos; it makes its living primarily by performing. Phish has not become a pop phenomenon like its fellow jammers the Dave Matthews Band, yet it dependably sells half a million copies of each studio album. ("Round Room" will be in stores on Tuesday.)

Sylvia Rhone, chairwoman of the Elektra Entertainment Group, said: "We do very well with Phish. They are reasonably successful financially because they're very low-dough. Are they ever going to sell triple platinum? It's a challenge that we welcome, and if we never get on top of it, it was still worthwhile creatively."

Phish isn't greedy. It turned down an offer to make its Madison Square Garden show a pay-per-view telecast because it didn't want to reduce the experience to the size of a TV screen. Nor does it slot itself into conventional formats. Where bands generally offer their next single as a "First Listen" on America Online (Elektra is part of AOL Time Warner), Phish chose "Walls of the Cave," a 10-minute song that jams through half a dozen sections. Mr. Anastasio said: "You start thinking, maybe it's too long. But too long for who? Too long for what?" The song was played 300,000 times the first weekend it was available.

With a sprawling online presence that only begins with the band's own www.phish .com and the fan site www.phish.net, Phish followers are among the world's largest in-groups. Like the Grateful Dead and newer jam bands, Phish allows concertgoers to record shows, and fans busily trade live recordings, news, set lists and detailed critiques online. The band paid attention to a Web page called People for a Louder Mike, where fans complained that they couldn't hear Mr. Gordon's bass. "Not only did we turn him up," Mr. Anastasio said, "but we started, in band practice, trying to create musical space where Mike could be heard."

When Phish dispersed, in what its members call "the hiatus," it was at the peak of a continuously expanding career on the jam-band circuit inaugurated by the Dead. Mr. Anastasio, Mr. Fishman and Mr. Gordon, now in their late 30's, were already thinking about the long run when they started Phish at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

"There were a lot of conversations about being self-sufficient," Mr. Anastasio recalled. "We didn't want to be dependent on record companies or any outside force. One of the first things we talked about was buying our own sound system, buying our own van. And we wanted to tour. There was very little talk about getting signed, if any. I clearly remember being surprised when record labels were approaching us."

Mr. McConnell joined the band in 1985, and its current lineup soon solidified when a second guitarist left. Phish sold self-released cassettes at concerts, and an independent label released the band's first album, "Lawnboy," in 1990. Its first Elektra album was "A Picture of Nectar," released in 1992, and by 1994, Phish was starting to headline arenas.

In the late 1990's, Phish could easily sell out multiple nights at Madison Square Garden. It drew tens of thousands of fans to camp out in unlikely places like Plattsburgh, N.Y., Limestone, Me., or the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation in Florida, where 75,000 fans joined Phish to greet the year 2000 with marathon sets.

But on Oct. 7, 2000, in Mountain View, Calif., Phish arrived onstage to the Rolling Stones song "The Last Time." After the show, band members went separate ways. They were weary of continual touring and of a bloated business operation. As Mr. Gordon said in a telephone interview, "Eventually you have to stop being the guy from Phish for a while."

Most of all, they were worried that Phish was getting stale. Mr. Fishman said by telephone, "We thought, `While we're tired and not hating each other, let's take a break.' " They didn't tell fans when, or if, they would get back together.

"We knew we hit a wall," Mr. Anastasio said. "At our last show, we went backstage and we were talking about this grand experiment. What if we now left and had as many musical experiences as we could?"

"Musicians improve by playing with musicians who are better than them," he continued. "So we would all leave our little cocoon. And the only way we could be sure that this experiment was to work was to have no definite plan for coming back. As soon as we had a plan, then no one would really fully embrace their other projects. That being said, I think we all pretty much knew we were going to come back."

While Phish was on hold, it wasn't idle. The band released 16 live albums, each a set of three or four CD's. All four members toured and made albums: Mr. Gordon's duos with Mr. Kottke, Mr. Fishman's Pork Tornado, Mr. McConnell's Vida Blue and Mr. Anastasio's Oysterhead (with Stewart Copeland from the Police and Les Claypool from Primus) and the Trey Anastasio Band. Mr. Gordon also directed a documentary on bass playing, "Rising Low."

Last summer, they agreed to restart the band. Booking New Year's Eve at Madison Square Garden provided a focus; Phish would need new material. Members wedged rehearsal time into tour schedules.

For its don't-call-it-a-reunion album, Phish made a plan that, like all things Phish, was a convoluted intersection of musical challenges and fan expectations. At Halloween concerts, as fans know, Phish performs another band's entire album, handing out a Playbill that redraws the original album cover — the Velvet Underground's "Loaded," or the Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," for instance — as a Phish album.

Phish decided to print a Playbill for New Year's Eve 2002 with the cover of its own as yet nonexistent album. It would record the songs at Madison Square Garden, mix and master them overnight and make them available online by Jan. 2 for downloading as the band's new album. Elektra would manufacture a CD as quickly as possible.

That scenario didn't last. When Phish assembled in the Barn to work up new songs in early September, the members were newly thrilled at the band's intuitive mesh and what Mr. Fishman called "the phenomenal learning curve": 20 songs in 11 days, including complex ones like "Walls of the Cave" and two songs that didn't make the album, "Spices" and "Discern."

Mr. Gordon said: "When we have a song that mixes a compositional fugue and a free-form jam and verses and choruses, it doesn't sound as contrived as it should. The sections of songs that are art-rock or whatever you'd call it are executed with a light-heartedness, like we don't care if we screw up a few of the notes. We do care — it would be better to get them — but the idea is that it should be as light and fluttery as one of the free-flowing jams."

Phish spent another two days playing together, plus a day or so of touch-ups, recording all 20 songs simply for reference before the next set of rehearsals. "It was an emotional event," Mr. Anastasio said. "So after we recorded these demos, of course we started to get attached to them. It's just the four of us in the Barn, ripping it up. We hadn't played together in a long time. We weren't tight. But we decided that that was more exciting than having it be `right.' If we stop perfecting it, then it sounds like Phish."

"I learned the inexplicable nature of Phish," Mr. Anastasio added. "There's this wobbly nature to it that's very strange compared to any other group I've ever played with. I feel like there's these two cement blocks tied together with a rope, and the idea of the music is to move the cement blocks from Point A to Point B. The way the cement blocks get there is by each person taking a couple steps forward and then getting tired, and then someone else takes a couple steps forward, so it's always advancing in this amorphous . . ."

He trailed off. "I feel like I can jump, free-fall momentarily, and somebody's going to pick it up," he said. "But it's always somebody different. I feel held up by Phish, but I don't know who's going to do the holding at any given time."

The band decided that 12 of the 20 songs were strong enough to be an album, and informed Elektra. "We just called them up to say, `We have an album,' " Mr. Anastasio said. " `And you've got two choices: put it out before Christmas or wait until they've all got a tape of a live version after Christmas.' "

Elektra gave the band deadlines; Phish made them all. "We didn't have time to get pretentious," Mr. McConnell said.

Most of the songs came from a marathon songwriting session by Mr. Anastasio and Phish's main lyricist, Tom Marshall. They cloistered themselves with a guitar and an electric piano in a hotel room in Philadelphia. It's usually an enjoyable process, Mr. Anastasio said, but not this time. "Tom and I got in a really horrific fight," he said. "We were screaming at each other, and I sat down and wrote two songs, `Anything but Me' and `All of These Dreams.' I was sitting there as an escape from this fight, with the guitar and the headphones on, singing these songs. I think they express something that I usually am a little too shy to express."

The album has a surprising number of songs about trying to communicate and about re-establishing trust. In the pensive "Friday," Mr. Anastasio could be singing about a Phish jam: "I crashed, I burned, but then I learned to keep my eye on you."

Mr. Anastasio said: "Phish songs usually express jubilation and exuberance, and it all fit together that this album isn't just about that. Everybody gravitated toward the songs because they expressed something that the guys were going through too. That doesn't mean that it's a gloomy album."

Mr. McConnell added, "It just has a little more emotional heft."

If there was ever a possibility of Phish disbanding, making "Round Room" apparently put it to rest. "We won't beat it to death in the future," Mr. Fishman said. "And I know I will never ever be in a situation like Phish again. Not in terms of success or making money, but the productivity, the discipline, the inter-band relationships, the considerateness, the way it fits into all our lives. Everything must end, but if it ends when my life does, so be it, and if it ends before that, it'll really be a sad day."


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