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Phish: Billboard interview


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for your Friday enjoyment:

The potency of the creative partnership enjoyed by the four members of Phish (guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell, and drummer Jon Fishman) is well documented via the group's nine Elektra studio albums and improvisation-heavy live shows. But when the eclectic Vermont combo regrouped in September after a nearly two-year hiatus, the idea of quickly recording a studio album of entirely new material was by no means a certainty.

So after working up 22 fresh songs in just short of two weeks of rehearsal at guitarist Trey Anastasio's Vermont studio, the group opted to record the material right then and make a decision about its future at a later date.

That later date wound up being only a matter of days, and with its members so enthused with the results, Phish selected 12 of its favorite cuts for "Round Room," which Elektra released Dec. 10. This off-the-cuff approach stands in marked contrast to the group's usual modus operandi in the studio, which normally involves months of prolonged recording and has often failed to capture Phish's trademark on-stage magic.

The set bursts to life with "Pebbles and Marbles," the first of three songs that push the 10-minute barrier. Elsewhere, the band dabbles in more traditional fare with the sweet, jazzy "Anything But Me" and "All of These Dreams." Phish's wacky humor also shines through on "Mexican Cousin" and "Mock Song," the latter of which retained lyrical flubs Gordon made at the microphone during recording.

Phish, consistently one of the top touring acts in the U.S., will make its long-awaited return to the live stage Dec. 31 with a blowout concert at New York's Madison Square Garden. From there, the band will embark on a 12-date February tour, and plans to return to the road again in the summer.

What follows is a Q&A with Gordon and McConnell about "Round Room," the end of the hiatus, and what lies ahead for Phish.

You guys played your last show in October 2000. During the hiatus, how much contact did you have with one another?

Mike Gordon: Um, it varied. I would say for the first year, a lot less than [during] the second year. I was sort of doing my own thing. Everyone was, but I was living in New York and they weren't. And then, especially this year, we started talking more and calling each other more. Trey was in Manhattan mixing his solo record and I went probably five or six times to check it out. I was really into it. And yeah, the first time we actually played together was at [Phish management staffer] Jason Colton's wedding. We definitely took some time without having much contact and then it grew.

Page McConnell: There wasn't a lot of interaction. Whenever we were together or spoke, it was happy. I got to play with Trey's band a couple of times. Fish and Mike sat in with my band. It was always great whenever we played together. But truly, we gave each other our space. We all had our own projects going on. Part of the time I was living in New York. We socialize plenty but I don't necessarily go out with Trey or Fish. Mike a little bit more. But not every weekend or anything like that. I'll go over to Trey's house and go swimming or something. We have a great time hanging out but there wasn't a lot of clingy-ness or anything like that!

During this time, were you ever working on ideas you knew you were going to set aside for Phish once the hiatus ended?

MG: Yeah. Well, for one thing, I started doing more songwriting than I'd ever done before this year. Some of the stuff seemed like it would be good for Phish and then a couple things ended up on the new album. And well, I was concentrating on other things but I suppose that thought came to mind.

PM: Yes. Absolutely. In fact, I had one song I tried to record with Vida Blue that just wasn't happening. I brought it back and recorded it during the "Round Room" sessions. It was one of the eight songs we recorded that didn't get on the album. I know Trey had similar experiences with trying out songs with other bands where it just didn't feel 100%, plus songs he set aside and said, this is a Phish song. I always thought we'd get back together. I didn't know if it would be two years or four years. But I always thought we'd be getting back together. I always hoped anyway, and I feel like everybody did too.

Did anything in particular precipitate Phish reuniting when it did?

MG: Um, I don't think it was a specific thing. It was a gradual process of getting inspired. Band members were listening to some of the live tapes to help pick out the live series we released, and I re-read 20 years of journal entries for that same reason: to pick out some favorite concerts. And I got very nostalgic about how fun it was, all the way from the beginning to when we were in the dorm room, to watching our career blossom over the years. I felt like it would be okay if we didn't get back together but that it might be a shame, because it had grown so much. Other people felt the same way.

Mike, you have notes from day one of Phish?

MG: Yeah! First band practice. Let's see. What did we play? I think I remember the Talking Heads' song "Pulled Up." There was probably an Allman Brothers song like "Whipping Post." Maybe even a Grateful Dead song. Actually I think we played "Midnight Hour." This was in Trey's dorm lounge. The complex at UVM was Wing, Davis, and Wilks. He was in Wing. It was the fourth floor of Wing, in the dorm lounge. There is no tape of that but there were 25 people dancing in the lounge. We also played some originals that day. Trey had some songs, like, "Skippy the Wonder Mouse." "Fluorescent Gerbils." It was all sort of rat and mouse related [laughs]. Maybe "Fluffhead." That was pretty early. If not then, it would have come soon after.

Can you describe that first day back in the rehearsal space? What did you play? How did it go?

MG: Well, first of all, it was at Trey's barn. We didn't allow any helper people to be around so it could be just the four of us. It had been all cleaned up and organized, you know, with pencils and pens where you might need them and that kind of thing; food in the refrigerator. I have Fish to my left and Trey and Page in front of me. Behind Trey and Page are windows with views of the mountains. The chemistry came together instantly, just remembering 17 years of learning how to communicate and how it comes back so easily. We were reminding ourselves of how delicate of a sound we can have sometimes. The gentle part. There is the raging part too, but not as many bands tackle the delicate side.

We started right away learning some new songs of Trey's and of mine, and eventually of Page's and Fish's also. Not all the songs we learned ended up on the new album but almost half of them did. In nine days, we learned 22 songs actually. The album has 12 of them. I think we jumped in right away with some of the more intricate ones, like Trey's "Walls of the Cave." An example of one we learned really quickly that is not on the album is Trey's song "Spices." Trey had four epic songs with lots of different sections. Two of them we did on the album and two of them we didn't.

PM: We immediately started working. We dove right in. It had been over two years since we'd been in the rehearsal space. I was like, okay Trey, give me a song! Let's go! We started with "Walls of the Cave," which is a fairly complex song with a lot of parts. It goes on for about 10 or 12 minutes and has at least five or six different sections. So, okay, you learn the piano intro. My brain was just so hungry to be rehearsing again and to be filling it with music. It was sheer joy. I'm not talking about, oh, boy, we jammed and it was magical. Me learning the piano intro to this song was just a feeling I hadn't had -- learning this new song I was so excited about and putting it to memory. It was just sheer joy to be working that part of my brain.

What was the first old Phish song that was played?

MG: I don't think we have yet. All the way through September and October we didn't play a single old Phish song. I think the idea was that we'd be responsible to re-learn them on our own once we decided which ones we were going to play, and then we might play some of them together in December. I could be wrong but I don't think we played an old Phish song.

PM: Oh, yeah. We have not played any. I feel like there is still hope for the old material. We love the old material and we want to keep playing it. But when we rehearse, we never rehearse the old material. This is going to be a different situation because it has been so long. I'm sure we're going to run some stuff before we go on stage. But normally if we're going out on tour, we are always working on new material. We don't sit up there and play "Mike's Song" or whatever it is. If we're working, we're working on new stuff. [Editor's note: The band played the vintage favorite "Chalkdust Torture" Dec. 14 on "Saturday Night Live."]

Were there styles you guys wanted Phish to try after working on things with your various solo projects?

MG: Yeah. Well, the funny thing about styles is that we used to dabble in a lot of different bags. I think as we matured a bit, there was an effort to try to be a rock band and not be something we're not. We wanted to get better at one thing rather than trying to do a million different things, like jazz, or bluegrass, or other things we have tackled. However, at the beginning of this year, I actually spent six months studying banjo with Andy Cartoun, my banjo teacher. He came over every Tuesday night for five hours and brought 50 albums of all 1950s bluegrass. Phish had some played bluegrass, but I'd been mostly bringing newer bluegrass to the band. This was my old bluegrass education. I learned 25 new songs and played with Andy's band. When I talked to Trey, I sort of was assuming the band wouldn't want to play anymore bluegrass stuff, since it's not really what we do. But the guys in the band said, oh yeah, we'd love to do that. We haven't yet but it was just so nice to learn all those old songs by the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe. So I don't know how that will go. There's stuff I wrote with Leo Kottke [for the collaborate RCA album "Clone"] that might apply to Phish. Some of our solo project stuff would apply.

So at what point did you start to discuss making an album, and what prompted the decision to do it so quickly?

MG: After a week.. we didn't decide to make an album until after we had done the recordings. We thought they'd be demo tapes. But we liked the way they sounded so much that we decided to make the album. We had all kinds of different ideas about how we might record the album and we weren't intending this way was going to be it. But after a week we realized we had a lot of stuff, because in nine days we had 22 songs and some of them were long and pretty involved. Then, we came in and did the four days of recording, a day and a half of overdubbing, and then a week of mixing. In a bunch of cases, these are first takes. In other cases we may have done a song two or three times, but we didn't really think we were putting these out, so we didn't get too exhaustive. We weren't really worried about it. It was real off the cuff. Probably half of them are first takes, if not more.

PM: We knew the material was there. I had a song, Fish had a song, Trey had 20 songs, and Mike had eight songs. What we had was time to rehearse in September, and then in October it was Pork Tornado and Mike and Leo. We knew we had September and December to rehearse. It was Trey's idea to record stuff at the end of the September session, just so it was there and we'd know what we know. We didn't want to have to re-learn it all again. That's how it all started.

The thought was not to record an album, although I think it was certainly a possibility in all of our minds. It was much more, let's put this stuff to tape so we have it when we come back in December. We knew we had material here for an album. What are we doing? Is this going to be the album? Or, we thought we'd debut an album's worth of material on New Years Eve and then record it live. Or, we pondered going into the studio in the spring and spending three months like usual recording it for real.

But what ended up happening was that we rehearsed in September. I think we only had 12 days of rehearsal. We recorded all the material in three days. Those three days were really the first time we were truly playing. The 12 days of rehearsing was just work on parts, parts, parts, parts. We got it? Okay, next song. When we hit the record button, turned the lights off, shut our eyes, and all of the sudden were playing again, that was incredibly special. We caught this album on tape at a time when the material was so fresh we hardly knew it. It was ideal in a lot of ways. That is something a lot of people try to get -- the moment of conception or when it first starts to coagulate. Our first album, "Junta," was done more like this -- pretty quick. But we spent more time on that than we did on this.

Whose songs are whose?

MG: I have two. I had first brought a disc with 21 songs, which we weeded down to eight, and then to two. Everyone had a bunch of material. But anyway, the two that ended up being mine are "Round Room" and "Mock Song." Joe Linitz wrote the lyrics to "Round Room," just like Trey works with Tom Marshall.

PM: The rest of the songs are all Trey's and Tom's.

Mike, are you making stuff up at the microphone on "Mock Song"?

MG: [Laughs]. I can tell you where it came from. Jared, who works in my home studio, was getting all the gear in tune. We brought an engineer in to show us some things about miking drums and all of that. I thought we should make up a song for the sake of testing the gear, and that was the song: not a real song, but a mock song. Then, the band really liked it. They wanted me to write another verse. It was late at night when we recorded it, and I was trying to read the words because I had never learned them. The second verse was new too. It was dark and I didn't have my glasses on so I couldn't really see what I was reading. I figured I'd change it to sing the missed words, but the band really liked it how it was. I learned to like it flubbed rather than fixed because it has its original vibe. It is pretty rare for us, but a lot of the vocals we used were sung live while we played. In some cases, there are overdubbed vocals. We did try to re-sing some things, but it didn't have as much of the original vibe. On "Mock Song," Trey comes in with the second verse harmony and that not only isn't written out, but it is spur of the moment gibberish. He has no idea what he was saying.

Is there a moment in "Friday" when Trey starts laughing?

MG: There's a good chance of it. I'm not sure if it's that one, but in one song he flubs the vocal and you can hear him coughing. Plus, we were recording with monitors. No headphones and plenty of bleed. If we did repair something or fix something up, it would sort of clash with what had bled through from the original, but we didn't care.

PM: I think it's a cough [laughs]. We kept a lot of the rough vocals. We wanted it to sound like us. I know it is not perfect in the studio sense of the word. The sound is not necessarily as clean as can be for the true audiophiles. There are some quote-unquote wrong notes. But it sounds like us, you know? It has a feel akin to what it sounds like when you go see Phish, which is good, because I think a lot of times our records don't capture what we really sound like.

"Walls of the Cave" seems like two songs grafted together. Is this how it was brought in?

MG: That is how Trey's demo was, with all the different sections. Maybe the others like "Pebbles and Marbles" aren't as patched together as "Walls of the Cave," but at the same time I really like how it builds from section to section. I thought the album might be called "Walls of the Cave." Usually on a given tour or practice section, there's a song that becomes the theme song of the week. "Walls of the Cave" was the one, I thought. I kept driving and listening to the demo in my car. Originally we had an idea to have it first and last on the album. Maybe we'd do the first part first and then it would continue with the last part at the end.

PM: I don't know how it was composed, but when it was brought to me, it was one piece. That was its conception.

Depending on the choices made in terms of song selection, this album could have sounded very different.

MG: That is true, actually. I was reading about that. I have this book called "Written in My Soul" about rock songwriters. Someone said you can write 20 songs, but if you pick the 10 about relationships, then that is what you have.

There seems to be a bit more of a tilt toward slower, jazzy/soulful material here, compared to the more experimental or jam-oriented moments.

PM: Yes and no, because to me, if you look at the album, there are a lot of pretty songs with nice lyrics, melodies, choruses, and proper structures. I love those. It's tough to beat a good song. But I also love the big jams. There's more jamming on this album than any other studio album we have ever done. There are at least five songs that have big, big jams: "Pebbles and Marbles," "Seven Below," "Walls of the Cave," "Waves," and "46 Days."

Really, it's probably the longest single album we have ever made. Yes, there is more soulfulness, but there is also way more jamming than on any other Phish album. I think it runs the gamut and is kind of like when you see us in concert. We don't just play one long jam after another. There is usually some kind of melodic song interspersed with a big jam.

MG: Sometimes I have to figure out where to draw the line! We get in trouble for giving away secrets sometimes. It's hard to really know why some songs don't get chosen. I think we realized early on in the practice sessions this thing about being a delicate band, and wanting to really get into vocals and song-oriented things rather than simply visceral sounding stuff. But we knew we'd have plenty of moments to rock out via deep and dark sections. It just kind of went that way.

Trey was actually playing a lot of acoustic guitar or a bigger bodied electric guitar. He played in open tunings when he wrote a bunch of his songs, but he'd transcribe the same stuff to a normally tuned guitar in the end, and sometimes not. He did fingerpicking in a bunch of instances, which gives it a folky sort of sound, sometimes. "Round Room" is almost a little African sounding.

As for songs we didn't put on, I don't think there was a conscious decision to avoid a certain style of music or level of intensity or anything. They get shuffled around in different sequences. Before it got to 12, it was 15 or 16. I had another song called "The Party" which they described as the Residents: pretty weird and eerie. We did actually record it and I think we did record almost all of the 22 songs. "The Party," again, I don't think there were specific guidelines other than what moves us or our friends when we listen to the rough tapes. I think that particular song is a little monotonous and could have used more work to make the verses and different sections build more. In my opinion, that's why that one fell a little flat. You can probably look at all the songs that didn't make it and find something like that: even though they're great songs, they may not have come to fruition. In the future, they still might.

Trey's two other epics that didn't make it, it would be a real shame if we didn't do anything with those. We did pack more than 74 minutes into the CD. Originally I thought we had four discs worth. "Walls of the Cave" we would play beyond 15 minutes. Others were like that too. Editing is always possible and often desirable, but to get it all onto one disc I think is a cool thing.

Did you guys revisit any non-recorded Phish songs like "Carini?"

MG: We didn't do anything with that. It would be cool to. I think we did a version of it for the last album but I can't remember. I'm not sure if we have ever gone in and recorded an old song. Maybe there is a time we brought out something from the past, but we're always forging forward. Most of those old songs may never make it on albums but it would be nice to get some of them on there.

PM: No. We were working on new material. Everything we learned in the 12 days prior to the recording was entirely new to me. Although we didn't record "Carini," it did end up on a couple of the live releases. In particular, the Darien Lake version is really rocking. I like that one a lot.

One of the more interesting Phish releases has to be "The Siket Disc." Although it came out on Elektra, it wasn't really promoted as a proper Phish studio album. Do you see any parallels to the ambient nature of some of those instrumentals with anything that made it onto the new album?

MG: That's an interesting question. Those are long, ambient jams. I don't know how much of a market there is for that [laughs]. Some people like it and some people don't. I like it. That came from a year of going into the studio and recording jams for 12 hours without any plans. Then we took all the tapes and weeded it down into some favorite stuff. I didn't like it at first. I thought it was too weeded down and missing some of the coolest jams. It was 35 minutes from 50 or 100 hours or something. Then, one night on the bus, we started playing it and I really liked it, late at night. It fit the vibe perfectly and we started playing it on the tour bus on a regular basis. It's one of the only instances I can remember when we regularly played our own music. I grew to like it.

I think with moving forward, we feel less and less over the years that we have to prove anything. We feel like we can just do what we want. In some cases, what we want might be to record some of the more esoteric sounding or instrumental albums or songs. We also are people who appreciate simple songs with lyrics you can sing and relate to. I don't think it's for the sake of commercial success. It is more that these are the things we like to listen to ourselves. It would be good to do a combination of that and keep trying to do different things.

PM: People do tend to like "The Siket Disc." In terms of the band, there is little on it that ever became objectionable, like, "yuck, I can't believe we did that!" It never went to that realm. It was never trying to be anything, so there was very little to dislike. It is the only album I have produced for Phish. The way that came about was a similar kind of a thing [to "Round Room"]. We were in the studio jamming. That's all it was. All instrumental, all jam. No overdubs on that. Just live, but we did it over about seven days worth of jamming and two different sessions.

I think it signaled a turning point that was happening with us then. This was around the European tour where we recorded "Slip, Stitch & Pass." We had been working on jamming and exercises and jamming, trying to stretch out. Then, all of the sudden this way of playing just sort of came out of the air or whatever. We happened on this way of playing that sounded really unique. It wasn't derivative. It had its own feel and its own flow and vibe. It really sounded like Phish to me. When I was producing it, those were the pieces I was looking for: the ones that didn't sound like anyone else. In that way, since then we have been able to get to that place, whether in concert or on this album. The jams on "Waves" or "Seven Below" especially kind of have that feel. I think it was a way for us to learn.

Those sessions we did when we recorded "The Siket Disc" yielded some of the material that ended up on [the 1998 album] "The Story of the Ghost." We put lyrics on top of "Roggae," "End of Session," "Meat," and "Ficus." About half the songs on the album were from that session. "The Siket Disc" was the things left over from that session that we didn't put lyrics on top of.

What can you reveal about the comeback shows? Are all songs fair game? How much of the sets will be taken up with new material?

MG: A bunch of these questions we don't know the answers to yet. We're just about to get together again after having a month off. I am sure there will be some new and some old, but how much I don't know. It is hard to know. We'd like to think we could move past some songs. There was talk of leaving the entire repertoire behind but I don't think we're going to do that. Three sets of new material on New Year's Eve was dismissed pretty early, though. However, there are songs we wrote when we were 18 or 19 sitting in the dorm room that seem so old and worn out and childish. People don't imagine what it would be like to take exactly what they were doing when they were 18, to then 18 years later do it professionally. It would be nice to put some of it to rest.

PM: I really don't know, but I'd think we'd be playing a lot of new material on New Year's and at Hampton. Three sets is a long time, so there will be plenty of old material and plenty of new material.

What about any specific New Year's details?

MG: We had some different concepts we were working with. We're still doing some planning. I think it may just be sort of like a regular Phish show. Like something you may have seen in the middle of Idaho who knows when.

PM: We can't wait. All of us are freaking out!

Mike, Trey has said he thought there'd never be a permanent record of "Gamehendge" [music written for Anastasio's Goddard College senior project, some of which later became part of Phish's repertoire]. He said the same thing you just did about the old material: that he couldn't fathom getting back into the spirit of it after so many years.

MG: Right, yeah. At one point we talked about doing an acoustic album of it, but we decided it was very cool that this is something that has never been for sale. The 100% non commercial aspect of it. However, I do have an album of it sitting by my kitchen sink by a Phish cover band! I don't know if that is for sale.

I wanted to discuss the Live Phish project. Have you been surprised with the response to it so far? How involved is each individual member in choosing the show?

MG: I know they're not gigantic blockbusters on the charts, but I think it is pretty cool. I got to play some hand in picking certain ones. I know I picked Camden, N.J. There's a couple others from reading my journals I hope we'll consider in the future. I think it is pretty cool to get them out there and let people collect them if they want. Sometimes the bass player is the determining factor of a good gig! Fish and I were more involved than Trey and Page. But on the other hand, Trey is much better to listening to them after they've come out. There is some involvement, but it is time consuming, first to decide, and then to decide what there might be for filler. There are decisions that end up taking a lot of listening time and it is just impossible to do.

In some ways I admire Trey and Page for just saying they don't want to have anything to do with it. But I loved the reading of the journals aspect of it. I created a 50-page document for the Phish office which gave all of my notes on favorite gigs and some gigs that I hated. Sometimes in my journal I write with a big asterisk, get the tape! Those are the ones I feel people should consider. Since it is so much spontaneity and improvisation that we do, there end up being some real special moments. We could put out the crappy moments too, but why bother? I love the cool jams that are very different from other ways that we play. I mean, I suppose the average Phish fan would rather hear something that is indicative of the way we play it, but I think the most special moments are the different ones.

PM: The first batch got the most hype and biggest sales, and as predicted, it trailed off a little bit from there. We did that first set of releases where we all tried to pick. It's hard, especially that first batch, because it seems like such a big deal. It's not really. Well, hey, we have a whole bunch more to release and hopefully we'll get some kind of an online thing going.

It was a way for us to keep doing stuff during the hiatus. People liked them but some people bitch and moaned we chose that show and not this show. But generally people seemed to like them. I have favorite songs within the shows. I really like the "Run Like an Antelope" from Sugarbush. The "Carini" from Darien Lake. A lot of the stuff from Binghamton I liked a lot, like "Foam." I don't have a particular favorite show. But I'm happy they're out there and people are giving them a listen.

We'll probably begin to release less than six shows at a time. Maybe something more like four, but it depends on whether we get this online thing rolling. I don't know what will drive it exactly, or how everything will go with this album and albums forthcoming. It was easy when we weren't touring or anything to just do it and put it out there.

Mike, do you agree that the Japan show that was released in the first batch meets the criteria of offering very different versions of certain songs?

MG: Yeah. I love the whole texture changes from one tour to the next. It almost feels like we're a jazz band one week or a funk band. And then one week we're sort of boring and it's a bad week and we wait for it to be over. As for the next batch of shows, I certainly have ideas but I think we're going to put it on hold for a little bit, with all the other stuff going on. There has been some dabbling into the idea of providing new Phish tapes online, but I really don't know anything beyond that.

Now that Phish is back on the front burner, do you guys still anticipate having time for your side projects?

MG: Oh, yeah. There will be plenty of time for that. My first film, "Outside Out," I spent 5,000 hours on between 1996 and 1999. Trey had several tours with his solo project before the hiatus. The idea is to keep that going because it is better for the band if we grow as individuals. The schedule will be loose enough. I put out this album with Leo Kottke and we just did a two-week tour. We're both enthusiastic about the idea of trying out different stuff and pushing the duo thing in new ways. I'm about to release an album called "Inside In," which is the music from "Outside Out" reworked into songs. I'm excited about that. Maybe I could put together a band. It might be nice to have a solo band at some point, but Leo and I have such a special relationship that it is the highest priority for me right now on the solo project front. I'd like to make more movies too. I could see writing a screenplay at some point but I don't know when. I'd love to get back into dramatic filmmaking. That is just some of them. I always have so many project ideas.

PM: I hope so. On one hand I hope so, but on the other hand, I am someone that is pretty good at focusing at one thing at a time. I plan on doing some touring with Vida Blue again. I really enjoyed playing with those guys. It was really fun and different. I know Trey wants to keep doing stuff. He works so hard. I could see it either way, you know? I could see Phish kind of being back but maybe not being as all encompassing, but I could also see it being as all encompassing as it ever was! I do hope to keep some of this stuff going on the side and play and record with Vida Blue again.

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