Phish Blazes Onward and Upward
Photo credit: René Huemer
Trey Anastasio knows that feeling when you catch a band in their prime. It was the summer of ‘99 and Phish had traveled to Japan, for the first time, to perform at the Fuji Rock Festival. Rage Against the Machine, who were riding their own wave of success as a politically charged, hip-hop/rock alternative to late-‘90s complacency, were headlining on another stage. The only problem was that Phish were going up against the start of their set.
“We stopped playing; we just stopped playing,” Anastasio says with a laugh, reemphasizing his wording with a repetitive beat. “I put my guitar down and said, ‘Tell everyone we’re taking a break because Rage Against the Machine is playing.’ I had a pass to stand side-stage, and I watched them walk by and do their little huddle—they just came on and kicked ass. That was their moment.” He thinks back even further to another overseas gig when Phish was touring in Europe and popped into Denmark to play Roskilde in ‘92. They ended up catching a whiff of “teen spirit” at the height of the Nirvana revolution.
“The same thing—the whole festival stopped. Everybody stopped,” he continues. “That was the year that Denmark beat Germany in the [UEFA European Football Championship]. They actually stopped the whole festival until Denmark won—they even held Nirvana. The place went crazy and everybody walked over to Nirvana.”
Anastasio is sitting in a café near his Uptown New York apartment a few weeks before his 52nd birthday, snacking on a quiche and sipping his second cup of coffee, which he apologetically says will make him a bit chatty. The quaint space has special meaning for him as well: One of his daughter’s friends recently used the poetry-themed restaurant as a temporary office, writing a novel in a nook near the cash register while she was studying at Columbia University. His eyes light up as he describes her process.
The Phish guitarist has always been fascinated by the creation and distribution of various artistic mediums, and says he still writes and works on music every day. But it’s a topic that he’s particularly interested in as he prepares to embark on a tour with his longtime bandmates—keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman—a few days after they release Big Boat, their 13th album and second project with legendary producer Bob Ezrin, who also helmed the sessions for Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Not surprisingly, Big Boat is among Phish’s most refined records, a quasi-concept piece and true LP that touches on heady topics like loss, aging, domestic life, community and friendship, and makes use of Ezrin’s studio and gadgetry like few of their previous records have before. It’s also still very much a genre-jumping Phish album, filled with enough inside jokes and musical hijinks—as well as one very pronounced “rage with Page” rallying call—to feel in line with a band whose big summer thread involved quoting the phrase “ass handed” during their live shows.
“If we’ve been derivative in the past, then Big Boat feels very original to me,” McConnell says a few days later from his Vermont home. “This one sounds less to me like other Phish records. In fact, it doesn’t remind me of any other album, including other Phish albums. I like that uniqueness. Our albums are often known for their mix of styles but, this time, the cohesiveness comes to the forefront a bit more.”
Big Boat arrives at a unique place in Phish’s already unusual arc, too. It’s the first album released after all four members passed the 50-year mark and the first they recorded in the wake of Anastasio’s participation in last year’s Fare Thee Well celebration, which served as both an encore and a new beginning for the Grateful Dead family. It’s also been over seven years since Phish reunited, following a five year breakup that found all four band members exploring myriad projects and battling their own demons. As the novelty of their high-profile reunion has faded, the members of Phish have started to think about their next phase as songwriters and recording artists, while unintentionally embracing their role as the last classic-rock act, the first modern jamband and the uncredited godfathers of 21stcentury indie rock.
“What changed, starting in 2009, is this clarity of vision and this feeling that it was a precious gift that the four of us met,” Anastasio says. “It took a couple of years after that for things to get rolling completely, but we’ve realized how important this is for everyone—the way that the primary relationship between the four of us is nurtured and the way that ripples out into the rest of our families and the community. We communicate. The four of us are texting many times a day.”
His thoughts turn to Phish’s headlining sets at Arrington, Va.’s Lockn’ Festival and their annual Labor Day throwdown at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., a few weeks ago. “Fish used to describe our improv in terms of this ‘lifeboat’ concept—if somebody falls in the water, everyone reaches over and pulls him back in,” Anastasio continues. “I know I’ve experienced that personally with the band, where the other guys have pulled me back in. After Lockn’ and Dick’s, I was thinking about our crew, who never come out and take a bow but literally make the show happen, and all the people in the audience who are beloved members of our Phish family. This ‘big boat’ philosophy is more appropriate than ever. There’s room for everyone.”
* * *
Big Boat marks the first time that Phish have worked with the same producer on two consecutive records— not counting their studio partnership with Bryce Goggin on either side of their 2000- 2002 hiatus—and their new 13- song LP is a continuation of the conversation that started with their previous release, Fuego. That album began with a series of unique full-band writing exercises, which produced some of the most collaborative material in the group’s now 30 plus-year history. Ezrin helped refine those songs and a few other new originals, most of which the band dropped for the first time during their Halloween show in 2013, and Fuego was released the following June. “My whole life, I’ve always written with whoever was sitting at the table,” Anastasio says, noting his lifelong friendship with Tom Marshall and describing their early days working out songs at suburban sanctuaries in New Jersey, like their favorite rhombus sculpture and the fountain where the guitarist composed “Runaway Jim.” “Getting together to write before Fuego was like lighting a fire. It didn’t matter what we came up with—I liked the social aspect, the unity.”
After wrapping up the sessions, Ezrin encouraged the members of the Vermont quartet to learn 10 folk songs on acoustic instruments, internalize them, forget them and then start writing material on their own. “After Fuego was over, Bob told us he wanted to know a little more about us,” he continues. “He said, ‘Who are you guys? What breaks your heart?’ He was trying to make a point—for a band where the meter has, at times, moved toward the head, he’d love to tilt the compass toward the heart.”
Though Phish’s music has the ability to open a poetic third eye, and has inspired more than a few yearbook quotes and social-media status updates, their lyrics have rarely been direct. Yet, miraculously, everyone followed through with the exercise; one song, McConnell’s bluegrass-esque “Things People Do” even made the final cut. Anastasio says he took particular inspiration from the Carter Family, while McConnell’s deep-dive started with the folk revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s, before he entered a wormhole that led him back to the 1600s and 1700s. Gordon, who has the deepest background in bluegrass and old-time music, decided to study a few songs from every decade of the past 100 years.
“For me, life is about learning,” the bassist says while sitting in his wife’s office in Vermont. “At a certain point, you turn off the learning and just get into the flow. I don’t know if I saw the golden secret that connected all of those songs—Bob suggested a couple of jazz songs, a couple of folk ones and a couple of poppier ones—but I’m glad I did the exercise.”
Even Fishman, who has never been one for homework, followed Ezrin’s instructions and came up with his folk-inspired nugget, “Ass Handed,” during “the confluence of a particularly difficult day with the need to fulfill our producer’s assignment.” The short, quick romp, which surfaced a few times on this summer’s tour, features “one line repeated three different ways.”
“It took me one second to write, in a moment of inspiration,” Fishman explains. “If you look at the whole history of everything I’ve written, played, said and done, then there’s an argument to be made that it all boils down to, in one way or another, ‘You get your ass handed to you every day.’ Furthermore, I believe the same can be said for anything I write, play, say and do for the rest of time. It’s just taken me 51 years to finally say what I mean concisely.”
Photo credit: René Huemer
Phish recorded Big Boat somewhat nomadically, from the fall of 2015 through this past August, tracking the album in Ezrin’s Nashville studio and working on songs at Anastasio’s fabled Barn, Gordon and McConnell’s personal recording spaces and Avatar Studios in New York. Anastasio would fly down to Nashville for overdubs while Fishman focused his energies on the campaign trail, stumping for Vermont hero and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Phish continued to play in fits and starts but, for the first time since 2004’s similarly studio-focused Undermind, they shied away from playing a sizable portion of Big Boat’s songs live.
In total, the band ended up with over 40 originals to sort through. Some numbers were older ideas that they had repurposed to fit the album’s overall vibe, like “Home”—a deeply personal, end-of-tour meditation written by McConnell that dips from a bouncy, organic, pop nugget into a spooky, funky, keyboard-led jam—and Anastasio’s stripped-down “Running Out of Time.” Others, like the breezy, horn-infused “Breath and Burning,” which Anastasio wrote on the beach after Phish’s destination event in Mexico earlier this year, emerged later in the process. “Tide Turns,” a somewhat descendant of the Stones’ Exile period, also makes use of Anastasio’s brass section, and the instant favorite “No Men in No Man’s Land” is, simply put, pure Phish funk. They took another stab at writing as a group, too, but none of the material from those sessions ultimately made the record.
Anastasio says a few road-tested songs like “Mercury,” “Shade” and “Let’s Go” were recorded but scrapped; he’d love to include “Mercury,” a personal favorite, on an album of never-recorded concert showstoppers like “Harry Hood” “Mike’s Song,” “Tela” and “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent,” that, in true prankster fashion, would need to be called Rarities.
“Bob’s very good at helping us craft our songs,” McConnell says, noting the uncharacteristically autobiographical nature of the Big Boat tracks, many of which openly look back on late-night parties and other debaucherous, fun times. “Especially with Fuego, he’d encourage us to push ourselves lyrically and to really find meaning and writ about things with a little bit more feeling. So I approached this one thinking, ‘What would Bob want?’”
McConnell, who has never had more than one solo writing credit on a Phish record, jokes that he tripled his output this time around, also offering the proggy, electro “I Always Wanted It This Way,” an album highlight and one of the most studio-sounding songs that Phish have ever released. “I spent about a year and a half just trying to write songs, and that was something I had never done before,” says McConnell, who mentions he brought another batch of songs to the table that didn’t make Big Boat. “I wanted to stay close to home, made a real effort to write and worked at it. That was my focus, other than my family and the band.”
For Anastasio, the process of writing more direct lyrics yielded a few surprises. “If you write very specifically about something, it becomes more universal and you go to other places,” he says. “There are a couple of songs on the new album, like ‘Miss You,’ that were, at the moment, about a certain person—every syllable true—but I would never want it to be glued to that person by any stretch of the imagination.” He thinks back to the Fuego single “The Line,” which was written about Darius Washington Jr., the University of Memphis basketball star who blew a big tournament game.
“We pulled up a picture of him from the internet after already knowing what the concept of the song was gonna be about—a person who had publicly crashed and burned, which I have recently done,” Anastasio says, referencing his 2006 arrest. “I stumbled and fell and collapsed in front of a large group of people, and I wanted to access that feeling. The experience of failure turned out to be a gift—I wanted to write a song that expressed that feeling from my perspective. I could relate to a lot of Darius’ story, even his relationship with his dad—I had a dad who was a coach when I was growing up.
“But the more we kept it specific to him and to that moment, the more universal the sentiment felt to me,” Anastasio continues. “And the less I thought about his experience at all when singing it—to the point where I sort of regretted revealing that fact. You learn all sorts of things you never thought you would when you go through an experience like that. And though the details are different for each person, everybody on earth goes through things like that on a daily basis.”
He pauses and mentions reading a similar statement by Jimmy Webb. (Trey Anastasio Band recently added Webb’s song “MacArthur Park” to their arsenal.) “You learn all kinds of things you were never going to learn—no matter how hard it is in the moment,” he says, describing Webb’s philosophy.
Gordon’s songwriting contributions have increased ever since he found a steady writing partner in Max Creek guitarist Scott Murawski, who serves as the co-pilot of his eponymous solo project. The old friends have refined their process through a mix of writing sessions that have ranged from weekend getaways to group exercises and, more recently, weekly Wednesday-night Skype calls where they trade ideas in real time. Their contribution to Big Boat, “Waking Up Dead,” moves through several distinct sections; one feels in line with Gordon’s clever “Access Me,” while another rubs up against Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” Their involved process included inspirations that ranged from a jam with John Morgan Kimock to a few lyrics written by Gordon’s niece, who was interning for Phish, and a “double u” chant the bassist frequently sang around his house. The song also grew out of an experiment: Gordon recorded over 100 ideas for his various projects into Ableton, in real time, and then placed all the files into a single screen before editing them down.
“It’s important to have some songs that see the light of day because, when one does, they can enjoy the full circle and learn from the experience of what makes a certain song work,” says Gordon, who also mentions that some of his new compositions may surface on the solo album he’s recording. “So much of it is subconscious and emotional when it comes to songs, and there are so few words in each song to get across huge ideas. It’s like magic. I like to see it through.”
Gordon also describes Phish’s democratic process as stronger than ever. “Trey and the other band members were talking about Who’s Next, one of my favorite Who albums, and it doesn’t matter what songs are on it, let alone who wrote those songs. It just has that feel. Some people don’t even know that Trey wrote ‘Strange Design’ and ‘Velvet Sea’ because Page sings them.”
* * *
Flipping the classic rock storyline of musicians finding fame in the city before fleeing to the country to dream big, Anastasio is now a little more than a decade into his New York period, after living in bucolic Vermont for 20-plus years. He has fond memories of taking his first guitar lessons in Manhattan at age 14 and traveling by train from his hometown of Princeton, N.J., to visit Times Square. He loves the city’s cultural blend and being able to walk over to the Beacon Theatre to catch musicians like Nick Cave on a whim. Lately, he’s also returned to the Great White Way, working on his now-shuttered musical, Hands on a Hardbody and attending the breakout Broadway sensation Hamilton as many times as he can. As he pulls up a cast recording on his phone that TAB trumpeter Jen Hartswick sent him, he notes Hamilton drummer Andrés Forero’s contributions to Big Boat’s hashtag-ready signature track, “Blaze On,” and its 13-plusminute climax, “Petrichor.”
Anastasio built the multipart orchestral epic “Petrichor” piecemeal over the course of a few years and debuted it with the Oregon Symphony in 2014. The song’s demo piqued Ezrin’s interest during the Fuego sessions; however, as Anastasio says, “the winds weren’t blowing that way. But when he came back on day one of this album project, the first question he asked was: ‘Have you done anything with that one yet? No other band is recording anything like it.’” The guitarist sees the song as part of a thread that stretches back to Phish’s debut, Junta, which included compositional works like “You Enjoy Myself,” “The Divided Sky,” “Foam” and “Esther.” He also sees it as the thematic bookend to the album’s opening track, Fishman’s John Bonham-esque rocker “Friends.”
“It was a concept that came up really early,” he continues. “‘Friends,’ then ‘Breath and Burning,’ and ending with ‘More’ and ‘Petrichor’—with the skies opening and the lattice coming down, which, to me, felt like they were coming from the returning ship.”
Big Boat’s title is lifted from a line in “Friends,” which deals with the dichotomy of “still having fun” as the world slowly crumbles and, as Fishman says, “a spaceship solar system.” The drummer currently lives in Maine with his five children, and he started working on “Friends” before Big Boat’s sessions commenced. The punky track is his way of laying out his thoughts on “science, religion, space, other life, and the juxtaposition of our high intelligence occurring simultaneously with astounding, shortsighted ignorance—how every time we think we know something, it’s only a matter of time before we find out how wrong we are,” all in the confines of two verses and a chorus.
“I have always held the belief that the idea that we are the only life in the universe is possibly the stupidest thing we’ve ever thought as a species,” the drummer says. “It’s possibly our most ignorant oversight, as evidenced by the fact that, right at the dawn of our ability to finally see planets in other solar systems, we observed that some hold serious promise for life—and one of the most promising ones is even right next door in our own galaxy. However, as a species, we are still in a place where, if a fiery arrival of an object from the sky were to actually occur, there are a large number of us that would be more likely to attribute it to a supernatural intervention than a perfectly logical, physical event. This is partially due to the stultifying effect religion has had on reason, but also just due to our tendency to think we’re such hot shit.”
And Anastasio sees the song’s meaning spilling over to other songs on the album. “There’s the rain, flooding and everything—which is a bit apocalyptic and certainly relevant to these crazy times we live in,” he says. “Each day, it’s another news story about glaciers melting, floods or fires. I even read a story recently that said it’s become unhealthy to live next to the ocean because the algae is gonna kill you. There’s no food left that’s safe to eat.”
“Though we weren’t setting out to make a concept album, there were some conversations where the ‘big boat’ was imagined as a spaceship, like a modern Noah’s ark, coming to save a dying planet,” Gordon adds, describing an almost biblical day of reckoning. “I had this passing idea that when the boat got there, it was only two inches wide and couldn’t fit all the Noah’s ark pairings.”
Meanwhile, Fishman explains: “I imagine if some mothership-type situation were to actually be possible, it might be because [someone] had figured out how to engineer their very solar system into a rig that might be able to move with an intended direction through space. And that coming in contact with such a species—were we to survive it—might make us realize that we are, and have always been, standing on our own mothership. It’s already—as a whole—drifting, rudderless through space like a macroversion of a big oxygen atom, with the sun as its nucleus and eight—sorry Pluto—planetary ‘electrons’ revolving around it.
“We currently use gravity and orbital patterns to catapult and steer objects like satellites through space,” he continues. “What if we figured out how to use those same forces to steer [Earth] itself? That’s the ‘big boat’ at the end of the second verse, where our ignorance about being alone is lifted, opening up all kinds of possibilities and causing us to view the very earth we’ve been standing on this whole time as a vehicle for those possibilities.”
Fishman was particularly inspired by the movie Apocalypto, which explores the idea that, in the context of world history, the concept of “home-field advantage” is “only maybe true in sports, but certainly not in war and conquest. If that dot on the horizon shows up one day in your field of vision, it might not be a good thing. I imagined what it would mean if some astronomer were looking out at the ever-expanding universe and noticed that one of those many points of light out there was actually moving toward us. That’s the ‘big boat’ in the first verse.”
“Great music almost always follows tumultuous moments, which this is,” Anastasio says, discussing the current cultural climate and drawing parallels to the big bands of the ‘20s. “I can’t wait for whoever is gonna come out of all the social upheaval that is happening right now—it’s probably gonna be good.”
Photo credit: René Huemer
Shortly before Phish started digging into Big Boat, Trey Anastasio joined the surviving members of the Grateful Dead for their Fare Thee Well performances, which brought the entire psychedelic-rock world to new cultural heights. Page McConnell attended all three Chicago dates, checking out the shows from the crowd or near the soundboard, and says that “seeing Trey up there playing really reinvigorated my fandom.” He started listening to the Dead’s SiriusXM channel regularly, and their songwriting continued to move him while working on Big Boat.
“I’d talk to Trey while he was rehearsing, and I would tell him about playing with the members of The Meters,” McConnell says of what may have been his own heir-apparent moment. The keyboardist, who toured with The Meter Men on occasion between 2012-2015, admits that playing with his heroes increased his confidence, especially when it comes to the organ.
Fare Thee Well spilled over into one of Phish’s most celebrated summer runs in years. Though “Blaze On” shares some fond memories with the Dead chestnut “Man Smart (Woman Smarter),” Anastasio says “Mercury,” a tale of cosmic perspective that he started during a trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks with Marshall, is the most direct result of that unique experience. But his time at “Dead Camp” inspired him in more profound ways also.
“What I learned was: ‘Be nice. Be kind to your friends while they are here,’” Anastasio says. “I plan on being here a lot longer, and the four of us are still in great shape, but sometimes we will look around and say, ‘God, how many bands who have been around for 33 years have all their original members? It is going to end someday.”’ He pauses and continues, “It’s a good thing, but you start to become aware and take stock— just statistically, you can take any four men in their 50s. It’s not if; it’s when. There’s just a lot of friendship and support and love among the four of us.”
McConnell adds: “We’d been through quite a bit together, and then got back together, and now everything is going well for us. I’d say everyone is feeling pretty good about where we’re at right now and everything that’s happened for us, and the way it’s all falling together.”
For years, Anastasio has worried about the state of live rock-and-roll in an age where smartphones have replaced lighters at shows, everyone has a “movie in their pocket” and a group’s first performance can be captured and shared quicker than, say, a setlist by a 33-year-old band from Vermont can be uploaded and overanalyzed on the web. (He even used the “Put down your phone” plea as the basis for a sermon during an “Icculus” narrative in 2009.) As he taps on his iPhone between the occasional ping from McConnell, Anastasio laments the lack of breakout rock bands at Coachella and Glastonbury—his harbingers of modern-festival cool—and reminisces about watching Alice in Chains, Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden rise through the ranks.
While it’s been several summers since DJs, pop stars and vanilla rock bands gained a house majority in the festival sphere, Anastasio’s sentiments carry a particular weight coming from a member of Phish, a band whose biggest legacy may very well be restoring the summer campout as a righteous coming-of-age experience. He mouths the words to “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes” by Frank Zappa who—like Talking Heads and King Crimson—Anastasio saw early on in college, and notes the genius in the song’s wordplay. The trick, Anastasio says, is repeating a phrase three times.
“Seeing music live is still my favorite experience—it’s everything to me, that feeling of unity,” Anastasio says, thinking back to the near-decade that Phish spent incubating and refining their craft in Vermont’s clubs and bars, in a YouTube-less world. “It’s tough for a young band these days. It’s easy for someone to say: ‘Why should I go out when I have the whole season of Orange Is the New Black and a pair of headphones?’ And nobody is buying any records, so you’re not making any money that way.”
He’s guilty of it, too, admitting that he thought about checking out Vulfpeck—a band that shares Phish’s quirky energy and flair for theatrics at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl a few days earlier, but ended up watching a recent video instead. Yet, he still has fond memories of waiting in line at a small club in Burlington to catch Pavement, “the only band [he] listened to in the ‘90s,” and whose smart, slacker lyrics and loose, ragged cool resonated with him at a time when Phish started opening up their sound and heavily favoring “feel” and “groove.” Anastasio is always searching out new music, and he vividly recalls getting chills at night while listening to Pavement on his skateboard. As a member of an improv band, he says, he could also relate to their outsider, cult status.
“I only had a couple of friends who liked Pavement, and we’d listen to them in the corner at parties,” Anastasio reflects. “I tried hard to get Fish to listen to them, but it never really took. Now, I’m trying to get him to listen to Laura Mvula, who I’m obsessed with. There should always be a couple of 22 year olds in bands out there that scare the shit out of everybody else.”
When Phish entered their “3.0 period,” they were branded as “older, wiser and geekier” by fans and the media, and they have succeeded in remaining healthy and committed to embracing their own catalog with renewed vigor. Gordon, in particular, has explored different health and wellness avenues; after years of practicing mindfulness, he switched to Transcendental Meditation and started working out daily with P90X extreme fitness DVDs. He recently read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and managed to condense his expansive CD collection to a single row. (Interestingly, Gillian Welch was the only artist to have all of her albums survive the purge.)
“I used to talk about The Artist’s Way, which is designed to get yourself back to your childlike sense of wonder,” Gordon says. “I haven’t been doing those exercises as much, but that book paints a good picture of what happens when the inner critic is lurking. You don’t need to worry about exterior criticism because it happens inside. You might not even know it’s there, but it’s cutting you down. And then it’s harder to bask in your success—a lot of writer’s block comes from that stress and questioning. Not that I had been a basket case, but we never notice the knife blade when the internal critic is ready to cut. So much creativity comes from having fun, enjoying the process, which is what [recording in] Nashville was for us. I’m really interested in ways to remove that stress.”
He continues to keep detailed journals of Phish’s concerts, a practice he’s maintained since the band’s earliest days, and though he doesn’t revisit the shows regularly, he’s often surprised by how moments hit him in the rearview mirror. “Sometimes things don’t sound as fresh when I hear them again—I don’t know if it’s the mix or the experience of listening back or my mood or something else,” Gordon admits. “Sometimes things feel really unique and creative, like we’re almost writing on the spot—new rhythms, patterns and textures—and then, I hear it back, and it feels like that’s sort of ‘jamband 101.’ And then other times, I’m pleasantly surprised.” He cites a long “No Man’s Land” at Dick’s as a recent gem. “I liked that Trey had this idea of just jamming right out of the gates,” he says of the early evening exploration. “I loved the ambient jam that came out of the funk part.”
Phish’s setlist process has ebbed and flowed over the years. These days, Anastasio will usually come up with ideas for a certain show—sometimes days before the gig, other times that afternoon—and a song list will be distributed to the band members around dinner time in case they need to brush up on any material. Of course, the band will figure out the night’s flow onstage and often call an audible, with Anastasio discussing ideas with McConnell who, in turn, tells Fishman, who relays the message to Gordon. Occasionally, Gordon says with a laugh, Fishman will forget to tell him and just jump into a number.
“A lot of it is just being playful, but Trey is really good at different approaches at different times. Like he might say, ‘I’ve been thinking: Let’s do less covers and let’s go back into the back catalog because it’s fun.’ He’ll ask one of our managers or a friend if there’s one song that everyone in the parking lot wishes they could hear or what people are talking about,” Gordon says. “Like, one year, they’re talking about ‘Can we have the jams longer?’ and another year they’re asking if we can have it a little more like 1994. It all has to be taken with a grain of salt because, ultimately, we have to feel happy and have to feel that we’re not just regurgitating the same jams and songs that we did in the past.”
In fact, earlier this year, the band scheduled a few extra practice sessions, which allowed them to revisit the oft-overlooked corners of their songbook that they will text each other about. Anastasio says they spent time at Gordon’s house relearning six or seven bust outs, including “Pigtail,” which had been reassigned to TAB, the groovy “Round Room” and the bluegrass classic “Uncle Pen.”
“But mostly,” Anastasio is quick to point out, “we’ve been spending more time just talking. We’ll travel to work on ideas, and it’s really just a chance for the four of us to sit together. We’re adults now, and everybody’s got so much going on. Fish has five kids, Page has three and Mike is busy with his daughter and projects, so I don’t get to see them that much. The experience of us sitting in front of a fireplace and writing had a big effect on the way we’ve been playing. I’ve always loved band practice and, in a way, our recent writing sessions replaced band practice because I got to be with my favorite people.”
Anastasio has started to think of Phish’s repertoire as “a diary of my life from where I stand. I remember writing ‘Harry Hood’ in Greece,” he says. “I remember writing ‘You Enjoy Myself’ when Fish and I were playing street music in Europe. We were sleeping in a car outside of Florence and playing all day in the streets. I was writing that song the whole time. We met this hilarious Italian guy who didn’t really speak any English. One day, he came up and put one arm around me and one around Fish and he said, in broken English, ‘You know, when I’m with you, you enjoy myself.’ So that became the song’s title. The rest of the music was written as we traveled across Europe that summer. That experience is still in there. Phish songs cover every era of my life from 19 until 52.”
All four members of the band still have a deep desire to remain relevant, reach new fans and continue to grow as songwriters and musicians. The lines between their various projects have also blurred: Anastasio mentions that his Broadway community has impacted Phish’s live show too, bringing recent onstage Wingsuit and “Meatstick” gags to life, and even helping the band rearrange David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as a barbershop-quartet tribute. He hints that they’ll likely continue to work with Phish on their theatrical stunts going forward.
“We’re all in the same band, having the same experiences—similar feelings and experiences,” McConnell says. “We’re really excited for people to hear something that has a little bit more substance and a little bit more depth.”
Phish used to have a band rule that they had to play at least one gig in their 80s, and that goal has taken on new meaning as they enter their later years. “I remember going to see Modern Jazz Quartet,” Anastasio says. “They were so good—telepathic. They started playing in like 1952 and this must have been around 1985. We were all standing there going, ‘We’re gonna be that.’ Well, when you’re standing here after 33 years, you start thinking, ‘Wow, we kind of have been playing for a long time.’”
Yet, he still knows how to keep things in perspective. “My grandmother had a friend who was a geologist,” Anastasio says with a smile. “At the dinner table, when people would get going on ‘today’s subject,’ Trump or Brangelina or whatever, he’d just laugh and say, ‘You’re talking about years, and here I am, all day long, thinking in eons. I can’t get worked up about this.’”