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Phish: America's Greatest Jam Band Returns

The inside story of why they walked away from it all two years ago, why they came back and where they're going

March 6, 2003
phish 2003 cover 917 the phish from vermont!
Phish on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Martin Schoeller

 The four members of Phish face each other, ready to jam. But they cannot see one another, because they are all blindfolded. Guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboard player Page McConnell and the band's namesake, drummer Jon Fishman, wear rolled-up dish towels over their eyes. Bassist Mike Gordon settles for a blue wool scarf. They look like prisoners awaiting a firing squad. It is early December, and Phish should be rehearsing for their first concerts in two years: four New Year's-week dates in New York and Virginia and a U.S. tour opening on February 14th in Inglewood, California. The shows, along with a new studio album, Round Room, mark the end of a long break from the road and from recording. Instead, up at the Barn – a 100-year-old farm building on a snowy hillside near Burlington, Vermont, that Anastasio bought for $1,000 in 1996 and turned into a cozy studio and practice space – Phish are playing a game called Zen Language Ball. Someone improvises a lick, and the others grab it as inspiration strikes, adding notes, bending the beat. But there is no speaking or eye contact. The idea is to write new music together from thin air, in total darkness. Anastasio calls it "throwing the ball around." He's right. The music bounces all over the room, from player to player, as it grows: a hot Gordon bass run quickly fattened with funky drums and organ glaze; a guitar drone slowly turning into a spooky bit of ballad. It is the sound of Phish doing what they love best: playing without a net, in the psychedelic-dance-party tradition of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band; making new music out of nothing but friendship and telepathy. And it is the reason why Phish split up in October 2000.

Phish used to do things like the Zen Language Ball all the time, often with a little chemical liftoff, back in the 1980s – before the gold records and sold-out tours, when they were college students sharing houses and apartments in the Burlington area. "We had these jam sessions," Anastasio says one night after practice, "where we drank hot chocolate with mushrooms and just played, trying to get in tune with each other, for eight hours." One of those jams, he points out, is on a record: "Union Federal," a bonus track on the CD reissue of Phish's 1989 independent cassette release, Junta.

"We used to rehearse like demons," Anastasio, 38, says excitedly, a big smile busting through his ginger forest of beard. "A lot of it was mind games, challenging each other. We'd change roles: 'I'm always the natural leader. Page, you be that person now.' We'd make Fish set up his drums left-handed instead of right: 'Use your mind to play, not your hands.' Or we'd just play one note for an hour – weird stuff."

The weirdness bloomed in concert: in clubs such as Nectar's on Main Street in Burlington, where Phish first played in December 1984 and honed their writing and jamming chops through 1989; then in theaters and, finally, arenas. Fishman, who turns thirty-eight on February 19th, played most gigs during Phish's first two years flying on LSD. "I still play with the feeling I got from those experiences, trying to generate wind and water," he claims quite earnestly.

And there was the Big Ball Jam. "We each had huge exercise balls we threw into the audience," McConnell, 39, explains. "You had to play rhythmically with the way your ball bounced around in the crowd." He grins sheepishly. "That's how our whole career has been – stupid ideas that work."

Then success got in the way. With the death in August 1995 of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, Phish – already packing arenas on their own – became the box-office heirs of a huge concert audience stranded by the end of the Dead. Phish inherited the stress, as well. Gordon, 37, recalls watching Anastasio stalk offstage, "fiercely angry," after Phish's first set at the Great Went, an outdoor festival the band put on for 70,000 fans at an old Air Force base in Maine in August 1997: "He thought we were caught up in the bigness of the gig and worrying about, oh, I don't know what – but not playing music."

By the fall of 2000, Phish were one of the biggest acts in rock, grossing more than $61 million in ticket sales in 1999 and 2000. Phish had the infrastructure to match: an expanding management-and-merchandising office on the first floor of a former cereal factory in Burlington; roadies on year-round salaries. Business meetings started outnumbering jam sessions. "We were doing things that required a lot of energy and weren't about music," Anastasio says irritably.

Photos: Phish Through The Years

So on October 7th, 2000, Phish broke up. After a long encore of Junta's "You Enjoy Myself" at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, Anastasio, Fishman, Gordon and McConnell went right into a dressing-room trailer backstage and locked the door. They let no one else in; that included longtime manager John Paluska, road manager Brad Sands, wives, children and even Anastasio's father, Ernest. The band stayed in there for four hours.

"It's incredible how deep that got," Anastasio says. "There was a sea of people outside: 'I know they're not letting anybody in, but that doesn't mean me.' Years later, people complain to me about it. But it had to be the four of us. We had to go out that door with the understanding that we might not be a band anymore."

"We sat there and smoked some pot, drank champagne and cried," Fishman says. "It really felt like the end." Phish soon had another powwow, this time in Burlington, to discuss the immediate future: financing solo projects, downsizing the office. When the meeting was over, Fishman and Anastasio paused in the parking lot on the way to their cars.

"I said, 'We're done,' " Fishman recalls. "Trey said, 'Yeah, we're not coming back.' I said, 'All right, I'll see ya later.' We got in our cars and went home."

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