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

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

 

I suppose I should accept my responsibility for the whole thing," Anastasio says with a guilty laugh over dinner in a small Italian restaurant in downtown Burlington. Phish's disappearing act "was probably my idea." He is being modest. Nothing much happens in Phish – songwriting, stage gags, breakingup, reuniting – that isn't his idea or greatly driven to fruition by his strong work ethic and blitzkrieg energy. He actually talks a lot like he plays guitar: Words tumble out in torrents, spinning in long digressions, much like the notes in his extended solos in live fan favorites such as "David Bowie" and "Runaway Jim."

Born Ernest Joseph Anastasio III, he comes from creative and disciplined stock. His mother, Diane, was an editor of Sesame Street magazine. Trey says her idea of fun was to "throw a pile of stuff on the ground, boxes of junk," and tell Trey and his older sister, Kristy, "to 'make something.' " Trey's father was an executive at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey. He was also Trey's hockey coach.

"Trey likes to point back to his experience playing team sports – he loves practices," says Paluska, who booked Phish for a campus show at Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1988 and soon became their manager. "Trey enjoys pushing everybody. But they all like to be pushed."

Gordon, Fishman and McConnell agree that Anastasio is Phish's leader. "It was his vision, more than anyone's, from the beginning, and that hasn't changed," says McConnell. The New Jersey-born son of a pharmaceutical research scientist, McConnell joined Phish in 1985, two years after Anastasio started the earliest version of the band at the University of Vermont with Fishman and guitarist Jeff Holdsworth. (Holdsworth left in the spring of 1986.)

Fishman is a native of Syracuse, New York. A strong, swinging drummer with an unusually soft touch, he's an irrepressible comic who wears a housedress onstage almost every night. "The band is named after him for a reason," Anastasio says. "The guy is a character." But Fishman says that for Anastasio, from the beginning, Phish was life.

"We used to have this yearly meeting," Fishman explains, "where we said, 'Is everybody still into being a band?' 'Yeah, yeah.' Then we got to the six-year mark. Everybody was getting out of college. Trey was very serious. He said, 'We can't go from year to year and have this meeting. I'm in it for the long haul. I need to know everyone else is in it, too. If we can't commit for the next ten years, then we dissolve it now.' "

Asked whether he is, in fact, the boss, Anastasio cannot bear to go all the way. "Half of me thinks it's a great thing, and half of me is embarrassed by it," he says. "That's a real problem inside of me. The essence of Phish, truly, is group existence, equality. But equality implies individuality. And that's been the battle." He takes a deep pause for breath. "Because I can be overbearing."

He is also loyal. Many of the songs on Phish's nearly three dozen studio and live albums were written by Anastasio with lyricist Tom Marshall, a computer programmer by day for the Prudential Insurance Company. The two met, and first wrote together, in the eighth grade at Princeton Day School; they have been friends and collaborators ever since. "I have no training in writing," Marshall confesses. "And there have been times when some guy will hand Trey an entire book of poems, really good stuff. I felt threatened by that at one point. Trey just said, 'Don't worry about it.' "

Phish first talked of breaking up, or at least getting off the road, at some point in the last half of the 1990s. Exactly when depends on whom you ask. Anastasio remembers playing the last notes of the band's nearly eight-hour, outdoor millennium set on January 1st, 2000, as the morning sun rose over the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades: "Fish and I turned to each other as we went offstage and went, 'Now what? What are we going to do next? We should just quit right now.'"

McConnell says he heard Anastasio and Gordon say the same thing after playing for 135,000 fans at Phish's 1996 two-day festival, the Clifford Ball. "Not in a bad way, either," McConnell insists. "It was more like, 'We just did a great thing. What if we just stopped now?' "

Anastasio always made music outside of Phish. In 1996, he masterminded a free-improvisation recording date with Fishman and members of Sun Ra's Arkestra, released as Surrender to the Air. In 1999, he toured with his own power trio. The morning after that weed-and-champagne hugfest backstage at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Anastasio went right to work scoring "Guyute," an old Phish song, for the Vermont Youth Orchestra. Within a year, he had made an album with a second power trio – Oysterhead, with Primus bassist Les Claypool and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland – and toured with his own big band, performing the new songs that became his 2002 solo album, Trey Anastasio.

In comparison, McConnell flew from Shoreline to New York, where he lived at the time, and, by his own admission, "slept for a few days. I didn't know what to do. I stayed home for a whole year and tried to figure it all out." He eventually formed his own fusion trio, Vida Blue. Fishman worked with the Jazz Mandolin Project and recorded with his side band, Pork Tornado.

"It was weird for a while," Paluska says. "We did lay people off. But the band was so active with different projects, our personnel situation moved back to a fairly similar place. And I had a lot of things to do for Phish. The Beatles haven't played together since 1970, but they still have an office full of people thinking about the Beatles every day."

Gordon thought a lot about Phish during the break. Born in Sudbury, Massachusetts, he was an electrical engineering student at the University of Vermont when he answered a campus flier posted by Anastasio, who was looking for a bass player. Gordon switched his major to filmmaking in 1986 and later directed the band's only video shown on MTV, "Down With Disease." "It was on Beavis and Butt-head," he says with a kind of pride. "They were talking about how fish swim around in their own shit." Last year, Gordon released a full-length documentary, Rising Low, about the band Gov't Mule and its late bassist, Allen Woody.

"I was exploring other things," Gordon says, "but I went through this phase of reading all of my old journals, from our first jam in a dorm room to the whole blossoming career. We were releasing these live albums" – the Live Phish series, now up to sixteen volumes – "and I had specific thoughts about different gigs. I made a fifty-page document and sent it to the office.

"But I got nostalgic doing it," he admits. "There were so many adventures, so much fun. Reading the journals, listening to old live tapes – I started to feel like it was going to be hard to replace this in my life." So he did something about it. Last August, he booked a getaway weekend for all four band members (again, no management or family) at a hotel in Lake Placid, New York. "I wanted to treat them in style," Gordon cracks. He bought fruit baskets for everyone's room, booked a group boat ride and typed up a list of topics for discussion, including: When will Phish play again?

Anastasio already had the new songs he wanted them to play. At a Labor Day picnic he hosted at his house, Anastasio held a little listening party. "He had each of us individually get into his car, and he blasted his demos," Gordon says, grinning. "And while they were playing, he described the stage antics that might go with them." By mid-October, Paluska had booked New York's Madison Square Garden for New Year's Eve (another jam band, String Cheese Incident, had been holding the date for a possible show) and Phish had recorded and mixed Round Room.

Which wasn't even supposed to be an album. Phish wanted to mark their return to the road by cutting a new record at the Garden, in front of their fans, then making it available for download at the stroke of midnight, January 1st, 2003. But the band liked the practice tapes of the songs they made at the Barn so much that they decided to put them out.

There is an austere, spacey quality to Round Room. It's an album of demos. But it is the purest Phish on record, more so than the band's official live albums, because it is how they sound in rehearsal: away from the crowds, jamming for the sheer private thrill of filling a room with new music.

At the Barn in December, the band runs through some of Round Room in preparation for New Year's Eve. Outside, it's cold enough for hot chocolate. Inside, nobody needs mushrooms. "Waves," an eleven-minute trip on the album, is getting longer and even more psychedelic. In the equally epic "Pebbles and Marbles," Fishman's tight, soft-shoe drumming has become a brisk gallop; McConnell's elegant piano fills are harder, more urgent; and Anastasio has put more power-chord wallop into his guitar playing.

"I feel like we spent our first seventeen years learning how to be a good band," Fishman says that evening as he gets ready to go to a local bar and celebrate the day's jamming with a White Russian. "Now we can spend the next twenty years actually being a good band."

 

Phish have already made another new album. They did it even before they got to the Garden – on December 19th, while they were in New York to appear on Late Show With David Letterman. Anastasio and McConnell popped into a downtown recording studio sometime after midnight, decided to play, and phoned Fishman and Gordon back at the hotel, asking them to join. Phish then taped an hour and a half of spontaneous playing, decided on a title (The Victor Disc, named after the session's engineer) and came up with a cover idea.

"I called Mike – he was in bed," Anastasio says later that day, after the Letterman taping, at another studio in Manhattan, where he is editing live tapes from his 2002 solo tour for yet another album. "But Mike came down and recorded an album. He couldn't wait to do it.

"It's all a leap of faith – four guys leaping out of an airplane with one parachute," Anastasio says of Phish. "Last night, we were still playing at six in the morning, and I'm thinking, 'Boy, I should go to sleep. I gotta do Letterman tomorrow.' But we were cranking it out.

"The danger," he adds, "is to lose that. If all these things – having big companies and touring too much – threaten to suck the life out of the thing that it was in the first place . . ." Anastasio doesn't care to finish the thought. Phish are up and running again. He's not interested in the alternative.

Phish have made adjustments for the second phase of their career. Tours will be shorter – the February jaunt is only two weeks long – to allow for outside projects and family life: Anastasio and his wife, Sue, have two daughters; McConnell and his wife, Sofi, have a girl; and Fishman and his girlfriend, Briar, have a toddler named Ella. Phish's recording future is up in the air; they have one more album left in their current Elektra contract. And the band has not decided how, or if, it will continue hallowed traditions such as the big summer festivals and the Halloween game of covering whole albums by other artists.

"A part of what killed Jerry Garcia," McConnell says, "was the bigness of what the Dead became. He couldn't stop touring. It's the antithesis of what I want to happen. I want to create a way for us to continue to be ourselves and make new music all the time. That may end up, someday, just being four people playing in a barn. And I love that just as much – just making music, with nobody hearing or recording it.

It's very difficult for me to imagine us ever breaking up again," McConnell claims. "Maybe we take another hiatus. But as long as the four of us are alive, on the earth, Phish would exist. Because that is what we are."

There will be at least one more show, guaranteed, after this tour. "We have this series of band rules," Anastasio says, and while making the Victor Disc, "we came up with another one: We have to play one show when we're in our eighties." He almost chokes on his own laughter. "That's the new band rule. Of course, that means we have to stay alive."

This story is from the March 6, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone

From The Archives Issue 917: March 6, 2003
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