"We've gone forward and backward at once," singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio says cheerfully of Fuego, Phish's first studio album in five years, in a cafe near his Manhattan home. "We were alone in the room, like it used to be," referring to Fuego's genesis in jam sessions between the falls of 2012 and 2013 at Phish's Vermont space, the Barn.
There is also a new focus on collective composing and lyric writing with five of Fuego's 10 songs, including the nine-minute title track and the gently ascending climax "Wingsuit," credited to the full band: Anastasio, keyboard player Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman. "That was groundbreaking," says Anastasio, usually Phish's dominant composer. "We really challenged each other."
"It's happened before," says McConnell, citing the live favorite "Tweezer," "which came from a jam, then we created silly lyrics for it. But to have four of us putting in equally, with emotional value, shows where we are now."
Another first was the band's choice for producer: Bob Ezrin, who had never seen Phish live but worked on their favorite classic LPs by Pink Floyd and Lou Reed. After catching Phish in concert last July, then joining them at the Barn to sort through songs, Ezrin says he found "a band that travels at the same speed I do. Anything I or they could think of, they could play it instantly."
A month after starting with Ezrin in Vermont, Phish debuted Fuego onstage at a Halloween show in Atlantic City. A few days later, Phish and Ezrin were recording in Nashville and, barring overdubs, done in a week. "We were going for the same experience I had when I saw them live," Ezrin says. That is literally true of "Fuego"; most of the track was recorded at an Atlantic City soundcheck.
The generous improvising, subtly enriched production and emphasis on vintage cohesion make Fuego Phish's most satisfying studio effort since 1996's Billy Breathes. There is strong individual writing, including McConnell's jazzy meditation "Halfway to the Moon," and the brisk rock sugar of "Sing Monica" by Anastasio and his longtime lyricist Tom Marshall. And there is fun: At the end of "Wingsuit," Anastasio pays guitar homage to one of Ezrin's most famous co-productions, "Comfortably Numb," from the Floyd's The Wall.
"I hope it's good – that would be great," Anastasio says of Fuego with a modest laugh. "The bigger dream for me is that the songs establish themselves in the live repertoire." That should happen when Phish hit the road in July and August. "I think you're going to see a lot less covers," the guitarist warns with a grin, "because everyone's excited about the new material."
This story is from the June 19th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.