It's been a busy month for Phish. The eclectic mega-cult band jammed with Neil Young at Farm Aid and the Bridge School benefit concerts, taped a future show for the PBS series Sessions at West 54th Street, and this week released The Story of the Ghost, the band's ninth album on Elektra.
On Oct. 29 in Los Angeles, Phish launched a fall tour which runs through late November, including a Halloween stop in Las Vegas at which the band will revive their infamous tradition of covering an entire album by another artist as a "musical costume." Bassist Mike Gordon, guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell will close 1998 with four shows at Madison Square Garden -- the quartet's first four-night stand since their epic stint at Red Rocks in Colorado two years ago..
Earlier this week, Gordon took time to talk about The Story of the Ghost -- produced by Andy Wallace (Jeff Buckley, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, the Cult) -- and the group's recent live exploits.
How do you feel about The Story of the Ghost?
It's kinda both funkier and dreamier than some of our other albums, and it's like we have our own sound that's coming together. Our influences are jelled more into being us. And it was a very organic way that it was put together, starting with a lot of jam tracks, then writing lyrics together to those jams. That makes up at least half the album right there. And while we were writing lyrics, we were singing them onto a tape right at the point of conception.
So were you writing lyrics, or adjusting [longtime Phish lyricist Tom Marshall]'s?
We were all using Tom's book, of ten years of his writing. I had never picked out lyrics and made up melodies to them from his book before. This was the first time. It had always been just Trey and Tom. So it was a lot more collaborative.
Then songs like "Guyute" and "Limb By Limb" were recorded more straight-ahead?
Yeah, but the difference was that after we had all the jam tracks from the farmhouse [we rented], we went in and recorded more songs, and actually recorded sixteen songs in two days, including those. And usually it takes us three days to record one song. We were kinda on a roll, and they all sounded pretty good, all sixteen of them. It took maybe a couple of takes for certain ones. We were just in the right moment. We've been talking to Neil Young a lot, doing these benefits, and his philosophy is you should record everything, and some stuff will be good, and not to worry whether everything's recorded in the same room for consistency. An album is capturing a period of time, and that will tie it all together.
Why has it been so hard to get your studio thing down when your concerts are so consistent?
I guess some things come differently to different people. We've always enjoyed the studio, even making four-track tapes. But oftentimes, we'd get into the studio and make an album and be loving it at the same time, and then ...[trails off]. What it is maybe is, in a concert, you can't really dwell on it for too long, 'cause the next night, there's another concert, especially if you're interested in improvising and having it always be different. Whereas on an album, you're so immersed in it, maybe you lose perspective.
Other songs on the CD like "Meat" and "Fikus" have a different, spooky side, and I really like "Roggae" (an atmospheric, Brian Eno-ish tune on which Gordon added pedal steel).
I had to fight for that one when the rest of the band wanted to cut it. We had forty-three songs recorded, for an album that ended up being fourteen songs, so we had to cut about thirty songs and that wasn't easy... Trey said, "okay, if you like ['Roggae'], you be pro-active and make it into something better." So I took the original tape and added the bridge section where the pedal steel comes in. That alone gave the song the tweak of structure that it needed.
When did you decide on a Halloween album this year?
We had a few different ideas, and then in the end, it just became obvious.
Will it live up to the other three (the Beatles' White Album in '94, the Who's Quadrophenia in '95 and Talking Heads' Remain in Light in '97)?
It's different. I guess they were each different in their own ways.
Especially as a surprise though, you're always going to get some people who are disappointed on one level or another.
I don't know. Maybe it's a touch more risky in terms of how many people will know the album.
As opposed to scratching their heads?
I guess in the cases where people don't know the music, it just has to invite them in, in some way.
Farm Aid seemed to be an intense experience, too.
We were really grooving well together, and Neil must have been inspired too, 'cause he just popped out on stage [to steer Phish into a scorching twenty-minute "Down by the River"], and I thought the jam was really impassioned in a certain kind of way. So it was a really special experience, 'cause we had just met him that day, and then to really bond with someone like that....
It was kind of an old-school jam, but sonically and texturally, it had so much going on. Have you ever had a guest appearance that turned out so intense?
Maybe not, it was definitely on a different par. He's such an intense and deep guy that he was out there without any distractions in his mind. He wasn't out there thinking, 'I'm a big star joining.' All he cared about was getting immersed in the music, and that was so apparent.
Are you guys finally getting a new level of respect?
We're increasing our visibility right now, or it's increasing itself a little bit. Things are just surfacing in the public perception a bit for us, and it's been nice. It's not out of control or anything. We're still not pop stars. Like the other phases of our career, it's still gradual.