In 2001, Phish were in an extended hiatus, and the band’s piano player Page McConnell was looking for a new challenge. Then he went to see the Funky Meters play New York City’s Irving Plaza. Watching his friend Russell Batiste Jr. drum behind the R&B legends, McConnell says, “It just kind of hit me: ‘I know Russell, I could ask him to be in a band with me. I think the next week, I went to see the Allman Brothers and saw Oteil.” McConnell is referring to bass virtuoso Oteil Burbridge, who now tours with Dead & Company. They formed Vida Blue, a keyboard-drum-bass trio that delved deep into electronic sounds that McConnell had long wanted to explore. “As much as I love synthesizers, it’s hard for me to introduce [them] into the Phish world, because I’ve already got the keyboard and organ. I just wanted a place to be able to experiment a little bit more.”
Vida Blue only existed until 2004. That changes today: The band is releasing a new song “Analog Delay,” a psych-funk epic that has McConnell reflecting on his musical revelations as a teenager. It features guitarist Adam Zimmon, who has joined McConnell on other solo projects. Vida Blue will release their new album Crossing Lines on September 20th. They will also return to the road for three shows, beginning September 18th at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club. They will also play September 20th at the Fillmore in Philadelphia and September 21st and the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York.
The new album really captures the feeling of experimentation, which is a hard thing to do in the studio.
It’s a funny project. We started recording in September 2001. And I had known Oteil for quite a while, when he played with Aquarium Rescue Unit. Russell and I had done a project in ’98 when we played on a benefit track for the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic, an organization my dad started that a lot of people are still benefiting from in New Orleans. And I loved his playing. I got this project together and we recorded our first album and went on tour a little bit, and then did another record with the Spam All Stars in Miami. Then we did a little more touring in 2003-2004, that was it. I stopped Vida Blue, sort of right about the time that Phish was stopping, too. Our last gig was Bonnaroo, and then we finished up the Phish summer tour that year at Coventry. I was kind of band-less there for a while. I decided I was going to wrap up Vida Blue for time being, it was too hard for two bands full time. I didn’t realize Phish was gonna stop.
I sort of toyed with the idea of getting back together with those guys. Then, 15 years later, around 2017, I had enough material that I felt would be a good start for that band, and decided to add Adam as well. I decided if I was gonna get the band together, I wanted to bring him along. I made that decision a long time ago.
I was wondering if the synth songs on Phish’s Big Boat inspired you to return to that sound.
It’s almost the other way around, because if you listen to the first album I did in 2001, most of the album was that. I don’t wanna blow my own horn here, but as early as it was, it still sounds fairly current. I had just gotten a synthesizer, and I just found all these patches. We recorded the first album in New Orleans in the Ninth Ward, and I had dialed up these different patches and had some loops. On both the first record and this one, I did most of the writing after we’d been in the studio. It works for this band.
How do you write lyrics after a song is recorded?
I guess I let whatever the song is inspire wherever it’s going lyrically. It is backwards to how most people do [it]. And maybe it’s why it took me a year to make the damn thing. We recorded for four days and then I took it home for a year and made the record. So we had four days in the studio in Miami and did all the tracking there, and then I did the rest here in Vermont.
What did you like about the idea of a trio?
A couple things. It can be so many different things, whether it’s Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Cream. But the keyboard trio in particular, with a keyboard, bass, and drums, just kind of seemed liberating to me. Maybe it’d been years and years of playing with a guitar player, but it was important that I did my own thing. I consciously didn’t want to have guitar in the band. And I think that that was fine for the studio, but I really do enjoy guitar in my band. I don’t know how much you know about Adam Zimmon’s playing or what he’s about, but he’s not only one of the nicest guys you will ever meet, he’s such a tasteful player. He worked on my solo projects. There’s a song called “Halfway to the Moon” on Fuego. That guitar line came from a track that I’d recorded with a solo band that Adam played on. He’s currently out with Ziggy Marley now, and he’s played with a lot of different folks over the years, he’s one of those guys.
What does he bring to the mix?
I thought a shining moment I did with him on the Vida Blue album is a song called “Maybe.” It’s a seven-minute jam and it doesn’t start out as a guitar song, but this guitar solo sort of blossoms out of this jam in sort of a ripping way. He’s very tasteful, talented and an incredible technician. Not to say he doesn’t play with a lot of heart, he really does.
When you return to a project 15 years later, do you still have the creative spark? What’s it like returning to this mindset at a different stage in your life?
I can’t remember laughing harder for four days straight than I did those four days in Miami. There was so much joy and fun. Russell is quite a character and really funny, and tends to be at the center of whatever is going on, and loud. But [he’s] a guy I care about incredibly. I have a deep emotional attachment to Russell and I’m really happy to be playing with him again. The tracks were flowing pretty easily. We were gonna go for five days, but we stopped after four. It all kind of came out in a very natural and organic way. It was a blast, it really was.
I just saw Oteil play with Soulive over the weekend at Brooklyn Bowl and it’s pretty incredible to watch what he can do up close.
He’s arguably the greatest electric bass player on the planet. One can make that argument pretty easily. And I think it’s funny because when I first met him I want to say it was 91, 92 something like that I saw him play a small club in Athens Georgia, and his background was more fusion. He loved Jaco Pastorius, Alphonso Johnson, guys like that. And since then, he’s sort of become the de facto bass player for jam bands, whether it’s the Allman Brothers or the Dead. Calling them jam bands kind of diminishes them, these guys who were pioneers in rock improvisation, which is not where he came from at all. Oteil as just furthered the depth of [it], it’s been great for me.
Phish are one of the most talented bands all around. Is it possible for you to feel pushed as a musician playing with Vida Blue, or are always comfortable behind your instrument?
It’s just different, because Phish is just such a group effort. When we’re really playing well, it’s like one brain, moving around. Everybody is like separate limb. Limb of the brain? Imagine a brain with four arms [laughs.]
You should make that your next album cover.
[Laughs] But when I’m soloing, for instance, on the last track “If I Told You,” it’s a more traditional. I’m being backed up by the band and I’m the featured soloist. That does happen with Phish, but when we’re at our best, it’s like we’re all soloing collectively. So I do feel pushed by everybody I play with, encouraged and lifted up by all their great playing in both bands.
The song you’re putting out first is “Analog Delay.” Are you writing about your childhood?
Yeah I guess so. Oh gosh, now I have to analyze the lyrics. God, get me another cup of coffee. In an impressionistic way, I guess it’s the story of my life. Music is what drives me and lifts me and I’ve kind of known it my whole life. I used to listen to my radio a lot. It’s what I always wanted to do, and that’s where it came from, I guess.
What else were you writing about?
My dad passed away about three days after we finished in Miami. I spent the next year working on it and I think I kind of buried myself in it in a good, positive way. My dad had lived a full life and he was well into his 90s. It was not a tragedy, but it was a life-changing experience, to say the least. I don’t know exactly how that all filtered into the lyrics and everything that came out that year, but I’m sure it did.
What will the shows be like?
I don’t know. I know what they were like in the old days with the trio. I think it’ll be fun. I didn’t want to book a huge six-week tour or something. I just wanted to get my feet wet again. One of the things I love about being in Phish is I don’t have to lead every moment of the band. I can be in the band, but not calling the songs or counting the tempos or that sort of stuff. And that’s not a luxury I have in this band, because I have to do that stuff, which is fun but a different discipline for me.
In Phish, you were always involved with booking shows and the schedule. Are you still?
I think as I’ve gotten older and hopefully a little wiser, I’m able to just focus on what I need to focus on, which is playing the piano and writing songs and letting everyone else do their job. I make the effort, but it’s hard to not get in there or have an opinion about stuff. It’s not like I can’t, but its important for me to realize what my focus needs to be and there’s only so many hours in the day.
Is Phish looking to record again anytime soon?
Oh yeah, we’re always looking forward. We’re always thinking about the next thing, even though we just finished [the summer tour] two nights ago. The Phish thing is going so well right now, I can’t even really talk about it without getting emotional, because it’s just too intense. The tour was so good, we had such a good time. Everybody felt great about it and we played really well. I thought every show was really special and some were even extra special. So things couldn’t really be going much better for Phish right now, we’re all in a really good place and happy to be playing together.
Is Vida Blue something fans bring up to you a lot?
No, I think everybody probably thought it was never going to happen again. It was such a long time ago that not many people talk to me about it, but it was always on my mind. I always thought we would do something again. We have three shows coming up here in the fall and I would like it to be something that doesn’t just end here but I would like it to be something that I can continue to do with these guys over the years, even if it’s just one or two shows a year just to keep it together. It doesn’t need to break up again, even if we aren’t as active as we were from 2002-2004. It’s a new phase for us, and I would like to keep it going.