Page McConnell has been Phish’s keyboard wizard for the past 37 years. Today, however, his job is a little different. “I was teaching common denominators to my nine-year-old daughter,” he says. “I’ve been the math instructor, and music appreciation.”
McConnell is checking in from his Burlington, Vermont, home, where he’s grateful that his self-isolation has been painless. “I don’t go out much in real life anyway, so it’s not such a radical change for me,” he says. “I think about others a lot, and how it must be really hard for so many people right now.”
McConnell took a break from his daily quarantine rhythm earlier this month to release Sigma Oasis. Phish’ new studio album was recorded in only three and a half days in November with producer Vance Powell, and was mixed and mastered quickly as the world was shutting down. The album is their best in a long time, featuring wild psychedelic jams like “Mercury” and “Thread,” which they’ve been road testing for years.
“When bands record their first album, often it’s good because they’ve been playing those songs live before they ever got into the studio,” Trey Anastasio said last week. “And then the second album is a struggle, because they don’t have any good songs anymore. We felt like it’s been a very prolific period.” Here, McConnell talks about how the album came together, seeing Anastasio play with the Grateful Dead, and the origins of Phish’s wildly popular Ben & Jerry’s flavor.
I was just talking to Trey, and he talked a lot about how great your playing was on this album.
Trey had said very nice things about my playing, and I really appreciate it. I feel really good about my playing on this record. When we did the basic tracks, it all happened innocently enough. We were just up at the barn [in Vermont] and ran through these songs. The process was just a little bit different than it had been on the last two [albums.] One, we weren’t working with an outside producer, and we’d actually gone into the session with the idea that we were going to do another four-way writing session, and do one in the afternoon and one in the morning. It just ended up that we focused on this. I think Trey’s singing is really good. There have been times on albums in the past where I felt maybe it was a little tentative, or not as full-throated, if you will, and he sounds comfortable. He sounds like himself to me when he’s singing these. I think he worked at it and did a great job with that.
The grooves are so solid. We were having a little listening dance party in my living room the other night, and listened to “Everything’s Right.” It’s just so relaxed. It’s what Phish sounds like. There have been so many other albums where I hear the drumming and think, “Man, he plays better than that,” and I didn’t have that sense. It was like, “That’s what Fish sounds like to me. This is really what his playing sounds like.”
In terms of my playing, I’m really happy with a lot of the piano playing. In the past, it’s hard for me sometimes to listen to some of my playing, and I don’t actually listen to our records, but I have listened to bits of this over the last couple weeks. It’s still holding up. I spent probably five or six days doing overdubs in my studio, which actually is where I am now. It wasn’t something I had necessarily planned on doing, but I just really dove in and reorganized my studio, had all my keyboards in one room and was able to just roll through these songs. Some of them I spent quite a bit of time on. A song like “Thread,” I probably was working on for five days straight, just on keyboards.
What was your process for “Thread”
There are so many different keyboards that I’m working on. On a song like “Thread,” I overdubbed one, two, probably five or six different synthesizers, as well as organ and electric piano. With each addition, I sit down and I say, “OK, I’m going to play organ on this. What might that part be?” And then I have to get the sound that I want. Then I have to get a performance that I like, and then I usually cut half of it out after a long time. So there’s some editing as well. So, with each keyboard, there’s at least four or five steps that go into the process. But it’s such a joy for me.
I guess part of the big thrill for me is just that I’m given the freedom to do this. I have my own place. It’s not in a bigger studio, where you look at the clock, and you’re thinking, “OK, how many hundreds of dollars an hour am I wasting here trying to figure out this keyboard part?” I was just on a roll here with myself, and there were two different engineers that I worked with in my studio. Just [having] the leisure and the freedom to, when I finally hear something that sounds right to me, [say] “Ah, that was the key that unlocked it for me.”
The barn session happened in November, and then we did a little tour in November, beginning of December. Then Trey went to a studio and worked a lot of vocals. He did that first, so I wasn’t working on anything until toward the end of January because we went and did the New Years run and I was away. We came back, and I started about mid-January doing my overdubs. I didn’t really change any of the basic tracks. I just put stuff on top if it.
Songs like “Mercury,” with the line, “Your day is longer than your year,” sound pretty reflective of our current moment, with everyone in isolation.
Well, there was more than one track that had that kind of synchronicity happening with the lyrics. And you know where that lyric comes from: “Your day is longer than your year,” the scientific orbiting of Mercury around the sun. It travels around like knuckle ball. It doesn’t really spin. Its revolution around the sun happens before it even rotates around itself once, which I think is amazing. I love that.
That’s why you’re teaching math and science.
I guess that’s why I’m teaching math, right, and science. Actually for science, we’ve watched some Nova programs on Apollo and that sort of thing.
When I heard the album, I didn’t even know how much of it was recorded in the barn, but it just sounded like it was. I imagined standing outside and hearing it just blaring out, like you were playing a live set.
Thank you. I understand that, and I think that it sounds more like us. Then certain things happened because there was such a time crunch. I wasn’t even involved with much of the mix. I didn’t get involved until basically the last two days of mixing, and I listened to this stuff. I was like, “Hey, I got some thoughts here…” And so Vance and Mike, his [engineer], went back into the studio. And I thought that perhaps other songs might get edited and shortened because that’s something that often happens in a record. We didn’t have time, so that didn’t happen. So all these songs ended up becoming these longer things than they probably would have. And now I’m glad that we didn’t have time to overthink it or cut stuff down.
I listened when we did that initial listening party with everybody and played it at 9 p.m. And, as I was listening to it, I watched the comments go by, which is something I would never do, either, but I did. It really felt like you were getting a full set at a show. A lot of the people were having that experience, and I was as well. It has a little bit of everything: It’s got some evil jamming, and it’s got some ballads and some funky, danceable stuff and some more cerebral stuff. And more than one jam in the course of that set.
And we were able to get it mastered. The next day after we mixed it, we mastered it, then Nashville shut down, and no one was allowed to do anything. Things that I might have nitpicked in the past or had issues with, I realized there’s a bigger thing happening here, and it’s much more important we get this out as soon as possible. “If we don’t get it out now, I have no idea when we’re going to get it out.” That was driving the agenda, and that’s what gave us the product that we have. Not product, sorry. That’s what gave us the album we have! It is a product, but not a product like a thing you sell. The product of our work, I mean.
I’m going to make the headline: “Page McConnell: It is a Product.”
“We’re so happy with our product!” That’s a pretty good pull-quote. But anyway, it’s all so strange, and then it really felt like an emotional thing, too, to be listening to it with everybody, to know that everybody was hearing it at the same time, and that even if it wasn’t people all in the same room, certainly some people were connected through threads of commenting or whatever. I felt a mass emotional experience somehow knowing it was happening, even if I wasn’t in the same room with it. That felt pretty powerful to me.
“I felt a mass emotional experience, even if I wasn’t in the same room with everyone,” McConnell says of the ‘Sigma Oasis’ live stream. “That felt pretty powerful to me.”
How many days did it take to record all the songs in the barn in November?
With all of us? We had booked five days, but I think it only ended up being about three and a half days we were there.
And you played every single one of these songs?
We recorded everything. And a lot more than that, and multiple takes of each of these. I mean, we play a lot when we’re working.
What were some of your favorite moments when you guys were all playing together?
I remember thinking that “Leaves” was good, and that that’s not a song that’s heavy in the repertoire. I think we’ve only played it two or three times ever. I thought that was really good, and I still do. I think Fishman’s vocals are great on there, and Trey’s vocals. And the guitar playing, too, on the whole record, I really feel like it it’s not him showing off. It’s just sort of what he sounds like, what Trey sounds like to me when he plays. It’s very natural and nothing that jars me or makes me think, “Oh, this doesn’t sound like Trey.” It all sounds like Trey to me.
I thought that the “Thread” jam was really strong afterwards. I remember really enjoying it, enjoying the jam, and enjoying playing that as well. It’s just fun when we’re together. The whole thing was kind of a standout.
Some of these go back a few years of playing. I know you’ve done that before, but was it a decision to play these songs on the road ahead of time and really perfect them before going into the studio?
No. It was more of a thought: “Hey, we’re going into the studio to go write another record,” like another whether it’s Kasvot Växt, or the group writing that we did on both Fuego and Big Boat. The thought was: “Well, what about all these other songs that have never been on a record? Shouldn’t we maybe document these as well?”
We try to put out records every couple years, but half of these were cut for the last record and didn’t make it. Trey is especially prolific. We all try to write, but Trey just cranks them out with a little bit more regularity than the rest of us.
It’s pretty inspiring to see what he’s doing on Instagram.
I’ve heard about it, but I have no idea what he’s doing, to be honest with you.
He’s just putting out new songs every day. He was playing wine glasses along to a song. He’s using toilet paper for drums and stuff. He just said, “This is what I’m doing now, I guess.”
That’s awesome. That’s awesome.
Yeah, and anything you remember hearing for the first time being Trey playing it or something, and you being, “This is something that I haven’t heard you do before?”
I would say that I think “Life Beyond a Dream” is, in my opinion, one of the best songs that Trey’s ever written. And he’s got a few on each record. I thought that on the last record for me, it was, for me, “Miss You” was the song. That song, and then this one, I think it’s a different level. I think his writing is really improved incredibly.
I’m curious about something else. For a long time, you guys had your own following, and the Grateful Dead had their own. After they stopped existing, a lot of their audience came over to Phish. Today, it seems like Phish are the major touring American rock & roll band …
The torch bearers? You know, just to back up to the premise of the question, although when the Dead stopped playing, there was certainly the perception that all these fans came over to us, from my perspective, when that was actually happening, the Dead fans didn’t think as much of Phish as they did of the Dead, and vice versa. Obviously, we had a much smaller following.
But what ended up happening was the real influence that I felt when the Dead stopped was all the people that came to Phish weren’t there for the music. They were there to sell stuff in the lots and try to make money. It was a little bit of an ugly scene, sort of the darker underbelly of their scene just came over to our lot because it was the next lot. Not because they liked Phish.
I think actually, after Trey did the Fare Thee Well concerts, I saw a lot of people that very next tour that looked like old Deadheads that were coming to check us out that hadn’t seen us before. That was my feeling around that. And that has grown.
They wrote great songs. And Robert Hunter wrote great lyrics. And I feel like there was a maturity to their lyrics that I hope that we’re touching on as well now. So I can see why people maybe would have had a harder time following a song like “Cavern” 20 years ago, but might be able to identify with “A Life Beyond the Dream” or something. There’s an emotional leap to them that our writing hasn’t always had.
Did you go to the Fare Thee Well shows?
I did. I went to all three in Chicago. It was so fun. First of all, I had never seen Trey up on a big stage before. Certainly not a big-ass stage like Soldier Field. To see him up there, and for me to be able to go to a concert and see Trey up there playing, jamming on all these songs I know with my friends was an experience I’d never had before. My friends go to see Phish, and they get that experience all the time, but I’d never had it.
That was really fun, and just the experience itself – of being out in the audience and realizing not everybody’s listening to every single note. I am so laser focused when I’m up there. And if I play something I’m not thrilled with, it’ll stick with me for a minute or two. People out in the audience, they’re not having that experience. They’re with their friends. They’re dancing around. They’re going to the bathroom. They’re swimming in the ocean if they’re in Mexico, or whatever, but they’re not listening with a critical ear that I am by any stretch. The experience out there is really fun, and so that was a really helpful thing for me to remember that I learned from that was like, “Wow, people are just out having a good time with their friends mostly, and we’re kind of the background music on some level.”
I read the book about Fare Thee Well, and Trey had something like five days to rehearse with the whole band.
Oh, he worked his butt off for six months ahead of that, though. I know that there may have only been five full-band rehearsals, [but] I also know he spent more time with Bob Weir ahead of it. And time with Phil, and just getting his rig together and really, really studying Jerry and trying to pick up as much as he could.
How does Phish continue to exist right now [without live music]?
Well, that’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest. To me it just feels like we’re not on tour now, which is most of our life. And it might not go on that long, but it’s too soon for me to look down the road and think, “Wow, this has been going on for a long time, will it be much longer?” I just don’t know.
I’m so thrilled that we had something that I felt so good about that we could give to people now. I’m glad that I felt that what we’re doing was some of the best stuff I think we’ve ever put out. There was no plan to have a record out in April. That wasn’t something we talked about at all. This was just, “Well, record this.”
Do you talk to musicians or club owners in Burlington, who don’t know what to do right now?
Well, I know that everybody doesn’t know what to do in the business, and I have spoken more with people in our world, with our managers and that sort of thing. I think the entire industry, especially the entire live industry is just wondering what the next chapter will look like, because nobody knows yet.
“Mass gatherings: it’s the thing you can’t do, and it’s the thing that we do. I do my best to try not to look too far forward, and just try and be present with the kids.”
What do you see happening?
How do I imagine things in the future? I try not to imagine things in the future because I just don’t know if I’m thinking three months out, or six months out, or 18 months out. Mass gatherings – it’s the thing you can’t do, and it’s the thing that we do. So there will be a vaccine at some point, but it’s just so hard to tell at this point. I do my best to try not to look too far forward, and just try and be present with the kids.
I was talking to a friend about live albums, about how they almost feel like a time capsule right now. When you hear someone telling stories to the audience, and people laughing and cheering. Do you look back at those moments with a newfound appreciation?
I don’t look back too much. When I do hear live music or live Phish particular, it’s because I’m listening to the Phish Radio station, on Sirius. I do check in with that. But I also know that there will be a day. I really am confident that there will be a day that we will be doing this again in front of people. I don’t go out to concerts much. I play concerts, but I don’t go out to them. I miss the camaraderie, but we also will text and something funny will happen. The four of us are still in contact to some degree, and everyone has just kind of withdrawn just a little bit into their own world, myself included. I’m just keeping it close.
“I eat more Cherry Garcia than Phish Food,” McConnell admits.
Do you eat the Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food flavor?
I eat more Cherry Garcia than Phish Food [laughs.] I don’t know if that’s bad. I don’t eat much of any of it. My oldest daughter worked at Ben & Jerry’s here in Burlington for about four years, and so we would have as much ice cream as we wanted. I eat a little bit of dairy now, but I was kind of dairy-free then. They make a non-dairy Cherry Garcia. They don’t make a non-dairy Phish Food, so that’s really where that comes from.
Did you guys have a say on what the flavor tasted like?
When they were doing it, Ben and Jerry actually came to the office, and we had a meeting with them. They brought a bunch of flavors. They probably had about seven different flavors, and we got to try. There were some that were not chocolate-based. There was one that was like a mint, which was so good, and that was actually my first choice. We really appreciated them coming and involving us I that process, but they also said, “You know, if you pick a chocolate flavor, it’s going to sell four times as much as anything else.” We’re like, “Oh, well, then how about we do a chocolate flavor? Why don’t we just let you guys decide. You’re the pros.” [Note: Phish Food is one of the company’s most popular flavors.] So they involved us, a courtesy involvement maybe, but they’re great guys. I still see them around town. I mean, not now, obviously, but over the years. They came to Clifford Ball as well. They got up on stage; I think they sang “Brother” or something with us, but they … So, yes, we were somewhat involved, but more in a ceremonial way than in an actual. I suppose if we really pushed a flavor, I don’t know they would have said, but we were really happy to have their input and have them tell us what was the best idea.