Phish on 'Sigma Oasis' LP, Coronavirus, and Future of the Band - Rolling Stone
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Trey Anastasio on Phish’s ‘Sigma Oasis’ and How COVID-19 May Change Music Forever

Phish were feeling looser than ever on their fall tour, and brought that energy into the studio. Now, they’re wondering how long it will be before they play again

phish rey anastasio barn

Rene Huemer*

Trey Anastasio has left his New York apartment exactly three times in the past month. The first of those outings was March 21st, when he went for a walk in Central Park with his wife, Sue. The following day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters he was angry people were still hanging out in parks, playing pickup basketball games. Anastasio has since only gone outside twice, to run to the store. “It’s tense,” he says. “It’s not really a pleasant walk. You can go out, but then you immediately feel like, ‘Is this the right thing to be doing?’”

As New York was shutting down, Anastasio briefly thought about heading to Vermont, where Phish began in 1983, and where he owns a barn where they make music. He floated the idea to his family, including his mother and his two daughters, who all live in the city, too. “I kind of ran it by all of them, and their reaction was, ‘Are you nuts?'” he says. “‘There’s barely any cell reception. And there’s no beds — you’d be sleeping on a futon!’ So we just stayed.”

Anastasio has stayed productive. He and Sue walk 15,000 steps a day in their apartment; Sue can do eight miles in the living room alone. “You get used to it,” he says. Anastasio is usually up “stupid early” (5 a.m. on a good day) and meditates. By the time he’s making coffee, he’s usually humming a new song idea. He’ll bounce ideas off his longtime collaborators Scott Herman and Tom Marshall, his friend since fifth grade, throughout the day, and then start recording on his iPhone. Anastasio feels lucky that, just before New Yorkers went into isolation, he was able to meet up with a roadie, who handed off the Koa guitar that Anastasio uses onstage.

Several of the songs Anastasio has posted have been excellent, like the arena-rock stomper “I Never Needed You Like This Before,” where he endearingly channels Black Sabbath, and the acoustic ballad “Lonely Trip” (“While you’re on this lonely trip, keep an eye on other ships,” he sings). Lately, he’s been getting wildly creative, turning wine glasses and a toaster into percussion instruments on one song, and drumming on rolls of toilet paper and Purell in another.

“Often times, we end up with something really magical,” Anastasio says of working with his friends on his quarantine tracks. “I’m not going to say our songs are magical, but I often have an emotional agenda, and sometimes the combo of thoughts kind of merge together, and one-plus-one ends up making three.”

Anastasio connects the fun he’s having in his apartment to the spirit of Sigma Oasis, Phish’s surprise new album, which they announced on March 31st and released the following day via live stream. The album was recorded quickly last fall. Anastasio had been frustrated that Phish were struggling to capture the energy of their live shows in the studio, so he invited the rest of the band — keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman — to the Vermont barn for five days of recording in November. They tracked songs they’d been road-testing for years, including wild prog-rock anthems like “Mercury,” and “Thread,” a song that builds into a violent, percussive, synth-packed jam that goes on for more than five minutes and may be one of the best things the band has ever recorded. McConnell was so taken with the track that he took it home to Vermont, and spent five more days overdubbing synthesizers on top of it: “I was just so happy about the whole process, and to be this motivated to go and work on this stuff,” he says.

Normally, Phish would spend the months after recording editing down a jam like “Thread” so it fits into the album format. But they didn’t have time: Their producer, Vance Powell, was racing to mix tracks before New York went into quarantine, turning in the final album on March 19th. “Then it was done,” Anastasio says, “and we were all on the phone, and we were like, ‘Well, we should just get it out.'”

What’s remarkable about Sigma Oasis is how much it sounds like it was recorded after COVID-19 hit. There’s “Mercury,” where Anastasio talks about feeling a deep loneliness where “your day is longer than your year.” There’s “A Life Beyond the Dream,” where he talks about moments with people that “melt away like foggy memories of a distant day.” He co-wrote the title track, “Sigma Oasis,” thinking about escaping “the mental noise” of life. Says Anastasio now, “I get sort of little chills about how much [the lyrics] aligned with the way things turned out.”

Some of the songs on Sigma Oasis date back to 2015, the same summer that Anastasio joined the Grateful Dead for their 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well concerts. The shows broke Ticketmaster records, and Anastasio delivered on one of the most high-pressure jobs in rock history. McConnell was there to see the three final shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field. “I had so much fun,” he says. “First of all, I had never seen Trey up on a big stage before. To be able to go to a concert and see Trey up there jamming on all these songs I knew with my friends was an experience I’d never had before.”

The experience caused McConnell to look at Phish a little differently. “I am so laser-focused when I’m up there,” he says. Sometimes, he’ll get angry with himself if he plays something he’s not thrilled with. Watching the audience at those Dead shows, McConnell realized, “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, but they’re not listening with the critical ear that I am by any stretch. That was a really helpful thing for me to remember: ‘Wow, we’re kind of the background music on some level!’”

After 30 years together, Phish started taking more risks and caring less what people thought. The band staged 13 nights at Madison Square Garden in 2017, where they didn’t repeat a single song. The following year, they played a Halloween show as Kasvot Växt, a fake Scandinavian prog-rock band, and also released an album under the same name. A friend who attends a lot of shows recently explained to me why the band are especially great now: “Trey is a quarterback like Tom Brady who is in charge of the game. He’s driving, and every time I go back to the live show, minute one of his guitar playing, I’m like ‘Oh, yeah, this is why I come.'”

Between Phish tours in 2019, Anastasio released an album with a new band, Ghosts of the Forest, put out a documentary, toured with his Trey Anastasio Band, and played solo acoustic shows. Sometimes, even Anastasio’s Phish bandmates have a hard time keeping track of his projects; McConnell is a little confused when he hears about Anastasio’s social media quarantine jams. “I’ve heard about it,” he says, laughing. “But I have no idea what he’s doing, to be honest with you.”

Anastasio isn’t sure when the band will be able to play the songs from Sigma Oasis onstage. Between recording new songs, his days are full of Zoom calls, all focused on putting the band on hold during a pandemic. “It’s a lot of drama around taking a giant touring operation and just stopping it,” he says. “It’s not a simple thing at all.”

“I miss the camaraderie,” says McConnell. “We will text and something funny will happen. The four of us are still in contact to some degree, but everyone has just kind of withdrawn just a little bit into their own world. But I am really confident that there will be a day that we will be doing this again in front of people.”

Anastasio opened up about all these things during an emotional 90-minute phone interview. At one point the call almost drops, but he says not to worry: “I’m not going anywhere.”

The night you released the album, everyone was settling into isolation, and the news was getting really bad. This felt like the first good moment throughout all of it. Were you surprised at how much the lyrics reflect our current crisis?
Some of it felt weird, almost. I get sort of little chills thinking about how much it aligned with the way things turned out. I really wanted “Leaves” to be second: “We built a kingdom out of lies, and then we blindly fanned the fire/We warmed our hands with glowing coals, but now they rain down from the skies.” The general “we lost the plot” message, and now here we are.

The line “The wind is always whispering through the leaves” is the real message to me. It kind of makes me think about all this stuff that’s going on, and all the conversation we’ve had over the last few years, with the oceans, the pollution, and then this thing happens, and you get these news reports: “Well, pollution is down.” Maybe this is nature’s way of [talking to us]. For some reason, that song was kind of exactly what it was supposed to be about. I’m not saying it was luck. I don’t know, but it is what it was trying to say.

The playing feels very real. It’s hopeful, but it’s dark. The whole album really takes you on a journey.
Well, thank you, honestly. I wish I could talk to young musicians, because there’s something maybe that I’ve learned that aligns with what you’re saying in a certain way, and that would be to make writing a fully realized part of the fabric of your life all the time. The reason being that it’s like flexing a muscle. If you’re writing, you’re listening, you’re in tune, you’re paying attention. Maybe this will explain it: You don’t get tunnel vision, and you don’t overthink the message by staring at this little thing that you’re working on. It’s so important that you get all up inside of the voices in your head, as opposed to the emotional place, or your heart, which is in tune with what’s going on around you. So a lot of this record is very natural, and it wasn’t overthought. It was kind of part of a flow and a continuum.

It’s funny, because I kind of was thinking about this before Ghosts of the Forest, meaning I was frustrated that Phish didn’t make an album that was a little more alive, where we didn’t get to where we would just walk in and play the songs that were speaking to us in that moment without debating anything. It was: These are the songs that are emerging at this moment. This is not the record. It’s today’s record. It’s what’s buzzing today.

So Ghosts of the Forest, I worked with Vance [Powell] and Fish — so it’s me, Fishman, and Vance doing the basics at the barn exactly the same way. I was talking with Vance during Ghosts of the Forest, saying “Let’s do a Phish album after this, like this,” where there were no dividers, barely. We were set up exactly like we are onstage, and we played those tracks. There were no solos or anything.

It sounds like you’re playing in the barn. When I heard it, I imagined standing outside, listening in on you guys playing in the barn like you would a live set.
Yeah, and not even really counting off or anything like that. You need the right team, and that’s the great thing about Vance. One of the cool things is he’s exactly the same age as us, so we speak the same language. That was one of the things I noticed working on Ghosts with him: We’re cut from the same cloth. We both were 15, lying on our backs at a party with Animals by Pink Floyd running through speakers on either side of our head, smoking bongs or whatever.

The barn doesn’t have a control room. It’s not a studio, and it was built that way purposely. It’s comfortable, but it’s rustic, and the soundboard is right wrapped around [the musicians]. There’s no dividing at all, so that can be a little tricky for some engineers that don’t want it so loud. It’s real. I feel like if you don’t have that element on a Phish album, you’re missing everything that’s good about Phish. That’s been my theory, so Ghosts was sort of the test run for that.

“We’re cut from the same cloth,” Anastasio says of his producer. “We both were 15, lying on our backs at a party with Animals by Pink Floyd running through the speakers, smoking bongs.”

In November, we went up there. It was before our fall tour, and the band was in a good place. We just played a bunch of songs. We probably played four or five other ones that were really good, but just didn’t end up on this. Vance was going to mix it, but he had another record on the schedule, so he went in to do Chris Stapleton. He basically said, “I’m going to be completely buried until March.” So he took off, and we took the files from the sessions, and Page took them to his house to do some keys, synthesizer and stuff, and I took them down to New York and did some vocals and percussion and stuff. Then Vance got back in the studio on March 9th to start mixing, and almost couldn’t finish because of the quarantine. He had one song left the day that they locked down, and he managed to get it done. He ran into the studio and got it done. He was doing a song a day, I think. It was fast.

Vance Powell, Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell in the barn in November.

Vance Powell, Trey Anastasio, and Page McConnell at the barn in November

Rene Huemer*

Was there a plan to test out songs like “Mercury” and “Thread” heavily on the road before you recorded them? You gave them a lot of time to breathe onstage.
I think it was more organic. I think it was more like on our summer tour, sitting backstage and saying, “Man, we’ve almost stumbled into the lucky position that bands are in when they make their first record.” That’s a conversation I remember coming up: “I really like ‘Shade,’ I really like ‘Mercury.’ I really like ‘Everything’s Right,’ and they didn’t make the last album. But these songs are really popping right now when we’re playing live.”

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. 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, the last five years, so here they were. There were a couple other ones that sounded really good too that just didn’t go on this record, like “Set Your Soul Free.”

“Mercury” is another one that’s so relevant to the loneliness people are feeling: “Your day is longer than your year.” Who were you channeling when you sang that line?
I don’t know, but I will say that this has been a very interesting three years for me, just regarding singing. Maybe you’ve noticed this on the record, and maybe not, but the stakes kind of have been going up. Maybe because I’m getting old or something, but when we’re playing, the music sort of feels like life or death now. Maybe it’s the going back to Ghosts and watching my friend pass away, or getting older and watching your kids [grow up].

The writing, the playing — everything is just desperately trying to get the closest pathway from the heart to the audience. In the process of that, I started to become more concerned with singing than guitar playing. I’ve always been so guitar-centric. I think something happened in the last five years, where the pathway from the heart to the mouth is very short. I just started thinking about being a singer more. My focus changed.

It almost sounds like you’re touching on your teenage influences more, like the Who.
It might be. Maybe that stuff happens as you get to a certain age. This sounds so ridiculous, but making this realization that you can sing like you play guitar — meaning freely-shaped phrases to dig the knife into the emotional center. Most people probably do that when they’re 12, but it’s been a slow process of moving in that direction. I thought there was a lot of that on this record.

You’ve said you like to look for a meaning in every note you play when you’re playing guitar onstage. Do you feel more comfortable expressing yourself that way? How does that compare to how you communicate in everyday life?
I think I feel safe. I think I’ve historically felt safer playing the guitar than I have walking down the street, or talking to somebody in a one-on-one conversation. It’s just been my safe place to be. Honestly, sometimes I think I manifest as Mr. Smiley-Happy Guy, except when I’m playing the guitar. When I’m playing the guitar, I don’t have to hide behind anything, and I think sometimes it gets really dark and scary in guitar moments, where I can be just not scared to actually open the emotion of how I really feel inside. That’s been my safe way of emoting over the years.

I feel like I’m starting to figure out how to do that with singing now. It’s like the release valve is opening. It feels like you can dig the shovel into the emotion. It probably started on the Ghosts record, maybe. Maybe before that, maybe actually “Miss You.” But it definitely seems to be happening more.

I’ve heard other people who started off as guitar players who went this way. Very famously, I remember an interview with Clapton talking about that, and Jimi Hendrix when he started, he said, he didn’t like singing.

“Honestly, sometimes I think I manifest as Mr. Smiley-Happy Guy, except when I’m playing the guitar. When I’m playing the guitar, I don’t have to hide behind anything, and sometimes it gets really dark and scary.”

Clapton became a really great singer.
Yeah, he became, like, world-class. I’ve been around good singers, but it’s a weird thing as you get older. Like I said, the stakes get higher. Time is looking you in the face. There’s a joke that Phish makes a lot backstage, that a lot of the people that weren’t that much older than us are starting to pass away. It used to be musicians two generations ahead of us, and now it’s one, and we’ve been a band for 37 years. Phish will make this joke backstage about how we’ll have to name our next album On Deck to Die. There will be a picture of the four us as the string quartet on the Titanic. Your boat is sinking and we’re still playing, and we’re on deck to die. Somebody that we know will pass away, and then we’ll get a group text: “On deck.”

It’s also that a lot has been happening culturally and societally, but every note starts to be desperately important emotionally. Everything you play, you’re just digging. You’re mining for connection. You want to connect with people. And singing is a way to do that. It’s the close path. So is guitar playing. Focusing on singing has made me understand horn players more. I get it now. It’s coming out of your mouth — no wonder you’re shaping phrases in such a distinct way.

Songs like “I Never Needed You Like this Before,” and “Leaves” remind me of Bowie. Have you been looking at him a little more as a singer?
Oh, God, I’m obsessed. It’s so funny you say that. I’m just obsessed. Bowie is the only person I think about now.

It’s very funny that you say that, because he has become, to me, the high-water mark. I read a quote in a book. I read these spiritual-type books, like The Power of Now [by Eckhart Tolle] and The Untethered Soul [by Michael Alan Singer]. I read a lot of them. My wife kind of makes fun of me a little bit, only because she’s very literate, and I’m always reading these. But there was one quote in one of these books that was like, “Don’t quote the Buddha, be the Buddha.” The Buddha was trying to tell you you’re already the Buddha.

My catchphrase that I say to myself all the time now is, “Don’t quote the Bowie, be the Bowie.” In other words, what was great about Bowie was his fluidity, and he was an artist for life. Never stopped being an artist. He changed, he changed. The further I go in this, the more amazed I am by him. By the way, before I ruin my own life, the concept doesn’t mean you think you are the Bowie. I’m saying everyone is the Bowie. You’re already there. The problem is you’re up inside of your conscious mind listening to that voice talking to you, and you don’t even realize that you don’t have to do anything.

The main thing that you cannot do is copy Bowie. You can’t quote the Bowie, you have to be the Bowie. Don’t quote the Buddha, be the Buddha. I think about Bowie a lot lately. Here he was in New York, walking around in his cargo pants in that picture.

Did you ever see him?
I never saw him, but I saw him live. When I was 19, I was playing street music in Europe, and he came out with the Let’s Dance tour, and he was playing in Rotterdam [the Netherlands]. I was playing in Amsterdam, and I took the train. Greatest life experience ever. UB40 was the warmup band. I met a girl, she led me through the crowd to the front. It was unbelievable. We were in Europe, everyone had their face painted, I was a teenager. Unbelievable experience. Then here he comes. Before he dies he puts out [Blackstar]. Incredible.

That kind of goes back to what we were saying about wanting to tell young musicians this can’t be just a thing. It has to be all the time. It’s got to be like breathing. You’re breathing, you’re putting food in, you’re creating. You’re breathing, you’re writing, you’re putting food in. You’re making yourself exercise for a second. While you’re doing it, you’ve got a song. Or you’re going away from it on purpose to get some clarity, or you’re going to go to an art museum.

I saw Sun Ra so many times. I was lucky, in the Eighties you could just go see him. He was around all the time. Sometimes there were more people onstage than there were in the audience. But he used to say this thing. He used to say, “I’m like a bird. I wake up, I make sound.” The guy put out hundreds of albums. He had his community of people around him. He just created like it was blood flowing through his veins. Nothing could stop it. I don’t know, I just think about Bowie going and doing Low and all that stuff with [Brian] Eno and [Robert] Fripp. Eno’s got the same kind of life. It’s just a fully realized creative life.

Can you tell me about “Thread,” especially the instrumental section in the last few minutes? It’s out of control.
That happened from playing together for 37 years. In ’96, I moved in and then made the barn a bit habitable. I put insulation and all that stuff in it, because I knew that we would never, ever play like that in a recording studio ever, and I was right. The barn became our home, our hangout. We had hard times and good times, and it got incredibly dark in 2003 in the barn, and then we healed in the barn.

Nobody feels like they’re in a studio in there. It’s deeper than the living room. We grew up in that space. We did Farmhouse, Round Room, Undermind. I did the first solo albums. Oysterhead was recorded there. Everything. It doesn’t even feel like the tape’s rolling at all. We wrote Kasvot Växt in there, we wrote Fuego. It’s just a lifetime in that place.

Does everyone come there and stay in the barn?
Mike and Page live really close, half an hour. I kind of stay up there. And Fish goes down the street to a little hotel to get some space. Our meals are catered, but by a really good friend of ours, and the table that we eat at is my Italian grandmother’s dinner table that I ate at when I was a kid. There’s nothing in there that was ever purchased new. Everything has a memory. It’s all old shit. It just feels beyond comfortable. A lot of what we’ve done there hasn’t been recording, a lot of it’s been rehearsing, and hanging, and partying. Mike got married in there. It’s part of the fabric of our life.

When do you guys start working on an average day?
We start pretty early. We start probably about 11:00. People roll in at 11:30. Then we play for a little while, and then we get a catered lunch, and everybody always laughs because when you walk in the barn everybody’s like, “Let the eating begin!” There’s always tons of food, and we eat too much, and then we crack jokes and hang out and crack more jokes. After lunch, 3:00 maybe, we go play again. That would probably be the “Thread” time. “Thread” is in a weird time signature. [Fishman] just gets going on those drums. It’s incredible.

The other thing I would want to say is that I think Page and Mike both are so good on this album. Page’s keyboards are really, really stupendous. I think he’s the best rock keyboardist in the world right now, to me. It’s not even close. I just think he’s blowing up his talents right now, and that’s all over the record. Check out the synthesizer on “Evening Song.” The synthesizers are really uniquely Page. It kills me dead in my tracks. It’s like “Wichita Lineman.”

The picture on the cover with you guys standing in the snow — was that taken during recording?
Yes. We were playing “Thread” or something, and our buddy Rene [Huemer], who is an amazing photographer, was up there, and he’s very fast, thank God. He said, “Please, can you just step outside?” We were there for one minute. He’s like, “Done,” and then we go back in and keep playing. I think Page saw that picture and said it should be the cover.

What does “Sigma Oasis” mean to you?
It’s a place of relief. “Sigma” is kind of an interesting word, but I read somewhere that it [meant] “hissing.” “Hissing” — and I thought, “That’s cool, it’s like the hissing oasis: The place where you’re already there, and you’re just present without thinking.” That’s what I think of it. [Sings] “Take off your mask, the fear’s an illusion, so don’t even ask/You’re finally weightless, so take to the air/Sigma Oasis, you’re already there.” See, all these things that I’m saying are the same thing.

What better time to think about this? Suddenly your life comes crashing down. No more live concerts, no more for now. But if you’re in that state of mind, well, there’s a roll of toilet paper in front of you. It’s exactly the same. It doesn’t feel any different. I’m in the barn doing these songs. Now today, I’m doing a song with the wineglasses.

I wish I could tell young musicians that — it’s like John Prine, or Bowie. “Now I have cancer, now I’m writing that song.” You know what I mean? There’s Purell on the table? All right, now we’re going to make music with that!

I think the Sigma Oasis title and what it means to me — I’m going to have my own meaning. I think that’s one of the beauties of [writing with] Tom and Scott, you can assign your own meaning. But that’s what I think. The mask was kind of what I was alluding to with the guitar thing. The mask is your smiley face. Take off your mask, the fear’s an illusion.

 

How did it come together so fast, between November until now? Sometimes people wait six or eight months and tweak an album. Why did you decide to put it out now?
Well, we were waiting for Vance to come back into the picture on March 9th. In the meantime, there was this great enthusiasm, but everybody was busy. I think I was on tour with TAB or something, but I kept stopping in the studio.

We were knocking these little things off the list, and also, because we didn’t tunnel-vision it, it became obvious which songs were going to go forward. When I was working, I was working with his assistant Mike. This was a very positive thing, because he didn’t have television. Then I added a couple of guitar parts from my apartment while he was mixing, through Spire, meaning I just recorded it, sent it to him, he stuck it in and played it, and it came back through the app. I think that was the first time I had ever experienced that. It was done March 19th or something. He mixed it in a week and a half … ran in there and mastered it, because we were so worried that it’s going to get [lost] — “Oh, we’ll do this a year from now” kind of thing. Then it was done, and we were all on the phone, and we were like, “Well, we should just get it out.” It happened pretty fast.

What were you doing when it was being livestreamed? Were you watching on YouTube or anything?
I don’t usually watch things that might have comments or whatever. I do hear comments through my manager, Patrick [Jordan]. It’s very kind of him to fill me in. I do hear what people are saying, but the internet can be a scary place, if somebody says, “That pale loser,” I just don’t want to read that, so I’m careful. I wasn’t initially going to watch it when it streamed, but then just as it was starting, I was sitting in my house with Sue. I popped it on and it went up on the TV, and we ended up watching the whole thing.

I was very emotional. It was weird. It was great, just knowing that our community was gathering, even though virtually. I admit I cried a couple of times. There was just something about it. I can’t remember how long we had been in quarantine by that point, but it had been a little while. We were definitely locked down, and then this thing happened.

Our film buddy George Loucas [at Baked Studios] did the visuals. It was all photos that Rene had taken, and he laid them all out so beautifully. Oh, God, this is the one that killed me. You saw pictures of the band, and saw Mike, and everybody’s playing. We looked so happy and laughing together, and then when it got to “A Life Beyond the Dream,” he purposely put these pictures of us touching each other, my arms around friends, my oldest friends of 37 years, laughing and in groups. That’s like daggers in the heart, you know what I mean? What happened? That was so not that long ago. We were all in the barn spitting on each other freely, without any fear! The lyrics were about, “Don’t give up hope.” He really killed it.

It was really emotional. Then I thought [about how] Phish is a community of friends. It’s the four of us, but it’s the gang, meaning all the fans. That’s the defining characteristic of Phish: These are thousands and thousands of longtime friends. Phish is about gathering. Phish as a band is truly, really, about friends gathering. They’ve grown up together, and their kids are there, all this stuff.

And then to know when they were streaming it, it was like an excuse. It had pulled the community together. Even a little bit was very emotional for me. I was surprised at how emotional I got by that, and then seeing those pictures.

The band feels together in a way that I’ve never really … Oh, God. See, now that’s coming out of my mouth, I think, boy, isn’t that ironic? It’s like the band had never felt so together, and I think the fall tour was evidence of that, because the four of us really liked that tour. We were getting closer and closer together.

When do you think that you’ll be able to play a show again?
I don’t know. Soon, I hope. Honestly, do you have an answer?

Phish perform in Providence, RI during their fall tour in November 2019.

Phish at Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, in November 2019

Rene Huemer*

Some health experts are saying fall of 2021, but then promoters are rescheduling stuff for September and October.
So where are we now here? Let me look at the calendar. So now it’s April. Spring 2020. So they’re saying fall 2021? Wow. That’s a year and a half. Listen, I think about it sometimes, and I think, “What the hell do I know?” But you know how 9/11 changed everything, and it was a different world? I’m guessing it will probably be something like that. Do you agree?

In what sense?
Well … people get tested in a certain way, or you don’t walk into a venue without some kind of green light on your cellphone, or everybody has to go for a month … I don’t know how that’s going to look, but before 9/11 you could walk up to the gate without going through security at an airport. Not now …

Maybe it’ll be like when rock & roll first started or something, where it’s much smaller.
Well, my feeling is … how do I say this without oversimplifying? I really think this: I have heard some poor-me, woe-is-me, in terms of this industry that we’re in, this world of music creation. What I immediately think is, how naive could you be about music history to not think that this is just another twist and turn. For example, Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave. He had kings to deal with to get money to write. He was an artist and he wrote music that reflected the era that he was in, in whatever medium he had to write, right? Albert King, the greatest blues guitar player who ever walked on planet Earth, was driving around the South in the Fifties, dealing with stuff that none of us will ever even come close to imagining.

You know, a bunch of guys in [New York] when it was burning and poverty-stricken, couldn’t get other instruments, so they invented hip-hop, and it goes on and on! Duke Ellington was driving around in a school bus, sitting up, playing the most elegant music that human beings have ever created in the history of Earth, not sleeping and writing “Take the A Train” in the back of the bus with – who really wrote it? — Billy Strayhorn. Duke Ellington had guys disappear. He’d pull into a town, half his band would run away and get into trouble and never come back. He’d put on the tux, and come out and play this beautiful music in an era when he was dealing with [all of that]. So this is just another one of those things.

So my feeling is: Get to it, artists! If [New Zealand author] Janet Frame was institutionalized for eight years or something, from what I’ve read, writing and scratching on the wall, artists have gone through this since the dawn of time. Your job as the artist is … it’s not even a job. It’s food. It’s your life. If this is what it is, then this is what it is. Make do with what you’ve got. This is it now. I love those Phish concerts, and I can’t wait for them to come back. But my generalized feeling is that here we are today. This is where we are. I just get up, and it’s time to make music here then, I guess.

How do you record at home?
I have a Spire app. By the way, if anybody wants to do this kind of thing, Spire is really good. It’s an eight-track on your phone. Works like gangbusters. Everything I do is on Spire. Everything you’re hearing online is from Spire. That’s all I have. It’s actually functional and user-friendly. It’s got a battery built in. You unplug it and it keeps going, so you can carry it around the house. It has a dynamic mic built into it, meaning it has basically an SM57 built into it.

It’s the size of your hand. It’s very simple. The advantage that I have is that I can, at the end, send them through my buddy Ben in Vermont, who has Pro Tools. He can do an edit for me and send it back, or something like that, so I do have that added advantage, but a lot of what I’m posting, I just go right off Spire. It’s a fantastic app. The quality is exactly the same as any other digital format, and it’s like a cassette deck. It’s really simple, fast. So then I’m making coffee, and then I’ll start singing while having coffee, like, “Oh …”

These things always take a lot longer than you think they’re gonna take. I’m completely inept on how to use iMovie. I was trying to do this time-lapse photography video for “Shaking Someone’s Outstretched Hand.” I learned that you have to stand for 45 minutes to get 30 seconds of time-lapse photography for an iPhone. So for a three-minute song, it was whatever, three hours you had to stand there. So I played Curb Your Enthusiasm on the TV, I’m looking into this mirror on the phone, filming, and I had to stand there for three hours with a gas mask on.

So those songs really can take the whole day. 
Not the whole day. I hang out with Sue. We watch TV. A lot of the day in isolation is FaceTime and Zoom calls. That takes most of the day. Family Zoom calls, business Zoom calls, because it’s a lot of drama around taking a giant touring operation and just stopping it. It’s not a simple thing at all. I mean, there’s our crew that we’re worried about. That takes up a lot of time. We’re trying to completely readjust a large organization in ways that we never could’ve foreseen. A lot of lives are being affected.

I just canceled a TAB tour. Gary, our sound man, and Bruno, our monitor mixer … these guys are all counting on this, so it’s not that different from what the whole world is going through. It’s not nearly as bad as what some people are going through, honestly, but there are logistics that need to be examined. It’s complicated.

What about Phish’s New Year’s Eve show?
It’s funny that you say that, because that was one of the conversations. Right now, we would be thinking about New Year’s. Do we still plan it? And our feeling is, yes. Hopefully someone will come up with some kind of vaccine and we can tour. That would be my favorite outcome.

Could you guys play remotely from your homes together?
We’ve had that conversation, but I don’t know. What we’re doing is, every Tuesday night, we do dinner and a movie, and stream what was on pay-per-view, and people seem to really be enjoying that. And we just hope everybody is safe.

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