Fishman's Pork Barrel Politics `

Pork Tornado offers groove-based outlet for Phish drummer

For all the hoopla that greeted Phish's announcement two years ago that they were going on an indefinite hiatus, the payoff has been pretty good for fans. All four members -- guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, keyboardist Page McConnell and bassist Mike Gordon -- have continued to log miles on the road with their respective side projects, and all four have offered new albums. Two years have passed since Phish's last album -- an amount of time that your average band takes to record a new collection of songs -- and the group has been responsible for nearly twenty authorized bootleg recordings, and no fewer than five records from their side projects.

For Fishman, the break first found him relishing the role of family man with his girlfriend and a new baby daughter. But he hardly tossed his drumsticks into the closet. With a taste for stylistic gumbo akin to one of his heroes, Frank Zappa, Fishman spent some additional time with Pork Tornado, a covers band he'd put together five years ago. With guitarist Dan Archer, saxophonist Joe Moore, bassist Aaron Hershey and keyboardist Phil Abair -- all take turns on vocals -- Pork Tornado like American music, and they like all kinds of music. Tossing together soul, country, blues, jazz with a dash of sounds from other shores, over the past year, the group found its own style, diluting the quantity of covers with originals. And with the release of Pork Tornado, they've put together a debut album that babbles in the common language they speak from these myriad musical strains.

You couldn't seem to stay off the road. Are you enjoying touring with Tornado?

Yeah, it's so much a part of my metabolism now. I really enjoy being home a lot more now. For years, home was just a pit stop to clean up my act and rest for a little bit to go back on the road. Now, I really like being home. I'm in a family right now, and there's a good reason to be home. And I get a lot more work done, I practice a lot more. And I go through these thoughts of, "That's it, I'm gonna stop touring." But then I get back out on the road and it's just great.

Sounds like you found the secret balance.

Before I had no personal life, and my home life was nonexistent. I was on the road eight months out of the year. And it was great when I was nineteen. Now I'm thirty-seven and it just gets to be a drag. But it's funny, the three hours you stay on the stage makes you forget all that: not eating as well, not sleeping. With Phish I stay in the Four Seasons and those kind of nice hotels. It's kind of interesting, though. It's almost more lonely. They're nice but you can't really use the facilities. So we've been staying at Travel Lodges and places like that, and they're sort of depressing and dingy, but the thing that's nice about them is that they give you the feeling of impermanence. You're not settling in here, and you're gonna be gone in a couple of hours.

So there's no pulling you off the road full time?

No. When I'm home, it's like I have to unroot myself from the dirt to get out on the road at first. But then you feel like a Viking. I'm going to discover a new land!. But unless I had some sort of total career change for some reason -- I mean, I thought about running for Governor -- that's the only thing I could see is having a political life. But I'd probably be away from home almost as much then. Possibly more.

So are you seriously entertaining a run for public office?

I think it depends on what happens. Things are really good with Phish right now. There's this new freshness to things and we got a lot of the stuff that was dragging us down out of the way. We just found ourselves back at Trey's barn just hanging out together and having a good time. And we ended up making an album out of it. And I gotta tell you, Pork Tornado, I love this band. Phish, we've gotten along so well for so long that it's almost sickening, people aren't supposed to get along this well in a band. But Pork Tornado has a more traditional band relationship. There's volatility and blow-ups and emotion. But I really like the sound we make. Anyway, if I was going to do something like [run for office], it would be just because I love where I live. But I think governor is on the backburner for a while.

So now that you have an album to go with the touring, are you finding that Pork Tornado is pulling in an audience separate from Phish's?

Definitely. It's not a bunch of Phishheads wanting it to be Phish. It's got its own crowd, more of a raucous, drinking, get drunk and scream kind of crowd. It is what it is, and it's good.

The band started as more of a covers ensemble. Did you think at the outset that you'd commit to this extent?

You know, no, and I think the best things start off that way. It was just a case of let's get together and make sixty bucks on a Monday night. And the only originals we had were "Home Is Where You Are," "Kiss My Black Ass" and that's it. Now, we've been playing some new ones of Phil's and Aaron's and some obscure blues covers that Joe brought in. Some of the new originals are developing nicely. I'm hearing the first five songs of the next album.

Pork Tornado seem to relish dipping a toe into various musical styles. Was that diversity always in the blueprint?

It covers a lot more musical ground than I think any of us expected. And in more of a traditional sense. When Pork Tornado does a country tune, it really sounds like a country band. And when we do a blues tune, it really sounds like a blues band. It's kind of freakish that way. But we cover these different styles in this genuine way. We can exploit the identifying characteristics of these styles. Maybe it's being older. On one level, even though there's this humor, there's the joy of playing country music and bringing your own appreciation to it, it's not like we're making fun of the style.

Seems a lot of bands need to put up the irony buffer before playing straight country.

Yeah, I think the irony thing comes out of fear. Fear or some sort of insecurity that if they revere this style too much, they're not cool. Which I think is a bullshit way of thinking of music or art. It's like a form of musical racism. Like, "I'm a heavy metal guy, so if I do country, I have to make it ironic." I mean, we live in America, listen to all the styles that have flourished. Music and art and food are the biggest indications in this country of what a melting pot it is.

"Guabi Guabi" is an infectious little song. Where'd you find that one?

Dan Archer brought that one to the table. There was a version by a folk singer in the Sixties, I didn't hear their recording of it until after we'd finished ours. We'd been covering that at gigs. I think it's originally an African folk song, but we're not really sure.

And the band seems more groove oriented than Phish. Less swing and a greater focus on the road between Nashville and Memphis.

Yeah, it's more vocal oriented. I think the singing is fantastic. I think it ends up being more about the tightness of the songs and the arrangements. There's not as much instrumental exploration. With Phish, it's about getting in a boat together and hitting the ocean and seeing what islands you can find, instead of becoming what they'd call in the Grateful Dead tradition, "space," where it's six guys in their own fucking world making a bunch of noise. We try to avoid that. But with Pork Tornado it's a totally different thing. It's about laying it down and really embracing the traditional role of your instrument in any given setting. It's much more groove 101.

The side projects seem to feed what you do in Phish.

They certainly do. I think all of our projects really enhance Phish on a lot of levels.

And despite the fact that all four of you worked through the hiatus, you seem recharged.

We've been together seventeen years, and along the way we've had lots of conversations about our future. And from the outset we were in this for the long haul. Probably around year twelve all of us started to recognize that each had wants that couldn't get fulfilled in Phish. I remember Trey leading a conversation, saying, "Let's not force Phish to be the end all be all for our musical needs."

And there had been side projects swirling alongside Phish. The Surrender to the Air record was an unexpected treat.

Yeah, well, if I wanna play in a jazz band with brushes, there's not that much of a context for that with Phish. I read this interview with Metallica where they all got bent out of shape because somebody tried to do something outside of Metallica and it was this big deal. That's insane. How can a band stay musically viable and healthy? There was about three years where we were starting to get tired. We had so much momentum and we had so much going on, and then we did that New Years show in Florida and that just cast a big shadow over everything. For the first time we weren't going to be able to outdo ourselves.

What did you find to be the most refreshing part of the break? Both live and on the record Pork Tornado snaps with enthusiasm.

Well, there was time spent with my family. But creatively, it was my chance to go off with the Jazz Mandolin project. And then, with Pork Tornado, a straight up rock band with a weird guitar player and these wild characters. For me, I had been missing playing in clubs. This was my chance to get drunk and play in a drinking band or a jazz trio. And Paige got his thing together and Mike made his movie. I think that gusto is what's made it so healthy for Phish.

And like you said, "Round Room" seemed to come out of nowhere. I didn't think you were going to release an album until next year.

There were eleven rehearsal days along with three recording days. At the end, the idea was to record whatever new songs we had learned for a demo, so that I could go out on tour with Pork Tornado and still have them to learn while I was out here. And in November, we were going to get back together. So September was looked at as the incubation period to brainstorm, put rough versions on tape, then come back in November, rehearse it and record it again, more refined versions. And maybe record it yet again before New Years, and put out an album after New Years. Well, there were thirty songs on the table, twenty of which we recorded and twelve were keepers [laughs]. It's nuts. The problem with Phish is that we've never been able to keep up with Trey and Mike, in terms of writing. We'll probably have another album of material recorded and done before New Years [laughs]. It's stupid. When Phish is working and fresh and feeling good, there's nothing like it.