Around The Fire with Phish (An Excerpt)
In October 2012, a few weeks after completing a 33 date summer tour, Anastasio, McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman convened in The Barn, Anastasio’s Green Mountain recording studio, for a songwriting session that was unlike anything they had attempted in their career—an extensive collaborative effort from the music all the way down to the lyrics.
The band’s aims were relatively straightforward. “Our goal,” McConnell explains, “was to come up with a collection of songs that we would be able to play. We weren’t quite sure if we were
making an album or going on a songwriting expedition. For a long time, we thought we won’t release it as an album, we’ll release it as a live video stream. There were all sorts of conversations about what the medium would be—how we might release it.”
The starting point for all of this was improvisation. Looking back from a distance of 18 months, Gordon remains flush with enthusiasm. “This was exactly what I had been hoping for a decade, we got into a studio and jammed,” he reveals.
“What happens, especially after 30 years of chemistry, is my fingers will play bass notes that fit better than if I were consciously thinking about it. I might take a few notes out of the bar of the pattern or I might change them in strange ways that would be unexpected for my conscious mind. So if a song germinates from that beautiful chemistry of the band playing itself like an Ouija board in the middle of a jam, then the fabric of the music that is going to be born of this thing is true to our souls. That’s what I really like about it.”
To a degree, this effort paralleled the sessions that yielded the songs that appeared on 1998’s The Story of the Ghost and 1999’s The Siket Disc, in which the group generated material together through live improvisation.
Gordon recalls that during that era, “We would go at 5 p.m., and jam for 12 hours until 5 a.m. with lots of breaks—until sunrise. We did it at Bearsville [Studios in New York] a couple times and we did it in Seattle with Steve Lillywhite one time. I love The Story of the Ghost album—or I used to think of it as one of my favorites—simply because I felt more of the process than the other albums.”
That process proved all the more inclusive on this occasion, as McConnell remarks, “While some of the intentions were the same, this one was more fully developed with just the four of us. With The Story of the Ghost, we took the jams and then dropped these words that [longtime lyricist] Tom [Marshall] and his friend Scott [Herman] had written on top of them. This one, we went in and started by creating music, but then we listened to it and developed song structures. Then, eventually, all four of us began inputting words.”
“We replayed everything so that it wouldn’t just be a Pro Tools mash-up, which so much music is these days,” Gordon details. “I thought that was a great direction. So as soon as we had a jam that we liked, we replayed it [and said], ‘Let’s take this vignette and use it as a B-section to this other one and, while we’re at it, let’s make up a little ascending chord progression to help tie them together.’ When you’re relying on Pro Tools, you get locked into the way it looks on the screen. But if you’re replaying, you’re starting from scratch every time. You’re using your ears and you’re using the muse freshly over and over again and you’re constantly letting go of what it was. That was pretty cool.”
Beyond their studio jams, the band also provided a similar treatment to a series of archival improvisations curated by the bass player. He scanned his journals, listened to live recordings and introduced selections drawn from performances between 2010-12, along with one sequence from an exercise at a 1993 band practice. (“I had saved it over the years as my favorite little gold nugget of possibility because every time we switched the patterns, it sounds like a new, interesting song and the rhythms and the spirit are infused with this vitality. So I took a few moments out of that.”)
When asked whether he could pick out any of the original songs in the new tunes that share a musical DNA, he clarifies, “No, because usually it’s between five or 10 minutes or more into a jam, where it’s a fresh grouping of chords, melodies and rhythms. I wouldn’t be able to predict it because it doesn’t ever sound like the song that it’s coming from—it’s usually a departure.”
Then came the marriage of words and music. Although Phish has collaborated on a multitude of instrumental passages over the years—and the four members continue to do so on a regular basis in the concert and rehearsal settings—they had not shared much responsibility for this aspect of songwriting, beyond a few comic numbers about crew members and mutual acquaintances written before their 1997 European tour (“Carini,” “Rock A William” and “Walfredo”).
Indeed, Gordon can remember his own awkward reaction more than two decades ago when John Popper stopped by to co-author a song. “It was around the H.O.R.D.E. era, back when the rest of the band lived in Winooski, [Vt]. John Popper took out a notebook, sat on the staircase, lyrics were being thrown around, and I remember thinking, ‘Ooh, this is weird. I’m not supposed to be around when this part is being done.’ Of course, I had written a couple of my own songs but in terms of the group, I kept thinking this was almost taboo, never mind helping, but even being a witness to it. But now, fast forward to really wanting to get into the sharing of that process. Of course, Page and I now have much more experience to bring to the table.”
The table metaphor proves to be fitting, as the band placed an emphasis on comestibles and conversation, typically to the exclusion of anyone outside of Phish.