Around The Fire with Phish (An Excerpt)
With notebooks in hand, the musicians ascended to The Barn’s cupola. Reached via a catwalk and a motorized lift, this was the first time that they had occupied the space to work as a foursome. Here, a particular photograph or story served as a starting point for 10 minutes of individual writing, which the bandmates then shared in a circle, while identifying the lines that felt resonant.
On other occasions, they passed around a microphone for a stream of consciousness approach, to see what came to mind and if that could perhaps become a source of inspiration.
Anastasio reflects, “The best part of the collective lyric writing experience, for me—other than the simple fact that it gave us the opportunity to hang out together—was seeing how inclusive everybody was. If two or three people got going on an idea, someone would always pull the others into the conversation, and say, ‘What do you think? Do you like where this is going?’”
“It was all very loose and experimental and there wasn’t any formula to it. ‘Waiting All Night’ was inspired by a pinball repairman that we all happen to know who just sort of unloaded, telling us about all these problems he was having,” McConnell illustrates. “It was just somebody had a story, so let’s write a song about that. There’s a lot of emotion but it’s our interpretation using these stories. There was also a photo of this girl sort of dressed like she was going to go to a Renaissance fair with Viking warriors and animal heads, and there was a whole song that didn’t make the album with that stuff.”
Wingsuit became the working title for the emerging body of material, McConnell attests, “not because it was necessarily the first thing we wrote, but because it was the first song with some substance to it, some emotional weight and not just silliness or some words over a jam. When we did that one, I thought, ‘OK, we really might be able to write some great songs,’ so it was always an inspiration.”
While Gordon was downright enamored with the results, it didn’t always come easily. Over the past decade in particular, the bassist has developed into an accomplished songwriter, and if certain critics once dismissed his contributions as novelties or odd for odd’s sake, then that era is long past. Nonetheless, he admits that the group setting could be trying.
“What makes it hard is lyrics are a personal thing both in terms of what they mean and the process of putting them together. Then, to have to share, that can be a little bit of a challenge for some of us who are a little shyer in a group, where it might be easier for Trey because he’s written so many incredible songs over the years, and he’s had so many songwriting weekends with Tom. He’s very animated and alive and alert in that mode. Often, when he speaks, he stands up and starts dancing around.”
When pressed to name a particular triumph of collective lyric writing, Anastasio points to “The Line,” which “felt like a bit of a triumph to me, and a bit of an eye-opener as well. What fascinated me was that the more honest, detailed and specific we tried to make it, the more universal it became. We had a photo of Darius Washington Jr. standing at the foul line that we looked at as we wrote, and we were really trying to climb inside of his head. [In 2005, with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line, the Memphis basketball player missed two consecutive free throws with no time on the clock, and his team lost the game as Washington crumpled to the floor in tears.] I had been pushing pretty hard on writing this particular song because I could relate so much to his experience of crashing and burning publicly. Of course, we’ve never met, but I wondered if this event, which felt like such a disaster and an embarrassment when it was happening, ultimately became a gift for him a few years down the road. That was certainly true in my case—you learn what’s actually important in situations like that.”
For Anastasio, this seems to mean hunkering down, closing ranks and recommitting to kith and kin. (For Washington, it’s a basketball career in Europe, where he now plays in Turkey’s pro league.) Following Anastasio’s 2006 arrest on drug charges—two years after Phish’s “farewell” performance at its Coventry festival—a 14-month rehabilitation seemingly paved the way for creative fire and esprit de corps. His return to the stage with Phish in March 2009 amid a collective exuberant headspace, later allowed for collaboration with a producer whose work the band had long admired...
There is much more to the story. Be sure to pick up the issue on newsstands in early July or visit our subscriptions page, where you can get a discounted year of Relix ($20) by entering the promo code: Phish. Your subscription will begin with the July_August issue featuring Phish on the cover.