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Phish on Their Unique Longevity, Legacy and Ever-Evolving Setlist Process

Mike Greenhaus | October 27, 2016
This excerpt originally appears as a part of the October_November issue of Relix, profiling Phish ahead of the release of their latest album Big Boat. In this excerpt, which we share ahead of the band's Halloween shows in Las Vegas,Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon and Page McConnell reflect on past collaborations that altered their musical approach, their current live approach and much more. To pick up the issue to read the full piece, click here.

Shortly before Phish started digging into Big Boat, Trey Anastasio joined the surviving members of the Grateful Dead for their Fare Thee Well performances, which brought the entire psychedelic-rock world to new cultural heights. Page McConnell attended all three Chicago dates, checking out the shows from the crowd or near the soundboard, and says that “seeing Trey up there playing really reinvigorated my fandom.” He started listening to the Dead’s SiriusXM channel regularly, and their songwriting continued to move him while working on Big Boat.

“I’d talk to Trey while he was rehearsing, and I would tell him about playing with the members of The Meters,” McConnell says of what may have been his own heir-apparent moment. The keyboardist, who toured with The Meter Men on occasion between 2012-2015, admits that playing with his heroes increased his confidence, especially when it comes to the organ.

Fare Thee Well spilled over into one of Phish’s most celebrated summer runs in years. Though “Blaze On” shares some fond memories with the Dead chestnut “Man Smart (Woman Smarter),” Anastasio says “Mercury,” a tale of cosmic perspective that he started during a trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks with Marshall, is the most direct result of that unique experience. But his time at “Dead Camp” inspired him in more profound ways also.

“What I learned was: ‘Be nice. Be kind to your friends while they are here,’” Anastasio says. “I plan on being here a lot longer, and the four of us are still in great shape, but sometimes we will look around and say, ‘God, how many bands who have been around for 33 years have all their original members? It is going to end someday.”’ He pauses and continues, “It’s a good thing, but you start to become aware and take stock— just statistically, you can take any four men in their 50s. It’s not if; it’s when. There’s just a lot of friendship and support and love among the four of us.”

McConnell adds: “We’d been through quite a bit together, and then got back together, and now everything is going well for us. I’d say everyone is feeling pretty good about where we’re at right now and everything that’s happened for us, and the way it’s all falling together.”

For years, Anastasio has worried about the state of live rock-and-roll in an age where smartphones have replaced lighters at shows, everyone has a “movie in their pocket” and a group’s first performance can be captured and shared quicker than, say, a setlist by a 33-year-old band from Vermont can be uploaded and overanalyzed on the web. (He even even used the “Put down your phone” plea as the basis for a sermon during an “Icculus” narrative in 2009.) As he taps on his iPhone between the occasional ping from McConnell, Anastasio laments the lack of breakout rock bands at Coachella and Glastonbury—his harbingers of modern-festival cool—and reminisces about watching Alice in Chains, Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden rise through the ranks.

While it’s been several summers since DJs, pop stars and vanilla rock bands gained a house majority in the festival sphere, Anastasio’s sentiments carry a particular weight coming from a member of Phish, a band whose biggest legacy may very well be restoring the summer campout as a righteous coming-of-age experience. He mouths the words to “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes” by Frank Zappa who—like Talking Heads and King Crimson—Anastasio saw early on in college, and notes the genius in the song’s wordplay. The trick, Anastasio says, is repeating a phrase three times.

“Seeing music live is still my favorite experience—it’s everything to me, that feeling of unity,” Anastasio says, thinking back to the near-decade that Phish spent incubating and refining their craft in Vermont’s clubs and bars, in a YouTube-less world. “It’s tough for a young band these days. It’s easy for someone to say: ‘Why should I go out when I have the whole season of Orange Is the New Black and a pair of headphones?’ And nobody is buying any records, so you’re not making any money that way.”

He’s guilty of it, too, admitting that he thought about checking out Vulfpeck—a band that shares Phish’s quirky energy and flair for theatrics at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl a few days earlier, but ended up watching a recent video instead. Yet, he still has fond memories of waiting in line at a small club in Burlington to catch Pavement, “the only band [he] listened to in the ‘90s,” and whose smart, slacker lyrics and loose, ragged cool resonated with him at a time when Phish started opening up their sound and heavily favoring “feel” and “groove.” Anastasio is always searching out new music, and he vividly recalls getting chills at night while listening to Pavement on his skateboard. As a member of an improv band, he says, he could also relate to their outsider, cult status.

“I only had a couple of friends who liked Pavement, and we’d listen to them in the corner at parties,” Anastasio reflect . “I tried hard to get Fish to listen to them, but it never really took. Now, I’m trying to get him to listen to Laura Mvula, who I’m obsessed with. There should always be a couple of 22 year olds in bands out there that scare the shit out of everybody else.”

When Phish entered their “3.0 period,” they were branded as “older, wiser and geekier” by fans and the media, and they have succeeded in remaining healthy and committed to embracing their own catalog with renewed vigor. Gordon, in particular, has explored different health and wellness avenues; after years of practicing mindfulness, he switched to Transcendental Meditation and started working out daily with P90X extreme fitness DVDs. He recently read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and managed to condense his expansive CD collection to a single row. (Interestingly, Gillian Welch was the only artist to have all of her albums survive the purge.)
“I used to talk about The Artist’s Way, which is designed to get yourself back to your childlike sense of wonder,” Gordon says. “I haven’t been doing those exercises as much, but that book paints a good picture of what happens when the inner critic is lurking. You don’t need to worry about exterior criticism because it happens inside. You might not even know it’s there, but it’s cutting you down. And then it’s harder to bask in your success—a lot of writer’s block comes from that stress and questioning. Not that I had been a basket case, but we never notice the knife blade when the internal critic is ready to cut. So much creativity comes from having fun, enjoying the process, which is what [recording in] Nashville was for us. I’m really interested in ways to remove that stress.”

He continues to keep detailed journals of Phish’s concerts, a practice he’s maintained since the band’s earliest days, and though he doesn’t revisit the shows regularly, he’s often surprised by how moments hit him in the rearview mirror. “Sometimes things don’t sound as fresh when I hear them again—I don’t know if it’s the mix or the experience of listening back or my mood or something else,” Gordon admits. “Sometimes things feel really unique and creative, like we’re almost writing on the spot—new rhythms, patterns and textures—and then, I hear it back, and it feels like that’s sort of ‘jamband 101.’ And then other times, I’m pleasantly surprised.” He cites a long “No Man’s Land” at Dick’s as a recent gem. “I liked that Trey had this idea of just jamming right out of the gates,” he says of the early evening exploration. “I loved the ambient jam that came out of the funk part.”

Phish’s setlist process has ebbed and flowed over the years. These days, Anastasio will usually come up with ideas for a certain show—sometimes days before the gig, other times that afternoon—and a song list will be distributed to the band members around dinner time in case they need to brush up on any material. Of course, the band will figure out the night’s flow onstage and often call an audible, with Anastasio discussing ideas with McConnell who, in turn, tells Fishman, who relays the message to Gordon. Occasionally, Gordon says with a laugh, Fishman will forget to tell him and just jump into a number.

“A lot of it is just being playful, but Trey is really good at different approaches at different times. Like he might say, ‘I’ve been thinking: Let’s do less covers and let’s go back into the back catalog because it’s fun.’ He’ll ask one of our managers or a friend if there’s one song that everyone in the parking lot wishes they could hear or what people are talking about,” Gordon says. “Like, one year, they’re talking about ‘Can we have the jams longer?’ and another year they’re asking if we can have it a little more like 1994. It all has to be taken with a grain of salt because, ultimately, we have to feel happy and have to feel that we’re not just regurgitating the same jams and songs that we did in the past.”

In fact, earlier this year, the band scheduled a few extra practice sessions, which allowed them to revisit the oft-overlooked corners of their songbook that they will text each other about. Anastasio says they spent time at Gordon’s house relearning six or seven bust outs, including “Pigtail,” which had been reassigned to TAB, the groovy “Round Room” and the bluegrass classic “Uncle Pen.”

“But mostly,” Anastasio is quick to point out, “we’ve been spending more time just talking. We’ll travel to work on ideas, and it’s really just a chance for the four of us to sit together. We’re adults now, and everybody’s got so much going on. Fish has five kids, Page has three and Mike is busy with his daughter and projects, so I don’t get to see them that much. The experience of us sitting in front of a fireplace and writing had a big effect on the way we’ve been playing. I’ve always loved band practice and, in a way, our recent writing sessions replaced band practice because I got to be with my favorite people.”

Anastasio has started to think of Phish’s repertoire as “a diary of my life from where I stand. I remember writing ‘Harry Hood’ in Greece,” he says. “I remember writing ‘You Enjoy Myself’ when Fish and I were playing street music in Europe. We were sleeping in a car outside of Florence and playing all day in the streets. I was writing that song the whole time. We met this hilarious Italian guy who didn’t really speak any English. One day, he came up and put one arm around me and one around Fish and he said, in broken English, ‘You know, when I’m with you, you enjoy myself.’ So that became the song’s title. The rest of the music was written as we traveled across Europe that summer. That experience is still in there. Phish songs cover every era of my life from 19 until 52.”

All four members of the band still have a deep desire to remain relevant, reach new fans and continue to grow as songwriters and musicians. The lines between their various projects have also blurred: Anastasio mentions that his Broadway community has impacted Phish’s live show too, bringing recent onstage Wingsuit and “Meatstick” gags to life, and even helping the band rearrange David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as a barbershop-quartet tribute. He hints that they’ll likely continue to work with Phish on their theatrical stunts going forward.

“We’re all in the same band, having the same experiences—similar feelings and experiences,” McConnell says. “We’re really excited for people to hear something that has a little bit more substance and a little bit more depth.”

Phish used to have a band rule that they had to play at least one gig in their 80s, and that goal has taken on new meaning as they enter their later years. “I remember going to see Modern Jazz Quartet,” Anastasio says. “They were so good—telepathic. They started playing in like 1952 and this must have been around 1985. We were all standing there going, ‘We’re gonna be that.’ Well, when you’re standing here after 33 years, you start thinking, ‘Wow, we kind of have been playing for a long time.’”

Yet, he still knows how to keep things in perspective. “My grandmother had a friend who was a geologist,” Anastasio says with a smile. “At the dinner table, when people would get going on ‘today’s subject,’ Trump or Brangelina or whatever, he’d just laugh and say, ‘You’re talking about years, and here I am, all day long, thinking in eons. I can’t get worked up about this.’”

To read the full story, pick up the October_November issue of Relix here.