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Phish Blazes Onward and Upward

by Mike Greenhaus on December 22, 2016

Photo credit: René Huemer

Trey Anastasio knows that  feeling when you catch a band in their prime. It was the summer of ‘99 and Phish had traveled to Japan, for the first time, to perform at the Fuji Rock Festival. Rage Against the Machine, who were riding their own wave of success as a politically charged, hip-hop/rock alternative to late-‘90s complacency, were headlining on another stage. The only problem was that Phish were going up against the start of their set.

“We stopped playing; we just stopped playing,” Anastasio says with a laugh, reemphasizing his wording with a repetitive beat. “I put my guitar down and said, ‘Tell everyone we’re taking a break because Rage Against the Machine is playing.’ I had a pass to stand side-stage, and I watched them walk by and do their little huddle—they just came on and kicked ass. That was their moment.” He thinks back even further to another overseas gig when Phish was touring in Europe and popped into Denmark to play Roskilde in ‘92. They ended up catching a whiff of “teen spirit” at the height of the Nirvana revolution.

“The same thing—the whole festival stopped. Everybody stopped,” he continues. “That was the year that Denmark beat Germany in the [UEFA European Football Championship]. They actually stopped the whole festival until Denmark won—they even held Nirvana. The place went crazy and everybody walked over to Nirvana.”

Anastasio is sitting in a café near his Uptown New York apartment a few weeks before his 52nd birthday, snacking on a quiche and sipping his second cup of coffee, which he apologetically says will make him a bit chatty. The quaint space has special meaning for him as well: One of his daughter’s friends recently used the poetry-themed restaurant as a temporary office, writing a novel in a nook near the cash register while she was studying at Columbia University. His eyes light up as he describes her process.

The Phish guitarist has always been fascinated by the creation and distribution of various artistic mediums, and says he still writes and works on music every day. But it’s a topic that he’s particularly interested in as he prepares to embark on a tour with his longtime bandmates—keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman—a few days after they release Big Boat, their 13th album and second project with legendary producer Bob Ezrin, who also helmed the sessions for Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Not surprisingly, Big Boat is among Phish’s most refined records, a quasi-concept piece and true LP that touches on heady topics like loss, aging, domestic life, community and friendship, and makes use of Ezrin’s studio and gadgetry like few of their previous records have before. It’s also still very much a genre-jumping Phish album, filled with enough inside jokes and musical hijinks—as well as one very pronounced “rage with Page” rallying call—to feel in line with a band whose big summer thread involved quoting the phrase “ass handed” during their live shows.

“If we’ve been derivative in the past, then Big Boat feels very original to me,” McConnell says a few days later from his Vermont home. “This one sounds less to me like other Phish records. In fact, it doesn’t remind me of any other album, including other Phish albums. I like that uniqueness. Our albums are often known for their mix of styles but, this time, the cohesiveness comes to the forefront a bit more.”

Big Boat arrives at a unique place in Phish’s already unusual arc, too. It’s the first album released after all four members passed the 50-year mark and the first they recorded in the wake of Anastasio’s participation in last year’s Fare Thee Well celebration, which served as both an encore and a new beginning for the Grateful Dead family. It’s also been over seven years since Phish reunited, following a five year breakup that found all four band members exploring myriad projects and battling their own demons. As the novelty of their high-profile reunion has faded, the members of Phish have started to think about their next phase as songwriters and recording artists, while unintentionally embracing their role as the last classic-rock act, the first modern jamband and the uncredited godfathers of 21stcentury indie rock.

“What changed, starting in 2009, is this clarity of vision and this feeling that it was a precious gift that the four of us met,” Anastasio says. “It took a couple of years after that for things to get rolling completely, but we’ve realized how important this is for everyone—the way that the primary relationship between the four of us is nurtured and the way that ripples out into the rest of our families and the community. We communicate. The four of us are texting many times a day.”

His thoughts turn to Phish’s headlining sets at Arrington, Va.’s Lockn’ Festival and their annual Labor Day throwdown at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., a few weeks ago. “Fish used to describe our improv in terms of this ‘lifeboat’ concept—if somebody falls in the water, everyone reaches over and pulls him back in,” Anastasio continues. “I know I’ve experienced that personally with the band, where the other guys have pulled me back in. After Lockn’ and Dick’s, I was thinking about our crew, who never come out and take a bow but literally make the show happen, and all the people in the audience who are beloved members of our Phish family. This ‘big boat’ philosophy is more appropriate than ever. There’s room for everyone.”

* * *

Big Boat marks the first time that Phish have worked with the same producer on two consecutive records— not counting their studio partnership with Bryce Goggin on either side of their 2000- 2002 hiatus—and their new 13- song LP is a continuation of the conversation that started with their previous release, Fuego. That album began with a series of unique full-band writing exercises, which produced some of the most collaborative material in the group’s now 30 plus-year history. Ezrin helped refine those songs and a few other new originals, most of which the band dropped for the first time during their Halloween show in 2013, and Fuego was released the following June. “My whole life, I’ve always written with whoever was sitting at the table,” Anastasio says, noting his lifelong friendship with Tom Marshall and describing their early days working out songs at suburban sanctuaries in New Jersey, like their favorite rhombus sculpture and the fountain where the guitarist composed “Runaway Jim.” “Getting together to write before Fuego was like lighting a fire. It didn’t matter what we came up with—I liked the social aspect, the unity.”

After wrapping up the sessions, Ezrin encouraged the members of the Vermont quartet to learn 10 folk songs on acoustic instruments, internalize them, forget them and then start writing material on their own. “After Fuego was over, Bob told us he wanted to know a little more about us,” he continues. “He said, ‘Who are you guys? What breaks your heart?’ He was trying to make a point—for a band where the meter has, at times, moved toward the head, he’d love to tilt the compass toward the heart.”

Though Phish’s music has the ability to open a poetic third eye, and has inspired more than a few yearbook quotes and social-media status updates, their lyrics have rarely been direct. Yet, miraculously, everyone followed through with the exercise; one song, McConnell’s bluegrass-esque “Things People Do” even made the final cut. Anastasio says he took particular inspiration from the Carter Family, while McConnell’s deep-dive started with the folk revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s, before he entered a wormhole that led him back to the 1600s and 1700s. Gordon, who has the deepest background in bluegrass and old-time music, decided to study a few songs from every decade of the past 100 years.

“For me, life is about learning,” the bassist says while sitting in his wife’s office in Vermont. “At a certain point, you turn off the learning and just get into the flow. I don’t know if I saw the golden secret that connected all of those songs—Bob suggested a couple of jazz songs, a couple of folk ones and a couple of poppier ones—but I’m glad I did the exercise.”

Even Fishman, who has never been one for homework, followed Ezrin’s instructions and came up with his folk-inspired nugget, “Ass Handed,” during “the confluence of a particularly difficult day with the need to fulfill our producer’s assignment.” The short, quick romp, which surfaced a few times on this summer’s tour, features “one line repeated three different ways.”

“It took me one second to write, in a moment of inspiration,” Fishman explains. “If you look at the whole history of everything I’ve written, played, said and done, then there’s an argument to be made that it all boils down to, in one way or another, ‘You get your ass handed to you every day.’ Furthermore, I believe the same can be said for anything I write, play, say and do for the rest of time. It’s just taken me 51 years to finally say what I mean concisely.”

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