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Phish: Getting It Clearly Through Alternative Paths (June 1992)

Matt Goldberg | February 20, 2017

In honor of the 25th anniversary of Phish's A Picture of Nectar, we present this look back at the band during that time from the June 1992 issue of Relix just shortly after the release of the album. 

This spring marks one of the most extensive tours in Phish’s history. With the February 1992 releaser of Picture of Nectar, on Elektra Records, this four-piece band from Vermont is receiving more attention than they’e been accustomed to in nearly a decade of playing together. And they’re ready for it. Their steady ascent through the ranks of the music business has prepared them for the consequences of their highly original and provocative music.

In 1984, at Goddard College in Vermont, the band had “only two fans, Amy and Brian,” according to Trey Anastasio—guitarist, vocalist, and composer of much of the band’s material. By New Year’s Eve 1991, Phish was celebrating their success, which included a recently signed long-term contract with Elektra, with a sold out show at the 3,800 seat New Auditorium in Worcester, MA.

In an interview conducted the day after the first show of the tour, Trey spoke about the fact that the band had debuted six new songs—written and arranged while the band was “on vacation” after New Year’s. Hearing a new Phish song—convoluted chords and rapid-fire lyrics—is a challenging task for the audience as well as the band. “You’ll probably hear three more [new songs] tonight,” Trey said. “We like contrast and change. That’s why we came out with ten new songs after a short vacation. We don’t like to stay settled in one place.”

This restless, creative dynamic of flexible parameters guides the band as much as they guide it. “For me,” Trey said, “it’s been very exciting, musically, the whole time. The feeling of pushing the limits [of the music] is the most exciting feeling you can have—that’s what our goal is. But once you’ve done that, to just re-create that level isn’t going to be as exciting as it was to push to the new level. You’ve got to try to move forward in some different direction. Constant change is what’s exciting.”

With an ever-changing history of ten years already behind them, has Phish evolved in ways similar to what Trey might have expected?

“It’s totally unpredictable,” Trey said. “We do have short-term goals that have nothing to do with Phish. When we’re home on vacation I work on my playing, chord comping and blues playing. I work on one area of songwriting and then another. Phish is where all this stuff comes together.”

Invariably, Phish explores and re-defines its parameters through performance, sometimes subtly, sometimes like a glowing spaceship. There are times when the experience of Phish seems to be happening of its own accord. Songs seem to be re-written on stage; an innovation in lighting design has an unforeseen effect on the performance. “In that sense, it comes together,” Trey said. “On the other hand, we work so hard. We practice all the time; our crew is working their butts off when we’re home. Paul Languedoc [sound technician] was working ten hours a day over this whole vacation to get the sound system up to where it is now.”

Commenting on the larger collective framework of the band’s organization, and on the non-linear evolutionary path that Phish seems to b following, lighting designer Chris Kuroda said, “Years ago, in Vermont, a friend of mine insisted that I see Phish. I did and I had to go back. Then I became a roadie.”

He is now the lighting designer. Chris manages a new, $20,000 lighting system, which, coupled with the immense expressionist-painted backdrop debuted at the Worcester New Year’s show (created by bassist Mike Gordon’s mother, Minkin) produces some of the most outrageous visual effects in music today. Phish’s light show is so integrated, that at times it seems to guide the music in addition to visually representing it. This phenomenon is synesthesia, a crossover of the senses. “Reba,” a song about the almost alchemical creating of a meat product in a bathtub, evolves into a lime green and orange composite; “Esther,” a surreal melodrama, attempts to balance opposing forces by juxtaposing a blue and white pattern with deep red; “Tweezer” always strays into a condition resembling natural light, the absence of color exposing dissonance. The visual aspect of the music particularly enhances Phish’s extended jams, often the highlight of their live performances. It’s as if some of the jams are given life. Witness the instrumental sections of “Runaway Jim,” “Harry Hood,” “Divided Sky” and “Fluffhead.” At times, it’s difficult to get it all back in the bottle, a tension which reveals pure distilled musical excitement.

In reference to lighting designer Chris Kuroda, Trey said, “He’s completely tuned in with us on the lights. You’ve got to think when the blue light is on stage, it’s going to create a different mood than the red light, without us even being conscious of it. I definitely feel that,” said Trey. “There’s a wave that gets created with the audience—you feel like you’re riding on this whole thing that has a mind of its own.”

This is a phenomenon that bassist Mike Gordon repeatedly referred to as “environment simulation.” The intensity of the music and a collective connection produce a transforming effect, an altering of consciousness.

The subject was of such personal relevance to Mike, and the performance of “Tweezer” from the Worcester New Year’s show, particularly the ending jam, was perhaps some of the most intense, out-right grooving live music ever heard, that its mention served as a starting point for Mike’s thoughts.

“The only way a really good jam is going to happen,” Mike said, “one that goes in its own direction, is if you submit to it.” Surrender to the flow?

“Exactly,” Mike continued, “we have these jam sessions sometimes where I just play two notes for twenty minutes then those guys change what’s on top of that radically. I add a third note and this awareness is going on—how is this note affecting me?

“Sometimes I deliberately play a note that I normally wouldn’t play because it’s too silly or too obvious or strange. I notice how that tweaks my head and I just go with it. Synchronicity is an important thing.”