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The Salvation of Page McConnell (Relix Revisited)

Andy Bernstein and Lockhart Steele | May 17, 2013

On the occasion of his 50th birthday we revisit this cover story on Phish’s Page McConnell from our July 2007 issue.Page McConnell wants to talk about his new solo album, about his new band, about his life. But what Page McConnell also wants to talk about, almost three years to the day after its announced breakup, is Phish.

It’s unavoidable – the elephant in the room for any rock star who has moved on from a band that first defined them to a solo career, and life, of uncertain destiny. For McConnell, though, it’s a little different, considering his view that no longer being in Phish has changed him and opened doors into himself that stayed closed for the 20 years he was part of one of rock music’s epic experiences.

“I don’t think I realized until after it was over, how much to me, personally, I was Page from Phish,” McConnell said, three days before his 44th birthday, mostly ignoring his beer at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “Doing this project, and now getting out on the road – all of these things have really been steps of me sort of getting back to whoever it is that I am, to who Page McConnell is, post that phase in my life. The hard part in a lot of ways is just accepting that – that I am this singular person and not a member of this giant tribe running around the country.”

In Phish, each band member had a clear persona. Guitarist Trey Anastasio was the rock star, drummer Jon Fishman the joker, Mike Gordon the bassist from another planet. Page was the gentleman, a role epitomized in his nickname, “The Chairman of the Boards.” His emotional vocals, seeming discomfort in his rare words uttered from the stage and slightly awkward interactions with fans, left an image of a thoughtful man who enjoyed listening as much as being heard. His style as a musician could be described the same way: laying down a foundation and filling the gaps, but only selectively stepping to the fore.

Within the confines of Phish, that disposition served him, and the band, well. After leaving the stage for the last time in August 2004, though, all the public heard from Page was silence. There was the rare cameo onstage here and there. But for the most part, Page pretty much dropped off the radar.

Then in late March and early April of this year, he performed a pair of shows in Philadelphia and New York to showcase his self-titled new album, released on Sony’s Legacy label. Most of the 600 in attendance at the sold-out New York show described it with accolades his far-more-prolific former bandmates have found elusive for their solo works. Some called it touching. Others said powerful. Another common refrain, though, was that it was the closest some had felt to attending a Phish show since the band’s bittersweet swan song in Coventry, Vermont.

While even the most hardcore Phish fan can’t claim to know much about Page as a person off the stage, many believe they have an intuitive sense of who Page is. They find a piece of themselves, and the foundation of their love for Phish, in that person.

His eponymous solo release and live performances are cementing those beliefs. The process of making the album, recorded over a span of 18 months in Vermont and in Brooklyn from early 2005 through June 2006, was very much a therapeutic process for McConnell. If some Phish fans felt they lost their center when the band broke up, they’ll hear their own struggles in Page’s voice. If they’ve spent the last three years growing beyond that and discovering new outlets for their musical passion, they’ll experience that even more profoundly. The mix of pain and redemption that can be heard in every track on the album, and lyrics that seemingly reference Phish’s demise and hereafter, make Page McConnell the first true soundtrack of the post-Phish era.
McConnell’s rebirth started – as so many things did for Phish over the years – innocently. Faced with life away from a band he joined in his early twenties, divorced and with a general lack of interest in celebrity and its trappings, McConnell awoke post-Coventry with, as he explains it, little idea of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. (One brainstorm even had him going back to school.) Seen in that light, his new album represents a nearly two-year period through which he found himself through music.

“His heart is totally in that record,” says Bryce Goggin, who produced two Phish albums and served as co-producer for McConnell’s release. “From the first rough mixes he sent me I was excited and I could hear where he was coming from and all the passion he had put into this stuff. You’d have to be deaf not to hear it.”

To understand where McConnell is now, though, one must understand where he came from, particularly over the last five years of Phish’s run. Much has been said publicly by the members of Phish about the latter years of the two decades as a band and the personal and professional challenges they faced. Anastasio has gone public with his struggles with addiction, a topic he’d hinted at many times before his arrest in December 2006 for drug possession. McConnell acknowledges that drugs were one of many factors that put strain on the band in the later years, but the force he thinks most sapped their creative spirit in those periods was the sheer repetition of the touring life, with many of the other struggles stemming from that.

“We were going back to the same places tour after tour – the same routing, the same faces, the same sheds, the same arenas,” he says. “It was cookie-cutter. And if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, there’s going to be a certain amount of boredom that’s going to accompany that. Then, how that manifests itself could be in any number of different ways.”

If McConnell has a core regret, it’s that Phish did something they had publicly vowed to avoid – going down the same path as the Grateful Dead by supporting a huge in-house organization (over 50 employees at its peak), and being forced to tour just to support the enormous overhead that came with it.

“I’m not pointing the finger necessarily, but there wasn’t very much effort put into giving us the space to create,” he says. “We had to carve it out ourselves. In a certain way, the cart did begin to push the horse.”

One casualty: creative touring concepts were rejected because they weren’t economically feasible. The band considered doing one tour to just play the seven U.S. states they’d never played. Another idea had them playing a “baker’s dozen” of shows – 13 nights in Madison Square Garden, say, or, adding another layer of classic Phish humor to it all, the Providence Civic Center, rebranded by corporate interests as the Dunkin Donuts Center. Riffing on that absurdity, the band imagined giving away free donuts and even basing the theme for each show around that night’s variety. For “Boston Crème,” a setlist might have included covers of songs by Boston and Cream.

Such tours, of course, never saw the light of day. Says McConnell, “Even if creatively it made sense to the four of us, the management – I don’t want to say they wouldn’t let us do it, but really, they just wouldn’t let us do it.”

When speaking about Phish’s management company, the defunct Dionysian Productions, McConnell seems to struggle between not wanting to point fingers at its head, John Paluska, who has retired from the music business, and not being able to hide his discontent that Paluska made money more important than enabling the band’s ability to be creative.

“Maybe he didn’t see his job as that and maybe if he’d seen his job as both of those things we would have been together longer.”

During Phish’s hiatus, which ran from fall 2000 through New Year’s Eve 2002, Page convened Vida Blue, a side project with Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbidge, and Russell Batiste of The Funky Meters. McConnell notes that at that phase of his life, he didn’t feel comfortable serving as the frontman of the trio, even though it was in all essential ways his band. But for the first time, he began to write lyrics, putting structure into jams and ultimately writing songs that would fill up two albums though the latter was entirely instrumental. While McConnell has songwriting credits on a handful of instrumental Phish songs such as “Cars, Trucks and Buses,” writing for his own voice was new territory.

“It wasn’t that I wasn’t encouraged to, we all were. Although it’s hard when you have that many people contributing, and such a dominant writer, as well,” he recalls, referring to Anastasio. “There was always so much material and there was always so little time.”

When Phish announced its return from hiatus, McConnell and the other band members collaborated more as equals than ever before. They ensconced themselves in Anastasio’s famed studio, The Barn, not even allowing engineers or a producer in for a certain period. It was a clear attempt to stake out fresh creative space, and the result was the sessions that would comprise Round Room. Bryce Goggin, who had co-produced 2000’s Farmhouse with Anastasio, would be brought in to produce the album. Goggin recalls that in the Round Room sessions, he witnessed the beginnings of a transformation in McConnell.

Among Page’s fondest memories from this era: the August 2003 “It” Festival, notably the trancy set Phish performed on top of the air traffic control tower at the decommissioned Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine. “Jamming up on top of that building – that was making music in a new way in a new place we had never done before and that was really exciting,” he remembers. “If you could have seen the looks on our faces, we were just dying up there. The four of us were doubled over laughing while doing it. There were things right up in the end that we were pushing. And trying to do something different.”

McConnell concedes Phish’s music was sloppy at times, and that they practiced far less than in early years (although, it should be noted, more than some fans seem to think). That was an outgrowth of inevitable changes in their lives, and a failure to make the adjustments needed to stay sharp and creatively invigorated. Explains McConnell, “Our lives all kept moving on, we had families, yet we still had everything else, too. So what is it that you cancel, what do you take out of your schedule to make room for these other things that are coming in? Maybe if we had a different sort of touring schedule, things could have been different and we would have had more energy for rehearsing.”

It’s a theme McConnell keeps coming back around to over the course of several conversations. In the final years, he says, he took more of an interest in how management decisions were being made, going so far as to sit in on the weekly business meetings held at Phish’s Burlington headquarters. In typical fashion, he says he listened more than he spoke. (The only issue he recalls firmly taking a stand on was whether or not to market Phish action figures – um, no.)

By May 2004, though, the situation for at least one member of the band had become irretrievable. At a private meeting of the four band members, Trey told the others he was done.

“My initial reaction was probably a little shocked. I didn’t think it should have all stopped right then, initially,” McConnell says of that fateful meeting. “I wanted to try and keep the band together – that was my initial thought. But I soon saw the wisdom of it.”

In an interview soon after Phish broke the news to its fans, Anastasio would intimate that McConnell felt the same way about the split he did. McConnell’s version is that he understood Anastasio’s train of thought and felt it made sense on some levels. But more so, Anastasio coming to that conclusion meant there was no turning back. “We’d always been a band, and if someone didn’t want to be in it, I didn’t want to be in a band with that person, so it was really as simple as that. It was just a decision that Trey made.”

McConnell released his own statement to fans two days later, a counterbalance to Trey’s statement, which he thinks was insensitive in some ways. “I thought the way Trey’s letter came off, I wanted there to be another perspective than just that letter,” he explains. “I don’t remember exactly what [Trey’s letter] said, but there was a certain amount of, ‘Look, it’s over, move on, get over it’ kind of a thing, without taking into consideration, necessarily, a sympathetic tone toward the people who might be wondering, ‘Why, what happened?’ Not that I was ever going to be able to explain what happened or why.”

McConnell leaves a clear impression that he’s more than comfortable with the end result of the decision. "I guess I feel like for me, more than anything, it was maybe a desire to try to get to another spot in life, though I may not have known it. I wouldn’t say I was unhappy… His voice trails off. “I’m a happier guy now than I was five years ago.”

After Coventry, the giant Phish organization was whittled down from more than 50 employees to four, with McConnell serving as the hatchet man, informing many of the employees their tenure with the Phish organization was over. Other than overseeing the Phish office’s dissolution, he spent the fall of 2004 in Burlington keeping mostly to himself – and, he says, watching a lot of cable news.

In January of 2005, he started making music again. He put together a bare-bones home studio in his rented apartment and exhumed “Beauty of a Broken Heart,” a song he’d first written during the recording sessions of Phish’s last album, Undermind. It started with laying down sounds on a synthesizer and putting together one-minute vignettes, as he called them, programming drums on top using the keyboard. By the summer, he had written four complete songs, and Jared Smoloff, a filmmaker and musician who had directed a documentary of sorts about Vida Blue, moved to Burlington to help the recording process along.

McConnell played almost all the music himself including some drums and bass – some of it synthesized, some of it on live instruments. Smoloff, whom McConnell didn’t even know was a musician when making the Vida Blue film, also picked up various instruments. Then, with the songs nearing their completed form, McConnell called in Fishman to lay down some drum tracks. Some months later, Trey would get the same call and oblige by recording guitar on the instrumental “Back in the Basement.” Fishman would come back twice more. McConnell also flew in Spam Allstars guitarist and occasional Vida Blue collaborator Adam Zimmon to play guitar. The demo of “Back in the Basement” was so strong that McConnell put it straight onto the album.

In March of 2006, more than a year into the project, he called Goggin for help with audio mixing. That led to a magical recording session in Goggin’s studio in Brooklyn, with Page, Zimmon, Mike Gordon on bass and legendary session drummer Jim Keltner – probably the best-known musician in the room to music buffs at large. Keltner gave a quick listen to a demo of “Heavy Rotation,” and then the four started recording.

“That was a visceral couple of days,” recalls Goggin. “There was chemistry between everyone in that ensemble.” After the session, Keltner stood next to Gordon and commented, “I’m in the presence of one of the great bass players of the world” – a moment that Mike seemed to miss, but was caught on film, as Smoloff documented much of the proceedings.

For Gordon and McConnell to play together on “Heavy Rotation” represents a poignant moment as it’s one of several songs on the album where Page lyrically tackles life after Phish. “But the music that came and went/ Amusements that paid the rent/ Rules that were slightly bent/ But never too far,” he sings. Later in the song he asks, “Whether or not I can weather, not the storm but the calm.” The song “Rules I Don’t Know” goes a step further, putting tune and rhyme to the most resonant questions of his post-Phish life: “How can I leave this behind me with all that’s around to remind me?/ How can this road help unwind me when it’s the road I don’t go that defines me?” McConnell is quick to point out that the lyrics are story-driven, not autobiographical, but it’s hard not to listen to the album and find connections.

Now, taking a band on the road and promoting an album that bears his name, Page finds himself in the unfamiliar position of frontman. On tour, that manifests itself in the most literal sense – his piano is boldly situated at the front of the stage – and in countless symbolic ones. Hours before the band’s first 2007 performance at the World Café in Philadelphia (they performed once as a group at the moe.down festival the summer before), McConnell was fiddling with a notebook during soundcheck. He looked up and realized that everyone onstage was staring at him, waiting for his cue. “I was like, ‘I really am in charge now,’” he says.

Yet with his current touring band which includes Smoloff on guitar and Rhodes, Zimmon on guitar and vocals, Gabe Jarrett on drums, and Rob O’Dea on bass. McConnell leads like one would expect Page McConnell to lead: in a thoughtful, unsplashy way. As the consummate gentleman.

“He’s like a ship’s captain,” Zimmon explains. “He’s got his hand on the wheel but not throwing the boat back and forth. The wind is pushing it. He’s not trying to pedal the motor in it the whole time. That makes everyone feel like a part of it.”

When not on tour or promoting the album, McConnell lives a quiet life. He terms himself a “creature of habit,” going to bed early, stirring each morning at around 6 a.m., just because his body tells him to, and eating breakfast at the same coffee shop each day. The only daytime leisure activity he describes is driving his old Land Rover in the snow. At night he often sees live music, but seldom sticks around for more than two or three songs. He met countless people through Phish and considers many fans to be friends, spread all over America. But in Burlington – which he returned to after living in New York City from 1995 to 1998 – he says he doesn’t maintain a very wide social circle. He spends half the week taking care of his seven-year-old daughter, and has a girlfriend.

One of the people he sees is Mike Gordon, who stops by for a chess match about once a week (and wins most of the time). He and Anastasio talk occasionally, while he and Fishman connect even less, although McConnell stopped by the Bowery Ballroom in New York in April to watch Fishman’s raunchy band Touchpants, and the two caught up after the show. But he still considers all four former bandmates to be good friends. “The fact that everybody plays on [the album] is sort of a statement unto itself,” McConnell says. “It’s far from the main statement of the album, but it does say something. If everybody was wondering whether or not we’re still talking – well, here it is.”