Q&A: Phish Returns With 'Joy' And Fanfare
After a five-year "hiatus" that began as a "breakup," Phish has reconvened with a tour and “Joy,” a new studio album to be released in late August/early September on the band’s own JEMP Records.
Those close to the project say it’s directed clearly toward Phish fans, and producer Steve Lillywhite says "Joy" could well be the band's best studio effort ever.
Fresh off Phish's two-night tour de force at Bonnaroo (click here for video, photos and a recap of the band's set with Bruce Springsteen), Billboard caught up with Phish band members Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell and Mike Gordon for these insightful interviews.
Billboard: How hard was it to step away from being one of the biggest touring bands in the world?
Trey Anastasio: Today I can see clearly that it was very necessary. Things are in such a healthy place. I’m talking to you from backstage at St. Louis, and the room next to me has Jon’s three small children in it, under the ages of seven, five and three, and my two children are in the next room, and Mike’s tiny baby is there. We were kind of just rolling and rolling and rolling, and I think people needed to stop and re-establish healthy lives as individuals, and then regroup.
You built such a community, where did all those people go when you took a break?
It’s funny, I run into people on the streets in New York and they kind of did the same thing. They got off the road, they got established, a lot of them got married and started families, and now they’re back out with their kids.
Maybe you did them a favor by going away, giving them a break.
I hear that a lot when people come up to me.
When you made the decision to reconvene, how long did it take you to recapture that chemistry that’s so productive?
I actually do remember having a dinner at a restaurant, the four of us. We hadn’t all four of us been alone together in a number of years, and sometime during the dinner I went to the bathroom to call my wife and said, “I understand what’s so special about this band just by the way we’re speaking to each other.” There’s such a level of communication and mutual respect that was evident before we ever even picked up the instruments again.
What was it like when you did pick up the instruments to rehearse for your three shows in Hampton, Va.?
That was a really healthy, exciting experience, because the time off gave us a lot of perspective. We came back really appreciating a lot of the older material. These were songs we hadn’t played for a number of years, and we played them with a whole new level of excitement. Everything felt fresh.
Did anything that the other guys brought in musically or even philosophically surprise you pleasantly?
A lot of the songs feel weightier to me. A lot happened during that time off, you know, a lot of living. And I can hear it in the way people are playing. You know the old saying, you’ve gotta pay the dues if you’re gonna play the blues. I think we’re playing better blues than we used to [laughs].
Well, it wasn’t all blues while you are away.
No, just life. I went through some stuff, everybody did. I’m finding meaning in lyrics where maybe I didn’t relate to them on such a personal level before. Now things are kind of emerging out of songs, different levels of emotional weight.
From the beginning it wasn’t just about coming back and doing a tour -- it seems you fully intended to make new music.
Oh, yeah. We did those three shows in Hampton to get our feet back on the ground and most importantly reconnect with all of our friends. And then we went straight to the barn in Vermont and started with about 20 new songs. We went through the painful process of narrowing that down to about 15, which we went in and recorded with Steve Lillywhite. And we’re very, very, very excited to put this out on our own label. We’re putting this album out with the same spirit that we did our big festivals and stuff. It’s very homegrown, and that feels great for us.
Has the songwriting process changed or evolved, or was it like putting on an old shoe?
It hasn’t changed in a drastic way. I’m still writing a lot of songs with Tom Marshall, my longtime writing partner, and also alone. Mike is still writing, and Page. We’ve still got all four original members of this band playing together, and it’s been 26-27 years. There’s a lot of acknowledgement of how lucky we are to still have the opportunity to still play music for people.
Before you guys took the stage at Bonnaroo, there was this unbelievable electricity. You all played so well, and you looked like you were having a ball.
That was for real. I spent the whole night listening to Mike and being amazed at what a great bass player he is. A lot of times while we’re playing I feel like a detached observer. I’m looking at all this stuff and I’m feeling very lucky to be there. If I wasn’t in the band, I’d probably be there anyway. Then we got to play with Bruce [Springsteen], and that’s my hero.
Do Phish albums live up to the shows for you?
You always hope the new one will. I’m not ever going to judge [an album] as good or bad because that’s not up to me. I’m supposed to make the music and that’s for other people to judge. But I can say what I hear sounds like Phish to me, a lot more than previous records.
Steve Lillywhite produced the first record we did, “Billy Breathes,” and when he did it he had never seen Phish live. After he finished it, he went to a Phish concert and came backstage, ran into the band room and said “I want to do it again. I had no idea you guys could play like that.” So when we did this one, the one thing he did was make us always play together, all four of us. There’s not one single overdub guitar solo on this record; there’s all the original interplay between the band. The drums and the piano are clearly interacting, for real. I thought that was such a great production decision on his part.
What are your expectations for this record and what the future holds?
I think when we were in the studio I had the best time that I could, and then when it’s done it’s out of my hands now. Today I’m in St. Louis and I’m looking forward to St. Louis. I kind of have this thing that the show I’m doing that night is the only show, it’s all about tonight. Things have gone beyond my wildest expectations and dreams and I feel like been given so many blessings in my life, between my friendship with the guys in the band, our wonderful audience, being able to play this music, and then my family. I just want to stay in that state of gratitude and try to hope that the music that we play is of value to the audience.
NEXT PAGE: PAGE MCCONNELL >>
Billboard: Phish built such a huge fan community, then stepped away. What led to that?
Page McConnell: After you’ve spent as much time together as us – we started in our late teens/early 20s and basically spent every breathing moment together for about 20 years -- sometimes you just need a break. We really just needed to grow up a little bit and spend a little time and get to know ourselves as adults, which is something you can’t do when you’re in a rock band for 20 years straight. It was really good for all of us.
When and how did you discover that it was time to reconvene?
After a year-and-a-half or so, I started having some conversations with the other guys, just about what was up with them, how we got where we were. I think there were some conversations that just had to happen between us, to just say “Hey, you know, when this was going on that was kind of a problem for me and if we got back together I wouldn’t want it to be like that again.” The communication between the four of us is just so much better now than it ever was.
Did you feel welcomed back immediately by your fans?
Absolutely. It really was incredible how much they welcomed us back and how eager they were for us to play again. This whole tour sold out immediately and it has been great, we’ve had a great response.
Where did all these people go while you were on hiatus?
They did the same thing I did, they got on with their lives and had jobs and families and settled down. It does a feel a little bit different out here now. There’s not so many random, transient people that lived on the road and maybe didn’t even care about the music or the shows, but just lived in the parking lot. There are a lot of people that grew up a bit, and also there are a lot of younger fans that never had a chance to see us before.
Has the songwriting process changed for you guys and the way you make music evolved?
Because we had all this time off, a lot of us had songs we brought to the table as potential songs for recording and playing. The songwriting process didn’t change that much, but because we had so much time off we had a lot more songs to choose from than we would have if it had only been a year since our last album.
Did anything the other guys have pleasantly surprise you?
There’s one piece, “Time Turns Elastic,” which is a 13-minute epic that Trey wrote. It’s a piece that he wrote for an orchestral arrangement and played for a couple of different symphonies around the country. We recorded it in a really cool way that I enjoyed. Steve [Lillywhite] had some really good ideas about how to record that song and I think it’s through his production that it came to life.
Do you feel more comfortable onstage than in the studio?
We made 12 or 13 albums and played between 1,500 and 2,000 shows, so you can do the math. We’ve spent a lot more time playing live than we have trying to make records. I have a fun time in the studio, but I like making [albums] on the faster side, you don’t want to get bogged down.
You kind of existed outside what we would call the mainstream music business and found great success. Now the business seems to have sort of come your way. Are you doing it the way you did before?
Oh yeah, we haven’t changed. We’re still outside the mainstream of the business and happy to be existing there. We may not fall into the category of what’s typically considered indie, but I challenge you to fid another band that has done things their own way with as much success as we have.
NEXT PAGE : MIKE GORDON >>
How hard was it to step away from something so big, so successful?
Mike Gordon: It was difficult for me at first, not only because it was so successful, but because my identity since the age of 18 had been wrapped up in being part of this. But as soon as a couple of months went by, I was really into the breakup. It allowed me to think about some new musical directions I might not have otherwise, spend a year writing, putting my own band together, touring with some different people. That was really important to my solo career, which I feel like was just starting in a certain way.
What led to the breakup?
I think we just need to shake things up: people’s personal habits, the group habits, the way that the organization was run -- which was awesome, but everything had to be looked at from a difficult angle, and it had to be deconstructed before it could be reconstructed.
You guys managed to play your getting back together pretty close to the vest.
There were some rumors, like there always are. We didn’t really want to make any announcements until we were sure what we were doing, and we wanted to take some time to be sure. We were just rediscovering ourselves, so I guess we just sort of had to dial that in before we let people know.
You could have come back with just a tour and no album and done quite well.
We went back and forth about which to do first. I guess we actually did those three concerts [in Hampton, Va.] before we started recording. We ended up having those 36 days of practice before the Hampton shows, and half of those were to work on older stuff that we would be playing and the other half were to work on some potential songs for the new album. So much time had gone by and Trey is always prolific, but Page and I ended up doing some more writing than usual in that time period. So there were probably 30 songs that had been brought to the table for the album before we ended up weeding it down to 10.
Do you feel like you were able to recapture the chemistry fairly quickly?
Yeah, I think so. I remember the first day back, it took about 20 minutes before it really dialed in to being that kind of show I personally had forgotten, where there’s this interplay that’s going on and we’re leaving holes in the rhythm for each other subsconsciously. It was very joyous. I remember just feeling that chemistry and being reminded what the hoopla was all about.
I saw you at Bonnaroo and believe me, you were dialed in.
When we’re at our best I think there’s this combination of tightness and looseness at the same time. It feels very professional, but there’s also this sense of a band that has surrendered to the moment. Some of the jams that night felt like stuff we hadn’t done in a long time, where the drummer is playing in one rhythm and I’m playing in another rhythm and everyone’s not just improvising, but carving patterns against other patters and having them come together in this unique way. It felt like a combination of flow and also adventure. I love it when that happens.
Why put out the album on your own label?
Are there major labels any more? I’m not really sure what a major label would offer us at this point, though I’m not the expert. While we were making the album for two months, there were some very interesting conversations about the music business and how it’s changing and what we want to do with this album. To really make an album that the fans would enjoy in a deep way, like the do the concerts. Not that it’s going to be a concert, because it isn’t. But there’s some jamming on the album, some longer extended parts. Some intense, composed stuff.
Making an album for your fans at this stage seems perfectly the right move for Phish.
Our fans are so great, why not just make something they would really appreciate and see that we’re not trying to do this big marketing campaign and sell something, or sell out? It’s really the opposite.
I remember Trey talking one time about some of our favorite albums, like “Who’s Next?” or “Abbey Road.” You have a special relationship to this album, you covet it in a way, because it’s special and it’s made with this cohesive vision. That’s what we really wanted to do, is just really have fun with this one and have it be inviting for the fans. And the fact that the first thing we released is 13-and-a-half minutes long and has a thousand chords to it, and is also very melodic at the same time, kind of represents that attitude we were trying to have.