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.
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