Page McConnell is a man on the verge of his future. But the former Phish keyboardist isn’t about to forget his past.
Entering the Top Heatseekers chart at No. 16 with his self-titled debut solo album, McConnell says the effort marks the first time he is “putting something out as myself and speaking for myself, as opposed to being a part of something else.” And that, he acknowledges, is “a very nice feeling.”
But he’s quick to add that the “luxury” of being where he is now has everything to do with where he’s been. “Phish had the live thing going,” he says, “so we sort of rolled along unaffected [by the music industry], in control of our destiny more than a lot of people. Coming from that place definitely allowed me to spend two years doing this — working all the time on new a record. I’m just lucky.”
Of course, there was a lot more to it than luck. By the time Phish called it quits in 2004, after 21 years, the band had played around 1,200 shows, earning an almost slavish devotion from fans worldwide — but it’s just like soft-spoken McConnell to be modest about his accomplishments.
Still, you can feel McConnell’s glow when he talks about this new record. “I worked on it for so long, and I was so protective of it. But I’m very proud of it, too. I’m so happy people are finally able to hear it.”
The album was mostly recorded at McConnell’s Burlington, Vt., home studio, which was built with the help of engineer/multi-instrumentalist Jared Slomoff beginning in February 2005.
“I had written [first single] ‘Beauty of a Broken Heart’ back in fall 2003, when Phish was tracking ‘Undermind’,” recalls McConnell. “The rest of the album developed after we completed the studio.”
McConnell says he initially spent a lot of time alone, “creating drum samples and working with rhythm tracks and synthesized and electronic stuff. Many of the songs first arose from those experiments. But I began by just trying to record sounds.”
Much of the sonic toying survives in the final product, appearing in the form of “segues and background sounds and other little bits.” In a few cases, McConnell’s work with synthesized beats even became “major, elemental drum parts” — interesting, when you consider the company McConnell ended up keeping.
Jon “Fish” Fishman, former Phish drummer, and legendary session man Jim Keltner (Bob Dylan, John Lennon) both got behind the kit for McConnell, the latter joining after the sessions had relocated to engineer/producer Bryce Goggin’s studio in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“After about six months, when I’d already had a lot of ideas down, Jared [Slomoff] moved up to Burlington from New York and started working with me on production. He ended up also doing some singing, playing a little guitar and playing a little trumpet,” Page explains. “Then Fish came in on three separate occasions over the course of about a year, and [guitarist] Adam Zimmon came up for two days. We tracked seven songs. But at that point,” he continues, “I realized I still wasn’t sure what I had. I needed to find out if this stuff sounded good beyond the four walls of my studio.”
That’s what prompted the decampment to Brooklyn. McConnell had first worked with Goggin (Pavement, Sebadoh) on Phish’s 2000 release, “Farmhouse,” and felt that “Bryce would provide a new set of ears and some perspective to help finish the project. It also gave us the opportunity to have a real studio.”
McConnell did a two-day session in Brooklyn with Zimmon, Keltner and Phish bassist Mike Gordon which he says was “without a doubt, one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of the whole recording.” The four of them banged out three songs, including “Back in the Basement,” which McConnell says he had “just written within hours of meeting Jim.” They also did a “magical” first take of the lovely Elton John-style ballad “Rules I Don’t Know,” which Page says was in the can only 30 minutes after he’d met Jim for the first time. That first take is the one that appears on “Page McConnell.”
“One of the last things done for the album,” adds McConnell, “is that Trey [Anastasio, Phish’s guitarist] came in for a couple of hours one morning and played on ‘Back in the Basement,'” a deliciously sweaty jazz-funk jam that is one of the disc’s best.
“Page McConnell” was complete by summer of 2006, about two years after Phish’s final shows. But McConnell had no management and no label deal at the time, so the record remained under wraps, finally debuting on Sony’s Legacy Recordings imprint last month.
When asked about being mostly out of the spotlight for the last three years, McConnell says, “It was certainly a reflective time. I guess the word I use more than any other is ‘decompress.’ With Phish,” he explains, “it was very intense for such a long time, but it was hard to see how intense it really was until I was able to put a little space between. And every time I would think over last the few years or so, ‘Oh, I figured something out’ or had some sort of revelation, six months later I’d see things with different eyes.” Although he won’t go much further, he adds, “I will say that doing the album has helped give me perspective on the whole Phish thing.”
Now McConnell’s is ready and eager to get back out there with a new band. He’s recruited Slomoff and Zimmon, as well as Rob O’Dea and Gabe Jarrett, to join him. “We’re a young band, but I’m very excited about it,” says McConnell. “It really feels like a group, a collective experience. And some of the songs are stretching out in strange and unusual ways.”
A thirteen-date Eastern and Midwest tour starts May 30. Adam Farber, a marketing product manager at Legacy, says that after a short break the band will embark on a second cycle of dates, and possibly a third.
Farber knows McConnell won’t have any trouble getting support from fans on the live circuit, considering his historic jam-band background, but admits that getting those fans to buy the album is another story. “It’s tough to say because the crowd that comes with him from Phish is more a ticket-buying group than a record-buying one, but we hope they’ll find this album over time.”
Farber adds that people new to McConnell’s music present a different set of challenges. “On one hand, lots of people are specifically not Phish fans,” he says, “so they hear the name Phish and they immediately have preconceived notions. On the other hand, a lot of people who have heard of Phish may not have heard of Page and that’s really an asset to us. We want to present him as his own artist and, in terms of gaining new fans, move him away from his background. These are his songs — yes, he had help from his old band mates, but really this album is all about Page.”