To the uninitiated, Phish is hard to explain. To their core fans — even harder. How do you describe Phish to someone who has never heard the band or worse, has the wrong idea? Misconceptions usually boil down to some post-Grateful Dead narrative, where a quirky cult jam band picks up where the Dead left off after Jerry died. This grossly misrepresents what Phish is all about. True, like Deadheads, “Phish-heads” will follow the band anywhere, but as a musical entity, Phish is light years beyond what the Dead ever aspired to.
Got a blank space where my mind should be.
—“Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan”
To even attempt to categorize Phish, one must look at the wide scope of their influences. There’s a strong current of Americana, with flavors of the Allman Brothers, the Band, the Heartbreakers, and yes, the Grateful Dead. But there’s also classic rock, prog, jazz fusion, funk, blues, R&B, soul, Latin, bluegrass, and country, making Phish not just one of the greatest American bands but possibly the Most American Band. Add to all that reggae, trance, and a healthy dose of the musical universe Frank Zappa came from, and you have an amalgam that draws from more sources than any other band. But to the members of Phish, it’s not about labels and categories; it’s about communication and listening.
“Certainly, Trey and Fish [guitarist Trey Anastasio and drummer Jon Fishman] are huge Zappa fans and some of the compositional stuff we do hearkens to that,” says keyboardist Page McConnell. “With some of the jamming, we’ve often been compared to the Grateful Dead or the Allman Brothers — bands who like to stretch out. We’ve tried not to be like any of them, and shied away from sounding too much like anybody. The jamming that we do and the communication that happens when we’re really improvising well together is about the listening and the chemistry of the four of our personalities. It’s not that different to me when we’re having a conversation than when we’re onstage playing; it’s a very similar kind of energy and free-form-ness.”
In an odd way, by sampling so many genres of music, Phish has created their own genre, labeled only by their name. They can’t be pigeonholed as just a “jam band;” if anything, they’re a progressive rock band, yet not in the classic sense.
After experiencing 12 sets of mind-bending music over the course of Halloween’s Festival 8 and their Miami New Year’s run, this writer is less able to define Phish than ever. That resistance to definition is one reason why their fans love them beyond words and why their “cult” status defies normal bandfan relations.
Come hide in the herd and float with the flock.
The four members of Phish — Trey Anastasio on guitar, Mike Gordon on bass, Jon Fishman on drums, and Page McConnell on keyboards — add unique ingredients to the musical stew. Anastasio is the bandleader, though all members can and do sing and front songs in concert. Their connection onstage borders on ESP, with a Möbius-strip quality that weaves and bobs amongst intricate melodies and time changes. Though Gordon and Fishman both do admirable jobs of holding down the foundation of the music, it’s McConnell who most often compliments Anastasio’s melodic work. With a subconscious effortlessness, McConnell’s keyboard comping dances among the guitar lines, filling in subtle spaces and adding to both the rhythmic and melodic tension and release of the music. The more you see and hear Phish live, the more you realize the depth of McConnell’s abilities. As a player, he runs the gamut from Chuck Leavell-style piano runs and funky Clavinet grooves to soaring B-3 beds, tasty Rhodes comping, and other-worldly synth explorations.
McConnell sits surrounded on three sides by a fantastic rig (see “Page’s Phish Rig” on page 25) which gets a full workout during most shows. As a songwriter, McConnell has a bit of a Steve Winwood vibe, which he displays live with the band via his indelible solo cut “Beauty of a Broken Heart.”
A love supreme, an ancient art, a finely tuned piano part.
—“Beauty of a Broken Heart”
McConnell is Phish’s most versatile and utilitarian member, adding textures and sounds that can transform the band from a good-time blues and boogie combo to a trance-inducing psychedelic prog explosion, often in the same song. From their first studio album Junta right through to their new release Joy, McConnell’s role has developed in unexpected ways that have fleshed out his own style as the band collectively expanded their own direction and definition. If there were an evolution from Junta to Joy, it would be in the tightening of the songs and the melodic narratives that the instruments create within. Where Junta had epic multi-part adventures like “Fluffhead” and “The Divided Sky,” Joy has more concisely written pop/rock tunes like “Backwards Down the Number Line,” the funky “Ocelot,” and the haunting and uplifting title track. Aside from the lengthy and ambitious “Time Turns Elastic,” most songs are in the three- to five-minute range and feature some of Phish’s best hooks. Joy may be one of the best records of 2009, but in some ways, it’s miraculous that it ever got made in the first place.
You decide what it contains, how long it goes but this remains.
—“Backwards Down the Number Line”
The Phish of today is considered “Phish 3.0” by fans; Phish 2.0 came after a hiatus in 2000 and this new chapter comes after almost five years apart. Though they’re touring again, the band’s primary goal was to record an album. “Part of the reason we got back together was the thought of doing another record,” says McConnell. “We all had material that we were excited about sharing with the band.” They rehearsed for over a month, leading up to their first reunion shows in the spring of 2009 and soon after, went into the studio with producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, the Rolling Stones) with whom they’d previously worked over a decade prior on Billy Breathes. “I enjoy working with Steve; we have a great relationship,” says McConnell. “Last time we were so much less experienced in the studio at that point and we were still sort of getting our feet wet, even though we’d made a few records. We started out the process in the studio without Steve, in a barn in Woodstock. We did a lot of experimental sort of things.” In the studio, the band prefers to track live and get that magic take. “When the four of us track, generally we like to track with all four of us playing at the same time and in the same room if we can,” says McConnell. “As much as possible, when we can use the live tracks, we do. I overdub as little as possible. On a song like ‘Joy,’ we ended up overdubbing the whole piano track.”
Standing on the edge of the cliff, I start to slip, don’t mind if I slide off.
To balance the succinct songwriting of most of the record, Anastasio brought in a 13-minute epic called “Time Turns Elastic,” which the band approached recording with no prior rehearsal. “‘Time Turns Elastic’ was a different animal altogether,” says McConnell. “We had never heard that song before, never tried to play it. Trey would say ‘Okay, I’m going to teach you the first 20 bars,’ and we sort of went piece by piece and learned it. We’d play that chunk over and over until we got a good take with all four of us playing it right. Then we’d do the next section, et cetera, and edit it all together. With Steve Lillywhite’s help, we were able to do it seamlessly. But all of the piano on that song was from playing with all those guys at the same time, even though the song was chopped up and spliced together.”
Of all the keyboards in his arsenal, McConnell was often drawn to the piano. “For the most part, I tracked piano on everything except ‘Stealing Time,’” McConnell says. “Piano is my go-to thing and my primary instrument. I like to use all of them, but if I can, I’ll play piano first. It’s such a complete instrument with the melody and the percussive quality and all that.” When the band first started, McConnell had a piano in the studio, but live, he wound up using Mike Gordon’s Fender Rhodes and Roland Juno-106. Soon after, he got a Yamaha CP70 electric grand, which he played right up until he started touring with a grand piano.
Gonna dream, dream of being free.
—“Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan”
Live, the band is on fire, rejuvenated after a long hiatus and enjoying the music they’re playing. Their musical telepathy produces moments of sheer brilliance, though they give themselves room to morph freely. “I don’t listen to a lot of our concert tapes,” says McConnell. “But sometimes I’ll hear a tape and I’ll be like ‘Man, it’s kind of meandering, it doesn’t really feel like it has its footing’ and it’ll go on sometimes ten or 15 minutes, and all of a sudden it locks together and it’s like ‘Boy, if we hadn’t persevered, we never would have found this cool thing.’ I think that happens a lot, where it kind of goes and goes, but hopefully we don’t meander too much.” Though the recorded songs give a foundation for those freeform jams, McConnell isn’t tied to the keyboard parts used on record. “I usually start with something but try not to be married to it,” he says. “When I’m playing a song that has parts, usually I have something that’s lined up for that. Very little of it happens on the Rhodes or the Yamaha [CS-60]; most of it tends to happen on piano and organ, and some on the Clavinet. When we’re jamming and it’s going well, it seems like whatever it is that I can reach for at the time is the right thing to be reaching for.” One example he gives is “Time Turns Elastic,” which they now perform live. “I mix it up,” he says. “Instead of starting on piano, I start on Rhodes. I have a little bit of synthesizer in there, too.” No matter how Phish performs their tunes, the fans are always along for the ride. “Our crowd is very encouraging,” he says. “They really like us taking chances and stretching out.” However, he doesn’t pay much attention to fan or press feedback. “I don’t read critiques almost ever. I tend not to read anything people say. If it’s praise, I don’t really need that and if it’s negative, I definitely don’t need that either [laughs].”
The song “Joy” sums up the mood of the band these days, which is happiness. There’s a feeling emanating from Phish 3.0, a gratitude for the music and community that they steward. Instead of the Dead, perhaps they represent the grateful living, and their fans overwhelmingly show it. At Festival 8, I asked a passing kid of maybe eight years old how he’d describe the band, to which he spouted, “Amazing, creative, and rhythmic!” Leave it to a child to describe the indescribable.
PAGE’S PHISH RIG
Click here for a video tour from Page himself!
On tour, McConnell plays a Yamaha C7 piano outfitted with hammers from a German Steinway. A Helpinstill pickup run through an Avalon U5 direct box, plus an Earthworks Piano Mic system, feed the P.A. Then there’s the Hammond B-3, Hohner Clavinet, Rhodes, Moog Little Phatty, and Yamaha CS-60. “Since I did my solo record, I’ve been out with the Little Phatty and I really like it,” says McConnell. “Before the Phatty, I used a Moog Source. I’ve had a few different keyboards occupy that particular spot.” His Clavinet got quite a workout at Festival 8 on songs like “Down With Disease” and “Ghost.” “People like the Clav,” he says. “It’s funky and it makes them dance.” The CS-60’s flavor comes in handy for certain moods. “I use it more for the spacious stuff and the ambient or spacey sounds. Pads and textures — I really like the texture of Yamaha’s analog synths. I’ll start with one of the presets, like the flute or brass sound, and mess with it.” However many vintage keyboards he owns, McConnell keeps his live rig tight: “I try not to have more than six keyboards with me.”