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Phish’s New Harmony: How America’s Greatest Jam Band Learned to Get Along

Phish’s New Harmony: How America’s Greatest Jam Band Learned to Get Along
 

The current blissful era of Phish began in 2009, five years after a rough breakup, when the band members convened a series of meetings to play music and discuss how they'd move forward. The terms of their reunion were laid out: They would play no more than 50 shows a year, leaving enough time for solo projects and family. Only their inner circle would be allowed backstage. They would leave on their buses immediately after concerts, rather than head to the "Betty Ford Clinic," a postshow open bar that used to host several hundred people "who had nothing to do with the music," says piano player Page McConnell.

But perhaps the most important rule of Phish these days is the No Analyze rule: Bandmates are not allowed to comment on one another's playing. The rule dates back to the late 1990s, when, several years into their run as an arena band, they realized they were spending their 15-minute breaks between sets criticizing one another. "We'd basically point out the things that we thought weren't so good," says drummer Jon Fishman. "And everybody would be a little bit down on themselves, and then we'd spend the first three or four songs of the second set being really self-conscious." The No Analyze rule was so successful that it was sometimes taken to extremes: Fishman remembers raving about a particular song, but being quieted by McConnell. "I was like, 'But it's a positive thing!'" Fishman says. "Page said, 'Yes, but by virtue of you saying something positive, I could imply that there were other things you didn't like as much.'"

All of these rules have been necessary to get Phish – frontman Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, McConnell and Fishman – where they are now, onstage on a hot early-July afternoon at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, Maine, deep into soundcheck. Several of the band members' children (Fishman, who lives in northern Maine, has five) ride around on scooters and kick soccer balls while psychedelic lights dance across the darkened arena floor. Phish are learning a new song, "Home," from their new album, Big Boat. McConnell sings about putting aside a fast life in favor of stability: "My future was some merry-go-round on horses that learned to fly/My problem was I'd barely slow down."

Hard-won happiness is a big theme with Phish right now. "When I'm really liking it, it doesn't feel like a jam band – it feels like Radiohead, meditative and creative," says Gordon. Phish remain one of the top touring acts in the country, grossing an average of $1.5 million a night, despite the fact that they exist almost entirely outside the media spotlight. (Although even that could be changing: Broad City paid homage to the slapstick surrealism of their lyrics, and their fellow Vermonter Bernie Sanders called them "one of the great bands in this country.")

"People aren't so scared of us anymore," says McConnell. "A lot of our fans are in a different space in their lives, but they're still coming, and now their kids are coming too." The group used to squirm at Grateful Dead comparisons, to the point that Bo Diddley beats and country-blues shuffles were taboo at shows. But now Phish seem more comfortable with the idea of assuming the Dead's mantle, most obviously when Anastasio filled in for Jerry Garcia at the Dead's hugely successful Fare Thee Well 50th-anniversary concerts last year. "That opened up a new world to us," says McConnell, who was on hand. "I'm seeing a lot of older Deadheads in the audience."

After soundcheck, Anastasio hustles to the arena floor in a gray sweatshirt, eager to show off his guitar setup and the band's brand-new lighting rig. He loves the venue – Phish used to see the Dead here, and it's where they played their first proper arena show, back in 1992, on a bill that included Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors. Anastasio is an attentive tour guide, talking fast and rarely breaking eye contact. "Trey would be a good interviewer, because he makes even celebrities he meets comfortable, and always asks an insightful question," says Gordon. The good manners aren't a put-on; when Anastasio was arrested for drug possession in 2006, he thanked the cop.

Beneath Anastasio's positive attitude is a brutal work ethic. Today he arrived half an hour early to experiment with guitar tones by himself onstage, before the band's hourlong soundcheck. After a lobster dinner in catering, the band will practice vocals in a private backstage space. Anastasio doesn't have any sympathy for musicians who complain about how hard they have it: "Go back to 1930 and talk to Duke Ellington, for Christ's sake," he says. "He got on a bus and drove overnight, sleeping sitting up. Work harder, practice harder."

In the old days, Anastasio could be a bit of a taskmaster, which could rankle his bandmates. He could blaze ahead "naively and innocently" with ideas, says Fishman. "He never meant to squelch anyone else's ideas … but I think it stepped on people's toes at moments. There was no bad intent."

The other members all experienced emotions from anger to confusion directed at Anastasio during their breakup. Fishman was especially upset after Anastasio claimed that he broke up the band because he needed to get off the road, only to go on tour several months later with a new group. "I didn't know what else to do," Anastasio says. "In crisis, you hurt the ones you love the most. We've talked about that a lot."

On a sunny fall morning, I meet Anastasio at his favorite cafe on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He lives nearby with his wife, Sue, and their three cats, surrounded by art and books in a large prewar apartment; they have two daughters who are now in college. Trey and Sue met at a Phish show in Burlington, Vermont, in 1985 when he was still working at a pet-food store. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he says. (Sometimes, she thinks Trey talks too much. "Even what I'm saying to you now is too much [for her]," he says.)

Anastasio used to be a full-on Vermonter – "We had a home birth and a hippie lifestyle" – but he decided to try out New York in 2005 so that his daughters could attend school in Manhattan. "Trey and I are polar opposites," says Fishman, who lives with his family on a 900-acre farm in Lincolnville, Maine. "I can't imagine living in a place where you can't walk outside and hike endlessly. He can't imagine not living in New York." Anastasio goes out a lot; he's excited to see D'Angelo perform at New York's Bryant Park ("I got my ticket in hand – I've always wanted to see him"). On a typical day, Anastasio gets up by 6 a.m. He builds a fire in his living room ("I'm a big pyro") and records song ideas on his iPhone. "The guy shits music," says Fishman. "It's never been anything other than that." 

Today, Anastasio was on a long conference call about Phish's annual New Year's Eve show at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps no band of its size puts as much thought into fan-friendly spectacles: In 2013, Phish played an old-school set on top of their former band van; at another, they hovered over the crowd on a giant hot dog. For a few seconds, he lets me glance at the storyboard for this year's stunt on his phone, then pulls it away: "The other guys haven't even heard what we're going to do yet," he says. "But it's going to be awesome." One of Anastasio's favorite extravaganzas was 1998's Lemonwheel festival in northern Maine, where the band played seven sets of music over two days for 65,000 people, who reveled among circus performers, art sculptures and a playground for adults. "We had built an alternate reality where the rules of reality didn't apply," Anastasio says. "I can't describe how fun it was."

But Anastasio also admits he got swallowed up in that alternate reality. By 2000, he started to feel "a layer of shame" about his playing. He was practicing less and staying up all night. The "Betty Ford Clinic" got out of hand – Anastasio remembers a guest list of 3,200 at one concert. "It was like Dante's Inferno," he says. "It was the outer rings of hell back there."

Along the way, Anastasio got addicted to pills. "We had doctors that were writing prescriptions for us," he says. "It was totally ridiculous." By 2006, he was a "full-blown addict," had strained his marriage, and had sores on his face from using. After his arrest, he pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge, and spent 14 months in a nearby drug-court program, doing maintenance on a fairground in upstate New York.

While getting clean, Anastasio pretty much only saw his family. But for his birthday in 2007, Gordon, Fishman and McConnell showed up to take him bowling. As a gift, they brought along a new Phish album. Gordon had thought it up – an instrumental LP for Anastasio to play along with on guitar. (True to Phish, the album had a high-concept twist: To mark his 43rd birthday, the LP contained 43 songs, which ran 43 seconds apiece.) "They pulled me back into the life raft," he says. "I'm forever grateful for that."

Now that he's an empty-nester, Anastasio wants to tour more. But he has to contend with McConnell, who works closely with management planning the summer tour schedule. McConnell, who looks like a high school English teacher, lives in a large brick house with a sprawling view of Lake Champlain; most days, he shuttles his three daughters around Burlington in his Land Rover and plays tennis. "I just don't want to be away from home that much," he says one day behind the wheel of his Rover. "Whenever I'm getting ready to leave, it's like, 'Boy, I'm going to miss this.'"

McConnell is the most practical and business-minded member of Phish – he's the one least likely to use the word "telepathy." Anastasio says McConnell takes after his father, a very successful doctor and businessman who helped invent Tylenol. When the band broke up in 2004, McConnell was the one tasked with informing many of the dozens of employees that they were being let go. "I don't like things to be messy or mis-run," he says. "My personality is more like, 'I could hurt them more by keeping them around and not really wanting them, you know?'"

McConnell was the last member to join Phish in the Eighties, and for years, he says, he felt like an outsider in the band. "Everybody already had their roles," he says, "and I was sort of the new guy – that sort of went all the way through 2004." When Anastasio was healthy enough to start making calls asking for the band to re-form, McConnell admits, "I wasn't sure I wanted to fire it up again. I was cautious." He and Anastasio had gone for a period without speaking during the hiatus, and McConnell says it took some "heavy conversations" to hash things out. But since the reunion, the outsider feeling has "completely disappeared," McConnell says. He even wrote three songs on Big Boat, his most ever for the band. 

The polite empathy that helps Phish in concert can be a liability in the studio: "We can 'democracy' the edge right out, especially when we're making albums," says Anastasio. "Everyone is so conscious of each other's feelings." So it was a breakthrough when they brought in Bob Ezrin – producer of some of Anastasio's favorite albums, Pink Floyd's The Wall and Lou Reed's Berlin – to work on 2014's Fuego. "Bob would say, 'I know you're trying to even-steven here, but I would like to suggest that this song isn't up to snuff,'" says Anastasio. "It kind of took the pressure off."

Before starting sessions on Big Boat, Ezrin gave the band two assignments. He told each member to learn 10 folk songs. Anastasio's list included Simon and Garfunkel and the Pogues – "simple, direct songs that feel like the cable from the heart to the speaker is much shorter," he says.

Ezrin also told them to dig deeper with their lyrics. Anastasio didn't have to look far: He was sitting in his New York apartment one day when his eyes drifted toward a picture of his sister Kristy, who died of cancer in 2009. They were close; she took Trey to see Bruce Springsteen when he was 14 in 1978, and they did a lot of charity work together. He wrote the powerful ballad "Miss You" about the loss ("You're smiling at me from your picture frame/And I miss you … My life keeps on changing, but you stay the same"). Ezrin, who lost his son in 2008, was deeply moved. Another highlight is "Tide Turns," a sympathetic letter to someone facing the same storms Anastasio once did. Fishman heard it as a message to the people Anastasio sees daily at recovery meetings. "He was the guy that needed someone to help him get his head out of his ass," says Fishman. "And now, he's the guy who says, 'I've been where you are. I can't get you out of where you are, but I'll sit with you.' You are helped, and when the tide turns for you, then you become the helper."

You can find Mike Gordon most mornings at Maglianero, a hipster coffee shop in Burlington where he goes after he's finished meditating and doing his hardcore P90X workout. Gordon, a small but powerful-looking guy, gets together with his assistant and works on his various projects – movies, inventions, solo band material, and sometimes activities with his eight-year-old daughter, Tessa. For instance, she loves I Dream of Jeannie, and read that Jeannie star Barbara Eden had a thing for elephants. So this summer Gordon and Tessa spent their days on tour collecting pictures of elephants, which they later presented in a photo collage to Eden.

Gordon can be obsessive. After Phish shows, the first thing he does is dictate voice memos about the show to himself. He later transcribes them; at the coffee shop, he pulls up several entries on his laptop from the recently concluded tour: "So much comes down to abandon and surrender and accepting," he wrote about a Colorado show. Another: "When all engines are firing automatically … literally it becomes a dream. Because it's a state of trance and the unconscious is very present." What if it's a bad gig? "Sometimes I don't write anything," he says. "Or I write, 'I'd rather be sitting in an office being an accountant,' or something."

Gordon and Anastasio met at the University of Vermont, and they found they had a lot in common, including divorced parents and mothers who worked in the arts. "Growing up, the biggest word was 'creative,'" says Gordon. "So it was a little frustrating back in the day to see Phish already had a songwriter and it was Trey. I would bring 10 songs, 15 songs, and we might play one." As an outlet, Gordon started recording solo material during Phish's hiatus. These days, he's often up by 4 a.m. working on his projects: "I look at Steve Martin, who does stand-up and writes books and has a bluegrass band and is in movies and writes for The New Yorker," he says. When Anastasio called him to ask about regrouping, Gordon says, "I said, 'I've actually liked this autonomy.' And I remember Trey saying, 'We can have the best of both worlds.'"

Gordon got stressed during the Big Boat sessions, at one point developing an eye condition after Ezrin was tough on his playing. Gordon had high hopes for one of his songs, "Let's Go," which Anastasio thought had commercial potential, but others, including Ezrin, argued to leave it off. "I was a little sad when it was cut," says Gordon. "But once Bob said it, I just had to respect it."

"It's a sore spot for me, too," says Anastasio. "I was jumping from the rafters for it." He grows concerned when he hears that Gordon mentioned the song in our interview. "What did Mike say?" he asks. "I still feel bad for him. But we invited someone in with very strong opinions. Sometimes that's a good thing, but sometimes you think, 'Maybe I should have just stood up.'"

Sometimes, Anastasio isn't as careful, and there are breakdowns in communication. During one of the shows in their end-of-tour run in Colorado, "there were some bumps in the road," says Anastasio. While playing their funk rave-up "Moma Dance," the rhythm section (Fishman and Gordon) was totally out of sync.

At one point, Anastasio couldn't help himself, and he spoke up, telling Fishman to look not at him but at Gordon. "[Trey] was implying we were not connected," says Gordon, who was stung a little bit initially. "But he was right. I do want to connect with Fish. I don't mind reminders about that."

As they walked offstage, the bandmates stopped; there was an awkward pause. Then there were shrugs. Anastasio smiles as he thinks about it: "Nobody said a word."

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