A Phish Tale

Bassist Mike Gordon explodes some myths about Phish--and confirms others.

In conversation, bassist Mike Gordon sounds exactly as a member of Phish should. He's relentlessly pleasant, and modest, too. Whenever he offers a reply that might be construed as even mildly boastful, he immediately softens it with a little laugh meant to indicate that he usually doesn't take himself all that seriously. His speech can be halting, turning in on itself at the slightest provocation, and his words sometimes stop coming entirely: On two occasions, he screeches to a mid-sentence halt and mutters, "I forgot what I was saying." But when Gordon gets into a groove, he can go and go and go--and he's the rare interview subject who actively listens to the questions and carefully considers his answers. When he's asked to list what he feels are the biggest misconceptions about his band, he declares, "That's interesting. Let me think about that for a second or two." And then he actually does.

The length of Gordon's pause is entirely understandable given the contradictions inherent in Phish. The quartet, which also includes guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell, has been around for fifteen years, and early on, it was dismissed as a common jam band--a collection of masturbatory noodlers who specialized in content-free workouts of the sort beloved by modern-day stoners and practically no one else. But somewhere along the way, the musicians went from being anonymous participants in a rather uninteresting grassroots movement to serving as the inspiration for a throwback subculture too large and vigorous to be ignored. Mainstream music journalists tried to do so for a while: They shrugged off Phish's initial handful of albums as for-fans-only souvenirs (which, for the most part, they were) and treated its concerts--epic, frequently off-the-cuff sessions that shift and evolve like the sonic equivalent of Darwinian theory--as a ritual too mystifying to explore. But despite such conclusions, and despite an almost complete lack of assistance from radio and video programmers, the group has become one of the most profitable touring acts in the country (it grossed $21 million in 1997). It's also a musical lightning rod--a combo that's hated by a great many folks who know next to nothing about it and championed by plenty of others for whom the music is not nearly as important as the scene that's sprung up around it.

Lost in the middle of this chaos is Gordon, who would like nothing better than for listeners to judge Phish's music not on the basis of a ditty or two, but as a complete package. "I don't think people really know about the nature of improvisation, especially when it comes to a rock band," he says. "They probably don't realize how much it can change from night to night and why people want to get so many different versions of songs. If I have an old friend from high school who comes to see us play, I'm always thinking that he's only getting one tiny slice of the band. Like, if we were in a jazzy mood that night, he might think everything we do is kind of jazzy-sounding. But I don't think we are a certain thing. We're not really definable, characterizable. I think we're particularly not that."

When viewed in this light, The Story of the Ghost, Phish's latest CD for the Elektra imprint, isn't a snapshot of the group today but a vague outline of its members' current interests and infatuations. Some of the tunes on hand make an awkward transition from the stage to the CD player: Live, "Guyute" is an eccentric oddity in which gentle verses frame a frenzied instrumental section, but the eight-minutes-plus rendition on the disc seems merely wanky. Several other compositions aren't up to these guys' standards--the Samples-esque reggae throwaway "Limb by Limb," for instance. For the most part, though, the tracks avoid the overindulgence associated with the jam genre thanks to confidently understated performances, the surprisingly amiable production of grungemeister Andy Wallace and a collection of songs that only occasionally overstay their welcome. "Birds of a Feather," the album's first single, is familiar but likable, "Meat" burns at a deliberate but appropriate pace, "Brian and Robert" calls to mind (of all things) primo Paul Simon, and "The Moma Dance" is funky and convincingly sensual. Best of all is "Ghost," which suggests a lost Steve Miller hit from around 1970--a horrifying proposition to some, no doubt, but one that neatly epitomizes Story's laid-back retro appeal.

The relative brevity of most of the disc's songs (a carryover from 1996's Billy Breathes) belies their origins. "At least half of the songs were made by jamming in the studio last year without any chord progressions or plans at all," Gordon says. "And we taped everything. We ended up with this compilation of the best jams, and they were each pretty long. Some of them were ten or fifteen minutes long, and a lot of them were pattern-oriented playing, repetitive jamming. But in a lot of the jams, we'd be able to find a section that sounded particularly songy. Like maybe the way that the drums changed from the high hat to the cymbal would indicate a chorus going into a verse. And then we'd take a little snippet of that and go from there."

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