A Phish Tale
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."
Gordon admits he used to believe that size matters. "I was into length--I really liked things that were long," he says, seeming less like a nymphomaniac than you'd expect. "And when we're doing a show, I still am into it. I just feel like you can't have too much of a good thing. If I'm having a musical adventure, I want to still be having it in an hour. It's like if you could learn how to fly by flapping your arms, and you were one of the first humans to ever do that: Would you just want to do it for five minutes--just go up over your house and then come down and start calling all your friends? Probably not. You'd probably want to go out for at least an hour or so, and so would I. That's why it's ironic that the essence of these long jams was capturable in just a few minutes and that I liked doing it so much. It was great to be able to chop things down to make a nice, concise song."
If this claim seems unlikely, that's appropriate coming from a band whose career has gone through enough improbable twists to fill a book--specifically, The Phish Book, a just-issued tome edited by Richard Gehr. (The group is also the subject of a feature film by director Todd Phillips that's slated to debut next year.) Anastasio, Fishman and Gordon first got together in 1983, when all three were freshmen at the University of Vermont. With guitarist Jeff Holdsworth, who quit the band in 1986 and subsequently became a born-again Christian, the trio played its first show in a dormitory lounge under the moniker Blackwood Convention. Phish lore holds that the show ended when attendees decided that they'd rather listen to a Michael Jackson cassette.
With Holdworth's departure and the addition of keyboardist McConnell, Phish's lineup was complete, and regular tours of the East Coast college circuit established a strong audience base. By 1988, the performers were eager to try their luck in other parts of the country--and an invitation from Gordon's future wife, Cilla, gave them the opportunity they'd been seeking. At the time, Cilla was waitressing at Roma, a restaurant/bar in Telluride, and she called Gordon to say that her boss, Warren Stickney, had offered to book a tour that would carry Phish from Vermont to Colorado and back again. He also promised the group $1,000 for a two-night engagement at Roma--but when it came time to formalize these details, Stickney proved elusive.
"I think I talked to him a month ahead of when we were going to go out there, but I could never get him after that," Gordon remembers. "So on the day when we were supposed to leave, we had this meeting and decided to go anyway. We went with just our light man and our sound man in a van, and we went for forty hours straight. We didn't even stop at a rest area; we'd just pull over to the side of the road to relieve ourselves and then kept going. But when we got to Telluride, nobody had ever heard of us, and the owner wasn't around. So we made signs with pictures of us on them that said, 'New England's most naive band: We drove 2,000 miles because Warren Stickney promised us a thousand dollars,' and stuck them up all over town. When he came back to town, he was kind of bummed about that."
Phish eventually made the money that had been promised, but it took longer than advertised: The foursome played ten nights' worth of shows at Roma and a joint across the street before reaching its goal. This windfall was short-lived, however. "We were staying at Fish's old roommates' house in Aspen and left the money in a notebook in the kitchen--and someone took it all," Gordon says. "All that was left was a $165 check that Warren Stickney had written. And, of course, it bounced. When we called the bank, they just laughed at us." But there was a happy ending, Gordon adds. "At those shows in Telluride, there were five or six people who were taping, and those tapes got around, and eventually word of the band spread because of them. When we went back a year and a half later, we had a lot of fans."
This herd continued to grow in Colorado and elsewhere, and Elektra Records eventually took notice: In 1992 the company put out Junta, which Phish had self-released in 1988, Lawn Boy, a recording the Absolute A Go Go imprint first delivered to stores in 1990, and a fresh effort, A Picture of Nectar. Rift and Hoist followed in 1993 and 1994, but it wasn't until the arrival of A Live One, in 1995, that the industry truly paid attention. Many of the songs on the package are long-winded; it's two discs long but contains only twelve songs--and many of them fail to convey the undeniable jolt the musicians regularly produce on stage. Nevertheless, the already committed helped make Live the first Phish effort to go platinum, thereby serving notice that the band's concert receipts were no fluke. Like the fabled Deadheads, who turned the Grateful Dead into an incredible cash generator, the so-called Phishheads proved to be exceedingly loyal. They don't always bathe regularly (traveling around the country on a shoestring budget plays havoc with hygiene), but they go to Phish gigs again and again, swapping tapes and song lists of favorite performances and otherwise exhibiting the kind of devotional behavior that invites ridicule from outsiders.
Does Gordon ever fantasize about telling such obsessives to "get a life," as William Shatner did in a memorable Saturday Night Live skit that placed him at a Star Trek convention? He chuckles briefly at the thought. "If you look at some of those unofficial Phish books that are out there, or some of the stuff on the Internet, it definitely seems like some people just have a lot of extra time on their hands," he says. "Like when they analyze the statistics of how many times we play a song and all that. And sometimes people--especially the people who come to all the shows on a tour--get mad at us when we play one song too much, whether it's an old song or a new song, or they get mad at us for not playing a particular older song. But we try not to get caught up in all that. I guess we'll occasionally joke around using the William Shatner tone, but mostly we just talk about how lucky we are.
"Here's the thing: It would be a shame to laugh too hard at them, because these are people who really are willing to follow the music even if it gets weird, even if we're taking chances--and the nature of taking risks is that sometimes it's not going to work out. But they like that. They like it best if we go out and do something we've never done before, and that's so rare. Usually the most that people want when they go out to see a band is to hear a great version of a song on their album done with the same energy that it had on that album. And our fans would hate that if we did it. If they like the songs on the album, they want to hear good versions, but they're really a cross section of the population that happens to like living in the moment, and the music symbolizes that. So if occasionally we do the standard making-fun stuff, it's not the norm. Because we really do feel fortunate."
And well they should. A sizable percentage of Phish fanatics uses the group as an excuse to gobble loads of hallucinogens and otherwise opt out of society for a spell ("It's a phase some of them are going through," Gordon concedes), but many others transcend stereotypes and are open to the band's eclecticism. Moreover, Phish crowds are generally mellow, and trouble at concerts is a rarity--although there are exceptions. A notable example took place during a sold-out four-night run at Red Rocks in August 1996. The town of Morrison, located just below the amphitheater, was overrun by music-loving vagabonds, many of them sans tickets. This temporary population explosion, which overtaxed local facilities and caused grumbling among a handful of residents and businesspersons, boiled over when a minor traffic accident escalated into a confrontation between Phishheads and cops. Daily newspapers and television stations in the area portrayed the incident as a full-scale battle--a considerable overstatement according to many people on the scene (see "Something's Phishy," August 8, 1996, and Feedback, August 15, 1996). Gordon, too, believes that the Red Rocks scuffle was blown out of proportion.
"I don't think the problems were all that bad," he says. "I think it was more of a media thing than it was an actual thing. There were a lot of people who came but couldn't get in, and it might have been too small a venue for us at that point--and because there are only so many roads going into there and there wasn't any camping that had been planned out or suggested to people, they didn't have anywhere to go. But over the years, we've learned from the Grateful Dead what to look out for and what to avoid. People who travel around have a community in the parking lots where we play, and sort of knowing in advance that it can get out of hand helps us to take steps to avoid having that happen. And we have a really good crew and security people, so a lot of extra thought goes into it. Things have been running pretty smoothly lately."
That's true on other fronts as well. Because of Phish's success, reviewers who'd never shown much interest in the band are suddenly deciding that the group was pretty good all along, and quite a few radio execs are allowing "Birds of a Feather" onto their airwaves. As a result, Gordon feels that some of the specious assumptions previously made about Phish--"that we sound a lot like the Grateful Dead, and that we're more psychedelic than we actually are"--are slowly beginning to evaporate. But he sees others taking their places.
"The average person and the media think that our music is happy music," he says. "And since we would like life to be a celebration, it is joyous in that sense. But a lot of our lyrics and, hopefully, the nature of a lot of our jams have a lot to do with darkness and tragedy and scariness. We would rather a jam be scary than fluffy."
Gordon doesn't go so far as to imply that his band is more about postmodern alienation than aural tripping--and even if he did, his relaxed hey-dude earnestness would undercut his argument. But he takes pride in Phish's eagerness to swim upstream. "We're not an angst-ridden Nineties band, where we think life is stupid and we're going to sing about that," he says. "We have a sense of humor and we like life, which are two things that are not in vogue right now. But we're not really known for following the trends."
Phish. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 4, McNichols Arena, $23.50-$26, 303-830-8497.
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