For a reunited Phish, balance is key

JEMP Records/AP Photo
JEMP Records/AP Photo

At every stop on Phish's summer tour, bassist Mike Gordon and his 5-year-old daughter, Tessa, ride bikes around the town where the jam-band heroes will take the stage that evening. The simple routine reflects the new priorities of four rock virtuosos - median age just shy of 50 - who sold out Madison Square Garden this past New Year's Eve.

"Things are pretty well balanced," says Gordon, who, like his bandmates - guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman - often brings family on the road. "We know that there needs to be time for us to play together, when it feels right, and also time for our families and solo careers."

These days, balance is key for Phish. The band is celebrating the release of a new album, "Fuego," and pushing forward on a 31-year run as one of rock's most successful grass-roots acts, with an obsessive fan base that still flocks to its musically adventurous shows. But since resurfacing in 2009 after a five-year breakup, the band has been careful not to overdo it.

"We seem to have this scheme, where we do a one-month tour and a few extended weekends," Gordon. "That feels pretty good to me."

Phish formed as college students in the early 1980s in Burlington, Vt., and steadily gained acclaim for its exploratory rock sound, which combined complex compositions, zany lyrics and a penchant for improvisational tangents. Through its first two decades, the unorthodox quartet pursued a relentless road ethic. Despite little attention from mainstream outlets and a polarizing quirkiness that often led to the band being considered an outsider's hobby, its show size gradually ascended from campus parties and bars to arenas and massive band-hosted festivals in remote parts of Maine and Florida. Along the way, Phish evolved into a counterculture phenomenon with a transient fan following akin to the scene that surrounded the Grateful Dead.

But in 2004, Anastasio posted a message on the band's website proclaiming that Phish would call it quits after that year's summer tour. Reasons for the abrupt ending were initially vague, but it was eventually revealed that the stress of touring, a bloated business infrastructure and substance abuse (Anastasio was arrested for drug possession in 2006) contributed to the band's demise.

When asked about the state of Phish now, Gordon uses the word "healthy" repeatedly and says the band is getting along better than ever.

"I start sounding like an infomercial when I just say all of the positive stuff," he says, "but that's the mood of the era."

Part of that comes from giving each other space. Since reuniting, the band has kept a reasonable schedule while making time for other projects. Both Gordon and Anastasio have thriving solo bands, and Anastasio composed the music for the recent Broadway musical "Hands on a Hardbody."

But when it came to making "Fuego," Phish's 12th studio album, released last month, the band carved out plenty of time, crafting one of the most vital statements in its long career. Tracks were first assembled during collaborative writing sessions at the Barn, the group's studio and rehearsal space that was constructed from an old barn near Burlington, Vt. Then, before recording began in earnest, Phish took the songs on a test run. At a show in Atlantic City last year, the group broke a longstanding Halloween tradition of covering another band's album in its entirety (past shows featured the Who's "Quadrophenia" and the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St.") and instead debuted the new material.

"It was a little risky," Gordon says. "There wasn't the 'rah rah' response you'd get from doing a Led Zeppelin album, but it was definitely the thing we needed to do. We were excited about the songs and wanted the fans to be a part of the process. With our audience, every single communal mood shift is felt intensely by us."

Soon after that show, the band traveled to Nashville, Tenn., and Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record and augment certain tracks with well-placed horns and back-up vocals. With the help of veteran producer Bob Ezrin, whose résumé includes Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and projects for Alice Cooper, Kiss and Lou Reed, the band honed the genre-swirling unpredictability that makes its work exciting. The album flows between punchy pop stompers ("Sing Monica" and "Devotion to a Dream"), soulful funk jams ("555") and patient Floyd-ian psychedelic grooves ("Wingsuit").

The bold title track is a nine-minute, shape-shifting rocker that features muscular riffs, sudden tempo changes and an anthemic chorus that's ripe for a stadium chant. On the band's current tour, the song has crested the 20-minute mark. That may seem excessive, but, Gordon says, taking a tune to new places always has a purpose. Maximizing time is, after all, part of what's keeping Phish together.

"Just making something super-long is cliché for a jam band," he says. "We're looking for little musical motifs with melodies and chord progressions that we've never heard before, ideally fresh to the moment. The idea is not just going and going, but actually exploring."


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