When I first met Phish in 1995, I knew too little about them even to have preconceptions, positive or negative. For me, writing about Phish looked to be another fun assignment for Rolling Stone, which I was doing a lot of at the time, and as a freelance music writer, I was simply grateful for work. While I might have preferred hanging out with R.E.M. or Robyn Hitchcock, you could send me on the road with anyone. (Well, maybe not Molly Hatchet or W.A.S.P.) Then and now, I love nothing more than traveling around and talking to musicians, who tend to be interesting and colorful even when their music isn't to my liking. And so I was excited at the prospect of flying to Vermont both to spend time with Phish and to hike to the top of Mount Mansfield.
To prepare, I acquired their catalog and began listening. I started with the most recent releases, Hoist (1994) and Rift (1993). It didn't take long to realize how exceptional these albums were. I couldn't have predicted anything like this. Hoist was all energy, speed and color. Rift was a deep, dreamy concept album about an unraveling relationship. The music was original and bracing, uncategorizable and without obvious influences. I marveled at the complexity and depth of songs like "Maze," "Mound," "Julius," and "It's Ice," as well as the lyrical cunning.
Chagrin at my ignorance quickly turned to delight at the realization there was a whole mother lode of Phish music to dig up and discover.
The studio albums were just the tip of the iceberg, as all manner of concert tapes and CDs circulated within Phish world.
My mounting interest in Phish's music was further fired once I saw my first concerts: Red Rocks, Morrison, Colorado, June 1995, both nights. As it turned out, I had plenty more opportunities to see and speak to Phish as the assignment became a lengthy, quixotic undertaking. It languished in editorial inventory, as a new regime in Rolling Stone's music department sat on the story, uncertain about what to do with it or whether to publish it at all. But Phish kept ballooning in popularity, so eventually they realized the group had to be covered. Periodically, I'd get a call: "Can you freshen up that story on Phish? I think we're going to run it after all." I did four iterations of the piece over a two-year period before it finally ran.
Phish remained remarkably sanguine about the delays. The wholly unexpected outcome was that after I got to know Phish and vice versa, they tapped me to do writing for them. To top it off, when the Rolling Stone article finally ran in 1997, it was nearly 5,000 words in length— a virtual journalistic mini-epic.
And to think that everything, including this book, sprang from a story that very nearly didn't run.
I met Phish for the first time shortly after the show in Lowell, which inaugurated an episodic series of contacts for a Rolling Stone article that was two years in the making. I was invited to Burlington to hang out with the group. Interviews would come later. I flew to Burlington's small airport, grabbed a rental car, and followed an e-mailed set of directions to Paul Languedoc's modest two-story home, buried deep in the Vermont countryside, a few miles from the nearest paved road. A detached building adjacent to the house was still under construction. Languedoc's workshop occupied the first floor, where he built instruments for Phish and other clients. The upstairs alcove served as the group's rehearsal space. They paid him rent for its use, which helped subsidize its construction.
I pulled up on a crisp morning in late May to find the group gathered outside. A wiffle-ball bat rested on Gordon's shoulder. The four of them studied me with the wary look of New Englanders sizing up a stranger. The group had thus far achieved considerable success without the mainstream media, which had made virtually no effort to investigate the Phish phenomenon. So there was a certain understandable cautiousness about playing ball with periodicals like Rolling Stone just because they'd suddenly shown some interest.
After almost literally breaking the ice—snow was still visible atop nearby Mount Mansfield—we repaired to the rehearsal room. Cluttered and unfancy, this was where Phish spent five to seven hours a day working up material and practicing exercises of their own devising. In one corner stood a dry-erase board marked up with the set list for the "Voters for Choice" benefit they'd just played. This being a popular and prosperous rock band's workspace, one might have expected a refrigerator stocked with Vermont home brews (like Magic Hat, made in Burlington) and other goodies, but there was nothing but a box of Wheat Thins making the rounds.
They worked hard and laughed often. Phish's insistence on pushing themselves was evident at these sessions, where they spent considerable time on self-devised listening exercises. The best known was called "Including Your Own Hey." These exercises, which formed a large part of their practice regimen from 1990 through 1995, are not so easy to explain but important for understanding how Phish could maintain a seemingly telepathic chemistry in concert. The whole idea was to improve the level of collective improvisation by learning to listen to one another while jamming. They'd do this by conjuring riffs and patterns out of thin air, varying and embellishing them until they were "locked in," individually announcing their arrival with the word "hey." When they'd each included their own "hey," it was onto another round.
"'Hey' means we're locked in," explained Anastasio. "The idea is don't play anything complicated; just pick a hole and fill it." They explored different elements of music—tempo, timbre, dynamics, harmonics—within the "hey" regimen. A variation on "Including Your Own Hey," which they called "Get Out of My Hey Hole," had the cardinal rule that one musician's note could not sustain over anyone else's.
"Get the hell out of my hey hole," Anastasio barked to Fishman, and the drummer evacuated the hey hole, so far as I could tell.
"Mimicry is the lowest, most basic level of communication," explained Anastasio. "These are anti-mimicry exercises—listening to each other, hearing each other, staying out of each other's way."
Another exercise found them inversely varying tempo with volume. "The faster we go, the quieter we'll play," instructed McConnell. "The slower we go, the louder we'll play."
The group set up a monstrous wail on one loud, slow passage that would have frightened a Black Sabbath fan.
Yet another was "Two Plus Two," in which one musician picked another person in the band to hook up with while still listening to the other two.
They went at it like this for hours.
"This is what we spend our time doing," Anastasio said matterof-factly. "This is our job." Years later, after the breakup, he would admit that what he missed most about Phish was band practice. I could see why; there was a tangible sense of concentration mingled with camaraderie present in the room.
In terms of concert dividends, "It doesn't always work 100 percent of the time," Fishman noted. "But I still think those exercises really pay off, because it puts you in a state of mind where even if you are making a lot of noise and stepping on each other's toes, you're still aware of it. At least it's not like you're just blindly forging ahead."
At that point in the afternoon, Phish ran through another song for an audience of two—a captivated journalist and Languedoc's disinterested cat. Titled "Taste," it was a complex piece of music in which they all played asymmetrical parts in different meters. The song, in a somewhat different arrangement, wound up on their next album, Billy Breathes. Prior to this, they'd already changed its title and lyrics, renaming it "The Fog That Surrounds" before reverting to "Taste." It was a good example of Phish's inveterate tinkering. Every song was always in the act of becoming, subject to amendment and revision.
As they worked on "Taste," it fell to Fishman to juggle four rhythms—the three other musicians', plus one of his own in 6/8 time. Afterward, Anastasio wandered over to the drums, excited because he thought he heard another implied counter-rhythm. He picked up a drumstick and tapped out the elusive fifth rhythm on a snare for Fish-man, who attempted to incorporate it. They knew what they were aiming at but couldn't quite nail it.
This tangent was abandoned, but the very fact they pursued it demonstrated the group's insatiable drive to push further. They'd constantly ask themselves, explicitly or implicitly, Is there something else we can do? And so they'd add, subtract, and rework parts, tinkering until they were satisfied a piece was as good as they could make it. Even then, it might change at the next rehearsal, and would certainly evolve onstage. This process of continuous evolution explained why no two Phish concerts were alike.
The group, at their best, also knew how to quickly enter a creative mind-set, almost a dreamlike state of consciousness. Mostly this would start with Anastasio. As Fishman noted, "One great thing about Trey is that he always goes into that non-thinking mode, even when he's working on an intense composition. Kind of jumping up and down, walking around the room and letting it flow."
Getting out of one's own way was the idea. This goal of tapping into right-brained mode is echoed throughout music and literature. Neil Young and his producer, David Briggs, had a favorite saying: "You think, you stink." Jack Kerouac described his writing style as "spontaneous bop prosody," and he let his pencil fly without self-correction, saving any editing he might do until later. Unselfconscious expression was also the point of Ken Kesey's mid-sixties Acid Tests—a lesson learned well by the Grateful Dead, who provided the music for those unscripted happenings in their earliest days as a band.
Phish likewise aimed to create in the moment and cultivate a group mind. They also realized when it was time to stop doing the exercises.
"Early on, we did those 'Including Your Own Hey' exercises in rehearsal," said Gordon. "We were doing an 'Including Your Own Hey' exercise in sound check every day, too. And then we started to find that our jams sounded too much like the exercises, especially in the sense they were repeating patterns in two-bar or four-bar clumps. So all of our jams were starting to sound like these repeating patterns.
"I remember a point where Trey said, 'I think we should try to break out of this.' We even stopped doing the exercises and began making an effort to have the jams not be repetitive, where there was a specific lack of repetition."
After a full day given over to listening exercises and working out "Taste," a group dinner followed. It was a bit like My Dinner with Andre (or with four Andres). There was not a lot of idle chatter. I found them all to be lively, well-read, and serious conversationalists. Topics included the origins of myths and their place in culture throughout history; the declining role of organized religion in modern society; the work of writers and thinkers ranging from Joseph Campbell to Oswald Spengler; and the latest schools of psychological thought concerning the development of human personality from cradle to grave. Environmental issues were also discussed, with the band professing their dismay about all the nonrenewable fossil fuel that gets burned in the course of a tour by them and their fans.
"I lay awake nights wondering about things like that," confessed Anastasio.