PHISH - No Fear Of Flying
An Interview with Mike Gordon

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PHISH - No Fear Of Flying
An Interview with Mike Gordon
By Toni A. Brown

Having a conversation with Mike Gordon, bass player for the band Phish, is somewhat like the first year of algebra. Everything put before you has a greater meaning, and each tidbit, no matter how insignificant at the time, is relevant to a greater whole. Most importantly of all, you have to pay attention to get it all.

But, unlike algebra, Gordon held my psyche and mesmerized me for two-and-a-half hours. Right before my mind, he wove an intricate tapestry of theorization and metaphysics. His insights are profoundly remarkable. This interview, much like Phish's music, was improvised in spite of a carefully researched list of questions.

The members of Phish are analogous to a fireworks display: four sky-rockets that go off individually, which are accompanied by a lot of sound and upward spiraling that reach its zenith in a blazing cacophony of simultaneous brilliance, with very little warning.

Its music is often compared to the Grateful Dead, but this is not an accurate measure. Yes, like the Grateful Dead, Phish has a propensity towards jamming. But it's the '90s, and Phish takes the concept to an entirely unrelated level. Frank Zappa and Sun Ra are more influential in the band's overall sound than any other artists, although Phish is unique. These four intellectuals combine their talents in differing degrees from one night to the next. The band shares a warped sense of humor with its loyal audience through a convoluted interplay of music, effects and stage antics.

There is, indeed, a very complex connection between Phish and its fans. The majority of the audience is very young-high school and college students mostly-but their obvious middle class, educated backgrounds are the perfect spawning place for music as complex as Phish's. Many new listeners will undoubtedly feel as if they're swimming upstream at a Phish concert. Walking away from a show, scratching your head and wondering what you missed is not unusual.

Phish had its biggest year in 1994. The band grossed $10.3 million on tour selling 600,000 tickets to 99 coast to coast concerts, and sold 550,000 records. On December 30, 1994, Phish appeared on The David Letterman Show and then went immediately to perform a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, followed by a sold-out Boston Garden New Year's Eve concert. The band was invited back to The David Letterman Show in July, 1995.

Fans keep in touch with Phish through its five-times-a-year newsletter, Doniac Schvice, which has 85,000 subscribers, and on the Phish Net, a computer news group. Since it appeared on the Internet four years ago, the site, to which 40,000 Net surfers have access, features instant fan reports on concerts, set lists and lyrics to Phish tunes. Discussions on the state of the Phish scene and its style of improvisation is also common Net fare.

The Phish phenomenon started in Burlington, Vermont in 1983 and has spread across the country without benefit of a hit record, major radio airplay, MTV videos or the cover of Rolling Stone.

Anastasio (30), who grew up in Princeton, New Jersey and plays lead guitar, contributes most lead vocals and has a hand in composing most Phish songs. He is the band's only married member.

Drummer Jon "Fish" Fishman (30) is the son of a Syracuse, New York dentist. He is the band's jester, a free spirit who often performs wearing goggles and a house dress-if he wears anything at all.

Bassist Mike Gordon (29) is a native of Sudbury, Massachusetts. His father founded the Store 24 chain. He is a filmmaker and has a great business sense. Before Phish became too big, he kept the books and answered all the fan mail.

Pianist Page McConnell (32) grew up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. His father, a pediatrician and research scientist, helped develop Tylenol. He drove the van in the band's formative years.

Anastasio started the band in 1983 when he posted flyers around the University of Vermont campus seeking fellow musicians. Fishman, Gordon and another guitarist responded. While that lineup started jamming that year, it wasn't until 1985, when McConnell joined the group, that today's version of Phish really started.

McConnell, at the time, was a student at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. He collected a $50 finder's fee for each when he persuaded Anastasio and Fishman to transfer to his "popular in the 1960s and 1970s" counterculture college with its population waning in the 1980s.

The unnamed fifth member of Phish left the group that year when he became a born again Christian and went off to play in a band with televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

That year, in November, 1985, Gordon had his own intense, personal religious experience. As he was playing in the band, he felt himself transported into a transcendent state of ecstasy. "It was the peak experience of my life-the time I felt most myself," says Gordon. "I knew I wanted to do this the rest of my life. Now I'm living to try to create and share the kind of experience I had in 1985."

Phish feels that Vermont and its slowed down, non-confrontational style of life has had a huge impact on the band's music. One of the first places Phish ever played was a tavern in downtown Burlington called Nectar's.

"When we used to play at Nectar's, it was so laid-back. We'd play three sets a night, just feeling our way as a band," says Anastasio. "It was such a mellow atmosphere that we were free to stretch out and experiment, to attempt outrageous things and make utter fools of ourselves." Phish dedicated its 1992 album, A Picture Of Nectar, to Burlington restaurant/impresario Nectarios "Nectar" Rorris.

Word about this free-form and funny new band spread from campus to campus as the band toured over the mountains into New Hampshire, to small clubs like the Stone Church in Newmarket, NH, up through Maine, including the downtown Portland club scene, and then down into Massachusetts and Boston.

On January 26, 1989 the band, still relatively unknown, rented the Paradise Club in Boston. When Phish easily packed it with its loyal followers, other clubs wanted to get in on the action.

October 17 and 18 also became Phish milestones when the band sold out two shows at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. (Imagine a Vermont band without a record contract selling out a prominent West Coast venue!)

Phish, which never plays the same show twice, permits-and encourages-the taping of its concerts. The band is hoping that its latest two-disc double live album, A Live One (Elektra), will capture the excitement, spontaneity and humor of its concerts.

Phish has five other albums out on Elektra Records; Hoist, the 1994 release, sold a respectable 250,000 copies. Its four earlier albums-Junta, Lawn Boy, Picture Of Nectar and Rift-sold a combined 300,000 last year. Junta, Phish's first and most popular recording, still sells 1,500 to 2,000 copies a week.

In addition, Phish does a brisk business in T-shirts, caps, posters and decals through the Phish Dry Goods Department, a mail-order operation that runs out of a small shopping center outside of Lexington, Massachusetts.

Phish's manager, John Paluska, began booking Phish into college bars around Northampton while he was a student at Amherst College. His company, Dionysian Productions, maintains Phish as its only client. Clearly, Paluska has his hands full. Worrying over the band's growth in popularity, he is concerned that the band sold out Madison Square Garden in four hours. "Phish is like hot coals, the last thing we want is a brush fire," he says. He works to keep the price of concert tickets as low as possible so fans can attend multiple shows per year. He also works with ticket agencies to insure that Phish tickets get into the hands of fans, not scalpers. Additionally, he must deal with the problem of bootleg recordings surfacing in the marketplace.

Amy Skelton, a fellow UVM student who was the only person to show up at Phish's first gig in Burlington, is Phish's official "First Fan." She divides her time between her 200-acre horse farm in Maine and serves as Phish's merchandising manager when it is on tour. She is now armed with a federal injunction that permits her to confiscate the numerous bootleg T-shirts and souvenirs that she comes across. Skelton has also been placed in charge of outside security at the shows. One of her chief targets: the nitrous oxide vendors selling $5 balloons full of happy gas at shows.

The biggest fear among "Phishheads" is that their favorite band will become commercialized. This was exemplified by the band's unfulfilling foray into music videos. Bending to pressure from the record company, Phish finally produced a video with an underwater aquarium theme for its song, "Down With Disease." Fans and the band hated it.

"It was a totally farcical, ridiculous thing to do for other people's reasons," says Fishman. The end result of this project was the band reaffirming its belief in musical integrity, not commercial success.

For the members of Phish and its fans, the band is more of a family than anything else. Gordon, for example, invited his grandmother (two weeks before she died) on-stage in Boston on New Year's Eve. His mother, artist Marjorie Minken, paints Phish's stage backdrops. Anastasio's step-grandfather joined him on-stage several years ago in Arizona.

For Phish, this family is a long-term commitment. The band members have repeatedly stated that if any one of them quits, it will be the end of the band.

Every time it plays, the band invites its listeners to be part of this family circle.

This intimate ride into the philosophies and theories behind Phish's music via Mike Gordon is a perfect primer to better understand the intensity of the music this band delivers.

You'll have to forgive me-much of my reference is going to come from the Grateful Dead. But I see you as being the next progression, except that I can't compare the music, which has transgressed to a more complex level. The Grateful Dead has always been a jamming band. A lot of the bands that have been influenced by the Grateful Dead jam. Other bands out of the San Francisco '60s era jam. But you guys take it to another level.

Gordon: Yeah, it's different. I think it's exactly what you say. It borrows on some of the same philosophies as well as philosophies from other groups. You know, there's the Frank Zappa influence and groups not found in pop music, but in other styles. But it takes a certain philosophy of jamming, in allowing the music to be, allowing the group mind to develop and the music to take on its own thing where the individuals aren't controlling it, which the Dead definitely believe in. It adds a consciousness where some of the jamming is on more of a conscious level, and we're making decisions, as a band, to suddenly switch the jam in a different direction.

We actually practice jamming exercises, and I think it's the sort of thing that the Dead have never believed in-to practice jamming. But, with us, we've found that it's listening exercises because, if a gig is good, it's always that we're hooked up as a unit and we're listening to each other and are very aware. If it's ever a bad gig, it tends to be when different band members are in their own worlds and aren't aware of each other. So we do exercises in our practice room at home to make sure that we can hook up and that each person can hear each band member and react to each other. As a result, if we're jamming, it's possible that we'll suddenly change the tempo to three times the speed, switch keys, and go off on a different…someone once described it as a herd of buffaloes that were going fast through a field and suddenly took a left turn together. But there are other people who actually described it, this sort of new direction in improvised music that we're taking, as being sort of the coming together of Dionysian and Apollonian values where the ecstasy of the Dionysian ritual is combined with the consciousness and thoughtfulness of the Apollonian ethic and combined into a new art form. In terms of modern music, some people have said that's what's happening with us.

There's an intense intellect, a complexity to your music.

Gordon: Yeah. There are sections of songs that are written out that are fugues. Trey, who writes a lot of our music, worked with a composer, his mentor, for six years. For one or two years, he worked on an atonal fugue. And then, when it was done, it was plopped in the middle of a song that we do, so one section would be memorized. Now that we have six albums out and a lot of songs that aren't on albums, before we go out on a tour, not only do we practice jamming and get our mind sets in gear and write new songs, but we each have to take the six albums and relearn all the worked-out passages. So we try to stretch as many limits as we can. One limit is the limit of improvisation where it's completely free form or into the other end of the range, where it's completely memorized and not a single note improvised first.

So you'll basically start something and have the skeletal idea of what you want to do, and then you'll just take it to whatever level is comfortable for that moment.

Gordon: There are different situations for each song and for different parts of songs. The idea of taking the skeleton and building on it would apply to most of the songs, but the situation would range from a chord progression where there would be maybe a solo or us jamming on a chord progression, and we'll see where that goes. That's kind of in the middle where there's structure with improvisation together. But there are situations where there are jams where we start them, knowing it or not, and even the building block itself is improvised. Someone will just start doing something, someone will play a riff, let's say, as soon as a song's over, maybe, or in the middle section of a [song], and we'll realize that this doesn't normally happen in this song and that the cosmos are pulling us towards complete spontaneity, towards something new. The other band members will go along with that, and it's really tricky.

Not to get too philosophical all at once, but one question that came up recently is, "What do you guys think about when you're on-stage?" The real question that I couldn't answer is, if something's gonna change like that, if we're in a song and something's gonna happen that's never happened before in a radically different way, what is it that's going on in my mind, and in our minds, that makes us decide to take that different route? In that situation, that sort of thing could happen where we're gonna go on a tangent that's completely unplanned. Like a song that's normally five minutes is now gonna be half an hour or however long it wants to be, and it's not gonna be that song anymore. It's not just gonna be noodling where we're throwing out notes meaninglessly to make a disconnected wall of sound, unless that's the specific goal. Unless we want to have a big wash of sound, which is cool, but whatever it is, ideally it will be deliberate where we are together. That tangent, whatever it is and however demented or however pretty it is, is a group mind sort of thing.

[Back to] my question. "What puts us in a certain direction?" If I'm standing on-stage and I've forgotten to swallow for five minutes because I'm so absorbed in the music-sometimes I believe in this egoless thing of playing two bass notes for twenty minutes and not trying to make up a cool bass line, but just letting it be a meditation. But then, if I add a third bass note within the bass line after twenty minutes, where did that come from? I came up with a sort of spiritual theory of where that comes from. There's this book called Stopping The Wild Pendulum that my mother gave me. Kind of a metaphysical book. This guy never went to school past kindergarten, but he became a practicing medical doctor and a real one of those wizard-type people, and he makes all these postulants in the book. Some were sort of disproved later because they're so crazy and others still hold, as crazy as they were. He has this theory, which can be modeled with a pendulum, that everything is waves, and that's not a very uncommon metaphysical thought. A lot of people think in that way. But to look at a pendulum, the pendulum's going at its fastest velocity when it's in the middle of its swing. Its kinetic energy is the most, and its potential energy is the least. When the pendulum gets to the end of its swing, there's a split second in time where it's sitting there and it's stopped. It's about to go back in the other direction. The theory is that when the pendulum is up in that split or infinitesimally small moment where it's waiting to come back in the other direction, that the kinetic energy is zero and the potential energy is infinite. I guess that's the way people would look at it. His theory was that right at that moment, all the energy of the universe comes to that pendulum ball or it sort of stretches out. With its kinetic energy being zero, its other form of energy stretches out to the edge of the universe and makes contact with all of the other wave forms in the universe that are experiencing that moment of pendulum, or whatever you would call it. And then it comes back and returns to its normal swing.

My new theory is that ideally, if music is a meditation, and if everyone is accepting the moment and has faith in the moment and in the music as carrying us without letting the ego get involved too much, that there will be those moments when I'll be standing there and another note will appear in the bass line, if it's a pattern, and it will have come from somewhere else. Music will sort of metamorphosize, and the other people will hear it.

People would have to be attuned to the moment to hear it. The stranger, the looser, the more intense and the more intricate that your improvisation gets, the more your audience seems to respond to it. I think that the last generation would get a little bored, sort of drift off.

Talking to you right here and now, I sense that you could have been an astro-physicist or any technical thing you'd have wanted to be, but you're a musician.

Gordon: I was actually an electrical engineering student for two-and-a-half years. [I have] the technical sensibility. Actually, the head of the electrical engineering department said that there were a lot of engineers that were bass players, according to what he had found. The funny thing about being a bass player also is that the role that you're filling is so functional. In a way, it's the hardest to improvise on the bass because there are things you have to do. You're the link between the rhythm and the harmony, so to be functional and to be so free that the music can go in any direction at the same time ends up being a big challenge.

Lately, I've been in a really good frame of mind. The beginning of the tour I was a little bit frazzled thinking about equipment too much, changing instruments a lot. At one point Trey said, "The whole organization is suffering because of your trying out these new basses and switching them. Paul can't get the sound right because he cues in on one and then you change." And I decided I better just think about music. I better just think about nothing and allow this other stuff to happen and free that left side of the brain which, in my case, keeps going on and on. But lately, I've been really just allowing the beat to be, even if it's a beat we've played before, not worrying about having it be something new necessarily. Not worrying if it's too new, or whatever weird thoughts come into my mind, and hooking up with Fish, the drummer. For years we had a loose low end, and he always considered himself to be a jazz drummer more than a rock drummer, which makes it hard for a bass player who's trying to be a rock bass player 'cause the role is so different. But lately, it's a great feeling for me to be hooked up with the kit drums and having my mind be attached to this musical machine of sound from the underneath, sort of from the engine room. It's that kind of technical engineering thought process-being the helmsman of the ship-whereas Trey would probably be the person steering in front or on top, doing the guitar lines that sit on top. I kind of like being on the bottom, in a way.

Your improvisation links you strongly to jazz.

Gordon: We did try to play jazz. We actually had a jazz ensemble with local horn players from Burlington, our home town. Every week we would play at the cafe just to try to learn some things from the horn players. We've listened to a lot of different jazz from different areas. We listen to a wide variety of music. There was a period where we tried to learn the style of certain eras of jazz. I think that what ends up happening is the sound is a more rock 'n' roll sort of sound and some of the ideas of improvisation might come from jazz. Jazz is such a wide spectrum that it's hard to generalize, but often a jazz band will jam over changes-a certain structure. They'll play the melody, they'll play the head and then they'll jam and then they'll come back and play. Maybe they won't have any changes. Like modal jazz. Miles Davis will just jam on one chord for an hour.

What we try to do that doesn't often happen in jazz, or in any kind of music, is not only to improvise on top of the structure or instead of the structure, but actually to improvise the structure itself. It's like spontaneous songwriting in a way. It's not often that verses and choruses will come together entirely unstaged, but a chord progression might develop and textures might sort of move in sections and some words might be sung spontaneously. So that's not exactly like jazz, that's something different. I don't know what it is.

Your music is very elaborate, but many of your lyrics are somewhat repetitive. Is it fair to say that you put more focus on the musicianship than you do on the actual structure of the lyrics? In the lyrics, it seems like you're going for the sounds and textures of the words as opposed to the actual meanings of the words.

Gordon: The lyrics have gone through changes over the last few years. Most of our lyrics are written by Tom Marshall, a friend of Trey's from before high school. I've written maybe ten of our songs, and Trey himself has written a bunch. But most of them have come from Tom and Trey working with Tom. The words came from word play where the syllables and the way they sound are as important as what they mean-little phrases that might be little intellectual and emotional triggers, but the way they connect together is real up-in-the-air for interpretation. Our albums, especially our first three albums, reflect that. If you can make sense out of the lyrics then it's a real fantasy world with strange characters. At a certain point, we really wanted to sing about something, things that we could sink our hearts into and really believe. I think when you say the musicianship has been more significant in our career than our singing, we've actually worked with singing teachers and we had a barbershop quartet teacher for a while, different people and different concepts. We've read things about singing, and it's been an effort to try to catch up the singing to the musical side of things.

In a 20-minute song which has five words, those five words are much more meaningful than are some with a hundred words. A few albums ago, we wanted to sing music that we could feel more, and there was an effort to write things that were a little bit simpler and easier to grasp onto and about real, serious subjects. If there was a turning point, it might have been Rift, which is loosely a concept album about someone sleeping at night and dreaming about his girlfriend, and the rift is a rift in a relationship as much as anything. Ideally, lyrics will have meanings on different levels, but that was roughly the concept. And all the songs fit together in that scheme. Actually, on the cover, there was a huge oil painting done by a guy with all the songs reflected, drawn into the painting symbolically. It was kind of a heavy and dark album. After it was over, we decided that we still liked the idea of lyrics having meaning that you could grasp onto, but we wanted to make an album with shorter, songier songs.

Well, Junta was that. It was actually your first recorded project, though it wasn't released until later by your label, Elektra.

Gordon: We really feel like there's something nice about that stage. In some ways, some people like it the best. It has more of a youthful innocence in the way that the songs are patched together, different clumps sort of shoved together almost randomly. Like "You Enjoy Myself" has 20 different sections, and there is a flow in the song, but it's not very maturely put together. A lot of the lyrics are, I think, the old style lyrics for us where it's just word play, maybe with a couple of exceptions. But then we did Hoist, our fifth album, and again, you can much more easily listen to the lyrics.

The name Phish conjures up the image of water. There's a lot of imagery in your lyrics, but water seems to be pervasive.

Gordon: Well, Trey is the main songwriter, and I know with him, that he fantasizes a lot about floating, whether it's in the air or the water. I think it's that kind of motion. Even when we're not singing, I think maybe the improvising has an underwater sort of feeling to it sometimes. A lot of times on-stage I have these feelings of motion. If the groove is really happening, it can feel like flying through the air. My theory about that is if you were really flying through the air, if [your] hang glider or whatever was actually bringing you through the air, the feeling of that, well, it's physical but it comes into the brain as perceptions. So why not argue that you can be standing perfectly still and somehow have those same perceptions? That's been a theme in my dreams, too. In dreams, I've been flying a lot, but I've been doing this new thing where I try to convince myself that it's okay to fly up even though gravity is going on because gravity isn't real in the dream. So I'll fly up and look over the whole neighborhood and then go higher and look over the whole city and then swoop down and crash into a building and talk to people and go back up. But I think that we sort of fantasize about motion, and it's real interesting to me the way that motion will change when the bass line changes.

Technically, if you look at a rhythmic pattern, we do a lot with rhythmic patterns, changing one accent or one syncopation will make the feeling of motion very different.

A bass is like an anchor, so it's going to change the feel of movement.

Gordon: It changes the feel of movement, and it does it in different ways. There's a way of playing where you can forget about scales, just think about going up and down or fast and slow. We do our listening exercises sometimes where we just improvise on tempo or texture. With the bass, for me, it's an ongoing experiment. If I'm playing, I'll play another note and just see what it does emotionally in terms of the group.

But what we were talking about is the underwater thing. I think that's what it is. It's probably a fantasy. Trey actually does a lot of diving and scuba diving, which I've never done before. He knows what it actually feels like to be under there. I would actually like to try hang gliding, but I know it's very dangerous.

All these ideas that I've been thinking about are sort of popping into my head, and I feel another tangent coming on. I'm good at going off on a tangent and remembering where I came from. Sometimes I talk about my peak experience in November of '85. We were playing for [a few] people in the middle of nowhere at Goddard College, and I've definitely grown since then and I've learned how to achieve those levels of consciousness in music and new musical levels since then. But I still consider that to be my peak experience. How transcendent it was. (Mike Gordon was transported into a transcendental state by the music, and he now compares the experience to flying or swimming.) So when I think about growth, there's change and there's continuity. I think that for me it's important to remember that there is an underlying, universal thing that stays the same, and that there's a goal to return to it.

In terms of growth and change, it's an argument that comes up between me and Trey and it has for the whole 12 years. He and Fish especially say their philosophy is originality and innovation. That's important to me, but the way that I define the musical experience is that it's not actually an artistic experience for me. It's not art that's driving me forward, and [it's not] being creative and innovating and trying to be new and original, which are artistic values. For me, it's more of a religious thing, where surrendering to the moment, meditating, are the supreme ideals for me.

Recently, on the bus, [Trey and I] had what was actually a fierce, [discussion]. I say fierce because we were raising our voices. We [usually] communicate really well, which has been one of our keys to success. But what the argument was about, and this will tie things together, I think, is Trey said, "You know, in some ways we're a popular, happening, improvisation band in the '90s right now. It's good timing for us-people are interested in improvised music and we're selling out some good places and word has spread about Phish. And inevitably, what's gonna happen is that another band's gonna come along and despite all the ways that we try to stretch limits with improvisation and the listening exercises and everything that we do, jamming in new ways, another younger band's gonna come, and they're going to do things that we have never even thought of doing. And we should accept that that will be another step in the evolution."

Trey said it could take one year or it could take twenty years. He likes to say that because he likes us to be on our toes in terms of innovating. He said if there were an era where we weren't writing new songs, weren't trying new things, he would quit.

So we were having this argument about innovation and Trey, like I said, he wants us to be constantly innovating and constantly original. What my argument was is this thing about growth and even art. I'm on shaky grounds when I talk about the philosophy of art, but ultimately the argument gets to the point where I say my main reason for doing this isn't artistic. I don't even consider myself an artist in the truest sense because there are these things that supposedly make art higher-originality, art being for art's sake and the fact that you can objectify it to be able to analyze it, and timelessness, the fact that it will stand the test of time. My favorite musical experiences are very timeful. They're just the moment, and you couldn't listen to a tape later and have the same experience necessarily. You might have a different experience that would be new to its own time. For me, it's more of a religious thing and a meditation, and I was making this example. If you take a Zen Buddhist or someone who meditates, is the goal to mediate in a new way that people have never meditated before? Is that gonna be the best thing that that meditator can do? Probably not. The goal is to go down the path. Maybe they'll discover their own path, but it's a tradition and when they finally reach Nirvana, it'll be this emptiness place where the individual is so gone from the equation that they couldn't be called an artist really. They're so one with the art.

Let's say there is someone who invented a new hang glider and they got to be famous for that, and they invented a new way of hang gliding where they could do a certain kind of spin. And then later they got to be famous for that. Then they got to a certain age where they said, "This has been great, all this notoriety, but I love to hang glide and now I'm gonna do it the same way from now on. I have a house with a mountainside and I'm gonna just jump off that mountainside and maybe I'll go a little bit differently, I'll twist a little bit differently one day, but really I'm gonna just head down to the pond in the same direction every day and this is gonna be my meditation. I might not make it into the papers as often 'cause I'm not breaking world records and inventing new hang gliders, but it's what I'm gonna do." And then maybe there's another hang glider that, until the age of 80, like Picasso, is inventing new ways of doing it, breaking new records, using new mediums, and let's say that they're both happy. Is the guy that's changing constantly till the end of his life any happier or more righteous than the guy who at the age of 48 decides that he's gonna do it the same way from then on?

I also made the example of my mother who's a painter. She does art backdrops. Over the years, she has changed her medium. Now she paints on plastic. What if at one point she said, "I like painting on plastic, and I don't think I'm gonna change from now on. Each painting will be a little bit different, like a snowflake, so I'll still be exploring, in a sense, but I won't be changing, I won't be as radical but I'll go through life still loving what I do." Is that a crime? So this argument that's been happening for 12 years, right about that point, we had to go and do sound check. We started to come to the conclusion that we agree with each other. That what we were saying is the same thing from different angles, parallax I guess you'd call it. And that really, without any change, I might not be happy. That to me, change is important. To Trey, continuity is important even though we're taking the opposite stance.

What if we had to be so original that we would never play the same song more than once? We'd write it, play it and it'd be gone. What if each night had to be so different that there would be no building blocks that would go from one night to the next? And he agreed that that would be the extreme. [What if] innovation was so important that every second had to be an artistic creation that had never been made before, which is the way that Fish used to make up drum beats. He always used to think that each song had to have a beat that was very different from any other song that we had. And over the years, now he'll actually play a solid rock beat for a while and be happy with it.

After sound check, we got back together and we said that we both realized that continuity and change sort of travel together and they both are important and that both philosophies, and the fact that we take opposite stances, adds richness to the band. We look at things from different angles.

I took the whole question one step further by wondering why we took those opposite sides, maybe just for the fun of arguing. I realized that I like to innovate. I'll be on-stage and I'll think, "Oh no. We've played this beat so many times before. It's like this incessant babbling of rhythm that I've heard before. I want it to be something new." And when I'm really meditating, when it really becomes the Zen thing for me, those are the times when I accept the beat how it is, even if it's something I've heard before or even if it's been going on without changing. So the idea of staying the same…I have so many inhibitions and things I worry about-does the bass sound good, do I look stupid up here (laughter) and sometimes I have these peak experiences and I realize how many of them go away. I never realized how many inhibitions were there that I never even thought about, worrying about [and it] suddenly slips away and I see that they were there and I get to one with the moment and just accept the beat, and so it becomes an acceptance of the continuity. It all kind of ties together, change and continuity.

I'd expect there to be differing philosophies in the band. Where do you think you'll be in ten years?

Gordon: Usually, we talk about our goals, and we never predict the future. We like to think that certain ideals that we had would stay, and one of them is that idea of evolution. Having the music continue to change so that we would be writing new songs and trying new things, and I guess the other is that some things would stay the same. That brings it back to the same thing, the continuity that we'd still be able to get on stage and sort of fly.

Do you ever have a night where you just don't feel it?

Gordon: Yeah, yeah. There used to be nights that were horrible. I think that we've gotten to a point where, even if things aren't clicking quite as well, it's still okay. We're more likely to say, "Well, tomorrow will be okay." It's a bad feeling to leave a gig, especially if the last song was bad, because then, as musicians, we'll spend the next 24 hours till the next gig in a bad mood and we've just let people down and let ourselves down. If that happens, it's usually because different people in the band are distracted or they're in their own worlds. There are other reasons. It could be that the acoustics are bad and we couldn't hear each other and we couldn't hook up for that reason. If it's really roomy or maybe sometimes it's good to be in an alpha state, but if we're overly tired-it takes a certain amount of healthiness and clear-headedness to be able to focus and focusing is what it's all about, I think.

Often, we get off the stage and analyze what we did, probably more than most bands. Maybe a little bit too much. Actually, I'm thankful for it because we're so good at communicating, so open, that even if we go overboard sometimes, at least it gets our feelings out. Sometimes it's not clear, there's a lot of communication that goes on on-stage. Even just eye contact. But sometimes, we'll get the wrong message. Trey will look at Fish and Fish will think that he's sped up the song too much. Really, Trey is trying to say "You're not hooking up with me." These days, it's usually not bad but maybe not as great, and sometimes it's just unpredictable. It'll just happen and it's definitely the nature of taking risks and improvising.

Do you go out with set lists?

Gordon: Trey actually writes out a set list, which ends up being a sketch of what we'll do. We'll veer off from it. It's more of a list of ideas in case we can't think of what to do, we'll return to it.

Do you find that you just pick up on things and go with it?

Gordon: I never see a set list myself, actually. But, yeah the best sets are sets where it just goes up on tangents. I like this idea of playing with structure, and sometimes we'll just start jamming between songs for no reason, and occasionally, we'll break up on a tangent in an unexpected place, like between two verses of a song, or we'll cut a song in half. But going with the flow works out the best. Trey writes the set list in an effort not to repeat songs. He gets a computer printout of what we played last year in the same place, what we played the last couple of nights and anywhere in the region recently so that we can be as different as possible. And then he writes a set list, and then we veer off from it. Lately, almost every night, we've been having at least one unplanned jam which is thirty or forty minutes long. We don't know when it's gonna happen or if it's gonna happen. So the set list really gets forgotten.

You do a lot of Beatle covers.

Gordon: We have a lot of respect for the Beatles as songwriters. We just watched The Making Of Sgt. Pepper's where it shows them in the studio. For Halloween, we asked people to vote on what album they wanted us to play. They sent in letters through [our newsletter] Doniac Schvice. [Incidentally, the name of the newsletter has no overt meaning.]

The Beatles' White Album got the most votes, so we learned that. The songs were simple, but to learn all of them and all the harmonies in two weeks, it wasn't all that easy and that was just the second set of a three set gig. It was a five-and-a-half hour gig. But we still play some of those songs. The Beatles were extremely creative in the studio with songwriting, and I think we all have a lot of respect for that. Growing up, the first album I ever listened to was Abbey Road, which my parents had. My first few years, that was the only album that I ever listened to.

I think you guys would probably jam into infinitum if you felt like it-if it weren't for unions and curfews.

Gordon: Sometime we might. You never know. (Laughter)

I've found some animosity between Phishheads and Deadheads. There is certainly a huge crossover audience amongst the younger crowd, and it would seem that both audiences embrace similar values.

Gordon: There's a bit of a difference in the mentality. With us, with the band members, we just like any music that's good. There's such a wide variety of music being listened to. Actually, Trey is really into checking out what's going on with current music. His favorite band's Pavement now. We all went to the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and Trey has been playing with Michael Ray, who was the trumpet player in Sun Ra's band. Sun Ra was another big influence on us.

At the New Orleans Jazz Festival, for anyone who hasn't gone, there's like 60 bands a day and that's just at the festival. Then there are all the clubs. One of our favorite things to do is, after we play, to go out to different clubs and to see music and to meet other musicians with different ethnic backgrounds. If music has passion and is being made with the right intent, then we like to check it out and maybe be inspired by it. Hopefully, with our fans, they have that same attitude. I actually went to a club last night where there was a Phish cover band that only played Phish songs. (Laughter) I actually laid low in the back. I wanted to learn some new bass lines for our songs, which I did. (The band that Mike saw was the Phins, which was actually Franklin Turnpike doing a rare show of Phish covers during the summer Phish tour. The Phins were joined by Solar Circus' keyboardist, Jason Crosby.)

The point that I'm getting to is this country is rich in music if you want to find it. In the nooks and crannies of this country, there's just incredible culture. I think that anyone would be better off to be interested in discovering some of it. When we go to Chicago, there's blues clubs that stay open all night where there are these bands. They're unknown, but they've been playing this funky Chicago blues for so long that they're living examples of it. There's nothing like it. The same with brass bands in New Orleans or salsa bands in Miami. That's been the great thing about touring.

I'd like to think that by being inspired by an eclectic group and by coming up with music that has different influences, rather than following the trends, that we try to draw on all kinds of influences. People would be encouraged, our fans would be encouraged to try to discover for themselves what's out there rather than limiting themselves to just one band.

Do you encourage taping or do you simply tolerate it?

Gordon: It's not just tolerate, it's more towards encourage. We sell taper tickets, and that's another thing the Grateful Dead were probably a model for. I don't know who else did that.

When we did our first tour, which was to Colorado for two weeks from Vermont, people had already heard about us because of tapes, and word of mouth has always spread through tapes. So it's been helpful for us. Also, maybe in a little way, it encourages us to be spontaneous. If people are taping every night, we're not going to be playing the same show. If we have a great experience playing, why not let people have a souvenir of it, even if it's not the same experience listening to the tape, it's something. We got a lot of flack-actually Elektra has been a great record company. They understand that we're a phenomenon. We were before we signed with the record label, so they let us do what we want. Taping's a big issue though, with record companies. They're not too big on it. But they let us do it, and it's questionable whether it affects record sales. Of course record sales, though we'd like to sell records, it's not our big goal. The record company has been restructured, and they haven't pushed us towards those kinds of goals more than we've been wanting to go anyway. Now, it's even better with their new president and chairman and some new people. More than ever, they want to let us do our own thing. They've kind of accepted that we're probably not gonna be a Top 40 band. If it happened, that would be okay. They want to sell records, but I think that they're letting us be what we are, and we're selling some records for them.

By allowing taping, the fan base is still growing as a result. So eventually, that will affect the record company positively.

Gordon: Well, the reason it's questionable, now anyway, is because if we were to have a hit record, it would be because of a single…it would be because the mass public became aware of the band, and not just our fans. We have this song that sounds like a single now and our manager's worried because we don't necessarily want to have a hit single. But it's not to say that we're avoiding selling records.

Your new album, A Live One, captures your live ambiance. Your fans are probably going to like it better than they liked the more produced albums. Who's idea was it to do a live album?

Gordon: It was inevitable. It always made sense. But we wanted to wait until we really had the facilities to do it right, the right kind of recording equipment. We wanted to do it a long time ago. The fans have been asking for it for a while. Finally, the way that we decided would be right to do it was by taping every night on 32 tracks. So it took two months of listening to our own music to try to pick tracks, and that was tedious but interesting. Even since then, I've been hearing us on the radio. I've heard live tapes like when we played at Red Rocks and afterwards the radio station played last year's Red Rocks show. I thought it sounded great. And that was what's produced on this live album. We went in the studio and mixed it. In that case, we didn't do anything and it made us think that we should think about doing more live albums if we have time to, but not take so much time. Just to release a concert or maybe just to release one jam and call it an album.

Phish's vault tapes. (Laughter)

Gordon: Yeah.

I hate to keep going back to that but...

Gordon: Too many parallels. We'll have to talk about the Sun Ra connection.

Sun Ra is an older, more abstract artist. You guys are relatively young so I'm a little surprised that he's an influence.

Gordon: We probably listen to as much old jazz as new jazz. We did a bunch of Duke Ellington covers. The thing about Sun Ra, his band was 20 people that would jam and usually in such a big band setting-people don't go off on such wild tangents. But he once played Boston for a few nights. Fish and I actually got to meet him and listen to him talk in his hotel room for four or five hours. It was really pretty wild 'cause he had a way of tying everything together.

Well, when you're from another planet...

Gordon: Yeah, that makes it easy. (Laughter) Easy to put into perspective when you're from Saturn. But he was, at that time, into this thing called The Book Of Information which supposedly was beamed in from outer space to Istanbul on certain radio frequencies. They had given him a copy of this sort of guide to the cosmos. He xeroxed it for Fish, and he went on talking about it. And now, Trey and Fish have been playing with Michael Ray who was his trumpet player, Michael Ray and the Cosmic Crew.

Who are some of your bass influences?

Gordon: I didn't really spend a lot of time listening to any single bass player. The first time I sat down to learn bass lines, I think it was Big Brother & The Holding Co. (Peter Albin), that Janis Joplin, sort of Motowny sound.

Actually, the first time I decided I wanted to play bass in a band was when I was around 14 and my family was in the Bahamas. There was a band called the Mustangs that played by the poolside at the hotel. They were great. My dad and I were standing inside the pool and listening, and the bass could just vibrate you, whereas the guitar could make pretty melodies, but the bass could actually vibrate your whole body. I really liked that physical thing, and I told my dad at that point that if I ever were in a band when I got older, that I would want to play bass.

You talk about playing with two notes and using textures on those notes.

Gordon: The bass, for me, is such a great thing 'cause it looks like a piece of graph paper. It's patterns. But those two notes, if they're going back and forth…well, that's sometimes the selflessness thing.

Some of my best jams…if the flow is going, if you feel like you're flying, who would want to ruin that by trying to do something interesting? (Laughter) But it ends up being interesting anyway because those two notes have a certain emotion, a certain point, and if you're on a really deep note, like where does that take you? Does it pull you down or does it launch you? You feel yourself being physically drawn in certain directions because of the way the patterns and the notes go. I think that's one thing I really like about Phil Lesh's playing. I would say that Phil Lesh and Bootsy Collins are probably my two favorite bass players. But with Phil, first of all, it seems like he makes it a meditation. Second of all, he's got this way of making the ups and downs, the peaks and valleys of the bass line, be the only thing that matters. It's like physically, you are being vibrated at your knees and in your chest. What does it feel like to just go up and come down? With other bass lines, with some of the Motown bass players that are so great, certain bass players, you'll hear like a melodic use of the scale. But there won't be so much attention to the ups and downs. Like, they'll jump in a way, so it's almost less important, the physical nature of it, of the high and the low notes. In the case of Phil, I think he's a person that embraces just the pure kinetic physicality of the note. I really like the way that happens.

We went to see Bootsy Collins in New Orleans after we played, and it was just wild. It was the slowest, funkiest groove, and this club was packed with people just getting down. It's also funny the way humor can enter into the equation with notes that sound funny, which I suppose is just another emotion in the sea of emotions. With Bootsy, there's definitely a lot of humor that goes on.

Well, there's a lot of humor with your band.

Gordon: Yeah, yeah I think so. We used to search for things that were deliberately funny, but I think now it's more abstract. We make jokes all day on the tour bus. We like to try to twist people's minds in our own special way if we can. (Laughter)

What are some of your favorite songs to perform?

Gordon: It varies. We just wrote nine new songs, which we're playing since the mixing of the live album, and I like a bunch of them. I like one called "Theme From The Bottom," which has a lot of underwater themes again. There are a couple of songs that we actually wrote as a group, just jamming and taking pieces and writing songs. That was one of them. There's another new one called "Free," which almost sounds like a Southern rocker. I really like playing that one, but the jam in the middle of "Free" is all textural. Trey just plays one note and jams on texture for the whole jam, making it sound different. We do some bluegrass. In the last tours, I'd play banjo, the keyboard player plays upright bass, we would have all acoustic instruments. Now we do this four guitar thing. I actually listen to mostly bluegrass myself.

The song "Ginseng Sullivan" by Norman Blake, we started doing again, which is a bluegrass song that we do with the electric instruments, and I've really been liking that one. It's just a simple song. My favorite songs are probably the songs that end up being the most open-ended, where we can take it to the furthest places, but then it's not the song that's being appreciated. It's the ability to get away from it, in a sense. My favorite songs are probably originals, but we were at Waterloo and we played "Waterloo," an Abba song, and we had John Popper from Blues Traveler come up and play with us, and I kind of liked that. Trey didn't like it. He ended it in the middle.

Sometimes I like to say that music has four functions. If it were an art, it wouldn't have any function except it would be art for art's sake. Functionally speaking, I divide it into mind, body, heart, soul. With some of our songs where the lyrics were sort of strings of syllables, to me, there used to be a lacking in the heart department. Maybe in some of the jams there would be heart, it's very emotional, but when you think about your favorite song, to me it's what would make me feel a strong emotion. Songwriting can have that. Whereas it's really the beat that makes you physically want to dance, and the spiritual connection would be the soul, and the technical aspects of the music would be the mind. But in terms of that heart, "Ginseng Sullivan" sort of touches a part of the heart, an aorta or some ventricle. (Laughter) There's actually the new song, "Strange Design" that we have, that's sort of like that. It's a song that Page sings. It has a lot of heart to it.

What are some of the songs that you get the best audience response to?

Gordon: Well, they like songs that we haven't played in a long time. They really like the obscure ones. There's a song called "Punch You In The Eye." They really like that one. Seems like what they like the least is what we've been playing a lot. They like new stuff. Some people have a hard time adjusting to the change of having new songs in the repertoire, but in general, they really like to hear [songs like] "Theme From The Bottom." People have been saying that they really like it. But since it's a song that starts out with just the high hat and the instruments come in one at a time, it's not a song where there would be necessarily a big roar when we started playing the song.

You do some quirky audience participation things, rolling giant balls into the audience.

Gordon: Actually, lately we've been doing a little bit less of the stage antics. We like to allow it to be a carnival at times, if it will.

You've made the vacuum a viable instrument.

Gordon: Vacuum, trampolines, the big balls. Actually, on New Year's Eve we rode across Boston Garden in a hot dog while playing wireless instruments, and that was wild. We had the hot dog lowered down onto the stage while James Bond music was playing. We got on the hot dog, and it raised up pretty quickly. It went all the way across Boston Garden to the cheap seats, as they call them. (Laughter) There's actually a picture in the new CD of us in the hot dog, and there's a huge ball that came down from the ceiling that Page was reaching out to touch. Talk about the feeling of motion while playing, I mean there we were, actually in a hot dog, moving and playing.

I know it was a tofu hot dog, too. (Laughter)

Gordon: Not only that, but it was Kosher. We actually had a rabbi come to kosherify it, so my grandmother was happy.

I know you did an interview with the Jewish Press recently.

Gordon: I tend to do a bunch of those. I actually had a strong Jewish upbringing. In my grade school, everyone spoke Hebrew for half a day, every day, from third grade on. They were fluent. I was a little bit behind. I didn't pick up on it like the rest. And now we play a couple of songs in Hebrew. We sing them. One's a prayer, and one's a folk song.

My dad was actually a leader in the Jewish community at the time of the Soviet Jewry movement, helping Jews who were denied exit visas to get out of Russia. He was a national leader of that. I feel like, in some ways, I'm doing something for Judaism, too.

It's important to keep the values that you grew up with as part of who you are. I think it's great. A lot of your fans are Jewish.

Let's talk more about your fans. From my view of it, you seem to have a very young audience. Younger than you guys are by about a decade.

Gordon: Definitely. One sector of it is actually getting older, but I think it's especially younger. When we were a college band, we didn't play in all ages places, it was all college [students]. Then their younger brothers and sisters started listening. So, yeah, there are a lot of real young people.

I have a theory. Your fans are the children of first generation hippies, which explains their ability to comprehend the intensity of your improvisational excursions.

Gordon: Right. They definitely bear with us as we venture outward.

They ride with you.

Gordon: Yeah, they ride with us. They definitely do. I don't know if [your theory] is always the case because when we actually talk to our fans, in some cases, it's almost back towards the rebellion thing. There are people with parents who are very conservative, and it's almost like an exploration. Maybe their parents are so conservative, in some cases, that they felt it necessary to go off on their own and discover a more free-flowing way of living. I know that there are second generation hippies also. I think some of it is sort of born by itself. There are probably a lot of upper middle class people with their parents' expensive cars. It makes sense in a way that we're from families that are not only successful, but all of our parents were really creative and driven. Between that and the fact that we grew up in suburban households, it makes sense that our fans would have a similar composition.

Having an audience with family values is probably unusual for a band that has a cult following. Maybe it's not so much rebellion as it is genetics. A lot of your fans' parents are of an enlightened generation, so our children should be more enlightened.

Gordon: I think there's an evolution.

Until I went to your shows, I thought, "Hey, we were it. We were the end all." But we weren't, and it's such a great feeling to see that it didn't end with us. And it's still evolving because your music is complex enough to take a new generation to farther reaches.

Gordon: If you look at people that are very successful, being disciplined and applying themselves is almost a bigger chunk in terms of importance than having creative ideas. It takes commitment. When we first started jamming together in dorm rooms, 12 years ago, I actually thought that we didn't really click together in terms of how we sounded. I think it was beneficial that we didn't because we had to practice five days a week. It took a lot of discipline, real commitment and a sense of vision-all those things over the years. Some people sort of define commitment and love the same way. I think that the audience picks up on this sense of commitment, and they in turn become committed to the situation. But in a way, that's almost like a family value coming out. Whether it sounds good or bad, at any given moment, at least we're gonna be in it for the long haul and try to make it as good as possible.

Do you think that you'll cross over to an older market at some point, once it discovers who you are and what you're doing?

Gordon: I don't know. I couldn't really say. Although, like I said, it's happening a bit and I guess I'd like to think so. Bruce Hampton, a friend of ours who I have a lot of respect for, says that it's important to always be child-like, but not to be child-ish. So in that sense, it would be nice to think that we would always have a child-like sense of exploring and innocence and that older people who have that attitude would become interested in our music. And also, that we would continue to explore the more mature and darker innards of the mind with our songs, and that would stretch out towards people that are more mature, sort of from both angles. I could see it happening.

We live in a very pop-oriented culture. We've been force fed music that is, perhaps, more melodic than some of yours.

Gordon: We're very dissonant, sometimes. Trey's mentor, Ernie, is a composer of neo-classical music with a Big Band influence. They're into atonal fugues, and the way that Ernie writes, you hear a lot of dissonance, but there's a form to it. It's not just clashing notes because they clash. It's for a reason. It's to try to stretch certain limits and to do it in a thoughtful way. So, for the listener, it's a matter of opening your mind to be able to accept that as being something desirable. Trey likes to quote Stravinsky: "Run from beauty and it will follow." I guess it's true that maybe when people get older, they get a little more set in their ways which, to some degree, makes sense because you're learning, you're testing out your values.

Life also seems shorter, so everything has to happen faster.

Gordon: Music that's experimental and changing might be more threatening to some of those done with the phase of their lives where they're exploring. They might not want to explore auditorally with us. But some of our favorite musicians were…I really like Buddy Rich, who was in his seventies when he died, and we actually saw him as a band a few times, together. And in the case of Buddy Rich, he billed himself as the world's greatest drummer and he was one of the world's greatest drummers. He was so incredible. He had big goals for himself, even in his seventies. He really wanted to learn new ways of drumming. He was exploring right up to the end. In that sense, he was also sort of child-like.

Age doesn't mean that you necessarily have to be locked into the expected. Sun Ra always said to "Expect the unexpected." That's a philosophy we try to embrace, and for anyone to be part of our family, they would have to tap into that.

(Thanks to Mike Gordon, Jason Carlton and Dionysian Productions, Elektra Records, Phyllis Antoniello, John Grady, Josh Zapin, Walter Parks, and especially Edgar Allen Beem of The Boston Globe, whose excellent article on Phish provided an invaluable reference into the band's history.)

This article appeared as the cover story in Relix Magazine, Volume 22 #5 (October, 1995).

Copyright © 1999-2004 - Toni Brown

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