New tour puts Phish back in the swim

Rock: The veteran band, known for touring and improvisation, is coming back together after a hiatus for individual projects. It feels right.

July 08, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Mike Gordon is feeling a bit crazed at the moment, and it's hard to blame him.

For one thing, a movie that he has been working on for four years is heading into a crucial phase of production. For another, he has a bunch of telephone interviews to deal with, and the phones in his Kansas City hotel room just keep ringing.

But what really has Gordon thrown off balance is that he and the rest of the rock band Phish are about to play their first show after a half-year hiatus, and he's having a hard time getting readjusted to life on the road.

"It's crazy," he says, by way of apology. "As my life is switching gears like this, I'm just confused about everything." He laughs, then adds, "I hope I'm coherent, at least."

For other bands, heading out on tour after several months of down time would be no big deal. But for Phish, the recent six-month vacation was the longest break in the band's 16-year history. "So it's kind of a culture shock to get back into it," says Gordon.

It isn't that guitarist/front man Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell dislike the road. Far from it. After all, it was the band's freewheeling, improvisatory live show that turned the New Hampshire-based quartet into one of the biggest concert draws in America.

Phish shows (like tomorrow's concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion) sell out almost instantaneously, and some fans will follow the band on tour for weeks at a time. Phish shows are different from one night to the next, and Phish fans not only swap tapes of various performances but can discuss in detail the differences.

Still, as Gordon admits, it has been years since Phish spent the bulk of its time touring.

"We don't really tour for as long or as much as we used to," he says. "So I don't think it felt like too long of a break."

Instead, what has made things seem so hectic are the mere logistics of touring, all the physical factors that go into putting a Phish show together and taking it on the road.

That's why the phone keeps ringing and why Gordon seems a bit frenzied.

He has no worries about the music itself. If anything, he's never been more positive about the band's sound or direction.

"We're relaxed and rejuvenated," he says. "It doesn't feel like we've entirely reinvented ourselves during the last six months, but we've definitely gained another notch of confidence about being ourselves."

That much became clear in June, when the quartet got together for a month of rehearsals. Rather than worry about coming up with a host of hot new tunes, the band decided to take it easy in the rehearsal hall and focus on the sheer joy of making music together. "We wanted to have fun," says Gordon. "That's the biggest thing."

Of course, they also had fun during the break, as each of the four indulged himself in various side projects. Gordon spent much of his time working on the soundtrack to his film (the story of a high school student who hires a teacher to get serious about his guitar playing), Anastasio and McConnell spent some time playing with other musicians, including former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, while Fishman toured with the band the Jazz Mandolin Project.

Phish also managed to put together a new album, though Gordon hastens to add that it's not the band's "official" new release. "We are allowed to put out esoteric albums through our newsletter," he says, explaining why the new CD won't be found in stores. Dubbed "The Siket Disc" after recording engineer John Siket, the album is "just instrumental tracks," says Gordon.

In fact, the album consists entirely of improvised music. Back when Phish was working on its last major-label release, "The Story of the Ghost," it would book studio time and record spontaneous improvisations.

For many bands, such an act would be an invitation to disaster, but improvisation seems to be what Phish does best. "Just going into a studio and jamming feels pretty natural to us," says Gordon. "Whereas earlier on, our albums may have been kind of a hodgepodge of different ideas, or things that we'd like to be but we don't know whether we were."

Hence the band's current self-confidence. Gordon can easily see Phish building from its current position of improvisational strength. "We want our songs to be even more singable, more from the heart," he says. "We want to have songs that we can do even more simple-structure jamming on."

Mainly, though, what Gordon and the other guys in Phish want to do is appreciate the creative momentum they have at the moment. He mentions that during the band's break, the four of them got together to celebrate McConnell's birthday. McConnell and Anastasio had just finished playing a show with Lesh, and Anastasio was telling the others what a big Phish fan Lesh was.

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