When the four members of Phish talk about getting back together after spending almost five years apart, the same words keep coming up—“gratitude,” “appreciation,” “inspiring.” There’s an almost tangible sense of relief that surrounds this reunion of one of the most popular touring bands in history, and that same feeling of fulfillment comes across in the album that resulted.
Of course, one look at the title of JOY should tell you all you need to know about how Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, and Page McConnell feel to be working as a single unit once again. It’s a simple word, but it’s not a simple emotion—for Phish, which Rolling Stone called “the most important band of the 1990s,” it comes with some hard-earned lessons, and a sense of responsibility about a project that started more than 25 years ago.
“There was a lightness and a freedom to this record,” says McConnell. “A lot of our issues had been talked through, problems had been addressed, and all our boats were pointed in the same direction.”
As Fishman puts it, it was as if the band just said, “Look at this really awesome thing we have here—I can‘t believe we drove that into a ditch, so let’s really take care of it.”
It was a long journey from the group’s farewell performance at Coventry, the last of seven Phish festivals, in August of 2004 to the sessions for JOY. The four musicians never fell completely out of touch, and started to discuss working together again a year after the split, but wanted to be sure that they were really ready to get back in the game. They all stayed busy, working on solo projects and various collaborations and dealing with off-stage life. In early 2008, Anastasio began reaching out to the others with a little more urgency, but it wasn’t until September that they all sat down together, for the first time, in a restaurant in upstate New York.
In the middle of dinner, Anastasio says he left the table.
“I got up and I called my wife to tell her that I had a full understanding of what was special about this band. We didn’t need any instruments, the chemistry was so obvious. I was thinking, ‘I know why people like this band.”
They soon started kicking ideas around, until eventually Anastasio quoted an old line attributed to Duke Ellington—“The hell with ideas, give me a deadline.” At that point, Fishman recalls, “everyone said, ‘let’s make a plan,’ and that plan was Hampton.”
They booked three shows for March of 2009 at Virginia’s Hampton Coliseum (Phish had previously played at the venue a dozen times during its career, and it was the site for 1998’s HAMPTON COMES ALIVE album). There was time for about a month of rehearsal, in New York City and at Anastasio’s barn in Vermont, before that historic weekend—but it quickly became clear that they were working toward something more than just a few concerts.
“At the first rehearsal,” says McConnell, “we ran through two or three old songs and immediately jumped right into new material.” “We had accumulated more new songs than ever before,” says Gordon. “It became obvious that we were going to make an album.”
The Hampton performances were a triumph—the New York Times described the “eruption of exaltation” that greeted the band on stage. (A full-scale tour would follow the JOY sessions, including stops at Bonnaroo, where Phish was joined on stage by Bruce Springsteen, and Fenway Park, set to culminate in the eighth Phish festival, scheduled for Halloween weekend.) Energized by the shows, Phish went straight back into the studio, and hit the ground sprinting.
Part of the reason for the ease in recording was a very conscious decision about the approach to JOY. “I had a vision that the record would sound like the four of us playing together,” says Anastasio. “I was very much against overdubbing—I just wanted to set up our gear and play.”
Aided by producer Steve Lillywhite (who has worked with the likes of U2, the Dave Matthews Band, and the Rolling Stones, in addition to producing Phish’s 1996 BILLY BREATHES album), the band reached a new level of comfort and confidence during these sessions. “This was the most relaxed and happy I’ve ever felt in the studio,” says Fishman. “For the first time, there was no difference between how I approached playing in the studio and how I play live.”
A special vibe, loose but focused, is evident from the first notes of JOY’s opening track, “Backwards Down the Number Line.”
The lyrics for the rolling, Allman-Brothers-flavored song came from a letter sent to Anastasio by his old friend and collaborator Tom Marshall; “I felt like it summed up the emotions that were floating around between all of us,” the guitarist says. The take on the album was cut live in the studio, solos and all, and left entirely intact. “Number Line” also illustrates the difficult balance Phish strikes on JOY—keeping a strong sense of songwriting, while also allowing their trademark improvising enough room to stretch out. On the one hand, Anastasio maintains, he has gotten more interested in the discipline of songcraft. When we were younger, we were more interested in crazy arrangements and stuff like that,” he says. “But then a shift started to happen where I really enjoyed singing, where I really like a melody, and now most of my time is spent trying to connect, to convey an emotion or tell a story.”
On the other hand, though, the group is quick to point out that JOY actually includes more jamming than most previous Phish records. For that reason, says Gordon,in some ways, I think this one is more for our fans than any of our other albums.”
An example of the ineffable Phish magic came with Gordon’s song “Sugar Shack.” After a lengthy struggle with the track, the band was about to give up on it, but Anastasio insisted that they give it a final shot. “The bass lick sounded a little like Police-style reggae,” recalls Gordon, “so we tried switching instruments and changing the groove, and in the last few minutes we got something really good. Everything changed about that song—the lyrics, the melody, the tempo—and almost on its own, it just sort of led itself onto the album.” (“That one came a country mile,” says Anastasio with a chuckle.)
The eleven-minute mind-melter “Time Turns Elastic” was recorded after the rest of JOY was finished. Anastasio worked on the composition off-and-on for more than a year. “It started off as a solo, finger-picking guitar piece,” he says, “But it just kept growing and growing.” He thought about all the transition in his life and with his band; he envisioned himself on the porch of his old farmhouse in Vermont, and wrote a lyric driven by that sense of change. The song was then painstakingly recorded section-by-section, over the course of more than 260 takes. McConnell points out that “Elastic” captures a specific and unique area of strength for Phish. “We can learn parts and music that might be considered complicated very quickly,” he says.
The four members of Phish agree that the greatest accomplishment of JOY is how effectively it conveys this multi-faceted, unclassifiable band operating at full strength. I think it represents who we are and where we’re at right now,” says Fishman, while McConnell adds simply that “it sounds like us—and it’s difficult to improve on that.”
The road to JOY was full of bumps, delays, and detours, but the results demonstrate just how ready Phish was to work together again. It is also a testament to four men with a life-long bond, who were always careful to protect their personal and creative relationships, even through difficult times.
“We’re 26 years in, and we still have our friendships and have ability to make music,” says Anastasio. “I wouldn’t change a thing. It all worked out exactly as it should have.”