By popular request, here is the interview with Page McConnell of Phish, which [Shelly Culbertson] did before their show in Arcata, Ca. on 10/15/91.
Shelly Culbertson: As an introduction, could you tell me what the line-up is in the band, and what everyone plays?
Page McConnell: My name is Page McConnell; I play piano and organ. Trey Anastasio - guitar; Mike Gordon plays bass and Jon Fishman plays drums.
SC: How long has the group been together in that form?
PM: We've been like this for six and a half years, and the band has been around for about eight and a half years...no, actually just six years; I've been in the band for six years, and the band before that had a guitar player --there were four of them, and when I joined the band the guitar player stayed around for a little while and then he moved on, so it's been this line-up for six years.
SC: How did the band start? What brought you all together?
PM: I wasn't initially in the band when it started, but it started at University of Vermont, where they were -- all four of those guys, including the other guitar player -- were all students, at UVM in Burlington, and it was started by Trey putting a sign up on the wall, you know, "Trying to get a band together", you know, and he ran into these other three guys, and then they were together for a while.
SC: Are you going to be doing any more shows with the horns, like the horn tour back east?
PM: We don't have anything planned for that right now. We really enjoyed doing that this summer, and I think that there was a lot of good stuff that came out of it. It was more work for us to have three more people on the road...but we don't have any plans right now to do anything with them.
SC: Have you done any recording with them?
PM: No, we haven't.
SC: Could you say something about the albums, and how they're available -- if they're available?
PM: Currently, we are selling our tape Junta, which was our first project; we'll be selling it at the show tonight. The second album we recorded was called Lawn Boy, which was available for a while in stores and is currently out of print. We can't even get any copies of it ourselves, we don't have it. It should be going back into circulation soon, we hope. And we've recorded another album, called A Picture of Nectar, which will be released hopefully in January.
SC: Are you now with a major label?
PM: We haven't signed anything yet. We're working on negotiations right now, and hopefully if we can sign, they'll release not only A Picture of Nectar, but also release Junta and Lawn Boy.
SC: Why is Junta pronounced "junta" and not "hunta"?
PM: It was named after a friend of ours, who's nickname is Junta. It doesn't really have anything to do with government, or South American politics; it's just a friend of ours' nickname.
SC: Was there not an album prior to Junta?
PM: Oh, the white album...the Phish album...we did a project before that was released just on tape; most of what is on that project is four-track stuff that Trey did in his bedroom, or Mike did in his bedroom. There's about three or four songs on there that we did as the four of us, recorded...but primarily, that is actually...there's some really funny stuff, I don't know if you've heard it at all --
SC: No, I haven't, I would love to!
PM: It's, I guess, kind of hard to come by; I don't have a copy either. But --we did that, it must be four years ago or more, five years ago, and Trey put it together...there's some funny stuff on it...I don't usually put it in the same category, 'cause it wasn't something that we actually all did together, and it wasn't something that we went into a studio to do, but I guess it is a release we made.
SC: If you signed with a label, is there any chance of that album becoming available?
PM: We're not talking about that right now, but it's definitely not out of the question, but it's not something that we're currently talking about with them, or anybody, trying to necessarily get that out. We sent it to a studio in New York, the master copy of it, to have it re- mixed a little bit, just to take down some of the hiss 'cause it was kind of low quality, and I haven't actually heard what happened with that, but if we can do that then we may sell copies ourselves at shows.
SC: Speaking of older projects, what about Gamehenge?
PM: Gamehenge...well, that as a recorded project we have yet to do. It's something we've talked about and probably will do in the near future, in the next album or two I would think.
SC: I understood that there are video projects for Esther and Divided Sky --Have they been completed?
PM: Did you hear about this through the computer network? Ok. 'Cause John Greene, who hooks us up with a lot of that stuff, is connected with this company CoSA, out of Providence, Rhode Island; they made a video to Esther, an animation to Esther, which we showed at one of our shows in Boston recently at Sommerville Theater, in between sets. A woman that's also connected with that company was interested in putting together a video for Divided Sky, and I'm not sure where that stands right now, but our thought was that maybe we would be able to use the videos -- I thought the Esther one came out pretty well, I like the work they did, and I thought the ideas she had, she had prototypes for the ideas for the models of what she'd use for Divided Sky, and I thought they were really good, though I haven't seen anything. Our thought was maybe that we would be able to put them on, if we released Junta, because it's -- well, I don't know what we're going to do exactly, but we were talking about maybe putting it on the end of Junta, since it's not quite a two-cd set but it's sort of bigger than a one-cd recording - to have CDI, you know, have an interface so you'd be able to hook it up to your computer and be able to see the videos on the cd as well play the cd. That's some of the thoughts we've had of doing that, but that's not definite, but those are the projects that are in the works now, anyway.
SC: Have both Junta and Lawn Boy been put out on cd as well as cassette?
PM: No, Lawn Boy has. Lawn Boy was put out with a small company called Absolute A-Go-Go and distributed by Rough Trade records. Rough Trade went out of business within the past six months and they took with them all of our Lawn Boys, and all of our money. We never saw any money from the ten thousand copies we sold, so we're hoping to get that out as soon as possible.
SC: How do you feel about audience taping during your shows?
PM: We are very much in favor of it. I think a lot of the reason -- a lot of our success has been directly related to having our tapes accessible to people all around the country. People have heard our tapes, and then we finally get out to the west coast and people are able to see us for the first time or whatever, and we've stipulated that if we do sign, that it's going to be in the contract that people be allowed to keep taping.
SC: Do you ever get the sense that you're on the verge of critical mass, if you will, in terms of popularity?
PM: I would hope that it doesn't change too terribly much, but we're definitely...you know, this tour in particular a lot of the markets we're playing we're getting 800 or 1000 people a night, all across the midwest and throughout the country. It's definitely growing exponentially. I think that if the comes out on a major label and is pushed at all, it could really even further that. I don't know whether that's good or bad, but I do know that it's likely.
SC: This is a long tour --
PM: This is a long tour distance-wise, time-wise it's about nine weeks.
SC: How's it going so far?
SC: Is everyone staying healthy and keeping their energy up?
PM: Trey was sick the past few days; he's getting better. Other than that everyone is healthy and the morale is good.
SC: Could you tell me anything about musical influences on the band?
PM: Sure, I can speak for myself. I listen to a lot of jazz piano players mainly, mostly older jazz piano players. People like Fats Waller or James P.Johnson or Art Tatum; Thelonius Monk is pretty much the most recent guy that I've been listening to lately, although I used to listen to a good bit of Bill Evans. I like jazz a lot, I grew up listening to rock and playing in rock bands. I like Lou Reed a lot. The musical influences of the band, though --we listen to a lot of different sorts of stuff, I mean really a wide variety, as wide a variety as you might imagine we listen to.
SC: How did the band's involvement with sports equipment, such as roller blades and mini-tramps, and household appliances, such as vaccuum cleaners,come about?
PM: They didn't happen all at the same time. The roller blades is something that probably only Trey would get into 'cause he played a lot of hockey. I couldn't imagine...did you hear about that, just recently we played in Buffalo and he skated around. The trampolines are something that -- I actually bought the trampolines, but it's something that we had been talking about for a while, wouldn't it be funny if we played on these trampolines, and then I saw some trampolines, so we bought 'em. We tried it out a number of different spots and sort of have settled on a few spots where we use them. The vaccuum cleaner was Fish's idea -- sort of; although others may claim a little credit. But he's just a funny guy that is willing to take a chance and play a vaccuum cleaner, and he's done pretty well with it.
SC: Not many people can do that.
PM: Not many people try.
SC: How does the band go about songwriting?
PM: Trey does most of the writing, although on this next album that we're recording I wrote a song, Mike wrote one song, Fish wrote a song....a couple of the songs are co-written by all of us.
SC: And you have some outside lyricists --
PM: We do. Trey's friend in particular, Tom Marshall, has written a lot of the lyrics that we do. They're sort of a team, Trey and Tom, a songwriting team. Generally, Tom gives all his lyrics to Trey and then Trey goes through them and finds ones that he thinks he can use. That's how that happens.
SC: When someone brings a musical idea to the band, to what extent is it already written, or does it evolve with the band?
PM: They go through many changes. Someone might bring something to the band and...certain songs that we play we've been working through for four years, and they're still changing. I'm trying to think of a good example -- that song we play, Tela, I don't know if you know that or not, it's part of the Gamehendge saga, I sing it, Trey wrote it, and it's a song that has been through a number of different changes, and only in the past year or so I think we are all finally happy with the form that it's in now, but it definitely did take four years to write it. We'd play it, then it would be on the back burner for a while, then we'd pull it out and try something new with it, rearrange it. So nothing is really set, and a lot of times, Trey or someone will bring a song to the band, and we'll work on it, and we'll learn it, and we'll start playing it out, and we'll realize that something about it just is not working -- these sections are strong but this one's weak; why is that and how can we remedy that. Aside from that, when Trey or someone brings a song to the band, they don't tell me what to play on the piano. I play what I would hear, generally, unless it's written out, and that also happens. There is certain stuff that's composed, note for note, that I read from music--we all do. So it's always changing; nothing is set like that.
SC: As complex as your music is, how great a role does improvisation play in your concerts?
PM: A good bit of it, I think. There's certainly lots of stuff that's worked out and composed, that is not at all improvised, and then there's parts of the show that are totally improvised, maybe not totally improvised, we usually have an idea of a certain form or another, but within that form it's pretty much wide open. There's both improvisation and -- which is really important, I think when we're playing well, that's when we're playing our best when we're really improvising well. And the other stuff kind of leads up to it a lot of times, the worked-out stuff.
SC: When you play a show, do you decide the tunes that you'll play that night beforehand?
PM: We usually like to have an idea of what we're going to play, although we don't always stick with it, a lot of times. The last night we played, in Olympia two nights ago we had a rough song list and about half-way through the first set totally abandoned it and just went on a different tangent. Trey actually did the Gamehenge thing and told the story and played all the Gamehenge songs, just 'cause it was that kind of a crowd; which we've only done once before, in the eight years. Sometimes we do -- we like to have an idea, because if things aren't going well, you really don't want to be standing up there saying, "What am I gonna play next?", you really want to kind of have an idea, but it's not written in stone. Anyone can play whatever they want.
SC: I would imagine that no two set lists are exactly alike...
PM: I hope not. I don't think they are. I think they're all different.
SC: Where do you see the band ten years from now?
PM: Ten years from now? Gosh, that's a long time. I would hope we're still playing together. You never know what's going to happen, but I would hope that we're still playing together. I honestly believe that we will be. We've been going this long, and we all are really comfortable with each other, and who each other is, and what each other does -- not to say we don't have our differences, but we all understand that for us to do what we want to do, which is play music, we sort of need the others, and that none of us would really be able to do any of this without any of the others, so there is a dependency there that we appreciate. I would hope that we're still writing new material in ten years, and still playing new songs. That would be the ideal situation.
SC: Who exactly is the Dude of Life, and where did he come from?
PM: The Dude of Life is a friend of Trey's from high school and also from college, they both went to high school and to UVM together. He sits in with us from time to time, over the years, once a year, once every two years, something like that, and he has written certain songs that we play: he wrote the song Suzie Greenberg that we play, he wrote the words to Fluffhead, he wrote the words to Dinner and a Movie...the words: _all_ the words; and he is kind of a fringe element of the band. We just recorded an album with him this summer, as his backup band. I don't have any idea what's going to happen with it, but we recorded about ten songs with him in the studio, all his songs. He lives in New York City.
SC: What can you say about Icculus and the Helping Friendly Book?
PM: Icculus is the god of the mountain connected with Gamehenge, and I'm not as good at this as Trey is, but I'll try. Icculus is the one that wrote the Helping Friendly Book; Icculus is the god, and the Helping Friendly Book is basically the bible of these people, the Lizards, and more than just the bible, those who have the Helping Friendly Book actually have a power...I think.
This interview is copyright 1991 by Page McConnell and Shelly Culbertson. Permission is given to reproduce it in any form, as long as no fee is attached to the reproduction. For permission to reproduce in a non-free publication, contact the authors.
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