Exclusive Preview: Phish Talks Songlists, ‘Big Boat,’ ‘Ass Handed’ & More In Relix Cover Story
The new October/November issue of Relix features a cover story on Vermont jam quartet Phish. All four members of the band spoke with Relix about their new album Big Boat and plenty of other topics. Here’s a bit of what Phish discussed in advance of the issue hitting newsstands and subscribers’ mailboxes next week.
This past Friday Phish released their 13th studio album Big Boat, which has a theme of escapism in a scary world. “The sequence was a concept that came up really early,” guitarist Trey Anastasio told Relix. “‘Friends,’ opening it, then ‘Breath and Burning’ and ending with ‘More’ and then ‘Petrichor’—with the skies opening and the ladders coming down, which, to me, felt like they were coming from the returning ship.
“There’s the rain and flooding and everything, which is a bit apocalyptic, and certainly relevant to these crazy times we live in. Everyday it’s another news story, glaciers melting, floods, fires, I even read a story recently that said that apparently it’s become unhealthy to live next to the ocean because the algae is gonna kill you, and on and on it goes – there’s no food left that’s safe to eat. And, in the meantime, we are having such a good time at these shows, fiddling while Rome burns…so a lot of these songs kind of allude to that.”
Big Boat is the first Phish studio album to feature at least three songs written by keyboardist Page McConnell. “I spent about a year and a half just trying to write songs and that was something I had never done before. I wanted to stay close to home, made a real effort to write and worked at it. That was my focus, other than my family and the band,” Page said to Relix.
While drummer Jon Fishman’s “Friends” made the LP, his song “Ass Handed” did not. Fish talked with Relix about the instant fan favorite, “‘Ass Handed’ took me one second to write in a moment of inspiration during the confluence of a particularly difficult day with the need to fulfill our producer’s assignment of writing a folk song. I think if you look at the whole history of everything I’ve written there’s an argument to be made that it all boils down to the ‘Ass Handed.’ Everything I’ve written, played, said, done…etc…boils down in one way or another to ‘you get your ass handed to you every day.’ Furthermore, I believe the same can be said for anything I do, say, play, write, think etc…for the rest of time. It’s just taken me 51 years of life to finally say what I mean concisely!”
Another topic that came up was the songlists Anastasio creates as a guide for each Phish performance. Bassist Mike Gordon discussed how Trey writes each evening’s songlist, “A lot of it is just being playful, but Trey is really good at suggesting different approaches at different times. Like he might say, ‘I’ve been thinking: Let’s do less covers and let’s go back into the back catalog cause it’s fun.’ He’ll ask one of our managers or a friend if there’s one song that everyone in the parking lot wishes they could hear or what people are talking about. ‘Like, one year, they’re talking about ‘Can we have the jams longer?’ and another year they’re asking if it can be a little more like 1994.’ It all has to be taken with a grain of salt because, ultimately, we have to feel happy and have to feel that we’re not just regurgitating the same jams and songs that we did in the past.”
During the summer of 2015 Anastasio participated in the Fare Thee Well shows celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead. Trey talked about what he took away from the experience, “What I learned was: ‘Be nice. Be kind to your friends while they are still here. I plan on being here a lot longer, and the four of us are still in great shape, but sometimes we will look around and say, ‘God, how many bands who have been around for 33 years have all their original members?’ It is going to end someday. It’s a good thing, but you start to became aware and take stock—just, statistically, you can take any four men in their 50s. It’s not if; it’s when. There’s just a lot of friendship and support and love among the four of us.”