Rolling Stone has published a new interview with Phish keyboardist Page McConnell by Patrick Doyle. The new piece, published on Wednesday, follows Doyle’s interview with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio published last week.
Much like the Anastasio interview, which featured a few small snippets from this larger conversation with Page, this Q&A gets into what McConnell is doing during quarantine (mostly, homeschooling his kids) and the future of live music and mass gatherings (he just doesn’t know). The conversation also touches on the relationship between Phish and the Grateful Dead and Trey’s quarantine songwriting streak—of which he seems entirely unaware.
Also of note, while both Page and Trey’s interviews discuss the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the future of live music, neither speaks directly about Phish’s scheduled summer tour, which as of now has not been canceled.
The bulk of the conversation, however, focuses on the new Phish album, Sigma Oasis, and his feelings about the end “product.” While he goes into much greater detail, much of Page’s commentary comes back to a similar theme—that he likes Sigma Oasis because it captures the band sounding like its true self.
Read the full Rolling Stone interview with Page McConnell of Phish here and scroll down for a few select highlights.
On Trey’s singing on Sigma Oasis:
“I think Trey’s singing is really good. There have been times on albums in the past where I felt maybe it was a little tentative, or not as full-throated, if you will, and he sounds comfortable. He sounds like himself to me when he’s singing these. I think he worked at it and did a great job with that.”
On the overall playing on Sigma Oasis:
“The grooves are so solid. We were having a little listening dance party in my living room the other night and listened to ‘Everything’s Right.’ It’s just so relaxed. It’s what Phish sounds like. There have been so many other albums where I hear the drumming and think, ‘Man, he plays better than that,’ and I didn’t have that sense. It was like, ‘That’s what Fish sounds like to me. This is really what his playing sounds like.”
“In terms of my playing, I’m really happy with a lot of the piano playing. In the past, it’s hard for me sometimes to listen to some of my playing, and I don’t actually listen to our records, but I have listened to bits of this over the last couple weeks. It’s still holding up. I spent probably five or six days doing overdubs in my studio, which actually is where I am now. It wasn’t something I had necessarily planned on doing, but I just really dove in and reorganized my studio, had all my keyboards in one room and was able to just roll through these songs. Some of them I spent quite a bit of time on. A song like ‘Thread,’ I probably was working on for five days straight, just on keyboards.”
“There are so many different keyboards that I’m working on. On a song like ‘Thread,’ I overdubbed, one, two, probably five or six different synthesizers as well as organ and electric piano. With each addition, I sit down and I say, ‘OK, I’m going to play organ on this. What might that part be?’ And then I have to get the sound that I want. Then I have to get a performance that I like, and then I usually cut half of it out after a long time. So there’s some editing as well. So, with each keyboard, there’s at least four or five steps that go into the process. But it’s such a joy for me.”
“I guess part of the big thrill for me is just that I’m given the freedom to do this. I have my own place. It’s not in a bigger studio, where you look at the clock, and you’re thinking, ‘OK, how many hundreds of dollars an hour am I wasting here trying to figure out this keyboard part?’ I was just on a roll here with myself, and there were two different engineers that I worked with in my studio. Just [having] the leisure and the freedom to, when I finally hear something that sounds right to me, [say] ‘Ah, that was the key that unlocked it for me.'”
On tuning in to the Sigma Oasis listening party:
“I listened when we did that initial listening party with everybody and played it at 9 p.m. And, as I was listening to it, I watched the comments go by, which is something I would never do, either, but I did. It really felt like you were getting a full set at a show. A lot of the people were having that experience, and I was as well. It has a little bit of everything: It’s got some evil jamming, and it’s got some ballads and some funky, danceable stuff and some more cerebral stuff. And more than one jam in the course of that set.”
“But anyway, it’s all so strange, and then it really felt like an emotional thing, too, to be listening to it with everybody, to know that everybody was hearing it at the same time, and that even if it wasn’t people all in the same room, certainly some people were connected through threads of commenting or whatever. I felt a mass emotional experience somehow knowing it was happening, even if I wasn’t in the same room with it. That felt pretty powerful to me.”
On the “Phish as torch-bearers for the Grateful Dead” argument:
“The torch bearers? You know, just to back up to the premise of the question, although when the Dead stopped playing, there was certainly the perception that all these fans came over to us, from my perspective, when that was actually happening, the Dead fans didn’t think as much of Phish as they did of the Dead, and vice versa. Obviously, we had a much smaller following.”
“But what ended up happening was the real influence that I felt when the Dead stopped was all the people that came to Phish weren’t there for the music. They were there to sell stuff in the lots and try to make money. It was a little bit of an ugly scene, sort of the darker underbelly of their scene just came over to our lot because it was the next lot. Not because they liked Phish.”
“I think actually, after Trey did the Fare Thee Well concerts, I saw a lot of people that very next tour that looked like old Deadheads that were coming to check us out that hadn’t seen us before. That was my feeling around that. And that has grown.”
“They wrote great songs. And Robert Hunter wrote great lyrics. And I feel like there was a maturity to their lyrics that I hope that we’re touching on as well now. So I can see why people maybe would have had a harder time following a song like ‘Cavern’ 20 years ago, but might be able to identify with ‘A Life Beyond the Dream’ or something. There’s an emotional leap to them that our writing hasn’t always had.”
On the current state and future fate of live music:
“I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest. To me it just feels like we’re not on tour now, which is most of our life. And it might not go on that long, but it’s too soon for me to look down the road and think, ‘Wow, this has been going on for a long time, will it be much longer?’ I just don’t know.”
“I try not to imagine things in the future because I just don’t know if I’m thinking three months out, or six months out, or 18 months out. Mass gatherings – it’s the thing you can’t do, and it’s the thing that we do. So there will be a vaccine at some point, but it’s just so hard to tell at this point. I do my best to try not to look too far forward, and just try and be present with the kids.”
“I really am confident that there will be a day that we will be doing this again in front of people. I don’t go out to concerts much. I play concerts, but I don’t go out to them. I miss the camaraderie, but we also will text and something funny will happen. The four of us are still in contact to some degree, and everyone has just kind of withdrawn just a little bit into their own world, myself included. I’m just keeping it close.”
On Ben & Jerry’s:
“I eat more Cherry Garcia than Phish Food [laughs.] I don’t know if that’s bad.”
On Trey Anastasio’s songwriting output under lockdown:
“I’ve heard about it, but I have no idea what he’s doing, to be honest with you.
Read the full Rolling Stone interview with Phish keyboardist Page McConnell here.