Phish Resurface: Rolling Stone's 2003 Cover Story

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"But I got nostalgic doing it," he admits. "There were so many adventures, so much fun. Reading the journals, listening to old live tapes — I started to feel like it was going to be hard to replace this in my life." So he did something about it. Last August, he booked a getaway weekend for all four band members (again, no management or family) at a hotel in Lake Placid, New York. "I wanted to treat them in style," Gordon cracks. He bought fruit baskets for everyone's room, booked a group boat ride and typed up a list of topics for discussion, including: When will Phish play again?

Day picnic he hosted at his house, Anastasio held a little listening party. "He had each of us individually get into his car, and he blasted his demos," Gordon says, grinning. "And while they were playing, he described the stage antics that might go with them." By mid-October, Paluska had booked New York's Madison Square Garden for New Year's Eve (another jam band, String Cheese Incident, had been holding the date for a possible show) and Phish had recorded and mixed Round Room.

Which wasn't even supposed to be an album. Phish wanted to mark their return to the road by cutting a new record at the Garden, in front of their fans, then making it available for download at the stroke of midnight, January 1st, 2003. But the band liked the practice tapes of the songs they made at the Barn so much that they decided to put them out.

There is an austere, spacey quality to Round Room. It's an album of demos. But it is the purest Phish on record, more so than the band's official live albums, because it is how they sound in rehearsal: away from the crowds, jamming for the sheer private thrill of filling a room with new music.

At the Barn in December, the band runs through some of Round Room in preparation for New Year's Eve. Outside, it's cold enough for hot chocolate. Inside, nobody needs mushrooms. "Waves," an eleven-minute trip on the album, is getting longer and even more psychedelic. In the equally epic "Pebbles and Marbles," Fishman's tight, soft-shoe drumming has become a brisk gallop; McConnell's elegant piano fills are harder, more urgent; and Anastasio has put more power-chord wallop into his guitar playing.

"I feel like we spent our first seventeen years learning how to be a good band," Fishman says that evening as he gets ready to go to a local bar and celebrate the day's jamming with a White Russian. "Now we can spend the next twenty years actually being a good band."

Phish have already made another new album. They did it even before they got to the Garden — on December 19th, while they were in New York to appear on Late Show With David Letterman. Anastasio and McConnell popped into a downtown recording studio sometime after midnight, decided to play, and phoned Fishman and Gordon back at the hotel, asking them to join. Phish then taped an hour and a half of spontaneous playing, decided on a title (The Victor Disc, named after the session's engineer) and came up with a cover idea.

"I called Mike — he was in bed," Anastasio says later that day, after the Letterman taping, at another studio in Manhattan, where he is editing live tapes from his 2002 solo tour for yet another album. "But Mike came down and recorded an album. He couldn't wait to do it.

"It's all a leap of faith — four guys leaping out of an airplane with one parachute," Anastasio says of Phish. "Last night, we were still playing at six in the morning, and I'm thinking, 'Boy, I should go to sleep. I gotta do Letterman tomorrow.' But we were cranking it out.

"The danger," he adds, "is to lose that. If all these things — having big companies and touring too much — threaten to suck the life out of the thing that it was in the first place ..." Anastasio doesn't care to finish the thought. Phish are up and running again. He's not interested in the alternative.

Phish have made adjustments for the second phase of their career. Tours will be shorter — the February jaunt is only two weeks long — to allow for outside projects and family life: Anastasio and his wife, Sue, have two daughters; McConnell and his wife, Sofi, have a girl; and Fishman and his girlfriend, Briar, have a toddler named Ella. Phish's recording future is up in the air; they have one more album left in their current Elektra contract. And the band has not decided how, or if, it will continue hallowed traditions such as the big summer festivals and the Halloween game of covering whole albums by other artists.

"A part of what killed Jerry Garcia," McConnell says, "was the bigness of what the Dead became. He couldn't stop touring. It's the antithesis of what I want to happen. I want to create a way for us to continue to be ourselves and make new music all the time. That may end up, someday, just being four people playing in a barn. And I love that just as much — just making music, with nobody hearing or recording it.

It's very difficult for me to imagine us ever breaking up again," McConnell claims. "Maybe we take another hiatus. But as long as the four of us are alive, on the earth, Phish would exist. Because that is what we are."

There will be at least one more show, guaranteed, after this tour. "We have this series of band rules," Anastasio says, and while making the Victor Disc, "we came up with another one: We have to play one show when we're in our eighties." He almost chokes on his own laughter. "That's the new band rule. Of course, that means we have to stay alive."

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