On Oct. 15, Phish released its first studio album since 1994’s Hoist. And while that doesn’t mean a whole lot to most people, to Phish’s many borderline-obsessive fans, the very existence of the new Billy Breathes is big news. The Onion recently spoke to Mike Gordon about the strange Phish phenomenon.
The Onion: You’ve got a new record coming out on Tuesday, and it’s tighter, shorter and catchier than a lot of people would expect. Was that a conscious decision?
Mike Gordon: How our albums are going to turn out is never conscious for us. But we do sort of go in with certain goals in mind, and whatever comes out, comes out. And the goals this time were, first of all, to make a shorter album than A Live One—which was real long—and try to make an album that was vinyl length, the length of a record, because we thought that sort of matches people’s attention spans better. And then, another goal was just to really experiment a lot without bringing in a lot of influences—no guest musicians, no record company people walking around the studio. And just to really experiment. Aside from “Free,” some of the songs that might seem catchy are too long, or too weird, or something, even on this album. We’ll have to see if there’s going to be a second single.
O: You mentioned that you wanted to make a shorter record for people with shorter attention spans—
MG: Well, not for the people with shorter attention spans, but just for people in general, and for ourselves—none of us can listen to the whole [three-hour] live album. But a lot of times our albums are reactions to the previous album. And this was definitely the case, because we fit as many minutes as was technically possible on A Live One, and that was a double-disc. And we were just thinking about how people make CDs these days: Often, they’re just a little bit long-winded, even single CDs. We did a lot of editing on this album, physically, with a razor blade—just cutting pieces of tape out. Every time we did it, the stuff sounded better, because we can be long-winded.
O: But your fans have longer attention spans to begin with.
MG: Yeah. That’s probably true because we jam a lot and we play for, you know, long hours. But listening to a record is different from being at a concert. If you’re cleaning your house or driving in your car, even with a longer attention span, there’s just a certain amount of time that’s kind of nice. When we finished mastering this album, there was even one more song that we had recorded. And we were listening, and just decided that the next-to-last song sounded like a good place to end.
O: What was the song?
MG: It was “Strange Design.”
O: Oh, a friend of mine was complaining about that song not being on there.
MG: Well, the thing is, we as a band have been talking about our relationship with our fans. We had a long talk at band practice yesterday, actually. We asked ourselves why we play these old songs—sometimes every night—or why we break out old songs that people want to hear that they haven’t heard in a long time. Is it just to please them? And if that’s the case, are we really doing what we want to do, which is to stretch limits and take risks? Or are we compromising ourselves? And the answer was no, we just like to put on a good rock show when we can, and if that involves playing some of the same stuff we’ve been playing and playing some things just because people want to hear them… And so we had this conversation about songs that we haven’t played in five years that people keep requesting, and with our audience that’s sort of a popular thing. It was with the Dead, too, like, making this big deal out of some song they haven’t played in a long time. And usually, if we’ve stopped playing a song, it’s for a good reason: It just didn’t feel comfortable. People just don’t realize how sensitive we are to what we’re playing, and how it feels, and that if we can’t relate to the lyrics that we’re singing, that’s a bad feeling. People don’t realize that. If the song represents a part of our lives that was from 10 years ago, then it might feel wrong. Our fans are very sensitive and aware of things that we’re not even aware of: We’re probably playing songs that we’ve played a lot of times, not even realizing how cool certain musical changes are, and they might be having musical experiences that we’re not even acknowledging that they’re having. And so it can go two ways, because music is so subjective. But the thing that people often don’t realize is that a lot of thought and feelings go into something like taking a song off a record.
O: Do you ever get sort of disgusted with your fans?
MG: Well, I would say, pretty much, no. Because we’re so lucky to have a group of people who are willing to encourage us to take risks and do weird things and come up with new material. And that’s a great thing, because often bands tour around and play to people who want to hear the song from the radio, played the same way. And our fans just hate it when we play anything the same like that. But then, the frustrating fans are the ones like this one girl on-line, where we got into this chatroom conversation, and it led to me saying, “I think bands feel good if they’re stretching. And she said, “Oh, Mike! Don’t do that! Don’t stretch!” And pretty much the definition of Phish has been changing and stretching. And so pretty much what she was saying was, “Don’t be Phish.” She wanted Phish to be some carbon-copy of some moment in time when Phish was a certain thing. And so I really started heating up and trying to talk to her.
O: Do you ever defend your fans against people who come up to you, like, “Oh, I love your music but your fans are a bunch of idiots”?
MG: [Laughs.] Well, yeah. Sure. I probably have been in that situation before. I mean, our fan base is… There are certain types. There are different groups. But there are enough of them that any generalizations wouldn’t be totally true. There is a mix of people.
O: There’s certainly a clichéd—
MG: Yeah, there is a certain… It’s funny, all these things we were talking about last night, instead of practicing. [Laughs.] But, there’s the group of, you know, Birkenstock-wearing, sometimes dreadlocked, ankle bracelet… [Pause.] The thing is, if you took that group of people… I just think it’s sort of stupid to rag on another group of people. I have a different lifestyle than they do, probably. But still, I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing. Often it’s time before college or taking a break from college, and spending some months or a year following a band—I just think it would be a cool thing to do. I mean, at a certain point it wouldn’t be cool because you wouldn’t be creative yourself. You wouldn’t be doing what you might be right for. But that whole scene seems like something I could respect. [Laughs.] I mean, I haven’t even taken many drugs.
O: You don’t smoke the reefer?
MG: I smoke pot from time to time. Not regularly, though I really like to play music after smoking pot. I don’t do it very often; I save it as a sort of ritual. It’s pretty rare that I do. And I haven’t tried any other drugs. That’s it for me. So I can’t really say; I mean, the concept of hallucinogenics really appeals to me, and I like the idea that people want to expand their mind, because I’ve had a lot of experiments where I’ve discovered hidden depths of the mind and the soul. And I think if people are trying to do that, then I have respect for them. That part of the scene—I like that it exists. I mean, of course, there are people who become drug addicts, and that’s a different sort of thing. But not everyone who experiments with drugs becomes a drug addict.
O: Since fans trade your bootlegs, why should they buy your records?
MG: I think they do, actually. Because the record is just like another bootleg. [Laughs.] And they like to have a lot of bootlegs, so why shouldn’t they include the record? Plus, it has artwork and that sort of thing. So I don’t know that they would not get the record because they have the bootlegs, although I’m sure there are those who might like the bootlegs better, because typically we’re better on stage than in the studio. But I would say on average, they would be interested in having the album as well. We’re not sure to what extent those two things compete.
O: Is there an urge at this point to make a big pop single?
MG: Um, there’s been more talk about avoiding it than seeking it. It’s a fine line, because on one hand, we wouldn’t mind having a song that does well and sells a lot of records. It would be stupid to say that we would. For one thing, with the income from records, we could afford to not tour as much and spend more time in the studio, and we like to spend time in the studio. And by not touring as much, the time that we are touring would be more pleasurable for all. If we do a really long tour, by the end, we start to feel like our creative sources are a little bit drained. And why put the fans through that, let alone put ourselves through that? Anyway, so, we wouldn’t mind exposing the music to people who haven’t heard it before. By having songs on the radio and doing this and that, we might achieve some wider exposure, and none of us are against that. But at the same time, it’s not our main goal. We’d rather “Free” did well on the radio, but before we started making the album, we had these talks about having a hit song. And our manager was worried about that, because he was considering a hit song to be the curse of death. Because our career is so good, why fuck with it by having this sudden change like that? We were thinking about putting in swear words every couple of verses so it wouldn’t be radio-playable. And then, by the time we were done, we were working on “Free” and deciding it would be a nice single, and let’s make it as good as we can not just for the radio but for the album.
O: You guys get a lot of the Grateful Dead thing.
MG: Not as much as we used to, but some, yeah.
O: Was there a part of you that was a little bit excited when Jerry Garcia died?
MG: Not at all. In fact, when all the different publications called to interview us, I put together a press release with what I had to say about it, and the last sentence was, “Every speck of me wishes he was still alive.” I just was really into the Dead. The other band members pretty much weren’t, except for years ago. But I still was, and I was flying off to Dead shows maybe once in the middle of each of our tours. For me, Jerry had all these values that I could really relate with. You know, mixing all the traditional Americana stuff with wild, loose, free experimentation and jamming. That mixture really appeals to me. And it’s not often found, especially in the rock and roll setting. So for me, I wasn’t relieved at all when Jerry died. I was saddened. And in terms of our career—and in terms of interview questions—it just made it worse, just because all of a sudden people thought all the Deadheads were going to come and see Phish now. Which isn’t exactly true: There’s definitely some crossover—we both appeal to somewhat of a hippie-ish audience, and we both jam a lot, and this and that—but the people who really like the Dead probably don’t like us. Because the music is different enough, and the rhythms are different, and the attitude and even the sense of humor is way different. So the real Deadheads—there’s nothing that’s going to replace the Dead for them. And for the people who really like us aren’t necessarily the biggest Deadheads.
O: What’s the most irritating thing a fan has ever done to you?
MG: Hmm. That’s a good question. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before. Let’s see… [Laughs.] Okay, I can give you a good example, but this is so beyond that it was almost funny rather than irritating. At the two-night concert we just played, we did this thing at three in the morning the night in between, where we played on a flatbed truck, with no mikes and just instruments, and the truck went across the campground, which is two miles long. So it was three in the morning, completely unannounced, and it was great, too. We were just jamming, and it was some of the best playing we had done in public, because it was so sensitive. Everyone was just walking silently alongside us, and there were torches on the track for light, and mounted police sort of galloping beside us. When we first got on and started playing, about one minute went by in this tranquil environment, and this guy sort of ran up to the truck and started saying, really loud, much louder than the music, “Trey! Hey Trey! You played at my father’s bar! Hey Trey!” And we were playing, and getting into this Zen state. And Trey wasn’t acknowledging him—at one point he looked up and just said, like, “Okay.” But for the full 10 minutes he wouldn’t stop. He was just standing next to us, not realizing what a fool he was making of himself, and just yelling as loud as he could. [Laughs.] It was so annoying.
O: And you don’t have the kind of fans who would resort to violence, who would just pummel him.
MG: Well, yeah. It wasn’t even that annoying; he was being so bad it was almost funny. There’s probably more things that were truly annoying. Actually… okay: At one point we did this thing where we did a two-night stand, and we had a weird ending on the first night. We had this song, “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,” that we used to play about once a year or so, and in the middle of the song we just sort of stopped playing and adjusted the mike stands in weird ways. And we were lying on the ground, Trey and I, way in front of the stage, with the mike stands bent over us, so we could sing upwards at them. And we had been doing these moments of silence, before we’d start playing again—sort of another Zen attempt. So there was this moment of silence, where Trey usually comes in with a guitar part. And he didn’t come in. We were lying on the ground, and I thought he was creating a moment of silence, but it went on for, like, five or six minutes. Finally, I realized he probably thought I was supposed to come in, so I stood up and walked over to where he was laying, and then walked back and laid down. So it was weird. The next night, we came back to the same place and we stopped the show in the middle and Page emceed the section where we interview people in the room about what they were feeling while that was happening. And first they asked the band members, and then the crew, and then we decided to bring some people on stage to say what they were thinking. And this one girl came up on stage and instead of answering the question, she quoted one of our songs. She said, “I just have one question: Will we ever get out of this maze?” And that just sounded like such a stupid thing for anyone to say, that we thought that was one of the most annoying things a fan has ever done. So that would fit in the category. I could probably go on.
O: I went to a couple of friends who are Phish fans and told them that if they had any questions about the band, I’d ask them. Anything at all. And so, this is the question I get written down: “Why did Phish break out ‘Whippin’ Post’ at one show this summer, when they hadn’t played it since April 20, 1993?”
MG: Yeah, they’re really into that sort of thing. Actually, we stopped playing that song because we were playing at a lot of the venues the Allman Brothers were playing, so it wasn’t so much of a joke anymore. The reason we played it that time is because we figured it would be cool, and afterwards, for the next day, the band had all these thoughts of feeling guilty that the Allman Brothers would find out about it. Because it was a bad version, and they would find out and think we had mocked them. There are all these conversations and analyzing that goes on that people just don’t even realize. They think we just pull something out of a hat, but a lot of thought goes into it. Let me give you one more annoying-fan story. This guy was known as The Timer in the parking lots, and he would stand in the front row every night and time all the songs. And if a song was, like, 10 seconds or half a minute shorter than it should have been, he would stand there with his arms crossed and roll his eyes back. And eventually, it got to the point where we got to know him because we were playing in small venues and he was touring around, and Trey ended up confronting him. We got him on the bus, and Trey just said, “I’ve never said this to a fan before, but what you’re doing is actually bothering me while I’m playing. It’s actually on my mind and entering my consciousness, so if you’re going to be timing and rolling your eyes back, could you do it from the back row rather than the front row?” And he ended up respecting that.
O: If you and Blues Traveler fought, who would win?
MG: They would win. [Laughs.] They’re much bigger. But we want to take them on in football, or hockey. Trey’s a good hockey player.