It’s a late April afternoon in Vermont – one of those beautiful sparkling blue-sky spring days when it’s nearly impossible not to feel an overwhelming sense of renewed optimism about life. The bright sunlight that streams through the windows of Jon Fishman’s drum room bounces off the walls and illuminates the radiant face of the drummer as he describes how, after a two-and-a-half year break, his band Phish, current leaders of the “jam band” revolution, have reunited, recorded what they consider to be one of their best albums, and are enjoying a new Golden Age; reborn, reinvigorated and committed to playing their music together for as long as they possibly can.
“I feel like there’s no reason why [Phish] should not go on indefinitely,” he says ecstatically. “The best decision we ever made was to be a band, but the second best decision was to stop. I feel like the perspective is there now and we’ve built a good foundation and a great fan base and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t keep going.”
If Fishman’s buoyant idealism sounds one step removed from a religious conversion, it’s because he has gained a new appreciation for the special magic that happens when he and bandmates Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, and Mike Gordon get together to make music. He’s also aware of how close the group came to losing that magic back in October of 2000, when Phish shocked its family, friends, and legions of rabid fans with the announcement that, after 17 years of playing music together, they were taking a break from being a band.
“We knew we were stopping and we knew we were stopping indefinitely,” recalls Fishman of the spontaneous private conversation that took place in a backstage dressing room after a performance in Mountain View, California. “At that point breaking up was as much a possibility as anything else.”
One of the more bewildering aspects of the decision was the timing of the break. When they went on hiatus, Phish was one of the most successful touring bands in the world, grossing over $60 million a year in ticket sales alone, not to mention income from record sales and merchandising. So why stop?
“It wasn’t out of animosity or anything like that,” Fishman explains, “it was out of sheer tiredness. We had been going for 17 years straight and everyone had personal things – their own houses to get in order. We were all in various stages of relationships with our wives and girlfriends and ourselves. When you’re on the road for that long all your personal things get back-burnered, and just when you start to figure some things out, you go back on the road again. More than anything though, it was just being tired. We had sustained this focus for quite awhile and everybody was burned out.”
Ironically, it was the overwhelming success that Phish had enjoyed that ultimately led to their decision to disband. The Phish machine had grown exponentially through the 1990s to something that was almost unmanageable, despite the band’s most heartfelt efforts.
“A lot of the fatigue had come from how big everything had become,” Fishman explains. “Our organization had gotten big and we had a lot to carry. Bigger is not always better. Robert Fripp said a great thing that has always stayed in my mind. He said, to stay successful in this business and maintain your artistic vision and integrity, you have to be a small and flexible unit. A lot of bands get huge, but their artistic output gets watered down because they’ve got these deadlines to meet or these recording contracts to fulfill or they’ve got too many people to pay. What ultimately suffers is the quality of your work. Being in the entertainment business, that is the one thing you can’t afford to have suffer. If the quality of the business suffers, it just costs you money, but if the quality of the music suffers, it costs you your integrity, your fan base, and ultimately, your good name. I think we were good about stopping before we had to and not driving the whole thing into the ground.”
At 38 years old, Jon Fishman has spent almost half his life playing drums with Phish and the experience has given him a unique insight into the dynamics of working with the same group of musicians over an extended period of time. He has boundless energy for discussing drums, music, and his role in Phish. Ask him a question and you get intelligent long-form philosophic answers about life and existence. He talks like he plays drums: bobbing and weaving with an idea, supporting the notion with metaphors and analogies, letting his answer branch off into a myriad of directions, not unlike the freeform jams that are Phish’s stock in trade.
After they stopped playing together, the different members of Phish took on various projects that allowed each of them to follow their creative muses, the highest profile venture being guitarist/vocalist Anastasio’s supergroup Oysterhead, with Primus phenom Les Claypool on bass, and former Police-man Stewart Copeland on drums. Bassist Gordon and keyboard player McConnell both involved themselves in their own music related undertakings as did the restless Fishman.
“I went on The Jazz Mandolin Project tour and there was always the Pork Tornado thing that I wanted to finish up, so we finished the album and went out on a big tour and had a great time. At least we finished what we started. Those were loose ends that I wanted to tie up. The other thing I wanted to do was get in shape and not have any commitments to anything.”