Jon Fishman: Phish Gets Back To Basics

Last summer the band members reunited to discuss what chance, if any, they ever had of playing together again as Phish. As a result of that meeting, they decided to get together in October at The Barn, their rehearsal/recording space situated outside of Phish’s adopted hometown of Burlington, Vermont, to work on new material. Fishman says that they went in without preconceptions – they would just jam and play some new songs that had been written and test the waters. But after the first few minutes of playing together, they all felt the familiar creative rush they had felt so many times before. The songs came tumbling out and the tapes the band made of the rehearsals, intended to be demos for a studio album, ended up becoming the album itself – Round Room.

The performances on Round Room are somewhat of a departure from Phish’s previous studio work. They are raw, live and unadorned with the trappings of a typical “studio” album. In the past, the band would rehearse new material for a longer period, committing it to tape only after working out the arrangements and performing it live. They had also enlisted producers like Steve Lillywhite to polish the songs into a more conventional sounding release. When asked about the benefits or possible dangers of recording songs so early in the process of learning them, Fishman pauses to reflect on the question. After all, Phish had made a career out of performing without a net.

“It depends on how you define ’danger.’ If you define it as overproduction, which is an easy thing to do, especially these days, then that can be a type of hazard. Of course another way is, you can commit to tape as early as possible and with as little editing as possible and do it just like we did . Now, danger can also be not getting the song to tape the way you really hear it in your mind, through the arrangement or knowing your parts – the way you personally interact with the music. If danger is defined as having a rough version on a song, then Round Room is the most dangerous album we’ve done. But in that case, it was really good to take a leap like that.

“I think Round Room was just a way for us to get back into the groove, kind of a kick in the ass for us. I love that album. The only thing I don’t like about it is my drumming on ’Pebbles and Marbles,’ the very first song. The way I hear that song, the way I feel I could play it, just has a lot more flow to it.”

Historically the band has always used different approaches to working on new material. A song is as likely to find its genesis in a demo recorded at a home studio as it is to spring from a guitar riff played at sound check.

As far as drum parts go, Fishman says his input “varies pretty radically. It goes from ’We don’t have a drum part for this at all,’ to ’Play this part beat for beat.’ It runs the whole gamut. Most of the time it’s somewhere in between. There’s a song called ’Twist’ on Farmhouse. Trey had a demo of that beat and the main assets of that were kept, but there were other parts that were kind of sparse and the feel of that whole thing was kind of like a rickety wagon going down the road with a lot of cups and bells hanging from it.

“There’s really only one song, ’Demand,’ that we never play because I’ve never really mastered the drum part, but I will. It’s the only song where there was a part written out on a drum machine and I had to match it beat for beat, and there’s really nothing that I added or subtracted to it.

“But there’s also a bunch of songs that have been written around grooves. It happened more in the past when I lived with Trey. I would be practicing in my room off the kitchen and Trey would come in an hour later and say, ’Hey, play that beat you were playing an hour ago to this part,’ and he’d go upstairs and write a song to some groove that I was playing. But for that to happen now, because we don’t live together, I have to actually record things and bring them up to The Barn and stick them into Pro Tools. I want to get a little storehouse of [my] drumbeats – things that I’ve found and I like and came up with on my own, and make a 20- or 30-second loop. Maybe Trey will be looking for something and he’ll file through what I have. Kind of like when you buy those V-Drums and they have the preprogrammed grooves on there; well, I would have a bunch of my own grooves on there. And we could work on those – extend some or maybe suggest an idea based on one.”

Sitting down behind his drums, Fishman is clearly excited as he illustrates the point by playing a groove he’s been working on. The beat includes bouncing and rebounding on the head and rim of a rack tom with one hand while playing a traditional Cuban clave on a woodblock with his other hand.

“I’ve been trying to get more parts out of each hand,” he explains over the sound of the drums, “so I’ve been reading about claves and son beats. I’ve been working out ways to incorporate those. If I keep my hand closed on the down stroke I get one sound and then open my fingers on the upstroke I get another sound and the middle note of the triplet is on the drum. The woodblock fills another space and it actually sounds like straight eighth-notes on the rim. I like the fact that when you play it, at no point does the clave get in the way of the tom. I totally stumbled on it by accident. You can kind of make it a more of a second-line thing. That’s an example of something that, once I get more comfortable with it, I can make up a specific melody for it.”

It’s obvious that here in his house, on this perfect spring day, surrounded by his family and his drums, Jon Fishman has struck a sort of harmony between the often conflicting worlds of rock and roll fame, and a healthy, balanced personal life. After reuniting with Phish for two short holiday tours last winter, Fishman returned home to Vermont energized by the live shows and committed to getting his mind and body in shape for what he hopes will be the second act of Phish’s long career. He started working out with a personal trainer and has been busy organizing his practice room so he can record ideas at a moment’s notice. He was also excited about the upcoming summer tour and the child he and his girlfriend are expecting in September.

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