Jon Fishman Gets Back To Basics

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.”

{pagebreak}

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.

{pagebreak}

“I’m sort of treating this like a semester at school,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m getting my house in order, getting moved in here and setting up a recording situation, and spending time with my family, and getting in shape. I wanted to do that for this tour. I want to go back and clean up some of my rudiments and work on some fundamental drumming things and have time to myself to get my own discipline back together. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but I always committed to going out on tour with Jazz Mandolin Project or whatever, but in the back of my mind I always wanted to force myself to say no. Now it’s back to the shed. I’ve got my tour kit set up and I’m working out and practicing.”

Jon Fishman

Fishman’s Kit

Drums:
1. 22" x 14" Gretsch Bass Drum
2. 14" x 6 1/2" Ludwig Black Beauty Snare reissue with cast hoops and tube lugs
3. 6" x 5" Ayotte Tom (no bottom head)
4. 10" x 7" Noble & Cooley CD Maple Tom
5. 12" x 8" Noble & Cooley CD Maple Tom
6. 16" x 14" Noble & Cooley CD Maple Floor Tom

Cymbals:
A. 8" LP Icebell cymbal
B. 6" LP Rancan cymbal
C. 14" Zildjian A Custom Dark hi-hat
D. 15" Sabian AAX Dark Crash
E. 8" Zildjian K Splash
F. 16" Zildjian Platinum Medium-Thin Crash
G. 21" Sabian AA Dry Ride
H. 20" Zildjian Custom Dark Ride
I. 20" Zildjian Riveted Flat Ride
J. 16" Wuhan China
K. 18" Zildjian K Ride

Percussion:
L. 4", 6", 10", 9" LP wood blocks
M. 4" LP Jamblock w/Axis Pedal
N. 8" LP Cowbell w/Ridge Rider
O. 6" LP cowbell

Jon Fishman also uses a Gibraltar rack, Pearl pedals, Purecussion RIMS tom mounts, Regal Tip Rock model drum sticks and Regal Tip Clayton Cameron model brushes.

“I do have all these goals that I want to accomplish, I want to get my drumming up to another level, and I realize in order to do that I have to cultivate a home life and have that balance to move forward. Now that I’m 38, it’s easy for me to get out of shape and it takes me a longer time to get back to where I was. We just did this February tour and it was great, but in all honesty, at the end, I felt like I was just ready to really play. You use what you have and I had a great tour, but I’m trying to develop a level of consistency.

“Great music comes from having a life. You have to have experiences and enjoy life and that will allow you to be musically inspired. That’s what I’m doing now. Before I would come home and flop and it was band practice that kept me going and kept me from totally bottoming out. I’m not getting too crazy with it. I’m excited and want to do everything at once, but I have good people around me who say ’Yeah, one step at a time’. So hopefully by June I’ll be playing my drums two hours a day, I’ll be in great playing shape by the first gig [in July] and do the tour and when I get home I’ll be able to pick up where I left off. I do think at this age, the peaks I can attain can be higher than before. I feel like things have just really begun.”

Jumping ahead to July, Fishman calls from his hotel room in Phoenix, where the band has spent the last few days preparing for the opening show of the summer tour, which starts later that evening. He is beside himself with excitement about the music Phish has been playing since we last spoke.

“This has been an interesting three months,” he says with glee. “I feel the best physically that I’ve felt in years. My memory for older songs is way better and I’m not sucking wind at all. The band’s playing really well. We only really had two weeks to get together before the tour because everyone was finishing up their own stuff, but we worked on eight new songs and they’re really good.”

Fishman says that if they had just a few extra days before the tour, they would have flown in a producer and recorded another album. “We’ve got a great album right now, it’s just not on tape. The one thing about Phish is we’ve never had a shortage of material. Our learning curve is really quick. All the years together have made us able to learn things so much faster than before. I think we’ve gotten control of the burn out factor. We know how much we can do and how much we can’t do. The last three months have given me a great foundation to work with. I found that if I stick with my workout, if I stick with my family life, all that will pay off, because the one thing I have stuck with for a really long time has been the band, and the pay off has been incredible.

“I think maybe what we’re going through, instead of a mid-life crisis, it’s a mid-life explosion. If you stick with the program and follow through with things and get through some of the harder parts, you get to this place where some of the things that were relatively easy before become miraculously even easier. You didn’t expect that – you just wanted the hard to go away. And now even the easy is easier and the hard isn’t hard. It’s the benefit of pushing through. The willingness to put the energy into it is back. It seems like we all are really into being in Phish again. It’s so great that we’ve arrived back at this spot. There was no sense of forcing it. When we were back in our rehearsal space it felt like everybody was really glad to be there. It was a feeling that this was one place that the four of us really like to be. It’s somehow therapeutic, it’s a place that’s good for you to be rather than a place you want to stay away from. And that is a really good feeling.

“There’s some sort of natural thing. I think any group of people who had went through what we went through and decided to stay together instead of go their separate ways has this kind of payoff. It’s leading to some really amazing places. It’s permeated my whole life. There’s something about going through what we’ve gone through to get to that higher level of teamwork that you can’t learn if you don’t stay together.

“I feel like I could just stay in Phish the rest of my life and be totally happy, and any other thing I want to do musically, I can do totally on my own. I could just make four tracks at home. I just love my family and love hanging out at home.”

Fishman is on a roll now, preaching the Gospel of Phish, ecstatic and caught up in the sheer joy of the moment, the joy of life and music and the joy of someone who gets to make a living playing drums in a band with his best friends. He catches himself and stops for a moment, worried that he might be perceived as overstating his case, or perhaps he is wondering if this could be as good as life gets. If it is, one gets the feeling that Fishman would be just fine with that.