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How Does A Jam Band Write Songs? We Asked Phish

Phish's new album is Fuego. (Courtesy of the artist)

The world of rock 'n' roll once thought it would never again see the cult-like devotion of Grateful Dead fans. Then came Phish.

The Vermont-based band enjoyed a similar cult following throughout the 1990s. Then, in 2004, things came to an abrupt halt; it was five years before Phish would be ready to climb back on a stage together. One of the most reliable and workmanlike touring bands of the '90s has become more of a rarity these days — so it's a treat for fans to have a new album on the way.

Fuego, Phish's 12th studio album, is out this Tuesday. Guitarist Trey Anastasio says the writing process behind the new songs almost resembles an academic exercise: The members would sit in a room with writing pads, all looking at a random photo they'd pulled from the Internet, and had five minutes to write down whatever came to them.

"And then a bell would go off," Anastasio explains. "Each person would read to the other three what they had written. If there were certain lines that really resonated with the other three, we would put them on a fifth pad — until they were all intermingled and we couldn't remember who had written what."

Hear the full interview with NPR's Arun Rath at the audio link.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Deadheads - Grateful Dead fans for you youngsters - used to follow their favorite band from city to city with a cult-like devotion. People used to say it was the kind of scene you just couldn't replicate with another band. Then came Phish.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHISH SONG, "RUN LIKE AN ANTELOPE")

PHISH: (Singing) You've got to run like an antelope, out of control.

RATH: The Vermont-based band enjoyed a similar cult-following throughout the 1990s. Then in 2004, an abrupt halt. A press statement from the band said they're done. It took five years before Phish would be ready to climb back on a stage together. One of the most reliable and workman-like touring bands of the '90s has become more of a rarity these days. So for fans, every new album is a treat. And for their latest coming-out on Tuesday, Phish even recruited Pink Floyd's producer, Bob Ezrin, to tweak the knobs for them. The new album by Phish is called "Fuego."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING MONICA")

PHISH: (Singing) You lift me up, you hired me and light my day, you fired me. But then you stole the sun, delighted me. Now the day is gone, you knighted me. It's dawning on me how it starts. Your wisdom must be why it smarts. Some wholes sum as many parts. Sing, sing, Monica, sing your song. It really didn't last too long. Sing, sing, Monica, sing your song. Can you admit that you were wrong? Go back home where you belong. Sing, Monica. Sing, Monica.

RATH: I spoke with keyboardist Page McConnell and guitarist Trey Anastasio. And I asked them when they knew it was time to make a new album.

TREY ANASTASIO: Interestingly, we started with a genuine desire to just hang out together. So we actually - Page, you'll remember this probably - but we told everyone in our management and people around us, we're not making a record. We're not making a record. Don't ask us to deliver you anything, you know. We just wanted to get together. And, you know, we used to live together in a couple of houses when we were young. And we spent so much time together. And then we traveled on a bus together. That aspect of being in a band has become harder with our families to, you know - it's been harder to find that time with just the four of us. And so we went into the barn and just locked the door.

RATH: Now, this is the famous barn in Vermont where you guys get together and jam and where a lot of the magic happens, right?

ANASTASIO: Yeah. And a lot of long meals and sunny afternoons with the doors open. It's beautiful up there. It's right on the hillside. And I just absolutely love those times as much as any other part of being in a band.

RATH: So you guys were just going to get together and were just going to hang out. It's not going to be about music but the music came.

PAGE MCCONNELL: Well, we wanted to hang out and I think the other desire was - we're not talking about an album. Let's just see if the four of us can write songs together in a way that we hadn't before or in a way that we might've just barely scratched the surface but not really completely embraced.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUEGO")

PHISH: (Singing) Woah.

RATH: Let's talk through that process with one of the songs and probably Fuego, the title track. It's the first song on the album. It's probably a good one to start because it's the longest - probably the most complicated in terms composition.

ANASTASIO: I was just going to say one thing and then Page, you tell the story.

MCCONNELL: Go ahead.

ANASTASIO: One of the things that we did that was so funny - and we'll use Fuego as an example - is that we would sometimes pull up a picture - a photo. We said let's take a photo of someone. We'll write about this guy or this gal. And so we found this photo online of this, I don't know, it was like almost like a cosplay kind of thing. Somebody leaning on a tree with this weird costume on. Page, tell the rest of the story.

MCCONNELL: Very goth. Very goth.

ANASTASIO: Like a goth.

MCCONNELL: And I think it was a girl.

ANASTASIO: I think it was a girl.

MCCONNELL: It was sort of hard to tell. It had sort of an asymmetrical haircut that was jet-black and sort of swept across her face. And she had sort of this little skull of like a little animal on her belt. And she was carrying a sword and leaning against a tree. And she sort of looked like a Viking warrior or something like that. And so part of the lyrics were inspired by her. And then part of the lyrics were inspired by coffee mugs.

RATH: All of a sudden the song makes sense.

MCCONNELL: (Laughing) Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PHISH: We would start debating like, you know, it became - it took on a whole life of its own. Suddenly, we knew who this person was. And everybody's kind of trying to figure our what the story was when we'd write about it. It kept morphing though.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUEGO")

PHISH: (Singing) Viking warriors with animal heads. The girl begins to levitate. Rolling. Rolling.

RATH: You guys sit down in the barn. You put up that picture and say let's just play that?

ANASTASIO: We did a writing exercise. We each had a pad and we had a timer on. And everybody said, you know, look at this photo and write for - was it five minutes, Page?

MCCONNELL: Five or 10 minutes.

ANASTASIO: Yeah, and the bell would go off - bing. And then each person would read to the other three what they had written. And if there were certain lines that the other three really - it resonated with the other three. We would put them on a fifth pad until they were all intermingled and we couldn't remember who had written what. And then we kind of worked from that pad to start forming out the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUEGO")

PHISH: (Singing) I'm a sailor's girl. The best is yet to come. Rolling in my Fuego. I do my own stunts. I see guilty people, angels blowing horns.

ANASTASIO: A lot of stuff got tossed aside, too, that we're remembering, Page, that we - like we spent a long time working on this song about a chance meeting at a 7-Eleven. And then when Bob Ezrin got there - he came much later in the process. He kind of walked in and we had 28 songs. And he kind of pointed at 12 that he wanted to work on very quickly.

MCCONNELL: More than 28 song. It was closer to 40, I believe -

ANASTASIO: Yeah, you might be right.

MCCONNELL: - That we had on the list there. And within the first hour of being there, he cut it down to about 14.

ANASTASIO: He said play me everything and don't tell me who wrote it. We said OK. We started playing it. He'd start a song and go about 45 seconds into it and say nope - next. And then we'd play another one. And he'd say yup. And within about - like Page said - within about half an hour it was down to 14 songs.

RATH: Bob Ezrin's really, if you're a rock 'n roll fan, a legendary record producer - you know, produced "The Wall," produced "Berlin" by Lou Reed. Could you give us an example like what one of the songs - what are some ways in which we could hear the Ezrin fingerprints on the production?

MCCONNELL: The one for me that I thought was a really nice moment on the album - the last song is "Wingsuit." And right before it goes into sort of this altro-jam guitar solo, there's a little bit of a break. And just a little bit of maybe some backwards vocals here very faintly in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINGSUIT")

PHISH: (Singing) Time to put your wingsuit on. Time to put your wingsuit on.

ANASTASIO: That to me was something that he addressed that - that little transition and sort of made it special. And that's one of my favorite parts of the record.

RATH: It's funny you mention that one because on that track isn't that - Trey, there's a little reference to Pink Floyd on that song, right? Sound like "Comfortably Numb."

ANASTASIO: You know, that wasn't a conscience effort but I definitely agree with you.

RATH: Yeah?

ANASTASIO: And I was joking about that with someone. And I said if it sounds like Pink Floyd, record it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHISH SONG, "WINGSUIT")

RATH: Phish has this tradition - you guys have been doing it for a while - where once a year, I think it's a Halloween show, you'll play a concert where you do another band's album all the way through. This year you didn't because you did the new album "Fuego." I'm curious if there's something you've been dreaming about doing but you haven't performed yet.

ANASTASIO: You learn a lot from learning these, you know, these other albums. I mean, we did "Remain in Light" by the Talking Heads one year. And we did "Exile on Main St." and we did a Velvet Underground album. But I think everybody kind of got a little sick of it -

(LAUGHTER)

ANASTASIO: -To be perfectly honest. So the last couple of years it started to feel like a trap we had built.

MCCONNELL: I think in a lot of ways - I think doing our own album was a little bit of a liberating experience for me. I kind of wonder if maybe we'll look to start a new tradition.

RATH: That's Page McConnell and Trey Anastasio of Phish. Their new album, called "Fuego," comes out on Tuesday. Trey, Page, thank you.

ANASTASIO: Thank you.

MCCONNELL: Thanks a lot.

RATH: And for a few more days, you can stream "Fuego" in its entirety at NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING ALL NIGHT")

PHISH: (Singing) Up all night and I'm waiting for you to come home. Waiting all night. Waiting all night.

RATH: And for Sunday that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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