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discover: Phish

By Roy Martinez

Phish is so much more than a jam band. They break the mold in every way.

A LITTLE ABOUT PHISH

Phish is an improvisation-focused rock quartet formed in Burlington, Vermont and consisting of members Trey Anastasio  (guitars, lead vocals), Mike Gordon  (bass, vocals), Jon Fishman  (drums, percussion, vacuum, vocals), and Page McConnell  (keyboards, vocals). Their stylistically whimsical and genre-defying music includes hints of rock, jazz, country, progressive rock, folk, funk, and more.

WHAT’S SO WEIRD?

A lot of Phish’s work makes use of the following weird music techniques:

  • Time Signatures
  • Composition
  • Virtuosity
  • Humor
  • Surrealism
  • Atonality

WHY I CARE

In the summer of 1995 my musical interests were deeply rooted in the psychedelic blues of Pink Floyd  and the statistical density of composers like Stravinsky , Ravel , and Zappa. My ears were ever searching for interesting harmonies, complex polyrhythms  and atonal  dissonance  while also maintaining roots in groove oriented blues and rock. It was a crossroad in my life. I was graduating from thrash  and death metal  and 70s stoner rock  to more sophisticated rock music stylings. Coming from a history lightly battered in classical music sensibilities, I was lucky enough to have developed a bit of an ear for the weird and unorthodox in music and was well on my way to discovering and becoming engrossed in Progressive Rock .

It was about this time that a good friend and accomplice in music recommended I take a listen to a weird little band from Vermont called Phish. What struck me first was the name: Phish. I mean, why was it spelled that way? The first album I tucked into was called Junta ; another oddity in nomenclature. Needless to say, I was right off the bat intrigued. My intrigue heightened when I learned that they had a fan newsletter called Doniac Schvice  which was comprised of nonsensical stories, poems, puzzles, anecdotes, instructions and surreal art provided ‘from fish to tongue.’ I haven’t even heard the music yet and I’m having fun. This should be good.

Listening to Junta was, for me, a pretty life changing experience. I had simply never heard any music like this (this was before I found Hatfield and the North  and/or National Health , but more on that in another discovery). It was comical, cartoonish, whimsical, dark, surreal, absurdist, atonal, harmonic, virtuosic, psychedelic and rocking all at once. Until I found (and subsequently became obsessed with) Zappa, I had never heard something so bizarrely unique in rock music.

Over the course of the next–well, still actually, I followed the career of this band eating up everything I could get my ears on. I got all their albums which, as it turned out, only scratched the surface of their body of work. I learned that their live shows were ever changing and that no two performances ever sounded the same as they were incredible improvisors that made a point to explore musicality at every show. Songs became ‘vehicles’ of sonic exploration and going to a Phish show typically entailed getting tickets to several concurrent shows or following the band on tour a la the Grateful Dead  to hear all the different permutations of their songs via improvisation.

But all comparisons to the Grateful Dead aside, Phish has maintained an incredible body of work that is altogether weird, beautiful, organic, dissonant, and exploratory. As far as weird music is concerned, Phish, in my opinion, should be touted up alongside Zappa, The Residents, and others as a cornerstone of the ‘genre.’

WHAT YOU SHOULD HEAR FIRST

It’s hard to pinpoint specific albums for different ideas because each record covers so much ground. Also, the recorded works are really only a fraction of what’s available to enjoy. So I’ll cover a few compositions that are core to the Phish experience and you can explore as you will from there.

For a well-rounded ‘This is Phish’ experience: Harry Hood off of A Live One  or Reba off of Lawn Boy . There is also an amazing live rendition available on YouTube here  and here .

For completely weird, Zappa-esque outlandishness: David Bowie off of Junta or Split Open and Melt off of Lawn Boy.

For compositional complexity: All Things Reconsidered off of Rift  or Fluffhead/Fluff’s Travels from Junta.

For balls-to-the-wall guitar rock: Chalkdust Torture from A Picture of Nectar  or Run Like an Antelope, again from Lawn Boy.

For wonderful melody and songwriting: Horn from Rift or Esther from Junta or Divided Sky from Junta.

And if you’re looking for something REALLY out there, check out Dave’s Energy Guide or any improvisation labeled DEG  (Phish has provided so much improvised content over their career that there is a meta-labeling system to help categorize different ‘types of jams’ from their library of work).

It would be foolish to try and pigeonhole Phish’s music into a specific label or category. They simply do too much different shit to fit into a single bucket.

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