LIANE HANSEN, host:
In August 2004, after two decades together, the iconic American jam band Phish played its final concert in Coventry, Vermont. It was an emotional farewell for the group, which had become one of the biggest live acts in music, without any help from radio, music television or record sales. Fans continue to clog the blogosphere with news of what the individual band members are doing, and one highly anticipated event is the release this Tuesday of keyboardist Page McConnell's self-titled solo recording.
McConnell has composed nine new pieces for the disc, and he's in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.
Mr. PAGE MCCONNELL (Musician; Former Phish Keyboardist): Thank you for having me.
HANSEN: My best friend, who is a rabid Phish fan, wanted me to ask you, are you still funky? Well, are you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MCCONNELL: As much as I ever was, I suppose. Yes. Absolutely.
HANSEN: Do you think I should just tell her to listen to the top of the tune "Heavy Rotation"?
Mr. MCCONNELL: That will work. That was one of the more funky or funkier tracks on the record. So there got a little bit of funk in there as - well, as whatever you will, every else you might hear.
(Soundbite of song, "Heavy Rotation")
Mr. MCCONNELL: (Singing) And on and on until the motion is slowing down the heavy rotations at the end of its run. The dawn is gone, and now (unintelligible) worth memories (unintelligible) the second time's no fun(ph). And on and on, a thread of total(ph) distraction's not my best course of action if my engine should stall. (Unintelligible) I don't know if (unintelligible) is what I call.
HANSEN: Is this a song about your experience with Phish, or is it more about the music business in general?
Mr. MCCONNELL: The lyrical content of the album, nothing should be taken too literally. There's a lot of emotion, and the emotions, sort of, come through, but at the same time, you sort of want the words to sound good. So for that song in particular, maybe the choruses relate back to the band and experiences with the band, not necessarily the music industry, but most of the choruses, yes.
HANSEN: There's an extended piano solo on this. Is this improvised?
Mr. MCCONNELL: It is. I was fortunate enough to play with Jim Keltner, who's one of my favorite drummers, and he came and recorded with me. And he and Mike Gordon played on the track, as well as Adam Zimmon, who's a good friend of mine from Miami, who plays with the Spam Allstars and was with Shakira for about 10 years. The four of us did that, and when we did the song, I really didn't know that it was going to stretch out like that. It was a surprise, actually, to me.
(Soundbite of "Heavy Rotation")
HANSEN: How does it work? How does improvisation work in a studio? I mean, you've said - I mean, in the live shows with Phish, there were always big, improvised segments. But here you are, you're in a studio. This is something for posterity. How does it work when you're in a studio? Is it a different experience?
Mr. MCCONNELL: I think there's got to be a sense of relaxation. There's got to be comfort and a comfort level in order for it to really happen. So it can't be something that's forced. At the same time, it helps to have practiced improvising, and it helps to have practiced doing extended jams to be able to get to that point.
I had Mike in there playing with me, so we already had that immediate rapport. And Jim Keltner, I didn't realize he was going to stretch it out, but he kept pushing - we kept pushing each other, so it was really a moment there. And then the fact that it was in the studio happening, and I knew it was all going to tape made it even more exciting that wow, we're really jamming and wow, this is really going to be - people are going to be able to hear us. So the excitement just kept building for me.
HANSEN: You practiced the art of improvisation for some, what, 21 years with Phish, right?
Mr. MCCONNELL: Oh, yes, and not just on stage. There would be some practices -not a lot, but some of them - that would go on for six, seven, eight hours that we would sit down and focus on exercises and listening exercises and just practice improvising. And in the live show, as well, there were certain points that came along in the career where we said we're going to stretch this out now, and that it was more of a conscious effort, like, we're really going to push this song. We're going to see how far we can take this tonight.
And this was, you know, probably in the early '90s that this was happening, and after a while, it wasn't something that we talked about. But there were various points along the career where we did focus specifically on it and really tried to develop those skills and develop our, you know, being able to hear each other.
HANSEN: What did you learn by being with that band that you are applying to yourself now? For example, I think you wrote only one or two songs for the band.
Mr. MCCONNELL: Okay.
HANSEN: And now, here you are, writing nine original tunes.
Mr. MCCONNELL: Well, I did learn songwriting through the band. Trey was the primary composer for the band. I wrote a couple of songs. The songwriting, though, it was something that I didn't really get into until I started my own band a few years ago. I played with a band called Vida Blue with Oteil Burbridge and Russell Batiste. And that was my first experience being the primary songwriter. And so that was only about five years ago, so it's a relatively new thing for me.
HANSEN: Nine original ones. I mean, that's a lot. One of them seems to have been pulled straight from the headlines.
Mr. MCCONNELL: Well…
HANSEN: "Runaway Bride."
Mr. MCCONNELL: Well, you know, you've got to write about something. And I was searching for something to write about. I thought, well, let's just fill this with some words and, you know, here's a story going on on TV. And it was the third song that I wrote. So it wasn't that I was obsessed with Jennifer Wilbanks or anything like that. It was sort of an escapable, and it just kind of came out.
(Soundbite of "Runaway Bride")
Mr. MCCONNELL: (Singing) Sitting on a bus, holding a across(ph), wondering(ph) deep inside. Going through a field with some Alamo steel(ph) looking for a place to hide. She's setting out west but she can't confess that she's hoping that she can find a way to explain the cause of her pain and a shame that she left behind. Hoping someday she'll learn of their (unintelligible) and the people don't want her (unintelligible) under her skin(ph). (Unintelligible) runaway bride (unintelligible) on TV. She's counting(ph) the miles and forgetting for a while but she won't take the test(ph) (unintelligible)to see. And (unintelligible) goes by with his elegant sky reaching for (unintelligible). She's got tears in her eyes but before they even dry she's hoping that she can escape. Hoping someday she'll learn to explain some people don't want her (unintelligible) under her skin.
HANSEN: You actually seem to sympathize with her.
Mr. MCCONNELL: I didn't want to mock her. It was a period of my life that was a lot of change and a lot of transition. It was important that I wasn't trying to poke fun at her. I know she was having a hard time apparently and, you know, everybody else was. But that wasn't really the goal of the song. It was just, sort of, a story.
HANSEN: How has the transition been for you from going - from band member to bandleader?
Mr. MCCONNELL: I think that it's not a position that I'm naturally drawn towards, that I want. I like being a part of the team, so being the bandleader is something that I'm getting more comfortable with. The guys that I'm playing with now and I'm about to go on a tour here, I'm thrilled to be playing with.
HANSEN: It is interesting that your Phish band mates - Trey, Mark and John -made contributions to this recording. And I'm hazarding a guess here, but do they appear on the tune "Back in the Basement," which is a complete instrumental jam?
Mr. MCCONNELL: They do, actually. It was recorded at the same time I recorded "Heavy Rotation," so Mike and Adam Zimmon and Jim Keltner and I did the basic track, and then Trey came and did an overdub.
(Soundbite of "Back in the Basement")
HANSEN: So what do you think? Is a reunion of Phish out of the question?
Mr. MCCONNELL: A reunion of Phish has never been out of the question, as far as I was concerned, ever. Though we don't play together and the band isn't together, it's such a part of my life and has been such a part of my life. I still find it difficult to say I was in Phish. I still, sort of, consider myself in it, even though there is no real Phish right now, currently.
But I talk with those guys. Mike and I get together and play chess once a week or so. And I don't think that's out of the question, but I also feel like maybe, for the first time in a while, it seems like a possibility and that it seems like a possibility that's not in the immediate future.
HANSEN: Page McConnell, the former keyboardist for the band Phish, has a new CD. It's called "Page McConnell." And it's available on Legacy Records. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks. Good luck with this.
Mr. MCCONNELL: Thank you so much.
(Soundbite of "Back in the Basement")
HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.