Like the CD that bears his name, Page McConnell is deceptively ambitious. As member of the definitive jamband Phish for over twenty years, the Philadelphia native played an integral yet understated role in how the Vermont-based quartet defined itself and its music. Ultimately taking a background role, the sounds of McConnell's keyboardswhether grand piano, organ or panoply of electric instruments including clavinet and synthesizerswere nevertheless fundamental to Phish's largely improvisational approach to performing and recording.
McConnell's ingratiating vocal style also served as a key element in Phish's sound when he sang solo as well as when he joined in with the eccentric harmonies the group often utilized as an instrument in and of itself. The vulnerable quality in the man's voice belied an inner strength then as now. In the wake of the release of his eponymous solo album, McConnell prepares to take to road to play it.
This is not, however, McConnell's first venture outside the aegis of Phish. During the latter years of the band's existence, McConnell also fronted Vida Blue, at its core a trio including bassist Oteil Burbridge (The Allman Brothers Band and Aquarium Rescue Unit) and drummer/percussionist Russell Batiste (The Funky Meters.). That band's percolating mix of funk, soul and world music was often augmented by The Spam All- Stars, a Miami based-enclave whose horns accented and expanded the influences at the roots of VB.
Speaking openly with AAJ contributor Doug Collette, McConnell describes the process of recording and the challenges and surprises he encountered along the way, as well as the adventure that awaits he and his band mates---of whom he declares himself openly proudas they learn to play together and better over the course of the tour.
All About Jazz: I've been listening to your album a lot lately and enjoying it. The more I listen to it, the more it sounds more ambitious than it seems to be. It covers a lot of ground with a lot of different material on it. Is that what you had in mind or am I reading more into it than is really there?
Page McConnell: Well you know it's funny. It may sound ambitious but it came from humble beginnings. I really didn't have any idea what the end product would be when I started out. It was pretty much just me in a home studio, just working by myself with synthesizers and drum machines and it grew into the monster that it became [laughs]. It took about a year-and-a-half of pretty solid work. So even though I worked on it for a long time, in that sense it was ambitious, but I didn't have an end goal in sight so in that sense it wasn't really ambitious.
AAJ: It almost seemsand I've heard other musicians say it talking about their recordings that part way through a project, it can seem to takes on a life of its own. Is that something you found true here or did you get to the point of mixing it and sequencing it and go, "Wow?!...this is what I have here ?
PM: I would say the former. It did take on a life of its own or at least it revealed itself. I don't even really know what that means, but after I'd written six or seven songs, it began to feel like there was a thread and that although a lot of the songs are really not like one another, there was a certain cohesiveness.
AAJ: I can hear that going from "Beauty of a Broken Heart through "Rules I Don't Know through "Everyone But Me. It seems like there was some continuity there, where you may have stitched it together, so to speak, piece-by-piece. But it really has a pattern to it. The different musicians that appear on the CD have quite varied backgrounds, like Trey [Anastasio, guitarist of Phish] and Jim Keltner [noted drummer for George Harrison, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Ry Cooder and others]. How did you end up playing with those guys? Did they contact you or did you contact them specifically for the tracks they played on? Or was it all serendipity?
PM: Again it was all a case-by-case scenario. The first guy who did any overdubbing with was Jon Fishman (Phish percussionist) playing drums, and at that point I guess I'd written four songs. I'd worked with drum machines, like I said, playing my own bass lines and stuff. I decided it would be really cool to have him play some live drums on these four tracks, specifically "Beauty of A Broken Heart and "Maid Marian. I really wanted to hear what he would do.
So, he played great: it was one afternoon sometime after I'd been working on the project probably for more than half a year at that point. Fish may have come in one other time a few months later for another couple songs and then Adam Zimmon, who I've known through the Spam All-Stars, on guitar [he also was out with Shakira's band for about nine years and played on her first two records], I knew him through the guys in Miami and through stuff I'd done with Vida Blue and he plays on every track on the record.
And then around the time I had around seven or so songs done, I began to feel like I should try to find out exactly what it was and what I should focus my attention on. I didn't know if I had demos...I wasn't sure what I had. I had lived with it for awhile and I was pretty happy with it, so I ended up going down to Bryce Goggin's studio and recording three tracks down there with him, partly just to get some fresh ears.
AAJ: I was just going to say: were there any points during the course of the project when you took what you had at any given time and played it for somebody to say, "What are you hearing here? "What do you think? "Where should I go?
PM: Yeah I did. I played it for a couple of friends; I played it for some people that work for me, my brother maybe...
AAJ: That's what I was thinking of: perhaps non-musicians or individuals that couldtalking about fresh earscould give you really fresh perspective.
PM: Yeah, and it was generally encouraging. And Bryce liked it and that helped because I've like working with Bryce [who produced Phish's Farmhouse (Elektra, 2000) and Round Room (Elektra, 2002)]. And the process that happened down there at his studio was a lot different; we ended up doing some tracking with all four of us: that would be myself, Adam, Mike Gordon [Phish bassist] and Jim Keltner all playing live in a room together for three songs, a more traditional way of recording a record than overdubbing with basic tracks.
AAJ: I was going to ask how you went about arranging the material especially insofar as people like Keltner and Gordon were involved: did you play them a basic track?
PM: I played them a little demo with me singing. With "Rules, there was a basic track with myself playing Wurlitzer and singing with a drum track I sort of edited together of Fish and myself playing drums; I was able to play that for Jim Keltner, which was kind of humbling.
AAJ: Is Keltner pretty open to suggestion? He's got a lot of experience...
PM: It may have been the greatest joy of the entire experience playing with him and it was a pretty joyful experience all the way through.
AAJ: How did he come to be involved in it?
PM: It was when Mike [Gordon] got involved and he played on three tracks there at the end of the session. Trey happened to be in Brooklyn when I was working on "Back in the Basement, the only track I was still recording on, and he wanted to play on it and he was a couple doors away. Unlike everyone else on the album, Jim was the only guy I kind of reached out to. He's always been one of my favorites and "Why not? So I made the call.
AAJ: Interesting you mention "Back in the Basement," because the second or third time I listened to the CD that really caught my ear as a song written for more open-ended improvisation than some of the other tracks on the album. Is that how you envisioned that or did it just evolve that way?
PM: Well a little bit of both. I wrote it a few hours before we recorded it [laughs]. I wrote the first part the night before and then I wrote the second part, the "B section, before he [Keltner] arrived in the studio. I thought at the very least it could be a little groove with a piano solo.
AAJ: Well, that's what I thought when I first listened to it and then it went on and on and I am checking the credits: eight minutes!
PM: It really did get going. That and "Heavy Rotation are sort of the two more extended songs. When he [Keltner] came into the studio to recordI'm jumping around a little bitwhen he came into the studio to record, we sat down and I played him this little three-minute demo of "Rules I Don't Know. I had already been working on earlier in the day with Adam and Mike playing the song and gotten the arrangement down. We sat down and the first take is what is on the album. We sat down and played it top to bottom. On the time changes in it, we were dong visual cues: we were flying by the seat of our pants a little bit and we finished the take and Jim was like "It's not supposed to be that easy!
AAJ: [Laughing] He would know, I guess, wouldn't he?
PM: If he thinks it's OK...We did a couple more takes of that song but take one is the one that ended up on the record.
AAJ: I've heard that a lot. Musicians no matter how predisposed to careful arrangements get caught by surprise by things that just seem to click in for everybody in the group and they finish and then step back and say, "Can't beat that. And they never do...
PM: It was like that. I had heard that about him. And he was especially good on that track, so we tried, whenever possible, to get that to happen. So we did that song "Rules I Don't Know, which is a fairly straightforward arrangement that as a session player you would expect him to be able to play and after that We started recording "Back in the Basement ; I taught it to those guys and it just sort of took off and the version that's on the album is actually take two. Take one was released on an indie bundle, and it's about thirteen minutes and we started playing. I really like especially the second half of take one, but take two had a certain energy from top to bottom that was really undeniable, so that's the one I went with.
When we started improvising and playing like that, I really had no idea that was something he did: we started pushing each other and obviously Mike and I had the rapport of knowing each other's style. Jim Keltner really enjoyed playing with Mike. It was just great: the tapes rolling and we're just improvising...I couldn't believe it.
AAJ: It must be great to be literally surprised by what you can do with a certain collection of musicians no matter who they are. To be surprised by your own music must be really fulfilling.
PM: It was, and not only that but it was at that point an element that the album just didn't really have at all.
AAJ: The album would've been far different without that song and "Heavy Rotation:" on it.
PM: All three songs really added to the album and it was a nice finishing touch. I did a little bit of overdubbing at Bryce's, but almost everything was recorded in Vermont except those three songs, and even those, all the keyboards overdubs and vocals were done up here.
AAJ: Let me ask you one more thing about the material itself: was it new material that you composed as you began to work on this or did you draw from notebooks and tapes from days, months and years prior to give yourself a spark?
PM: I started with "Beauty of a Broken Heart and that was a song I'd actually written sometime before. I had started it awhile back, in fact we attempted to track it for the last Phish record Undermind (Elektra, 2004), but it wasn't really done at that point. I was already working on it then and that was where I started and just sort of finished that song and started on the next one. Then I did the next song, and then at some point I was able to work on two songs: it's hard for me to focus on more than one thing at a time...that's the way my mind works. "Maid Marian I was working on for three months at the beginning and then I did a lot of stuff over at the end on that too.
Some of the songs were really worked on throughout the process: "Beauty of a Broken Heart I re-sang the vocals at the very end of the process...some songs I was really working on for years in the studio.
AAJ: To your credit, there's nothing on the album that sound overworked. I've heard and listened to a lot of music over the years where it's clear that the life had been played and arranged and recorded right out of the material itself, but there's something breathing on every track here.
PM: Thank you...It's very raw. Even though I did go back, and if I thought something was a little flat, I would re-sing this or that. I tried to keep as much of the first takes of the stuff that I did and some of it is really raw and some of it is recorded on what some would consider less than hi-fi equipment which may add to the ambiance, but it's also that's how it was.
That's what I found after I had been working on this stuff over a year and then went down to Bryce's. Somehow it still held up f r me. Each day I would decide what song I was going to work on, which one of seven songs and just kind of going around in circles trying to find ways to improve. Or do things differently. "Heavy Rotation was one that I worked on for a long time, then ended up re-tracking with Keltner, and it ended up being completely different than what it was in its demo phase. Apart for that, it was pretty much chronological in how it went.
AAJ: That's interesting, and explains why "Beauty of a Broken Heart is the first cut then: like a bridge from the past to the future.
PM: It's sort of where I started and that's why it ended up there. But I really liked the beginning of "Heavy Rotation. I thought it would've been a cool way to start the album, the sound of the tape spinning backwards, but it ended up second.
AAJ: Well, there's a start, there's a false start, then there's a real beginning. So you can have it all or have it both ways in making the CD.
I wanted to talk with you a little bit about playing live because I'm looking forward to seeing you at Higher Ground (South Burlington, Vermont venue) when you start the tour at the end of May. I don't know if you've begun preparing with the band for the tour and how you are going to devise your set lists and your material. Can you talk to me a little bit about what songs you're going to choose, and if you've got covers going? More specifically I'm really interested inapart from "Heavy Rotation and "Back in the Basement if you are going to set songs that everybody in the band is going to know that you're going to "go with.
PM: Oh yeah, they all stretch out as it turns out, pretty much. The last times we were doing it, the one I truncated was "Back in the Basement. I made it a much shorter song and everything else jammed out [laughs]. That was kind of curious.
AAJ: Well that's the nature of improvisation: you do it as long as it feels good. If it's shorter rather than longer, then so be it.
PM: That's a specific arrangement. We've done two shows with the lineup that I have now and it'll be focused on the album, as in the two shows we've done. We played at the end of March and the beginning of April, actually those were shows where we only played the album. In previous shows and rehearsals we were focused on the record itself. Now we're focused on expanding the repertoire a little bit, but these songs do stretch out. How the repertoire expands has yet to reveal itself, but it will be augmented in some way.
PM: It takes a lot of practice and conditioning.
AAJ: I'm sure, as the tour moves along, the songs are going to evolve, the interaction's going to evolve and what you may be playing toward the end of the tour might be quite different than what you start out with. That's always fascinated me: to see bands on successive nights or over the period of time they play together, and evolve. They can be quite different and usually they're better if they're still together.
PM: I would agree. And also part of what's exciting to me is we've only had limited number of practices and we've seen improvement with each practice. And even with just the two shows we've done. And we're getting back in the practice space: I love practicing. It's one of my favorite things to do. And I just know that having a couple of gigs under our belt already, once we get out on tour is when I think things will really start to develop.
AAJ: You must be getting pretty excited about that then.
PM: Yeah I am. I'm excited to be rolling. Once you're out on the road...and it's pretty jam- packed...
AAJ: I noticed that looking at the itinerary today: You're not giving yourself a lot of breathing time between shows which is probably a good thing because you never cool down so to speak.
PM: It's not the cooling down thing, it's being on the road in some town with a day off. I'd rather be home. Playing is one thing, but if I'm just there for two days in a row, it just killsit's a killer. But I really am looking forward to it. It's going to be a little bit of a grind but I know that and I really feel that it's going to be fun.
AAJ: As I said, I was looking at your itinerary on your website earlier today and I notice the tour leads right up to, but doesn't include, playing at Bonnaroo [Festival in Tennessee in June]. I don't why that leapt out at me except that the dates seemed to be almost contiguous. Is there still a chance you might do something at Bonnaroo?
PM: I wouldn't think so. And that was very observant of you. Just not this time around. It didn't seem to work out. Having said that, if you're not playing Bonnaroo you don't want to be playing anywhere else during that time period.
AAJ: Maybe that's what caught my eye about it!
PM: I don't think I'm going to be at Bonnaroo this year, I was there with Vida Blue, but this is pretty much all just clubs. We're going out again hopefully in the summer and doing more of a western tour and then again in the fall doing something else.
AAJ: Well I hope you end up in Vermont again somewhere, as you began. Or maybe I'll go to one of the other shows just to see how things are evolving as the tour goes on.
PM: You should come to Minneapolis for the last show. I heard that theatre is beautiful
AAJ: I will check my calendar to see what my tour dates show [laughs]!
Page McConnell, Page McConnell (Legacy, 2007)
Phish, Live in Brooklyn (Rhino/Jemp, 2006)
Phish, Colorado '88 (Jemp Records, 2006)
Live at Madison SquareGarden New Year's Eve 1995 (Rhino/Jemp, 2005)
Phish, Island Tour (Live Phish, 2005)
Phish, Undermind (Elektra, 2004)
Vida Blue, The Illustrated Band (Sanctuary, 2003)
Phish, Farmhouse (Elektra, 2002)
Vida Blue, Vida Blue (Elektra, 2002)
Phish, Round Room (Elektra, 2000)