If there’s one thing Page McConnell deserved three years ago, it was some time off. After 21 years of performing, 13 studio-recorded albums and 1,426 live shows, Phish, the genre-blending, lyrically bizarre jam band with a cult-like following, had decided to call it quits. Though breaking up broke the hearts of fans and free spirits worldwide, the newfound freedom allowed keyboardist McConnell to come into himself, and turn over a new leaf both musically and personally.
Immediately after Coventry, Phish’s two-day, six-set farewell concert festival in August 2004, each of the four members were faced with a blank slate. While former band mates Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon began working on individual albums that would be released the following year, Page McConnell had his own agenda – none.
“I really just kinda wanted to relax for a while,” he said. “It was a time of intense reflection, probably, looking back on our accomplishments and the band and all the things I was able to do being a part of that group. [There was] certainly some sadness, but a lot of pride and joy from it.”
After a period of self-described “decompression,” McConnell began to consider what his next step would be as a solo artist. Now, just weeks after the release of his self-titled album, it’s slightly ironic when McConnell admits that at the project’s start, he was unsure of what it would become.
“I knew I wanted to work in the studio. I knew I wanted to get in a situation where I could be making music on my own where I didn’t need . well, I didn’t have a band,” he said. “I didn’t have a record deal or anything, really, but I also didn’t want to be traveling away from home right away, so that was what was left for me.”
In what would be the start of the year-and-a-half-long recording process – something he considers to be “a long time in this day and age to work on a project” – McConnell began to build a basic home studio. With the help of co-producer Jared Slomoff, Page did most of his composing and writing at a keyboard, with a laptop, or while sitting on a couch. Time was not of the essence, though – the process was slow and steady, which allowed for him to enjoy both the experience and its results.
“As the project went along, it almost became easier. The songs started coming out a bit more quickly,” he explained. “I had more material, and I sort of felt like what I was working on was a worthwhile endeavor.”
While modifying the same material for over a year may seem frustrating or repetitive, for McConnell it was more of a challenge. Letting his inner optimism shine through, he remarked amidst laugher, “If you live with the material for a while and it still holds up, then you don’t feel so apprehensive about putting out there.”
If there was a part of the process that McConnell considered difficult, though, it was coming to terms with himself as an artist.
“I think that there were the things that I struggled with [that] didn’t have so much to do with writing the album, but me just sort of identifying myself as this person outside of this larger entity for which I was known for such a long time,” he confessed. “Maybe [I hadn’t] even [been] realizing how much a part of my identity I viewed myself as ‘the guy from Phish’ for so many years. I’m proud of it and love it and still love the band and all the guys, but it’s nice to be able to move on and consider myself as something other than that artistically.”
And he has. A photo of a laughing McConnell next to a ’70s-esque logo of his name on the album’s cover directly contrasts Undermind, Phish’s final album featuring each member’s face on its cover, or even the silhouette fish symbol famously plastered on T-shirts, water bottles and car bumpers belonging to die-hard fans. But despite the cover’s physical acknowledgements of going solo, McConnell wasn’t planning to conquer recording completely alone. After 14 months of working alone with synthesizers and drum programming equipment, Page began to add other musicians into the mix, including guitarist Adam Zimmon and, most notably, renowned drummer Jim Keltner.
“I had not met him before we started recording, and that fell immediately into place,” McConnell said of Keltner, who has previously collaborated with such legends as Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Eric Clapton and John Lennon. “[It] was probably exciting in a certain way because first of all, he was kind of a hero of mine, and also because it did go so well … every step of the process was exciting, but I don’t think there was anything quite as exciting as the live tracking we did with Jim Keltner.”
Despite the new collaborations, McConnell also stuck to his roots – each of the album’s nine tracks features at least one additional member of Phish, something McConnell is surprisingly modest about.
“I really appreciated that those guys wanted to play with me and were willing to and made the time and contributed,” he said.
While a collaboration between any two Phish bandmates instantly sparks the obvious “Will they get back together?” question in a fan’s mind, nothing on Page McConnell does more to fuel the mysterious fire than “Back in the Basement.” Featuring both Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio, the only lyric-less track on the album highlights fantastic keyboard-driven melodies and a glimpse of what the future could bring. Unfortunately, the reunion bubble is partially burst when McConnell explains that drummer Jon Fishman only recorded for a few afternoons, bassist Gordon for two days, and guitarist Anastasio for one morning – all over the course of a year and a half.
“The time that we spent together wasn’t that great, [but] their contribution was,” McConnell said. “Their playing was great, and just sort of having them there maybe was a transition for me in some ways.”
Though making the record allowed McConnell to create music with a little help from his friends, perhaps the most difficult post-Phish transition awaits. Joined by guitarists/album contributors Adam Zimmon and Jared Slomoff, bassist Rob O’Dea and drummer Gabe Jarrett, McConnell’s upcoming 21-date tour in medium-sized venues around the country is a stark change from the outdoor festivals, sold-out arenas and extensive touring that Phish is known for. Luckily, he is comfortable with moving on and enthusiastic about moving forward.
“The band that I have assembled now that I’m going to be touring with is a great bunch of guys,” he said. “It’s actually coming together really well, and I’ve got really high hopes for this group. We all seem to have a great chemistry and we’re communicating well, so hopefully that will translate.”
But wherever his amicable demeanor and musical talent take him, McConnell still knows where credit is due.
“It would have been difficult had I not had success with the band,” he said chuckling. “I don’t really know what I would have done.”
Now, though, after recording an album and proving to the world what he can do, odds are that McConnell will be just fine on his own.
Don’t miss Page McConnell at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, Ill. on June 13. Tickets are $29 and available at www.victheatre.com.