Phish keyboardist Page McConnell releases his new ambient electronic solo album, MAYBE WE’RE THE VISITORS, digitally today via Keyed Records. MAYBE WE’RE THE VISITORS was written and recorded in Iceland and in Burlington, VT. The release was heralded earlier in the week with the album’s first song, “Radio Silence,” which David Fricke called in his album notes “an overture of slowly dawning arpeggios that dot the void like hopeful transmissions.”
LISTEN TO “RADIO SILENCE”
STREAM/PURCHASE MAYBE WE’RE THE VISITORS
Read David Fricke's complete album notes below:
In January 2020, shortly before the coronavirus shut down modern life, including travel, Page McConnell took a rare, road trip that had nothing to do with his regular itinerary as the keyboard player in Phish: a holiday in Iceland. Inevitably, music got made there. But it was unlike anything McConnell had recorded before as a solo artist, in side projects or within the collaborative energies of Phish: fully electronic pieces created on location, in response to the epic landscapes, dramatic weather and geologic fury that he experienced in Iceland. He also came back energized and determined to keep going amid, indeed despite, lockdown.
Maybe We're the Visitors is the result: an imaginary voyage charged with eyewitness awe and intense, solitary reflection; expressed without lyrics, vocals or any sign of piano, organ or clavinet, McConnell's signature armory with Phish. The album is his third solo outing – following 2007's song-based Page McConnell and a 2013 instrumental release, Unsung Cities and Movies Never Made – and a genuine breakthrough: the first McConnell has conceived and performed entirely with synthesizers. Maybe We're the Visitors is also the most personal record he has ever made, because it is an album that has been on his mind for a long time.
"I always imagined that I would have synthesizers," recalls McConnell, who began playing piano at age four and formally studied composition and improvisation along with, in one college class, the aesthetics of British producer and ambient-music pioneer Brian Eno. "But I'd take the long game, learn harmonics and theory, so I would be good enough to play them. I wanted the synths to evoke melodies, to show me where the music could go by the sounds I was creating.
"I had to understand the gear, and it had to work with me. It was always my goal to get to this point – where the synths inspire me and the melodies."
Maybe We're the Visitors begins with "Radio Silence," an overture of slowly dawning arpeggios that dot the void like hopeful transmissions. "Moss Suite, Part 1" – large, billowing notes in a slow, buoyant walk as if through near-zero gravity – was recorded at a geothermal spa in a lava field. The eerily lunar cover photograph was taken by McConnell's wife outside their door.
Iceland "had an effect on me," he admits. "There was something otherworldly about it, especially with the earthquakes. One night, it was just rockin'. There's a knock at the door: 'It might be a volcano. We'll let you know.'"
Back in his home studio in Vermont, McConnell was writing and recording at a pace that was exciting and, for him, unprecedented. "As long as I've had my own place to work, I've been running in parallel," he says – working on projects like his 2007 self-titled album alongside "these keyboard experiments I never put out.”
"But something happened," McConnell continues, "where, all of a sudden, I was recording all of these tracks" – first in April, 2020, then in another blitz that November. "Some were created spontaneously; others were composed ahead of time. Each element was performed live, in one take.”
Born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey, McConnell was attending Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont when he began playing with Phish – initially as a friend and guest in the spring of 1985; soon in the defining quartet with singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon. McConnell's senior thesis at Goddard, published in 1987, was titled "The Art of Improvisation" – which, of course, became Phish's jubilant specialty. "So much of what we do in our improvisations is go for these peaks," he explains. "You can feel them, the waves starting to crest." But on Maybe We're the Visitors, "I wanted more of a constant energy – bubbling along, not necessarily realized.
"Passage," for example, is three minutes of streaking light with no stated rhythm but a steady, implied momentum – "this journey of nothingness," as McConnell puts it, "like you're in a shuttle craft over one of Jupiter's moons." Other pieces such as "Terra Incognita," "The Settlement" and "Set in Stone" have decisive undertows grounded in McConnell's lifelong passion for the funk, blues and jazz of New Orleans, especially his 21st Century side trips in Vida Blue – a trio with Crescent City drummer Russell Batiste and bassist Oteil Burbridge – and the Meter Men, an R&B powerhouse featuring guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter, Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste of the original Meters.
"Getting to play with those guys had a big impact on me," McConnell says gratefully He also credits another, surprising inspiration here, the American abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly: "I was looking at some of his pieces – simple two-or-three color paintings. That's all they were. I'd think, 'These big chords, like rich colors playing off each other – that's enough for this track.'"
The narrative flow of Maybe We're the Visitors – exploration, colony and, finally warning; that, as Icelanders already know, we are only stewards here and nature always has the last word – did not present itself "until I was close to the end," McConnell confesses. "But I always knew there was something alien about these pieces" – like the hint of another presence in the long dub-reggae swim of the title track. "It feels like there is something going on in the background – this guy talking to you, trying to communicate through all of this.”