Trey Anastasio Interview
June 20, 1995 - Duprees Diamond News
by Steve Silberman
It's time to end the bogus holy war between Heads who dig Phish and those who don't. Both Phish and the Dead jam with pyromaniacal intensity, but neither invented jamming - check out Miles Davis. Both bands weave their own vivid tapestry from diverse thr eads of American music, but neither invented that process - check out the bluegrass players, like Bill Monroe, who inspired both Garcia and Trey Anastasio, the spirited and passionate guitarist of Phish.
On a good night, both bands burn down the house. "you've got to run like the antelope out of control" become more and more irrestible when you're standing in a roomful of blissful Phish "phans," watching Trey's head bob up and down like an expert swimmer's as the band creasts waves of inspiration.
In a roomful of happy people, tins like he's the happiest of them all. When Phish played with Carlos Santana's band at a gig in 1992, Santana told the affable copper-haired guitarist, "When you guys were playing, I was picturing the audience as this sea of flowers, the music was the water, and you guys were the hose." Phish is mining the deep groove where tradition and innovation meld in a moment of inspired abandon.
I spoke with Trey after seeing five shows of thei r tour of California at the end of 1994. I was impressed, night after night, with the band members' evolving ensemble telepathy, the intimacy of their listening to one another, and the earnestness of their forays into the musical unknown, as tunes like Reba become platforms for exploring the limits of harmony and dissonance.
When the band stepped to the front of the stage with acoustic instruments for a tender reading of a bluegrass chestnut like Blue and Lomesome, I knew I was watching the co ming to maturity of a group that's taking its roots seriously, and committing all of their musical resources to the creative moment. And when they'd bust out the trampolines and strobe lights for You Enjoy Myself, or jump-start a set with a funk-a-lici ous Also Sprach Zarathustra (The 2001 Theme), I knew Phish has the originality, chops, exuberance, and chutzpah to carry us through the end of the Millennium. LONG LIVE THE HOSE.
DDN: One of the things I appreciate about Phish is the way that the barriers between the performers and the audience are broken down. Shelly Culbertson in your office reads the postings rec.music.phish and The WELL (two online communitiess of Phish pha ns - the "Phish.net") on her own time, and answers questions there, and also things Phish does onstage, like having the audience quiet down to listen to an unamplified solo. Also the fact that you guys hang out with fans after the show - you don't just zip up into your suite. those things tease the boundary between performer and audience in interesting ways. I was wondering if you had any experiences, when you were younger, of performers crossing the boundary between performer and audience that inspired you .
TA: One time I saw Adrian Belew, who I always really liked, and Belew was sitting up at the bar right up until the band started. I remember thinking that was really cool. he didn't even go backstage - he played the gig and went right back to the bar (laugh ing). I talked to him, and he was a really nice guy. we consider the community aspect, the communication aspect of what we do, to be the whole point of it, and the whole fun of it. that's why we like playing live so much better than making albums. We've had some really funny things happen this tour. Gigs where we were in smaller theaters, where one person, during a really quiet part, pulled out his car keys and started jingling them, and theneveryone in the whole room pulled out their keys, an d we were using the jingling as part of a jam. One night someone started whistling, and the whole place started whistling. I love stuff like that.
DDN: I saw Keith Jarrett at Tanglewood once, and just as he was lifting his hands to the piano, birds started singing in the dome above the stage. Without a moment's hesitation, he started jamming with them, beautifully and lyrically. It brought tears to my eyes.
TA: Amazing. I had an experience like that once. I went camping with three friends out in the woods, and I had my acoustic guitar. It was really cold, so we built a fire. One by one, people started falling asleep, until I was the only one left. I stayed up all night. As the sun came up, a mockingbird started singing in a tree, and I started imitating it on my guitar. It would go, (whistling) "Whoo hoo hoo whee!" and I would go, "Too too too whee!" Then it would go, "Whoo too too whee wh ew" - adding something more complicated to the pattern. I was really blown away. i was trying to wake everybody up, without scaring the bird. It was and incredible experience.
DDN: After seeing you guys for five nights, it was great to watch the jams develop. The Reba jam was totally amazing the last night in San Diego (12/8/94) - you were playing this little figure that sounded like fluttering wings. I was wondering if you have a sense of the jams evolving in the course of a tour.
TA: Definitely. Last night, we started listening to tapes of the tour, something we never used to do. it's very interesting for us. I think we're probably going to learn and change a lot between now and the next tour. We're hearing things that are rea lly good that we didn't know were good, and things that are really bad, that we thought were really good. Songs have a will of their own. two or three years ago, we were never playing Split Open and Melt. It just was off the song list. It just wasn't in us. Then all of a sudden, it started to get good. At the end of two tours ago, we started played the ultimate Split Open and Melt jam, and we put one of them on "Hoist."
We just discovered how to play it, because it's got this really weird time change that was throwing us off. But that one at the end of "Hoist" was the first time it clicked. Split Open and Melt went from being a big pain in our butt to - this is how you play Split Open and Melt. For the next yea, it was incredible. We played one at Red Rocks.
DDN: That whole tape is unbelievable.
TA: You know what I mean about that Split Open and Melt - it was just screaming. Red Rocks was the night that it broke through. We have it on multi-track. but the one at Red Rocks was the end of the cycle. It peaked and never got as good as that again. this tour, it didn't have it anymore - the magic. It's weird. Now Split Open and Melt is on the back burner again. This was the tour for Tweezer. My guess is that Tweezer is going to be on the live album, because we were doing things with it that we'd never done before. You can't predict it. It's all these cycles. I remember when Runaway Jim was pushing all kinds of boundaries. I don't know why that happens..
DDN: Maybe it's a little early in the conversation to get into metaphysics, but could you talk a little bit about what it's like to be so close to this music that has a mind of it's own, That you're not controlling?
TA: You lose perspective on what's good and what isn't good, or what boundaries you're puhing and what you're not, because by the end of a tour, everybody starts to get beat. Except for Mike, Who's real careful about making sure he gets eight hours o f sleep and runs every morning. He's still with it. The crew is at the end of their rope. Those guys sleep five hours a night. What happens is, I start having less and less of a life except for the gig. Yesterday our tour manager was beating on my door at four to wake me up for the soundcheck. I get up, do the gig, and then I'm back on the bus. We play some chess, list en to some music, and then I crash again. The gig takes on more and more significance, because you start feeling like you have no other life.
The way I look at it is like being a filter. the music exists in the universe, and if you're lucky enough or strong enough to get your ego out of the way, the music comes through you. The audience that we have is open to that. They understand that conver it makes it easier for the energy to pass through.
DDN: It's coming through everybody at once.
TA: Exactly. If you had an audience screaming for the hit song, it's never going to happen. You have to have the people who are there for that spontaneous moment where you rise above normal limits. I've had gigs when I haven't slept for a really long time, that have been incredible, because you're too tired to fight it, so you let go. The one thing I've learned in the last two years is: the best shows, you really are not in control. I've been r eading a lot of interviews with great musicians - Marvin Gaye, Art Farmer, Sun Ra - and they all agree on this philosophy. The music is a vibe in the universe that goes through you. Even the pop songwriters - the greatest songs that they wrote, it wasn 't hard. it was just this moment when they woke up, the sun was shining, and the song just poured out of them.
DDN: Dogen-zenji, the founder of Zen, sais "The Great Way is simple. Avoid picking and choosing." Which is another way of saying. "The trick is to surrender to the flow."
TA: Exactly. Stravinsky too had some stuff to say about that. But it's incredible how hard it is, to not pick and choose.
DDN: Right. Except, you guys have set up a great musical situation in which you can play freely, and follow the whim of the moment. I was blown away the second night of San Diego, after the big police action outside, when you opened up with Makisupa Poli ceman. There was this moment when you were just walking around on the stage, in time.
TA: We were really groovin'
DDN: I don't want to make too much out of it, but I had been right in the street interviewing people who had been roughed up by the police, and I was very moved by your dancing across the stage as a gesture of ultimate freedom. As opposed to the lesse r amount of freedom a musican who has to play the same set list night after night has. You guys have to create an audience that understands that.
TA: I think that's true. But it's a give and take. The audience makes it too. That's were the audience really takes control. You definately get a vibe from the crowd. They react when we take risks and go someplace we've never been before. You sense tha t. And you read the mail and phish.net. You know that peopleare coming to a lot of different shows, so you don't play the hit song every night. The audience made that situation, as well as us. It's what we're happiest doing, so we try as hard as we can to move it in that direction - to be in a situation every night where everybody is hoping for spontaneity. The people who like that kind of thing e njoy the concert and come again, so eventually, there are more and more people who want to hear risk.
DDN: Are you very aware of what's happening in the audience while you're playing?
TA: Did you go to the two gigs with the Great Country Horns?
DDN: The second one
TA: That was the good one. As far as I'm concerned, that was our best horn section yet. Five really good players. Our trumpet player, Michael Ray, played with SunRa, and he was the arranger for Kool & the Gang., Celebrate and things like that. Peter is from the Hieroglyphics Ensemble, and so is James Harvey - a monster. They're all at that level. Anyway, the first night, I thought there was something weird. It just didn't feel like that great a night. Not to stomp on anybody's experience - a lot of people really liked it. You could come off the stage and say, "Kind of a weird audi ence, because if Aretha Franklin walked out on satge, it would be a great audience! But the next night in San Jose, I was at the after-show party, and a bunch of different people started saying, "Man, weird crowd lastnight." All these different i ndividual experiences.
"Some big guy pushed me, and he was drunk." "The security was rough." Things like that. I couldn't see anything except a big ocean of faces. But we definately all sensed that that was going on. You can tell what's going on. You never know if it's you, or just the way things are on that particular night. Some nights you can tell, even be fore people walk into the room, that it's gonna be a great night. The last time we played in Vermont, it was this really unbelievable night. You knew it - it was the last night of the tour, and we were playing at home, on this mountain -side, and all of our friends were going to be there. You could feel it in the air, even before you got there.
DDN: Do you choose set lists following the grain of those feelings?
TA: Yeah. That's pretty much me; I'm the chooser of what we're going to play. I guess it's just my personality. To me, it's like composing, and I don't get to do it when I'm on the road, so it's my way of making little suites every night. I usually pla n something out before we go onstage, and then we change it. It's very rare that we stick to the whole song list - or any of it, for that matter. Yoy know what helps me? Doing two-nighter. hanging out with people after the first show in San Diego wrote the song list for me - people saying, "Hey, you haven't played this in a while." I really felt that I knew who was in the audience, and what they wer e going through. I had been on the same street that they had been hanging out on all day, going to the same bars the night before. So we've been talking to our booking agent, and next tour, we want to do a lot of two-nighters almost everywhere.
Steve: How did you start doing things like the big pauses during Divided Sky? What do those moments feel like to you?
Trey: We had this bluegrass guy out on the road with us, the Reverend Jeff Mosier, and we talked about this a lot. The reason he likes acoustic bluegrass is that it's very, very personal. The way we've been doing the bluegrass tunes - with that two-mic setup, instead of being individually miked - is the most personal you can get. Jeff feels that every step of the way, when you separate the players with individual mikes, you're distancing the audience from the humanness. You're hiding behind microphones. Those things, like the pauses, developed from a general desire to merge with the audience as much as possible. If a set's been going on for a while, I might suddenly feel that we've got to make some really organic connection again. Those a cappella things, when we go out front, are a time to get the bearings straight again, really make eye contact with people, see who's out there. I had a really incredible experience once when we were playing in Chicago. It was a really special night, and I was envisioning the music flying around the room. You know the concept of being the tube, and the music is flowing through you? I was really open, we were doing Divided Sky, and I felt like the music was these sheets that were zinging across the air in front of my ace. All I had to do to play was jump on one, and let it do the playing. I got to that section of Divided Sky where we usually do a pause, and I realized that just because I wasn't playing notes with my hands didn't mean I couldn't still be a vehicle for this music that was there. I decided I was going to have the same feeling the music going through me and coming out through the guitar, but without making any noticeable sound. I started imagining the music zipping out through the middle of my chest into the audience, and right when I started doing that, the place erupted. No joke. It was the wildest thing. We were standing up there for 45 seconds, motionless, with no sound, and I realized I could continue jamming in silence. I did it, and the place went, "RAHHH." It was the coolest. I was writing in my journal about it for a week. Then we started doing this thing after that, when we would do Foam. I would bring it down and down to the point my guitar was off, but I was still playing the song in my mind. There's no sound coming out, but I can hear what I'm playing in my mind, because I play enough to know what it would sound like. So I keep the jam going, but in silence. And then everybody started doing that. It's a really intense moment, because people are hearing it get quieter and quieter, and they're following the way the music is going, and there's a line somewhere - for each person, it's probably a little bit different - where it gets quieter than the threshold of their ability to hear it. But I'm sure people are still hearing it, even after it crosses the threshold. For me it's like, "Are they still hearing what I'm playing in my mind, or are they making it up?" Because if they are making it up, then that's the greatest thing of all, because you've got a really creative audience going. I hear music like that all day long. Whenever I'm walking down the street, I'm always singing some tune. So by bringing it down like that, it causes the people who are open to it to keep the music going in their head. And I'm up there with my fingers moving. That moment has been a great moment. Steve: In my notes for this interview, I wrote, "The pauses - is Trey feeling an organic pulse?" So that communicates itself. And the people whose minds are really blown are the people who have the note in their minds that you come back in on.
Trey: Definitely. If you're hooked up with it when it comes back in, all the better. I believe in that stuff.
Steve: One of the things that's wonderful about your music is that you play a lot of things like Argent's Hold Your Head Up, which people our age were marinated in (laughing). You play jazz standards, but you also play Frankenstein - great tunes, especially when you jam off them. You don't choose between "high" and "low" art.
Trey: It's ingrained in us. These songs were what we were hearing when we were growing up. Not that we aspired to play cheesy '70s songs. The music that I listened to in my house was jazz and bluegrass - I wasn't putting on Argent. The story of Hold Your Head Up is Fish hated that song so much it drove hime crazy. Fish has this funny aspect to his personality where you can really get him. So, in band practice, we'd start playing that song. He didn't think it was funny at all. He'd get so mad, he'd storm out of practice. Every time we were about to learn something serious we'd get three notes in and we'd start, "Doo-doo-doo-dooohhhhh." The three of us would be laughing, and he'd just hated us. He'd say, "yoy guys, it's NOT FUNNY ANYMORE!" Then he came up to do one of his songs one night, and we started playing it. He got really pissed, so we just kept doing it. It's just something that we do to Fish.
Steve: You guys have a couple of days a year that you do what you call the "Oh Kee Pah ceremony."
Trey: We've done that a couple of times. That's a borrowed name - the real Oh Kee Pah ceremony is a Native American ceremony where they hang from flesh hooks by the nipples,like in the movie A Man Called Horse. We lock ourselves in a room and -- jam, basically. There are other parts to it (laughing). We haven't done it in a while. There's part of an Oh Kee Pah ceremony on "Junta" called Union Federal. Mike has always been real big on it, and I have too. It would be real interested for you to talk to Mike sometime about the whole spirtual and religious side of the music. Mike had a religious experience the first or second year we were a band.
Steve: While he was playing? Trey: Yeah. His whole life has been different since that moment. he cahnged his minor in college to religion, and he's still...it was wild. We were playing at Goddard College, and there was like one person in the audience. (Steve's note: I speculate that Mike is referring to this experience in the Phishnewsletter Doniac Schvice, Spring 1993. "Our best performance was a Goddard College Cafeteria dance in November '85... it was a peak experience unlike any other...the final indicator that I should make music a career.") Suddenly Mike became possessed. He was bouncing up and down. It was something to be seen.
Steve: Did it give him a sense that he'd found his mission in life?
Trey: I think so. He'll never listen to the tape. I can see why he doesn't want to listen to the tape, but the tape is great. Our first couple of years, nobody came to see us, or liked us. Except Amy, who sells our merchandise. She was our first fan. We would set up in this barn and drive everybody out, and she would come in and dance around. So it grew exponentially from Amy.
Steve: I know it's been somewhat vexatious to you, the parallels that the journalists and fans find with your group and other groups, like the Dead.
Trey: I don't get as frustrated as the other guys, but I don't think even they get frustrated anymore. It was worse in the beginning when we were just breaking out from being a Burlington band. That first run of articles Now that I'm on the other side of that, it's not that frustrating to me. You're really concerned, at that point in your career, as to how people are going to view who you are and interpret your career. Then you get to the point where you just don't give ashit. Which is where I am now.
Last year was the end of that. There was pressure. "Hoist" was coming out, therwere a couple of radio-potential songs on it, and there was the big question of should we do a music video and all this crap. When I look back on it, I can't believe that I spent an ounce of energy caring. Everything I ever dreamed of, I have. Being in a touring band with musicians I respect who have the same goals that I have, who I can also get along with and learn things from. And an audience that wants to hear the same thing that I want to play.
If we got dumped by the record company, we wouldn't even blink an eye. We are self-sufficient. The Apocalypse could come, and as long as we're still walking, we could play acoustic. We've got everything we need. I cared more about other people's opinions when we hadn't come as far enough for me to build up a certain kind of confidence about our future. People are going to write bad reviews and narrow-minded opinions. People like to compare things, because if you've never seen something before, it's the best way to describe (something). So I'm really used to that.
Steve: I wonder if there is something particular to people our age, that we get compared to artists from previous generations - as if the Grateful Dead invented jammin' in people's minds.
Trey: The Grateful Dead are a great band. The reason we get compared to the Dead are valid and good. They were the first band I saw that didn't play the same set list night after night, and I always thought that was the coolest thing. Then when I got into jazz, I realized that jazz people do it, too. But I've never seen anyone who does it on the levelthat the Dead do. Five nights in a row without playing the same song twice! there's that, and the fact that the Dead are a rock band, but they still improvise. The first time I ever heard that was probably the Allman Brothers, who I listened to a lot because my dad was into the Allman Brothers. And Santana. And the Dead.
The other thing that's cool about the Dead is that they're an American band. More and more, I'm really into that whole concept. Traditional American music, bluegrass and stuff. We've been getting really into that, through Mike playing the upright bass and mandolin. It feels good to be playing root music. When you grow up in New Jersey, listening to rock bands, you don't have the same sense of roots that somebody like Jeff Mosier has, or Matt Mundy from the Aquarium Rescue Unit, who grew up in the Deep South.
His mother played bass when he was in the womb - the guy is born to play bluegrass. he's one of the best bluegrass mandolin players goin' right now. He was born with blusgrass, and bluegrass is directly traceable to the roots of this country. I've been buying a lot of blues records lately, and realizing the importance of knowing your history, knowing where rock and roll came from.
The British Invasion bands stole it all from American black blues musicians - that's all they listened to, and they're not ashamed to admit that. They say it all the time. Led Zeppelin was underhanded about the whole thing, stealing a song and putting their name on it, which they did a couple of times. But you hear Clapton talking about that - "Go back and listen to what I listened to." We had Mosier out on the road with us, taeching us about the roots of the songs We did that song Blue and Lonesome by Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers. Before Mosier taught us the song, he taught us the whole history - "This is a kind of style meeting this kind of a style, and these two guys had never collaborated before."
Hillybilly music meets Irish jig, meets black harmonies from the slave traders, and you get bluegrass. Bill Munroe was the one who coined the word and invented the music, by combining a lot of existing styles. When you learn that, you can put yourself into a historical context.
Steve: During the shows, it occurred to me that by going from a cappella music, to bluegrass, to funk, to cheesy pop tunes, to very ornate art- rock influenced jamming, that you guys were playing all of American music as an instrument.
Trey: For a long time, people were saying, "These guys have so many influences - what are they?" That always pissed me off, because I don't know what we are, except we're a bunch of kids that grew up in this country, and this country is a huge melting pot. So what could be more American - not in a big patriotic flag-waving way - what could be more real, as an American band, than to be a big melting pot for all these styles? One of the reasons that I'm psyched about putting out a live album is, I think it all gels more in the live context than when we try to make an album. When we go into the studio, we never know what to do. We have so much stuff - too much. And it comes out sounding that way sometimes, where as live, it comes out sounding real cohesive.
We've gone through so many phases, and met so many interesting people, hopefully it's congealing into one kind of sound. When Bill Monroe first started, it was the same kind of thing: blending all these different styles to make something new.
Steve: It's really amazing when all these traditions can just flow through you, and the music you're making is absolutely appropriate for this historical moment - or even the moment of a particular night. That's what I'd want to be doing if I was in a band and what I hope to be doing as a writer. That thing about how the music is in the universe already, and you uncover it - that's true with writing, too.
Trey: With any art. You know that Michelangelo quote about the David - "It was already there. I just had to chip away until I hit flesh."
Steve: What groups did you see when you were younger that really made you want to play?
Trey: I went through a period when I was a sophomore in high school, and all these great bands started coming around. I saw Pat Metheny when he was with his first group.
Steve: That moment in "Slave to the Traffic Light," when you play the harmonics, reminds me of something Pat Metheny might have done.
Trey: Good ear. I probably wrote that right around the time I saw him ten times in a row in a year. And King Crimson - they blew me away. There was a lot of that cycling five-against-seven that really crept in.
Steve: Did you see the Dead when you were young?
Trey: Oh yeah. I saw the Dead when I was a senior in high school. One Dead show I thought was just surreal, awesome, and I saw five or six others - you know on and off. But there was definitely one that blew my mind. It was either in '82 or '83. I went to this prep school in connecticut - Taft.
I was really into Led Zeppelin. There were all these Deadheads there, they talked me into going to this Dead show. I thought it was the most boring thing I'd ever seen in my life. I really was bored to tears. Then I went again, and it was really good. I went probably five or six times that year. Then there was this one night that I went, and it was incredible. It really blew me away: tight, hooked up, direction, going places.
I was in a band at the time, Space Antelope, with the Dude of Life. The next concerts that started blowing me away were Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and I alwayss liked Santana. He was a big influence. But in the last five years, the shows that have killed me have all been smaller shows. Alison Krauss - oh my God! So good.
Steve: How is it now for you, suddenly playing to huge audiences?
Trey: It's really fine, most of the time. It can be tiring - you're catching me at the end of the tour. (Beep heard in the background.) Whoops! There's the tour manager beeping me. We have to go. it can be a little bit tiring to have to be talking to so many people all the time. I've had experiences where ten people come up and say hello, and if you blow one off, you're an asshole. But since it's a big community, everybody knows that's not the case. In general, I feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the world. That's pretty much my whole outlook on it. We have a pretty mellow group of people that follow us around, too, so we don't have to worry. I don't want my life to get to a point where I have to be cut off in any way, like not being able to go walking around downtown. But it hasn't gotten that way.