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Trey Anastasio on the endurance of jam bands and the life of Phish

Trey Anastasio on the endurance of jam bands and the life of Phish

A Q & A with the leader of the group that visits SPAC next week
Trey Anastasio on the endurance of jam bands and the life of Phish
Trey Anastasio and Phish perform at a past SPAC concert.
Photographer: gazette file photo

Formed in 1983, Phish is inarguably among the biggest American rock groups of its time, still capable of drawing tens of thousands of fans to its far-flung festivals and selling out residencies at Madison Square Garden.

Not unlike the Grateful Dead and its Deadheads, they’ve also spawned a subculture of obsessives eager to pore over endless live recordings and follow the band on tour. And yet the need to lay out proof of Phish’s place in the rock firmament is to suggest the oddly hidden-in-plain-sight nature of the jam band’s success and also to wonder about its eventual legacy — well, for some of us, anyway.

“What the legacy is going to be is irrelevant,” said the band’s frontman, the singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio, shortly before embarking on the band’s summer tour. He seemed to be speaking for himself and the legion of Phishheads out there when he said: “Phish is like food for me. It’s like breathing.”

Q: I think it’s fair to say that there probably won’t be another jam band that reaches Phish’s level of success. Does that mean there’s something fundamentally anachronistic about that style of music? Or to put it another way: Is Phish the last of its breed? 
A: I’m going to tread lightly around this. Will there continue to be jam bands? If people look backward, there won’t. If people start writing new music using the language of improvisation, sure. But if you’re just celebrating something that happened in 1970, it’s got to die.

Q: Why did you need to tread lightly on that? 
A: I can see the onslaught of, “What the hell were you playing?” Yes, Phish played “Ziggy Stardust,” but then we consciously went forward.  I’ve got to be careful talking about other bands. But can I say one other thing that pops into my mind? I had dinner with a young band. I’m not going to say their name. We had this big dinner, and I said, “Who’s your favorite band?” They were naming these ’70s bands. This nostalgia thing going on in the whole music scene, it’s killing me. Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar and people like that are moving forward. I also like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard a lot. They’re not a jam band, but they love the act of creation, and you can feel it. But, God, of all the people to be talking about nostalgia: Trey from the hippie band. Maybe that’s why I’m grappling with this. I’m feeling the needle pointing a little bit backward.

Q: Thirty-five years in, isn’t nostalgia a part of Phish’s relationship with its fans? 
A: Good question. The last show that we played was in Mexico. In the encore, we played a song called “Martian Monster,” which is from a Halloween album that we did. Then we were playing this other song called “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,” which is from when we were 18 years old. The two songs connected. That’s nostalgia for me. Nostalgia can be valid and good. I think it’s a baby-boomer thing. A lot of the tours that are out now — I mean, I like Queen. I didn’t get to see the original Queen. I like Adam Lambert. He’s a great guy, a great singer. But I have this twinge of, Hey, man, make another album. I’m not picking on anyone. I love those guys, but you know, Phish came up in ’83, ’84, ’85. I think about all this good music that happened then — Minutemen, Bad Brains — which was a reaction against that baby-boomer thing. Even Bowie was writing “All the Young Dudes”: “And my brother’s back at home/With his Beatles and his Stones.” It’s a fascination with, like, a window of time, 1966 to 1973. It’s got to give at some point. If you took the musicians that were great in 1970 and said “We want you to play music from 50 years ago,” they’d be playing John Philip Sousa or something. It’s crazy.

Q: Last year there was a new wave of appreciation — nostalgic or not — for Dave Matthews Band. This year, another band that had its moment in the ’90s, Sublime, is undergoing a similar renaissance. Is the culture primed for a Phish reappraisal? 
A: That’s a road that I can’t go down. I kind of think we’ll be forgotten.

Q: You mentioned the shows the band played at a resort in Mexico for Phish: Riviera Maya which is the kind of thing it’s hard to imagine you would’ve or could’ve dreamed about doing back in the early ’80s when the four of you were oddball college kids. Has it been at all hard to come to terms with the bigness of the business of Phish? 
A: Look, people came from the beginning, but the bigness existed outside of my personal sphere. I still don’t believe that it’s big. My life isn’t big. I’ve been married for 25 years. I have my kids. I’ve gotten comfortable with the bigness now because we have a healthy understanding of what’s real, but it was tricky for a while.

Q: Tricky how? 
A: Success probably triggered feelings of being a fraud. All through the ’90s, we used to walk offstage with a great sense of pride that we had kicked ass. We put on a show: It was pow, wham — energy. Then somewhere for a while I lost that feeling. I remember walking off stage in 2003 or 2000, something like that, and turning to Jon Fishman and our manager backstage, and I was like: “Was that good? What was that?” That’s when it got a little strange.

Q: Because of a contradiction you were sensing between the quality of the music and scale of the success? 
A: Yes, and I took it out on myself.

Q: How? 
A: Fish has a nickname for it: the invisible whip. The invisible whip is when I walk off stage saying: “Why did that suck? I need to analyze this and make it better.” There’s a tension between that impulse and the surrender and acceptance that creates a good jam. And when the response, in my mind, outweighed what we deserved, that contributed to a lot of turbulence. I was trying to make sense of it all: “What are people seeing?” I would beat myself up about the whole thing. I’d try to make sense of the scale, and I would drink tequila — because I was like, “I can’t stop thinking about this!”

Q: How do you feel about things now? 
A: I don’t say, “Was that good?” anymore. It’s irrelevant. I do as much preparation as I can, but once everybody gets in the room, I let go.

Q: Is there a dream concept for a Phish concert? I know there used to be
A: When we were younger, our dream-concert idea was ridiculous. Part of the idea involved not wanting it to be taped because we wanted everyone to be in the moment. So we were going to dangle cassette tapes with fishing poles just out of the audience’s reach. Now the dream is that you’d walk in and there’d be 10,000 massage tables and people walking around with herbal tea and bowls of fruit salad. The sound would be perfect. Everyone would have their own private bathroom. There’d be enough room to dance and no one squishing into your space. Endless supplies of really good coffee.

Q: The middle-aged man’s dreams are the young man’s nightmare.

A: I guess that’s just stuff that I like. I carry a pillow on tour. I want my pillow, you know?

Q: In the documentary about you that came out this year, you’re seen having these conversations where you take stock of your life with your kids, your wife, your parents. You’re dealing with the death of a close friend. It feels like the stuff of a midlife crisis. But I’m curious about what a midlife crisis might mean for someone who’s spent the better part of 35 years in the extended adolescence of a rock band.
A: This is a good door you’ve opened. I’ll step in. It is true: Being in Phish is a bit of an extended adolescence. When the documentary came out, and when I toured I was like, What am I lamenting here? Yes, my friend died. But everybody’s friend dies. Does that warrant this? Now that it’s over, I think it was more about realizing that it’s my job to continue things. At 28, we were staying up all night, doing multiple nights in Vegas, having huge parties, and that was great. The first time that I tried to stop that, because it had gotten out of control, people were furious — I took their party away. But now, by continuing, we have proved that there’s a way to have both the joy and unbridled release of the concert and some emotional maturity along with it.

Q: When you said things had gotten out of control — you’re talking about drugs? 
A: Yeah. I had a funny conversation with a prominent guy on our crew. Other than pot or whatever, I never really saw drugs until probably 13 years into our career. We’re dorks. We’d been playing word games for fun, and then suddenly there was cocaine around. Recording “Billy Breathes” was the first time I ever saw anything like that. And I did it. I joined in. So the conversation I had with the crew guy, after everything had completely gone to hell so fast — kids, don’t do drugs! — I said: “What happened? All of a sudden this stuff was everywhere.” And he said, “No, it was always everywhere, except you didn’t do it. The second you did it, it was fair game for us to bring it out into the open.” The party was on, and when the party’s on it’s on.

Q: Did drugs ever help the music? 
A: Mistakenly, I thought it was making me work harder: Now I can stay up three more hours and do more work! I can have five bands instead of three! These are the lies you tell yourself. So was it useful? Nah. I hate all that stuff.

Q: Were you using psychedelics, too? 
A: That was fun, yeah. Acid — none of that was a problem. The problem was when hard things came around. Now I don’t do anything except coffee.

Q: As someone who has had problems with drugs, do you ever experience any cognitive dissonance from being at a Phish show and knowing there’s tons of people selling balloons of nitrous oxide outside the venue or seeing the plumes of smoke wafting up from the crowd?
A: No. It’s just hard drugs that are a problem. Look, I went too far. Everybody’s got their own thing. I got to do everything I wanted to do. It’s all part of a long continuum for me. I love playing music sober, and I also love people out there having a good time. I don’t have any judgment. It’s none of my business.

Q: This is random, but I was at a Phish show in Toronto in 1999, and you guys were jamming on “Also sprach Zarathustra.” I should add that I was high on about four different things — and I’m pretty sure I was controlling the band. Does that make sense?
You may have been!

Q: I’m pretty sure I was. 
A: I mean, I think so. I think that way. That was the year of the flooding?

Q: I don’t remember a flood
A: Oh, you weren’t on those drugs.

Q: I guess not. From the beginning of the band’s career there were comparisons made between you guys and the Grateful Dead. It clearly used to bother you, but you seem to have made peace with that idea — to the point that you took the Jerry Garcia role for those big Fare Thee Well shows a few years back. What changed?

A: The comparison was too easy. At 14, 15, 16, I worshiped at the idol of Peter Gabriel — the first couple of Genesis albums and then his solo albums. He was like a god. Prog rock was our thing. Then, through Peter Gabriel and “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” I was introduced to Brian Eno’s music, and I had the ’70s Eno albums on perma-loop. I didn’t get into the Grateful Dead until 1980, ’81. That was when my parents got divorced and I went to boarding school and people there liked the Dead. So we would go to shows. We took acid. It was great. But at the same time I was going to see Frank Zappa and Sun Ra. King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” was one of my favorite records. I also worshiped at the idol of early Talking Heads. So if you listen to the first couple of Phish albums, they don’t sound anything like the Grateful Dead. I was more interested in Yes.

Q: What’s the best Yes album? 
A: “Fragile” or “Close to the Edge.”

Q: It’s “Close to the Edge.”
A: I like “The Yes Album,” too. But what was cool about seeing those Dead shows was knowing that I was witnessing something important in Jerry Garcia. There was no doubt that something about this guy was going to live on. Then in 1983 we started Phish, and I didn’t see the Grateful Dead again until 1994, when they were playing in San Francisco. It was heartbreaking. It had gone to complete [expletive]. But like I said, it was too easy to draw that connection. “Divided Sky” had more to do with “West Side Story” than the Grateful Dead. Also what happened was when Jerry died, there were Grateful Dead fans that came over to Phish and were disappointed. That was hard. Everything had been going so well.

Q: Ah, so the negativity from Deadheads colored your feelings? 
A: That was a lot of it. Their party didn’t want to end, so they came over to Phish, and we were like, “Hey, we’ve been having fun here for 15 years while you guys were having your thing.” But that doesn’t mean that I’m not a fan of the Dead, and Fare Thee Well was presented as a chance to have a celebration. When we did it, everybody kept talking about how nice it was to be back without the darkness from the end of the Dead. I had experienced that from people coming over from their scene to Phish in ’96, ’97. The Dead’s kind of hard-drugs scene ended up interconnecting with Phish’s world.

Q: You’ve talked in the past about the importance of seeing Bruce Springsteen live in 1978 and how he resonated for you. And like Jerry Garcia, Springsteen resonates with people for reasons beyond the music, which is probably the case for any musician who inspires intense devotion, which you do. So my question is whether you have any inkling of what your fans see in you? Because there’s something there beyond the songs or guitar playing. 
A: I don’t know what that would be. But here’s the thing about Bruce. I met him for the first time on one of his solo acoustic tours. Jon Landau took me into his band room. Bruce was sitting on the floor, and he brought up something that Phish had done and said, “If you’re going to do that kind of thing, you also might want to think about X, Y and Z.” Afterward, Jon Landau walked me down the hall and said, “Did you notice anything about that?” “What?” “Bruce knew you were coming, and he rehearsed for your arrival.” Then Jon said that after every show, Bruce asks for a CD of that concert so he can listen and improve. The point that he was trying to make is that Bruce is a guy who cares. Bruce is giving it his all and honors the fans in that way. That’s what I want in my career: I want people to walk away and feel respected. The more times people come to see me, the more I owe them. They’ve given me my whole life. Not just on a financial level, but on a soul level. I owe them. But I don’t know what they see in me.

Q: Is the joy or emotional release you get from music available in other areas of your life?
A: It’s possible that’s been the struggle that I’ve had to deal with. I’ve got three bands and I do solo acoustic tours. I do orchestra shows. When I’m on the road, I go to soundcheck and there’s a jam at soundcheck. Then after the show I run to the bus and slam the door and start counting the minutes till next time. I don’t want it to end. I just keep doing it.

Q: Is that compulsion ever a problem?

A: It’s been a problem. When we stopped, things were going completely out of control. Then I had a period of time when I was forced to sit still for a year and a half: I was arrested. I look back at that time, it was lovely. I stopped touring, but I wrote a lot of music. I was pretty happy.

Q: Did you have music in your head even when you were in jail? 
A: I was in jail, and I don’t want to go back. It wasn’t good. But there was a guy who came to my cell and gave me a little transistor radio and some headphones. I put it on, and I was searching for a signal, and “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder came on. I’ve never really talked about this before. I was literally sobbing in this jail cell, thinking, How did this happen? We were playing in front of 80,000 people, and then all of the sudden I was sitting in jail. And that was the music that came through the headphones when I was in that jail cell? It was too perfect.

Q: How closely do fan narratives about the band’s career jibe with your sense of things? They break things down into such hyperspecific eras, or talk about how, say, the band improvised on “Reba” in 2010 versus now, and they treat all that opinion like it’s Bible verse.
A: They probably know better than I do. I can’t occupy one-tenth of my mind with that or it would screw up what I’m supposed to do, which is stay present. So I can’t read that stuff. If someone said something mean, I would go fetal, which I’ve done before. I remember reading one of our first pieces of major press when we were a young band. It said that I wore unfashionably large glasses. Then it was like, “and plays really great music,” or whatever, but for me it was always the unfashionably large glasses. I went into a tailspin: Should I get new glasses? Should I keep wearing them to pretend that I don’t care even though it killed me? So now if I read, “In ’97 they used to play more notes in ‘Reba,’” I’d be like: “You want more notes? O.K.! How many more?” So I can’t pay attention to that.

Q: As far as I can tell, the fan consensus is that it even though the band got back together in 2009, it wasn’t until 2012 or 2013 that it found its mojo. Is that how you see it?
A: I agree. There was a seriousness to the music starting in 2009 that was based not on fear but on the acknowledgment of the finite nature of things. We’d had a youthful exuberance for so long, and naïve youthful exuberance is what makes rock ’n’ roll great. We were flying high on the wave. Nothing was ever going to stop. Then you wake up in the jail cell. It was a shock to realize how tenuous the whole thing was. And it took until 2013 to find out how to play with risk. Before then I’d been thinking, How do I play music in a risky way when the experience that I went through made me a cautious person?

Q: What’s the answer? 
A: A new and better and deeper and richer point of view: Every concert is the most important. Every song is the most important song. So is every note, and every note is also perfectly imperfect. I’m trying to learn to accept the two sides of the coin. What I thought was the worst thing that was happening to me — when flashing police lights were around me and I was yanked out of my life — turned out to be the single best thing in many ways. Hopefully these lessons and maturity have taken me to a place of staying even more in the moment, and that has resulted in a more breathing, organic kind of improvisation. To my ear it has.

Q: Can Phish still consciously improve? Even improvisation can have its own clichés. So how can you avoid musical ennui? 
A: Someone always has something new to offer. It’s just life stuff: Page McConnell’s father gets Alzheimer’s and passes away. Then Page and I will have dinner and talk about things that used to intimidate him about his father. Then we’ll walk onstage, and if I’ve had that conversation with Page and he plays something sort of sad, he’ll hear me accompanying him. That’s a loving gesture. It’s the most loving gesture. And the loving gesture is, I’m listening to you. That oftentimes leads into an emotional moment. You feel the whole room explode, and it came from a place of completely accepting that moment, being in that moment and not judging it, not resisting it.

Q: Is there any reason to think the band will ever stop again?
A: None. I’ll tell you a story. We just had band practice up in Burlington in anticipation of the summer tour. We were talking about having gone to see the Modern Jazz Quartet. in 1983, in Burlington, when we had just started the band. We remembered looking up at the stage and thinking, That is the model for the band we want to be. We’re going to be the Modern Jazz Quartet of rock ’n’ roll! Then at the practice we just had, we were all like: “Oh, my God. That’s what happened!” Which is really weird. Careful what you wish for.

 

 

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