Trey Anastasio on Phish's Bond, His Man Cave and the Dead's Big Gigs

Guitarist on barbecuing with Phil Lesh and why his band won't let him wear cool sneakers

Trey Anastasio says the most important thing about the Grateful Dead's Fare Thee Well shows is "that it's about a community." Credit: Amanda Schwab/AP

Trey Anastasio isn't taking his job as singer-guitarist at the Grateful Dead's reunion shows lightly. In preparation for the Fare Thee Well concerts (which start on June 27th), Anastasio has been shuttling between the houses of surviving members of the Dead in Northern California to practice and talk set lists. "There's certain things you can't pick up without sitting there," says Anastasio, as he talks about visiting Bob Weir at home, "like some of the changes in 'New, New Minglewood Blues.' " A few weeks after the Dead shows, Anastasio will return to his day job in Phish, who are starting a U.S. tour in Oregon on July 21st. For those rehearsals, the guitarist only has to travel to his Vermont barn, where he was heading when we spoke. "I haven't seen the guys in a couple of weeks," he says. "I can't wait!"

What's surprised you about Dead rehearsals so far?
It's been a great experience in ways I might not have anticipated. I hung with Bobby [Weir] at his beach house for about a week. He said, "Just fly out and we'll sit with a couple of amps and just play." We played through all the tunes, but being given the opportunity to hear stories about how they were written – Bobby would tell me what bands they were listening to when they wrote a particular song – that stuff is really informative. 

Then Phil [Lesh] invited me out, and we had a barbecue at his house, and I got to see Phil walking on the beach with his grandson, which was really touching. Bobby, Phil and I just sat, talking about the set list. Watching them reminisce about the day they wrote "Truckin' " and laughing – that's the stuff I love. One day, Bobby started talking about how much he loved Brent [Mydland, the Dead keyboardist who died in 1990]. He said, "Make sure you listen to those vocal harmonies from the late 1980s." I also thought Brent was great and miss him. Life happens. People come and go.

I have a little studio in New York and Bobby came and we were just jamming in there for about a week, just a little windowless room, and then Bill [Kreutzmann] was in town so we called him and he came over, so the three of us were just rockin' in this room.

What have you learned from Bob that's helped your approach to playing?
There's little things with each song. Music has a back-porch oral tradition, as we know. There's certain things that you just can't pick up without sitting there. I'll give you a sort of a weird example: If you're playing "Minglewood Blues," it's basically a 12-bar blues, but he would say, "We don't really go to the five chord, we kind of play the one chord."  

That must have been pretty surreal.
Yeah. I've been in a band for 31 years. I haven't been in a band for 50 years, but I know what it means. It means so much. I love Mike [Gordon] and Page [McConnell] and Fish [Jon Fishman] so much, it's deeper than blood. So when I was hearing the "Truckin'" story, the coolest thing was watching the two of them communicate. Obviously there are bumps in every relationship after 50 years, but I think it's going to be a really, really moving experience when all's said and done and we get through all the necessary work. Just for the fans to be there together with their friends, and to watch the band members who have just spent their entire lives together. Bobby was 16 years old when they started this band.

The most important thing about this whole concert is that it's about a community. It's a celebration for a lot of friends and family out in the audience, a chance for them to get together and celebrate the soundtrack of their lives, and I'm part of that. 

Do the relationships in the Dead remind you of Phish ?
The cool thing about being with friends who you've been with since you were 18 is you kind of keep one foot there. They knew you back then, so  you can't pull any shit on them. If you get a new pair of sneakers and you look like you're trying to be too cool, they guys will say, "Oh my God, what are you doing?"

Is there something that has surprised you lately about how Phish is sounding right now? What can you guys do now musically that you might've not been able to do a few years ago?
Oh man. At the risk of sounding cliché – listen, I'm trying to speak from the heart here – I feel like we're playing better now than we have a really long time. I just feel like some kind of imaginary pressure has gone away. I feel like something happened in the last three or four years where the only thing important to us is that everybody's together. There's this kind of an open-hearted feeling onstage. Fish described it best: "When I'm playing music with you guys, I feel like we're all on a lifeboat together, and if someone falls over the edge, all the other three guys reach right out and pull him back in." And it does feel like that.

Playing improvisational music with people is so intimate. I know if Mike got a good night's sleep by the way he's playing the bass, or if he's in the middle of an argument with someone. You can feel it. Page and I might start reaching out. We might slow down, and Mike will play something on the bass and we'll be like, "I hear you, come with us." And it's powerful. It sort of means more with every passing year. Because we're not gonna be here forever.

Do you have a memory where you hit a peak that you never found again?
There was a jam after "Chalk Dust Torture" at PNC Bank Center that was so unhinged. I can't remember what year it was, but it's probably findable. I think Mike put those videos together for the 30th anniversary. 

But there's been a lot of those moments in soundchecks – so many that I sent an e-mail around recently to the three other guys saying we should put [them] out, you know like, "Let people hear some of these soundchecks." Because a lot of times we get to soundcheck, we just get onstage and we start jamming. Nobody's there, nobody's watching, everybody just woke up and kind of came stumbling off the bus. It's kind of a half-dream state.

I like the instrument switching in Miami earlier this year a lot. Because Mike was playing the guitar and I was playing the Marimba Lumina [midi controller]. That was really cool. You can find it online. But you know I like a lot of it right now. I'm just kind of grateful.

Phish have had to take a few long breaks over the years, but you've been going steadily since 2009. What's changed?
It used to be too all-inclusive. Everyone we knew worked for Phish. It was "Phish, Phish, Phish" all the time. You get a skewed view of what's important. We'd go to a party, and everybody at the party was a Phish employee. It became a little unhealthy. But now, the only thing that's important is that our friendship is healthy. We were naming our [Magnaball] festival, and we had an e-mail chain that went on for three or four months. And if one person doesn't like it or says, "I'm getting uncomfortable here" the other three guys will say instantly, "OK, change it, then." But I don't think anyone cares anymore what the result is, as long as it's inclusive of the other three.

We've had conversations at the barn where we said, "There is room for everything. There's no need that everyone can't have a space for what they need to do." And we've kind of been living by that credo. So Mike likes to do his solo thing, and he's really enjoying aspects of that, making album covers and weird little videos to announce tours. We understand how important it is to Phish that Mike has that outlet. And Page has been doing these Meter Men shows. I think it's done amazing things for his confidence, and his playing is so good now. I just love listening to him.  Fish has a couple of solo things going. We all kind of see the value for everybody to have whatever kind of space they need. If someone needs time off, then we take time off.

You guys are more popular than ever. What's it like to have fans that follow you around the country?
Well, I mean, I feel the same feeling about the people in the audience in our community that I do about the three other band members, you know? I know a lot of people out there. It's very strange. I don't know everybody, but  when I look out in the audience, to the first like 10-15 rows, I see basically a lot of the same people at a lot of the shows. I've never talked to any of them much, but it's always been like that. I remember one of our first shows in Burlington, at a place called Finbar's. We played for happy hour at 5 o'clock and there were two people there. They loved the band and everyone else kind of rolled their eyes and walked out. But there were two people, one was Brian and one was Amy. I remember that today. So it was like the four of us and these two people who were so into it. We played every Tuesday night at happy hour or something, and they would come and dance like crazy right in front of us and then 20 other people would walk out the door. [Laughs]

And then when we went to play across the street, there were like, a hundred people. That's where I met my wife, Sue. She was a waitress at a bar around the corner. I know exactly who was there, where they stood and so it kind of felt like a little gang or group of friends. And it still feels like that, as strange as it sounds. And I don't feel like a lot of people know who we are. I don't feel famous. 

One of my daughters is a sophomore in college, and the other graduates from high school next week and will be off to college. So my wife and I have been married 20 years and are starting this new phase, which is kind of fun! I rented a little studio in New York – a tiny, windowless space with garbage all over the place. It's my man cave. The last time I worked on my guitar rig was, like, 1989. Since 1989 or something, my amp, my rig, has traveled on a truck, so I never, ever practice through my amp. It's only onstage when I show up and when I get to sound check. I want to make some noise, and work on my guitar sound, and no one ever lets me. I'm not allowed to. I'll start cranking the guitar and somebody will say, "Hey we're focusing this light, get off the stage."

So when I'm home, I play through a little Fender amp, and that's fine, but I never get to play through my rig. When I got off the road last, I rented a tiny space, and blocked it for about two and a half months, and I told my crew guys to set my whole rig up in this little, tiny, windowless room, and every day I wake up, walk down the street, go to this room, and lock myself in there for five hours a day. And I changed the kind of speakers that I use, and I got new tubes, and some new effects, so I'm like a little kid in there playing with my amp [laughs]. It's what I do every day. The other thing is that I had to learn 90 Dead songs. So I basically go in there, and I learn Dead songs, and then spend five hours playing. That's pretty much what I've been doing, I've been going deaf. It's been really fun. 

Have you given your kids any advice for this stage in their lives?
It's a funny stage of being a parent. My younger daughter is 18. And when I was 18, I was long gone, you know? I was in Phish. And my older daughter is going to be 20 in august. I'm not a big adviser kind of guy. But I told them what my mom told me that I'm so grateful for. I was very lucky to have a mother who was in the creative profession. My mom's a children's writer and she was the editor of Sesame Street magazine for awhile. She's written 200 children's books. Her mom, my grandmother, was an advertising executive in the Forties and Fifties in New York, like Peggy from Mad Men, seriously. She worked for Grey Advertising and married a painter, so that side of the family always had creative careers or lives. They didn't always make a lot of money, but they always did creative things. So my mom used to tell me when I was young, "Everyone is going to tell you that it's not possible. Don't listen to them. It is. Assuming you follow your heart and do what you love, your passion. Follow your passion and the rest will take care of itself." And she turned out to be right.

There was a long time when it was touch and go. It wasn't until the end of 1994 that my dad believed that we were actually going to be able to make this thing work. He was worried for his son. But we kind of kept going out of love and for what we were doing. The doubt never entered my mind. I think for my kids, the only thing that I would hope is that they would believe it's possible to do what you love and doing what you love can have a positive effect on people. I don't even know what is. If it's plumbing, then plumb with love. But the weird thing about this stage is you know having kids is that they're going to make their own mistakes. And sometimes I think the hardest thing to do is not step in and rescue. Not that I have to. But it's different when your kids are four and they you know, about to put their hand on the stove and you have to pull their hand away. I think! I don't know. Being a parent is hard, man!