"It's about trying to figure out what Phish does that's uniquely Phish, and then pushing that envelope," he says. Phish are recording eleven new songs with Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Tom Waits), at the Barn, the quartet's Vermont studio, for a yet-untitled album due on Elektra in June.
In their early years, "Phish [tried to] do everything," admits Anastasio, a former composition major at Goddard College, who frequently adapted classical fugues and swing band charts for the band to learn. "Phish was the vehicle through which all creativity had to flow, and I wasn't always sure if that was for the best. But I think it was to Phish's advantage, because we ended up sounding a little bit unique as a band."
The band has shied away from Anastasio's more complex endeavors in recent years, leaving him to pursue them in works like Seis de Mayo, which reconfigures several familiar Phish songs. "All Things Reconsidered," from 1993's Rift, is arranged for a string quartet, and "Guyute," from 1998's Story of the Ghost, is performed by the sixty-six-piece Seattlemusic Orchestra.
"If left to my own devices, I'd probably write a lot more music like [this] than I would write songs," Anastasio says. "A lot of the history of Phish, with songs like 'You Enjoy Myself' and 'Guelah Papyrus,' is that I would write these long pieces of music, then I would find a way to put them into the middle of songs so that we could be a rock band."
Phish has evolved, though, shedding nonsensical lyrics and atonally dense voicings in favor of more restrained music. "When I listen to the arrangers that I really admire now, it's the people who were able to take elegance and sophistication to the end of conveying deep emotion," Anastasio says.
"I'm not saying that we're succeeding at that yet," he adds, laughing.
Though the band frequently debuts new songs in concert, Anastasio says Phish have tried to steer clear of the newest material for the time being. "A problem that we've had historically is that we start playing songs live and they develop personalities, and it always feel like it's missing something in the studio."
After hurriedly recording 2002's loose Round Room with little rehearsal following their two-year hiatus, the band is happy experimenting. "It's become about the experience and the process," he enthuses. "'We're gonna spend two months up there, so let's do something interesting.'"
The band will play three shows at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas in April before mixing with Blake at Peter Gabriel's RealWorld studio in London in May.