Last October, I interviewed Phish singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio about the Rolling Stones' 1972 double album Exile on Main Street. His band was about to attempt something even the Stones had never done: On Halloween, the second night of Phish's long-weekend party Festival 8 in Indio, California, they performed all four sides of Exile in sequence. I spoke to Anastasio at length for an essay I wrote in the free Playbill the group published for fans at the show. The mushrooming hoopla over the May 18th reissue of Exile — with previously unreleased recordings from the sessions — seemed like a good reason to retrieve some outtakes from our conversation, in which the guitarist went deep on his lifelong love for the album — and the surprises he found there as he learned to play the whole thing.
Exile on Main Street was the first concept album about life in a rock & roll band — the highs and lows, women and drugs, being backstage and onstage. It literally starts with waking up in the morning — "Rocks Off" — and ends with "Shine a Light" and "Soul Survivor," like the singer is coming out of this long weird tunnel.
The concept about being in a band — the song I really related to is "Torn and Frayed." "The ballrooms and smelly bordellos/And dressing rooms filled with parasites": We really had a problem with that for awhile. Yet it's so beautifully stated in that song. And then "Joe's got a cough, sounds kinda rough/And the codeine to fix it" [laughs]. We had one of those — the rock doctor. Every band's got one of those.
It's pretty affirming at the end. You pick up so much when you go through this process of playing every song on a record. But one of the first things I noticed, even after having listened to this record over and over my entire life, is that half of the lyrics I thought Mick Jagger was singing were wrong. And the ones he was actually singing were much better than the ones I had made up in my mind.
It's as if the Stones created their own language from the blues, to tell the stories in these songs. They have the covers — Slim Harpo ("Shake Your Hips") and Robert Johnson ("Stop Breaking Down") — but nothing that goes on in the other songs could ever be mistaken for a Southern black man's tale.
You had all of these British bands idolizing American blues musicians, which was the birth of what we know as electric rock & roll. But a lot of those records, with time, became too transparent — the lifting from the blues guys — so it's almost not believable. This one straddles some kind of edge. They took what was good about that music and truly made it their own. Funnily enough, the songs they covered were to me the least successful tracks on the record. But when Jagger sings, "Kissing cunt in Cannes" ["Casino Boogie"] it's so them, clearly.
Your band has a very distinct sound — you hear all of the moving parts as the members of Phish weave, bob and jam. On Exile, you can't tell what's what. The guitars are tangled up, the piano comes in and out and Jagger often sounds like he's singing from the back of the mix.
This goes back to what I was saying about what you take on — the task of learning the whole record. The first thing I did was sit down and start learning, note for note, the two guitar players' licks. I really dug in. And lo and behold, there are incredible, distinct guitar lines. It's played with an attitude — that rock & roll attitude. But everybody's playing sloppy together. Sit down someday and try to play along with those drums. It's incredibly intricate. It comes off as sloppy, but it's not sloppy at all.
It's like the entire band is a rhythm section.
And they have something going on between those two guitars, with the different tunings. Keith Richards has that open blues tuning. It's funny because it comes off as this rolling beast. But the deeper you dig, what they're playing becomes distinct and articulate.
I had the same experience with the lyrics. It's all garbled, but if you look at them, they're fantastic and clever. "Berber jewelry jangling down the street" ["Shine a Light"] — that's an example of Jagger using that blues "women doing me wrong" thing. But that is a total Mick Jagger line. It's not Mick Jagger stealing from a blues guy. It's Mick Jagger taking that blues concept into his world.
LOOSE AND TIGHT
It is easy to hear the deep traces of Jerry Garcia and Frank Zappa in your guitar playing. What did you learn from Keith Richards?
Tons, especially attack. If you listen to "Torn and Frayed," check out how tight Keith Richards' guitar is with the snare drum. It's almost reggae. The rhythm guitar is almost like another drum. Charlie Watts has famously said he never hits the snare and the hi-hat [cymbal] at the same time. And the way Keith plays rhythm guitar — it's like he's filling that hole. That's the thing he's always said about that sound ["the ancient art of weaving"] — you can't separate one sound from another.
Mick Taylor often gets forgotten for his role in that blend, even though that's his lead guitar on three of the band's most important albums: "Let It Bleed," "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile."
That was my favorite era of the Stones, when he and Keith were playing guitars. Mick seemed very shy — maybe that's why it worked. They had distinct styles. Right at the end of "Rocks Off" is the nastiest, most iconic solo riff. The song is all counter-rhythm — the two of them in different tunings. Then just as it fades out, it kicks off into that big-rock lead guitar. Turn it up really loud — that's Mick Taylor.
"Loving Cup" has been a Phish encore for many years. Why didn't you play more of Exile onstage before this?
I don't know. I used to play this record at every party — and there were a lot of them. [laughs] This was the go-to record. I had two go-to records for 10, 15 years. One was my morning wake-up or cooking-in-the-afternoon record — Django Reinhardt. But as soon as it got dark and people came over, it was Exile on Main Street.
On Halloween, you will be playing a lot of Exile songs that the Stones never played live, such as "Let It Loose" and "Soul Survivor."
Some of them are structured in a ballad-y way, like "Let It Loose" and "Shine a Light." Maybe that's not where they wanted to go live. I can see why they didn't do "Soul Survivor," although it's a shame. I had no idea what that song was about. Then I really got into it — all of those metaphors about water, drowning in love, the cutthroat crew.
"Let It Loose" — that, for me, may be the highlight of the record. For a guy who had so much swagger, so much history with beautiful women, it's a very vulnerable song, more than Jagger normally would reveal about himself. I love that about it. "Bit off more than I can chew/And I knew what it was leading to/Some things, well, I can't refuse" — that is classic songwriting.
Compared to other albums you've covered on past Halloweens — like the Who's Quadrophenia and Talking Heads' Remain in Light — this is the most musically focused and emotional record you've ever done.
I feel like I embody so many of those lyrics now. We started playing "Loving Cup" on a whim. But now it feels like our song when we play it. The lines are so right-on. "I feel so humble with you tonight" — I can get behind that.