"It's our 30th year, so it's really indescribable," says Trey Anastasio, currently on Phish's huge summer tour, which has included surprises like the debut of new songs such as "Yarmouth Road" and an epic three-set show in Chicago on Saturday. After a year including scoring the Tony-nominated musical Hands on a Hardbody and his solo album Traveler, Anastasio is happy to be back with his old friends. "The four of us are texting each other and talking 30 times a day," he said before the tour started.
In our new Q&A, Anastasio discusses the band's split in 2004, how their work ethic has changed since the Nineties, how he approaches playing live today and the details of the band's new studio recordings. "I'm happy to have just carved out a time to sit in the room with those guys and the fact that 30 years later it feels exactly like it felt in 1988," he says. "I'm still with my best friends and everybody's healthy, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Seeing you guys ring in your 30th year at Madison Square Garden felt really special. Is that number hard to wrap your head around?
It's a little bit hard. Some of these things I never could have anticipated when I was young. Because the kind of music that we play is improvisational, you can tell when someone's having an off day because of the way they're connecting. It's a very intimate act, to be up there talking at the same time and listening, you know. We're getting older. Our drummer is about to have his fifth child. There's marriages, divorces, death. Life happens. But then when you get up there, it's just the intimacy. I know those guys so well and I especially know them when I'm playing with them, and it's a real blessing. I feel like the relationship is kind of opening up in the past couple of years into some new territories that I never could've anticipated.
In what way?
Like anybody who's in a 30-year marriage, we've gone through plenty of ups and downs. We've fought and we've had fun, and now there's just this new plateau that we've reached that I couldn't have anticipated. Page [McConnell] put out his solo album recently, and we're all listening to it and talking about it and calling each other up and talking about putting some of the songs in the Phish set and commenting on the album cover. It's very supportive and very loving. We were up in Vermont starting to work on the new album a few weeks ago, and it's pretty incredible.
You told Charlie Rose recently that you used to lock yourself away for hours after a show in the Nineties, making a set list and then spending the next day practicing new songs. Since getting back together, what is the ethic like now on the road? Do you guys work around the clock like you used to?
It's a different ethic. We don't practice the number of hours we used to, that's for sure, because we used to live together. And I got married in 1994 and had my first child at 1995. I was the first one to get married and have kids. So, you know, we were single guys living in a house together, so that's never going to happen. But what we did do when Phish came back together in 2009 [was] we made a conscious effort to spend a lot of time together. So when we rehearse now, we make sure it's just the four of us. Because that's something we used to do when we were young.
What happened was you get more famous. We have a great crew, but rehearsals kind of became a big production, and the four of us didn't really hang out together. We just were working on this album and we made 100 percent sure that it was just the four of us in the room. We don't log the same kind of hours, so we have to kind of adjust our process in terms of new material and stuff like that. I mean, we're almost 50 years old and everybody's got kids. Interestingly, for me, I had kids younger than those guys did. My daughter's going to college next year and my second daughter will be in college in a couple years, so I'm kind of fascinated by the idea that a certain amount of time is going to open up in the near future for me to tour more and do more stuff. When we came back in 2009, that was probably the prime directive: spend time together, the four of us. You know, for better or for worse, tons of stuff happened that led us to separate in 2004, but at the core of it was probably losing the most important thing, which is that Phish is the four of us, together. And that we have to make time for that.
For the past few years, the summer has been the truly heavy worktime for the band while the rest of the year seems to be spent on other projects.
The whole gang goes on tour, so there's maybe 10 kids. It's like a big caravan, and we all go out in the summer because right now that's what works for us. It's really fun – everybody's backstage.
When you're onstage playing "You Enjoy Myself," or any of your songs with these huge peaks, what's going through your head? Anything?
Live music is kind of gold dust, in a way. You walk out there, it only happens once. You can record it, but that's a different experience. If you listen to a recording of the concert, it's not the concert. So you walk onstage and there's these people standing there, and you can smell them and see them and make eye contact with them, and it's pretty intimate. I know people say this, but I'm really saying it after 30 years: whatever state the audience is in on a given night absolutely, completely affects where the show goes. And I watch – that's what I do. I look out and I watch, and I try really hard to make some kind of contact with people who are farther back. I look out and try to find somebody. Sometimes I look right at someone and try to communicate while the music's going on. Sometimes I'll kind of like focus in on this unlikely person in the audience. In fact, I might look at somebody who's not looking, who's looking over at a friend or looking up into the air.
Will you think "What's going through their head right now?" or "Who are they?"
I think I'm trying to sort of talk to them a little bit. I've definitely had the experience where I can see somebody standing sort of with their arms crossed, and I play at them and they'll start moving. Unless it's just in my mind. Maybe I'm imagining it, but I do try to do stuff like that. And sometimes I don't know. It's an amazing experience – it's really incredible. And another thing: the atmosphere has so much to do with where the concert goes.
One time I was playing with my solo band in Pittsburgh and there was this train track next to the stage. And this train went by in the middle of the set with this long train, and everybody in the room – the people dancing, the band, the drummer – everybody locked in with this train. And it was just the most amazing thing, right to the beat of the train, and people were dancing and the train was ripping by and it was just the most amazing thing.
And then earlier this summer, I was playing at DelFest in Maryland, and you could see the full moon come up, and the clouds parted, and suddenly everybody starting howling at the moon. That's the point I'm trying to make about it being gold dust. I can't ever remember walking onstage at a concert where something like that didn't happen. And you never know what it's gonna be. And when it's over, it's gone. I'll say one more thing and then I'll shut up and you can ask questions: The ultimate example of that for me was when Phish played Big Cypress, which was our 1999 to 2000 outdoor concert in Florida. And we played all night, from 11 at night until the sun came up. Like eight straight hours, 70,000 people staying up all night, and I will never listen to that tape because I know what a letdown it would be compared to what it was actually like there. But when that sun came up, and the sky was bright, blazing pink, and I was looking at people in the audience, and we were all in awe – it was just an indescribable moment. There's pictures of it. You can see how pink the sky was. But have you ever tried take a picture of the sunset?
Yeah, fireworks too.
Yeah. You gotta be there. But I just felt so small and insignificant. And I think that's kind of the goal with the live music. Is it just to be a tiny, tiny, tiny part of something? That's a big part of what I think about when I'm onstage. Anyway, long answer.
For most people, you are the focus.
It's funny, because before I go onstage I meditate for five minutes on how much it isn't about me. That's kind of the most important part to me, is that I feel like I'm observing, almost like, I don't know, taking dictation or something. Even with the music, you don't think the earth's rising – it doesn't feel like we're making it up, it feel like we're just listening. It's like reach out – reach out with your ears, reach out with your heart, and just try to play what you hear. And then you never run out of ideas. As soon as I start thinking it's me, it just dead in the water. It really [is], and that can happen pretty quickly. Page and I talk about it a lot. You just gotta get out and look around. I try to picture the guy in the back row – him or her in their house, trying to meet up with their friends and trying to find a parking space, and where they're standing, and the guy next to them is making too much noise, and somebody lost their ticket, you know, the lights go down, and we're just these tiny little parts of it over on one side of the room.
Do you have any dream covers for the summer?
I want to do "Blurred Lines." We're not gonna do it, but that's what I would want to play. My daughter and her friends are in the car a lot, so we'll drive, and that's like the soundtrack to my life right now. A lot of girls screaming and singing along to all the words. We could do "Blurred Lines" or that new Fall Out Boy song. I really like that song: "I'm on firreeee!" ["My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)."] It's crazy!
Is it hard to find new surprises after surprising your fans so many times?
It's only hard if you make it, I think. Being in Phish, I love this – there isn't really much of a sense of stylistic limitations. Everybody likes a lot of kinds of music. You know, like a couple years ago I was listening to that TV On the Radio album and we started playing that song "Golden Age." We covered all those Halloween albums, so we've developed this weird skill that we're pretty good at learning songs fast. I mean, we've kind of trained ourselves to learn songs, so I could be cranking the TV On the Radio album in my band room, which is what happened, and we can be like, man, we can play this tune. Let's do it. And then we kind of learn it, boom, and go out and play it. We've done that backstage before a show before. I mean, in between the last song and the encore, we'll have a boombox, and we'll just learn something really fast.
People have favorite historical points of certain bands – like the Grateful Dead, they might say 1977. Looking back, do you have a time that you think of so far as your favorite moment, or Phish's musical peak?
I do. I have three for you, and you're going to think this is a cop-out. I sincerely would pick right now. Absolutely, without hesitation. And I would not have said that in 2002/2003. It's not like I always think that. I mean, I really can't get over the way the band's playing right now, and the way we're talking to each other. I'd take right now, and then right behind that I would take two other periods of time. I would take driving to Colorado in the van in 1988 or something, and we have a van with no windows, and laughing for, like, three straight weeks with the band members and my dog. It was just so fun, all that driving time with the four of us in a van. I wouldn't trade those times for the world. And then the third time I would pick is any band practice. Any band practice as long as it's just the four of us in the room. Any time it was just the four of us in the room at band practice, I would pick. And I gotta tell you, without hesitation, right now. Like last year, the New Year's shows that you saw.
Speaking of practicing and being in the studio, can you share a little bit about how the new songs are sounding?
For me it's been the ultimate joy, because we did what I've been talking about. There's no one there except the four of us. We have one guy who helps, who's amazing at being quiet, who sits at the board and records stuff for us. But it's like we've created an atmosphere where it's just the four of us again, and that was really the problem from the late Nineties on. And we're the ones who did it. But we just turned everything into such a big scene and a huge party. It was fun, too. But there were so many people around that we invited. It's our fault, but we didn't do anything except socialize. But I want to socialize with them. With Mike [Gordon] and Page and Fish [Jon Fishman].
Another thing that's really cool about it is we kind of walked in there and said, "Let's just write stuff together," which hasn't historically happened a lot. But it's such a good area right now in terms of communication. You know, writing together. Sitting up in the cupola in my barn with four pads of paper and looking out at the Vermont landscape and writing. So we'll see where it goes. We don't really know right now. But I think that's more important to everybody than anything. It's not really about the results, it's the fact that we're writing together. We like what we've got. We got stuff on tape, but it's not done yet. We're probably going to do a lot in the fall. As soon as this tour is over we're going to go right in the barn, but right now we're just going to enjoy playing.
So no deadline – you're just seeing what happens.
No. I think anybody who's my age can relate to this: finding time to hang out with your three best friends and write music together is enough. That is pretty miraculous, considering how life comes in. Like I said before, we used to do that when we were 25, because you're 25 and it's easy. But we're busy. So the fact that we're even together, I don't even care how it comes out. Hopefully it comes out great, but I'm not thinking about that. I'm happy to have just carved out a time to sit in the room with those guys, and the fact that 30 years later it feels exactly like it felt in 1988. I'm still with my best friends and everybody's healthy and I wouldn't trade it for anything. That's why I said two of my favorite eras were in the car and in the band practice room. I just like being with those guys. It doesn't last forever, so I'm taking it while I got it.