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Trey Takes Up Conducting

For his next trick, Phish frontman will lead Nashville Chamber Orchestra

May 26, 2004 12:00 AM ET
"If there's one thing I discovered since I came back from [Phish's two-year] hiatus, it's that you can't go backwards," guitarist Trey Anastasio said last Thursday, the day before his twenty-year-old Vermont jam band decided to break up after its summer tour.

"I try to remember, now, that feeling that I had when I was writing [complex early Phish material like] 'Reba,' 'Foam' and 'Split Open and Melt.' There was a single-mindedness. Our relationship hadn't developed as a foursome, as people. I was very aggressive. So, I came into band practice and I said, 'Play this, play this, play this.' . . . I can't really do that anymore. That's nature . . . At this point, the whole thing has become a much, much heavier and harder boat to move . . . As the years went by, Phish became about improvisation a little bit more, and that kind of music got pushed to the side."

Phish have indeed shied away from Anastasio's more elaborate compositions in recent years and the frontman was left to find other outlets. "Lo and behold, the next thing you know, I've got a ten-piece band that has lots of complicated horn charts," he said of the outfit he has toured with during Phish's downtime.

Last month, Anastasio's released the orchestral, instrumental solo effort Seis de Mayo, an album that showcases his ability as a composer. For his June 14th performance on the closing night of this year's Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, he will lead the Nashville Chamber Orchestra through selections from the album, before performing a set with his solo band.

"That was the dream from the beginning," the thirty-nine-year-old former Goddard College composition major said earnestly. "When I met Phish, I was studying orchestral music. I wanted to be a composer. They were kind enough to facilitate me and learn it."

When Phish took their two-year break between 2000 and 2002, Anastasio was invited to expand Phish's "Guyute," from 1998's Story of the Ghost, into an orchestral work for the Vermont Youth Symphony. The project eventually grew into Seis De Mayo, a varied set which ranges from the string quartet puzzlebox of "All Things Reconsidered" (originally on Phish's Rift) to the brassy Americana of "Coming To."

The performance at Bonnaroo will include these, as well as two other new pieces. "I'm seeing this Bonnaroo experience as a big stone in the water to where I wanna go," Anastasio said. "The first set is going to range from string quartets to eighteen people, twelve people, forty people. The second set will be ten. I would like to have that gap start to close, to have the energy and intensity of the second set meld with the composition of the first set, along the lines of [Frank Zappa's] The Grand Wazoo."

"People have done it before," he continued. "Duke Ellington did it. That was a dance band. That's dance music, as far as I'm concerned."

After Bonnaroo, Anastasio will head north to rejoin his smaller ensemble, Phish. On June 15th, they will release their final studio album, Undermind, and on the 17th they will kick off their summer tour at Coney Island's KeySpan Park. The show will be broadcast to select movie theaters nationwide. The tour will conclude August 14th and 15th with Coventry, the seventh and last installment in Phish's annual city-sized camping festivals, which will bring their career to a close in their native Vermont.

"In a funny way, I wish I was in a wedding band," Anastasio said. "[My solo band] just played at a birthday party, and there were grandmas and little teeny kids dancing on the stage. We played for hours, we did an Earth, Wind and Fire song, everybody was dancing, and I was so happy. Along with all this crazy stuff that's going on, I want to be inclusive. I'm not trying to be high art. Basically, I'd like to have a forty-three-piece wedding band."

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