Fans of Trey Anastasio were surprised last December when the guitarist posted a teaser for a mysterious new project, Ghosts of the Forest. The Phish member adadn’t put together a new band in a decade — and despite only about a minute of music being available, the group’s eight-date tour sold out immediately.
In this interview, Anastasio reveals all about the band — including the news that they will also release a new album on April 12th. The project is very personal: Anastasio wrote it for his lifelong friend Chris Cottrell, who died in early 2018. Anastasio considered Cottrell his “blood brother” — they camped, hiked, rafted and checked in with each other for decades. “He was my tether to childhood and to a life before Phish happened,” says Anastasio. He sat with Cottrell for his final days as he suffered from cancer, and soon went into his Vermont barn studio with some of his closest friends, making an album he thinks Cottrell would have loved, built around psychedelic guitar liftoffs, ambitious arrangements and extremely personal lyrics. “I went through a period of deep self-doubt after recording it,” Anastasio says. “I didn’t want to put it out. Maybe I was scared.”
Later this week, Anastasio is taking the band on the road. Ghosts of the Forest, featuring Phish drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Tony Markellis, keyboardist Ray Paczkowski and vocalist Jennifer Hartswick (all of whom have played in the Trey Anastasio Band) and singer Celisse Henderson (who sang with Phish during their 2016 Ziggy Stardust set).
Anastasio has been working with production designer Abigail Holmes, whose work includes Stop Making Sense. Anastasio considers himself fortunate his fans allow him to take these risks: “The amount of trust that they’re exhibiting in me just makes me want to cry.” In this Q&A, Anastasio explains how the band came together.
It’s been a decade since you put a new band together. How did you know that these songs required a new group?
It was definitely not gonna be a new band or even a show. It was just personal songs that I was writing. And the big impetus was Fish [drummer Jon Fishman] and Tony [Markellis] were two of the first people I met when I moved to Burlington when I was 18, and I started a band with each of them. Tony was the foundation of TAB and Fish was the foundation of Phish, thus the name. But they had never played together. And they had been friends and circling — I think they had played maybe two songs together in 30 years. I thought it would be fun to call them and track the thing as a trio.
Not to convolute the story — but [before that] I had a TAB tour booked, but Ray had a brain tumor. It was very serious, and we were very scared. I can thankfully say that he’s 100 percent cured. We canceled the tour. By the time the studio dates came, there was a lot of emotion in the air. I had a bunch of songs. But it’s so raw and organic. We recorded in two days. I remember we were done, and [our manager] Patrick Jordan I remember being surprised. I called up Patrick and said, “We’re done.”
My friend Chris, who a lot of those songs kind of allude to, passed away at the end of February. He was a nature lover. He loved the mountains. He always would take me hiking. One of the things that was sort of extra sad about the loss was that he was my friend outside of all this — a long-before, boyhood friend. When we were a young band and we would drive out to Colorado from somewhere overnight, he would always grab me and make me hike up the Flatirons, or go skiing, or go fly-fishing, which I sucked at. He would always take me out of the tour. It just dawned on me recently that he was sort of my tether to childhood and to a life before Phish happened — somebody that kind of understood who you could talk to that didn’t work with me.
When did you realize you were writing about Chris?
I try to stay in the present as much as possible, and I’m a big Eckhart Tolle fan. I read that stuff all the time, and also I play in a visceral, improvisational band. We don’t go onstage with a set list. My life is very much, you know, the next note.
So some of this stuff started and then when all of these events took place. Some of the music for “Drift While You Were Sleeping” was written, but I didn’t quite know what it was about. And then I went through this thing with Chris at the last stage of his life. I sat for days with him with my acoustic guitar. He sat on the couch and he kind of drifted in and out of consciousness. It was powerful and scary, and also kind of beautiful. It sort of became [about], “Well, we’re all going there, we’re all here together in death and in dreaming, and we’re free of time.” I was thinking about my sister who also died of cancer, and my grandmother. We carry these people around with us.
One of the most emotional songs is “In Long Lines,” where you sing about loved ones who have left us “moving around us … in long lines.” Where did that idea come from?
Well, you know, maybe this is some kind of mid-life crisis on a record, I don’t know. My sister died. I had the same experience that so many of my friends have had, which is after she died — we were there when she drifted off — I had this sort of moment. It really was kind of powerful, where I kind of had my eyes closed and had a moment. She had been so sick for so long and then all of a sudden I saw her in my mind’s eye, vibrant and beautiful again, and I had forgotten that she had even looked like that. It was a glimpse and it went away and I never saw it again. But it comforted me. [It was] this idea that all these people are carried in our hearts and souls. This is so not profound, everybody thinks this, but I couldn’t shake it. Normally I’m so optimistic — everything’s fine. But this one just hit me. I was sad for a while.
“In Long Lines,” one of the funny things about Chris is he was kind of a mountain man, and he smoked. He smoked right up until he died. I kind of loved it, in a weird way. But one of the last things he did was go out on the porch and smoke a cigarette. And that was the kind of guy he was. That’s in the song, if you listen, you know: “I lit your cigarette.” I don’t recommend it for everyone who has cancer.
I read that Chris liked this side of you that lets go on the guitar. How did that play into the sound?
He would have loved this record. He liked it when I ripped it on the guitar. Period. End of sentence. That’s it. The two of us used to listen to Jimi Hendrix incessantly. Like, every time we got together we’d put on Band of Gypsys. He’d come see Phish, and he liked sustain. So when I made this record after he died I just said that to Fish and Tony, “I’m just going to play a lot of guitar.” There’s no overdub crap for most of it. It’s real. This tour will be more of that. A lot more. The only thing I added was Jen and Celisse so I could have that vocal thing I love so much.
What’s the live show going to be like?
Are you familiar with the New York City theater scene? You know Hadestown? Hadestown was written by Anais Mitchell, she’s a Vermont composer, and interestingly enough it debuted at Higher Ground. It was like a nine-song folk record. The album sort of developed into a show. Now, that went on to be a Broadway show. This is a concert, this is not a Broadway show or anything like that, but it has definitely grown into something that feels really unique from anything else I’ve done at least in quite some time. It’s going to be completely based on the album, expanded greatly — a little scary, but it feels good to be letting this thing grow organically, and it’s only eight shows.
You’re going from no set list to a set show. I’m curious what that’s going to be like.
It’s certainly going to be plenty of improv, but the narrative and the arc seems to be holding pretty steady.
“Sometimes I see people later in their careers, and that mentality that starts to happen: ‘Hey, I’m in a big band. Come pay a lot of money and see me because I’m so great.’ I feel the opposite. … It’s my job to do something new and to progress.”
Why is the tour so short?
I did a show a long time ago at the Higher Ground called 8 Foot Fluorescent Tubes. I wanted to do something different than a regular concert. I wrote all new music for it, and we did this show. It had sets and props and stuff. Years later those songs have all become parts of the Phish fabric and TAB and all that stuff. “Sand” was debuted at that show. “First Tube” was the opening song. These dancers were onstage with eight-foot fluorescent tubes in their hands.
Once I had the album, I started thinking maybe this is a chance to try this one more time like that in this life. A lot of it grows out of our audience. We have this incredible audience and they honor us. The longer it goes, the more I feel like I want to honor them. The number of times they’ve come to see us, the responsibility and the excitement of the risk grows in my mind. Kasvot Växt that Phish just did was that: just, let’s just do something amazing fresh and new. These people have come to 200 concerts. We owe them.
Sometimes I see people later in their careers, and that mentality that starts to happen — “Hey, I’m in a big band. Come pay a lot of money and see me because I’m so great.” I feel the opposite. You’ve seen it already. It’s my job to do something new and to progress. It’s not like everybody is going to like everything. That isn’t my job, but I want to care. The bands that I loved cared.
Do you think that Phish will ever do something as ambitious as Baker’s Dozen again?
You mean, like a Baker’s 19, or something? That was another one of those. The Baker’s Dozen, people honored us with their presence. It’s hard work to go to all those shows. We really cared, and it was so much fun. But then it’s like, “Oh, four more nights for New Year’s,” so we did 17 nights at the Garden that calendar year. I said, “We have to end the year with a new song,” which was “Soul Planet,” with the pirate ship and all that. The reason was because they just came for 13 nights, and we owe everyone in a way. I mean, it’s our friends. It’s our family. It’s become, really, a family feeling, as you know. You’ve probably been there. That particular New Year’s Eve was designed as a specific message of, “Thank you. We’re on the boat, but we’re not driving it. The wind is blowing and the wind is the music and you are the ones who are keeping us afloat. That was the message.
What sets the sound of this record apart for you? Because it doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve done.
The first thought that’s coming is just “years.” Fish and I have been playing together since we were 18. We played street music when we were 19 in Europe together. The water under the bridge is deep. Tony and I have been playing 20-plus years. Ray has done every project I’ve ever done outside of Phish. When Dave Matthews asked me to do Dave and Friends, I said, “I’ll only do it if Ray can come.” It was amazing. Jennifer, I met when she was 16 in the Lyndonvale High School Jazz Band. She was the same: Her spirit was just as incredible and one-in-a-million as it is now. She just was younger. She joined my band when she was 18 and we’ve been playing together for 20-plus years too.
This is all soul brothers and sisters. Maybe I wanted that after losing one. That rings true to me. I just wanted all my friends together, you know, after losing one.
Were you surprised the tour sold out with no songs out?
It feels incredible. And it feels like a responsibility and a little scary. It’s an honor, first of all. But it’s an honor that I take very seriously.
Before the last New Year’s run, my Christmas gift from my 21-year-old daughter was a book that she made with the help of people online who are Phish fans. She asked everyone who had met their wife or husband, or best friend, at Phish shows to send in a photo and a little message. She had it all bound in a hardcover book and gave it to me Christmas morning. And I was literally sobbing. The whole thing just blew my mind. It’s just pages and pages and pages of these amazing people: Pictures of their kids and the first time they met, or in front of the stage. It made me think this has gotten so much bigger and wider than a band. We’re just four of these little people on the side, is the way I look at it. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. They’re big threads in the tapestry and we’ve all been doing this for so long.
What’s opening night going to be like for you?
Now is the time and I get to go to Maine. This is what my mind’s been on, because it’s always on the next show. I get to go to Maine, which I love. I love the State Theater. We’re going to go to Maine and we’re going to go in, and for one night, we’re going to go on a journey for everybody together — the audience and us. We have this audience that’s open-minded, and the whole thing just blows my mind. I can’t even. Nobody’s going to have any idea what we’re even going to play, you know. I won’t even know until that day. I kind of know right now, but we’ll be at soundcheck figuring it out. And then off we’ll go.
Lately, you’ve been doing solo acoustic tours, Phish, TAB and now Ghosts of the Forest. What drives you?
I think the risk makes me feel alive. Change is the one thing you can count on. Everything is turning and changing all the time. There’s a lot of music tours on the road now that are from, like, Seventies nostalgia? A lot. And that’s great. And yet, it’s over. I mean, I want to hear King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, which is all I listen to now. I’m just obsessed with these guys. I mean, they put out five albums last year and they’re cool. I’d rather hear something new. I feel blessed that the fact that so much of what Phish does is improvised means that’s built into our whole thing. Every night is going to become new.
You’re playing a bunch of huge festivals with Phish this year, like Bonnaroo and Fenway Park. How are you feeling about this summer?
I think the most exciting thing right now about Phish is the level that the teamwork and camaraderie has got to. I wonder if it’s noticeable, but it really amazes me. When I’m with them, I feel like I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to get to be in a room with these three guys. They’re that smart, cool, funny and talented. It’s a running feeling that I have, at catering, in the band room. I’m really grateful that it’s still going on. I’m not even totally sure where we’re going this summer, but I always have it on my radar, “How long do I have to wait before I can see these guys again?” Page said something to me [in Mexico recently]. We were in the band practice room laughing about something, and as we were walking out, he said something like, “It’s not fair that we can be laughing that much at work.” I just thought it was so on point.
There’s a documentary about you, Between Me & My Mind, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26th. I’m surprised you gave filmmakers the access.
People have asked over the years many, many times to do movies. Only one time have we agreed. It was Todd Phillips [for 2000’s Bittersweet Motel]. That was a long time ago and, whatever, that was what it was.
But the reason we took the meeting, was because one of the two guys at Stick Figure was a fan and his selling point was, “We would like to make a documentary because nobody understands or has ever been invited into the process of how the doughnuts are made.” That kind of piqued our interest enough. At the meeting they said, “Look, you just did ‘Petrichor,’ which had dancers and umbrellas. And then Kasvot Växt, and all these complicated songs. It would be fascinating to invite people into the process.”
We let them come and once they started going they were going. They just were around for a year. I’m a fan of [Steven Cantor]’s work; I like his Sally Mann movie. We became friends because you just start getting used to them being around, and they feel like flies on the wall. They came out on tour and traveled on the bus. At first you’re kind of on guard and then eventually you forget they even exist. That’s when it gets dangerous, because you start speaking honestly. As you know, because you’re a great journalist — I know that’s happened to you when a band forgot they were doing an interview.
It was a fascinating year that they were around. They were around during the period of Ghosts of the Forest, the “Soul Planet” thing, probably a little teeny bit of the birth of Kasvot Växt. It was a good year. It was an interesting year in the Phish world. A fascinating year. That was a lot of fun. I mean, I’m nervous about it. I’m not going to lie.
Anyone who watches themselves on film is going to hate it. But I kind of became friends with these guys. They’re cool guys. So, I don’t know … I don’t really know what I can say about that, because, you know, it’s coming out, I guess. It could be the end of everything. You never knew what an asshole this guy was.