There is no precedent in rock & roll for the decision made last fall by the four members of Phish. After 17 years and 1,300 concerts together, guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell announced that they were stopping. Not exactly breaking up, but also not promising that they would ever be back. There were no fights, meltdowns or Yokos. They didn’t burn out, and they didn’t fade away. They just quietly decided to pack in while they were still on top.
Eight months later, Anastasio is deep into a new musical life. This spring, he spent a month recording an album with Oysterhead, a power trio in which he’s joined by Primus’ Les Claypool and Police drummer Stewart Copeland. For the past few weeks, he has been working with his own band, an eight-piece horn-driven ensemble whose sound recalls the Nigerian juju music of King Sunny Ade. “When I think about the amount of music I’ve made in the last six months,” Anastasio says, “it kind of shows why Phish stopped.”
In his most extensive interview since Phish’s break, Anastasio talks about the band’s beginnings, their hiatus, and the myriad projects that comprise life after Phish.
Was the decision to take a break from Phish a difficult one?
It was a real emotional time, but in a positive way. I mean, the last week of Phish I honestly don’t think any of us slept at all. We just stayed up all night for, like, a week, as evidenced by our raspy version of “Twist” on [The Tonight Show With Jay] Leno. But it was amazing, because no one was sleeping [because] we didn’t want it to end. That whole seventeen years was so incredible. We felt so lucky to have that happen, whatever that was. It was like a dream; it was amazing. And that New Year’s Eve show [at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Florida 1999-2000] was by so far the culmination. If you think about that event, and take a step back — that event was put on in a swamp. There were no roads; we built the roads. Everything was completely constructed from the ground up. There were 80,000 people who came from all over the country, and virtually nothing went wrong.
When did the work start?
At least six months in advance. The four of us were sitting in hotel rooms on tour, planning every aspect of it with our manager, at least six, if not nine, months before. A year before, we started looking for the spot. It would have been impossible to have pulled that off without having done the previous four or five that we did, which was the Lemon Wheel, the Great Went, Oswego and Clifford Ball.
I get the sense that you guys enjoy the logistics.
Oh, yeah. What was so amazing about the New Year’s show is that it was the culmination of years that kind of built on itself. There’s no way you could’ve put that show together without everything that led up to it, going all the way back to Amy’s Farm, our first outdoor event, in, like, ’85 or something. Amy was this woman — you could go meet her, if you went to our office, she works on our merchandise — she was one of our first fans. She had a farm: “Let’s put a show on out there.” So we had to build a stage. It was all homespun, and it worked out great. People camped; it was amazing. It was like the event was bigger than the band.
Where does this community way of thinking come from? For a bunch of teenage kids to figure that out is kind of impressive.
A lot of it was a spirit of collaborative thinking. A lot of it grew out of this feeling that “What does everybody have to offer?” There’s always this feeling, among the four of us: “If there’s anything anyone has to offer, let’s get it in to the [mix]…” And then that started taking us to unexpected places. These big events, we always had the philosophy that everyone involved should have an open forum for whatever their input is. So by the time we got from Clifford Ball to the Great Went, we’d started this trend of involving artists who would do different things. We had miniature towns. It was totally over-the-top. This is my favorite story from that: We were at the Great Went, which is up in Limestone, Maine. We had hundreds of artists building the closures, and instead of having a normal fence around the thing, we would have curved walls and . . . it’s hard to describe. But one of the things we wanted to do was this whole finale idea. And one of the little items we needed for the finale was this giant elephant, which we were gonna build. On the airbase up there, they had this enormous fire truck that could spray water. It’s an alternate landing spot for the Space Shuttle, and so they needed a huge fire truck in case there was ever a huge fire. So we had these meetings in the hotel room with our manager: “What could we do with the fire truck?” “Oh, let’s make it into a giant elephant. We’ll play ‘Baby Elephant Walk.'” We came up with this parade idea, with all kinds of other animals, and it’ll be led by this elephant and we’ll play “Baby Elephant Walk,” and that’ll be the finale. We got there, and it didn’t work. So, there were all these people there. It was the middle of the night, and I was in this warehouse where the elephant was supposed to be. And there’s this crane operator, and I remember talking to this guy. Here’s a guy who’s operated a crane his whole life, and he’s never been asked to do anything creative. I said, “Well, what would you do?” And he got really excited, because here was an opportunity. Turns out, he was a really creative guy. He started brainstorming, other people started brainstorming. The next thing you know, we’re using this crane, and we put a guy in a seat in the crane, papier mache around this enormous elephant head. And everyone there was getting involved — there was this rope-pulley system, it was amazing. They did it all that night, and I remember thinking the reason it happened was because there wasn’t this hierarchy, and people got into the spirit of it. And that carried on into this New Year’s event. It was so completely over-the-top, I can’t believe it worked. There were road crews building roads, and grids, and they turned it into a kind of city. Each car had a sixty-square-foot place to park, where you could put your tent and car, on grass, no cement, with a grid of roads and a map. It was like two miles. It really was the culmination of the past seventeen years.
Do you miss having access to that sense of scale?
Oh, no. Not at all. I don’t miss any of it — that’s the funny thing. Because at the same time, and this is the one that’s hard for me to say, because I don’t want to be offensive in any way. Without underscoring how wonderful you feel to have been a part of such an incredible thing, musically, I was starting to feel that in the past couple of years I was spending more time dealing with the personal crises of the enormous organization we had made than writing music. I started writing less and less. The last album that we did [2000’s Farmhouse], if you think about it, was half songs that I’d written two years earlier with Tom [Marshall, Anastasio’s co-writer], “Twist,” “Farmhouse” and “Bug,” and half songs that I wrote with my other band, “First Tube,” “Sand” and “Gotta Jibbo.”
What were the crises that you were dealing with?
[Sighs] Pete can attest to this. Pete’s on our road crew. There are forty people working in the office, and people want to have lunch because, you know, there’s a problem with the salary, or “How come I don’t get…” A lot of it’s kind of “How come I’m not involved in this decision-making process anymore when I was when you were a smaller band?” I always feel like, because of my role in this thing, a kind of responsibility. I want everybody to be happy. It was just getting to be exhausting. We had this huge infrastructure.
I remember reading an interview with Jerry Garcia that made that point, that these guys just got trapped.
They were obviously big role models for us, and I was never going to end up in that situation, where I felt like a tour was happening because I needed to bring in money to support all these people. That’s the downside of having a family organization. For this band, I went to my house, into my basement. I got together with the rhythm section, I got a new keyboard player, so there’s four of us. I had a bunch of new tunes, so I got together and had them each do, for each of the fourteen new songs, very, very rough, mono, in my basement, just getting together bits and pieces of this. Now I had a five-day rehearsal with my rhythm section. We recorded these tracks, then I brought them up here and put them on one channel. Then I essentially sang the parts to the horn section. Now everybody’s going to go home and transcribe all this stuff, and come back for three weeks and record. The first time all eight people will ever be in the same room. That’s what I’m doing from here on out. I’ve got Oysterhead stuff, I’ve got so much stuff, but I’m going to now do a solo album. The morning after Phish stopped I started orchestrating this thing. When I think about, in the last six months, the amount of music I’ve done . . . I’ve written a DAT, an entire album, including mix, with Oysterhead, and this. And that’s only in six months.
How do you feel about being sort of the leader of the group, rather than one of four?
I feel pretty good about it right now because I think . . . these are sticky areas . . . I think that probably it’s not all that far off from the way things were, in a certain way, with Phish. I played that role in a certain way. But the beauty of Phish was that it was a group, but at the end it was a little difficult, because I had so many ideas, and in the beginning I was writing everything, and I started feeling uncomfortable about it. I started feeling awkward about having all this material, so I started holding it back, and having other groups, and it got a little . . . well, let’s put it this way: I feel really good about it right now [laughs]. It’s something that I needed to do, and everybody had stuff they needed to do, and I think we realized that Phish couldn’t be everything to all people. As much as we tried to make it that, it just wasn’t gonna happen. So, now’s our chance. Fish has got another group, Mike did his movies, Page is starting a trio, as far as I know, he’s gonna record with. I think there’s a good, healthy feeling about it — you only get one chance in life and everybody should do what they need to do. And hopefully, by going through these projects and doing what we need to, we can come together, ideally, and be happy, healthy individuals.
How do you think hard-core fans have dealt with the loss?
I’m gonna say, and people may disagree with me, that in a certain way, they’re glad. I feel confident that we were doing the right thing for the fans by doing this. We felt like if we didn’t do this, the quality level was gonna drop. This is why I can’t say for sure that Phish would come back. Because I won’t come back unless it’s as good as it was. I realized, especially putting these live albums together, how intense the whole thing was. And out of respect for the fans, and mostly out of respect for the music . . . I started catching a glimpse of something happening in the last year that I didn’t like.
In the band or in the audience?
Oh, never in the audience. The audience is great. In the band. There might have been just a slight slackening of the, you know, I used to spend four or five hours every night planning out the next night on tour for three and a half months. I would sit in my room with notepads with song lists, and new sections, and . . . you just start to feel your interest moving in different directions and you have to follow that. It’s not enough to be floating around out there just because we can. That’s not a good enough reason, as far as I’m concerned [laughs]. There’s so much excitement around the Phish tours, and if it stopped feeling that way, it would ruin everything we’ve done for seventeen years.
What’s your process for writing songs?
I write all the time, on piano, guitar. “Guyute” was score paper, and that’s an orchestral piece . . . Our focus was so much on live, I never wrote music for albums. Everything I wrote, for years, until maybe right at the end, was written around a show. So I’d write a second-set closer, or “Alright, we need a slammin’ tune, or a real fast thing, or a slow thing. We need songs in every different key, or people’s ears are going to get bored.” Stuff like that. We would write for the show, which is what I’m doing with this group. Because I don’t even have an album.
You never thought “I’m gonna write a song that radio’s gonna love?”
Oh I have felt that, but there’s something wrong about that. I’ve done it, but it left me feeling dirty [laughs]. That doesn’t mean I don’t like radio . . . I’ll give you a good example — this Tool song that’s on the radio now. I love it. I went and bought the album. It’s a great song, “Schism,” you know? I found myself listening to different radio stations to hear it. I like songs on the radio, but I think your intent still has to be to write a great song. If it gets on the radio, great.
Having the barn changes my opinion. Coming here to record doesn’t feel like going to a recording studio. Coming to the barn feels more like it’s about the experience — we get the fire going, and everybody’s hanging around. What I’m trying to do with this band is, the first time we’re going to get together, we’re going to have all this material. I rehearse the horns for a week, then they’re going to go home I send them a disc of this and transcriptions, so they can really learn it. Then they’re gonna come up and have two days of sectionals — the horn boot camp. The rhythm section I’m gonna rehearse with more. Then we’re gonna get together and the first time the eight of us will have ever stood together in a room, Bryce Goggin, our producer, will have been here for two days, mike-ing everything up. So the first time we even meet in a room together, we’re gonna record. My feeling is that is going to be amazing.
So, you don’t think it’s got to be perfect, you’d rather it be fresh?
People have been very patient with our blunders over the years. They don’t seem to fault us too much for going out and making idiots of ourselves, because we’ve done that pretty frequently. I’m sure at the concert you went to, we did that at least once or twice. That last tour, I got these horn players, and we wrote this stuff, and I rehearsed them for, like, three days, ’cause that’s all we had. Boom — we were out on the road. We were picking up covers along the way, and listening back to them, some of them are just bad. I’m not gonna do that on this tour. In reaction to those tapes, I thought, “Wow! There’s some great stuff there, and this could be amazing, but it needs a lot more work,” and I didn’t do the work before the last tour. I think if people listen to those tapes, they’d hear some moments like, “Well, I’d like to hear more of that, but I sure don’t need to hear that again.”
Do you go over the tapes very carefully afterwards?
I never did with Phish. But I did with this group. I forced myself to listen to the entire tour, which was painful, I’ve got to admit [laughs]. But that made me get my act together. For this summer tour, it’s gonna be two months of rehearsing. It’s a completely different vibe. And we’re gonna record first, because when you record, you have to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb and make it the way you want it to be. This is not going to be thrown together. I’m not that interested in doing too many covers.
So what more do you want to say about Phish?
It’s just an interesting time, because in my heart I have this incredible faith in Phish. It really was/is an amazing relationship I have with the three of them. It’s rare. Just to give you an example, I’ve heard nothing but encouragement from all three of them. It could be considered a threat that I’m doing this Oysterhead album, that I’m gonna tour with Oysterhead, etc., etc. You think that could be a problem in most bands. It’s quite the opposite. The other side to the coin is — how can I put this? — Phish was such a unit, and it might be odd for people to go out and not see Jon Fishman standing next to me. Certain nights on my tour, I’d get people yelling stuff, but for the most part, the fans are pretty open to all of this. We’re putting out this live album, and we took our break and suddenly I had to listen to Phish because we’re putting out six live albums, simultaneously. And six months from now, there’ll be another six. So we had to pick, among the four of us, six shows — they’re all whole, entire shows — and that involves listening to ourselves for the first time in years. All four of us had to sit down, and listen to Phish. In the process, I learned a lot. I sort of became a Phish fan, which I don’t know that I had been. I was starting to get confused the last couple of years. For the first time ever, on the last couple of tours, I’d come off stage and go, “Was that, you know, good?” I’d never asked myself that before. It always just seemed like a forward motion. It was just becoming overwhelming, and we needed to step away from it. But in the process of putting out these live albums, I started to get it again.
What did you hear that you might not have heard before?
Energy, mostly. Well, two things. This unique way of playing together, sort of like a four-headed monster is the way it sounds when it’s good. We used to practice five or six hours a day, and there’s just something I heard in the tapes that I was starting to lose track of — just how cool that was. I always think that it might have started when . . . a lot of the music I was writing in ’87 or ’88, was fugal — not necessarily strict fugues, but all these theme and variation things that I was into at the time. When you play a fugue, you think of a Bach theme and variation. It’s a simple piece of music, and you don’t introduce any new material, you do variations on it. Backwards, forwards, slow-down, speed-up. It was four-part music — two hands on the piano, bass and guitar — and there’s a teamwork ethic going on. So if you stopped the music at any given point, and listened to what notes the bass, the piano, and the guitar were playing, it would always construct some kind of chord, and there was motion, and rules. It’s a strict way of playing.
We would do these fugues, this very, very intricate, worked-out music, and then we would have a jam right afterwards. If you listen to old Phish, back to the first Phish album, “David Bowie,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Reba,” it’s this intricate, worked-out plane where everybody’s like a hand-and-glove. It’s not someone playing the chords and someone playing a solo. Everyone’s equally important. And what I heard, in listening to these tapes (because we went all the way back), is that I think that influenced the way that we improvised. We started trying to recreate that feeling, just by making it up as we go along, and also, we always talked a lot. Always. Band practice was incredible. When I think back about Phish, I gotta say my favorite part about it was band practice. We had amazing practices. I was as excited about going to practice as I was about going to gigs. We were always doing these odd ceremonies, and making up a rapport. It was just an interesting group of people. I wish everybody could spend a half an hour talking to Fish, for instance, and the same with Mike, and the same with Page. I feel that way about all three of them. They’re really just smart people. So we would sit around and talk most of the time at band practices, and it was always just bouncing ideas off each other, and so this fugal style of playing grew into this desire to reach that point without planning it out.
And we started coming up with exercises, and the first exercise was an imitation exercise. That was the simplest one — I play a phrase over a groove, Mike imitates it exactly, Page imitates it, then Fish has to find a way to melodically play it on the drums. As soon as that gets its way around the circle, Mike then plays a phrase. The idea was that each person has to be a leader and a follower. The next stage of that was everyone plays one note, but you have to imitate the way each person is playing it — and we do that for half an hour. Then we do harmonization, which is tough on the drums but you try to make it up, where you play a note and everybody else harmonizes it. Eventually that grew into a thing — this was my favorite one — where one person starts a simple phrase, the other people have to meld into your phrase, and the only rule is that you’re never allowed to correspond on a downbeat the same as somebody else. You always have to fill a hole, until everyone’s in a big hand-and-glove, with no one landing at the same time. So if I initiate a phrase, everybody else fills it in. One of the things we wanted to know was if we were all of one like mind, and the way to figure that out was, as soon as you heard that everyone else had settled in, you’d say “Hey.” And ideally, you would all say “hey” and the same time, because you’re listening to everyone, not just yourself. The goal of that was that you’re doing so much listening to everyone else that you can’t possibly be thinking about what you’re doing. All you’re doing is listening. As soon as everyone says “Hey,” it goes to the right, and the person to the right alters their phrase, and everyone else has to figure that out.
Did people think you were nuts at first? This is not how most college bands operate.
I don’t think anyone knew . . . we were just doing it to entertain ourselves. Honestly, and I mean this, if you had said, when this was all going on, that we would actually be a successful or famous band someday . . . that was all just a complete shock. We always knew we’d be a cult band. People who liked us really liked us, right from the beginning, from the first show. But we would just do this stuff, and have these rituals where we would play all night long, and it was amazing. It just was amazing, it really was. Right to the last minute, we ended this last show in San Francisco, and we were doing “You Enjoy Myself,” which was always, we felt, the song. It ends with a vocal improvisation, and it was just so emotional. I felt such a huge wave just to think that for seventeen years we were focused on this thing. It was overwhelming. And we just went backstage and sat there for hours.
You always hear these stories of bands that they don’t talk to each other, and the gigs over and they go separate ways . . .
I don’t know, it was never really like that. I mean, because band practice was — I keep bringing up band practice, but I feel like that was the greatest legacy of Phish. What I will remember the most about Phish is band practice. It was amazing. We would get in the band practice room and play one song and then we’d just start talking. Just talking and talking and talking. And I just looked forward to it so much. You know, and it’s like our whole lives were unfolding and we had this little oasis, and that’s the way it felt. As all this stuff was going on, I mean a lot of stuff was going on when you really look back at it, you know, a lot of it’s personal: children and marriages and divorces and homes and deaths of mothers and parents — you know, life was going by, and we had this little thing that never changed. It was a complete safe haven. There’s people that completely understood you. Fame, and the onset of fame, going from working as a cab driver for tips, to being rich, basically . . . I always looked at the Modern Jazz Quartet — they stayed together for thirty-five years or something. I don’t know where it’s all going to go. I feel simultaneously lucky to be a part of that thing I just can’t believe it happened and yet I’m so happy right now. I’m so creatively happy and that was kind of getting a little tough in the last couple of years. It was getting to be like a battle.
How do your daughters feel about being in a band?
Oh, they don’t even know I’m in a band. They both know I’m a musician.
They haven’t noticed things have changed, things are different around the house?
No, because it hasn’t, it isn’t different around the house. There are musicians at my house every day, in my basement. They all come in and sit on my lap while I’ve got people recording and, they’re actually pretty close with people in this other band I’m playing with. You see, this is another thing. It’s like I’m having that experience with Phish now in other, like, I was just telling my wife a few days ago that during the mix of Oysterhead, I suddenly had this feeling I’m in a band. Like up until that point, it was, we’re doing this cool project, we’re doing this cool project. Then we’re out there, and we’re all working on this album intensely, on Oysterhead, and I suddenly had those same feelings I had with Phish, like I really bonded with these guys. It’s like, “Oh my god, I’m in another band,” you know? And that was an amazing feeling too. That it could even happen again.
[Expanded From Story in Issue 873 — July 19, 2001]