CERTAIN NAMES KEEP POPPING up during lunch with Trey Anastasio: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis. Anastasio, 42, admires these musicians because, he says, they never looked back. “They spent their lifetimes redefining themselves,” the guitarist says. “They give me hope.” Two years ago, Anastasio walked away from Phish, the world’s biggest jam band, dissolving one of music’s most lucrative touring operations. On his new solo album, Bar 17, Anastasio follows his own artistic compass on songs like “Dragonfly,” a concise retro-rock number, and on more extended jams like “Host Across the Potomac.” Phish members Mike Gordon and John Fishman are among the forty-odd musicians to guest on Bar 17, and rediscovering that camaraderie — as well as Anastasio’s recent opening gigs for the Rolling Stones — has caused him to rethink his “never gonna happen” attitude toward a Phish reunion. “I’d been talking shit about the Stones since I saw them on their Steel Wheels tour,” he says, munching on monkfish in a Manhattan cafe. “But when I opened for them, they were the greatest band on Earth again. I hang onto this hope that I can play with Phish again — if everybody goes back in with a bristling sense of urgency. Phish is an improvisational band, and it could come back to us, steeped with emotions.”
You moved to New York two years ago. Why?
It makes me feel alive. There’s music and action all over the place. And I needed a change — I was getting a little restless up in Vermont. And there are so many musicians here. I’d come up with a song in Brooklyn and say, “I need a bass player and a couple of strings,” and you make a couple of calls and bam, that’s it. We recorded “Dragonfly” at 2 A.M., and I had horn players come in afterward that night, spur of the moment. I love that shit!
Phish held insane gigs at Madison Square Garden. Was it odd to go back there as a solo artist, opening for Tom Petty recently?
Actually, it’s all right. As soon as I dig in and get someone who was sitting down up to their feet, I’m happy. And everyone was on their feet by the end ot most of those sets with Petty. For two years, in ’92 and ’96, Phish were Carlos Santana’s warm-up act, and he said to me, verbatim, “You’re gonna be in theaters, in clubs, and you might be in arenas — that’s the way it goes for anyone who wants to go the long route.” And it’s been so true of all the people I admire.
Who do you think should headline Bonnaroo in 2007?
Tool! I saw them here in New York at a small theater, and I loved them. They were so loud. They’re the most psychedelic band going. The funny thing is, with their odd time signatures and patterns, they sound kinda like Phish.
Jay-Z sat in with Phish in 2004. Got a good story about that?
The fact that he came down to the show at all — that was exciting! He showed up in his Bentley, with curtains in the windows [laughs]. He was really nice. We practiced the songs [“99 Problems” and “Big Pimpin'”] a cappella — I had a little electric guitar, not plugged in — and he was rapping right into my ear. Like an amazing jazz musician, he was rolling, hanging off the back of the beat, and it was incredible! I had this thought — really — that if he were born at another time in Europe, he would have been Mozart. He has the gift.
What was your first psychedelic experience involving music?
[Laughs] One time, we were playing a Halloween show in Vermont. We had this jug of cider, and people threw in all kinds of blotters and sugar cubes — and we all drank it. We took a lot of acid. A lot! We got so wrecked that we couldn’t play at all. I hit my guitar — plunk — notes would echo, and we’d all start laughing and going, “Oh, my God, that’s so weird!” Everyone in the audience had drank it too, so when I went whik-whik on my guitar, they’d all start dancing. I’d stop and they’d stop, which I was freaking out about, too, because I thought I was exerting control over other people [laughs]. That was the last time I ever did that.
Phish played their last shows in the summer of 2004. Have you hung out with those guys much since then?
Recently, for the first time since our last show, everybody got back together. I had a big feast at my house in Vermont — just the four of us — with huge crab legs and pasta and eighteen bottles of wine and a big bonfire.
What secrets have you learned for survival on the road?
I’m starting to get it figured out now. There are a few simple rules. Don’t spend all your time freebasing cocaine — that’s gonna make your tour a lot shorter. It was getting ridiculous there for a while, and it was showing. So on the last tour, I reeled it in. And get at least five hours of sleep every third night.
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There’s a line in “Host across the Potomac” that goes, “The time has come for desks and chairs to be elevated.” What does that mean?
I was trying to write a song with hope. It’s a little obscure and obtuse, but I’ve always wanted to write a song like “I Can See Clearly Now” or “Ooh Child,” or the most amazing song ever, “Amazing Grace” — songs that give hope in a time of hopelessness. I’m serious. Whenever I get depressed, those songs help me a lot — songs that people might think are cheesy.
So you’re lactose-tolerant.
Yeah, much more lactose-tolerant than the average guy. I can go into a drugstore and fall down sobbing to “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.”