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Trey Interview from High Times


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(This is a fun read)

Born in 1964 in Ft. Worth, Texas, Ernesto “Trey” Anastasio III was raised in Princeton, NJ, where he met budding high-school musicians John Popper and Chris Barron. In 1983, Trey moved further north to attend the University of Vermont, where he would soon cross paths with three other musicians — Mike Gordon, John Fishman and Page McConnell. They ultimately banded together as Phish, and become the mightiest of all the Grateful Dead-influenced groups of the ’80s and ’90s, otherwise known as jam bands.

But after 17 years together, Phish began a hiatus in 2000. All the band members are busy, but not like Trey. He’s recorded with Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland as Oysterhead, and now his self-titled second solo album has just been released by Elektra. Before he left for summer tour, Trey gave us more than a few minutes of his time for this first-ever interview with High Times.

High Times: So you’re about to go on tour?

Trey Anastasio: We’ve been rehearsing in my barn. The tour has not officially started yet. It’s pretty exciting. I’ve got a 10-piece band now.

HT: All the people who are on the album?

TA: There were about 30 people total on the album.

HT: The album has a jazzy feel with the extended horn parts. Is this something you’ve been wanting to do?

TA: Very much so. I’ve had this idea to do something that was stylistically me — guitar-driven, high-energy, compositional music — but stealing a couple of aspects of harmony from the swing-band concept. Sophisticated, elegant, harmonic language that comes from swing-band concepts, and then I keep hearing King Sunny Ade as a reference point on the other end. It’s obviously not swing music and it’s obviously not African music. The idea I wanted to take from King Sunny Ade was the concept of having a lot of people playing small parts that are intertwined together.

HT: I knew you were into jazz, but not swing necessarily.

TA: Swing bands were playing the rock’n’roll of their time. They injected a little depth, elegance and art into that style of music. This is exactly, consciously what I’m trying to do here — take this jam-band music, my kind of music — but I’m using the swing-band model. “Push on ’Til the Day” is almost the same song as “Down With Disease.” People have been hearing me play that same, basic groove with Phish, but what I’m trying to do now — I couldn’t do it with Phish because there were four of us — is have all these other textures. The best example of that would be “Last Tube.” It’s just like what all the jam bands are doing and what Phish did, but I’m trying to take it to the next level. Listen to the horn parts bouncing off the guitar solos — I’m trying to push the level of depth.

HT: There’s not a lot of popular music with much depth out there these days. TA: Popular music has sunk so low — you can’t sink any lower than what’s going on right now in popular music. What I’m trying to do is inject some kind of elegance and sophistication without watering it down. Richer harmonies and other layers get me off more than not having that.

HT: You’re talking about the nadir of boy and girl bands, Britney Spears & N’Sync?

TA: Yeah. Even heavy metal. Slayer’s Reign in Blood is probably one of my all-time favorite records. That’s heavy. There are other ways to be heavy than playing loud and fast. There are other kinds of heavy. If you meld that kind of heavy with heavy that comes from the harmonic standpoint, then you can get something really dark and really terrifying and heavy.

HT: How does this album differ from your first solo record, Surrender to the Air?

TA: I did Surrender to the Air right after A Live One. I only had about two days to do that, but it’s exactly the same makeup instrument-wise as this band. The music sounds very different — it was pretty much improvised and pieced-together. That was the basic idea in the back of my head.

HT: Phish get compared to the Dead a lot. The Dead took a break in ’75 and returned in ’77. Why did you decide to go on hiatus?

TA: I keep comparing it to surfing, because that’s really what it felt like. It felt like we caught this big wave and we just rode it. It was a real feeling among the four of us that that particular wave had kind of crashed into the shore. Things were still rolling along for Phish, but I think amongst the four of us, when we sat in the band room, we had a sense that we needed to let go of that for awhile.

HT: What’s the genesis for the direction you’ve gone now? Where were things at the time the band took the break?

TA: The genesis really was a musical one. All four of us live in music. It’s very, very important for us always to keep the separation between our life off the stage and our life on the stage as small as possible. We would be joking around in the band room and walking on stage continuing to have the same conversation, like it just continued on stage. We didn’t want to have a separation. This was something we knew for a lot of reasons for the four of us was an opportunity to go out and live life. It became the obvious next step.

HT: If I harp on the Dead too much tell me to stop.

TA: No, I love the Dead.

HT: Are you a Deadhead?

TA: I was very, very into the Dead in 1982-83, which was right when Phish started. Then I kind of got into Phish. When you’re in your own band that becomes the focus of your life. But I always loved them and I didn’t get to see them as much as I had in that period. I don’t think I saw a Dead show for seven years. I saw them in San Francisco in ’94 or ’95. It was definitely an eye-opener. Having not seen it and coming back to it, it was a little bit shocking how much things had changed.

HT: When Jerry Garcia died and the Dead ground to a halt in ’95, the torch was sort of passed to Phish. It seemed like a good transition, but was that too much for the band to handle? Did you feel any pressure?

TA: I love the Dead. I always thought that anybody who thought that they could be replaced by any other band was just insane. I didn’t understand that at all. It was a very strange thing, but if you look at the whole 17 years of Phish, it was an exact, angular rise. It was at the point where our manager used to be able to predict how many tickets we were going to sell in a given town based on how many times we had played there previously. Every time we played, it got a little bit bigger, and it kept getting a little bit bigger. I read a lot of articles saying that was happening, but I just didn’t buy it.

HT: Some Dead fans didn’t relate to Phish and others did. What do you think of that dichotomy?

TA: I know from being a Dead fan, if you were a Dead fan — a Deadhead — nothing’s going to do it for you. If there’s anybody that’s going to discount Phish, it’s people who are into the Dead. If you truly loved Jerry Garcia, there’s going to be no replacement for him. Anybody who loves the Dead and comes out to see us is going to hate it. If you think you’re going to get that fix, you sure as hell aren’t going to get it.

HT: How high do you rate Jerry among rock guitarists historically?

TA: I put Jerry Garcia right next to Jimi Hendrix. That’s the level of importance I give him in my book of rock guitarists and American musicians. Jerry Garcia is an American musical icon. He’s an enormously influential American artist. Part of the Dead’s impact was they set up the touring-around-the-country thing. They invented a whole way of being a band, and obviously we learned a ton from them.

HT: Did you ever get to play with Jerry?

TA: I never did.

HT: Who are some of your other guitar heroes?

TA: The guy who did the most for me as a guitar teacher and as a human being would be Carlos Santana. We were lucky enough to do three or four tours with Santana in ’94. He used to bring me and the other guys up on stage every night during his set. I’d come up and we’d play two or three songs together. Here was one of the greatest electric guitar players ever, a legend of music, passing on musical knowledge to somebody younger than him, just because it was a cool thing to do. When he had that big success a couple of years ago, that was pure karma. Some people have hit records for one reason or another—they might have paid somebody or something—but I’ve never been so happy when someone had a hit record. I figured that was pure good vibes going out into the world and then coming back to him.

HT: Who’s your jazz-guitar hero?

TA: Probably Django Reinhardt. I spend the most time listening to him. I listen to a lot of Django at home.

HT: What’s it like writing with Tom Marshall?

TA: It’s become pretty fluid. On this new album, there are five songs that Tom and I cowrote.

TA: He seems to by nature write poems, and I seem to by nature write music. A lot stuff on this album we just wrote together in a room from nothing. “Money, Love and Change” is an example of that. I start playing something on a guitar, we talk about what the song’s about—there are really no rules. I wrote almost all the songs for Billy Breathes on a scuba-diving trip to the Cayman Islands with Tom. There was this water theme, ’cause we were underwater everyday.

HT: Prognosticate a little bit down the road: Is it a guarantee that Phish will get back together at some point?

TA: You can’t really say that.

HT: You’re leaving it open-ended?

TA: We’re definitely leaving it open-ended, with an enormous helping of respect and a feeling of thankfulness for the experience that we had thus far. Beyond that, we’re just kind of living our lives and enjoying our experiences away from the other guys.

HT: When you made this decision to take this break, was there a game plan?

TA: If you kind of followed the Phish path, if you’re into Phish, we always used to talk about all these weird exercises we would do. First, we used to play for eight hours, all night, drink marijuana hot chocolate and eat mushrooms, and then we would do listening exercises and then we would do improvisations on one note. Then we started thinking at one point in ’97 that we were getting too analytical, so we instituted the no-talking rule. This is the God’s honest truth, as ridiculous as that sounds—there was literally a rule that when you came off stage, you were forbidden to talk about any aspect of what happened on stage.

HT: Did it work?

TA: It worked! It was incredibly liberating. Let’s say I’m on stage and I just played some horrible, crappy thing, but you know nobody can say anything about it, so you’re free. Then you don’t even think about it. You just start really living in the moment. It worked for a couple of years. And then, at the end, we started talking about this hiatus. It was almost like an extension of the next level of the no-talking rule. It was sort of like the no-playing rule. In San Francisco, after our last show, we went back into the band room and we barricaded ourselves in there for four hours, just talking.

The idea was: The best chance we have to take music to the next level is to go out of this and assume we’re not in a band anymore. If we find ourselves on stage standing next to each other again, it’ll be because we can’t stand not doing it. As soon as you put a limit to that length of time, then everything you’re doing in the middle is just killing time until Phish starts again. You won’t fully immerse yourself in projects with reckless abandon in the way that you would if you had no plan to get back together as Phish.

HT: Have you guys played at all since the hiatus began?

TA: We broke the rule. We were all at a wedding. It was the first time all four of us had been in a room together. It was great. It’s like being around people who get the joke.

HT: So, then, there’s no timetable?

TA: None whatsoever. I want to go to Japan in the fall. Page is going on tour in July with his band, Vida Blue. Fish is going on tour in the fall with his band, Pork Tornado. And Mike’s got an album coming out with Leo Kottke.

HT: Does it bother you when people ask you when Phish is getting back together?

TA: No. I know where people are coming from when they ask that question. I can relate to that question. It was 17 years of joy. If anybody asks me that, it makes me feel really good, ’cause it makes me think: Wow, somebody must’ve had a really good time.

HT: I sure did, especially at The Great Went and the ’97 New Year’s show in New York with the balloon drop. Now, it’s that time of the interview where we ask a few questions about marijuana — your own use, your stance is on legalization and so on.

TA: I think the same thing that probably any reasonable, sane person thinks: That it’s nuts! Particularly with pot being illegal—it’s nuts!

I’ve been smoking pot on and off since, like, 4th grade. It’s a personal choice—what anybody wants to do. The marijuana laws are absolutely insane. I’ve had friends over the years, one in particular who did 14 years in a maximum-security prison for selling acid. That’s just… insanity. I can say this too: I’ve never had a bad experience — maybe there are people who have — with psychedelic drugs.

HT: Are you a daily smoker?

TA: I don’t smoke pot every day. Mostly just because I work a lot. I really get off on writing music. If I smoke too much pot I don’t do much.

HT: It doesn’t feed into the creativity of making music?

TA: The concept of being able to change your perspective at any given time, especially when you’re making an album, is very, very useful. To me, it is. I should probably smoke more pot when I’m recording than anything else. In my own life, it’s for a purpose. I’ll sit in the studio for four hours staring at a soundboard, and then you start to lose perspective. It’s a way of changing perspective.

HT: How about psychedelics?

TA: I still like psychedelic drugs. I just never stopped liking them. I was in Moab, Utah last spring. I went camping out in the desert. I took acid out in the desert. It was incredible! Just as incredible as it’s ever been. I usually get a lot of ideas and then go start writing music.

HT: What about Ecstasy?

TA: I’ve done it three times. It’s not my thing. It’s too predictable.

HT: Do you have a good tripping story?

TA: I usually don’t talk about my drug use, because I feel it’s a private thing, but, whatever, I’ll tell you this one story. When we were in Amsterdam, me and a friend took a couple of hits of acid and a hit of Ecstasy later on that night. We were walking around and I started imagining I was riding on this giant sandworm, because the roads kind of go up and down. I was picturing these huge sandworms, diving up out of the canals.

That’s where that phrase, “Back of the Worm,” came from. The next night in the middle of this crazy jam—one of these jams that get out of control and you feel like you’re not really playing, it’s just playing for you—I think I was yelling that and people started saying, “Back of the worm!” Then I read about it on a T-shirt six months later and I’m laughing ’cause I was with my friend who was with me that night in Amsterdam. We were just laughing that some guy was wearing a T-shirt with “Back of the Worm” on it.

HT: So when you take acid, it influences your music?

TA: When I do these things, it’s generally as a tool for music. To me, it all relates to music. Everything in my life, everything I do, I’m always thinking how can this make music. I get such deep, deep emotion from music that nothing moves me in that way. So if I ended up on some crazy night walking around Amsterdam hallucinating that giant sandworms are coming out of the canals, the next night as soon as I’m on stage I start trying to play the guitar like that. I probably started using effects in a different way the night after that, because I want the music to be able to do it. So I relate it to music.

That time in Moab—I was standing out in this desert with the Colorado River rushing by and I was looking out at all the plant life, the tiny, little, fragile ecosystem of the desert and looking up at the sky and these incredible stars. When I was making this album, I kept referring back to that in my mind, that moment, trying to create some of the soundscapes. If you look at a desert landscape like, everything fits together. It’s perfect.

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