Jump to content

Trey Anastasio interview: New York Times


Recommended Posts

Nothing groundbreaking here but it's current. As an aside, although it's not supposed to be out until tomorrow, I just bought Undermind at Cheapies here in Hamilton. Listening to it now but can't form an opinion just yet....

The Final Word on Phish


Published: June 13, 2004

LATE last month, Trey Anastasio — lead singer, primary songwriter and guitarist for America's premiere live jam band, Phish — posted a brief, affectionate note on the group's Web site, announcing that following this summer's tour, which kicks off on Thursday at Keyspan Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, the band was breaking up after 21 years. The group had previously taken a two-year hiatus starting in 2000.

The timing of this announcement was unusual — when most bands break up, they break up, they don't continue to play together. But for Phish, whose latest record, "Undermind," will be released on Tuesday, the unusual is the standard. One of the most consistently profitable groups of the last decade, the band has never had a hit single, or even, with one exception, a platinum-selling album. It made only one video for MTV. Known for its epic improvisational skills as well as for its audience-inclusive shows (it once distributed 2,000 boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to the crowd for use as ad-hoc maracas), Phish instead made its living on the road. And its fans went with it, following the group from date to date, literally pulling up and putting down stakes as they went. Here, speaking from the group's adopted home state of Vermont, Mr. Anastasio talks with Mim Udovitch about the philosophy and the phenomenon that was Phish.

MIM UDOVITCH So. Why exactly did you decide to call it quits?

TREY ANASTASIO It's a very obvious thing. We started when we were 18 and played for 21 years. And the format that we used — touring continuously — was based on the lives of 20-year-olds. When I was 20, the idea of getting in a Plymouth Voyager with no back seat and my dog and all our gear and driving to Seattle and then to Madison, Wis., the next night was fun. It's still fun to play. But our lives have changed. I have two daughters, and I can't stand to be away from them.

UDOVITCH You may have one of the only amicable split-ups of a successful band in rock history. I can't think of another one.

ANASTASIO I can't either. We are so proud of that. We spent two hours talking about that: Wouldn't it be nice to have the rest of your life, be proud of what you accomplished in those first 21 years and skip all the fighting and hatred and lawsuits? There's no acknowledgment of how lucky you've been if you break up bitterly.

UDOVITCH Like the Grateful Dead, you're a touring act, a jam band, you don't have traditional radio or video success, and you have a devoted camp-following audience. Do you think the similarities go deeper than that?

ANASTASIO Probably not. I think Jerry Garcia was a deeply important American artist. I put him in line with the Woody Guthries of the country. When we started, I was probably more interested in Ravel and "West Side Story." But they did invent the framework. And there were moments when I saw the Dead — in 1980, 1981 — when what I saw was integrity in the context of a rock concert. I can count on one hand the number of concerts when I had that kind of integrity laser beam. It wasn't about putting on a show and making a lot of money, it was about having a genuine experience. And that's what I learned from them.

UDOVITCH You happen to be breaking up on the 50th anniversary of rock 'n' roll. How would you assess the state of the art?

ANASTASIO The first thing I think when you say "state of the art" is that I wonder if there's as much art in it as there used to be. I'm not convinced that it hasn't fully become commerce at this point. I don't hear a lot of David Bowies and Joni Mitchells these days. Maybe I'm just missing something now. I mean, it was rebellious music when it was born; now it's just corporate.

UDOVITCH Yet I read that Top-40 radio is your guilty pleasure. What specific Top-40 radio songs are guiltily pleasurable for you?

ANASTASIO The first thing that popped into my mind was Chumbawamba — "I get knocked down, but I get up again." I'm fascinated by the concept of a hit song. I think people think that it's really easy to write a hit. And I don't think that.

UDOVITCH Well, you have 21 years worth of reasons not to think that — you haven't written hits.

ANASTASIO Exactly. Try writing "Mambo No. 5." I dare you. But if it works, it's an incredible thing. Do you remember that song, "Ariel"? I used to sit by the radio and wait for that to come on.

UDOVITCH What person listening to radio in the late 70's could forget it? What, when you set out, did you hope to achieve?

ANASTASIO When I met the guys, I was writing all of this overly dramatized Broadway stuff, and even visually onstage, the whole thing was supposed to be an overblown cartoon. We played chess against the audience for two tours, and we were very serious about it. We put a giant chess board above the stage at the first show of the tour, and we would make a move before the first set. A particular group of people who were really into chess would meet at the merchandise table between sets and pick their move. Then we had all night to think of our next move.

UDOVITCH That seems unfair.

ANASTASIO We had more time. But they had more people. Also, the hot dog was pretty good. We flew across the Boston Garden in a hot dog, which had instruments built into it and halogen lights and smoke and we were actually playing from the hot dog. We had big beach balls that we threw out in the audience and each of us would improvise to one of the beach balls. The idea was, if somebody in the audience caught the ball, we would play a long note, if they threw it high in the air, we would go up in range, and if they bounced it fast we would be staccato, so for 5 or 10 minutes they were playing the music, the audience was playing the band.

UDOVITCH Is there a Phish philosophy?

ANASTASIO Up until about 2001, there was a 100 percent focus on working as hard as we could to create an experience for people that respected them as human beings and not as ticket-buying cattle. When we planned the hot dog, the idea grew out of us sitting in a room, and saying: Show me a map of the Boston Garden, where's the worst seat in the house, how can we get closer to that person? So it wasn't about the hot dog. It grew from having the surprise be, for this person who just barely squeaked into the concert, that we would be right in that person's face. And I think that played into the decision to stop. We're not putting that kind of energy into Phish anymore, and we're not going to. That being said, let's stop it now so that everyone can remember it as something that was vibrant and inclusive.

UDOVITCH Are you going to do anything special for the farewell tour?

ANASTASIO In my dreams? Progress. That would be incredible. What I would like is to go out there and have it be better. Dig down, give it everything we possibly can, and just bleed into it one last time.

UDOVITCH And you have no mixed feelings about ending this?

ANASTASIO I have a variety of feelings, and there's certainly sadness in there. But I have no doubts.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...