Cover Story: Trey Anastasio
The Good Citizen Interview with Trey Anastasio of Phish Vermont's biggest rock star sits down with Good Citizen editor Andrew Smith for a long, rambling conversation about Vermont, the Vermont music scene and the enviable position that our piscatorial brethren find themselves in fifteen years into their career. Exclusive Good Citizen photographs by Matthew Thorsen.
On a cold winter day in early February, Phish guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio stopped up at the Good Citizen office high over Pure Pop Records in Burlington. Fresh from a much needed vacation in Florida with his family (which now includes his wife and two daughters), Trey sat for a photo shoot with Matthew Thorsen and then we wandered over to Coyote's for a late lunch. I knew that Trey had not done any interviews on the last Phish tour and I was a little nervous that there might be things he wouldn't want to talk about, subjects that he might be skittish about. However, I found Trey to be his usual, amiable self and we soon settled into a long, friendly conversation that rambled in many directions and illuminated the crossroads that Phish finds itself at approximately fifteen years into their career.
Andrew Smith: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us, Trey. We don't see you around Burlington as much as we used to. You're probably gone as much as you're here...
Trey Anastasio: I don't even notice it sometimes, but I got home last Tuesday and I realized that I left the first week of November, so yeah, I've been gone for a long time. It's great to be home...it's still as great as ever, but it's funny, it seems to go through cycles. Like, after the Clifford Ball there were a lot of people around and I felt a little weird about it, but of course then they all went away and it got back to normal again.
AS: Yeah, there was that week between the Clifford Ball and Bread and Puppet when Burlington was just crazy with Phishheads.
TA: But it's still the same as ever. It's very interesting to see how much time has gone by. I mean, (Burlington is full of) people who've been friends of mine for so long...we've been playing for fifteen years now...people say that they were seeing us when they were in high school, and they're like twenty-eight now. I was thinking about this on the way down here, and I feel like I've seen three very distinct generations of Vermont music now pass through. When I first got here it was the era of Pinhead, you know...
AS: Yeah, that was my first period too...bands like the Decentz...
TA: Yeah, the Decentz, the X-Rays, and uh, of course there was this burgeoning jazz scene and I fell into that...this really cool jazz scene with Paul Asbell, Dave Grippo, all those guys who were really just starting to play around town, I think, y'know around 1983. And there was that whole Sneakers scene, and we were kind of like the young band on the scene and Pinhead was the big local band. And then you had the Hollywood Indians...
AS: And Screaming Broccoli.
TA: Yeah, and they were kind of like the main bands in town. Were you around for that?
AS: Actually I missed that period. I was around for the end of Pinhead and the Decentz and then came back at the end of Broccoli and the Indians.
TA: That's when we were, I think, part of the scene. In a weird way, we were off to the side. Both of those bands were great bands. If people have never heard those bands, there are still albums floating around, people should really check them out.
AS: Did you hear the last Butthole Surfers record?
AS: That sounded sooo much like the Hollywood Indians...and knowing that Ethan Azarian (Indians vocalist) lives in Austin now, when I heard that single "Pepper" I said "Gibby Haynes is totally ripping off Ethan Azarian!"
TA: Yeah (laughs). And then there was this kind of lull, although there was Texas (a club on lower Church Street that is now Club Toast) and all those metal bands...which I actually loved. Like Run 21. And then there was this whole kind of rebirth after a few years.
AS: Where did Ninja Custodian fit in?
TA: Well, Ninja was kind of around with us. I didn't really know Ethan and those guys until the end except for hanging out at the OP. But Ninja was, I dunno, late eighties. And then you had this kind of...Miss Bliss, and uh, that band...electronic kind of...
AS: The Cuts!
TA: Yeah, that's it! I mean, we were kind of leaving and coming back and leaving and coming back, so then it seemed like there was a period when I didn't really know anybody for a while, until I kind of started hanging out with Pistol (The Pants guitarist Pistol Stamen) and he's always playing me these bands...
AS: Did you know Chainsaws of Babylon at all?
TA: No, Page did. He knew those guys and everything, and really liked them.
AS: Yeah, when Chin Ho! first started we used to play at Border (where Club Metronome is now) with Ninja and the Chainsaws...and then it evolved into Do It Now Foundation and Peg Tassey and that crew.
TA: Yeah, I think I kind of lost touch with the Burlington music scene for a while.
AS: Was that when you decided to move the management and the office back to Burlington?
TA: Yeah, that was something that we were really intent on for a long time. We were always telling John (Paluska) 'you gotta move up here, you gotta move up here.' I mean, it was strange to have our management in Boston, but we had met up with John when he was going to Amherst and we played there...yeah, I think that moving the management up here really did bring us back into it. I mean, even during that whole Hollywood Indians period I stopped going out much, and just started going to Sneakers. We lived in Winooski and we would go to Sneakers every Tuesday. It was about a half a block walk and we went every Tuesday for years. We always had the front table, right in front of the Sneakers jazz band.
AS: Who was in the jazz band?
TA: There were three horns...James (Harvey), Grippo, and Joey Somerville. Yeah, those three and Paul Asbell, Bruce Sklar, Jeff Salisbury, and Clyde...
TA: Yeah. It was a seven piece. They were so good and the place was packed every Tuesday. And then that kind of disappeared.
AS: Yeah, that was a shame, because they had bluegrass one night...
TA: Yeah, we used to go for that a lot, too. Bluegrass on Wednesdays, jazz on Tuesdays.
AS: And that was such a small bar...
TA: And it would be packed every night! I remember nights when it was just incredible, Tuesday nights especially. Yeah, that was great.
AS: Now that you're on the road so much, does your family travel with you?
TA: Yeah, sometimes. They went with us on the last tour for a while, riding on the bus.
AS: Have you gotten to the point yet of having separate buses?
TA: For one week, yeah, but I didn't like it. It was really weird, and really expensive, too.
AS: It must be weird to be so separated from the people you're supposed to be connecting with.
TA: Yeah, not that we don't spend enough time together. (Laughs)
AS: So what are you up to now? You're heading to the studio?
TA: Well, we've got a lot options right now...everything is still kind of up in the air...we're talking about that right now. We're supposed to do a new album and we're talking to producers right now and we've got all these side projects going and we're trying to figure out how to fit it all together. We've got another live album that we did from the last tour and we already put it together and everybody loves it and we're trying to decide if we're just going to put that out or dive right into the next studio album. We've got a lot of songs. And we just did this thing down at Bearsville where we went down for two weekends and just jammed. No songs. We filled up like ten hundred minute tapes, just jamming, and then honed it, edited it all down to just two ninety minute tapes.
AS: No songs? All instrumental?
TA: Yeah. We just set up the gear and started playing. It's funny, I was having a conversation with one of the guys from Wide Wail at the Pavement show and he was asking me 'so how come everytime you guys put an album out you do everything except what you do well?' You know what I mean? And there's some truth to that...it really struck a nerve. The thing that we've been working on so hard for so many years is the communication in improvising on stage, and we've got to this level now that it took us fifteen years to get to, and then we go into the studio and we don't really even attempt to play that way. You know, we go into the studio and try really hard to be a band that, in a certain sense, we're not. And that's probably why some of the albums have sounded, like, kind of a mixed success. So, this time we decided to face that one head on, and just go in and play. We got some great stuff and now we're trying to decide what to do with it.
AS: You already release more albums than most bands on major labels. How does Elektra feel about that?
TA: They don't mind. I mean, they minded for a while, because they couldn't figure out what to do with us, I think. At this point, we're at the end of our contract, and they've kind of grown to accept that all of our albums seem to sell the same amount. I think they've stopped expecting the big one, you know? I think they don't really expect a platinum record from us, which is to our advantage.
AS: There's a lot of talk about how much Elektra has changed since Sylvia Rhone took over.
TA: Yeah, it's changed a lot. I really like her; she's great. Yet at the same time, it's still a big major label you know, so they look at things one way. That's why there are so many great bands that never get signed because they're looking for one thing, the hit single, you know? And that's it. And the only other way you're going to get in there is if you have such a big following that they can't ignore you. It's too bad, because it kind of rules out a whole area of talent, you know? If your talent is writing incredible music that's better in the studio but it isn't really radio friendly, then forget it.
AS: Yeah, someone from a major label listened to the Big Heavy World Pop Pie CD and said 'there's a lot of really great songs on here, but I don't hear a 'Tubthumper.'
TA: (Laughs) Yeah, that's it. I mean, it is so weird that Elektra signed Ween. That was out of character for a major. They also signed They Might Be Giants, but they probably thought that they could have a hit.
AS: But Ween had a hit...I mean you couldn't get away from 'Push the Little Daisies' for a while.
TA: Yeah! I love Ween. Ween is white soul.
AS: Wasn't there a Burlington connection to Ween somehow?
TA: Yeah, Ween...that guy Mickey, who's one of Ween, called me up about a year ago and said "We're moving to Burlington!" They called Paluska and stuff, and they were coming up. I think one of the guys has a sister who lives here or something. But then they never did. But, I mean, how did they get signed you know? Weird, you know. That's a funny one you know. I mean, what about the Pants? Why can't they get a label?
AS: Yeah, I don't think it's based on how much talent you have...it seems like so much of it is just timing and luck.
TA: There are really restrictive boundaries. I mean, Phish, we kind of got lucky. Back when we were playing in Burlington, we just had our own little scene going on. We were so focused on playing live, that was our thing. It's harder for bands that are focused on radio, I mean, if you don't do the live thing, how are you ever going to get anyone to hear it? If you can't get a label to sign you and you're not focused on the live thing.
AS: You've got to be willing to tour...
TA: Yeah, we were so ready to do that. We were sleeping on floors for eight years, you know? Nobody had any commitments or anything, and all four of us wanted to do the same thing. Get out of here, get in the van. A lot of bands have a problem with that...you know, half the band might want to go and half might want to hang around and not do it.
AS: And you've got to be willing to starve.
TA: Definitely, and sleep on floors. Sometimes I think its just a matter of luck that you find people with the same shared vision.
AS: Yeah, Chin Ho! is on its thirteenth lineup now.
TA: (Laughs) Yeah, so many of my friends have that problem.
AS: Hey, what's up with Ninja Custodian anyway? I heard they finally called it quits.
TA: They broke up. I just saw them when we were in LA. I think Hamdi went to Florida. He's into bugs.
AS: Oh yeah, I remember a Ninja show with ants on an overhead projector and they had them crawling all over their bodies while they played.
TA: Yeah, they were into bugs.
AS: So I read that you're headed for the studio?
TA: Yeah, we might even do it alone. You know, take DA88's and go hide out in a farmhouse somewhere. That's kind of the decision right now. It's a funny situation...our albums always bomb, you know? But in the end, it's been the greatest thing that could have ever happened to us. It's a funny thing, you know?
AS: That you haven't had a hit?
TA: Yeah, that we haven't had a big album. It becomes more clear, as time goes on, we're kind of thankful, because there are all these pressures after you've had one that I don't even want to think about. I mean, I don't want to think about any of that crap. I mean, I don't even talk to the record company.
AS: I guess people really expected this huge Phish explosion after Jerry Garcia died. You did move into bigger rooms but you kept it under control.
TA: Yeah, I didn't really expect it because every tour has been just a little bigger. It's been very steady and just a little bigger every tour for thirteen years. But it has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's absurd to think that every deadhead, the people who were really into the dead, would just switch to Phish and not be completely disappointed...just hate it, you know? If you're that into a band, how could some other band just fill that void? I don't think that it did... I mean, there are a lot of lifestyle similarities, and that is something that we've really had to deal with. Like how are we going to deal with the people who just come to the lot and have no intention of going to the show. That's what happened. That's what we have now that we didn't have before...this whole group of people who show up but don't go to the shows. The people that just hang out and live the life of going from show to show. For a while there was almost this weird backlash from it...you know. I always thought that was a cool thing that people could do that...but that's not why I liked the (Grateful) Dead; I didn't care about that and I never went on tour or anything. But I would see them any time I could, and I loved them because they played like a band and I've never seen another band play like they did. That was a huge influence on us. I mean, never in an arena...except maybe Zappa. He was amazing. But when the Dead were playing well, still to this day, nobody has played like that. It was like African music, you know? The sum was way bigger than the parts. But anyway, regardless of what goes on in the lot, the people in the show are there to see Phish. When we go on stage, it seems like everyone's pretty excited out there. I know that I am.
AS: Oh yeah, the energy at a Phish show is almost indescribable.
TA: Oh, I love it.
AS: The European tours, where you get to play smaller rooms...do you still get the same energy from the crowds?
TA: Oh yeah...I never really noticed less or more energy from a bigger crowd of people. I don't think that the number of people really improves the energy. I mean, I have between a sold out crowd and a half empty room...in any room. I saw Edgar Winter at Hunts...back to back with Johnny Winter; it was like Edgar for two nights and then Johnny for two nights. This was like 1984...and I'm not sure who had the more energetic crowd, but Johnny I think broke the all-time beer record at Hunts. They ran out of beer both nights. Everybody had like a beer in each hand and everybody was bouncing off the walls. Sometimes you get less energy in a bigger room because it dissipates, you know? Unless you can really get it going. Those club shows in Europe I really loved. That show that we put on the album...that club was tiny. Everybody was all packed in and they were right in your face.
AS: There were a lot of Americans at those shows...
TA: Absolutely. No question. Depending on where you went, from night to night. In Berlin...there were a lot of Germans. And it was a completely different...like they listened through the set and they didn't clap until it was over...it was wild...we played completely different music because of that crowd. The audience was so quiet and listening so intently that we started playing quieter and quieter and began to rely on the more intimate songs to sort of build the intensity in the room. I remember, we did this set that peaked with "Swept Away" which is on our Billy Breathes album. It's this little acoustic thing and it was a very quiet moment, but the energy was incredible and it dawned on me that, you know what I mean, you get pulled along by...
AS: The mood?
TA: Yeah, and that's kind of what you end up playing. And that's such a big part of our road, vibing with the audience every night.
AS: I know when I'm on stage I'm always watching the audience and if they're not having a good time, I'm not having a good time.
TA: Yeah, I can see that. I mean, if you're up there and playing and they're just standing there...But look at GG Allin. He may have been the greatest live performer of all time and he was up there trying to piss people off.
AS: He really broke that wall...
TA: Yeah, and that's a totally different road...he did it for a whole different reason...but everybody can't be GG Allin.
AS: That's probably a good thing...
TA: Yeah, we'd all be dead. But it's interesting for me to think...like just how different it is...every country is different and the music sounds different as a result.
AS: What's the next live show that you're thinking about releasing as an album?
TA: Actually it's one night from the last tour...we just kind of sequenced it together while we were out on the road from the soundboard tape and everybody really liked it. There's a lot of stuff going on right now. We just have to decide what we want to do. There's producers we've been talking to about doing an album..that's an option...we're just trying to fight the feeling that we get everytime we do an album...this general feeling that 'Okay, Phish has gotten to this level, and they're going to make an album and this is gonna be the one.'
AS: That's a lot of pressure...
TA: Yeah, and our internal pressure is to go the other way, you know...in a funny way...I mean, if it was a big album that was artistic, you know, then fine. Good. But I think the music industry is changing. Like OK Computer (by Radiohead) is the big album this year but it didn't sell that much. It wasn't a big selling record. Like Aerosmith's new record is considered to be a huge bomb and it sold maybe two million copies...that's a completely different world. And a band like Radiohead is from a completely different world, too.
AS: God yeah. When you listen to modern rock radio...it's all over the place...it's "Smack My Bitch Up" one minute and the Wallflowers the next. It's so schizophrenic. Which might be good because everything should fit...
TA: Right. It's a weird period for American music.
AS: Yeah, the electronica thing that's so huge in Europe just didn't happen here like they said it would.
TA: Yeah, I never thought it would. I think people...well, I don't really go for that type of music...it's a personal thing with me. I like drummers. I think the worst thing that Stevie Wonder ever did was stop playing the drums on his albums. Think about it, he used to play drums on all his albums... "Superstition..." All that stuff. And he was the best drummer. Then he got a drum machine and from that point on...I mean, can you name one song of his after that?
AS: Well, I can't name one that I like...
TA: (Laughs) I can't name one song, good or bad...
AS: "I Just Called to Say I Love You."
TA: (Laughs again.)
AS: You've never used the same producer twice have you?
TA: No...but we almost did this time because we really liked working with Steve Lillywhite, he was great. But it didn't work out...so we've got to figure that out.
AS: Do you find that now you've reached this level that people really want to work with you?
TA: Not really. (Laughs) One guy does, and I like him a lot, and it might be who we work with. It's weird. And it gets weirder and weirder...on a certain level we're getting bigger and bigger and yet most people have no idea who we are. Maybe having a big selling album right now could be the worst thing that could happen to us. If nothing else it feels really good to have gotten to this level and be completely under the radar. We're so totally under the radar. I mean, you know who we are because you're from Burlington and other people do, sort of...I love it...I can walk down the street and nobody knows me. It's really great, it's a great situation.
AS: And having a hit single would ruin that...and a video...
TA: In a certain way...right...having a hit brings a lot or pressure that you don't anticipate. For everyone involved. When you raise that bar, if you go below that there's a vibe around you that you're failing. A lot of my friends in bands, I've known people along the way, and you're always fighting that. It's such a relief to have everyone's expectations of us be so incredibly low. I mean, if we sold a half a million records I think everyone would be shocked. And it's great! I mean you shouldn't care one way or another what anyone thinks, but it's hard...you know, if every time you call your manager or do an interview there's this aura of failure. I wouldn't want to have that kind of pressure. Like the Terrance Trent D'Arby story...his first record sold twenty-two million copies and then his second only sold two million and it ruined him and now the guy is doing nothing. And he's a really talented guy. Everyone thought he was going to be the next James Brown or something. It's because two million seemed like a failure. If he'd only sold a half a million on this first record and then two million on his second everybody would have been high-fiving him!
AS: Like the Hootie problem...
TA: Oh yeah, Hootie...forget it, you're never gonna recover from that. When your first album sells nine million copies...it's so fleeting and then you spend the rest of your career trying to chase that dream. I think if you're thinking about music on those terms, to me, like how can we sell more copies...it's gonna sound like shit. Everybody can hear it. Everybody can hear the intent in music. The intent has to be pure or it's not going to move anybody. If everyone is looking for a hit....it's weird...I know people who think that the Beatles ruined music for everyone, and I can see why. They were the first band that was so incredibly talented, inhumanly talented that they could write, arrange, sing, perform all their own music. And there was no band before that that was capable of that. Before that bands all had outside songwriters, arrangers, producers. And then the Beatles come along and here's four guys who can write incredible hit songs, one right after another, sing incredibly well, arrange with the help of George Martin...and ever since then...nobody can do that. People kind of got the feeling that, oh you're supposed to do that yourself...
AS: I always thought the phrase "singer-songwriter" was weird because I thought "Well, who isn't a singer-songwriter?" And then you look back and before the late sixties-early seventies nobody wrote their own songs!
TA: Nobody wrote their own songs before the Beatles! Nobody did all that! And they were a hit machine. But not many bands can make it happen for more than one album...in that world of hits. This is the thing, to me, if you want to join that world, you're pretty damned bound for failure...I'm trying to think of other bands who have made it happen over and over again...
AS: Not many...R.E.M. did it for a long time, U2...
TA: Yeah, even U2...they're chasing their own tail now, and that's it, you end up chasing your own tail, but to me...well, I just spent the whole morning on a conference call with Page about this...this is my whole theory...to me, if you never get on the treadmill and just play music that you like playing...somehow...but how do you pay for it? That's the problem. But if you can...in the long-term...
AS: But it seems like you guys have come as close as anybody I can think of, in terms of doing what you want to do...or at least making it look like you're doing what you want to do.
TA: Right, but see we've been lucky because we have a live following and that pays the bills.
AS: And then you have to stay on the road.
TA: Yeah, but that we learned about a few years ago. We really know how long we can go now. The shows have to be good and we've learned exactly how long we can go without getting burned out. We did a couple of tours a few years ago that were too long and by the end everyone was ready to kill each other and we're not going to do that again. So we're actually playing a little less...by the time you get on the road it keeps the intensity level up.
AS: You guys have a pretty good schedule...it seems like you do a summer tour, a fall tour and then you record in the spring.
TA: Is that right? Yeah, I guess it is kind of that way...but lately we've been going to Europe, too. I just love playing live. Right now, I'm dying to play some shows. We have a summer tour scheduled after we record. And then we're doing another show in Maine (August 14-16).
AS: So now that the contract with Elektra is almost up...Fishman said a few years ago that he thought that you could do it all yourselves now and that you might not need that big machine anymore...
TA: That's a good question, and I think that's why we haven't been able to make a decision about the whole thing. I think. There are a lot of options open. I mean, we could just do mail-order, but it seems that you want to be in the record stores. The further away we get from the whole rat race of the record industry the happier everyone is. So, we're always talking about how we can do that, but there's always another side to it. For instance, we just did this thing down at Bearsville where we just jammed, and we ended up with this really cool...we could just cut it down to sixty minutes and have a really cool record...ambient, kind of like nothing you've ever heard before, all improvisations edited together. And we could put out an album like that, and we could do this live thing. You just have to be true to yourself and do what you want to do. ~GC~
There's Plenty More. Look for Part Two of The Good Citizen Interview with Trey Anastasio in Good Citizen #8...due out on May 6, 1998.