Trey Anastasio of Phish: The Good Citizen Interview Part II

The second half of our exclusive Good Citizen interview with Phish’s Trey Anastasio. Vermont’s biggest rock star sat down with Good Citizen editor Andrew Smith for a long, relaxed conversation about Vermont, the Vermont music scene life, a possible Surrender to the Air follow-up, and life as a member of a world-famous rock band.

PART II

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.

In Good Citizen #7 Trey talked about Vermont, The Vermont music scene and the enviable position that our piscatorial brethren find themselves in fifteen years into their career…

AS: I’ve always felt that your studio albums were always unique pieces and they’re all different.

TA: Yeah, sometimes I think that some of our albums don’t have enough cohesiveness because our trying to do everything at once and that has been our downfall in the past. Live it works, but sometimes the albums feel like they don’t have enough cohesiveness, but different ones are different. I really like the last one. So we’ve got all these different ideas now and the first concept is to go in the studio with a producer and try to put it together in one whole but then the argument goes back and forth that it might be better if we just took the separate pieces and made four separate albums. One of them is the improvisations, one of them live stuff, one of them would be like demos for songs, which I love. We’ve got all these eight track demos for songs, and a lot of them I just love the way they came out just as they are… done on a little Mackie board with the eight track…so I was thinking that maybe that would be cool just like that. I mean, why go recreate it if you got the magic on the first take? I mean, you can make it sound a lot bigger, but there’s something about that first take that’s so cool.

AS: Yeah, sometimes demos are so much cooler than the final version.

TA: I love demos! This is where we’re at right now. These are the options…we could put out each album on its own, which wouldn’t do anything for the record company because they would all be really little releases. The other option is to go into the studio with a producer and try to take the best of each one, track some of the songs and try to make one album.

AS: Is Elektra the kind of label that might let you do the big album with them and release the other things on your own?

TA: Well, that’s an option because our contract is up for renegotiation now, so I think that we could try to do something where if they wanted to put it out, they could. It’s all so up in the air.

AS: Yeah, you’re at quite a crossroads.

TA: It’s a big crossroads. It’s a cool place to be. A real lucky place to be. It’s all about demos…that’s kind of where I’m at, you know? We’ve got a live album that we really like, and the demos…we’ve got like thirty two minute demos on eight track recorded with real cheapo mics and a little Mackie board of all the songs that are supposed to be the next Phish album.

AS: Are they all new songs?

TA: Yeah, they’re all new songs. And I love ’em just they way they are. I feel kind of sad about going in and re-doing them.

AS: It would seem like a Phish fan would really like to hear that stuff.

TA: Probably, yeah, I know I would. In my heart, I think it may be more exciting to let people hear it exactly the way it was written, the way it lays right now, you know?

AS: It sounds like you’re much more excited about the smaller way…

TA: I think I am…but that’s the problem, well it’s not a problem…but a lot less people will hear it. So you have to ask yourself ‘why? why do you really care?’ And see, that’s what’s weird about doing this interview today is because today is the day we’re trying to decide all these things. And on one hand I think it might be cool to take these demos and see how far we can go with them. I was on a conference call with Page and John this morning and in two days we have a meeting with a producer…it’s a big decision, but it’s a great place to be.

AS: How does the instrumental thing compare with the Surrender to the Air project?

TA: Surrender to the Air was kind of a blueprint for it in a way, but Surrender was a lot more extreme…which I liked…

AS: I love it…

TA: Yeah, this is the same basic concept but different people, and the comfort level that the four of us have together makes it a lot different. With Surrender to the Air we’d never played together…this is a little bit more…uh, slimy.

AS: Do you think doing Surrender outside the band allowed you to do it inside the band?

TA: Yeah…I wanted to do something outside the band anyway, just to kind of open that door…we’ve been together so long I think I wanted to feel out how we would in the future approach something like that. Because we’ve never done anything, since we were eighteen, away from each other. So that was probably part of the intent. And also I was really feeling at the time the only way to get better as a musician was to play with other people. And I still think about what I learned from that…I mean, just walking into the room with Marshall Allen…I was overwhelmed by the whole thing. I mean…all of them…but Marshall Allen especially… Just shaking his hand was a learning experience. He’s amazing.

AS: Have you thought about doing it again?

TA: Actually, it’s funny…I’ve been having these funny connections with other musicians from different realms. Like Robert Fripp…I’ve been talking to him on the phone a lot. I met him and he’s been calling me and everything. I’ve been thinking about another one with a whole different vibe with other musicians that I’ve been kind of bumping into…like doing an interview with a journalist who knows somebody and they do an interview with somebody else and say “oh, I was just talking to…” and so I end up talking to them on the phone and stuff. Like Dave Grohl…I might not want to give the idea away too soon. But that’s kind of the idea. Surrender to the Air was all kind of jazz based musicians, and this next one would be more varied. But the same thing, just go in the studio and jam and then edit it all together. I’ve been thinking , what if we had Dave Grohl and Stewart Copland? And what if we had Robert Fripp and Eddie Van Halen?

AS: Awesome!

TA: And Pistol? (Guitarist with Burlington based band The Pants.) And then we were talking about doing a Halloween thing with Tom (Lawson of the Pants) and Gabe Tesoriero (of the Queen City All Stars) and try to get Fripp down for that. He’s totally into anything.

AS: Really? When you read about Fripp he sounds so fussy.

TA: He isn’t really. He’s a really nice guy. I think he could really get into Pistol. I dunno, I have a lot of ideas. The great thing about something like that is that you only have to be in the studio for one day. But that was kind of the idea. Phish has been talking about doing the jamming thing for years, long before Surrender to the Air. Because we do it in band practice everyday, we jam, and we love it and there have been so many times in practice when we said ‘Oh I wish that was on tape.’ So we finally just did it…and it was really fun…we went to Bearsville for three days and then did it again. Two weekends. Page is really spearheading the process. He’s got all the tapes down in New York and he’s doing a lot of editing.

AS: So Page lives in New York now?

TA: Yeah, he does. So what’s going on with Neil Cleary and the Stupid Club CD?

AS: I just read today in the Free Press that he got a write-up in the Option Insider tip-sheet. He’s living in Austin now which I think is a good city for him. I Love that Stupid Club record.

TA: Oh yeah, I love it too, that’s why I’m asking.

AS: That song “Spark” gets stuck in my head for days. I just think about it and it’s in my head. I heard that Neil had all his stuff stolen in Philadelphia on the way down. I think he’ll do well.

TA: I love that album…somebody should do something with that record.

AS: Oh man, there are so many great records that get made in Burlington that no one ever hears. You struggle for so long to pay to make a record and then you get it done and you don’t have any money left to promote it and get it out to people. The new Construction Joe record…man, if no one hears that it will be a shame…

TA: Yeah, I don’t really know what to do about it.

AS: Burlington bands have just got to get out of town, hit the road, and play for as many people as they possibly can.

TA: I feel so lucky, but all I can think about is how we did it. Just touring incessantly and practicing every day and working on the live show until people came to us on the basis of the live show. And then we didn’t even think about selling records. But I know that’s not for everybody.

AS: Yeah, I think it really depends on the genre of music. Most alternative bands can’t play more than forty-five minutes. I mean, I’m glad that Chin Ho! was able to play Nectars and learn how to play all night.

TA: Much of it due to Nectar coming over and telling you: “you’re going on stage now” and “okay, you’re done.”

AS: Yeah. I love that. We still do occasional Nectars shows under the name Kam Fong because it’s such great practice. And when I play there with (sic)…it’s tough to get the nine of us on that stage…

TA: Yeah…but it’s worth it. It’s weird…I mean, what does it take to get on the radio these days? The boundaries are so narrow…either you’re really lucky and just fall into the boundaries or you don’t get played. It’s a hard road. I always found it much easier to just not worry about it.

AS: Hit the road. It seems to be working for Strangefolk and Belizbeha…they’re out there a lot. I don’t know, I’ve always thought that if I had a lot of money I’d start a record label and sign bands like Construction Joe and Invisible Jet and the Pants and the bands that I really think the world should hear. It’s so depressing to think that the world might never hear some of these bands.

TA: Yeah, like the new (unreleased) Pants album. I listen to that album all the time. I hope it gets out there.

AS: And the Stupid Club record. Have you guys ever thought of starting your own label?

TA: Yeah, I think about it a lot. But it’s such a big job. There’s so much to do now other than play music, and the thought of taking on another whole organization…I just can’t imagine doing it. There are so many musicians in town that I would love to see…Grippo, all those guys…such great talents. Lar Duggan, he’s a genius. I just don’t know what to do about that.

AS: I’ve kind of been hoping that another band would get signed and the industry would come up here and see how much talent there is up here.

TA: It almost seems like the gap is widening between talent and…you know…it’s such big money that’s being tossed around…why is anyone ever gonna take a risk? It’s purely about money…at least that’s the way I see it. That’s why it’s so weird that Ween got signed. I don’t know how that happened.

AS: And they’re still making records!

TA: Yeah!

AS: It does seem like the bands who are having hit singles now are all one-hit wonders…blink and they’re gone!

TA: Oh man, no doubt.

AS: I don’t think that it’s a healthy thing either…

TA: No, I don’t think it is. There’s no band loyalty anymore. You know, you used to be waiting for a bands next album to come out, and now it’s different.

AS: Yeah, I just read something where a high school girl said ‘well, why would I buy their next album when I’ve already got one by the band?”

TA: Right, exactly! It’s like, on to the next thing.

AS: Our attention span is down to the length of a video.

TA: That’s why it’s so weird to me that as a musician you want to get into that world, because if you look at history, you’re doomed! You’re doomed! It’s easy for me to say that, but it’s true. We’ve never really been part of that whole thing. But if you have a hit single, you’re doomed. A year later, you’re gone and you’re never coming back. Forget it. And then you’re drilled into the consciousness as ‘that silly band from that era’. You’re much better off to get a cool deal with a small label that’s going to support you and have a slow, comfortable career.

AS: The Samples for instance. I mean, they got signed to a major right off, and then they got dropped right off.

TA: That’s a really good example! And then they went with Rob Gordon at WAR.

AS: Right. They went from Arista to WAR and then to MCA and now they’re back with WAR again.

TA: Yeah, I talked to Rob about that. Did you know that Rob played bass in my high school band?

AS: Oh yeah, I never connected that it was the same guy.

TA: Yeah, they kind of left and then came back. He’s with them for the long haul. He can’t give them what a major label can, but he’s with them all the way.

AS: Yeah, that’s great. I’ve often thought that if Chin Ho! got signed early on, we’d have been dropped a dozen times by now.

TA: It’s strange. It seems that most of the major trends in music in the last ten years have come from small labels.

AS: It’s almost like the independents have become farm teams for the majors. They’re grooming all these acts.

TA: Who then get signed to the majors. I mean, if you jump into a situation with a major record label, you damned well better make them their money back or they’re not going to waste their time. But of course it could be a lot worse. I remember my first music lesson ever when I was about eight years old and I was taking a drum lesson from this guy named Hy Frank. He was a Dixieland drummer. Ninety year old guy from Trenton. He came to our house. He was a little guy, about 5’2. He came to our house and had my mother fix him a drink. He said “Trey, this is the first thing I’m going to tell you about music. And you better listen to this: never get involved with the mob.”

AS: Even the indies, once they have a hit they get sucked up by the majors. Like Sub Pop…once they had Nirvana they sold half the company to Warner Brothers…and they haven’t had a hit since. It does seem like making a deal with the devil. But it does seem like Phish has been really successful at making it happen your way. And then you get to come home to the most comfortable place on earth.

TA: Yeah.

AS: And you guys are all transplants to Vermont. It does seem like you’re all intent on staying here. Does it ever get weird here for you?

TA: Not really, no. It’s such a small town that I just feel like another person, you know? I think that Burlington is very low key so that it’s not a problem at all.

AS: But you can never leave. Or if you do, you always come back.

TA: Yeah, a lot of my friends who have left are coming back now. They tried to go away, but you can’t! ~GC~

Andrew Smith is the editor of this magazine. Really. Ask him.

Steve Lemcke: The Man. The Myth

For three years UVM grad student Steve Lemcke has covered the local music scene for Vermont’s largest daily paper The Burlington Free Press. Love him or hate him, if you’re a Vermont musician, every Thursday you read him. Our own Dr. Lex interviews the shadowy figure at the back of the club and finds a genuine music fan who happens to have the best circulation in town.

Steve Lemcke doesn’t spin dope beats. There is never a line outside of Pure Pop at midnight waiting to pick up tickets to his Highgate show even if there were to be one. In fact, most people in this fair city who have heard rumors of his existence wouldn’t recognize him if they saw him in person. Mr. Lemcke doesn’t play drawn out solos with a vacuum cleaner. What he does do however, is write the local music review section for the Burlington Free Press, the in-town arm of the steely Gannet publishing fist of love. This occasionally gets him in a little trouble.

Steve inherited his role of reviewer at the Freeps from Brad Searles, whose name should sound familiar to y’all, as he has been in nearly all of the crucial alt/pop bands this town has ever been home to. A few short years ago, Searles decided that he had too much on his plate at the time to continue writing the Freeps column. Enter Steve Lemcke. Now, it is not my job to make any judgment call as to Lemcke’s qualifications for the job, as it would obviously violate the journalistic credo that I so dearly adhere to. Whether or not certain local musicians occasionally call for the head of Steve Lemcke is also of debatable significance. What we all really want to know is who the hell is this guy, and do his opinions hold any force in the local music media?

Steve LemckeSteve is acutely aware that he has somewhat of a reputation for being, in his own words “…a little too pointed in his criticisms.” However, he believes that he is only being constructive with these critiques, and understands that any review is the product of individual taste, so is therefore highly subjective. How he views his role in the overall creative process of the artists he reviews may actually shed light on the view that Lemcke takes of music media in general. He states unequivocally, “I’m not asking people to agree with me, I’m just asking them to read it. My skin has toughened, and I am less afraid…I won’t pull as many punches.”

Lemcke believes that the critics play an important role in the overall creative development of the artist in general. Steve is justified in saying that what he offers the musicians on this, an extremely small scale version of a much larger and often harsher music industry, is a good introduction to the critical process. This ultimately, in Lemcke’s opinion, becomes an important part of an artist’s development, like playing before your first audience consisting of more that your sister’s drunk friends or reading that first review of your own released material. So it can be important for the reviewer to call them as he sees them, while at the same time understanding the artist’s newness to this process. Sometimes, for the local reviewer, this is like dancing a ballet in a field of land mines.

And what of the relationship between the reviewer and the reviewed? In a city as cozy as ours, it is entirely possible that the reviewer will often enough be faced with the daunting task of reviewing music made by…(gasp) an associate, or even a friend. Lemcke sums up his experiences in matters such as these “It’s a weird one in a town as small as this, but I know I’m gonna try not to let the fact that I’m gonna see somebody next week affect my review, which is as valid as…the next guy.” Is this what makes him occasionally “controversial?” The approach seems valid to me. I know for a fact that Thursday’s weekend section in the Free Press is lustily looked forward to by more than a few of the town’s musicians. Steve explains: “To look at it cynically, going out to see the bands and saying ‘hi how are ya, I’m watching your bands’ maybe gives the groups a better sense that I am an interested observer and not merely judging them from a bubble or judging from on high or from an isolated position. But granted I can’t go see every band every day, ’cause there’s an awful lot of bands in Burlington.”

But does this music made in Vermont matter? Are we living in an actual cultural landscape, or a manufactured one? Lemcke levels on this issue somewhat sarcastically. “In the ten years I’ve been here, Burlington’s always you know, just about on the edge of something big…a burgeoning flower.” Yet Steve believes the music culture here is valid and deserves to be continuously put up for consideration, whether in the press or in the record stores.

But does Steve Lemcke ever actually listen to this music on his own time? Yes. He sometimes does, but is certainly reluctant to admit his favorites, as one could guess. All in the interest of scene diplomacy of course. Plus it’s his own damn business. It’s Lemcke’s job to write about local music every week, and it is obviously a job that he enjoys. What about the accusations about “scene nepotism?” Mr. Lemcke seemingly believes that the entire scene is not, cannot, nor probably ever be, a giant happy family. But he did say that if you and your band sit around bitching about how Good Citizen magazine or any other music-press related mechanism in Burlington never seems to write about your band, than you just aren’t trying hard enough. The music media press cannot possibly manage to cover every single band in the town at once, but these local media channels are there for everyone’s consideration and/or contributions, thankfully. Lemcke’s role is an interesting one, and he approaches it as no less than a necessary part of the cultural media in the area.

With no plans to stop writing his column in the near future, Steve Lemcke has weathered an initial storm of criticisms, and stepped into the warm light of praise. Having quite a few local bands come and go and a bucketful of member changes in even the most long standing groups, Steve Lemcke may have established himself as somewhat of an institution. His opinions are definitely his own. He makes no claims otherwise. Sometimes I think that he has no idea what he’s talking about when he does a review. But that’s the right I reserve as a reader, and the right that he continues to exercise as a writer. So listen up rock and/or roll bands out there. There is a solitary figure standing at the back of the club, watching you tonight, and his pale shadow falls hard across the dance floor. You have no power against him, he is as timeless as the music itself… He is Lemcke and he reviews you.

Dr. Lex is the man. Without a doubt, he’s it. He wrote about Burlington’s incestuous music scene in Good Citizen #6 and he created the board-game Six Degrees of Denny Donovan. We’re kidding about that last part.

Drowningman

Burlington’s own emo-core band with the all-star line-up prepares to release their debut album and assault the world with their screaming dervish of noise. Chris Parizo makes a whole bunch of phone calls and finally gets Simon Brody to talk rock.

By Chris Parizo

Uhm… Hey Simon. This is Chris at Good Citizen. Uhm… just calling to see if you were around, I really want to write this article about Drowningman and I know that you told me that weren’t going to be home today, but I thought that I would try anyway. Uh… sorry that I didn’t call you yesterday like I said I would but I got sidetracked and just forgot about it until around eleven last night… I thought that that would be too late to call but… maybe not. And sorry that I didn’t call you on Wednesday, I had to go out of town. Uhm…I really don’t want to write one of those lame `What do you think about when you perform?’ or `So tell me…who is Drowningman… really?’ stories because…honestly…I think they are a pile of shit, so don’t worry about it. So I guess that I’m going to write what I know and hope to hear from you. Sorry that I took up so much of your answering machine tape…uh… call me…you know the number…bye.”

For a little while, it appeared that hardcore was going to die in the city of Burlington. The big acts were dying out, breaking up or dissolving into other projects and it looked like we were going to be in a drought for awhile. And then, almost from nowhere, Drowningman emerged.

The origin of the band can be traced back to the almost legendary Burlington outfits The Champions and Twelve Times Over.

Drowningman’s vocalist, Simon Brody recalls: “The Champions were over so I moved to Boston with Justin (Ballou), we got there and decided to put together a band. We jammed for a while with some guys and did a couple of shows. After that we broke up. I heard that Denny (Donovan) had left Twelve Times Over…I had always wanted to play with him so I moved back to Vermont.”

After getting together with Denny, they both agreed to start a project together. Denny was going to write the music and Simon was to write all the lyrics. While working at Tones in Johnson, Todd Tomlinson came in and said “I’m a drummer!” Denny had a feeling that Todd would be a great drummer (he was right) and asked him to join the band. At the same time, Simon had called Justin who was still in Boston and told him to come back to Vermont and jam with the new band. Justin did come back to Burlington, but never got around to playing. He instead recommended Javin Leonard as an excellent guitarist.

“Javin grew (as a guitarist) because he had to keep up with Denny. He is a driven kind of person so he kept up with the challenge, he would sit there and try to figure out what Denny was doing. Denny wrote all the music until Javin began coming to practice with material. After Denny left, Javin took over as songwriter. We spend the first half-hour of practice combing through riffs and keeping what we like and getting rid of what we don’t” says Simon.

So why did Denny leave?

“Why does Denny leave any band” jokes Simon? “Actually, Denny just has a different outlook on music. He just enjoys playing and performing around here. He hates traveling.”

SImon continues “As the band began to grow, we began to get more out of town shows…he just didn’t have the heart to do it. We thought about getting a PlayStation for the van because he loves that shit, and we even thought about getting a replacement guitarist for out of town shows, but that wouldn’t be fair to the other guy…so eventually he just left. Somehow Daryl just fell in.”

Daryl Rabidoux is a bastard. I say this because I have known him since we were both twelve and we spent high school sticking compass needles into each other’s backs. Actually, Daryl is one of those guys that is hard to dislike. He played with Rocketsled through the “glory years” and was asked to fill the hole left by Denny. He fits Drowningman like a glove.

“Band politics are so much easier with Daryl because we just start picking on him” says Simon.

Meanwhile, Dave Barnett was hanging around, watching Drowningman play with another bassist. Simon and the guys knew Dave as a great local bassist (The Champions, Twelve Times Over, late-era Rocketsled, Planet X and Chin Ho!…not at the same time), when the position was open, Dave was invited in.

So here it goes… Drowningman is:

Simon Brody (vocals)

Dave Barnett (bass)

Daryl Rabidoux (guitar)

Javin Leonard (guitar)

Todd Tomlinson (drums)

The music that these men create as Drowningman is…well…hardcore. Heavily distorted guitars, a very ballsy bass sound, a hard hitting drummer, constantly shifting rhythms and lead screams that swing wildly from pain to pleasure without notice. Drowningman shows, locally, are a rarity, and that is because the band is focused on playing out of town more than locally. Keeping their aim on the entire northeast, Drowningman has established themselves as a well known regional act. A recent seven inch release on Hydrahead Records titled Weighted and Weighed Down has been displayed as a “Seven Inch Hot Seller” for two weeks at Newbury Comics (a well known Boston music chain) and Drowningman was recently accepted to play in Boston’s Loud Fest music festival this summer.

Due to their hectic touring schedule, Drowningman have established themselves as a well known act in such areas as Buffalo and Syracuse, NY, Providence, RI and New Brunswick, NJ. Recently, the band recorded a new full length album at Joe Egan’s Eclipse Studios here in Vermont and mixed and mastered at Trax East in New Jersey. The CD will be released on Hydrahead and will be distributed throughout the nation by Lumberjack Distribution, an exclusive distributor for twelve hardcore and indie labels across the country. Expect the release sometime in late March or early April.

And as soon as the CD is released, Drowningman will hit the road. The future for Drowningman is bright. With a lot of options open to the band, it wouldn’t be a shock if this band explodes nationwide. So don’t get caught off-guard, see these guys while you can. ~GC~

Chris Parizo thinks that the hokey pokey is what it’s all about.

Andy Cotton Gets (Gordon) Stoned

Our man Max Owre chats with his pal Andy Cotton about life as a member of the Gordon Stone Trio and the zen of playing bass.

When I was asked to interview Andy Cotton, I had to admit that I may not be the most qualified to give an “objective” interview. He has been a very close friend of mine for close to ten years and those years have included good times and not so good times. We were in a band together called Rina Bijou and since we broke up in 1994, Andy has made a name for himself playing with many local and regional acts including the Parima Jazz Band, Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe, the New England Exploratory Orchestra, Tobias Broccoli (with Brian Boyes), Jonestown Punch, and most recently the Gordon Stone Trio. He has also sat in with just about every musician in Vermont.

His style on his instrument is idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable. He is currently sharing his sound and philosophy as an adjunct faculty member at Johnson State College. Andy also wanted me to let the world know that he is open for gigs and lessons, so let’s get his phone ringing…

Good Citizen: Andy, can you run through some of your early experiences? Where did it start? You started on trumpet?

Andy Cotton: No. Saxophone, but…inconsequential. Then years later I was the only one of my friends not to play an instrument, and none of them wanted to play bass. So… I got one.

GC: So life didn’t really start for you until college. Tell me about college. I know that we played together in college at UVM, and you were doing other stuff in Slade Hall.

AC: College was a down time for me. I got to college and got really busy. I took a year off just to play, and that might have made the decision for me.

GC: Is that when you went to Norway?

AC: When I went to Norway, and I lived in the mountains and played and skied.

GC: So, why Norway? Was that a decision based on music?

AC: I’ve always loved mountains and it’s beautiful there and I knew it was a place that would be quiet and I’d have the time to play. I went to a school that supposedly had a music program. I got there and found out there was pretty much a music program for beginners who wanted to play in a marching band and they only taught in Norwegian, which I didn’t know at the time. So I started to self study, and there was a teacher that would come and teach guitar and bass, he was from Chile.

GC: Which is really close to Norway.

AC: So I went to Norway and ended up learning about Latin and Salsa bass. Which was a really great thing… all those crazy rhythms he had me going back and forth between the threes and the fours. He had me playing these really syncopated lines, and really let me play my own things. Came back- went to college, didn’t like it, couldn’t wait to be done, met you and Neil and all those guys (actually two other guys, Oliver Carling and T.J. Stacy) and started Rina Bijou.

GC: Would you say that Rina Bijou was your first professional music experience? In terms of making some beau coup? Like we made a ton of money?

AC: (laughing) Tens of dollars. Rina Bijou was the first of a lot of things, and I’m not sure I can describe what those all are. But definitely the first original music thing that I was involved in where I had a part in the writing of the music and liked the stuff. At the time, with the five of us, it seemed like it was the thing. Like we would do that one band for the rest of our lives. We had our influences but we just kinda went down there (the basement of the Flynn annex), and it was all based on what we thought was cool, and that is how we made our decisions. It ended coming out with really good undiluted music. Then time went on and we started playing pieces like (censored) and said “Okay, we are going to change what we are doing to please the dancers” and it just didn’t work. You know we’re not commercial musicians, Max. I think that we are doomed.

GC: When I first met you Andy, you were very much into jazz, and you sort of denied being a “jazz bassist.” You said that no musician is any one genre, but you have played with just about every jazz player in town. How did the jazz thing start?

AC: Well, I started studying jazz because I wanted to learn more about music. It seemed like if you wanted to learn, you have to learn from somewhere, and every interesting avenue I found had to do with jazz. You can study classical, but I just didn’t connect to that music or don’t understand it- that will be something for later in life that I will grow into. As time went on I learned to listen to forty minute improvisations and really like them and really listen to every minute of it. So the natural extension of it came in college. Somebody gave me a Thelonious Monk tape, and I listened to “Blue Monk” and I realized that what was happening with Thelonious Monk was really burning and I could leave the Dead behind. What I found was a more harmonic and rhythmic intensity, and also a deeper exploration of music.

GC: Knowing you as a musician I think to call you a jazz bassist is a misnomer because you can play in the genre but you are not limited by the genre. That’s what gives people a sense of identity. The same thing is true of rock, don’t you think? With a genre like rock and roll the same confines apply. Especially with rock and roll where you are told: “Dude, play the one on the one.”

AC: Yeah, fortunately I haven’t had too much of that. A little bit of that, Jimmy Branca used to give me the eye, you know like “Play bass!” I’d say, “Okay, I’d rather play saxophone, but I will play bass for you.” There is really beauty in all music, and I’ve had a great time at Charlie O’s with Jimmy Branca. Times when you shut your eyes and the song is over, and you want to start another song before you open your eyes and an eighty year old toothless woman starts drooling on you.

GC: A pretty picture. What is the relationship between ensemble playing and improvisation? There is an element of ensemble playing where you really are restricted to a rote pattern or part and the magic of it is when you realize “I’m playing my part right” and it is fitting in with what everyone else is doing. Certainly bass.

AC: I take a lot of pleasure in that.

GC: How about improvisation. What do you think of it?

AC: (Laughing) I think that the ultimate goal is to become a great improviser. To me the musicians who are the heaviest are always the ones who, whenever they play, it’s always what’s coming out of their heads and it’s always intensely beautiful. That’s where I want to get to. I’d like to be at that point. In the meantime there are things you have to do, like being an ensemble player – you have to learn to get in the pocket on all different kinds of things. Basically, cause I’m not going to just do it with jazz. So, I want to know how to play good funk groove.

GC: What about the bluegrass element? You are playing with Gordon Stone.

AC: Well, we don’t do just bluegrass. We do some bluegrass, but Gordon never asked me to play or learn bluegrass bass. Basically we hold no style as our own. We want to bring out the feeling of each tune, whether it’s a reggae tune, jazz tune or bluegrass tune. Playing real bluegrass bass has a lot to do with having the sound and the feel for time. If you’re a reggae player you feel time one way, and if you’re a bluegrass player you understand it in a different way. I’m neither. I can play those things and it won’t sound like bluegrass or reggae…it still sounds like me playing those things.

GC: Upright bass is a relatively new thing for you. How does it compare to electric bass?

AC: Learning upright has been fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed playing it, it brings out different aspects of my playing. Now, three years into it..it has made me be more careful about the things I play. I like upright and really I’m a student of upright. I do play it out occasionally, but I feel like I’m still an electric player who is upright now. They are really different instruments. You play the same stuff, but you don’t play the same stuff.

GC: The compositional and arranging facets of a group of people writing together is interesting to me. What are your thoughts on this?

AC: Well, Rina was a real lesson in that. We went into it with no idea of what we were doing and our first three songs were verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge. Suddenly, there is a pattern there. Rina was my first experience with that. After that there was a period of freelance work for me. The band broke up, as well you know.

GC: REALLY!!!

AC: Yes, so after that I didn’t make any decisions, but the gigs kept on coming. Then I hooked up with different people to play jazz with. That’s when Mackey (Abernathy-tenor sax) and I started to play at Muddy Waters. Then we got the gig at Parima, and that is where I really learned how to play jazz. When we started to play that gig, I started to get familiar with the music so I wasn’t thinking about every chord change. Eventually the tunes we played a lot I knew well enough so that I didn’t have to look at the charts and I could start to experiment with the notes and try to make it musical.

GC: In the future, do you want to do your own project or would you always want to be part of a group?

GC: How about the musical academia? What are your feelings about that now that you are teaching?

AC: People want to learn, and if you can help them learn, part of that is teaching them things, but people don’t want to be taught things. So as a teacher you’re more of a ‘learning helper.’ There are some schools that can intensify that experience, because everyone is looking for the same thing. The teachers at the good schools are exceptional. I think for years Johnson has had a great program with Andy Shapiro, Steve Blair, Dave Grippo, Joe Salisbury and a strong music faculty.

Now…they have me. (Laughter.)

GC: Is Vermont a large enough venue for a musician like yourself, who has had a niche style of playing and ambitions on a worldly scale? Can it happen here?

AC: The only way people are going to hear your stuff: they either have your recordings or they see you play. Without a major recording industry in Vermont… Burlington is not L.A. or Athens.

GC: Athens is a very old Greek city.

AC: Really, if you want people here to hear you play, you have to go out and do it for them, and that’s coming back into style.

GC: What do you feel about aging as a musician? Getting old?

AC: I don’t know. I only feel old half the time. Sometimes with respect to music I feel very young.

Andy Cotton can be seen all over Burlington playing with various bands but as the Gordon Stone Trio gets busier and tours the country with more frequency, Andy will be a lot harder to find around town. Andy Cotton will make his mark on music and that is a fact. Catch him while you can at smaller local venues, because his caliber of playing is a rarity in a small city like ours. ~GC~

Max Owre is guitarist/vocalist with the band (sic) and is a former member of both Rina Bijou and Motel Brown. His guitar playing can be heard on Motel Brown’s 1996 CD Too Much Time. Max and his wife Ceara are also the proud parents of a one year old daughter named Sara Josephine.

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.

PART I

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?

TA: Yeah!

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!”

Trey AnastasioTA: 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…

AS: Stats.

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.

Invisible Jet Takes Off!

Vermont singer-songwriter Aaron Flinn gets to ramble on about one of his favorite bands, the hard-to-describe rhythm-art-pop band Invisible Jet.

If you’ve ever been to the end of the runway at any given airport and watched airplanes taking off and landing, then you’re aware of the overwhelming sonic reverberations that rip into the air as the planes scream their sound down and around you. The intensity of that experience is not unlike placing yourself near the front of the stage at any performance given by the Burlington, Vermont based band Invisible Jet.

If you’re looking to hear hardcore, punk, funk, hippyrock, groove, rap, root music, blues, bluegrass, jazz or anything of the sort, you’re going to be let down. If, however, you desire something more akin to the sounds that rang through 80,000 seat arenas during the mid-late eighties and early nineties, then you’re in luck. And luckier still because you can catch them at slightly smaller venues, for the time being, like Boston’s Mama Kin, New York City’s Mercury Lounge or Burlington’s own Metronome and Toast. The Invisible Jet experience, however, is stadium worthy.

Rather than compare Invisible Jet to a particular band, I would bring up the name Daniel Lanois. Lanois, over the last ten to fifteen years, has had a major hand in crafting the sound of many popular artists such as Emmy Lou Harris, Peter Gabriel, U2, Bob Dylan and the Neville Brothers to name but a few. Lanois has a distinctive production style that Invisible Jet immediately recalls.

The Jet, as we like to call them, attained their sound through the use of a historically traditional rock line-up: two guitars, bass and drums. The band’s rhythm section is perhaps one of the fattest and most solid around. Tom James’ bass playing is strong and melodic, utilizing a minimal amount of notes and thus providing a sturdy foundation for the harmonic progressions of the songs to be built upon. As a perfect counterpart to the spacious bass playing is percussionist Phil Brown. Phil is obviously a student of African polyrhythmic drumming, as he fills in every hole without stepping on any other instrument and allows the rhythm section alone to be a wall of sound. Brown is also one of the most enjoyable drummers to watch in a live setting (park yourself accordingly). Jesse Sargent writes and sings and plays beautiful lead guitar.

Over the years, the band has worked through a number of musicians in search of the fourth member, including local favorite David Kamm, currently playing in Construction Joe. Taxi (a.k.a. Ryan Ober) has stepped in on guitar and without question has become the fourth member of Invisible Jet. The textures and colors Ober brings through his use of guitar lines and ambient chords, often playing in counterpoint to vocal melodies, broadens the shoulders of the music and cause it to stand taller. Ober also sings, which allows for some amazing three-part harmonies.

Nearly five years ago James, Brown and Sargent began working together as a musical unit. For reasons such as travel and school they have taken breaks from time to time but have been more or less committed solely to perfecting Invisible Jet for the last two years. And Invisible Jet is a job they take seriously. The band rehearses endlessly: often perfecting material they have already played out and even more often working through ideas that will eventually be pounded into finished songs. For some, songwriting occurs quickly and in some sort of fit of divine intervention a song is born. But for Invisible Jet, the process is harder: at any given rehearsal a member may arrive with an idea (vocal melody, chord progression and bass line) and then the honing process begins: negotiations, compromises, jamming, and then reflection. It’s a lot of work but this process works wonderfully for the Jet. The songs that they showcase live are fantastically arranged and usually pulled off flawlessly due to the great many times that the band has run the song prior to the public ever having the opportunity to hear it. The downside to this process, which they have fallen prey to from time to time, is never reaching the point where one is happy with what they are working on, thus ideas float for years and having too many completed songs is not a problem that arises. However, at the last three Jet shows I’ve seen, new songs had been added to the set list each time.

Off the stage Invisible Jet has been working with Chuck Eller in Charlotte recording what will be their first release. The eponymous ten-track disc will be available early in 1998 and will feature nine new songs and a re-recording of the local favorite “If This Is You”, which can be found on the first Good Citizen compilation Soundtrack to the Zine Volume One.

In my estimation with this CD and their live show Invisible Jet will not be grounded for long, but rather cruising at 35,000 feet or better (with a tailwind even). Obviously, I like this band. I hope I’ve convinced you to check Invisible Jet for yourself. ~GC~

Aaron Flinn, a Charlotte native, and a magna cum laude graduate of the Berklee College of Music, is a multi-instrumentalist and prolific songsmith who performs with his band Salad Days as well as acoustically as… Aaron Flinn. His first CD release, Rattle, can be found at local stores and live shows. He also has a cool scar on top of his head earned live in the rock and roll trenches…

Bassist Covered: Stacy Starkweather

Burlington’s most sought-after bass player Stacy Starkweather gets Option Anxiety and Patricia Braine tells the tale.

Stacy Starkweather’s name has been popping up in a lot of places recently, and for good reason. The release of his first CD as Option Anxiety, Every November, on Granville, Vermont’s Shiretown Records, has brought long overdue attention to Starkweather’s fluent, fluid playing and tasteful lines. He’s the quiet giant and a founding member of The Disciples who wrote and produced their first album; the same guy who helped bring audiences to their feet – with a warm roar – during the ’94 Discover Jazz Festival’s Guitar Summit; the major player doing monumental duets in Amsterdam with Jamie Masefield; he’s a teacher whose students are already professional musicians and schedule their lessons in between their world tours! A true example of a “musician’s musician,” Starkweather is famous for his work with Jazz Mandolin Project, Michael Ray & the Cosmic Krewe, and, of course, Option Anxiety.

Option AnxietyStarkweather receives accolades from the press but also is a rarity in the praise he garners from his fellow musicians. James Harvey, who has played with Phish and Belizbeha, opines “Stacy has skills, taste, a great attitude, a sense of humor, and – I just wish I could play with him more often.”

It was exactly one year ago, on a gray, wet November day when Starkweather turned on the lights in his living room, and played me his forthcoming album, which would see release in June of this year.

“Want some tea?”

“Hmm, thanks. Lemon zinger, please.”

“November is a reflective month,” Starkweather muses. “At least it is for me. That’s when I re-examine the year.” He pauses. “I’ve been that way ever since I was 13.”

Starkweather’s from California, and November’s probably the month we risk losing him to warm climate.

“I don’t like winter. I’m addicted to anything warm,” he explains. “However, I’ve concluded, after being here for 13 years, that it’s the Vermont winters – the changes in the season, really – which make it the perfect place for original music to happen. There’s no other place like it. After looking all around the country and traveling abroad, Vermont is a great place to live. It has a great music scene and it’s just a perfect place to create music.”

“Anyway so, here I was with a November deadline to complete the album and I wasn’t coming up with anything I liked,” he continues. “I basically had all this stuff collected from over the years to go in and record. But one of my oldest friends, Peter Apfelbaum of the Heiroglyphics, released an album of his new music that moved me so much, I said, ‘I can do better then what I’ve done.’ So, I started over again. I couldn’t send, what I was going to put out, to someone like Peter with any sense of pride.”

Lucky for us, this personal challenge resulted in an enormous piece of musical art, highlighting Dave Ellis on trumpet and flugelhorn, Dave Grippo on alto saxophone, James Harvey on trombone and piano, and Gabe Jarrett on drums.

Starkweather’s living room has this warm glow, even without a fireplace in sight. The chair’s comfortable, and as we ease down into it the hauntingly familiar and soulful originality of his phrasing unfolds. We feel a deep reflection of our own experiences with “Equal Opportunity,” “Rush Hour,” “Remembering,” “Dark Things,” “Call Back” and, of course, “Every November.” You know, it’s always an easy ride into Starkweather’s space. This time, it’s on the mainstream jazz track.

“Most mainstream jazz has a form,” explains Starkweather. “The melody is the form. There’s the verse and the chorus, and the repeat of the verse. Then it has the section where everyone solos over the form. Most jazz albums are either mainstream in that they really are form oriented and the players play over the form. Or they are really free, and they play whatever they want.

“I wanted to do both.” He continues: “There are a couple of pieces of music I wrote that could only be approached by letting the players do what they wanted to do. The reason the album is a jazzy album is because I found the people I wanted to play with – who could express what I wanted to express – and that’s the way it came out. I would have been happy to write a folk album, if that’s what had been required.”

Vermont bassists have to be diverse to survive. Starkweather took advantage of the situation and he has refined his talents by mastering many genres and becoming highly skilled as the background player, singer, bassist for 25 years, rather then the front man. When I interviewed him two years ago, he was expressing interest in mastering the jazz realm on Gordon Stone’s album Touch and Go. He did it then as a player. He has clearly mastered it on Every November, this time, not only as a player, but as composer and band leader.

“Over half the album is free improvisation, which scares a certain number of people and attracts a certain number of people,” he points out, “the other – not quite half of the album – is very melodic oriented. And that scares off the improvisational people.”

The remarkable result is a beautifully diverse listen for the jazz enthusiast, or anyone who just likes excellent and uncommercial music.

Every November is tenderly erotic and sad at moments, yet awakening; stretching us out to the cliff’s edge. Gradually, losing our fear we glide over what becomes a gentle slope. We drift into a bizarre and beautiful, avant-garde cavern where if we let-go and breathe deeply, we sense the history of it. Mix this with images of a soulful, Vermont, November day, with a cold rain pouring, dancing and sliding along the window pane. Sunset comes early. Night is darker without stars. In the morning, we stare at frosted leaves bursting; whirling across the ground. We’re safe in the comfort of his warm chair the whole time.

“I enjoyed the session and the album,” Harvey notes. “Stacy’s a good leader. He took the best people and let them create. It’s basically a live album with a band that only played one or two shows before going into the studio.”

This impresses me.

“That’s what happens, when you put major players together in a room,” Starkweather assures me. “That’s basically what I did. It’s essentially a live album. I purposely just wanted to let people play; keep it really simple and not fool around.”

“The recording of it was a joy,” he sights. “We recorded it in less then 20 hours. There were a couple of little, tiny notes I had to fix. But, essentially, that’s five guys, playing in a room, with some microphones set up. It’s exactly what I wanted. The whole thing was recorded, mixed and mastered in less than 40 hours.”

For a first solo album, one might expect Starkweather doing all the solos and pushing a bunch of buttons, whistles and bells.

“What you hear on the record, I was only one fifth of” Starkweather tells me. “The music, when it finally came, came easily – in its own way. Then, James wrote out the charts for the musicians, and did some wonderful arranging and rearranging for me. The five individuals are the sound and the way that it is. That final piece has my name on it. But it’s a band album. The little melodies were my ideas. But what happened after that is 100% a band effort. And that’s what everybody listens for. Because they want to hear everybody play. Not somebody just reading music. They want to hear what they’re really going to play.”

Many agree: Stacy Starkweather is one of the finest musicians in the country.

“You could call Stacy the ultimate bass player for any musician,” exclaims Steve Blair, “in that he can cover the whole spectrum of musical possibilities. He’s got a great, positive attitude about what he’s doing, and he never seems to run out of a spontaneous flow of ideas.”

Stacey’s credentials include work with Vermont’s biggest names: Trey Anastasio of Phish and Bad Hat, Tammy Fletcher of the Disciples and Jamie Masefield of The Jazz Mandolin Project.

For example: Michael Ray & the Cosmic Krewe says “Stacy is a huge and natural talent… the best on the planet.”

Gordon Stone states knowingly, “Stacy transcends bass playing as we know it! Sometimes I’ve looked around when he played with my trio and wondered, ‘where’s the bass player?’ But there was Stacy playin’ the bass and taking it beyond.”

How does a person become such an extraordinary musician?

At home, Stacy plays guitar “all the time.” You can hear from his bass solos how well this exercise has paid off over the years. Now, watch his warm smile on-stage, eyes on the lead, focused and ears tuned. Starkweather’s playing is consistently on. He builds a strong, steady, quality sound – a secure base, if you will; not just in one genre, but with a wide variety of fabulous players. And, one truly amazing fact is: until recently, he could not read music, at all and is only in the beginning stages of that learning process.

“One of the great things about Stacy,” says guitarist Paul Asbell of the popular Unknown Blues Band, “is, as a listener, he is truly passionate about music. Therefore, as a player, he really gives his all to whatever style of music he’s playing.”

In terms of style, where is he going on future solo projects?

“I think the only idea for a follow-up would be duets with certain individuals.” He smiles and puts on a tape he calls Bake-o-Bass.

In one hour, improvising only, Starkweather and fellow bassist, Colorado based Edwin Flurwitz, formerly of Shockra, laid down a huge sound trip guaranteed to delight and amaze.

“Being a duo you really have to breathe together. We’re simply having fun feeding off of each other!” He smiles. “And it’s done. We don’t even have to go into the studio.”

The room gets brighter, and you see his path.

“Musicians have to have a different attitude about life then normal people, in terms of how you judge success in your life and how you judge failure and how you judge progress.”

“If, as a musician, you see the normal boundaries of what is successful and what is not, you become hopelessly frustrated and probably never pursue it as a lifelong thing.”

Why?

“Because, it’s not about whether you’re going to retire or have a nice house, or two cars in the garage,” Starkweather continues. “It’s about personally satisfying your own musical goals which don’t make any sense to anybody but you.”

The way I see it, every November he’ll reflect and begin his yearly renewal. Undoubtedly, he’ll meet the challenge and another great project will appear. Ultimately, Starkweather’s integrity, personality, and musicianship will remain key to his abundance and success. ~GC~

Patricia Braine has written and promoted for world class bassists such as Stanley Clarke of Miles Davis and Chick Corea fame, Eric Hoh of Freefall and Jamie Faunt of Chick Corea & Jamie Faunt’s Home Bass.

Seth Yacovone Has Got the Blues Real Good

Aimée Petrin talks to the Seth Yacovone Blues Band about the blues, their new album, life on the road and why they do what they do. And she doesn’t tell you how old he is until the last paragraph.

They may be singing the blues, but this band is having a ball while doing so.

Regardless of which member of the Seth Yacovone Blues Band you ask, the reason this foursome plays and works so hard is an unwavering fondness for fun. And good music.

It’s all fun and games…until someone brings up Yacovone’s age. That subject is getting old.

“It’s really a drag,” opines harp man Luke Boggess when the topic inevitably arises. In an attempt to clear the air early on, both Boggess and Yacovone offer what they must wish would be the definitive answer that finally puts this issue to bed.

With frustration fueling his response, Yacovone, who otherwise has a smile and joke ready at every turn, launches into “Just as you’re not great as soon as you hit 36, you don’t suck until you’re 24.” With resignation, he closes the subject, adding “It just matters that the music is good!”

(Lest we forget that Robert Johnson, the king of the Delta Blues, was dead and buried by the ripe old age of 28?)

On the one hand, the band admits the age thing has helped garner publicity. With band profiles popping up in everything from regional newspapers (both locally and wherever the band tours) to one of the state’s more prestigious publications – Vermont Magazine – it’s difficult to discount the role it plays in the sensation. In fact you can hardly get past the headline before the fascination with Yacovone’s age rears its ugly head.

The focus on Yacovone’s age has left some without a true appreciation for the talent behind the hoopla, especially in these parts. Or at the very least an obstacle, which must be overcome to get over the age and to the music.

If anyone has issues with this affable bunch’s notoriety, they should take it up with ring leader Lee Diamond – the driving force behind the Seth Yacovone Blues Band’s fame. And this firecracker can handle it. As proprietor of the area’s only commercial band rehearsal space – The Kennel – Diamond is making music a full-time career. Yet, it seems a slap in the face that having a hard working manager up front should be a detriment.

It took one show at Nectar’s and Diamond was hooked. A few phone calls later and Yacovone bashfully asked Diamond to be the band’s manager. She’s been wheeling and dealing on the band’s behalf ever since.

With barely a year and a half behind the current line-up, Yacovone, who has one of those minds you don’t want to come up against in any game of Trivial Pursuit, effortlessly ticks off that fateful week in July: the 13th, a gig at the Pub & Brewery with only a handful of rehearsals behind them; the 16th, opening for fellow rising teen sensation Derek Trucks; the 19th and 20th, the first weekend show at Nectar’s; the 26th at Stratton’s Red Fox Inn, the 27th, warming the stage for the Ian Moore Band; the 28th, celebrating the earth at the Middletown Springs Solar Fest,; the 29th, cutting a demo at Joe Egan’s studio in Hinesburg; and rounding it all up on the 30th with a show supporting Koko Taylor.

Since then, the band has groomed an impressive resume. Shows at the Paradise Theatre in Boston, Allston’s Harper’s Ferry, the Metro in Saratoga Springs, the famed Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton and Burlington’s own Discover Jazz Festival are just a few of the gigs that have kept the band busy.

With comparisons to the greats, the Seth Yacovone Blues Band has enjoyed references to such distinguished predecessors as Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and the Allman Brothers.

Drummer Adam “The Hand” Kay, who, despite his percussive role in the band, keeps a relatively low and quiet profile, likens the band’s sound to “tradition with a twist.”

The twist comes from such varied influences from those aforementioned greats to Frank Zappa and George Clinton. The result is a sound Yacovone refers to as “soul music.”

Whether it is “Zappa singing about saving boogers or Robert Johnson screaming in 1936” it all makes its way into the songwriting of Yacovone, who has been writing and playing since he was nine, when he got that now legendary guitar for Christmas. Yacovone, the foursome’s primary composer, gives up a few credits on the band’s all-originals debut CD, Bobfred’s Bathtub Minstrel, to Boggess.

So, why did a white boy hailing from the foothills of the Green Mountains beg his parents for a guitar so that he could start playing the blues?

“It’s the music that grabbed out and bit me,” explains Yacovone of his passion. Specifically, it was the swan song of the Band and its film The Last Waltz, which included an awe inspiring performance by Muddy Waters, that sealed Yacovone’s fate. “With so much power and emotion behind it you can’t help but be like, “Holy shit!”

“It so naturally fit my brain,” the Wolcott native adds.

“Blues was something I was always interested in – it’s what got me started on bass,” says Tom Coggio of the rhythm section. “Seeing the Dave Brubeck Quartet will do that to an aspiring musician, even when a music teacher tells you “your hands will never be big enough.”

“It hits you in the gut,” Boggess says.

Enjoying a commercial renaissance of sorts, the blues can be found in a bevy of mainstream advertisements. Even with this renewed appreciation for the genre, Yacovone is happy to see that the blues has not gone the same way as country, coming up watered down and vacuous. “There isn’t a Garth Brooks of the blues who sells 40 million albums, ” he adds.

“My biggest hatred of modern music is the lack of tradition,” asserts the staunchly independent spirit who chose home schooling over more orthodox academia (and who was writing for Good Citizen from his home when he was only fifteen.) “They all sound like last year’s big hit,” continues Yacovone with obvious disdain.

Yacovone feels that, with few exceptions, since the early 70s groups have not kept an ear to the roots of music when plowing new musical ground. The disclaimer lies in those contemporary bands he favors like the Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz and Phish. Phish invited the Seth Yacovone Blues Band to appear at last summer’s Clifford Ball in Plattsburgh. “They listen to old music and you can hear it,” he observes.

This is not to say that Yacovone and the band do not have their own favorites on the local scene. Although most undirected questions hang in the air as each band member patiently, or one could say shyly, waits for another to speak up, this inquiry brings about a chorus of voices. Sandra Wright, the Disciples, Belizbeha and Big Joe Burrell all make the big list before each member adds a few reflecting more individualistic tastes.

Surprisingly, with so many bands seeking super-stardom, the Seth Yacovone Blues Band looks to a simpler future. One in which they can pay the bills and play the music without worrying about any of that other “bullshit,” with each CD funding the next.

“Success is doing something we haven’t done before,” asserts Yacovone, whether that be a new transition, an improvised, yet seamless jam or other risky maneuvers on stage. “I like weirdness, mistakes and inconsistencies because it’s natural.”

As natural as an 18-year-old from the hills of Vermont leading a blues band in search of good times and good music. ~GC~

Aimée Petrin is a free-lance personality with a background in music, theater and film.

The Hills Have Ears and Eyes Too: John Morris of Waitsfield’s Mad Mountain Tavern

Max Owre interviews John Morris of Waitsfield’s Mad Mountain Tavern.

One of the missions of Good Citizen is to support the people who

Tavern revellers at (sic) show

Tavern revellers at (sic) show

support our Vermont music community. The underappreciated people who make it all happen: club owners, bar tenders, club bookers, bouncers, sound people. We’re looking for the people who make their own music scene happen and for six years a new scene has been developing in the Mad River Valley, thanks to the efforts of John Morris and his ever popular venue, The Mad Mountain Tavern.I have had the good fortune of playing at the Mad Mountain Tavern (hereafter refereed to as the MMT) on many occasions. Every time, I have been amazed at the large, receptive crowds that pack the rustic club. There is always a contagious festive atmosphere that is shared by everyone including the band and the staff. Both in the winter, when the ski industry boosts the local population, and during the “off season,” the vibe is real and tangible. Recently, John Morris, the man behind this phenomena, agreed to sit with me and discuss his club and the music scene in the valley.John grew up on the New Jersey shore and dabbled in accounting and bass playing before he found himself surveying in the Mad River Valley and, in the fall of 1991, purchasing a local bar called Mooselips and beginning to change the face of music in the community. John has helped a lot of Vermont bands make a living with their music and we wanted to thank him and introduce him to you. Maybe you’ll like him and go say “Hey” and check out the tavern the next time you’re in the valley.So in his and my own words…

Good Citizen: Do you think your experience with music is influencing you as a bar owner and how you book bands right now?John Morris: Yeah, I think so. I don’t listen to bands just like, ‘I hope that they play a song that I like.’ I see what kind of talent is there, and not just talent; but how well they play together. So I listen closely before I let bands in the club, even from the start.GC: How did you end up in Waitsfield? Is this a mountain connection?JM: I was actually doing accounting work when I moved up here. I was looking for something else to do along the way…going to school part time at Johnson, and doing the book work, and kinda looking around. I was living in Stowe – ski bumming there… going between Smuggler’s Notch and Stowe. Then I bailed out on the accounting and took a land survey job and discovered the valley through the business. I drank here when it used to be Mooselips, a redneck dive scene. If you came in with your girlfriend they wanted to beat you up. And couple years down the road, the place ended up going under. So I knew the area and I knew the building.GC: … and you knew accounting…JM: Accounting, yes. Very important.GC: It is all making sense. What year was that?JM: We opened in 1992.GC: So we are working on a six year anniversary here, that’s great.JM: Coming up to it.GC: Congratulations.JM: Thanks, man.GC: I’m gonna cry.JM: We’re still here. I am going to cry if we are still here in ten years.GC: Tell me a little bit about what your format for music is in general. How many nights a week?JM: We do weekends, mostly through the year. We skip a little time during the mud season and a couple of nights during stick season (colloquial for fall), but pretty much year round we do music Friday and Saturday nights. In the winter we add Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons. We’re into mostly original stuff with covers thrown in, more than cover bands with originals thrown in.GC: This is a deviation from a philosophy that I encountered a few years ago. I know you’ve always had original bands, but at one point was there a predominance of cover bands?JM: Yeah. I’d say maybe not a predominance but 50/50, maybe 60/40. You know blues, R&B, cover bands and some cheese rock. It was more a matter of feeling out what we could get in here and what worked. It was wanting to hear five different bands playing the same three sets of music. There are some bars that every weekend it’s a cover band- no matter what, and they all play the same songs as the band before. We really didn’t want that but we had to see what the local crowd would listen to (and not listen to) and if we could get away with doing more original or creative stuff than in a typical ski bar. Most ski town bars are like… “Mustang Sally,” “Louie Louie,” “Tequila…”GC: “Low Rider.”JM: Yeah, “Low Rider,” there you go.GC: Can you pick one thing in the music that your clientele looks for? Is it danceability? Is it “party music”? What is it, that no matter what the season, will work here?JM: The stuff that is not too hard and is more rhythmic. Stuff that leans towards dancing music, but not “dance music”. Funky, Jazzy, Reggae, Ska, Island sounds stuff. The R&B thing works well but not as well as you would think. Usually R&B will get people on their feet, but I don’t think that works around here.GC: It’s hard to find good original R&B as opposed to good cover R&B. There is some out there but…JM: Yeah. Even the original R&B, when you hear it, most of the time, sounds like a cover tune anyway. R&B and blues, unless you’re really a master, you can only take so far before it sounds like a lot of other people.GC: “Mustang Sally” all over again.JM: Right. In your own way- In a different key or something. We like the bands that work a lot on their original stuff. But its not just that it’s original- it’s gotta be tight, and it has to have the talent behind it with good energy- not just standing around like, “ho hum, we’re playing another song,” that doesn’t get people going too much. Our local crowd now is pretty particular. It’s surprising, but they come in and they don’t want to hear a cover band anymore. That’s a big part of why we’ve gotten away from it. I’m pretty close with my locals, and they’ll walk over and hiss at me, tell me- “I’m leaving,” and leave.GC: Locals are obviously very important here. I mean, I’ve played gigs in the summer here and it’s a packed house in the summertime. Obviously locals are a large part of your clientele.JM: Yeah, year round they definitely keep us going. During the ski season they’re not a very big percentage overall, but they’re definitely here for us year round, they keep us afloat. So, what they say has a lot of weight.GC: What is your philosophy towards music and the ski area?JM: I think we go against the grain as far as the norm in the ski industry. As far as the styles we’ve been talking about- originals and non-originals. The kind of music you hear is the duo playing CSN, Simon and Garfunkel, Van Morrison, and you know every song, and they kinda cut away at it.GC: What’s your relationship with the ski areas like? Do you run promotions with them? Or do you do your own kinda thing?JM: We ended up working more and more with the ski areas. Sugarbush not because of me, but because they started enjoying themselves here and came to do things. I really had it in mind that when we opened up a business we would do it on our own merits, and not do it because we were in bed with the ski area. Which was kinda of naive actually. If I was in with them sooner, I probably would have been better off sooner. We get along pretty good; in general. There are things they do that I’m not into, but we keep that aside. Mad River Glen I’m closer to. That’s where my heart is. I do things for Mad River more, because I like Mad River. It’s smaller… It’s backwoods ‘take it as it comes’ skiing. The people there are pretty hardcore about it. It’s Co-op owned right now and we’re trying to finish buying the mountain. There are still a few hundred shares needing to be sold to seal the deal… I do the bluegrass festival up there every summer as benefit for the co-op.GC: How do you directly reach out to the vacationing crowds? How do you bring people in here?JM: We do some postering up on the mountain. There are not too many places to do that. We mostly rely on word of mouth. We’re friends with a lot of mountain employees. There are definitely people up there recommending the tavern when folks ask where to go. I believe in the word of mouth approach, I think it’s worked really well for me up to now, and it keeps getting better to tell you the truth. You can read a hundred posters, but when somebody who’s a local grabs you and says, “if you’re going out tonight go to the tavern,” that is what you’re going to do.GC: The same probably holds true for vacationing people who have been up here on repeat visits who say, “If you’re going up to Sugarbush, go to the MMT.”JM: Yeah, there are people in Boston we know that run into other people wearing Tavern t-shirts, and there’s a big thing over the crazy time they had at the tavern last winter. So it definitely helps. We’ve gotten a few write-ups in some of the big ski magazines, where if they walk about Sugarbush, they talk about us. That certainly helps a lot. I think it helps more than any dollars you can spend. I think one thing that helps us a lot is the local cable. We have a nice action color commercial, that goes to every condo and home in the Valley. It doesn’t say anything about the place, it shows people skiing like madmen (its all local footage), and then flashes up our name and says where we are.GC: Do you like skiing? You will love the MMT…What is the competition like around here? Do you vie for the crowd?JM: I’m glad there is more than one music venue in town and I wish there were more people around to support the three of us. One of the reasons I came to the valley was because of the music scene that was happening here. There were two clubs that were geared towards ripping off tourists… they were pretty much tourist trap oriented. I thought coming in here and doing something to treat everybody good everyday, and then do the music on top of it would be a good formula, and it worked well. So one club, the Blue Tooth is open from Thanksgiving until Easter, and Gallaghers is open year around, but they don’t do a lot in the off season, and both those clubs are geared primarily towards cover bands, so it leaves me with my own niche.GC: Do you tend to bring in a more youthful crowd?JM: I think we have a really wide age range for customers. I’d say our customer base runs from this fine young girl in front of us at nine months old (the author’s daughter Sara), to parents of the college kids that are in town skiing. I think our median age is probably in the thirty year range.GC: Do you have any ideas in particular to bring Burlingtonians down?JM: We pretty much disregard them as city folk, so we’re not really interested. No, it’s hard to drag out the Burlington crowd, because there’s so much going on in town all the time. We do list our bands in all the local free publications. Any radio station or print that will give you free publicity- we’re in there with the listings. So if somebody is following a band, they know that they are going to be at the tavern, and usually the bands announce where they are going to be a couple of weeks down the road. If the bands have a crowd that follows them, that helps out. I think a lot of people know we’re here. We do a little advertising on the radio but we don’t go overboard with it unless it’s a special event.GC: Do you look for bands that do well in Burlington? Does that sway your feelings on how you think they are going to do here, or is it purely a music thing?JM: I usually hear about the band in the first place because they are doing well in Burlington. But if I go there and the place is packed, but I think that the band sucks, I probably still wouldn’t hire them.GC: How about regional acts. I know that Sunday River in Maine has a fairly solid roster of regional bands that come through the area. Does this happen here?JM: We haven’t done anything for regional bands up to now. Part of it is the size of my room would make ticket prices kind of expensive. Also, the way the room is split up, I could probably sell a couple hundred tickets to a show but then everybody in the place couldn’t get to see the stage. There’s a couple of ways to expand the room that I haven’t gotten to yet. When we can fit a few more people in here and they can actually see the stage, we’ll be doing some bigger acts.GC: Have you ever made it with a full grown donkey?JM: You know, that question kept me up at night.GC: In a hot sweat?JM: In a hot sweat. What I will say, is that it was consensual and the donkey was an adult.GC: OK. I thank you for your candor. Who are some of the successful bands that have played here?JM: Right now (sic) is doing well.GC: Kudos, kudos.JM: Can you believe that? Thanks for that twenty spot. Viperhouse, of course. Seth Yacavone is going strong and really smoothing out the act. Motel Brown definitely. We have a reggae band that’s coming up from Connecticut a few times called You and I, that’s really strong, straight forward reggae. We like Currently Nameless a lot. Sandra Wright. Pure Pressure has been going strong forever, they are a good standby, no matter what. So a pretty good range.GC: What does the future hold for you? I could see this place being a viable music spot. Some bands that come to mind are like Strangefolk and Moon Boot Lover and bands that are on that level regionally.JM: I talked to Strangefolk and Moon Boot Lover actually, both of them in the past. It has been a scheduling thing. I think if we convinced the locals to pay the money when they showed up, like on a Thursday night or something. It’s a fine balance between people that come here and have a beer or two and dinner five nights a week, and then it’s twelve dollars to get in the night of a show. How do you handle that? We have expansion in mind but we have some other things to take care of first. We will have some bigger acts in here, it’s just a matter of getting ourselves geared up for it.GC: I think we’ve pretty much covered everything. I will say from my own perspective; every night that I have played here. And I have played here a bunch of times with both Motel Brown and (sic), I find it always seems like it is a special night, especially during the winter. It seems like it is a festive night because when people are saying, “we only have one night to be out this weekend” it really rubs off on the bands. I was wondering if you feel that magic.JM: I had the picture in my head when I opened the bar. I knew a lot of places I had been to in ski towns and how tourists were treated and how the general public was treated, and it wasn’t very well. We set out from the start trying not to be like that. I know from people who have come in and talked to me, who are tourists I’ve never met before, they come and tell me the vibes here are better than anyplace they have ever been while vacationing. I feel it, but to have customers come up to me and tell me that, especially when I have never seen them before, really tells me that that’s what is happening.GC: Well, I feel the vibe as well. Best of luck to you in the future, I think you’re doing a fantastic job. I’ll take my twenty back now.JM: Thank you Max.The MMT provides a great place for musicians to play in front of people who will take their word of mouth with them when they spread out as far as the marketing power of Vermont skiing can bring them in from. It is truly a unique place, with an exciting mix of people. As Bob Bushnell from Motel Brown says, “where else can you play under a moose and to a bass.” So, next time you are skiing stop by and enjoy the nightlife in the valley. John Morris and company are doing their best to make the valley’s entertainment surprisingly vibrant. ~GC~Max Owre was a founding member of the Burlington band Rina Bijou and now writes and plays in the alternative groove band called (sic).

Merrie Amsterburg and Peter Linton

Former Natives sit down at the Good Citizen office and map out the path from Burlington’s Little Sister to today’s Merrie Amsterburg.

By Andrew Smith

Boston-based singer-songwriter Merrie Amsterberg and her husband Peter Linton stopped in at the Good Citizen office late on a Friday afternoon to wait out the Jill Sobule soundcheck over at the Metronome. Jill was running late, and as the “opening act,” Merrie and Peter had some time to kill. We’d only met once, a half dozen years before, but we easily started chatting about the Burlington music scene and its long and checkered past. The couple was warm and friendly, open and forthright about their successes and failures, high hopes and frustrations. 1997 has been a great year for Merrie and Peter, as Mer-rie’s first solo album, the wonderful Season of Rain (Q-Division Records) has found national distribution and high praise from major media like CMJ and Billboard Magazine. But let’s go back a few years. Okay, let’s go back a whole bunch of years.

When Peter Linton and his band Little Sister left Burling-ton in the early eighties, the city of Boston was the destination. But it was a trip to the west coast, courtesy of a Miller Beer-sponsored “Rags to Riches” contest, that sealed the fate of Little Sister. One of five finalists, Little Sister was the “east coast” winner and flown out to a showcase at the famous Palace Theatre in Los Angeles, California. The band didn’t win the contest, but MCA Records showed great interest – and it was enough to make the band – Peter and friends Russ Lawton, John Howley and Mike Rush – consider its fate. And that was enough to make John, the singer, decide that he couldn’t devote the rest of his life to the band. So, John returned to Vermont and the rest of Little Sister, back in their adopted home of Boston, went looking for a new singer. Fate twisted again, and they met Merrie Amsterburg, a recent transplant from Michigan. Peter and Merrie, uh, married. And together they all become the Natives.

Peter, a 1974 CVU grad, has had quite a few brushes with fame, and the country-flavored Natives lived through several of them. They were already house-packing regulars at local bars like Nectar’s and many bigger clubs throughout the northeast in the early nineties when they were sought out by Kiss bass player Gene Simmons, of all people, who was starting his own record label, the ill-fated Simmons Records. Peter and Merrie laugh heartily when they describe the Simmons label’s logo, a silver money bag with a dollar sign on it, but surely the experience of waiting out the nine month option on their contract must have frustrated the hard-working band.

When that was done, the Natives landed in yet another contractual disaster, this time with famed producer Richard Gottehrer’s imprint Instant Records. Instant was distributed by SBK through EMI. Gottehrer, who the band met through their friends the Judybats, had many successes as a producer, including Marshall Crenshaw. But he didn’t strike gold with the Natives and they found themselves stuck in a deal with no record and no freedom either. For two years the Natives were held captive by Gottehrer, and when they were finally released in 1994, the strain had taken its toll. Early 1995 spelled the end of the Natives, and Merrie and Peter broke off on their own.

Merrie had written the majority of the Natives songs, and her maturing material made the move to working under her own name a logical one. And so as Merrie Amsterberg, Merrie signed yet another record deal with yet another producer, this time

Q-Division’s Mike Denneen, famed for his work with such break-out Boston acts as Letters to Cleo, Jennifer Trynin, Aimee Mann and Morphine. Denneen produced her album Season of Rain, and he released it last fall on his own label, and since then Merrie and Peter have been working it and working it hard. With Denneen’s Q Division in total control, and they are management, booking agent and record label, Merrie has been eased into the spotlight in a conscious effort to grow her career slowly and carefully. Already, Merrie has been the subject of glowing regional press like a Northeastern Performer cover story, and growing national accolades, like a remarkable article in industry bible Billboard Magazine and a “Jackpot” pick in CMJ. And they’re playing shows: the road is offering up gigs as far and wide as opening for Bob Mould in Boston and playing the Mountain Stage NPR radio series with the Indigo Girls way down south. Wherever the road takes them , Merrie Amsterburg and Peter Linton are on it. And with a debut album as confident and easy on the ears as Season of Rain, they’re on it for the long haul. ~GC~

Andrew Smith is a dork and he’s the editor of this magazine so he can be as much of a dork as he wants to be. So there.