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.
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?
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!
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.
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.