Trey Anastasio checks in with Rolling Stone as he’s walking down New York’s Amsterdam Avenue toward Avatar Studios, where he’s deep into work on Phish‘s next album. It’s been just two years since the band’s prior full-length, Fuego, and the relatively brief interim reflects the healthy state of the band these days. Expect to hear several of the new songs on Phish’s upcoming summer tour, which kicks off June 22nd in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In an unusually long and candid interview, Anastasio talks about the band’s current approach to staying creative live, his stint with the Grateful Dead and what exactly happens after Phish step offstage.
How far along is the new Phish record?
It’s not as far along as Jon Fishman would like to think! We were laughing really hard. He actually got a little ripping about that. Because he came in and played drums on a few songs and then left to go on Bernie tour. And then we saw this interview: It said, “The Phish record is done!” We were all laughing at his, um, perspective. But it’s not done. It sounds really great to me. We’re really happy. The band’s firing on all cylinders right now, so this is the perfect time to go into the studio. We’ll see, but it’s been pretty joyous. We’re kind of all over the place, flying down to Nashville to work, and then I’ve been doing a lot of work on overdubs at Avatar, which is in Manhattan, and then we go to Burlington, and worked at the barn, and we’re even working at Page’s house and Mike’s house a little bit.
How has it been to record in Nashville?
Bob Ezrin is producing. He has a little studio down there. He’s got a pretty good collection of amps and engineers that he likes working with, so it’s advantageous for us to go down there. There’s also a studio that we track in called Ronnie’s Place. It’s got a great-sounding piano and a really good live room, so we tracked Fuego there and we liked it so much that we wanted to go back, so we did basic tracks there.
Do you think you’ll be playing some of those new songs on the road this summer?
I do think we’ll be playing them this summer! Actually, contrary to what Fish was saying, a couple of the songs we busted out last year have been tracked for the album. I’m not entirely sure what’ll be on there, but I think in the interview he said there weren’t any. That’s not true. Another reason why we were laughing.
It sounds like everything he says is wrong!
He’s focused on Bernie right now. He’s doing a lot of concerts with him, having a lot of fun.
I wanted to ask about the tour. How did you feel about the band’s playing last summer, and where do you see Phish going this summer?
Well, somewhere around 2014, we really started getting loose again. And I know it’s always tricky, because when you read these [tour] previews, and every band that’s ever lived is going to say, “The band’s never sounded better!” That’s what you say.
And then they break up.
But I actually believe that. There’s a feeling of unity that is pervasive on tour. When I think about last summer and then in Mexico, and the amount of time that we spent together, and where everybody is in their lives right now, it’s pretty magical. And I think that’s why it was really important for us to go right into the studio. Everybody’s bringing songs to the table. Page brought some great songs, Mike brought some great songs, Fish brought some great songs. I’ve got a lot of new songs. And everybody’s just diving in, in a unified way. And we can’t wait to get back on the road. It’s going to be a good summer.
A friend who saw Phish last summer said he felt like the jams had a real purpose to them, and were more melodic than in past years.
I’m glad it’s not just me. Fish often uses the metaphor where he says, playing up onstage there with the four of us, it feels like you’re in a lifeboat, and if somebody falls over the edge into the water, the other three guys stop paddling and pull him back in on a good night. So over a long career, there’s always going to be ebbs and flows.
I remember periods where any one of the band members was going through something personal, where you’d be up onstage improvising and you couldn’t find him. I’m sure that was me for a while. But it was also the other guys. I remember Mike, when he was going through his divorce and stuff, we’d be jamming and you could almost feel that he couldn’t connect in quite the same way. It just feels like everybody’s radar is up and their antennae are out onstage. So I think the melodic quality comes from a place of listening. There’s a patience and a desire to really hear what the other band members have to say. So you kind of slow down and you reach around with your antenna. “What’s Fish thinking? What’s Mike thinking? What’s Page thinking?” It’s a circular thing. And that ties in with place that everybody is in their life, you know?
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we all kind of turned 50. A lot of people say life begins at 50, and I’m feeling it. Everybody’s kind of in a good place right now, knock on wood. And there’s a lot of concern between the band members for each other. You see it backstage, you see it on the bus, and it kind of spills over into the music, naturally.
You guys seem to be playing more original music than ever in your sets. You’re kind of scaling back covers.
Yeah, first of all because we love to. We’ve always had a lot of fun playing covers, and I’m sure we will continue to. But what was starting to happen was after 2013, 2014, 2015, I would get home and kind of think to myself, “Man, we played, like, ‘Guelah Papyrus’ once in the last two years.” And I like that song. I’m a big “Guelah Papyrus” fan. It’s one of my faves. Last year we got home, and and we didn’t play “Fluffhead” the whole summer. And that wasn’t a conscious thing. We have a lot of good songs, and we have more in the repertoire all the time. But I’m sure this summer we’re going to do at least six or seven more [new songs], because we’ve been making an album. So we’re probably going to want to play them. So the original songs have sort of moved to the front burner.
Last summer, you joined the Grateful Dead for their Fare Thee Well shows in California and Chicago. Now that you’ve had some distance from those shows, what effect did it have on your playing?
It had an effect. It was sort of like doing those Halloween albums. It’s really good to be forced out of your box and reevaluate. I had to learn a hundred songs. How could that not be good? You learn melodies; you learn chord progressions that are slightly different than what you would have played.
I played a lot last year, a lot of hours. And you just play better when you play more. We’ve been off the road now since January. It’ll be like seven months of being off the road. I didn’t do a TAB tour or anything like that. So I’m really anxious to start playing again. Last year, I did an orchestra tour, a couple of TAB tours, Phish tours and the Fare Thee Well thing. And I love it because by the time we got to New Year’s and Mexico, I just felt so loose. And it makes me think back to about 1994, 1995 Phish – if you look at how many shows we played back then, it’s a lot. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I kinda miss that. I would play more if everybody wanted to.
Is it hard to get Phish together to tour more? It seems like the band has a rhythm of playing certain places at certain times for the last few years.
It feels like a really healthy balance. Fish has five kids that are young right now. Page has three that are young. Mike has one. My daughters are both in college now, so I’m kind of ready to go. But there are usually some conversations that happen when tours are being planned about keeping a healthy balance between family and the band. Going back to the beginning of the conversation, when you say, “Why does it sound more melodic?” or “Why does it sound together?” – I think that’s why. Because I think we grew up and we learned how to achieve a little bit of balance. Things got kind of out of balance for a while, for better or for worse. It’s all been solved. But it got pretty crazy for a while, and now we’ve come back to a slightly more mature point of view, and someone usually steps up and says, “Let’s not overdo it.”
But part of the reasons I often have other projects going on is because I like to play, and you do play better when you play a lot. The last TAB tour was a really good tour, I thought. It felt so loose because I had just spent six months playing four hours a day trying to get ready for Fare Thee Well. That really had an effect.
I did an interview with Bob Weir and he said that the Fare Thee Well lineup has some “unfinished business.” He mentioned you guys didn’t get to the East Coast. Would you be open to playing with the Dead again?
I’m open all the time. It was definitely a little gigus interruptus [laughs]. There’s a lot of practicing for a short run, but I don’t know. I had such a good time playing with Bob and hanging out with Bob. I spent a week out at his beach house before the Fare Thee Well tour; the two of us just played. We sat on two little stools in his living room and just played and talked and it was fantastic. He’s such a good guy, and really fun. And I got to go to Phil’s and spend time with him and his family before the shows. Billy came to New York and played drums with me. So, I mean, I love those guys, and I’m always open. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
How closely have you been watching the election? How do you feel about Bernie Sanders [who called Phish “one of the great bands in America]? What are you thinking watching it play out every night?
I’m a lot quieter than Fish when it comes to that. It’s a funny thing. I definitely am watching just as much as everybody else is every night. It’s just the way I’ve always felt. I try really hard to keep my mouth shut when it comes to politics. And I always admired Jimi Hendrix, who would say he didn’t really want to go there.
Fish was asking me about it. And I’m from Burlington, so say no more. But if you look closely, I’ve kind of kept my mouth shut about it. And there’s this quote by Jimi Hendrix that I love. I have it in my phone. A Danish journalist invoked the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” to ask Jimi Hendrix if he was in favor of “the revolution.” Hendrix replied, “No, I’m not. At one point you have to choose: the revolution or Frank Sinatra. For me, it was always Frank Sinatra. I want to show people a lot of things. With t-h-i-s.” And then, at that point, Jimi Hendrix picked up his guitar and began to play.
I’m watching with curiosity, but I have a very strong resistance to musicians taking a side. Because I feel like music is the one thing in my life that, when the band is playing, it feels so spiritual and so open to inviting everyone into the party that anything where it sounds like I’m being the thought police, or Phish as a band, as an entity, where it’s like, “You should think this way,” or “You should vote for this guy.” Or “If you love Ted Cruz, you should feel bad.” I don’t feel that way. I feel like what we do for a living is by its nature the antidote to that kind of thing, that this is a place where you come for spirit and not politics. So that’s why, if you actually look closely, I haven’t publicly supported anyone.
You don’t want anything affecting how fans feel when they see you play.
With every passing year, I feel more lucky and blessed and grateful to have the scene that we have. And to be able to do what we do, from a feeling, spirit-and-heart place. You’ve been to some shows, so you know what I’m talking about. And everybody’s welcome. And that’s really important to me. And so even though I may have strong feelings, I want that to be sacred. After 30-some-odd years of it, I know that now. I watch people when they’re dancing. And I feel what I feel in my heart. I know what Page and I talk about when we walk offstage. And it’s bigger than one person. It’s bigger than us.
It sounds like you guys still get excited about touring and spending time together – you’re not just going your separate ways after a show.
We’re talking a lot. By force of habit, at this point we kind of vacate to get away from the venue. So we move fast. We used to hang out at the venue. We don’t anymore. But we usually jump on the bus, and even though we’re not on the same bus, we’ll start texting and calling and stuff like that. Then we’ll get up and go to breakfast or we’ll go to the same hotel that night, or wherever it is. But we talk constantly.
What is a conversation like with the band after a show?
Usually there’s a lot of texting. I remember getting into long texts with Fish, many with Mike. We don’t plan what we’re going to play – you know that. And a lot of times I walk off and I feel two funny things. One, it feels like the whole show was like three minutes [laughs]. And I usually can’t remember what we played, at all! It’s very strange, but very true. I don’t remember what we played. But then when it starts coming back to me, like Page will hit you with a text: “How ’bout that staccato thing at the end of ‘Twist’?” or something like that. And then I remember. But I definitely have a harder time remembering what we played, and that’s a cool thing because we’re kind of in the moment. You know what I mean?
The weirdest thing is walking offstage, and we’ll be talking when we’re walking offstage, and somebody will say something like, “That felt like about 10 minutes.” It feels a little bit like if you watch a child at play, they’re focused on what’s in front of them. And it feels a little bit like that. You’re just focused on the next note for the note that’s happening in that moment, or the note that the guy next to you is playing, and then all of a sudden it’s over.
How frequently do you listen back to Phish shows?
Ever since we got the Live Phish app and the OD [Phish on Demand] app, the show goes up that night, right? And the reason it’s important to have both of them is one of them is a soundboard mix with our mixer, Jon Altschiller, who is backstage mixing it, and the other one, the fans put ’em up. A lot of times the next morning – I’ve been doing this habitually for about two years now – I will put on two minutes of one song in order to make adjustments on my guitar tone. I don’t listen to the whole show anymore, but I definitely make my coffee and I’ll listen to a little bit from OD, and a little bit from Phish app. I’ve been kind of adjusting my guitar tone based on reality, not based on …
Based on memory?
Yeah. One of the things you find with guitar tone is that whatever is louder, you think sounds better. But that actually isn’t true. So if you tried two pickups, and one of them was by nature louder, 99 out of 100 people would say, “I like that one!” So you can’t really judge your guitar tone onstage. So onstage you just play and forget it. You just fuckin’ play. But then I do get up in the morning and I say, “OK, last night I turned the treble knob to seven from six – how did that relate?” And then I’ll listen to the OD app, and I usually end up thinking, “Oh, my God, listen to that drum part.” And that makes me feel grateful. Everyone else in the band sounds so good I can just enjoy myself up there.
There is a lot of trust on the stage. It’s been built over a lot of time too. It’s been a lot of long conversations that led to us not having to have the conversation.