Trey Anastasio: The Elegant Complexities of Groove
Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio is one of the most influential musicians in the jam band scene. He just finished co-producing Phish’s latest album, Farmhouse, due out May 16. The band is currently preparing for an upcoming two-night stand at New York’s Radio City Music Hall May 21 and 22 as well as an extensive summer tour in the U.S. He recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak with Jambands.com from the band’s office in Burlington, VT.
JW: Hypothetically speaking, if someone had played the album Farmhouse for you in 1988, what do you think your reaction would have been?
TA: That’s a good question. I think that I would have liked it in the sense of albums that I actually listen to for pleasure, Neil Young for example. I don’t think that it would have necessarily been the direction that I wanted the band to go in at the time.
JW: What was the vision at that time?
TA: Well, in 1988 I think I was at Goddard (College), which was when I was doing that whole Gamehenge thing. I don’t think that there’s ever been a time when I was working so hard. I mean, I was living alone in a little apartment and was working from the minute I woke up until the minute I went to bed. I was listening to a lot of Stravinksy and Ravel. I really was only listening to classical music at the time. Ravel was sort of an impressionist composer of sorts and it was music where there were sort of flurries of notes that were big, broad strokes of sound. I was trying to do a lot of stuff like that: breaking ground in every direction. I don’t think that the power of the simple tune was at the forefront of my mind at the time.
JW: Well, let’s take a song like “Sand” off the new album, or “First Tube.” What was the songwriting process like compared to writing something like “Foam” or “Squirming Coil?”
TA: Right. Point exactly. “Foam,” as an example, was completely composed on score paper: bass, drums, piano, guitar. Like I said, I was really in the mindset of writing a kind of music that combined classical composition with rock and roll energy that wasn’t progressive rock, you know what I mean? When I wrote “First Tube,” “Sand” and “Gotta Jibboo,” that was after a couple of years of the four of us talking about how important it was to us to groove. It had never been our strong point. If you listen to early tapes, you know, the groove was the last thing that we thought about. For a couple of years, starting at the end of ’96, we started talking a lot about how we were going to improve the groove. Finally what I did was I set up a power trio tour with two musicians that I know who do nothing but groove: Tony Markelis and Russ Lawton. You know, Tony’s never taken a bass fill in his life. He refuses to. All he thinks about is groove. So I got them up into the barn and I had them start grooving. I said, “start to groove in the key of C sharp.” So they would groove. And I told Russ, “I want you to play the simplest beat that you know on the drums, the beat that you’ve been playing since you were twelve years old, the easiest thing you know,” and he did. And then I said, “Now Tony, join in in the key of…” whatever and we did one in each of the twelve keys. And then they left. Then I wrote songs around these grooves and I took what I thought were the best nine or ten songs written in that style and brought them over to Phish. So, the songs were written completely from the concept of groove first. We had to learn new grooves in Phish and it’s probably the first time that you’ve ever heard Mike [Gordon] play the same three notes for six straight minutes.
JW: Would you say in some ways that’s just as difficult if not more difficult than learning a Stravinsky-esque composition?
TA: Yes. To me, I think it may be even more difficult. That is one thing that’s kind of changed in my mind, and I’ll use Neil Young as an example again. Near the end of high school and the beginning of Phish, which started right after high school, that just wasn’t where my interests lay and over the years that’s completely changed. Now I would probably site a few Neil Young albums or maybe as another example like Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which I was just listening to last night. I’ll use that as an example of one of the greatest albums ever written and probably one of the few really timeless albums from the 60’s through the aughts or whatever we’re in now (laughs). You know, because it’s so personal and so simple and so direct. It’s just direct emotion and it’s a really hard thing to reveal yourself in that kind of a personal way.
JW: Do you think it’s ever possible to achieve that sort of deeply spiritual groove with very complex compositions?
TA: Well, I would like to think that and there are two points on the new album where I feel like we did so. What happened was we were doing all that work in composition and theme and variation and working on all that stuff that we were doing in 1988 and then we kind of forgot about it. We retained it in our memory, but we stopped thinking consciously about it. So when you come to a song like “Dirt” or “First Tube,” even though that was intended to be simply about the groove… “First Tube” for example. You know how there’s that strange rhythmic thing with the melody at the beginning? That stuff just starts popping out without you even thinking about it, at which point I’m always really glad that we all did the work when we were developing. We learned all the jazz tunes and did all of the stuff that at certain times felt like a waste of time because we were never going to be a jazz band. But then that harmonic sense and sense of mature melodies that comes from playing jazz tunes for instance, hopefully just stays in you and in your ear. “Dirt” is another example. You know, there’s a string quartet in that whole outro section and it’s very heavily composed after the lyrics stop when the melody starts on the guitar and then it goes to the bass and Page [McConnell] is doing that piano figure. That is pretty heavily composed in the same way that “Foam” was, but it doesn’t really sound like it, I don’t think, unless you really listen a little more carefully. There’s a theme, you know, the melody. Like I said, it starts on the guitar and goes to the bass. There’s a counter-theme that the piano plays and the strings also play. Then there’s that whole descending figure and then the melody comes back to the guitar and then finally comes back an octave up on the guitar. That stuff was all written out. A lot of if was charted on paper. I think it’s a little bit more hidden now than it was back then. It was a little bit more obvious back then I think.
JW: It’s clear that on Farmhouse you had a lot more creative control. You co-produced it. You wrote a lot of the songs, solo. How was that different in the recording process? How was the interaction with the other band members? Was it still a pretty democratic process?
TA: It was. I think that in a funny way, it’s not all that different than what’s been going on the whole time. The main difference was that we started questioning our roles during the last couple of albums. The Siket Disc, of course, was all improvised, there are no overdubs or anything. But on The Story of the Ghost especially, we were really questioning each other’s roles. I think what we found was that everybody’s hands were tied being who they were. So, we kind of untied our hands on this one and I had a lot of ideas. Probably the oddest thing is that there’s usually at least one song by Mike and there isn’t on this album. I think it’s because he was working on his film for the last three years. He hasn’t written a song in a few years. He’s been really working on his film.
JW: Have any of the other band members been writing any material that we’ll hear any time soon?
TA: I don’t know if they have, but I’m certainly encouraging them to. Fish [Jon Fishman] just started writing a tune and I was over his house and we were checking it out. It’s a great song. Now that the album has come out and I was kind of spearheading this one, I kind of am looking to do the exact opposite. Whenever we finish a project in a certain direction, I want to do that. I’d really like Mike to write more music. Everybody would. We’re always happy if Page and Fish write some tunes, but there’s no real pressure I think because they don’t usually write songs. It’s not necessarily in their nature. If they do it’s like a happy bonus, but Mike has not been writing music and he needs to write more. We would all love it if he would write more music.
JW: I want to shift gears just a little bit and concentrate a little more on the live setting. I know that at the end of ’96 you implemented the no-analyzing rule concerning your live shows. How strictly do you adhere to that? Is there really no analyzing at all?
TA: No, it’s not as strict anymore. Last tour it was kind of like, we still weren’t doing a lot of analyzing. You know, we were just having a great time backstage, but when it needed to come up, it did. For instance, that song, “Gotta Jibboo,” we were learning someone else’s groove. So, that’s kind of a hard thing for bass players and drummers to do if it’s not their natural feel and it just wasn’t working in the beginning. We were really unhappy with it. I remember we played one show right before the last Hampton show [Providence Civic Center, 12-13-99]. We all came off stage and we had just played this horrible, non-grooving version of “Gotta Jibboo” and everyone was steaming around the band room, like gritting their teeth (laughs). Everybody wanted to say something, but we were all just kind of storming around, honoring the no-analyzing rule. Finally, there was just an outburst and everybody started yelling at the same time, “What the fuck,” you know? (laughs). And, lo and behold, by talking about it, we figured out what was wrong. Fish wasn’t “swinging the ride.” That’s basically it. He was playing the ride straight. It’s a swung feel, you know? Imagine if you were playing the drums. Even though the kick drum is in the same place in the pattern, if you’re right handed, it’s like (Trey sings the melody). It’s basically the simplest swung versus straight and he had been playing it straight, but it wasn’t feeling right and his solution had been to kind of play it louder, you know? He was trying harder, which doesn’t work either (laughs). As soon as he said that, the next time we played it was in Hampton, it was the first time it was really great and that was right before we went into the studio. Had we not analyzed it, it may not have ended up on the album.