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Published: 2002/05/21
by Dean Budnick

Trey Anastasio: The Reader Interview (part 1)

As Trey Anastasio embarks on a month-long tour following the release of his horn-infused, self-titled album, readers were given an opportunity to participate in a collective interview with the musician. All in all, more than eight hundred individuals submitted in excess of seventeen hundred questions. Trey answered all of them in a marathon session that lasted seventy-three hours.

Okay that’s not entirely true although he did set aside time to respond to quite a few of them in a forthright, engaging manner. In fact, given the volume of responses and the range of topics, we’ve decided to split the interview into two parts. This month the conversation focuses on his current band, album and tour while next month we’ll share his thoughts on Oysterhead and a few of the more general queries. And yes, there will be some Phish-related commentary in both installments. So if you want to learn why Trey changed the lyrics to “Ether Sunday” and what he thinks about the “Trey Is Wilson” shirts read on

[Editor’s note: we attempted to identify the name of each person who asked the questions that follow. However there were many variations on the same topics- so if you also submitted a similar query and you’re hankering for credit please contact us-]

Also, in speaking with Trey just prior to the formal Q and A session, he mentioned in passing that he had just spent time recording with his new band at the Barn. As a result, we hogged the first question and asked him

What led you to do that?

We did this Letterman appearance and that was the first time that we played with the band that’s going to be touring. It’s a ten piece band now, last summer it was eight and a lot of things changed by adding Cyro [Baptista] and Peter Apfelbaum. Actually with Peter, I realized that five is the magic number with the horn section. From all this working I’ve been doing I’m starting to learn a little bit more about writing for horns and when you have five you can split the section. You can have a reed section with three notes so you get a full chord, a fully-voiced chord leaving two instruments to write contrary parts that can be harmonized. It gives you so many more options and the sound gets so much bigger. So for instance on “Last Tube” with five horns, two of the people double on flute so we can do the orchestral parts on flute and keep the brass section virtually intact so it’s almost like adding a whole other section and the percussionist just propels the thing.

We got up there the day after Letterman and we had a week of rehearsal and it’s just so exciting to be up there at the barn and such a good vibe that I started cranking out a lot of new material (laughs). I had Bryce [Goggin] come up on May 6 and we did a twelve hour mini-album, not necessarily to put out but just because we realized there was a whole bunch of material that didn’t get recorded for the last album and also a bunch of new material. I found from doing the last album that if you record it you dissect each piece and get inside of it in a way that you wouldn’t if it’s just rehearsal. So whereas last tour I feel that a lot of stuff went out 65% done I feel that this time I think the band will be a lot tighter.

“You recently expanded the band to ten players. Why did you add a percussionist to the mix?”- Megan Richards, Dave Franks

What I felt during the last tour was that the rhythm section was very solid, they’re the picture of solidity. But given Russ’s background as a drummer, I was thinking while we were on tour that it’s the perfect rhythm section for a percussionist. Russ was trained in this band called Zzebra which was a racially-mixed group playing traditional African music with some western musicians. And since I’ve been playing with Russ, I’ve talked to a lot of people about this band, some people will claim it was the birth of World Music because before that there weren’t a lot of groups doing that. In that group there were three drummers and in African music when you do a fill it’s a signal for something to change and the mindset for the set drummer is that you’re supposed to be steady and trance-like. Its all about passion and groove but there’s a lot of cross-rhythmic stuff. So

When we did “Ray Dawn Balloon” Cyro came up to the barn and we had this wonderful night together where it was a big, nearly-full, moon and we had the doors open and we played that track and laid out a bunch of candles and it just had a real strong connection. That was the moment when I knew he had the tour, and that’s been true with all the members of this band. It’s grown very organically.

“Have you ever thought about adding another guitarist?”- Ed Chance, Steve Rollins, Kevin Sanders

The thought crossed my mind (laughs). My mind has shifted into a place where I think the whole thing is very journal-like. Now that the barn is up and running I basically get up every morning and write music or try to play music or collaborate with someone. The reason I didn’t name the band is there’s no telling what would happen the next tour if somebody else wanted to join the band or if maybe some of the people in the band wouldn’t come out even if we’re doing the same material. I haven’t played with another guitar player since we toured with Santana, I guess (laughs). And that was only a couple of songs a night, so it’s been a while since I really played with another guitar player. I’ve had that thought though about, for instance, Seth Yacovone. I think that could be cool thing to do something just with Jennifer, two guitars, bass and drums or something. I don’t know. At this point I’m kind of taking it one day at a time.

“It seems like you’re constantly adding musicians. How difficult has the transition been when you’ve brought in new players? Do you keep rearranging your music?” Steve Gallup, Joe A.

I asked Tony to be in the band first because he was one guy I knew I wanted to play with as soon as the opportunity arose. I talked to him about drummers and I wanted him to be linked to a drummer that he really liked playing with so Russ was really his suggestion. Right off the bat I knew you needed to have a happy rhythm section. Then we got together and I asked Russ what’s the first beat you ever learned, what’s the beat that easiest for you to play, what things were you practicing last week. So he played twenty drum grooves for me and I recorded all of it. Those grooves were the grooves of “First Tube,” “Last Tube,” “Sand,” “Gotta Jibboo,” “Push on til the Day,” “Drifting” I went home with the tape and I started writing based around the grooves. Then as every person joined the band they did the same thing. So as one player joined I’d say, What were you practicing yesterday and what keys can you rip in?’ so I’d try to put them in their best light.

Even to the very end?

Oh yeah, I was doing it last week with Peter, and Cyro. By the time we get on the road I’m sure that at least to some degree we’ll be leading into more traditional Brazilian music because Cyro’s up there in the barn every day teaching us all this stuff. It’s incredible. So the band is an organic, ever-growing thing.

“While on stage have you found that your leadership responsibilities ever impact significantly on your playing?” Kat Nicholas, Jeff Brigen

That was a main topic of conversation last week at the barn. We had a great week of rehearsal, I think eight days with all ten people up there and playing every day. A lot of it was spent talking and listening to music and that was one of things that I had said. Last tour I felt like because the horn section was new that I was cueing them in and out so much that I was forgetting to play. I was having a little bit of a hard time combining those roles. We talked about ways to have that not happen and we just have to play together a lot because in my dream everyone is playing freely as themselves to make one big joyous noise to use the Sun Ra term or the biblical term.

But you have to get there and we’re trying to do it in a framework that doesn’t have rules. If you’re playing Dixieland everybody plays at the same time but you know what you’re supposed to play. If you’re playing jazz there’s basic rules that you’re following. Well we’re kind of making up our own rules. But that being said I do also find in the barn that I can play the band. So even when I’m not playing guitar you can ask people to come in and come out and it starts to be like one giant instrument.

I came home from the barn the other night I had some friends over and I said that band practice felt like when I first had a four track machine except it was all human beings (laughs). Everybody stands around in a circle. These people are all so good that I can sing stuff and they can play it as fast as I can sing it. All of a sudden I’m hearing the sound. I think everyone should have one, a ten piece band (laughs).

That goes back to Phish too. It is so second nature with those guys that I’m able to completely disconnect myself from thinking about when a song’s going to end. That’s the goal and I hope this tour I’ll be able to stay one hundred percent there.

“I’ve heard you compare this band to King Sunny Ade but to me, I also hear some early 70s Miles Davis as well. Do you see a continuum between these two groups and your current music?”- Mike Beatty

I see them very much in conversation. There are certain bands that essentially were after the same thing although stylistically different. Certainly Mahavishnu, Miles- all that Jack Johnson era stuff, James Brown in his heyday, Bob Marley, Santana, the Dead, certainly Fela, King Sunny Ade. To some people that might be a stretch but not to my mind, it’s not a stretch because all those bands are about the group search for a higher consciousness.

Lately there are two albums that I’ve been listening to all the time. One of them is a 1978 Santana at the Bottom Line bootleg- oh it’s wicked. And then the Sauter-Finnegan orchestra which is Eddie Sauter, one of the great swing band arrangers but to me that’s the same basic concept. I think that the highest level of music, the thing that it has in common is communication among musicians. So obviously with orchestral music to be able to get 110 people to meld together in one unit that’s the highest level that art ever gets but I feel the same way about Bob Marley or that Miles stuff but certainly with King Sunny Ade there’s twenty-two people in that band, that’s what’s so amazing about it. You just trance out and the whole thing is these tiny little bits and pieces where everybody is speaking together and the same thing happens when I hear Bitches Brew. What’s interesting about it is the interplay, the conversation. So I see all those things going hand in hand.

“What is the significant link between Tube,’ First Tube’ and Last Tube,’ other than the word tube?”- Melissa Epperson, Joe Hamilton, Steve T., Chris Myerson

Surfing. Except that “Tube” is about watching TV, I think but for me the link between “First Tube” and “Last Tube” is surfing. They were named after the band the 8 Foot Fluorescent Tubes but aside from all of the other obvious meanings I always imagine surfing. I tried surfing before and I was horrible at it but I did it enough to be able to stand up for a second and I definitely think that other than playing music it’s the coolest thing you can do on planet earth. That was my experience.

Sound is waves and here a physical wave of energy that starts two thousand miles off in the middle of the ocean and you get to stand on a board and ride it in to shore. It’s unbelievable and addictive. With “First Tube” I always think if you were a good enough surfer to ride the Banzai pipeline that’s what it would feel like. That would be the first one of the day and “Last Tube” would be as the sun is setting over the horizon- you’re catching your last tube. Either that or you catch such a huge tube like a twenty-five footer, crash and come tumbling down to your death, last tube. Of course it also could just be about smoking bong hits all day (laughs). Although “Last Tube” would be a slower song if that was the case.

“The lyrics to some of the songs on the album differ from those when you first performed them on tour. Can you talk about the process of those transformations?” Grace Winters, Bill Sutton

You’re definitely seeing the process. The last song “Ether Sunday,” I didn’t know what that was about except that it gave me a feeling that was very peaceful and we just played it even though it wasn’t done and I’d sing lyrics about Jennifer playing a trumpet solo (laughs). But I never thought that was it, and then at a certain point I’d wake up in the morning and realize what I was looking for. That’s the way it works for me at least. I have so much stuff going at the same time.

I guess the only thing I try to do these days is not think about any of it, which goes back to my stating it’s like a journal kind of vibe, just get up and write. Probably the danger of that is that I never know when something’s done (laughs). So I’ll just go out and play whatever I was working on that morning and then you end up with these halfway-done songs and maybe there’s something interesting to that but I think about songs on this album that we played last summer that changed when we got into the studio and they didn’t even have the same titles. It comes from this having a vague feeling of what the song’s about and then I go out and start playing it and then it all kind of becomes clear at some point but I try not to force that too much.

Some songs just come right out whether they’re straight up poems from Tom or lyrics that I wrote myself. “Ether Sunday” I wrote and this new tune “Pebbles and Marbles” is a poem Tom sent me in the mail. I just did it on the radio, I just love those lyrics, it’s one of my favorite things Tom has ever written and I wouldn’t dare change a syllable. It was just something he wrote where I got exactly what he was trying to say the first time I read it. Then there’ll be other songs, two examples would be “Mountains In The Mist” and “Strange Design,” both of which were pretty heavily edited on my part from a long poem down to just a few lines but that would be again a situation where I had very strong feelings about what those songs were about and he was expressing it within his poem and so I would edit. With “Ether Sunday” it wasn’t done yet but we were on tour and everybody liked playing that groove so we played it unapologetically but I think it’s done now.

“Does Tom ever come back to you after you’ve finished a song and said, That’s not how I heard it?’- Phil Stitch, Stu H.

Rarely ever from a lyrical standpoint. There were a couple of times where he said that from a melodic standpoint where he heard something. I think maybe on “Flock of Words” he might have said there was a melodic twist. We have a very fluid relationship. I think it’s much more likely where I call him up and say, I can’t sing this line, what do you mean?’ or Can you write another verse?’ But it rarely goes the other way.

He writes so much in the lyrical world and I write so much music that we don’t get particular about any one thing. I think the best of them if there are any bests of them- you know they are what they are- come together differently. There’s no formula, when I think about all the ones that stick with me regardless of what era they came out of, for instance “Guelah Papyrus,” I love those lyrics. I don’t even know if Tom would say that but I think they’re incredible, That was a poem, I loved it and put it to music. The same thing with “Chalkdust Torture,” he sent me a poem, I put it to music. “Wolfman’s Brother” was something that I pieced together I had an idea for the song, I grabbed a bunch of classic Tom lines, a bunch of Tom-isms but they weren’t from one poem and he didn’t have any problem with that at all.

“Do you currently write any music that doesn’t quite fit with your current band and you’ve set aside for either Oysterhead or Phish?” Ken Machins

I just had that problem for the first time with this new material. I suddenly had all this new stuff and with a couple of the tunes I did think, “Wow that could be a Phish song.” I was going in the other direction when this whole thing started. Even “Sand” which Phish was playing is clearly a Russ and Tony thing. It’s not really the way that Mike and Fish play. It was a great experience for them and they loved it but it’s a Tony thing, that long deep bass line that just has three notes. Then I went through all this album stuff which was getting to know these guys. But with this last batch of songs I wrote I did think Phish could rip on this one or that one.

But when all was said and done you held nothing back and everything’s going to come out with this band?

I actually talked to them about it. I called them, “Should I just be holding stuff?” But it’s not time right now to be doing that and that’s just not a good way to live your life. You write music and just play it and we’ll see what happens next. It feel like the unbearable lightness of being a little bit and its nice- just get up, write some music and play it.

“Will you be rearranging any Phish songs for the current band?”- Dozens of readers

There’s few songs I suppose I would do, those that started with this band and went over to Phish: “First Tube,” “Gotta Jibboo,” “Sand,” “Bug,” “Heavy Things.” But I really don’t want to play Phish songs with anyone except Phish. Maybe that’s shortsighted for me to say but Phish is the four of us melding together in my mind, it doesn’t really matter who wrote the songs. I think it would just feel weird, so no I don’t have any plans. I would much rather write all new material for a whole other band.

“The first two songs on the album contain the word review’ while the last two mention ether.’ What was your intention in framing it that way?” Lynn Phillips

A lot of thought went into the first song and the last song. The “review” and the “ether” is a coincidence but “Alive Again” and “Ether Sunday” beginning and ending is definitely not a coincidence. And I always like to let people have their own ideas but I will tell you this much, the sequence is very conscious in a lot of different ways. The reason those songs ended up together is because I imagine it as one sitting experience and in my mind it’s divided into two halves breaking at “Gazebo.”

I’ve had this idea about using a horn section in a percussive way but with a little more advanced, sophisticated harmonic language. That’s the whole idea of having it be a meld between the content of a swing band and the content of a King Sunny Ade type band, an African band but completely stylistically within the realm of what I do. In no way are we trying to sound like any of those bands it’s much more from a philosophical standpoint. I’m trying to create a dance band.

On the first half of the album I try to present those musical ideas in a concise way through the last song which to my mind is on side one, being “Drifting.” That is the most pop song on the whole album. But if you listen to the outro, the string quartet is playing in a drum-like way, no one ever lands on a chord at the same time, everything is arpeggiated and the horns are in a drum-like way. This is just a little thing though, it’s not a big deal but you’ve got the string quartet the horns, the guitars, the band all laying in a pattern. Here’s this idea being put forth in the context of a pop song which is what swing bands did. The good arrangers would make it so people could just dance. They were servants to their audience and that appeals to me too. I love putting out music that you can have a great time and dance to but the trick is to have deeper and deeper layers.

The next track is “Gazebo” so now in a completely non-pop song you start the thing that’s supposed to be a musical journey working with the same concept. The horns are going to be playing in a sort of non-hornlike way mixing with the string quartet utilizing a bit more advanced harmonic language and whatnot and then it goes right into “Mr. Completely.” There the ultimate goal is to use all these things to have these same kind of peak experiences that I love to have- it’s just screaming- but you’ve got a full orchestra and everybody’s playing together. The idea is can you use these things to take those moments that all of us love so much and to make those peak moments even more peak? That’s the whole goal, a bigger tube (laughs). And then of course, “Last Tube,” that becomes really obvious and “Ray Dawn Balloon,” it’s all supposed to be one long musical journey. That’s how I thought of it, that’s how I listen to it. But that doesn’t mean you have listen to it that way or think that everything I just said isn’t bullshit (laughs).

“One thing that disappointed me with your Oysterhead shows and last solo tour was the similarity of setlists from night to night. Will you mix things up a bit more this summer?”- Many readers

I heard that a lot on my last summer tour and I understand where that’s coming from but first of all let me say that it was hard for me with Oysterhead as well [Editor’s note: more on this topic next month]. The other thing I would say is that if anybody went back and listened to Phish in the eighties, I remember months going by where there was no way we would go on stage without playing “You Enjoy Myself,” “AC/DC Bag,” or “Possum.” There were five or six songs that were at every single Phish show for the first six or seven years. But that takes time and what I worry about and what I really wonder is at what point are you sacrificing the quality of one show for the ability to tour around and see different stuff every night. I mean I’m not going to think about it, I’ll just go on stage and play what I want to play and I do like to play different stuff but wouldn’t you want to see “Last Tube” if you came and saw us? I would. (laughs)

“To what extent do you take general criticism to heart and to what extent do you feel the need just to work from within?”- Dan G.

I think I have to work from within but that can be hard for me because I do care about the audience, the people who come. I feel a responsibility and I think it’s clear from all he years in Phish that we all do. There wouldn’t be any music if there weren’t people there and I feel like people come out and they want to see a good show, so it’s a little bit of a balancing act. But what I’ve found is that honesty is the best policy and you can’t please everybody so you have to go up there and just love it, whatever that takes. I think that probably the best way to respect the audience is to be honest and myself and that becomes more and more clear.

“I began to see Trey is Wilson’ shirts appearing in the lots last year. What is your response to this perception of the hiatus?”- Lee Enders

You should have read the notes I took off the bus every night, the shirts were nothing. (laughs). Plus I got a bunch of lectures from people. People were sort of put off in a certain way but why? It makes me wonder.

First and foremost let me say I think it’s a riot. I saw the Trey is Wilson shirts and they made me laugh. But I will say that I thought for many years that a certain aspect of what people were interested in was the same thing that I love about playing music which is seeing how far you can go with music itself. That to me is what moves me, the language of music and the emotions it can contain, how deep can you go with that. The last few years of Phish we were riding on some kind of emotion that was really, really deep among the four of us but I don’t think there was a whole lot of new music being written from my standpoint.

So when we took the hiatus, I just assumed that people who were really into Phish would have thought, Oh, well I could have predicted that.’ The fact that we knew enough to take that hiatus at that point in time and that there were no bad feelings among the four of us, made me feel better about everything that is Phish. As a matter of fact there’s been lots of encouragement and I was prouder of being a part of Phish, and feel luckier to be a quarter of Phish six months after we stopped than I had ever had in the whole seventeen years because I thought it was a decision that was made out of respect for what Phish had been to that point. In the last year, if you think about the experiences that everybody’s had, I’ve written far more music than I had in the last four or five with Phish, there’s no question about that. Think about Page, he’s never led a band in his life, not even in high school and he went out and started a band and went on tour and put out an album. I talk to him all the time and he’s really excited. It’s a completely new experience for him and he never would have been able to do it if we hadn’t taken the hiatus. So the four of us are happy about it (laughs) To me it’s all about the music and among the four of us, we’re hoping that we’ll be able to come back together with all these experiences, not to mention, not having seen each other in so long that we’re just dying to play together.

You have to start questioning what everybody’s so angry about and it’s probably because of the impact on the scene but I would rather impact the scene with a whole bunch of new music.

And now you’re probably asking yourself, Why couldn’t you write a lot of new music with Phish?’ [editor’s note: many folks did indeed ask this]. The simplest answer is we just needed a break from all of it. We needed to get away from each other. We’ve been hanging out with each other for twenty hours a day from the age of eighteen to thirty-six, hearing the same jokesThere was a certain kind of stimulation that was disappearing. I just assumed that was clear to people. Was it not? [laughs]

Maybe you receive that information differently when you’re thirty-six and you’ve done your share of tour than when you’re in your teens or mid-twenties and just gotten started.

Maybe you’re right because I ask people who are thirty-six, Don’t you think if you were hanging out with the same people you were hanging out with in high school, you’d want a little vacation too?’ It’s obvious.

As I’m sure you recognize, some of those younger people feel as if something was taken away from them that they were starting to experience, that the rug has been pulled out from under them.

Well there’s nothing I can do about that, though. You know what I would say? So many people come up to me, “Wow, I wish I had been there the first time you played You Enjoy Myself’ or something.” I hear that a lot, “I wish I had been there.” Wellyou can be there (laughs). Just go out right now, most of these shows aren’t even going to come close to selling out. Come out and see a whole bunch of new music

“On your current tour it seems as though there will be plenty of opportunities for guest musicians to join the band. You don’t have to give us the specifics, if you don’t want, but do you have anything planned?”- Bruce Egan

It all feels so new to us that we don’t know which direction anything is going to go. We’re up there at the barn and it feels like we’re venturing into the unknown a little bit. So that being said I would hesitate to start planning anything about who would be there. People like Nicholas Payton who played on the album, I hope he’s going to come out to some shows and that guy who played on Letterman with us [Alan] Chez, he’s a wicked trumpet player. Then in Vegas we’re playing with four of my favorite bands. I don’t know what will happen but I’ve played with Los Lobos and I’ve played with the Roots and they’re both incredible. Spearhead and Antibalas will also be there so in that sense I can’t wait to get out there. I get to play in Burlington which I’m probably more excited about then just about everything, I get to play at Red Rocks which I love and Radio City and Bonnaroo. I’m really looking forward to it and we’ll see what happens.

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