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Published: 2002/07/24
by Dean Budnick

Trey Anastasio: The Reader Interview (part 2)

Trey Anastasio recently concluded his summer tour with a festival-closing set at Bonnaroo. Anticipation now builds for his next tour with the band, his next effort with Oysterhead and of course, that next Phish gig. The latter two groups are the central focus of Part 2 of this interview in which readers were given an opportunity to participate. All in all, more than eight hundred individuals submitted in excess of seventeen hundred questions.

[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-]

Do you consider Oysterhead to be a one off project or something you would like to revisit again?- Jen Bloom, Gregg Michaelson

I consider that at least a two off. We had such a good time.

Do you have any concrete plans?

No, that’s the beauty of Oysterhead. All three of us had one month in the studio and a month on the road and I loved the whole thing. It was a real learning experience for me to be on stage with only ten available songs. That was the hardest part because it was a fairly short period of time after Phish. I think I had done one tour with my band so it was like two completely different worlds.

It was the most purely democratic experience musical experience I’ve ever had by far. That may sound like a funny thing coming from me because Phish is so much about the four personalities, clearly. But with Phish there were still defined roles about who did what, especially in writing, that was pretty clear. Whereas with Oysterhead every aspect of that album was a three way decision from “What mic are you’re going to put on the kick drum?” to lyrics (laughs). We called it the three alpha dogs. There was something very cool about that and a big learning experience for me. And very, very different from the album I just put out which was clearly a solo album.

Can you talk a bit more about the frustration of touring with so few songs? A number of our readers had questions about that.

By the end of the tour, all three of us were saying, “Look if we do this again, we’ll do another album so we’ll have two albums worth of material, maybe write a couple other songs and go out with twenty-four songs. It would be a lot easier. But what could we do, we had a month in the Barn. We felt that it was what it was.

I did learn a lot though because there was one night where I was on stage with Oysterhead after about two weeks being on tour and I really started to feel helpless in a certain way. From standing on stage with Phish for so many years I had this feeling that I wish I could inject some of that unpredictability and chaos into this formula. I was longing for it but I just couldn’t do it. But after I walked off stage at that show I realized that was a ridiculous way to be thinking and from that point on I said, “Okay we’re doing what we’re doing enjoy it. It’s not Phish, you know.” (laughs).

Speaking of Oysterhead songs, what led you to record that version of “Ray Dawn Balloon” on your new disc?- Sam Peters, Jim Heller, Jo Fernandez

The song the album moves back to the intent when I was writing it. When I’m writing, I usually have an idea in my mind about what the orchestration would be like. “Ray Dawn Balloon” I always thought would have a small string quartet and a couple of orchestral instruments, there’s that bassoon line in there. When I was doing Oysterhead, I had the solo guitar version that I was doing a couple of tours ago. Stewart heard it and suggested that I put it on Oysterhead. I think he also suggested that I write lyrics to it (laughs) which was an afterthought. So once that was done I wanted to do the earlier version.

When that first came out it was called “Waves?”

Yeah, it wasn’t going to be called “Radon Balloon” either. All the lyrics to that came out in almost a one-take kind of vibe. With Oysterhead we were up at the Barn, there were a lot of late nights and because the three of us produced it everybody was involved in everybody else’s stuff. The way I remember it Stewart just handed me a mic. He said, “Oh I really like that” and did a really cool percussion thing to it which wasn’t the way I imagined it but I thought, “What the heck.” He handed me a mic and I think in the space of five minutes I sang those lyrics, I didn’t really know what they meantRadon Balloon (laughs)

The song that was originally called “Waves” I wrote when we were on a sailboat. It was a day trip from one Virgin Island to another. I was sitting up on the bow and the thing that was striking me was when you look at waves there are big rollers and medium size waves on top of those bigger rollers and then smaller and smaller ones. You’re on the surface of the ocean and can’t see land in any direction and you look at the waves and then you think about that you’re basically sitting on top of another atmosphere. And the fact that music is all about waves and even human touch is about vibrations and sound and it’s all waves and you can start to go crazy thinking about that (laughs).

That’s what I was thinking about and I have a hard time getting that kind of thing out of my mind. And the thing I liked about it musically was the inner voices. If you listen to that piece there’s these little inner middle voices, they’re the melody (sings) I think the reason I needed to redo it with acoustic instruments and slower is that while the Oysterhead version is really cool and I especially like what Stewart did, I think all the inner voices were getting squashed and to me that was the whole point of the thing. That was the whole beauty of it, there’s a big obvious melody (sings it). Then there are these little running arpeggios that go inside the chorus and I thought that was getting covered up. That was kind of the musical connection my mind was making to the fact that waves on the ocean aren’t as simple as, “Here comes the wave,” they’re going in every direction smashing into each other because of the wind.

So when you write music are you just working on the process organically or you thinking about a particular band where it might fit?- Carrie Thompson

More and more organically. I do it habitually almost. At times I have a hard time engaging in conversations and whatnot. I’d be much happier locked in the basement with a piano and my guitar. It makes me feel at peace in a certain way when I try to put notes in their proper place.

Jumping topics, here’s one that people phrased in a number of different ways- was playing at Jason Colton’s wedding emotional for you or purely fun?

(Laughs) I can tell you what I said to Fish when we came off stage but you have to understand that I always say stuff like this to Fish. I said, “That felt like putting on a used rubber.” It just slides right on (laughs).

No, it was great. You know what’s funny, it may have been the only time that we’ve all actually been in a room together. And it was really great because we couldn’t shut up as soon as we were all standing there together. It goes right back to this feeling that we’ve always had that the rest of the world is kind of outside or something. That sounds wrong because it’s an inclusive thing but we’ve spent so much time together we have a whole language and it was really nice to be standing there with them again.

I can tell you a couple of funny stories. Just before Oysterhead was starting up Stewart came out for the last few shows that last week when we were going from Vegas up to San Francisco. He was in the band room and he just couldn’t believe we were stopping because he said he’s never been around four people who are closer. It was really an emotional week. We didn’t really want to stop. There really was no problem. A lot of it was just things we had to deal with. People had to move and have babies and we were putting off a lot of stuff that just needed to be dealt with and that was part of it too. He was laughing about it every night because we were back there saying, “Five more shows, oh no”

I think things ended a little differently for his other band.

A little(laughs). I don’t think they were talking much. But we still talk all the time. I feel nothing but lucky to have landed in a band with those guys and that’s the way I feel about it more so all the time.

You mentioned earlier that you moved from the alpha dog setting with Oysterhead to your solo project. Can you talk a bit about the process of moving from that democratic process to a situation where it was YOUR band. What were the challenges there and how did you approach it?- Kay Riley

As much as it’s clearly my band, I am the band leader, with that pattern in place I tried to model how I did things after my band leader heroes, which would be most of the swing band era bandleaders. The best of them, the monsters of swing band music or even small combos from that era, created an atmosphere where the musicians were able to fully express themselves as themselves. So I think Duke Ellington was the greatest who ever lived and he would write music based on his musicians strength and weaknesses.

I learned so much about that during the first seventeen years of Phish because we really did think, and still to this day think that we weren’t really very good in most accepted ways (laughs). We weren’t that great singers and we weren’t that great individual instrumentalists. And if that sounds like it’s in the past tense I’m only referring to that seventeen year period. We worked so hard at creating the group sound, everybody kind of kind of knows that and anybody who saw Phish or heard Phish music can hear that I think.

So when I had the opportunity to put a band together I thought, “Wow, I learned so much from my experience with Mike and Page and Fish what if I had known at the beginning of Phish what I knew now.” Now I’ll put that band together with that in mind and I think that to my ear I think that at least to some degree it works. The framework, the basic bed for the songs that appear on the album, began with jams that Russ [Lawton], Tony [Markellis] and I started on the very first day that they came into the studio.

Although in terms of Phish I think one could argue that on a number of levels the majesty has been in the journey.

Exactly, even as you were saying that that was going to be my response (laughs). Really I wouldn’t change a single day of that period. It was really just incredible all around.

To me, quite a bit of the reason that people still feel so engaged in the music and wear those “Trey is Wilson” shirts is that they felt that they were part of that collective journey. It adds another element, and transforms the whole experience of receiving music. To use an example from basketball, this past year the Boston Celtics were in the conference finals and if you were a fan who had been following the team’s rebuilding process from the point prior to adding Antoine Walker when they really sucked, then it really has an additional layer to it. It’s like Rick Pitino said when he took over as coach, “It’s all about the journey.” Of course he wasn’t there for the end of it, but I think it holds true and I think a lot of people feel that way about Phish.

I don't think I completely understood that until I had this mini epiphany. I’ve been so busy since the day Phish stopped and I really got away from Phish which was the whole point. Then he set second set of live CDs that came out. I didn’t have any idea what shows were picked, I didn’t know anything about them at all until somebody stuck them in the car when I was leaving the office one day. They said, “Hey, you’ve got six more albums that came out.” I said, “Really, wow, okay, put them in my car.

And I went through this long drive in the mountains and just listened to them not knowing what song was next and it was incredible. I’m not saying he band was incredible but the experience was emotional to say the least. I was listening to this band like I wasn’t in it, and I thought that the most interesting things about it was the struggle, the visualization of the struggle. It wasn’t necessarily whether it was good or bad but you’re seeing people fall on their face and there’s something very human about it. And maybe that’s what made it interesting for people, I don’t know. That’s what it seemed like that day to me but I don't think that we were necessarily aware of that going on because we were just focussed on trying to make it better.

And maybe it’s okay to see the Celtics do well one year out of twenty, you don’t want them always to suck.

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