Trey Anastasio: A Discursive Discourse with the Relentless Communicator
The current issue of Relix features a Trey Anastasio cover story. In Tim Donnellys article, Anastasio looks back at Phish and assesses the developments of the past year including the decision to record with Brendan OBrien and a new band in Atlanta.
In our piece that follows below, the guitarist touches on some other areas of interest. His interview with longtime Jambands.com contributor Bret Gladstone focuses on songwriting, Ravel, Anastasios nearly-current touring group (the interview took place before the departure of drummer Skeeto Valdez and for that matter before his recent with his recent on-stage reunions with Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon and Page McConnell) and his tag as The Relentless Communicator.
Relix cover story (which also includes 5 questions submitted by readers) is available now *****
The offices of Sony Music BMG are located in sprawling, postmodern fortress of a building on 55th and Madison in New York City, a pulsing central nervous system of productivity and industry operations. Terms like irrelevant, play and figures, are thrown around liberally by men in expensive suits and women in designer eyewear who look like Tina Fey without the sense of humor. Recently, the company has endured an embarrassing public relations snafu resulting from its more than slightly ridiculous installation of virus-like copy protection software into its releases to discourage piracy, software which left personal computers vulnerable to hackers. Given this infraction, and its relentless support of Celine Dions music, one might well contend that Sony Music BMG is not a friend of the people, particularly those people bearing anxieties about subjugation by the Man. In fact, Sony Music BMG kind of is the Man, and the thing about the Man is that he works so hard and so deviously at staying the Man (These days all the sinister, oppressive power structures seem to have appropriated the fanaticism, motivation, and sheer freak-out that used to belong to the left in the 60s, because thats what maintaining inequity requires). Everything about the building seems to be in some state of turmoil or disruption, and that might be the only sense in which the erstwhile leader of Phish belongs here. Its not exactly the type of place that youd expect to find Trey Anastasio, or, for that matter, find him smiling. But since when has Trey Anastasio been predictable.
Anastasios first working year after Phishs dissolution has played itself out much like one of his early compositions- a complicated, slightly bizarre affair broken by moments of levity. When Anastasio closed out a Hurricane Katrina benefit at Radio City Music Hall, he led a sing-along of Bob Marleys Three Little Birds along with The Meters and a herd of Mardi Gras dancers. Dont worry about a thing, the crowd sang. Cause every little thing is gonna be alright. In the moment it had seemed like it would, and for Anastasio, the sentiment has yet to wear off. How about Bill Clinton?, he asks me. He grins. Clinton had made an appearance, winning the nights largest ovation and whipping the liberal throng into a crazed, idealistic froth. No sax solo, though, I say. I know!, he gasps. I wanted one so bad. It would have been perfect. His mouth comes unglued, hanging agape, frozen in mirth, the way it does when he laughs, and he laughs often. Big Chief, right?
The weekend following our interview, he flew to California to participate in a tribute concert to Jerry Garcia, an act unthinkable at Phish’s peak, when the guitarist suffered what he once described (quoting Joni Mitchell) as the ‘Kill Mommy syndrome. At the moment, Trey Anastasios life is full of these little ironies and symbolisms.
The Comes a Time Benefit was, after all, like Shine, a joyous occasion which contained within it murky realities of death and finality. It was roughly ten years ago that Garcia passed away, another music geek blown by chance and talent into a psychedelic abstraction who probably meant more when he was on less t-shirts- when he was a beautiful guitarist with an encyclopedic command of the music he loved, full of American self-loathing, torment and disillusionment, and loving cheeseburgers, milkshakes and cigarettes as much as the rest of us. Clinton deemed him American icon upon his passing, and like most American Icons, he died a martyr to his own excesses. Anastasio, who recently turned 41, is ostensibly content , and genuinely excited about the album hes spent the better part of the last year writing and recording — a buoyant, pleasantly propelled rock album which is more certain to win critical success than bridge many divides between the guitarist and the most militant of Phishs malcontents. He looks you in the eye when he speaks, uses the phrase you know what I mean more than anyone Ive ever met (250 in our interview), seems to genuinely want to know each time he does and, more significantly, is unflinchingly candid. He sheepishly refers to the last of those tendencies as a self monitoring problem — an eerily Orwellian phrase that bears the fingerprints of Columbia’s press department, the looming entity that Anastasio intermittently acknowledges with the sense of guilt and affection.
Generally, the impression one gets from Trey Anastasioaside from the sense that he thinks about time and death just as much as the rest of us— is that he would be a much happier man if he were as capable as heroes like Eric Clapton, Brian Eno, and Bob Dylan of not merely living with his own creative space, but being there alone. Wrapped comfortably in Phishs familial warmth, solitude isnt something he has had very much practice in over the lat twenty years. Sometimes, though, thats what starting over entails.
The night of our interview at Sony, the second half of Martin Scorseses new documentary on Bob Dylan airs on PBS. The films final scene finds Dylan in a backstage dressing room, nervously smoking while strapping his electric guitar on for the first show after his near-fatal motorcycle crash in 1966. Last but not least on the bill, he mumbles to himself. Here he is, back from the dead, straight from the grave. Sighing, he ashes the cigarette and disappears out into the darkness of the theatre, where a lone voice breaks the anticipatory silence. Judas!, it screams. I dont believe you, Dylan sneers. Youre a liar!. Turning his back on the audience, he leans in amongst The Hawks as they launch into Like a Rolling Stone. Play it fucking loud!, he yells. Within five years, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Duane Allman, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke would all be gone, victims of self abuse and the 60s and freak acts of God. The fact that Dylan survived the carnage only seemed to bolster the mythology and voice of a generation tag that he despised as much as being labeled as a topical songwriter. Here he is, Ronnie Gilbert had once introduced Dylan at Newport Folk. Take him, you know him, hes yours. Take him, hes yours.
By August 10th, 2004, the day on which an announcement from Anastasio cut short Phishs 20 year lifespan, Phish had morphed from a grassroots rock and roll band into a traveling commune, a dysfunctional family, and a bottomless vehicle for interpretation that became more caustic as the band stopped practicing, its performances began to wobble, and its creative interests began to wane. The backlash which found its way to Anastasios doorstep was of the Yoko Ono variety, yet more embittered given the fact that the Beatles— as opposed to the band which had tackled its White Album in 1994— had mostly abandoned the concert experience in favor of building captivating studio creations. Phish was a touring act, one which had established its longevity by building relationships in a live context. Without any significant radio play, television support, or, for that matter, particularly impressive album sales, Phishs makeshift cult had shouldered much of its success, and with that responsibility came a feeling of propriety. The disbandment of The Beatles had cost many their favorite band— quite possibly the greatest band ever. For scores of pseudo-bohemian youths disillusioned with things far more personal and unnamable than societal ills or the death of rock and roll, Phishs dissolution had disrupted lives. Things ending everyday the way that they do in the midst of American magic and dread-marriages, lives, cities, friendships- to many Phish fans it seemed a harsh reality that the insular musical fairyland the band had established should be a finite thing as well. It was Lennon, after all, who once said that life is what happens when youre busy making plans, but death, and for that matter, rupture, works that way too. Phish, as a band, had become something their own, and as all human beings seek blame in the face of great tragedies, Anastasio became the man who had taken it away from them. *****
‘Do not create anything, it will be/ misinterpreted. It will not change/it will follow you the/rest of your life.’
_ Bob Dylan, in the program accompanying his Halloween 1964 performance at New York Philharmonic Hall_
After spending the better part of the first year after the bands dissolution writing and recording, Anastasio returned with the 70 Volt Parade. With its early compositions and live performances straddling the divide between his old and new musical lives, early incarnations of the band appeared more representational of a stage in his grieving process than of the creative direction that would come to fruition in Shine. Thus, they became to some degree symbolic of everything that infuriated his already embittered fanbase. Anastasio, the reading went, was playing highly propelled, pop oriented rock, but simultaneously drawing upon his erstwhile bands sound without any of its other members, and crutching the often awkward results with live musics oldest band-aid- the classic rock cover. Early results were mixed.
Still, Anastasio was healthy and with his family, he felt inspired to write- not that that was particularly unusual- and a kind of peace began to infiltrate the edges of the chaos. He began recording the better part of Shine armed with a series of new songs, and would later revamp the bands lineup. The group embarked on an abbreviated summer tour, and headlined the Vegoose festival the day before Shine’s release. There is so much to be gained from playing with Trey, just in terms of my education as a musician, longtime collaborator (and current backing vocalist) Jennifer Hartswick told me in an interview the year of Phishs dissolution.
‘He thinks in that very classical manner.Everything that he arranges seems to make sense to me, to fit. And then, well’ She fell silent, and- just as abruptly- began to laugh, as Jen Hartswick, like Trey Anastasio, is accustomed to do. ‘I mean hes one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived. *****
In early 2004, the album would become Shine had already begun to take shape at The Barn when Anastasio received a call from Brendan O’Brien, the producer that had orchestrated his new hero Bruce Springsteens renaissance record The Rising, insisting that he produce it. Anastasio was skeptical. He had a ten day window to record before he would embark on the Zooma tour, and suggested that O’Brien work on the follow-up record hes planning to record in the spring. O’Brien flatly refused. It was both albums or none at all. Inspired by O’Briens commitment to the record, Anastasio threw some clothes in a backpack and boarded a plane to Atlanta, where the two of them fleshed out the large part of Shine isolated in the tiny project studio in the producers home, much the same way, hes quick to point out that Anastasio sequestered himself in a cabin deep in the woods of Charleston, Vermont to write the tunes for Phishs debut Junta, a collection of sprawling, sylphlike compositions that would largely define its legacy as a band. Do you see the symbolism in that?, he asks me pointedly. Its hard not to.
In some respects, Shine is the music Phish had been meaning to make with its final album, at once a reaction against Anastasios early work and a celebration of everything hes come to value about it retrospectively- specifically the sense of lightness and explosive levity that bound together its intricate passages and poured out through its ecstatic release points. It was the emotional content, after all , that made Anastasios blend of classical composition and jam ebullience function, and here the lighter than air melodic sensibilities which drove baroquely constructed archetypes like Divided Sky, You Enjoy Myself, and Slave to the Traffic Light are made the subject matter, crushed and condensed into vignettes It may as well be said. Trey Anastasio has made a pop record. That, of course, isnt the irony that Anastasio is referring to. The symbolism hes pushing is the trope of isolation, and even as he addresses it, I cant help but feel like pointing out the obvious discrepancy between the moments hes aligning in his mind.
Ultimately, Trey Anastasio can never again really be alone the way he was alone twenty years ago- without a community, without expectation, and, more to the point, without a legacy. Ever. Thats the thing about legacy and success- they virtually assure the fact that youll never again be who you were when you made the art that made you timeless. One reason for that deals with something Dylan said in Chronicles- that good art is founded on observation, and you can never be the observer you once were when youre being observed. Dylan will never again be the Bob Dylan he was when he was a twenty year old folk singer weaving anonymously through Greenwich Village, just as McCartney will never be the songwriter he was when he was spilling coffee on the lyrics he was writing with Lennon, just as The Band was never the mythical presence it had been after it was appropriated into the America it had always operated best on the margins of. Trey Anastasio the jam icon will never be the music geek he was twenty years ago without running water and any company save for his dog. I suppose thats tragic in some sense, but it doesnt have to be, and, reeeaaaally, its all tragic- thats life. The best that he can do is try to recreate the feeling in his mind, and even that may be pointless.
So thats really the other thing about legacy- it tests the limits of your genius. I think we recognize this, and perhaps this partially explains why we many of us seem to be waiting for our rock icons to die after theyve had their moments. That way, we can preserve them as they were when they were significant. Ultimately, the perilous climate in which our cultural icons reside has served in facilitating our societal attempt to conceal our death- not actual death, but feeling of impending assurance of death- -the way we necessarily fade before we die. In Killing Yourself to Live, journalist Chuck Klosterman set out to find the reason why artists cant seem to be fully recognized before they die (often before their time), but consider this as an alternate approach to the same question: What if they had all lived? Consider that, and youve begun to wrap your mind around what makes Shine so compelling.
The crunchy hair metal riffs and exuberant chorus of Air Said to Me anchor as unabashed a rock and roll tune as Anastasio has ever written, an ode to the rock of the seventies and eighties so defiantly buoyant that it comes with a disclaimer: believe what you want to believe.’ Tuesday and Come as Melody speak as pointedly to the albums ethos. Gone are the cerebral fireworks and galloping builds, replaced by a propelling ethic of energy and melody, elements which drive an album so imponderously and aggressively joyous that at times it seems a neurotic backlash against self-doubt. Maybe it is. In many ways, the record feels that way- manic, torn between extremes of pleasure and passive aggressive slips of sorrow.
In that sense, its not surprising that Shine at its best when its not working so desperately to repress the turmoil that bore it. Wherever You Find It, wedding Anastasios optimism to that latent despair, rendering it a bit more tentative, manages to be its most poignant moment. Puncturing the icy intonations of its verses with a pealing, dramatic guitar vamp, Anastasio re-takes the stage with his instrument; first tentatively, then ferociously, the way one takes an ex-girlfriend into a closet for an ill-advised post breakup romp.
Spin battles looming specters of its own, winding a swirling vortex of a chorus around a chilling invitation to go down easy that conjures not only the sweet carbon monoxide plunge of chemical dependency, but a past which surges through the cracks of the albums glossy veneer as from some psychedelic circle of Dantes hell. Whether the demons are wearing hemp or not is up for speculation. Utilizing a technique not unlike the one Radiohead implemented in its gorgeous suicide-hymn No Surprises, the tune manages to use its own lullaby melody obsession not only as an instrument of self-parody but, paradoxically, to eerily reveal the darkness looming under that supernatant bliss. Its easily the albums most haunting moment, partly because of its candor, but more so because its an aberration- a nightmare drenched in sunlight. The days go by and Im still alive, Anastasio sings placidly. Its as if hes half surprised… *B: Alright, first question: Like Zappa, like Clapton any artist that you have admired throughout your life youve built a career on variety and change thus far. Inside and outside of the music, how important change is to you as a musician? *
T: Ultimately important, I think, because music to me is a quest, a search for an honest moment. Thats why you play live music, why I do. Im always looking for somethingchange being the one constant in life. You have to embrace change if youre going to play honest music, or to play relevant music as life goes on. Sometimes its hard to do that, but I think its important. A lot of the artists that I admire, if you look at their life and music, have changed pretty dramatically along the way. The few that you mentioned, and theres Bruce Springsteen and of course Dylan. *B: I was reading an article last week on the White Stripes, and Jack said: The whole point of the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself. In my opinion too much opportunity can kill creativity. *
T: I read that quote! Hes absolutely right, especially on a musicI studied with a guy, sort of a mentor of mine, Ernie Stires. His big quote used to be art lives by limitation. So I could see how youare you asking that question in the sense that in one moment Im writing instrumental music and the next Im playing rock music? *B: I was wondering if you found it to be liberating working within more concise forms, three and a half minute songs and layering ideas vertically as opposed to horizontally. Have you found that to be a more refreshing experience? *
T: Yes. It is for me. Right now. One of the things that I was talking about at this point in time with the band that Im playing with now and with the record, is that Ive tried to take a bunch of elements that I hadnt used in the previous horn section band, or in the trio, or in Phish, or some of the other side projects that Ive done. This band that Im playing with now on tour has two guitars, Ive never done that before. Three singers, including me, thats new. The rhythm section is very different than it was with Fish and Mike, who played in a very light way. The bass was really essential part of the rhythm. Fish as a drummer used to sort of dance on top. Mike was super solid, and he would drift harmonically in a really beautiful way. That was uniquely them. Thats their thing. The other band that I had my solo band had sort of what I called the metronomical straight line. So I wrote music built around that rhythm section. This rhythm section which is Skeeto Valdez and Tony Hall its got the New Orleans funky, backbeat kinda thing happening. I was really happy with Skeeto cause I wanted to find a drummer who could sorta play like those Zappa drummers. Super heavy, but floating with the guitar solos, that would be Ansley Dunbar style and, I think I found that in him [Editors note: as of November 18, New Orleans-based drummer Raymond Weber has replaced Valdez behind the kit]. So now this is just the beginning, this process will be now trying to work with that group and then a lot of it was about songwriting. *B: What was the experience was like in this album of isolating yourself as the main lyricist? *
T: It was great. I loved it. I loved working with Tom too. And throughout that process, like in my last solo album, when I have something to say Ill write it. And I did have a lot to say at this point in time. But Im enjoying singing very much all of a sudden. Maybe that just happens to people but I really genuinelymaybe it has something to do with trying to get to the heart, you know? The quickest path probably is with the voice, as opposed to the instrument, but Im enjoying it right now. *B: Do you feel that way? (Laughs). Because you seem to have done ok with the guitar… *
T: WellI dont know because the guitar does really work for me. (Laughs) I can really communicate with the guitar. But I am suddenly finding looking forward to singing in a way that I, was almost secondary for a while there and its become so essential to me, in the emotion of the song and the message of the song. Like last night we opened that show with Shine. My mom was there and I was talking to her about it, she called me up and said man that song, was just the right song at the right time. And I said to her Im glad you noticed that cause I felt the same way. I want to be able to go out and cut to the heart of the matter. A lot of the writing earlier with Phish was kind of about stretching the limits, and this is almost about boiling everything down to its essence. The end results of either of those things always is the emotional connection with the audience that youre always after, but there are different paths of getting therepossibly. *B: Did you find that youd written about yourself in more concrete ways in this album then you had in the past? *
T: I think Ive done it in the past. I think you just had to look for it more One of the things that used to happen with Tom was that I was almost like an editor as much as a collaborator. And one of the things that I would sometimes do is take his imagery but change it to my point of view. To the point where a couple of times he called me up and would say youve edited this to the point of that youve completely changed what I was trying to say. And some of it maybe I did. If you listen to Rift, its really, really evident because we are two different people and my outlook on life is very different than his.
But, along the way, there were a lot of songs that I kinda wrote, Drifting being an example on my solo album. Waste we kinda co-wrote but that was something that at the time that it was important for me to say. It was coming from the heart. Theres a song called Billy Breathes on the album Billy Breathes that I wrote five days after my daughter was born, my first daughter. It was the first time I ever went outside with her. I took her for a walk up in the woods and that whole song just came pouring out. That was her nickname, Billy and thats what that album is kind of about. And that song is particularly about feeling the images, everything just felt like it was a blessing. And thats why I wanted the song. So when I had something to say, I did it. In the past, and on this album this was really a tumultuous year. A lot of change, so it was scary and exciting, and I just was writing like crazy, and keeping journals and stuff. And most of the lyrics and the songs are built-in around that. *B: Could you talk in general about the effect that Brian Eno has had on you as a musician? Whats always amazed me about him is not merely the detail of everything that hes doing but how smooth the transitions are, so you cant really focus on any aspects of the detail with something else not coming from this sideI was just wondering when it comes to those albums that are manipulating and texturing pop forms , did you find his influence particularly relevant here? *
T: Well I was obsessed with him in high school, and still am. I read his diary a couple years ago that he printed out. And Ive talked to people who have worked with him. I never met him. But a lot of funny stories always come back to me about ways of breaking confined thinking patterns. Like in the studio where youd leave and come back and tell people not to solo things. He had a good one about limitation too. I read something with him where he was doing those 70s albums like Before and After Science and all that. He had a very limited set of synthesizers and not yet any gear. Yeah, huge influence. I saw Mark Ribot last night playing with Tom Waits. Hes another guy like that to me. He reminds me a lot of Eno. I put them in the same sort ofwhen you look at his gear and what he uses, he limits himself in a lot of ways. You can see him squeezing unique artistic tones out of corners that hes built for himself as a player. And Eno did that. So I enjoy that process. Trying to leap before you look. That would be the way I would put that. And then figure out how youre going to build a parachute on the way down. Im in one of those situations right now, with the band and everything. I just got a whole new band. I didnt even know any of these people. I made sure I got people that never had heard of Phish. Were never into this scene. Other than Jennifer [Hartswick] and Ray [Paczkowski], but even Ray had never heard Phish. *B: It was good to see Jennifer back. *
T: I know. Well I got rid of the horn section and that was kinda her. We were sorta in touch. She even had that idea of bringing Christina. We didnt do it last night but we started doing this thing out in Seattle where I was doing the hand signals I was doing with the horn section, but with the vocals. They go off and come back on and change keys and stuff and theyre improvising as vocalists. I dont think Ive ever seen anybody ever do it quite like that. They did a little bit last night on Night Speaks to a Woman. They make stuff up. Most backup signers are singing stuff, but theyre improvising and she really wanted to do that, with Christina theyve been singing together since they were nine years old. Theyre best friends. Shes getting married on Saturday. *B: Christina is? *
T: Jennifer! Yeah, shes gone. The greatest single woman left on earth. Oh my god, shes amazing. And just as a person. You know what she does now? She does raki. Shes a raki doer, a raki what do you call that? Master or something. You know raki? Its a healing thing. Like massage therapy. You can go get rakied. Anyway she does raki and she had this woman who was sort of her raki guru, an elderly woman who has been doing it for 50 years or something. Supposedly amazing, this woman. Ive heard about her up in Vermont. This woman saw Jennifer and said You should try to raki the audience with your voice. Which now she is doing. Like when we were doing Shine last night, shes talking about it. She does that now. Shes literally trying with her voice to heal people through this process that she learned when studying raki. I can hear it, cause I feel that way when she gets going. Its the most amazing thing. Its incredible, cause thats what I want to do. We spend all out time together on the road, like right next to each other. Were always walking down the hall kinda leaning on each other and stuff, I just love her so much. Raki. I want to do that!
Thats the ultimate privilege, like I was saying before, to think that someone can come to your concerts and feel healed in a certain way. Especially now. Thus the album title, thus the first song like I said, the prime directive. As bad as it could possibly get, the light shines on. To nudge people in that direction, thats the whole point of the album cover. I love the Clash. And I love London Calling. That cover to me is the ultimate album cover and one of the greatest albums ever recorded. It was out in 1978, I think it was, hes smashing the guitar, and its a different time, and I feel like offering it. And right now with everything going on, you know? I suppose its not very punk of me but who fuckin cares? You know, great. Its not very anti, but Im not. I love Jennifer, and I love being with her and man Rays like that too, everybody in the bands like that. *B: Along the vein of change, a bunch of changes have been made from the beginning of playing with this band till now. Certain songs didnt show up. Dark and Down, In the Light, Goodbye Head. What was the criteria? *
T: Goodbye Head just didnt sound good in the studio. We did it, it just didnt sound good. That was one thing. It wasthese things just, I write so much that, there was a lot of songs that I was kinda writing, then I was doing all kinds of covers for a minutes there. It was I figured if I was stepping off the Phish platform for a while I might as well step off everything. I had this other band that was going . That had taken 4 or 5 years to build up. Our repertoire. *B: Do you mean in the sense that that song reminded you of other elements of Phish? *
T: Goodbye Head? I just started writing and that one reminds me more a little bit of how I used to write for Phish. *B: It bore some Reba-like qualities. *
T: Yeah, its got all these little elements that were still kind of left over from Phish. I think youre just trying new stuff. And then I had these songs like 18 Steps that have these weird chord changes to them, then theres Cincinnati which I actually want to do again. Those two got cut. But I was just writing a lot,
god, now that I think about it its only been a year so I was writing a lot.
*B: Do you think of yourself as a perfectionist? *
T: Yeah, I suppose in a certain way. The last two albums that I did before this one were Seis De Mayo, an instrumental album, and Plasma. And both of those, I worked pretty hard on both those albums. Those were kinda smaller albums, but theyre deep. I remember working on Plasma and even just trying to get together some of the arraignments of the band, long 5, 6, 7 hour band practices. We did this arrangement of Pages thing Magilla, I did another arrangement of it. I just remember the day I was trying to work this thing out with the band. They still talk about it. It was like hours and hours bleeding lips, and trying to get these secondary parts in and everything. So in a certain sensebut I know that I have a weird thing that as soon as its over, when this album is genuinely done, if I dont start something else right away I start to get bogged down. I gotta keep writing. Its the writing itself, or its the process that I love. *B: Im glad that you brought up Seis De Mayo, I was wondering how validating that Bonnaroo set was that year, in the sense of having 80,000 people, most of which that were rock fans, most of which were standing on their feet for three days, to react and respond and to move to those compositions the way they did. *
T: It was amazing, and that was kind of a one in a lifetime thing. *B: It seemed to be the legacy moment in a lot of ways. *
T: Yeah, not just the music, but also of the audience, the fact that they would put up with that. Dont forget it was pouring rain for like an hour, and I was back there, there was a 65 piece orchestra all sitting there with their expensive violins and stuff saying Im not going out in that. (Laughs). This is after the planning that it took to get that thing together, and the rehearsals, and all the work to do this crazy thing, and people stayed. It was amazing. *B: But does that moment happen without those first 20 years, without Phish? *
T: Oh with the audience? Would that have happened? I dont think so. Phish had the greatest audience ever! In the history of rock and roll. As far as Im concerned. We had an absolutely joyous amazing experience, we were so lucky. The luckiest band ever! And Im completely well aware of that. *B: But there was a catch to it in some respects. *
T: Yeah. But the framework around the four of our lives was such that things that to me seemed very natural. Natural change and growth it was difficult because there was a lifestyle set up, and the hard thing about it was that the community had grown up. I think was just about the most beautiful thing by the end about Phish. It was just so cool that so many people were having so many friendships and experiences. *B: But its complex, isnt it? On one hand theres an interactive quality that allows for that energy to go back and forth and those relationships to exist, but at the same time when you have that sort of interaction theres also sort of a sense of entitlement and analysis that comes along with it. Did that become a difficult balance to navigate? *
T: It did, because on the one hand I invited that. And because I genuinely love I hope that people can tell this from stage I love making people light up. I love lighting people up. Thats all I really want out of life. I want to give them that, if I have that gift in some way. I love watching people dance. I love watching people likeI get off on looking out there and seeing the whole crowd bouncing up and down. I just love feeling like Im doing something to make peoples day a little bit better. You gotta watch out for that though, because you can start going down that road too far and wake up one morning and think, maybe Im forgetting to follow my own heart here for a minute. And then being faced with a really difficult situation which is that knowing deep in my heart this is the right thing for me, and if I do the right thing for me ultimately Ill be able to maintain that privilege of lighting people up much longer and yet in the short term Im going to be essentially letting all these people down. And I didnt want to let them down because I felt that.you know it was a conundrum. (Laughs)
So I know I did the right thing at this point. I hope that over the years it would be nice to be able to write music thats relevant to the people that are my age, or whatever age they may have been when they began listening to this music, and that the songs I write can change over the years. You gotta move on, you know? Stop. Even though youre being celebrated for one thing gotta stay involved in something. Do your work and step back? The only path to serenity. Did you ever read the Bhagavad-Gita? *B: Ive read selections, but I havent gotten the whole thing down yet. (Laughs). Which part are you talking about? *
T: Theres a translation by Steven Mitchell thats amazing, a newer translation although theyre all pretty similar. I read it all the time, but, just about that. Act for actions sake. Really follow your heart. Not because you think that its going to make people happy or that youre going to gain anything. Act for actions sake, its the renunciation of the fruits of action. Youre entitled to your actions but not to their fruits. And you have todont succumb to inaction just act. Do your work. What youre on earth for, what you know in your heart is the right thing to do. And then step back and everybody else can sort it out. *B: Sounds a lot like a Phish show. *
T: Yeah! Well see that was the funny thing too. I learned that from being in Phish, because we worked so hard on that, we worked so hard in searching for the genuine moment, that was our thing. We used to do exercises to embrace spontaneity. And then the obvious result of that is at certain points thats gonna lead down different paths. All of a sudden youre working with horn sections, or youre conducting an orchestra, those are one thing, or youre getting into playing acoustic like Mike is with Leo Kottke. *B: I actually just reviewed that, I loved it. *
T: I know. Hes great. Mikes just an amazing guy and an incredible musician. Super creative. *B: He has this ability to create such soft and delicate beds of sound, and then every once and a while to see him come out of that and really be the killer that we all know him to be. *
T: I want Mike.I want somebody to get Mike into a heavy metal band. Cause I know he can play like that. I think Metallica shouldve hired Mike. When they hired the new guy. *B: Because were on the Mike vein- Phish wins the award for best tour at this years Jammys and Mike says : It just goes to prove my theory that we had at least another decade of good music in us *
T: Did he say that? *B: Yeah, but understand, Im not bringing it up in a tension creating sense. What I mean to ask.. *
T: Well thats ok.
B: When you have one member of the group that wants to continue.
T: Im not sure if he does anymore. Maybe so, maybe not and maybe it even changed.
B: But what I mean to ask is that, despite whatever the reality of a situation is, when it gets set up that way in the public sphere, one member wanting to continue
T: I will say this: I cant verbalize why I needed to get out and do something new any more clearly than whats on this album. If you want to hear why just put it on. Im talking about the sense of lightness and vibrancy. Then just pop on Round Room. I like Round Room, by the way, its one of my favorite Phish albums. But you can hear something thats honest on both those albums. Im not saying that you have to like it. But I tried to tell the story as clearly as possible lyrically and through music and melodies and whatnot on the album. It took a year to make this album and throughout that year its just such a backlash so many people, so angry and yet everybody in the band is healthy and happy and families are happy. You know? I just feel so much better than I did two years ago. Youre talking about a long 21 year career from the age of 18 to 40 ending without tragedies and Im really happy about that because I love all of them. And I love everybody that works in our organization and our audience, and so in my heart Im happy about that. *B: I wanted to talk a little bit about the relationship you had with Brendan, and what specifically it was that you heard from Brendans work that you liked and also generally what the creative process was like between you two. *
T: I was a big fan of a lot of the stuff that hed done. There were a couple of things specifically that I could point to. Well two of them. The first was Evil Empire, Rage Against the Machine. I was so knocked out by that record because it maintained.I love those guys. I had seen them perform, they just killed me. And the record sounded like the band. It was cohesive and produced in all the best ways without a single ounce of trying to change them in my opinion. And I was so knocked out by that because I think that would be a really difficult band to produce, and to record and all so that was one of the ones that lit me up, and then of course there was all the work with Pearl Jam.
But then The Rising really killed me too. Cause I grew up in Jersey, and I was twelve years old in 1976 one of the first times, I saw Bruce either that year or the next year, and growing up in Jersey you know that was your life. Im amazed by Bruce Springsteen himself, just the ways hes progressing its such an amazing thing to see. Again when I heard The Rising Brendan sort of took him out of his comfort zone that he had been in, in terms of the people he was recording with and the sounds of his records and all this stuff. And the material in the record was so sensitive and so emotional. At a really tricky time to be recording that album, and I just thought it was handled in such an incredible way. Love the way the record sounded, I love the way the production was powerful but never, never got in the way of the songs, you can hear the songs. So Im just a huge fan. I talked to him on the phone, the first time I talked to him on the phone I was smitten. It was a perfect situation at this point in time. I had to get out of the barn, and get down to Atlanta and look at things through a different lens.
A lot of it we did just the two of us, in this little project studio thats in his house. Maybe 20 feet by 20 feet with a drum set. And Tuesday we did the second or third day, virtually all of it. Except for the drums, I think, when Kenny Aronoff came and did that. But we were just crankin, it was great. I loved working with him. He was just amazing and that was the final step to all this. I had so many songs we would just throw them on the table and say Oh lets do that one. Wed start writing together, youd come in one day and Oh man I got this thing, or I got this poem that Im writing . I got this riff, this keyboard riff. Like the beginning of Wherever you Find It that bong, bong, bong (mimes playing a piano) he was playing that on the piano. Hes like you got anything else? and I had the second chord progression, so I was like oh I got this and then I got these words thats it. Go have dinner come back in, Im gonna go write some lyrics. That kinda stuff. I love that song. Thats just about my favorite one on the record. *B: Especially you talk about it being a product of the climate right now where theres such a strong dichotomy of hope and despair. There was so much of that crashing together in that song. *
T: Yeah, I loved that song. I wanted that one- you know how you start picking whats going on the radio? At least I wished that could go on the radio. Im kind of obsessed with the idea of having someone pickwell the one they picked I love so Im happy. But I love that song. Thats one of my favorite ones. I like Sleep Again too. Thats how the songs got picked, through that process.
Anyhow, one of the things that Brendan does is, hes so together, that he allowsI felt comfortableis it your left brain thats supposed to be the non-rational side? I could stay in that world and kind of be walking around, back to my hotel, and I was down there alone for three months so I didnt know anybody so I could kind of wander around Atlanta just singing these songs in my head, and I didnt have to get into the sort of boring really about anything. He filled me with confidence like everything was going to be fine, and I could just stay in that world and just thinkhopefully stay a little closer to the heart. So that was the process
I remember one time reading this interview with Paul Simon where he said it took him an entire pad to write Me and Julio Down by the School Yard and I loved that you knew that there was that kind of scrutiny, so there was that type of scrutiny to all the lyrics. Yeah and that goes even further when I think about the year. It took exactly a year, from August to August to get to these twelve songs. Right? The other thing that happens during the process is that you end up throwing a lot of songs away. Because all these twelve songs are essentially about the same thing. Not, the very same thing, but they are all the same they came about at a certain time when theres all the different emotions that went along with this process. Some of the stuff was kind of dark and painful and, they are all kind of an outpouring about this period of time your trying to make a point about whats really important in a lot of this. So, in that process not only are you kind of nudging lyrics and all, but I can remember a lot of songs that didnt make the album, and those were all intensetheres a song called 18 Steps that I was doing live, and theres another one called Low that I was doing.
B: There were a lot of them that you were playing early on that
T: Well I went down their with all those songs, but then they didnt resonate fully, or like sometimes I would think they didnt havethere were some lyrics that were getting at it, and then some that I just didnt feel held up. And so then you kind of make this decision that that one is, and that one isnt so well keep going with that one, and then other ones kind of maintain their time, and time has a lot to do with it. Beause you know with the events its kind of funny. *B: Its a lot like what you were saying last time too about some of them having one foot in the door and one foot out the door in terms of them being in the system that they were now. You can sort of see the process of separation there by looking at them. *
T: But even when you get the album together you want the right balance of the different kind of emotions and what not, and then you can get leaning a little too heavily in one direction or the other. And you want the thing to come up as a cohesive whole, like a book. A great album to me isto use the greatest album in this way ever made by a woman, and the greatest album ever made by a man Joni Mitchell Blue and Van Morrison Astral Weeks. They both have the same quality if you listen to the whole thing, its like you know everything about Joni Mitchell at that age, I dont know how old she was 25 or something, you know that era in here life. All the different songs add up to such a clear picture ofits creepy. Ive listened to that record 50 million times, I cant imagine how many times Ive bought it. Astral Weeks is like that too. I think that record is perfect, I love fact that its like a photograph. *B: Thats such a great album to re-discover, every time you drift away from it and then come back to it. *
T: Oh, I was listening to that, I only had two records with me down in Atlanta when I was making this record, Astral Weeks and the MC5 Back in the USA I listened to both of them over and over and over again. Everyday I would going into the studio I would listen to After weeks and you know that song when it happens..something something Just over and over, Id work on the album and then Id get in the car and listen to Astral Weeks It just makes you want to be honest, thats basically what it does. Reminds you that youve got to be really honest, like every lyric has to be honest.
B: Can you talk about between the feeling you had when you were writing the songs for the first Phish album when you threw on a backpack and went off into the woods, and the symbolism of having the same experience now. Despite the fact that those early songs obviously were a little bit more intricate or more complex the thing that makes a song like You Enjoy Myself or Slave to the Traffic Light or Divided Sky work in a lot of ways is that lightness and momentum and energy. Slave has that really beautiful four chord progression and then you guys would just take off, and despite the fact that they had different structures did you feel a connection emotionally to that material?
T: Oh yeah, because when you talk about Divided Sky I love that song. *B: Thats my favorite Phish song. *
T: I was going to say, if there is one song in the whole Phish thing that I did feel, I dont know thats the one that kind of maintains its mystery to me. And yet, I think that, that melody in Divided Sky the real pretty melody feels directly connected to the guitar melody in Wherever You Find It and that even some of the layered writing, like if you listen to Spin, all that kind of octave thing that people keep thinking is a keyboard is actually a guitar with an octave divider, thats all that dooda loo doo do do do do. But I feel like maybe whats happened is you cant quite figure this despite the fact that I love it so much, but I feel like its almost becomethat kind of writing has become more integrated over the years that Im much more interested in boiling directly to the emotional core, and not get lost on the writing.
Some of that music, early on to now, doesnt maintain to me. I can hear the thinking, instead of the heart and I think that might have been something, but not so in Divided Sky but I feel that same kind of writing, the same person that is clearly writing the stuff that is on this album.ok heres what it is. You know how they say ever author has one story that they want to tell? Whether its Surrender to the Air, or Air Said to Me, which are kind of supposedly trying to make the same point. The point, even behind the title was exactly the same. That sort of release, you know and all of that. But you know I feel like the playing in Divided Sky feels very much like the playing in Wherever You Find It but hopefully the stripping process ideally will lead to an even stronger emotional connection. As you go on, ideally that would be the goal to reveal the emotional quality, you know let them make the building blocks more visible. *B: I know you gotta go, but I wanted to ask you this totally irrelevant to what were doing, but Ive always wondered about it, if you dont mind. I took a class, my first year in college it was called Masterpieces in Western Music and in the process of doing the class I fell deeply in love with Ravel. *
T: Hes my favorite of all time, of all time, favorite musician who ever lived. *B: And there is this piece of music that we heard, and in a lot of ways I think its my favorite piece of classical music that Ive ever heard. I always butcher the translation, but it was a homage that he did to a French composer. *
T: Was it Le Tombeau de Couperin? *B: Thats what it is. *
T: Im kind of amazed that youre saying this. But thats my favorite piece of music ever written. Ive studied it.there wouldnt be a Divided Sky without that song.and not only have I.I have every score of it, and all the solo piano versions, and different orchestral versions. Ill tell you the one you should listen to is The Piano Concerto in G, but the Le Tombeau de Couperin thats the defining piece of music of my life. Thats the ultimate goal. They just asked me to do ten songs for iTunes, and its going to be on there. Its going to be one of them. Its different what you can get from solo piano versions. I could talk to you about just that piece of music because Ive studied it so much forever. Its what he was doing harmonically at the time. He would do these major 6th arpeggios on top of each other. I can show you on the piano. But the solo piano version of it is cool if you want to get inside what he was doing but that quality dooodle ooodle doodle oooo doo and what the basslines are dooodle ooodle oooodle ooo doo DOOO DOOO DOOO That was all I listened to when I was writing all that early Phish music, and I still to this day, I think its the highest level that music has ever gotten to. *B: When I was taking that class we used to have these arguments about whether Ravel bore Phish qualities, and I would be when Farmhouse came out there were elements of songs like The Inlaw Josie Wales and Dirt *
T: Like the strings. *B: Whats the word I want to use? Like a cycling type of thing. *
T: Its also like a harmonic sensibility. To me, music was, the harmonic language of music was progressing for many, many years and then it stopped. Like the harmonic language, as a language it got too far for people to be able to handle it anymore. That was a breakthrough, and a lot of jazz musicians listened to Ravel, and that turn of the century French thing that was happening, some people would say it was similar to what was happening with impressionist paintings. Thats my favorite era of music by far. And then you had swing bands that were touching on it, and American jazz that were touching on it.
After that, some of the later stuff started to get mathematical and mental. That twelve tone thing came and just destroyed the progression of music, it started turning it into math. But theres this wilting quality, and this yearning quality thats expressed in the actual language of the music, that once youve heard it, you try to get to, like the solo in Reba. Its a little different but its so light and beautiful and its so much about elegance and beauty and like a natural kind of butterfly wings sort of way. What he did was he took baroque music, baroque form, and added this new harmonic concept to it and sadly its gone. In a certain way, to a certain degree that harmonic development, its not totally gone. You want to know where it is? Ill tell you where it is. And somebody show me somebody else, but I know of one musician whos doing it, and thats Maria Schneider. *B: I did an interview with Mike and he was talking about Maria Schneider, and about how much he loved her. *
T: Maria, Maria, I have all kinds of funny stories about her, but if you want to interview an interesting person then interview Maria Schneider, because its an amazing thing. Brian Camelio, her record company that he started, its called artistShare, he won the first Grammy in American history on a record that wasnt available in stores. He had a purely online record label called artistShare and she won the large scale jazz ensemble recording for her Concert in the Garden.
She is still continuing to push that harmonics envelope in that kind of way that was happening 1870, or whatever it was when Ravel and those guys were doing it, despite the fact that 80 years later, I dont know if Im adding it up rightno no no.thats not right, 134, I dont knowshe is incredible and her music is heartbreaking in that way that using harmony to break your heart. I love it, I love that kind of stuff and I love that piece of music.
People are always asking me, saying I never listen to classical music and Im like well listen to this. And theres a lot more stuff like that, but that one, theres just something about it, its just so about beauty. Thats the thing about Maria thats so cool, its about unapologetic beauty, and love of beauty and romance. If you want to listen to an interesting one Concert in the Garden was the one that won the Grammy, but check out theres this piece called Hang Gliding.
B: Final question, what would you say is motivating you as an artist?
T: Right now? Or four months ago? Right now, I want to play live. A lot. So whats motivating me right nowI know what it is, let me back up on that. I think that what motivates me- my wife has a nickname for me, she calls me The Relentless Communicator and it drives her nuts sometimes when I come into the room and shes reading a book or something, shell run screaming. I like communicating, and I like communicating with people in the audience and I like communicating with the people who listen to the album.
Going back to the roots of the words, I actually believe that music can build community. Maybe through the musical communication, it sends a sort of message that people can get together, and that was proven by what happened with us. So I guess now that the framework has changed Im just trying to see which lines of communications will open themselves, and theyll probably be new ones, and thats probably whats motivating me. Whether it be that Im writing much more about lyrics now and singing. Im not gonna connect with Tony Hall the way I connected with Mike Gordon. Me and Mike connected in a very unique way and that will never happen again. I wouldnt even attempt to do that, it would be insane. But Tony and I connect in different way thats amazing so you look for these lines of communication, as they open. Building bridges and opening lines of communication is what motivates me. And thats why I say that Jennifer telling me that Im over there trying to raki the audience with my voice- thats who I want in my band . I want the person whos up there whose intent is: Im just trying to heal people a little bit. Thats probably the main thing.