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Published: 2013/04/17
by Mike Greenhaus

James Casey: Traveling with Trey Anastasio

Speaking of Trey’s band, how did you wind up as the new saxophone player? If I remember correctly, you played with Jen Hartswick at Bowlive last year and got the call this fall when he needed a new saxophonist?

That was the first time I met her. I wasn’t even supposed to be playing that Bowlive, especially on those days. I played with Alecia Chakour Band when she opened one of the shows and Eric Krasno said, “You may as well come back the next couple days.”

I came back, met up with Karl Denson, who I had met at Bowlive a year before, and Jen. We played the show, and I thought she enjoyed my playing, but I didn’t know to what extent. I saw her again in New Orleans, at Jazz Fest, a few months later. At the time I was just joking around and I said, “Hey, I don’t know if you know this but this is the year of James getting gigs.” I really did say it as a joke and she was like, “Actually, I’ve already been putting your name out there. I really enjoy you playing.” I told her I appreciate it and that was that.

I was in Arizona over the summer and, one day, I got a text message from Jen at 10 AM—it woke me up. Then I got a phone call from a number I didn’t know, so I didn’t pick it up and went back to sleep. I don’t usually get up before noon, so I woke up later when my brother called me. So I listened to the message—it was from some dude named Trey and I was like, “I don’t know who this guy is,” so I hung up before I listened to it. Then I looked at Jen’s message and it said Trey’s about to call you. I figured if it was something from her, then maybe it was something I should probably pay attention to.

Then I listened to the message fully. He was like, “Hi, this is Trey. I have this band called Phish and I have another band that I’d like you to join.” He’s so soft spoken and humble and that was the last thing I would be expecting from someone who was in his position. So I immediately called up everyone I knew who would know stuff about this scene because I’m still very new to it. I didn’t know who he was [Laughter.]

I called [Lettuce drummer] Adam Deitch. He got really excited and he just kind of went off on a tangent for a little while, it was kind of crazy. So after that I called [Trey] back, and he said “I’m about to go on sound check, but my manager will call you.” They sent me a bunch of music, I got the gig and we toured together this fall. I had to learn to play keys better, really quickly [to play the new songs on Traveler. The rest is history.

It seem like things progressed rather quickly.

Yeah, pretty much. The last year has been a whirlwind, especially the last six months. Everything’s just been stacking on top of each other, I feel very blessed about it. It’s hard to take in—you just forget parts of the story. I’m beginning to write it all down so I remember how all of it took place because, truthfully, from where I come from there’s no way I should be doing what I’m doing.

You mentioned that you are new to the jamband scene. What are your initial thoughts on this community of musicians and fans? How does it differ from the jazz/hip-hop scene you were a part of for a few years.

This specific improvisational scene is just so different from everything else that I have ever experienced. Every time I play a show I see something different. I don’t truly understand—I’ve never followed a band. I’ve never thought to follow a group of people around, so when people do that—when I see people do that—on the one hand I’m really appreciative of the fact that they love music so much but On the other hand, I’m like, “How are you even able to do that?” And I’ve talked to people and some of them are like, “I work very hard and save up money just so I can do this. This is what I do.” I truly think that’s kind of amazing.

My first festival was Electric Forest with Lettuce in 2011, and they were like, “this is the best festival for it to be your first because everyone is really mellow, and everybody’s cool and nice.” It was the first time I had ever seen people dancing naked to my music. We’re playing on stage and there’s a group of naked people dancing in the corner distracting the hell out of me, all just dancing. [Laughter.] I didn’t know what to expect, I really didn’t know. Every time I play it’s something else new. I truly want to be able to bring some other musicians who I know are great, but don’t know anything about this scene either; I want to bring them through with me. And hopefully I can do that sooner rather then later. It’s just kind of waiting honestly.

Has Trey given you any particular advice or news that you have taken to heart during your recent tour?

The best advice that I’ve heard was coming from the music in general as opposed to the actual scene or the tour. It’s more about writing; Trey has a really interesting way of writing music. The way he does it, is not something that I’m used to—or something that would have even made much sense to me outside of the context of what we’re doing. He really has this passion about writing things he wants to hear, things he really enjoys. [He believes that] if he really enjoys it other people will enjoy it. And if you’re coming from any scene outside of this, you have a little bit of that but mostly you’re just writing—I have a bunch of friends who are R&B singers or hip-hop producers—and they are writing so that people will like it, as opposed to writing things that they like. There’s a lot of that in there. So, if you’re writing things solely because of what you like, and you’re performing just because of the way you feel about the song that you like, that’s something that pretty amazing to me.

On my next project I’m going to try my best to implement that little bit of information in there. It’s so simple that it’s astounding. It’s not something that’s innate. You feel since you’re performing you have to perform for the artists, you have to perform for the crowd, you have to perform for them. That’s true obviously, but if you’re not doing it for you and you’re not enjoying what you’re doing it then why are you doing it. What good is it for you? They’re not going to appreciate what you’re doing because you don’t appreciate it. That will probably stick with me longer than any of the rest of the stuff that I’ve learned.

That’s probably why people are so attached to his music. In terms of upcoming projects, given your recent success are you working on your own album?

Yeah, I’m actually working on my own project. I started a new group with some of those friends of mine who are just extremely talented, who also came out of Wally’s. We played our first gig on my 30th birthday a couple of days ago in New York. That was our first gig with them; it was a whole lot of fun, I really enjoyed it. I’m singing, I’m playing, there are some electronic aspects—as of right now it’s called James Casey’s Eclectic Collective. I don’t know if I can use that name because it may have been the name of a hair band, but as of right now that’s what I’m using. It may change. That’s my new project, and there’s also my band that I came out to New York with called Six Figures. We have an album coming out hopefully—it’s just that everyone’s on tour with everyone else it’s very, very difficult to actually get together. But the album’s done, so once we get some opportunity, and the stars align and the funds come together we’re going to release it and have a huge release show, and it’s going to be fun. Other than that it’s just Trey and Lettuce.

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