Peter Katis and Phish: "You Can Have Fun Without Being Silly"
As a fan and friend, how closely did you keep in touch with Phish after you left Burlington, and they started touring nationally? Did you keep up with them throughout the 1990s and, if so, do you have a favorite memory of seeing them live?
No, I didn’t keep in touch for a long while, but you couldn’t help but notice. I moved back to New York and took jobs at different recording studios right after college. I remember they were playing venues in New York, sizable venues like the Marquee—it was pretty happening. I was like, “Wow, look at that at.” I think John Cleese from Monty Python said it best with regard to routing for former peers, “You hope they do well, but not too well.”
It was sort of like, “Wow, these guys are becoming a big band.” I don’t remember noticing how they transitioned from playing good, medium-sized venues to playing arenas. That was pretty wild to see happening. It happened right around the same time a friend of ours we used to poke fun at because he abandoned rock music to make “dance music” started to find some success. His name was Moby. I guess he got the last laugh, too!
We’ve known Moby since high school. It was odd to watch. He got famous, and then he got super famous. Sort of like how Phish went from very successful to the kings of rock in America, yet still somehow never becoming mainstream.
You produced Trey Anastasio’s latest solo album, Traveler. Can you describe how that collaboration originally came about?
I think Trey got in touch with me looking to make a solo record that was a little different. He was familiar with a lot of records I’d made. When someone asks me to make a record with them, especially if they’re well-known or already successful, I ask “Why? Why do you want to make it with me ?” I want to get a sense of if you’ve proved you’re already capable of making a good record, why do you want to do it with me.
If they show an awareness of what I do, if they’re interested in collaborating with me, then I get excited. He proved that for sure. He cited a bunch of really cool records. He cited a record called Teeth Lost, Hearts Won from an Australian group, The Grates. I consider it one of my best personal accomplishments as a producer. Trey was a big fan of that one. I was really impressed by that. Not many people know the record, but it’s really fun. It’s very playful and quirky production, but to an end. The songs are kind of goofy, but also sad. On the surface it’s a bit wacky, but at its core, it’s quite serious. A lot like The Philistines Jr. I’ve always liked sad, beautiful music. That’s what I tried to do with Trey on Traveler, and I think that’s what we did. It’s a little melancholy but in a hopeful way. I thought it turned out great. I still listen to it.
I see similarities between The Philistine Jr.’s lyrics and Phish’s lyrics, which are often playful. Once you contrast the playfulness with the lyrics with some of the musical depth, it’s an interesting way the music and lyrics bounce off each other in different ways.
Right, the lightness of the lyrics can belie the seriousness of the music. I’m a big fan of that sort of thing. I feel like there isn’t enough humor in most music. I think Phish is a good example that you can have fun without being silly.
Speaking of Moby, I remember listening to that sound collage where you have a few seconds of you playing with different artists.
Yeah, that was the last song on our Analog vs. Digital LP. It included thirty-four ten second solos by various musical friends of ours. Again, a little absurd, but fun. Ten seconds isn’t a lot of time to do your thing.
While you have produced all sorts of bands, you are known to many of our readers through your work with indie bands like Interpol and The National. Oddly enough, both of those bands feature members who are big Phish/Dead fans. Were you aware of that until you started working with Trey Anastasio?
It was really quite humorous. As I was getting ready to make and was making the Traveler record, I’d be at a party or backstage after shows talking to people, and they’d ask what I’m working on. I’d mention the Trey thing. You’d be amazed at the number of big Phish fans in the indie rock world. In The National, the Dessner and Devendorf brothers are huge fans. I had guys from Interpol to Oneida to Guster to The Hold Steady offering their services for this allegedly genre-bending musical adventure that became Traveler.
Trey wanted to make a record that people could listen to driving away from a Phish show that was about being a record, that wasn’t about being played live. I remember some guy on a blog trashing the beginning of “Land of Nod” because it has a drum machine. That makes me crazy. Trey made that on his eight-track. It’s his original demo from years ago. The whole point is that the cheesy drum machine morphs into this massive real drum beat. It wasn’t an accident…
It’s also cool because it makes it feel like a true studio record as opposed to a live band in a studio. It stands apart from a TAB or Phish live show.
Trey had told me that the record he made right before that with Phish and Steve Lillywhite was largely “live” in the studio. In our case, his solo band came in, and we cut most of basic tracks with them over the course of about a week or two. We then spent the next few months almost “remixing” the record, using the live basic tracks but continually reworking everything in different ways. I get upset when remixes are more interesting than the actual record. I like to make the real record the remix. Don’t save the fun for someone else! Trey was great to work with in that way. He didn’t put limits on anything creatively, style-wise, etc.
Given that you saw Phish so early on and had a reconnection with them pretty recently. Do you have a favorite live experience seeing them?
I think they are good at being musically surprising. And that’s hard to do. When I think of Phish at their best, I think of sitting in Nectar’s on a cold Burlington night almost thirty years ago. They were in the middle of a long improvisational jam and then “whammo!” Out of nowhere, they launch into this otherworldly, hyper-arranged piece of music that didn’t last for more than thirty or forty seconds. Then back into a long jam. It literally stunned me. I was like “What just happened…?”