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Totally Nude
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Trey Anastasio Playboy Interview
    #1514736 - 05/02/03 02:13 PM (13 years, 8 months ago)

If you've been to college, are planning to attend college, live near a college, or at least know what a college is, then you have surely heard of Trey Anastasio and his band, Phish. This is not to say that Phish, which Anastasio co-founded in 1983 while a student at the University of Vermont, makes college music. It simply means that the group -- with its bright blend of improvisation-heavy rock and never-ending tours that recall free-spirited predecessors like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band -- tends to find listeners at that college age, when kids are seeking greater challenges in their music and ready for some grown-up experimentation. Their massive, intensely loyal following has made Phish one of the most successful live acts of all time, capable of selling tens of millions of dollars of tickets in a single year.
But a funny thing happened to Phish on its way to success: It broke up -- sort of. Following a show in October 2000, Anastasio sat down with keyboardist Page McConnell, drummer/ band namesake Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon, and they collectively agreed that Phish was no more. Anastasio spent the next two years immersed in a variety of side projects, including playing in the rock trio Oysterhead (with Primus' Les Claypool and the Police's Stewart Copeland), composing for the Vermont Youth Orchestra and pursuing a solo career. Then, in late 2002, Phish declared its "hiatus" over, released its tenth studio album, Round Room, and resumed its exhaustive touring schedule.
For all the critical bluster Phish has generated (smarter-than-thou rock critics live to loathe hippie jam bands), there's no question the 38-year-old Anastasio is a musical savant. He's as comfortable referencing Bach and Tommy Dorsey in conversation as he is hanging with Nelly and Kid Rock in real life. Calling in from his vacation in the British Virgin Islands (where he composed the music for his new solo record, Plasma), the Phish front man unflinchingly offered up his opinions on everything from drugs to politics to the burdens of leading a rock group -- and probably composed an entire opera while he was talking.
Playboy.com: Are you still on vacation?
Trey Anastasio: I pretty much am. Every year my family and I come down here, and I also do a lot of writing. Right now I'm working on these horn charts. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with them. I've had this vision in my head for a long time -- I've always wanted to write for a bigger band than a four-piece, to be able to work with a lot more colors. The idea is at least a 10-piece band, where you can get into five-part horn arrangements with a lot of improvisation with a very heavy groove and at least two drummers. That's always been in the back of my mind.
PB: Are you hoping your new record will make you the next Leonard Bernstein, or Tommy Dorsey?
TA: The idea was that there have been moments in musical history where popular music was also pushing the artistic envelope. Like in the swing band era, pre-World War II, late Thirties, you had an audience that was so educated that you could have a schmaltzy song, like Moonlight on the Ganges, come out, and then Tommy Dorsey would do a really wicked arrangement of it. And everybody that danced on Friday nights knew that arrangement. So when in the early Fifties, Eddie Sauter, of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, comes out with a really, really deep arrangement of Moonlight on the Ganges that references Tommy Dorsey's arrangement, you had an educated audience that understood that.
PB: Isn't all that composition antithetical to a band like Phish, where so much is based on improvisation and playing in the moment?
TA: Part of the reason our improv developed the way it did was that there was so much deeply charted music that everybody had to learn. There used to be five people in Phish, and one of the reasons that the fifth person quit was because of the song You Enjoy Myself. I handed everybody all these sheets of paper at band practice, and three of them were like, "Great!" And one of the guys was like, "I'm not doing this." We always thought that playing all that music was training our brains to hear the group as four parts of a chord. So you end that discipline with a free improv, having just spent five minutes being part of a very intricate machine. I think that what we found was that going through all the discipline made our improvisation much more interesting, because you want to be that tightly connected. Mindless banging sounds really horrible after swimming in this ocean of musical cohesiveness.
PB: When you hear any of the various acts you've performed with referred to as "jam bands," do you consider that a compliment?
TA: I think it's funny that we became a jam band, because like I said, if you listen to the first album, it's all composed. But there's an energy when you're in front of a live audience, and to be able to somehow combine those two things is just so unbeatable.
PB: Has that gotten harder for you as the size of your audiences increased? Can you still have that same kind of connection when you're playing for 80,000 people?
TA: Strangely, it hasn't, and I think that's a learned skill as well. The last Phish tour, I felt more connected to the audience than I ever have. I spend a lot of my time up on stage looking around. I'll see somebody dancing, especially the people who are sort of backlit in the doorways of the middle section. I feel like I can usually pick somebody out and I'll just kind of focus on them for five minutes.
PB: So you really are singling out audience members? Because there's always somebody coming out of a Phish show saying, "He was totally playing to me."
TA: I really am playing to people. Although it's not necessarily that person. [Laughs]
PB: There's been a growing sense that Phish isn't an equal proposition anymore -- that you're really the leader of the band. Has that been a difficult position for you to come to terms with?
TA: Before we took our hiatus, there was this strange thing happening with the stage setup where I got moved off to the side. We would hear on tape that the keyboards and the drums were not physically tight, so we tried to solve that by putting Fish in the middle and me to the side. Page said a couple things to me, both before the hiatus and after, where he was like, "I want you in the middle." And I was like, "Why?" And he said, "Because, you're...I need you in the middle. You have to be in the middle." Basically, he was saying, "Come on. Take charge."
PB: Had it ever been acknowledged before then?
TA: Well, they're my friends. When we came back from the hiatus there was a real healthy acknowledgment of everybody's role. Page and I have had really great conversations about that, and part of it might have had to do with him starting to run his own band [funk trio Vida Blue], and realizing that it's not all that fun in certain ways. He came back and he's like, "I'm really comfortable having you lead the way in Phish." In a funny way, when Phish started, my whole direction was going much more towards the solo band, and I didn't expect to find myself in the emotional relationship that I ended up with Page, Mike and Fish. The whole thing was just a -- I hate to say joke, but it was. But it was such a funny joke, and we were having such a good time, that it never stopped. And that was part of the reason that we needed to have a hiatus, because there were a lot of musical things for myself that I need to do, and this kind of acceptance that Phish can't be all things to all people.
PB: Whether it's accurate or not, the fans see you as the prime mover behind the hiatus.
TA: Well, I was the prime mover.
PB: But they regard you differently because of it. There's a real antagonism between you and them.
TA: It was kind of a strange year for me. When I was doing the solo band, we did a short tour, and I got notes and letters from people who really said, "Listen, I'm gonna come down, but this better suck." They were so threatened that if it was good, Phish would never get back together. So the hiatus was difficult in certain ways. I care about Phish like it's a child, and it was going in some bad directions. I was starting to get worried, to be perfectly honest, about people's health. We were having a great time, but it was like, Do we want this thing to explode a year from now and have everybody crash and burn, or do we want to still be playing in 20 years?
PB: What's the wildest idea you've ever had for a show?
TA: Last month, we were sitting in an airport, on our way to Letterman in New York, and Fish was sitting across from me. He only reads shipwreck books, anything that has to do with people eating each other, and he's reading one called Abandon Ship, and I'm looking at it, and suddenly I thought, "That's it! A band on ship!" The next day we were calling cruise lines about renting a ship, and the idea would be that it takes off and heads straight for international waters. It would be like a three-day concert on the ship, and then right back to port. You could go out of Boston Harbor for two days, that would be the Boston gig, then it goes to New York, everybody gets in their car and drives, in comes the boat, they all get back on.
PB: I don't know who would give you the liability insurance for that. It would end like that Simpsons episode.
TA: Yes, we'd all end up in the net, captured by Hong Kong pirates.
PB: Speaking of surreal situations, how important are drugs to your creative process? Do people overestimate their influence on your work?
TA: I don't think they're important. Clearly, we've all done our share of drugs. I'm in a band, and there are plenty of drugs around. But the greatest answer is that one quote from Bob Marley: "All dem drugs just slow you down." They do. And at the same time, road life is what it is. I'm not going to say that stuff doesn't go on, because it does. With psychedelic drugs, they're just a gas -- it's a big joke. I never had any real problems with mushrooms, or acid, or smoking pot. But then when you get into...the other stuff, it can get a hold on people real quick, and it's a freaky thing to see. And God, no, I would never say that it fuels creativity. The only part that's separate about that is that life is life, and all experience fuels creativity. Scuba diving or falling in love or scraping your knee -- reading probably fuels creativity more than anything I've ever experienced. But if there's one fucking thing, and one thing only, that fuels creativity, its discipline. There's no substitution for sitting down and working your ass off.
PB: You have young kids -- do they have a sense of what their father does?
TA: My five-year-old made a rule last week. She said, "Dad, you're not allowed to make up songs anymore." That's because I make up a song about absolutely everything. We've got to buy some more bread at the grocery store? [Begins Singing] "Bread, bread, bread at the grocery store/We ate some toast/I got guests tonight/And I'm the host/They'll want some toast." So they have a sense that they lose me to music sometimes. I love nothing more than spending time with them, but I do get pretty lost in my work.
PB: You've jammed onstage with B.B. King, you know Nelly and his crew. But of all the improbable friendships you've formed in this industry, how did you ever become pals with Kid Rock?
TA: There was this huge party in LA, and I went and there he was. We were at the bar together and we just started talking. He was cracking a bunch of jokes, and he's pretty funny. Then we had another party in Vegas, and Kid Rock came out to that. We rented this big suite at the top of the Four Seasons on the night of September 29th. Les' birthday is the 29th and my birthday is the 30th, so the party was for both of our birthdays. Me and Les wrote a song about that night, on the Oysterhead album, called Birthday Boys. I'm not going to tell you the whole story -- Kid Rock's name doesn't appear in it, but it focuses around him. That's all the stuff about "Birthday boys wallowing in acres of adulation." We were wallowing in acres of...something.
PB: Between you and Rock, who's the better gambler?
TA: We've actually gambled together! We went to the roulette wheel and we won big that night! But he might be the better gambler. I get too bored. I start making stupid moves, just out of boredom, because I want to leave.
PB: Given the kind of band you have, and the large youth following you attract, do you feel any obligation to be more of a political advocate?
TA: Right before this tour, I had lunch with [Vermont Governor] Howard Dean. We've been on panels together, raised money for music schools in Vermont, stuff like that. And most of the lunch we spent talking about the role of an entertainer, and obviously he wanted me to back him, because then a lot of young people who vote could help his bid for president. And now is the time when we clearly need a candidate. But I was a little bit frozen by the whole thing, because I don't really know the answer to the question yet. Politics, by definition, divide, and music unifies. As an example, Phish did a pro-choice benefit, and afterwards I got a letter from a kid that was very well-written, and he said, "I'm a very religious person and I love Phish, and by doing that pro-choice benefit, you put me in an awkward position, because I'm not pro-choice, and am I supposed to be pro-choice in order to like Phish?" That's the problem that I have with getting political, because by nature, you're alienating half the people in the room.
I think the first thing we should do is have voter registration booths, which we're talking about at all Phish concerts, and at least encourage people to think. Because the problem we're seeing right now is just how far ignorance can take you. This is what happens when you don't read and don't have any sense of your place in the world. George W. clearly doesn't do either of those things. And this is what happens when you take the democratic process for granted. "Did he lose or did he win? Ah, it's not going to make much difference in my life." Oh yeah? It sure is going to make a difference in your life. Now we know. For God's sake, don't let that happen again. Think of how different things would be now.

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a grain of sandamongst thedunes

Registered: 05/11/02
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Re: Trey Anastasio Playboy Interview [Re: Adom]
    #1514799 - 05/02/03 02:37 PM (13 years, 8 months ago)

damn, thats a good interview. i like the political twist trey throws on at the end. good analogys.

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Totally Nude
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Registered: 09/30/01
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Re: Trey Anastasio Playboy Interview [Re: rosewoodpete]
    #1514862 - 05/02/03 02:57 PM (13 years, 8 months ago)

It seems interviewers are getting alot more out of Trey in the last 2 or 3 years, I never heard him talk much about personal things like drug use and politics untill recently.

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