Considering the intricate, absorbing, intertwining nature of their music, one can only imagine what everyday thought patterns are like for the members of Phish. The nature of their sound – ever-changing and evolving, gentle yet swirling, the product of minds in constant spin – gives the impression that these minds are of equal character to the music. And if one agrees with this impression, then speaking with Trey Anastasio, the band’s singer/guitarist, would not disappoint.
Phish is currently in the midst of a two-year hiatus scheduled to end on New Year’s Eve, when the band plays New York’s Madison Square Garden. In the meantime, the four Phish members – Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell, and drummer Jon Fishman – have all been extremely busy. Gordon directed an indie film called Outside Out which starred jam band fixture Colonel Bruce Hampton, and is currently touring with Leo Kottke. McConnell released an album with his band Vida Blue, and Fishman is currently touring with his band, Pork Tornado.
Anastasio, meanwhile, formed a supergroup of sorts with ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Primus bassist Les Claypool called Oysterhead, which Anastasio characterizes as “a democracy in the truest sense of the word,” as “every aspect of Oysterhead was bashed about by three alpha dogs.” The band’s self-titled album was an inventive combination of distinctive talents, although at times it seemed that the strong-willed styles of the members were too distinctive to blend into a new and unique creation – more garden salad than melting pot.
Following Oysterhead, Anastasio assembled a band for his self-titled solo record and accompanying tour, his first such endeavor since Phish. In creating and leading a band, Anastasio has obviously acquired a fascinating musical education from his years in Phish. His process is both experimental and meticulous. Whereas Phish is a skewed democracy, with all members separate but equal in their functions, his current band is his dominion. As the monarch, Anastasio has devised the perfect combination of musical leadership and creative delegation, implementing complex systems to get the absolute best effort from every member, systems that combine management and experimentation in ways that would make both Jack Welch and Frank Zappa proud.
As Anastasio tells, it, the creation of his current band – a ten-piece – began with several desires.
“It’s a rough idea I’ve been carrying around for years,” says Anastasio. “I wanted a bigger band that was stylistically what you’d expect from me – guitar-driven groove rock – but content-wise with some aspects that were different, like combining African band and swing band concepts with a rock style. So you have a lot more layers, but a harmonic content that’s not there if you listen to African music.”
While his band’s style would differ from Phish in certain ways, he wanted to take a similar approach in utilizing each band member’s strengths, and integrating them into the songwriting.
Anastasio started his new endeavor as a trio, playing selected shows with bassist Tony Markellis and drummer Russ Lawton. Even after the band evolved into a ten-piece, complete with horn section, Anastasio used his rhythm section as the seed from which his songs took root.
“I wanted everybody in a comfortable zone,” tells Anastasio, “and I knew I wanted to create some highly-layered music. So I got into the room for one day with Russ and Tony, and I had them lay down a variety of grooves in a variety of keys. Then, I basically wrote the songs with that feel in mind.
“The idea,” explains Anastasio, “was that I wanted to get to know every musician. So I’d ask them what their most comfortable grooves and keys and riffs were, so I could really get to know them. I’d say things like what I said to Russ, the drummer, I said, ‘play me the oldest beat you know, the first beat you learned when you were twelve years old.’ So he played it, and I taped it. Then I said, ‘now play me what you were working on last week.’ And he played me that. Then when they left, I had twenty grooves, and I wrote the music. I hand picked the ones that appealed to me, that were in the direction I wanted to go in, and that way, starting from the ground up, everyone would be playing in their most comfortable zone.”
Anastasio continued this with the other band members, and managed to settle on the perfect intersection of his musical sensibilities and those of his collaborators. “Let’s say I had a run that I wanted to do, one I had that in my head,” says Anastasio. “I sat down with Andy (Moroz), the trombone player, and I’d say, I want to do this, and I’d hum a riff. And I’d say, what have you been practicing that’s a riff you can really cook on? So he’d play me a few, and one of them might sound similar. Maybe he would turn it into a triplet or something, but it’s something that he knows and is familiar with, and when he gets on stage, he’s playing his stuff, even though it’s a song that I wrote.”
It was important to Anastasio that the music he wrote contain a little piece of each of the participants, and integrate their natural processes with his. “I wanted to use everything that everybody had to offer in the creation of the music,” says Anastasio, “even though in my mind, I had a very clear idea of what the music would sound like at the end. It was just a means of getting to an end.”
In a way, his direct leadership role aside, his band’s creative process sounds similar to that of Phish, possibly one the best bands in the world at intertwining four distinct styles into a cohesive whole.
“The Phish philosophy,” he explains, “was that everyone has strengths, and lots of lots of weaknesses, clearly, on all fronts, as musicians and singers and everything, so we would talk about it and say, how can we utilize the strengths as a group, and make something bigger than the individual? And I learned a lot from that. So the idea was to put together another band where I went at it from day one with that philosophy. The first day I got into a room with Tony I knew that’s what I was gonna do, find everything great about his playing and make sure that stuff was in the music. If they’ve got something, it’s gonna get used. That’s what all the great swing band leaders did, the greatest ever, like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. They’d find a musician, and the whole sound of the band would change based on his inclusion in the group.”
The process of improvisationally integrating band members has been even more intricately executed on tour. Anastasio developed a complex series of hand signals that dictates the direction of the music, turning him into less a band leader than a conductor.
“There’s a lot of open-ended music happening on stage,” says Anastasio. “I have a series of hand signals where I can change the tempo, the key, and the soloist who’s playing at any given time. I direct it with an eye on the strengths and the flow of everyone who’s up there on stage. And there are long, 25-minute periods where they’re just following my hand signals, but based on what’s happening on stage.”
This method of putting his musicians on the spot has created opportunities to really learn their strengths and weaknesses.
“You start to find things out,” says Anastasio. “For instance, halfway through the first leg of this tour, I realized that our tenor player, Russ Remington, who doubles on flute, was really a great flute soloist if you put him into a really hard key. The harder he has to work, the better he plays. So, you put him in B natural, and that’s a bad key, a crappy key to play any kind of wind instrument in, and something about that challenge made him rise up. So what would happen is, I’d point to him as a solo, change the key to B, pick up the tempo and make him rip it up. At the same time, you find out halfway through the tour that Jennifer (Hartswick), our trumpet player, can play a wicked, sexy, slow trumpet solo. Every time I figure these little things out about them, the music would take on that element. All of a sudden we can take it way down, and Jennifer steps up and she can run with that, or (sax player/flautist) Peter Apfelbaum, who’s incredibly talented, I found out that he can really walk all over the gospel grooves and progressions, especially in those F and G keys, so via the hand signals I can change the key to his key, point to him, bring it down to the gospel sound, and off he goes.”
Of course, this type of directing is new for Anastasio, as the members of Phish never required such direction.
“With Phish, it’s more intuitive,” says Anastasio, “because, for one, there’s only four of us, but we also spent so much time, so many years, getting to know each other. With Phish, we never know what’s gonna happen. We let things unfold in a completely organic and natural way.”
Which is something Anastasio will have to get used to again, now that Phish is coming back to life. Anastasio says that after the New Year’s date, Phish will be very productive in 2003. Anastasio, who says the band reunited because they couldn’t stand to be apart any longer, talks about the great changes he and his bandmates have gone through since they began their hiatus.
“The most overriding impression I had was how much living everyone had done in that two-year period,” says Anastasio. “Babies, separations, and moving, plus what happened musically to the four of us.”
Anastasio finds it difficult to articulate the tremendous growth he noticed in the members of Phish, saying it took place on a largely emotional level. “More than a specific aspect of anyone’s playing,” explains Anastasio, “there was an emotion that I noticed, because it went by so fast. So much happens in your life, and suddenly you’re standing there and you’re playing together, and you realize that it’s all temporary, that nothing lasts forever, that this won’t last forever. And you stand here, and you’re back together, and we’re 38, 39, 40, and we started when we were 18.”
Anastasio finds it increasingly challenging how to put into words, what, in the end, seems to be simply an expression of how special Phish is to each of its members.
“I think about playing with other people, with other bands,” says Anastasio, “and you realize what’s unique about Phish to the four of us. We all went out and played with other bands, we all had great experiences and still are, but it makes you look at Phish and realize that it’s unique, and nothing could ever really replace it.”