It's evolution. Whether it's amphibians coming out of the water, homo erectus learning to walk upright, or Bob Dylan going electric, Darwin taught us that evolution is an essential process, if not always a smooth one. When an artist of Trey Anastasio's stature evolves, he must do so under the watchful, perhaps skeptical, eyes of demanding fans, but that doesn't make his evolution any less necessary.
"I'm feeling like I'm sort of back," says Trey. "I had to go away to come back. And now I'm kinda just feeling like the whole thing is fresh to me again."
Four days before the release of his third solo album, Bar 17, and one day before his 42nd birthday, Trey is eager to tell his story. It's no longer the story of that brilliant, weird, bushy-red-haired kid who got suspended from the University of Vermont for stealing a human hand and a goat's heart from the science building. It's not the oft-told Phish tale either. We are now peeling back the layers of a far more complex individual: a man with a wife and two darling little daughters, and an artist with a history that shadows his every move. His desire to start a new chapter is even reflected in the new album's obscure title.
Trey explains, "I was walking down the street one day and I realized that if you had two bars of eight out in front, of introduction, then bar 17 would be the bar when the story started. That's when I decided it would be a good title, because it's sort of the start of the story."
Trey Anastasio - 1993 by Allan Dines
Trey is open, honest, and genuinely interested in communicating with his fans. Speaking to his fan base was more or less what 2005's Shine was all about. The lyrics on Shine, a pop-leaning, highly polished album, were far more direct than anything he's attempted in the past. "There was something very reactionary going on in the fact that I wasn't totally prepared for the [post-Phish] response from people and that played into Shine a lot," says Trey. "Some of the songs, it almost felt like I had to scream it." Because it was released on the heels of Phish's breakup, most would assume that Shine was Trey's first post-Phish creation, but the reality is that Bar 17 was the first thing he did when Phish ended. He began work on the record before Shine and then finished it afterward.
For a musician who orchestrates symphonic movements, works with horn theory, and graphs every note for every instrument, Trey still revels in the simple emotions found in the human voice.
"As you get older, you are interested in nothing but emotion and you start finding lyrics and singing to be the most direct path to the heart," explains Trey. "This is the way I see it: Music is a language. You get to a point where you are either writing, composing, or improvising on the guitar, all you want to be doing is turning your mind off and just emoting. But if you go through the very slow process over years and years of studying all this stuff - all these different styles of music and learning about how horn voicings work, practicing all your scales up and down, and trying to discover the secret beauty of the language of music - then when you try to speak simply, you're speaking simply but it's informed and that gives you the possibility of having a more sophisticated or a deeper emotion. And at the same time, I guess it just happens, life goes on and shit starts to happen to you. So it starts to become very desperate, like you really need to express these emotions and you feel like you're just gonna die if you don't."
Trey Anastasio - 2003 by Earhart
This desperate need to convey emotions is obvious throughout Shine, but it's also evident on Bar 17. "I always think the two albums go together hand in hand; they seem to be companion pieces because they are about the same thing. But Bar 17, the message is a little quieter, maybe a little more poetic."