Into The Great Wide Open: Trey Anastasio Talks TAB Tour & Phish Baker’s Dozen
This Friday the Trey Anastasio Band begins one of the group’s busiest years of touring since Phish frontman Trey Anastasio first formed the solo project in 1999. Anastasio has settled on a lineup that includes the original members of his 1999 group (drummer Russ Lawton and bassist Tony Markellis), a few musicians who joined shortly thereafter (percussionist Cyro Baptista, trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick and keyboardist Ray Paczkowski) and a pair of additions from the early part of this decade (saxophonist James Casey and trombonist Natalie Cressman). TAB will mix headlining shows in a number of cities the band hasn’t played in years along with festival appearances through early July. Included within is Anastasio’s return to Red Rocks, a famed Colorado venue he hasn’t performed at with any project since a series of Phish shows in 2009.
Yet TAB isn’t the only project on Trey’s dance card in the coming months. Phish has an unusual Summer Tour planned that includes 13 shows at one venue, Madison Square Garden in New York City. I chatted with Anastasio about the upcoming Trey Anastasio Band tour, his recently completed first set of solo acoustic shows, the 13-concert residency at MSG dubbed the “Baker’s Dozen,” as well as several additional topics.
JamBase: TAB is about to set out for several busy months of touring, starting with Friday’s opening night. How much rehearsal has gone into preparing for this run? Can you walk us through how a typical day of rehearsal goes?
Trey Anastasio: I’m getting together with Natalie, Jen and James on Monday [yesterday] to work on new vocal and horn parts, and then we have full band rehearsals the rest of the week leading up to the first show at The Cap. I can’t wait. I miss those guys.
In 2016 we only played two shows, but we’ve got a busy year ahead of us, I actually think it might be the fullest TAB year ever, so we’re all excited to get going. Before we start rehearsals, I stay in touch with the band via email and texts and whatnot, so there’s always new charts or new songs for everyone to learn.
A typical day is probably a bit like this: I wake up and plan on doing a whole lot of songs. Then we walk in and everybody starts talking and hanging out because we haven’t seen each other in a long time, and then we count off a song and end up playing one song for 45 minutes because it all feels so good to be going again. Then we eat too much food and talk more. It’s the best.
JamBase: Cyro withstanding, this has been the longest you’ve kept a TAB lineup intact. What is it about the chemistry of this lineup that you like so much?
TA: Wow … that’s a big question. I guess I would start off by saying that I like everything about the chemistry, and Cyro is a huge part of that chemistry, but it’s all a complete mystery to me.
The older I get, the more mystified I am about the way that people come into each other’s lives. I met Jen when she was maybe 16 years old and I immediately knew we were going to play music together. Immediately. It was weird. It felt like we had known each other in a past life or something. That might sound creepy but it absolutely wasn’t. I met her mom and dad, and her mom even ended up recording with me at The Barn. You can hear Jen’s mom playing clarinet on “Coming To” on the album Seis de Mayo. I think if I remember correctly, the first actual recording of us playing together is on Story Of The Ghost.
I had a very similar experience when I met Tony. I saw Tony playing at a club called Hunts in 1982. I had flown up to Burlington on People’s Express to look at UVM to see if I wanted to go to school there, and The Unknown Blues Band was playing that night. I spent the entire set watching him, mesmerized. I went up to the stage afterward and talked to him. I remember it like it was yesterday. Once again, it just felt destined. Tony played bass at my wedding. Fish was the best man. Tom Marshall, Steve Pollak, Page and Mike were the groomsmen, so people come into your lives and they become part of the fabric. Who knows why?
I could tell a very similar story about Ray. I saw him in a tent playing with his amazing band viperHouse, and I went backstage and talked to him. Natalie, James, Russ. Everyone met in a natural way, everyone has become close, and you can hear it in the music. Russ and Ray met playing in this band, and now they have an incredible duo Soule Monde. James and Jen and Natalie frequently play together now. This makes me happy. Natalie’s dad used to be in the band, and during that period of time Natalie’s dad and Cyro were absolutely killing it together every night. So you can see that the roots go very deep.
JamBase: TAB is playing a number of festivals this summer. What’s your mindset when you take the stage at festival as opposed to a non-festival show? Are you still trying to win over new listeners?
TA: Well, there’s probably a little bit of a difference at a festival in that it’s usually one set and there’s a lot of other bands playing, but I don’t think I’ve ever really felt like I was trying to win anyone over, per se. The funny thing with TAB is that it’s kind of infrequent that we get to play – like, we don’t play all that much, so whenever we do, whether it’s at festival of a theater or wherever, I’m really just buzzing with excitement to be playing music with that group of people. It’s such a slamming band, and it’s really a joy playing together, I’m sure that’s tangible if you’re in the audience. I mean, I’d travel a long way just to listen to Ray play that organ anytime, and I get to stand right next to him all night. So, I think festival or otherwise, I’m usually just thinking, “I wish this could go on longer.”
JamBase: How do you go about constructing a setlist for a TAB show? Is there a lot of pre-show analysis that goes into the planning or is it more extemporaneous as the show unfolds?
TA: For better or worse, it’s entirely extemporaneous as the show unfolds. The band doesn’t even know what we’re going to start with when we walk on stage. Neither do I. If you listen to the tapes closely you can hear me telling them what to play between songs. They all mercilessly make fun of me because every night I stand backstage and say “Hey man, let’s start ‘Cayman’“ and the second I get on stage I change my mind and say, “Wait, let’s start with ‘Sand!'” or something.
I’m not convinced that this is such a good thing, but what are you gonna do? It’s just the way it has gone for so many years now, and the exact same thing is true with Phish. It’s gotten to the point where I think to myself, “Man, I should really make a song list, life would be so much easier.” And sometimes I sit backstage and try to make one, and then the second I walk on stage I change my mind. It’s become completely hopeless at this point.
It’s just that I don’t know who’s in the audience until I walk out. Who’s going to be standing there? It might be sunny or it might be dark, or it might be rainy or cold or really hot, or more frequently there might be a really funny, charismatic awesome person standing 10 rows back that’s dancing in some amazing way, and then you think, “Oh man we got to slow down! So that person can keep dancing like that!” Or, “wait a minute, we’re in Charlotte? We have a song about that!”
I just don’t really see how it would be possible to plan for that stuff. Also, sometimes you suddenly want to hear Natalie, or you want to hear James, and so you call some song that features them, like “1977” or “Burlap Sack” or something.
That being said, it’s kind of a relief with TAB that there aren’t quite so many songs, and that there can be a little bit less of a feeling like we have to play entirely different stuff all the time, because I figure I’m only going to be alive on earth for a finite amount of time, and I’d like to play “First Tube” with that wicked horn line as many possible times as I can before I die, so …
JamBase: “Plasma” had stayed in the TAB lane for 13 years and in 2014 made its live Phish debut. How does a song like that make the crossover after all that time? Similarly, “Never” came to the Phish stage at the Bridge School benefit concert in 1998 and then 16 years later not only gets arranged for TAB, but also makes it onto
TA: Good question! A lot of songs traditionally begin as a home 4-track or 8-track recording. Both of those two songs you mentioned were written by myself and Tom, and multitracked by the two of us.
From that point on, once a song is “born,” for lack of a better term, it tends to hang around until it appears whenever the time is right. Some songs seem to just fit in certain contexts, but there’s certainly no rules. There’s lots of songs that started with TAB that ended up being Phish staples: “Winterqueen,” “Heavy Things,” “Sand,” “Jibboo,” “First Tube” – really would like to see that happen more often.
I love playing “Plasma” with Phish, and I love playing “Ocelot” with TAB. I thought Mike and Fish were just killing it on “Plasma,” and Page played with a looseness that I really liked. I thought it fit like a glove, and in terms of “Never,” TAB was set up at The Barn recording the songs for Paper Wheels, and I just suggested that we give that song a try. It was really one take, all live, very loose, and I thought it was the best it had ever sounded. I like the version on the album very much. The same thing happened on Big Boat with “Running Out of Time.” It’s an old song that just hadn’t found its moment, and the recording on that album was its moment.
I guess I’ll give away a little secret I’m carrying around in my heart here. A big part of the reason that I’m so excited to do something like a 13-night residency in one venue is that staying in one place contributes to a looseness in the atmosphere that we may not have felt since Nectar’s, which was for all intents and purposes, a big giant residency.
Staying in one place can lead all kinds of cool things. You get comfortable with the sound of the room, which can lead to a certain freedom in the jamming, and also there are definitely more songs that I would love to try with Phish that TAB plays. A couple in particular that I’ve always thought would really work.
JamBase: What were some of the more memorable moments of your first ever fully solo acoustic shows?
TA: “Luuuke”! [laughs] So many memorable things: getting to play “Sleeping Monkey” at the Portsmouth Music Hall, 25 years later in New Hampshire, seeing that weird ghost, playing in all three of those incredible rooms. Getting to revisit all those songs alone with an acoustic guitar, which is how virtually all of them were actually written, in my living room, on a chair.
I hope I can do it again.
JamBase: Those shows were at some lesser known but as you put it “incredible rooms” and you’ll be bringing the band to a number of interesting venues this tour. To what extent are you involved in the selection of the venues? Are there ones on this upcoming TAB tour you’re particularly excited about?
TA: Yes! Excited for Tulsa, Jazz Fest, Austin, Toronto, Red Rocks … the Egyptian Room! I’m excited for all of it, honestly. It’s just as fun as it ever was, when we were young traveling around in a car. Possibly even more so, because as the years go by I get more perspective. I can see more clearly how fast this is all going, how the years fly by and it makes me want to get out and meet people and see all these beautiful towns and the landscape and play in all of these fantastic venues, and soak up the energy of each one, because each has unique qualities and you can feel it. They’re all different. It’s sort of like the ocean, it’s never the same twice. Every gathering of people in a given time and a given town is unique to that night. You walk on stage and just don’t know what it’s going to feel like.
It’s crazy – you’d think after 35 years there would be some rhyme or reason to it, but there is not. That’s the beautiful thing about it.
JamBase: 1999 saw the formation of The Classic TAB Trio and the beginning of so many different versions of your solo band. 2001 saw Oysterhead’s debut, 2003 saw you active in Dave Matthews & Friends, in 2005 you experimented further with the lineup for your solo band, in 2006 you toured with Mike & The Duo, and 2015 had your stint with Fare The Well – but you haven’t really started a “new band” in over a decade. Do you feel content with Phish, TAB and solo shows as your live creative outlets, or do you still get the itch to start something else completely new?
TA: I feel completely content and grateful for all of it, and starting a band is a time-consuming process. That’s one of the things I’ve learned. Starting a new project ends up being lots of phone calls and emails, discussions and logistics. So I’ve kind of learned as I’ve gone along that I much prefer playing music and watching people dance and stuff than answering cc’d group emails.
That being said, there might be one tiny itch that I could identify somewhere deep down in my soul. When I was in high school I always liked playing in bands with two guitars. Like, two guitars, bass and drums. Four-piece. I have fond memories of playing songs off Machine Head by Deep Purple, Sticky Fingers songs and whatnot. Songs like “Sway,” which are the sound of two guitars, together, slogging. So, sometimes I kind of imagine doing that one more time in this lifetime. You know, making some noise.
Derek? You interested? James Hetfield? Want to check out my barn? Flea? You busy? Joe Dart? You free for a weekend?
JamBase: Are you more open to analyzing performances with your TAB band mates than with Phish?
TA: [pauses] Kind of.
We definitely talk a lot about the music, but it’s before the show, you know? I think the general rule is everything gets left at the edge of the stage. Period, end of sentence. You can talk right up to the edge of the stage but when you walk on it’s got to be abandoned. The analytical mind gets left in the dressing room. Once you get used to that it’s not a very hard thing to do, it becomes second nature.
I have this funny exchange sometimes with Ray, who is a musician who really truly lives in the moment. Every once in a while he’ll play something so astounding that I can’t help myself, and I say to him, “Man I love that thing you played in ‘Last Tube!'” And then he’ll always say, “Well, I can never play it again now, because now I know you like it.” You see what I mean? It’s that.
JamBase: Have you already started the planning process of what Phish will play during the Baker’s Dozen run at MSG? Do you foresee the format being any different than typical shows?
TA: I don’t really know, in the best way possible.
I’m just so pumped for that run. I was talking to Fish about it a couple days ago, he’s locked in his studio up at his farm playing the drums, but he’s not doing anything specifically for The Baker’s Dozen, though he’s focused on it. He told me he’s just playing these amazing calypso tunes that he found online. He sent me a couple of them, one called “Voices In The Ghetto” by Singing Sandra, which has this great groove.
So, I think everybody’s just really excited but it’s wide-open right now, like, there’s no specific plans.
Which might be the very thing that everybody is so excited about. Meaning that it will be open to whatever the experience turns out to be. I think that openness might be the very thing that I’m most excited for, so we are trying not to think too much about it. I think we don’t want to nail it down.