Happy Birthday Trey Anastasio: Fall 1994 Interview With Steve Silberman
My first Phish show was at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in 1991. I’d been aware of the band for a couple of years by that point, but during “Guelah Papyrus,” I had a premonition that I would never see them in such an intimate venue again – their music was simply too good, too monumental, to be played only in small clubs, and they would inevitably end up commanding much larger audiences. Then three years later, I talked the editor of an alternative newsweekly into a dream writing assignment: being paid to write about the band’s fall tour of California, including a phone interview with Trey Anastasio.
The shows were glorious. I can still hear Trey’s hushed, fluttering leads as he dropped into the “Reba” jam at Spreckels Theatre in San Diego. Back then, the dividing line between the band and the phans was still pretty fluid, and my tour buddy Keith and I got to hang out with the band members backstage after a show or two. (I remember talking to Fishman about our shared awe and admiration for No Pussyfooting, a pioneering ambient album by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno.) Before the interview, I was given the phone number of a hotel and the hilarious pseudonym that Trey was using on the road at the time: Fisten Wrystenbutte (say it aloud). I heard the same advice from friends over and over again — “Whatever you do, don’t mention the Grateful Dead!” Everyone was just trying to be helpful. As the co-author of Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads – which featured a wonderfully surreal Q&A with Tom Marshall – I was an established writer on the Dead, and lazy comparisons between the two bands were becoming an annoying cliché in the media. As it turned out, though, Trey was completely willing to open up about how the Dead’s example helped inspire Phish to become “an American band,” as he put it. We found a comfortable groove early on in our conversation that carried us through a broad range of subject matter, from the “silent jams” to the effect of the audience’s response on the music.
I felt like we could have kept talking for hours, swapping obscure jazz references and exploring more parallels between Zen and the mind of improvisation. But it was not to be; I’ve never spoken with Trey again, though I still see the band whenever I can. Thankfully, things worked out professionally for both of us. Now Phish regularly plays major venues like Madison Square Garden and The Gorge, and I wrote a history of autism that became an international bestseller. Even better, my buddy for the Fall 1994 Tour became my beloved husband Keith. This interview has been out of print and unavailable online for a long time, and I thank the editors of JamBase for giving me an opportunity to resurrect it for the digital age.
– Steve Silberman, author, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
Steve Silberman: One of the things I appreciate about Phish is the way that the barriers between the performers and the audience are broken down. Shelly Culbertson in your office reads the postings on rec.music.phish and the WELL [two online communities of Phish phans] on her own time, and answers questions there, and also things Phish does on stage, like having the audience quiet down to listen to an unamplified solo. Also the fact that you guys hang out with fans after the show – you don’t just zip up into your suite. Those things tease the boundary between performer and audience in interesting ways. I was wondering if you had any experiences of performers crossing the boundary between performer and audience when you were younger that inspired you.
Trey Anastasio: One time I saw Adrian Belew, who I always really liked, and he was sitting up at the bar right up until the band started. I remember thinking that that was really cool. He didn’t even go backstage – he played the gig, and went right back to the bar [laughing]. I talked to him, and he was a really nice guy. We consider the community aspect, the communication aspect of what we do, to be the whole point of it, and the whole fun of it. That’s why we like playing live so much better than making albums.
We’ve had some really funny things happen this tour. Gigs where we were in smaller theaters, where one person, during a really quiet part, pulled out his car keys and started jingling them, and then everyone in the whole room pulled out their keys, and we were using the jingling as part of a jam. One night someone started whistling, and the whole place started whistling. I love stuff like that.
SS: I saw Keith Jarrett at Tanglewood once, and just as he was lifting his hands to the piano, birds started singing in the dome above the stage. Without a moment’s hesitation, he started jamming with them, beautifully and lyrically. It brought tears to my eyes.
TA: Amazing. I had an experience like that once. I went camping with three friends out in the woods, and I had my acoustic guitar. It was really cold, so we built a fire. One by one, people started falling asleep, until I was the only one left. I stayed up all night. As the sun came up, a mockingbird started singing in a tree, and I started imitating it on my guitar. It would go, [whistling] “Whoo hoo hoo whee!” and I would go, “Too too too whee!” Then it would go, “Whoo too too whee whew” – adding something more complicated to the pattern. I was really blown away. I was trying to wake everybody up, without scaring the bird. It was an incredible experience.
SS: After seeing you guys for five nights, it was great to watch the jams develop. The “Reba” jam was totally amazing the last night in San Diego [December 8, 1994] – you were playing this little figure that sounded like fluttering wings. I was wondering if you have a sense of the jams evolving in the course of a tour.
TA: Definitely. Last night, we started listening to tapes of the tour, something we never used to do. It’s very interesting for us. I think we’re probably going to learn and change a lot between now and the next tour. We’re hearing things that are really good that we didn’t know were good, and things that are really bad that we thought were really good.
Songs have a will of their own. Two or three years ago, we were never playing “Split Open And Melt.” It just was off the songlist. “How come you guys never play ‘Split Open and Melt?’” But it just wasn’t in us. Then all of a sudden, it started to get good. At the end of two tours ago, we played the ultimate “Split Open And Melt” jam, and we put one of them on Hoist. We just discovered how to play it, because it’s got this really weird time-change that was throwing us off. But that one at the end of Hoist was the first time it clicked. “Split Open And Melt” went from being a big pain in our butt to – this is how you play “Split Open And Melt.” For the next year, it was incredible. We played one at Red Rocks.
SS: That whole tape is unbelievable.
TA: You know what I mean about that “Split Open And Melt” – it was just screaming. Red Rocks was the night that it broke through. We have it on multitrack. But the one at Red Rocks was the end of the cycle. It peaked, and never got as good as that again. This tour, it didn’t have it anymore – the magic. It’s weird. Now “Split Open And Melt” is back on the back burner again.
This was the tour for “Tweezer.” My guess is that “Tweezer” is going to be on the live album, because we were doing things with it that we’d never done before. You can’t predict it. It’s just all these cycles. I remember when “Runaway Jim” was pushing all kinds of boundaries. I don’t know why that happens.
SS: Maybe it’s a little early in the conversation to get into metaphysics, but could you talk a little bit about what it’s like to be so close to this music that has a mind of its own , that you’re not controlling?
TA: You lose perspective on what’s good and what isn’t good, or what boundaries you’re pushing and what you’re not, because by the end of a tour, everybody starts to get beat. Except for [bassist] Mike [Gordon], who’s real careful about making sure he gets eight hours of sleep, and runs every morning. He’s still with it. The crew is at the end of their rope. Those guys sleep five hours a night.
What happens is, I start having less and less of a life except for the gig. Yesterday our tour manager was beating on my door at four to wake me up for the soundcheck. I get up, do the gig, and then I’m back on the bus. We play some chess, listen to some music, and then I crash again. The gig takes on more and more significance, because you start feeling like you have no other life.
The way I look at it is like being a filter. The music exists in the universe, and if you’re lucky enough, or strong enough, to get your ego out of the way, the music comes through you. The audience that we have is open to that. They understand that conversational transfer of energy. Their being open to it makes it easier for the energy to pass through.
SS: It’s coming through everybody at once.
TA: Exactly. If you had an audience screaming for the hit song, it’s never going to happen. You have to have people who are there for that spontaneous moment where you rise above normal limits. I’ve had gigs when I haven’t slept for a really long time, that have been incredible, because you’re too tired to fight it, so you let go. The one thing I’ve learned in the last two years is: the best shows, you really are not in control. I’ve been reading a lot of interviews with great musicians – Marvin Gaye, Art Farmer, Sun Ra – and they all agree on this philosophy. The music is a vibe in the universe that goes through you. Even the pop songwriters – the greatest songs that they wrote, it wasn’t hard. It was just this moment when they woke up, the sun was shining, and the song just poured out of them.
SS: Dogen-zenji, the founder of Zen, said, “The Great Way is simple. Avoid picking and choosing.” Which is another way of saying “the trick is to surrender to the flow.”
TA: Exactly. Stravinsky too had some stuff to say about that. But it’s incredible how hard it is to not pick and choose.
SS: Right. Except that you guys have set up a great musical situation in which you can play freely and follow the whim of the moment. I was blown away, the second night of San Diego, after the big police action outside, when you opened up with “Makisupa Policeman.” There was this moment when you were just walking around on the stage, in time.
TA: We were really groovin’.
SS: I don’t want to make too much out of it, but I had been right in the street, interviewing people who had been roughed up by the police, and I was very moved by your dancing across the stage as a gesture of ultimate freedom. As opposed to the lesser amount of freedom a musician has who has to play the same setlist night after night. You guys have to create an audience that understands that.
TA: I think that’s true. But it’s a give and take. The audience makes it too. That’s where the audience really takes control. You definitely get a vibe from the crowd. They react when we take risks and go someplace we’ve never been before. You sense that. And you read the mail and phish.net. You know that people are coming to a lot of different shows, so you don’t play the hit song every night.
The audience made that situation, as well as us. It’s what we’re happiest doing, so we try as hard as we can to move it in that direction – to be in a situation every night where everybody is hoping for spontaneity. The people who like that kind of thing enjoy the concert, and come again, so eventually, there are more and more people who want to hear risk.
SS: Are you very aware of what’s happening in the audience while you’re playing?
TA: Did you go to the two gigs with the Giant Country Horns?
SS: The second one.
TA: That was the good one. As far as I’m concerned, that was our best horn section yet. Five really good players. Our trumpet player, Michael Ray, played with Sun Ra, and he was the arranger for Kool & the Gang, “Celebrate” and things like that. Peter [Apfelbaum] is from the Hieroglyphics Ensemble, and so is James Harvey – a monster. They’re all at that level.
Anyway, the first night, I thought there was something weird. It just didn’t feel like that great a night. Not to stomp on anybody’s experience – a lot of people really liked it. You could come off the stage and say, “Kind of a weird audience tonight.” But our reaction to that is, never blame it on the audience, because if Aretha Franklin walked out on stage, it would be a great audience! But the next night in San Jose, I was at the after-show party, and a bunch of different people started saying, “Man, weird crowd last night.” All these different individual experiences. “Some big guy pushed me, and he was drunk.” “The security was rough.” Things like that.
I couldn’t see anything except a big ocean of faces. But we definitely all sensed that that was going on. You can tell what’s going on. You never know if it’s you, or just the way things are on that particular night. Some nights you can tell, even before people walk into the room, that it’s gonna be a great night.
The last time we played in Vermont, it was just this really unbelievable night. You knew it – it was the last night of the tour, and we were playing at home, on this mountainside, and all of our friends were going to be there. You could feel it in the air, even before you got there.
SS: Do you choose setlists following the grain of those feelings?
TA: Yeah. That’s pretty much me, I’m the chooser of what we’re going to play. I guess it’s just my personality. To me, it’s like composing. I really like composing, and I don’t get to do it when I’m on the road, so it’s my way of making little suites every night. I usually plan something out before we go on stage, and then we change it. It’s very rare that we stick to the whole songlist – or any of it, for that matter.
You know what helps me? Doing two-nighters. Hanging out with people after the first show in San Diego wrote the songlist for me – people saying, “Hey, you haven’t played this in a while.” I really felt that I knew who was in the audience, and what they were going through. I had been on the same street that they had been hanging out on all day, going to the same bars the night before. So we’ve been talking to our booking agent, and next tour, we want to do a lot of two-nighters almost everywhere.
SS: How did you start doing things like the big pauses during “Divided Sky?” What do those moments feel like to you?
TA: We had this bluegrass guy out on the road with us, the Reverend Jeff Mosier, and we talked about this a lot. The reason he likes acoustic bluegrass is that it’s very, very personal. The way we’ve been doing the bluegrass tunes – with that two-mic setup, instead of being individually miked – is the most personal you can get. Jeff feels that every step of the way, when you separate the players with individual mikes, you’re distancing the audience from the humanness. You’re hiding behind microphones.
Those things, like the pauses, developed from a general desire to merge with the audience as much as possible. If a set’s been going on for a while, I might suddenly feel that we’ve got to make some really organic connection again. Those a capella things, when we go out front, are a time to get the bearings straight again, really make eye contact with people, see who’s out there.
I had a really incredible experience once when we were playing in Chicago. It was a really special night, and I was envisioning the music flying around the room. You know the concept of being the tube, and the music is flowing through you? I was really open, we were doing “Divided Sky,” and I felt like the music was these sheets that were zinging across the air in front of my face. All I had to do to play was jump on one, and let it do the playing.
I got to that section of “Divided Sky” where we usually do a pause, and I realized that just because I wasn’t playing notes with my hands didn’t mean I couldn’t still be a vehicle for this music that was there. I decided I was going to have the same feeling as when I feel the music going through me and coming out through the guitar, but without making any noticeable sound. I started imagining the music zipping out through the middle of my chest into the audience, and right when I started doing that, the place erupted. No joke. It was the wildest thing. We were standing up there for 45 seconds, motionless, with no sound, and I realized I could continue jamming in silence. I did it, and the place went, “RAHHH.” It was the coolest. I was writing in my journal about it for a week.
Then we started doing this thing after that, when we would do “Foam,” I would bring it down and down to the point where my guitar was off, but I was still playing in my mind. There’s no sound coming out, but I can hear what I’m playing in my mind, because I play enough to know what it would sound like. So I keep the jam going, but in silence. And then everybody started doing that.
It’s a really intense moment, because people are hearing it get quieter and quieter, and they’re following the way the music is going, and there’s a line somewhere – for each person, it’s probably a little bit different – where it gets quieter than the threshold of their ability to hear it. But I’m sure people are still hearing it, even after it crosses the threshold. For me it’s like, “Are they still hearing what I’m playing in my mind, or are they making it up?” Because if they are making it up, then that’s the greatest thing of all, because you’ve got a really creative audience going.
I hear music like that all day long. Whenever I’m walking down the street, I’m always singing some tune. So by bringing it down like that, it causes the people who are open to it to keep the music going in their head. And I’m up there with my fingers moving. That moment has been a great moment.
SS: In my notes for this interview, it says, “The pauses – is Trey feeling an organic pulse?” So that communicates itself. And the people whose minds are really blown, are the people who have the note in their minds that you come back in on.
TA: Definitely. If you’re still hooked up with it when it comes back in, all the better. I believe in that stuff.
SS: One of the things that’s wonderful about your music is that you play a lot of things like Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” that people our age were marinated in [laughing]. You play jazz standards, but you also play “Frankenstein” – great tunes, especially when you jam off them. You don’t choose between “high” and “low” art.
TA: It’s ingrained in us. These songs were what we were hearing when we were growing up. Not that we aspired to play cheesy ’70s songs. The music that I listened to in my house was jazz and bluegrass – I wasn’t putting on Argent.
The story of “Hold Your Head Up” is: Fish hated that song so much, it drove him crazy. Fish has this funny aspect to his personality where you can really get him. So, in band practice, we’d start playing that song. And he didn’t think it was funny at all. He’d get so mad, he’d storm out of practice. Every time we were about to learn something serious – “Let’s get down to work, learn this thing” – we’d get three notes in and we’d start, “Doo-doo-doo-dooohhhhh.” The three of us would be laughing, and he just hated us. “You guys, it’s NOT FUNNY ANYMORE!” Then he came up to do one of his songs one night, and we started playing it. He got really pissed, so we just kept doing it. It’s just something that we do to Fish.
SS: You guys have a couple of days a year that you do what you call the “Oh Kee Pah Ceremony.”
TA: We’ve done that a couple of times. That’s a borrowed name – the real Oh Kee Pah Ceremony is a Native American ceremony, where they hang from fleshhooks by the nipples, like in the movie A Man Called Horse. We lock ourselves in a room and – jam, basically. There are other parts to it [laughing]. We haven’t done it in a while. There’s part of an Oh Kee Pah Ceremony on Junta called “Union Federal.”
Mike has always been real big on it, and I have too. It would be real interesting for you to talk to Mike sometime about the whole spiritual and religious side of the music. Mike had a religious experience the first or second year we were a band.
SS: While he was playing?
TA: Yeah. His whole life has been different since that moment. He changed his minor in college to religion, and he’s still … it was wild. We were playing at Goddard College, and there was like one person in the audience. [Steve’s note: I speculate Mike is referring to this experience in the Phish newsletter Doniac Schvice, Spring 1993. “Our best performance was a Goddard College Cafeteria dance in November ’85 … it was a peak experience unlike any other … the final indicator that I should make music a career.”] Suddenly Mike became possessed. He was bouncing up and down. It was something to be seen.
SS: Did it give him a sense that he’d found his mission in life?
TA: I think so. He’ll never listen to the tape. I can see why he doesn’t want to listen to the tape, but the tape is great. Our first couple of years, nobody came to see us, or liked us. Except Amy [Skelton], who sells our merchandise. She was our first fan. We would set up in this barn and drive everybody out, and she would come in and dance around. So it grew exponentially from Amy.
SS: I know it’s been somewhat vexatious to you, the parallels that journalists and fans find with your group and other groups, like the Dead.
TA: I don’t get as frustrated as the other guys. But I don’t think even they get frustrated anymore. It was worse in the beginning when we were just breaking out from being a Burlington band. That first run of articles. Now that I’m on the other side of that, it’s not that frustrating to me. You’re really concerned, at that point in your career, as to how people are going to view who you are, and interpret your career. Then you get to the point where you just don’t give a shit. Which is where I am now.
Last year was the end of that. There was pressure. Hoist was coming out, there were a couple of radio-potential songs on it, and there was the big question of should we do a music video, and all this crap. When I look back on it, I can’t believe that I spent an ounce of energy caring. Everything I ever dreamed of, I have. Being in a touring band with musicians I respect, who have the same goals that I have, who I can also get along with, and learn things from. And an audience that wants to hear the same thing that I want to play.
If we got dumped by the record company, we wouldn’t even blink an eye. We are self-sufficient. The Apocalypse could come, and as long as we’re still walking, we could play acoustic. We’ve got everything we need. I cared more about other people’s opinions when we hadn’t gone far enough yet for me to build up a certain kind of confidence about our future. People are going to write bad reviews and narrow-minded opinions. People like to compare things, because if you’ve never seen something before, it’s the best way to describe it — “It’s like this meets this.” So I’m really used to that.
SS: I wonder if there is something particular to people our age, that we get compared more often to artists from previous generations – as if the Grateful Dead invented jamming, in people’s minds.
TA: The Grateful Dead are a great band. The reasons we get compared to the Dead are valid and good. They were the first band that I saw that didn’t play the same setlist night after night, and I always thought that that was the coolest thing. Then when I got into jazz, I realized that jazz people do it too. But I’ve never seen anyone who does it to the level that the Dead do. Five nights in a row without playing the same song twice! There’s that, and the fact that the Dead are a rock band, but they still improvise. The first time I ever heard that was probably The Allman Brothers, which I listened to a lot, because my dad was into The Allman Brothers. And Santana. And the Dead.
The other thing that’s cool about the Dead is that they’re an American band. More and more, I’m really into that whole concept. Traditional American music, bluegrass and stuff. We’ve been getting really into that, through Mike playing the upright bass and mandolin. It feels good to be playing roots music.
When you grow up in New Jersey, listening to rock bands, you don’t have the same sense of roots that somebody like Jeff Mosier has, or Matt Mundy from the Aquarium Rescue Unit, who grew up in the Deep South. His mother played bass when he was in the womb – the guy is born to play bluegrass. He’s one of the best bluegrass mandolin players goin’ right now. He was born with bluegrass, and bluegrass is directly traceable to the roots of this country. I’ve been buying a lot of blues records lately, and realizing the importance of knowing your history, knowing where rock and roll came from.
The British Invasion bands stole it all from American black blues musicians – that’s all they listened to. And they’re not ashamed to admit that. They say it all the time. Led Zeppelin was underhanded about the whole thing, stealing a song and putting their name on it, which they did a couple of times. But you hear [Eric] Clapton talking about that – “Go back and listen to what I listened to.”
We had Mosier out on the road with us, teaching us about the roots of the songs. We did that song “Blue And Lonesome” by Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers. Before Mosier taught us the song, he taught us the whole history – “This is this kind of a style meeting this kind of a style, and these two guys had never collaborated before.” Hillbilly music meets Irish jig, meets black harmonies from slave traders, and you get bluegrass. Bill Monroe was the one who coined the word and invented the music, by combining a lot of existing styles. When you learn that, you can put yourself into a historical context.
SS: During the shows, it occurred that by going from a capella music, to bluegrass, to funk, to cheesy pop tunes, to very ornate art-rock influenced jamming, that you guys were playing all of American music as an instrument.
TA: For a long time, people were saying, “These guys have so many influences – what are they?” That always pissed me off, because I don’t know what we are, except we’re a bunch of kids that grew up in this country, and this country is a huge melting pot. So what could be more American – not in a big patriotic flag-waving way – what could be more real, as an American band, than to be a big melting pot for all these styles?
One of the reasons that I’m psyched about putting out a live album is, I think it all jells more in the live context than when we try to make an album. When we go into the studio, we never know what to do. We have so much stuff – too much. And it comes out sounding that way sometimes. Whereas live, it comes out sounding real cohesive. We’ve gone through so many phases, and met so many interesting people, hopefully it’s congealing into one kind of sound. When Bill Monroe first started, it was the same kind of thing: blending all these different styles to make something new.
SS: It’s really amazing when all these traditions can just flow through you, and the music you’re making is absolutely appropriate for this historical moment – or even the moment of a particular night. That’s what I’d want to be doing if I was in a band, and what I hope to be doing as a writer. That thing about how the music is in the universe already, and you uncover it – that’s true with writing too.
TA: With any art. You know that Michelangelo quote about the David – “It was already there. I just had to chip away until I hit flesh.”
SS: What groups did you see when you were younger that really made you want to play?
TA: I went through a period when I was a sophomore in high school, and all these great bands started coming around. I saw Pat Metheny when he was with his first group.
SS: That moment in “Slave To The Traffic Light,” when you play the harmonics, reminds me of something Pat Metheny might have done.
TA: Good ear. I probably wrote that right around the time I saw him 10 times in a row in a year. And King Crimson – they blew me away. There was a lot of that cycling five-against-seven that really crept in.
SS: Did you see the Dead when you were young?
TA: Oh yeah. I saw the Dead when I was a senior in high school. One Dead show I thought was just surreal, awesome, and I saw five or six other ones that – you know, on and off. But there was definitely one that blew my mind. In either ’82 or ’83.
I went to this prep school in Connecticut – Taft. I was really into Led Zeppelin. There were all these Deadheads there, they talked me into going to this Dead show. I thought it was the most boring thing I’d ever seen in my life. I really was bored to tears. Then I went again, and it was really good. I went probably five or six times that year.
Then there was this one night that I went, and it was incredible. It really blew me away: tight, hooked up, direction, going places. I was in a band at the time, Space Antelope, with the Dude of Life. The next concerts that started blowing me away were Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and I always liked Santana. He was a big influence. But in the last five years, the shows that have killed me have all been smaller shows. Alison Krauss – oh my God! So good.
SS: How is it now for you, playing suddenly to huge audiences?
TA: It’s really fine, most of the time. It can be tiring – you’re catching me at the end of the tour. [Beep heard in the background]. Whoops! There’s the tour manager beeping me. We have to go. It can be a little bit tiring to have to be talking to so many people, all the time. “Hey, how ya doin’? Whoa!” You know?
I’ve had experiences where 10 people will come up and say “hi,” and if you blow one off, you’re an asshole. But since it’s a big community, everybody knows that’s not the case. In general, I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world. That’s pretty much my whole outlook on it. We have a pretty mellow group of people that follow us around, too, so we don’t have to worry. I don’t want my life to get to a point where I have to be cut off in any way, like not being able to go walking out downtown. But it hasn’t gotten that way.
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