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Slippery Phish

Trey Anastasio, lead singer/guitarist of perennial American jam-band Phish and all-around neohippie icon, is prepared to slam into Florida with gale-force winds. You can hear the excitement in his voice. A Dennis Hopperish frenetic pace infiltrates his speech, and as he talks, each word seems to be a stepping stone in the telling of some joke, with the punch line waiting right around the corner. During Phish's extended hiatus, Anastasio assembled another band to record and tour behind new, sharply focused -- and often non-Phishy -- songs, as heard on the new Trey Anastasio, his fourth and finest solo effort.

Q: I just heard the new album. It definitely wasn't what I expected. It seems a lot more personal to me than most of your previous work.

A: I would have to agree with that.

Q: It also seems to have much tighter arrangements than what Phish is known for. Were you looking to try to use songs that were composed in a more traditional sense?

A: I'll tell you what I was trying to do specifically. It's a lot more documentary-style than Phish, which tended to be a little more fantasy. But the band, the idea behind the band -- I'm kind of fascinated with swing bands.

Q: Always?

A: For years. It's not the stylistic element. It's the idea. Swing was the rock 'n' roll of its time. But it was one of the few periods of time where art and street music collided. You have the equivalent of what would be rock music today, but there's a lot of content and elements, a lot of depth that doesn't exist today. Popular music today is pretty shallow. So the idea was to take the kind of music I've been playing for years -- the same basic grooves, dance music, you go out and party -- but that there would be some elements of harmony and arrangements that are missing in popular music today. Sort of combine the two. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to have almost a modern-day swing band. But it's not swing stylistically; it's the same kind of thing you'd expect from me if you were a fan of Phish and that kind of music.

Q: Phish songs tend to be a little frantic at times, and a lot of the stuff on the solo album is anything but. Do you find yourself mellowing out with your songwriting?

A: [laughs] Could be. It's funny, because I've been writing some new Phish songs, and some of them get a little mellow. Maybe I'm just getting old. That happens. That's probably the culprit. Hard livin.'

Q: It ain't the years; it's the mileage, no?

A: Exactly. I think there's a little of each.

Q: Is your next album going to be Phish or another solo thing?

A: The next album I put out will be a Phish album. That would be my guess. But I really plan on keeping both of these things going. Right now, I'm pretty excited about the fact that Phish is getting back together, because we're going to play on New Year's Eve.

Q: And a few shows afterward.

A: Yeah. So we've gotten together and done some playing. It's just been incredible to be back with those guys. It strikes me how different it is than this band, and I think they become more different all the time. So that's kinda cool.

Q: What would you say the differences are?

A: Having not played with or even listened to Phish for a while and coming back with fresh ears, I've discovered some things about it. When we're playing, it almost feels broken in a certain way. It's all slightly wrong. Fish (John Fishman), as a drummer, if you really look at the way he's playing, at times it's kinda bent in the wrong way. I had a band practice the other day up at my barn where we rehearse. I had my band from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Phish from 3 to... um... [laughs]. Both bands are rehearsing in the barn, but they're all friends. So my band was playing, which is this huge, ten-piece thing cooking along these Latin grooves. And then Phish comes in, and it kinda felt like the first band felt like a 1968 Chevy Camaro or something with a 400 small-block motor in fourth gear with the pedal down. And then Phish is kinda like a Toyota Corolla that needs a little work, except when I say that, I mean, you love your Toyota Corolla.

Q: Sure. You name your Toyota Corolla.

A: Yeah, it's like it's got a name. Everything about it just feels all right. There's this quality about Phish I've just discovered -- I'm sure everybody already knew this, but I was in the middle of it, so I didn't know -- this pulling-along quality. The piano pulls it in one direction for half a measure, and then the drums pull it. It's almost this creeping-forward feeling with all four people lurching out ahead and falling back, then lurching out ahead. Most bands don't really play that way. Normally you play from the ground up. The rhythm section keeps the groove, and you build the structure on top of the foundation, which is what I did with my band. It's built on a really strong foundation. A drummer with an African background, a Brazilian percussionist.

Q: Sort of Afro-Cuban stuff?

A: Right. Their idea is that they set up a very strong bed and then it goes up like a pyramid. But Phish doesn't feel that way to me at all. It feels like it's teetering the whole time. Imagine you have a rope. And the rope is tied between two 50-pound blocks of cement. And the four band members all have the rope across their chest. And we're supposed to pull these weights down a 100-yard field, so everybody is lurching forward and giving it a little pull, and then someone else is lurching forward. That's kinda what it feels like.

Q: You mentioned some of the Phish songs you're writing are a little different. What about the tighter arrangements? Are you trying some of that with Phish as well?

A: One thing I am definitely discovering is that I need to write very differently for each band to get the best out of each band. Some stuff just works with Phish, and there's a couple of tunes we started playing with my band last year, and I thought, "These are clearly Phish songs. Only Phish is going to be able to tackle this tune." There's a fluidity, a liquid quality those guys have that is completely unique to my ear. I don't think anyone really plays like that. It's an incredible feeling. They're liquid.

Q: You're coming down to Pompano Beach this time. Is this your first Florida visit since Gainesville last year with Oysterhead [the short-lived supergroup featuring Anastasio, Les Claypool, and Stewart Copeland]?

A: Yes. And I want you to know it was a personal request of mine when we set up the tour. We had two requests. I said, "I want to play Halloween in Nashville, and I want to end the tour in Miami." They set it all up around that. I've got some friends down there, and I haven't been there in a long time. I can't wait. I'm really excited. The other thing is, I think people are really gonna like this band. It's a big slammin'.

Q: Anything else you want to add?

A: No... unless you have another question. G'head. You can squeeze one more in.

Q: Well, your whole career has been based around throwing these curve balls. Do you have any other curves in the works here?

A: Yes! But I'm not gonna tell you what they are. It's actually been a cool two years. When we took the hiatus, I think we were assuming this is about how long it would be, in the general ballpark. Everybody was saying we need a break. It was more of an opportunity than a break, but we'll be throwing more curve balls.

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Dan Sweeney
Contact: Dan Sweeney

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