Trey Anastasio spent 17 years ripping genres apart and sticking them back together at odd angles with the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink uber-jam band Phish.
So maybe it’s no surprise he’s whipped up another unusual concoction: a jam/swing hybrid dotted with sugary-sweet love songs and chamber music.
The self-titled release has the elements you’d expect from Anastasio, from the drawn-out, frenetic jams to the catchy guitar riffs. But it’s also a departure: It’s got horns, it’s got soul, it’s got more horns.
It’s clearly not a Phish album hiding under a different name.
“I’ve been listening to a lot of big band music,” says the 37-year-old guitarist/singer/songwriter. There’s “a constant invention, an elegance and creativity in these arrangements. So I want to see if you could get to that point in the world of music that I live in, which is kind of improvisational rock.”
This is a new twist from a man who, on the face of it, had no need to come up with one.
Two years ago, Anastasio was a hot commodity: After 17 years of constant touring, his foursome, Phish, was selling out arena shows nationwide, ranking among the world’s top-grossing concert acts. They attracted tens of thousands of fans to a concert deep in the Everglades on New Year’s Eve 2000. They outdrew Woodstock ’99 with a weekend-long concert in Maine that packed an unused Air Force base to overflowing.
With its extended jams, mix of musical influences and legions of fans who traveled from show to show, selling everything from burritos to drugs to support themselves, Phish began to be known in the media as a latter-day Grateful Dead.
“Given their sense of community, their ambition and their challenging, generous performances, Phish have become the most important band of the Nineties,” Rolling Stone magazine said in 1998.
Then it all stopped.
Now, 18 months removed from Phish’s last show, Anastasio sits on a couch in Elektra Records’ offices in midtown Manhattan. His sometimes shaggy red hair and beard are neatly trimmed, and his blue eyes shine through wire-rim glasses as he tries to explain why he and bandmates Jon Fishman, Michael Gordon and Page McConnell walked away at the height of their success.
“The strange thing is we were closer than ever,” he says. “We just picked a date, and that was the date we were going to stop…. We all love Phish, all four of us, to such a degree, and respected it so much, that we actually started to see that it could be a detriment in a certain way if we didn’t stop.”
The four had been playing together since they were teen-agers. They needed time to recharge, try other projects, Anastasio says.
An “indefinite hiatus,” they called it, and spoke of taking a year off. But now Anastasio says that while he thinks Phish will play again, he doesn’t know when. And he likes it fine that way.
“Really we’re all kind of in here thinking, ‘Boy, that was the right thing to do,'” says Anastasio, who is married and has two young daughters.
“If the day comes where we call each other up and we’re like, ‘I have got to play with you guys again,’ then we will.”
In the meantime, Anastasio has been busy. Last fall, he, Stewart Copeland of Police fame and Les Claypool of Primus released an album as the trio “Oysterhead” and backed it with a national tour. Anastasio also was gearing up for the release of his album with a band he began putting together as a side project in 1999.
Last year, he added a horn section and began recording at The Barn, the studio he created in his home state, Vermont. He kicked off a national summer tour this week in Seattle.
“I’m really embracing the fact that I’ve now moved off in a direction where I’m doing something completely different,” Anastasio says. “With this upcoming tour… there’s a finite number of shows, and I want to just let loose at all of them. Fully. Just an explosion of energy. I can’t wait.”
Several tracks on the album, including the 11-minute “Last Tube,” delve into the kind of complex jams for which Phish is known. But the addition of horn players takes the pressure off Anastasio’s guitar and gives many of the pieces a jazzy, almost swing-band texture with occasional elements of funk and soul.
The album is drawing praise from critics who more often than not panned Anastasio’s studio work with Phish.
“The players have the subdued joy of a Latin dance band on fire,” wrote Rolling Stone. Billboard.com praised Anastasio’s “melodically complex tunes” and “top-notch nine-piece band.”
Phish’s fan base was largely in the 16-to-25 age range, but the new album’s horn elements and the quiet introspection of songs like “Flock of Words” could attract a wider audience, says Spin magazine senior contributing writer Will Hermes.
“I was surprised it was as versatile and ambitious as it is,” Hermes said. “I think it would have been easy for him to make a Phish-style album that played to the converted.”
Then there are the love songs. Actually, they’re more like songs of general ecstasy, with Anastasio waxing rhapsodic about the love of his life, the beautiful weather, etc. “Drifting” is typical: “In the morning it’s plain to see/ smell coffee in the air/you’re here with me. I’m walking down the street/the sun beats down. The grass is cool beneath my feet/my head is spinning ’round.”
Can anyone get away with sounding this happy in a pop song?
Maybe not. And after a decade of seeing his studio work ignored by mainstream radio, Anastasio gives the impression that he doesn’t expect much different this time around.
Still, he can dream.
“If I could add any little touch of anything to the course of music, I’d like to add maybe a little, I don’t know, musical depth or elegance or sophistication,” he says. “I have this lifelong dream that popular music, whatever they’re playing on the radio, will at least tilt back in the direction of when swing bands were the rock bands of their time.
“Think about it. You’re 23 years old, and it’s 1953 or something. And you go out and you’re dancing with your date to this gorgeously romantic, stimulating, elegant music. What a beautiful thing that is.”
Dates, Cities And Venues Of Shows On Trey Anastasio’s Summer Tour:
May 21 – Seattle, Paramount Theatre
May 22 – Salem, Ore., Salem Armory Auditorium
May 24 – San Francisco, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
May 25-26 – Angels Camp, Calif., Mountain Aire Festival
May 28 – San Diego, Open Air Theatre
May 29 – Los Angeles, Greek Theatre
May 31-June 1 – Las Vegas, Thomas & Mack Center
June 3-4 – Morrison, Colo., Red Rocks Amphitheatre
June 6 – Chicago, UIC Pavilion
June 7 – Detroit, Fox Theatre
June 8 – Noblesville, Ind., Verizon Wireless Music Center
June 9 – Cleveland, Tower City Amphitheater
June 11 – Pittsburgh, Ampitheatre at Station Square
June 13 – Albany, N.Y., Palace Theatre
June 14 – Mansfield, Mass., Tweeter Center
June 15 – Essex Junction, Vt., Champlain Valley Exposition
June 16 – Darien Center, N.Y., Darien Lake Performing Arts Center
June 18 – New York City, Radio City Music Hall
June 20 – Holmdel, N.J., PNC Bank Art Center
June 21 – Camden, N.J., Tweeter Center
June 22 – Columbia, Md., Merriweather Post Pavilion