Addressing the debate over whether he engineered Phish's break, soon to enter its third year, guitarist Trey Anastasio says, "I was talking to Brad, our road manager, the other day . . . he wonders if it seems like this hiatus was my idea, because of everything I've done.
"Being right in the middle of us, [Brad] doesn't feel that way," Anastasio adds. "Brad thought that Page [McConnell, Phish's keyboardist] very much wanted this. I'm just a little more prolific, so my stuff came out quicker."
When the final tally is taken, Phish fans may ultimately give thanks for the once-feared hiatus that the band took after its 2000 tour, as the division of talent plays out like a musical stock split: The faithful are on the lookout for four new albums, rather than a single Phish release. McConnell's Vida Blue project is set to launch its latest, bassist Mike Gordon is readying a collaborative album with the great Leo Kottke, and drummer Jon Fishman has just finished an album with his project, Pork Tornado.
Of all the Phish folks, however, Anastasio has easily been the most productive. Before and during the hiatus, he has maintained an extensive profile by working with Dude of Life, twisted supergroup Oysterhead (comprising Anastasio, bassist Les Claypool and drummer Stewart Copeland), and Tom Marshall (Trampled by Lambs and Pecked by the Dove), as well as producing a solo project (One Man's Trash). Now Anastasio's eponymous solo album adds another fascinating page to the guitarist's résumé.
Although each of Anastasio's various projects has offered slightly different textures, he points out that the common thread of his last three recordings has been the Barn, the home recording studio/rehearsal space he built three years ago. It spawned the last Phish album, Farmhouse, as well as the Oysterhead disc and Anastasio's solo release. (Fishman's Pork Tornado and McConnell's Vida Blue albums both recently wrapped at the Barn as well.)
"The Barn was set up as a model of the way I wanted to record in the future," says Anastasio, speaking from the Barn itself. "It's not really a recording studio; it's kind of a hangout place. The Barn was put together with salvage: There were no plans when we put it together. It was improvised. There are stained-glass windows and ramps and garage door openers that were turned into elevators. There's no control room; everybody's out in the middle of the room. You don't even know you're recording an album. You drop your guard and start to have a good time."
That organic process has intensified over the course of the last few projects recorded at the Barn, culminating in Anastasio's solo album, a groove-laden jamfest that offers Phishy charms but is built on a foundation of horn-fueled, old-school funk. Anastasio's band is a big one: standard guitar/bass/drums/keys rock backing, with percussion and a four-person horn section. The big-band format is an idea that Anastasio had been considering for a long time.
"It was a weird process," he says. "In a certain way, I had the idea before I did Surrender to the Air. If you look at it, it's exactly the same instrumental makeup, even though the music sounds nothing like this. This album specifically has been a real explosion for me. I was very much waiting for my opportunity to do this."
Anastasio's latest band lineup grew out of a jam set he did four years ago with a Burlington, Vermont, group called the Eight Foot Fluorescent Tubes. As the group began to expand, so, too, did Anastasio's scope of the material.
"I had a very clear vision, in a very vague way, of how I wanted the album to sound," says Anastasio. "Rockin', with a lot of heavy, danceable grooves and high energy. But as each person joined the band, I would literally say, 'What's the first thing you learned? What's the last thing you practiced? Do you play better fast or slow? Do you have keys that you like to play in?' And then I would try to create an atmosphere where they were playing that, so they could be at their best, within the confines of my general vision for what the band would be."
Anastasio admits that each Phish member's widely divergent and idiosyncratic solo projects have inspired anticipation for the eventual reunification of the band and for what each member will bring to that party. But he is also wary of rushing the process of relinking with his Phishmates; he wants everyone in the band to experience the thrill of creating outside the Phish continuum.
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"I am fascinated by the potential," says Anastasio. "That being said, I think it's a ways off before anyone makes that phone call. And that's not necessarily coming from me. That's becoming more clear. People are really enjoying their individuality, which is more than understandable, if you're living a life in music. I don't think anyone can get everything out of one band."
With all that in mind, there is a milestone looming in Phish's near future, and it's undeniably large. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the band's formation in Burlington for the purpose of entertaining friends a circle that has grown to global proportions over the past two decades.
"Yeah, look at that . . . 20 years," says Anastasio, clearly shocked at the realization. "We feel lucky, that's the general vibe around here. It's just been a warm, good, surprising experience for all of us. And now that we've had this break, I feel even luckier, because I ended up in a band with three people who had the maturity and vision to know that this was the right thing for everybody, and not to be threatened by it."