Anastasio, Claypool, Copeland Peer Inside Oysterhead

Few people could have predicted that an impromptu April 2000 New Orleans jam session among Trey Anastasio, Les Claypool, and Stewart Copeland would lead to a 13-track studio recording and a tour under

Few people could have predicted that an impromptu April 2000 New Orleans jam session among Trey Anastasio, Les Claypool, and Stewart Copeland would lead to a 13-track studio recording and a tour under the band moniker Oysterhead. But these are no ordinary musicians, and this is the extraordinary situation in which the veterans of Phish, Primus, and the Police find themselves with this week's (Oct. 2) release of their Elektra debut, "The Grand Pecking Order."

Early word-of-mouth on the project has reached a fever pitch, as curious fans gobbled up tickets for a 20-date concert trek that launches Oct. 21 in Seattle.

Oysterhead was formed after Claypool invited Anastasio and Copeland to play with him at Superfly Promotions' 2000 Super Jam, held during New Orleans' annual Jazz Fest. They weren't total strangers; Claypool had previously played live a few times with Phish, and had enlisted Copeland to produce one track on Primus' 1999 album "Antipop." For his part, Copeland admits he had "heard of" Phish but never "heard them."

As sparks flew among the trio during pre-show rehearsals, fans were spending up to $2,000 to get into the group's maiden performance at New Orleans' Saenger Theatre. The 150-minute show included offbeat covers and embryonic originals, some of which were later cut for "The Grand Pecking Order." Recordings of the gig spread quickly on the Internet, thanks in part to rabid tape-trading by Phish's fanbase.

Having never expressly intended Oysterhead to exist beyond the show, group members went their separate ways. But the more Claypool reflected, the greater his desire grew to take the project further. He says, "I've been in the studio enough times with enough people to know when you have that kind of chemistry, it can be the most amazing thing."

In April, Claypool got his wish, as the group convened at the Barn, Anastasio's studio in Vermont, for a month of sessions. Lengthy jams resulted in a potent stew of eclectic rock, rarely going too heavy on one member's particular style.

"We walked in the door with virtually nothing," Anastasio says. "I think we had a total of four songs to sit down and play. That ends pretty quickly. I don't think we did more than three takes of any song. So, that's 20 minutes a song, and we're done with that. Now we're faced with a month. We had to just start making stuff up."

On paper, Anastasio, Claypool, and Copeland are not the most likely of collaborators. In fact, Copeland has rarely played in a group setting in the past 10 years, instead focusing his attention on film scoring. But with Anastasio and Claypool on indefinite hiatus from their primary bands, the yearning to stretch their own creative boundaries with new collaborators quickly translated into compelling music.

Indeed, "The Grand Pecking Order" is a challenging but often fascinating listen, with Anastasio and Claypool splitting vocal duties. The set touches on everything from the simple, pop-tinged rock of Phish's recent studio sets ("Radon Balloon," "Birthday Boys") to trippy jams ("Pseudo Suicide," opener "Little Faces"), self-referential groove fests ("Mr. Oysterhead," "Oz Is Ever Floating"), and abstract sound collages ("Shadow of a Man," "Wield the Spade").

"I've never felt the chemistry that I felt with Trey and Stewart -- especially with Trey -- with the lyrical thing," Claypool admits. "I was always the lyricist [in Primus]. But here we were finishing each other's sentences. It was pretty incredible." Adds Copeland with a laugh, "I haven't got any individuality to express. I just enjoy banging away on those drums again, which I'd forgotten all about for a decade."

All three artists are even more enthusiastic about the upcoming tour. Copeland says he is particularly intrigued to dispense with such pop traditions as standardized setlists, in favor of the more free-form shows Phish fans have come to expect.

"Oysterhead is going to play by Phish rules: the ticket prices are low, and [fans] can tape the shows," Copeland says. "I'm not used to walking onstage and not knowing the entire setlist from front to back, but I'm going to learn how to do it a different way. Something that Oysterhead has taught me is that getting out of my comfort zone is a real good thing."

Although there is a strong emphasis on positioning Oysterhead as "a complete separate entity," Elektra's marketing plan will benefit from the draw of three distinct pre-existing fanbases, according to Dane Venable, the label's VP of marketing/artist development.

The first step was the launch of the Claypool-maintained, which provided ticket onsales two days before the general public and is also hosting four MP3 downloads from the album. U.S. rock radio stations were serviced with the single "Mr. Oysterhead."

Fans who don't have the chance to see Oysterhead live will be treated to the band's appearance on a Nov. 21 episode of HBO's new live-music series, "Reverb." Footage will be drawn from an Oct. 27 show in Los Angeles; plans are afoot for the band to chat with fans live on AOL after the broadcast.

The pairing of six recently released live Phish sets and "The Grand Pecking Order" will give fans, particularly those of Anastasio, much to enjoy. But the guitarist says any future Oysterhead plans will be taken one step at a time.

"My feeling is, 'Let's go out and play some shows,' which we're about to do," he says. "I wouldn't plan on doing another Oysterhead album yet. But if we have a great time, and if it's just slammin', then I'm definitely going to want to keep going."

To read the full Q&A with Anastasio, click here.