On a monsoon-like afternoon in New York, Trey Anastasio is eager to talk about his new album and the new career chapter he’s begun. Slightly hoarse from a day of talking to the press, he laughs frequently. Eyeing a Will Smith sales plaque that hangs on the wall of the Columbia promo VP’s outer office where he’s seated, he says, incredulously, “20 … million … records? Wow. I can’t even get my mind around that.”
To be sure, Anastasio’s had a lot to get his mind around lately, particularly the dissolution of Phish that was cemented with last summer’s Coventry festival in Vermont. He has been working on new music ever since, but admits it took several attempts before he landed on the sound for which he’d been searching. It came together as “Shine,” which was produced by Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen) and arrives Nov. 1.
On it, Anastasio focuses on succinct songwriting and clever hooks instead of the elaborate pieces and endless improvisation for which the seminal jam band was celebrated. Highlights include the up tempo “Tuesday” and “Air Said to Me,” the Phish-esque anthem “Wherever You Find It,” the trippy “Come As Melody” and smash-in-the wings “Sweet Dreams Melinda.” With a new band in tow, Anastasio will be touring in support of the set throughout the fall.
Q: Take me through the chronology that brought you to this version of “Shine.” I heard you scrapped the project a couple of times and started over.
A: The process was a year total. I started writing directly following the last Phish concert, which was our Coventry concert. I started recording at my Barn studio with Bryce Goggin. I had different musicians at the beginning but some of the same songs. So I did a version of “Come As Melody” with Tony Levin.
Q: From Peter Gabriel’s band?
A: Yeah, I love him. One of the nicest, kindest people I have ever met. I’ve always been a fan but he was incredibly impressive on all levels. Smart. Gentle. Musical. He almost was going to be the bass player in the band, but then everything just kind of… moved. Our producer, Bryce Goggin, who is a very good friend of mine, his wife had a baby, so he decided to step away. And I started working with a guy from Atlanta — that didn’t [pan] out at all. That process derailed. And then I got on the phone with Brendan [O’Brien] and instantly…
Some of the songs had been cut and explored but not finished and once I talked to Brendan… I’ve always been a fan. When I started to discuss this with Columbia, they instantly knew this was the guy. He was interested in doing the album. At the time we were having some scheduling difficulties, and I said, “Why don’t I finish up what I’m doing on this particular album and in the spring when we have a lot more time we’ll make another one.” And he said, “No, I don’t want to make a second album, I want to make this album.” It was very smart of him that he saw a moment that I was kind of in a fragile place. So I hopped on a plane and went down there with my backpack, checked into a hotel and we started working at his house and we made the record.
Q: How long did it take to make?
A: Six weeks or something? Quick. He’s so talented and such a nice guy, such a great person to work with. Such perspective. It was just what I needed.
Q: What albums that he produced were you a fan of?
A: Many. Some specific ones were the Rage Against The Machine album “Evil Empire.” That was the moment when I first thought this guy is the real deal. In their heyday, they were an incredible live band. It’s such a difficult thing to bottle that kind of energy and put it on a disc. I know from my experience with Phish and some of the other bands, even early Bruce Springsteen records — I saw that band when I was in high school, mid-’70s. It’s very difficult to get that really great live band onto a record and he did it with the Rage Against The Machine album without compromising their integrity at all. It was them, presented in the greatest light. And then I think the next big one was what he did with [Springsteen’s] “The Rising.” So emotional. That [Springsteen] was writing about 9/11 so quickly after 9/11. I couldn’t even digest it at the time. It was too much. So empathetic, so in touch with the emotions. He’s amazing at that. He gets inside people’s heads.
Q: What do you plan to do with the material from the earlier sessions that didn’t make it on the record?
A: Some of the songs were abandoned along the way and some were re-recorded. There’s a couple of things, probably three songs that were good, solid songs and one of them that was recorded well. But I want to be careful to not go down the road of putting out albums of half-developed material. And I love the way this album came out. It was great to be down there with Brendan, who, nine songs into the record, would look at me and say, “We’re not putting this record out until all 12 songs are great. You’re not done. You’ve got to go write another one. They’re all going to be solid and that’s it.” And I loved that work ethic. I’m not interested in putting out half-baked box sets. There’ll be plenty of time for that 15 years from now.
Q: The songs on “Shine” are fairly naked sounding. For someone well versed in long, elaborate pieces with extended solos and Zappa-inspired wackiness, did it require discipline to take a less-is-more approach?
A: No. What I think happened was on the last couple of Phish albums I was becoming much more interested in singing and songwriting. I was developing this relationship with Tom [Marshall], my old co-writing friend. And he was contributing a lot of lyrics, so it wasn’t really directed from my heart. But what happened was, with the breakup of Phish and with this period in my life, there’s a lot going on. I moved. I left my band. Our organization closed down — a wonderful office up in Burlington with about 40 employees and everybody’s losing their job. Severing ties with people is very emotional.
And then even with the audience itself, a lot of backlash and anger. So I had all this stuff that I wanted to say, lyrically. I started writing, furiously, lyrics in notebooks and stuff. So that’s all I really cared about. When I started writing these songs, it was very much about delivering the message in the song, fist and foremost. So when I got together with Brendan, it was the perfect marriage at the right time. It wasn’t hard for me because it’s what I was concerned with at the time.
I’ll say this, too: The other thing is that I think is the discovery that maybe most musicians make but it’s something that I have even been thinking the last couple of years is that if you are very honest and write about something small and personal, you have a much better chance of conveying a message that’s universal and not about you. It’s very important to me now that all the musicians that I love wrote music that’s of service to… people, society at large. It can be the obvious people like Bob Marley or Sly & the Family Stone or the great bands. I get that from Nirvana, Public Enemy… bands that last. The Clash are contributing something to people’s lives. And that’s the reason that you’re a musician. You’re a servant. And it’s a great feeling. So here’s the stuff that’s going on personally.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. And in interviews with some of my favorite songwriters, I think there’s one with Elvis Costello that I read. It’s something that I learned along the way that if you’re really honest and write about anything in an honest way, that’s a small personal thing, that’s probably your quickest path to writing something that will have some kind of universal connection to other people’s lives. One example I always use is Nirvana’s “All Apologies.” I love the song so much and I think everybody does. And I always think that he probably didn’t know that he was writing about him but you hear him and it’s about… you [laughs]. It always lifts me up when I hear that song, because I think, “Wow, I’m not the only one who feels that way.” He was being of service to people and I think it’s sad that he didn’t have a chance to find out how valuable that was.
Q: What came first, the melodies or the words?
A: There were different processes along the way. Simultaneously. It was a little different for me in that some of them came out in such a desperate way (laughs heartily). Whether it be “Come As Melody” or “Black” or the last one. I love the last one so very much. It just [makes wooshing noise] came right out. The hardest thing was not editing. I had to restrain myself. Some of the lines came right out and I didn’t really understand what they meant until later and then I figured it out. But it’s a good thing I didn’t try to fix them (laughs).
Q: This record marks a whole bunch of firsts: the first since Phish broke up, the first for Columbia, the first with a new manager and the first with Brendan. What were your motivations in making so many changes around roughly the same time?
A: They may all have gone hand in hand. I also turned 40. It was all in one (laughs). It’s funny because I turned 40, handed in my last record to Elektra and closed the Phish offices, which was more emotionally intense than any other [thing], including even getting out of the band. That and then I went through this process with the audience, with whom I feel like I have an incredibly close relationship. With Phish it was a very direct connection. I feel like that’s my boss — I work for them (laughs). That’s the way I like to look at it. So that was kind of rough.
Right after my 40th birthday, my wife saw my wheels spinning and she sent me out to the desert. I went out and walked around a bit. It was kind of cool. It was a good feeling. That’s why it was great to go down there and work with Brendan. I went down alone, with my backpack. It was such a different feeling because everything had been so big. Big-big-big-big! And then to go down there for two months. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t really have any friends or anything. I just kind of wandered around and worked on the album.
Q: Do you see this as a jumping off point for a new chapter that could last as long and be as fruitful as the first, not unlike Sting’s career after the Police broke up?
A: The uber role models for me in this would be John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel. In your heart you feel like you’re doing the right thing, because, ultimately, honesty is your gift to these people who are willing to listen to your music. Changing is part of that. You’ve got to change and that’s hard. But any of those musicians — look at John Lennon, the uber model. Those albums he put out after the Beatles were so full of tension and he just kept going for it. And then right at the end, those songs, “Beautiful Boy,” “Just Like Starting Over,” that’s my favorite stuff of his. And that he managed to write music that was appropriate that was just as powerful and full of life. What Bruce is doing right now is so inspirational to me. He looks comfortable in his own skin. He looks cool. I saw a picture of him the other day as the young scraggly. He looked cool then and he looks just as cool now — and he’s 56 years old. I got to me meet him not too long ago. He talked to me about this stuff and it was great. I learned a lot.
Q: What did he tell you?
A: He said, “I used to be the guy who wrote about girls and cars.” He had heard what was going on and was giving me words of encouragement while we were in Atlanta. I was so knocked out by him. He said that what you’re doing is probably hard but a great thing because, he said, “as soon as you become celebrated for something, you have to beware that that’s the point where it becomes crystallized. That’s when you have to change.” Then he said, “When I became the guy who wrote about cars and girls, I had to make that difficult move to get out of there.” And he never would have would have written “Devils & Dust” and “The Rising” if he hadn’t gone through that whole process.
I remember it because I grew up in Jersey: “Oh my God, he broke up the E-Street Band! How could you do this?” And yet in the end, he’s giving a bigger gift and that’s the reason he’s here. He’s here to help people. He’s helped people a lot more by doing that. That’s what I believe this process is about. It’s hard to explain that to people right now to people who were fans. Trying to say, “I’m really trying to do the right thing here and follow my heart. It’s the best I can do.”
Q: It’s been said that the Grateful Dead placed a tremendous burden on Jerry Garcia — the demanding self-sustaining industry the Dead touring machine had become — when maybe he would have had more fun playing bluegrass or jamming with Howard Wales or following a different muse. Did you feel similarly about Phish?
A: It started to feel like that. I always tried to be as thankful as possible for how lucky we were but I was exhausted. As much as the hiatus was a hiatus, there were many conversations that if I didn’t generate some income… It was a big organization; it did have large, large monthly bills. We had a merchandising company and a big office and our crew guys were all on salary and warehouses and gear and all of that stuff. I remember feeling a little bit like, you know… uhh.. [long pause]. It was a bit of pressure (laughs). It was nobody’s fault. That’s the thing. There’s no finger-pointing going on. This is the nature of a band that had gotten pretty large. People would come to Burlington and say, “You guys own this whole town here. It’s Phishville around here!” I felt a lot of pressure from it. I was feeling very tired. It was becoming sort of unhealthy in a certain way.
I also played with Carlos [Santana] down in Atlanta. He had a few things to say to me about it. He said that, as much as there was pressure on various musicians, Jerry being one of them, he was there. He said, “I used to see this, there was always this, ‘I can’t get out of this, I can’t get out of this.'” This is the way he put it: “You don’t want to become a professional victim.” Because the God’s honest truth is you can get out of it. It might be too much and too hard but you can. You can just do what Bruce Springsteen did, and say, “I’m losing it. Everybody go home.” And everybody’s fine. At first they’re mad and then they’re fine. I thought that was an interesting way of putting it. This breakup offers the opportunity to move on. So everybody’s fine. It’s okay. A lot of people thrive.
Q: In leaving your longtime manager and label, are you hoping that [new manager] Coran Capshaw and Columbia can expand your base at radio, which has always seemed to be the missing piece in the puzzle?
A: 20 years with Phish was kind of an exploration of, for lack of a better word, a club. We took incredibly good care of [the fans]. We tried to. Our intent was, through newsletters, through pamphlets at our concerts about where to eat… Whatever we could do to make people more comfortable, that’s where the effort was put. We were also doing a lot of running away — playing very far up in Maine and we didn’t have radio play. Along the way, I ran into a lot of people who would say, “I like the way you play the guitar but it’s not my scene. I don’t feel like I’m part of this.” Feeling like the door was closed. There was some thought about that.
Coran was the first no brainer. When I met Dave [Matthews] he was just starting out. We both were. We did that HORDE tour together. We were friends. Dave Mathews Band and Phish used to play together when we were very young. Coran was just getting his start. Coran and I are friends. He was at all the big Phish events. He’s a fan. It was really important for me to work with somebody who understood the Phish dynamics with the fans.
Columbia was the same kind of vibe. Honestly, four or five years ago, the conversation had been floating around our office: “Wouldn’t it be great to get Phish over to Columbia.” It was a label we all admired. When I put my last solo album out, [Columbia executive] Donnie Ienner went as far as having my manager, John Paluska, into his office and told him, “I think you’re picking the wrong single.” He knew the record and he was right! The one that he thought was the single, “Drifting,” was never released as a single. Now when I play that song, people love it, they sing along, they know all the words. Whether that was a move on his part just to ingratiate himself with our manager, I don’t care. Just the fact that he did it said so much to me. He just seemed to get it all long. Donnie introduced me to Brendan, the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned more from working with Brendan O’Brien than I’ve learned in years about music. Plus, look what’s going on with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. I was more than thrilled. For me, it was genuine glee to have the opportunity to work with Columbia. It’s exceeded my expectations. Everybody here is just on it. Everybody I’ve worked with here is present in my life; I have relationships with them. They’re making an attempt to understand me and the audience in a way that I’ve never experienced before. I’m walking on air. As much as it’s a business, it’s supposed to be fun.
Q: Do you think this album has more radio potential?
I hope so. I would love that. Here’s the thing: In my heart, I’m still pretty much a live musician. I love playing live more than I can ever begin to describe to you. It is indescribably amazing being up there playing guitar and watching people light up. Other than hanging out with my daughters, it’s the greatest joy in my life. And I want to continue to do that for as long as I can have that privilege. My boss is the audience. That’s who I work for. Having a great manager who’s built his reputation on live music, and a great record company and a song on the radio — all of this is kind of part of that. They all go together. The idea that somebody would hear a song on the radio, and say, “Hey, I like that song, let’s go check this guy out” — that’s exciting to me right now. It’s a little bit different than what was going on. I’d be thrilled. Absolutely.