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Trey Anastasio on Turning 60 and the Song He Wants to Play at the End of Phish’s Final Concert


J
ust a few
weeks after Phish wrap up their summer tour with a four-night stand at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado, Trey Anastasio will celebrate his 60th birthday. That’s a heavy moment for some people, but Anastasio says he couldn’t be happier about it.

“Maybe this is going to sound strange, but I really like it,” Anastasio says. “It’s like something really amazing is happening, where I’m not part of the scramble anymore. It gives me the opportunity to observe, and enjoy. It’s a beautiful feeling. And it’s a different stage of life where you want to share what you’ve learned with people, and just be quiet on the side of things. I’m not scrambling up hills anymore. It kind of reminds me of the Jimi Hendrix song ‘Room Full of Mirrors’: ‘I used to live in a room full of mirrors/All I could see was me/Then I take my spirit and I smash my mirrors/And now the whole world is here for me to see.’”

Anastasio picked up quite a bit of wisdom across his 60 years, and he called up Rolling Stone during downtime from rehearsals for a special solo concert at Tanglewood in Massachusetts with the Boston Pops to share it with us. During the course of an hourlong interview, we chatted about everything from his love of Joni Mitchell to the creation of the new Phish record, Evolve, the band’s hiatus from 2004 to 2009, fronting the Grateful Dead at their 50th-anniversary shows, confronting drug addiction, why most bands learn to hate one another, how Phish somehow managed to be an exception to that rule, and the very last song he wants the band to play at its last concert — hopefully decades from now.

What music still moves you the most?
[French composer Maurice] Ravel. That’s because his work lives on the outer edges of the emotional language, the harmonic language, and sensitivities. It speaks to the muddled emotions that I’ve felt for most of my life. But if you wanted to go from Ravel into rock, I would say Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, or Joni Mitchell’s Blue, for the same reason. She was able to express confused emotions, without nailing things down. I never got a sense from Joni that she’s telling me that she understood stuff. All she ever expressed to me was the same mystified feeling that we all have, on a daily basis.

What are the best parts of success and the worst parts of success?
The best part of success is that it gives you an opportunity to work. Tomorrow I’m playing with an orchestra, which is something that I love. It was my childhood dream, and without the success of Phish and my other outlets, I never would’ve been able to do this. So that’s the good part. It opens up doors, artistically, that you might not otherwise be able to enter.

The worst part is that it makes you self-conscious, and it’s horrible. I’m in a band that isn’t very famous. It’s been the luckiest thing that ever happened to us. And yet, every time I walk out the door, I keep getting reminded that maybe I am. People who come up are always nice. But suddenly you’re conscious of the fact that you’re being watched, and that can really fuck with your head. If you take that to an extreme, it’s killed people before. Many times, thousands of times. It’s the story of a thousand years.

At the same time, it’s a learned skill, and you can figure out how to live with it. And once you do, you’re fine. You don’t see it as a real thing, and you can just enjoy meeting people, and all that. And now you’re back to the good part of it. The good part is that I meet really great people sometimes, randomly, who tell me stories about coming to shows, or they brought their mother, that kind of thing. It’s cool. It makes you feel really good.

You just played Steely Dan songs at the Songwriter Hall of Fame awards. It was amazing to me that Phish had never covered them before. It feels like such a natural fit.
[Bandmate] Page [McConnell] reminded me yesterday that we did cover Steely Dan, but that it was quite early, in the Eighties. They certainly had a huge impact on me, and all of us, I think. But I can only speak for myself. I listened to all of those records when I was in high school. Gaucho, Aja, Royal Scam, Pretzel Logic. I loved all those records. I was the right age. I started high school in the late Seventies. It was on a perma-loop on my record player, along with Peter Tosh and Jeff Beck.

Those are some hard songs to play, I’d imagine.
I love learning it. It was such a pleasure to do that. First of all, it was an honor to talk with Donald [Fagen] and everything, and tell him how much his music meant to me. But I loved learning that. It didn’t come that hard to me. Maybe it’s a language that I feel like I speak. It may have had more of an effect on me than I even think, because I write a lot of composed guitar lines like that.

So it wasn’t really rocket science, to me. It was a pleasure to learn the Larry Carlton solo. I like the way his brain works. It was a joy. Not to mention the fact that the band at the Hall of Fame was a top band, so they played it right. I wanted to do it, like, six more times. “Can we do it again?” It was so fun.

Tell me about the new Phish record, Evolve. What were your goals going into this one?
First off, there was a lot of writing initially, and then there was an experimentation with live versions of some of these songs, and this was a conscious choice. I feel like some of our better albums, and we don’t have a lot of great albums … but we’ve always been such a live band. All of my focus as a writer has been on writing songs to fill in the live set list. “We need another set closer, so I’ll write a set closer,” or, “We need another slow song.”

That’s always been the way I’ve thought about it. So subsequently, some of our better albums were albums that were recorded after we had tried the songs out live for a while, because they always get so much better when we play them live. We would make these albums, play the song live, and within two shows, the song was 20 times better than the one on the album. And then, I always wished that we could go back and record it again. So that was kind of goal number one: “I want to play these live, at least two or three times.”

And the other was goal to communicate with and listen to our incredible Phish community, and TAB community. And it’s all the same people. And to see which of these songs resonated with people, before we kind of made the final choice of what’s put on the record. So we did that.

But then the third piece to the puzzle was that I’ve been doing a lot of solo acoustic tours, and really enjoying them for the last six or seven years. And I learned that if a song is a good song, it always works solo acoustic. And many producers have tried to tell me that since I started 40 years ago. I did a record with Brendan O’Brien, for example, and he said, “Sit on a stool and play me the songs. We’re not going into the studio until you have a song that you can sing me with an acoustic guitar.”

That makes a lot of sense.
Quincy Jones used to talk about that. A good song is a good song. So before we went in for this album, I made myself a secret, private solo-acoustic version of the album, after having played the songs live. I did that just to look at each song one more time, and make sure that it was in the right key, all the lyrics were great, all the lyrical phrasing was great. And that all the B sections and everything were completed. And then, we went back out, played everything one more time, live. Literally, I think we did them all once, and then we went straight into the studio and recorded the whole thing in two days.

So there was an enormous amount of prep work on the material, particularly the vocals, background vocals, songwriting, and song structure. And then the final piece is that I like old-fashioned albums where people did takes. So, Aretha Franklin, the Band, they always did takes. They set up in a circle. The best Beatles albums were like that. “We used take seven.” They played together. And that’s our greatest strength as Phish. So this whole album was recorded in about two days. But there was an enormous amount of thought that went into it before we got to those two days.

Phish never had even a single radio hit. The closest was “Free,” and most nonfans don’t know even that one. Are you happy you never had a “Touch of Grey” that moved the whole thing into stadiums and brought in a bunch of casual fans?
People will never believe me when I say this, but I think it’s our superpower. It’s been incredibly liberating. We’re not in that game. We have grown at a glacial pace. We didn’t have to skip any stages of learning, and we didn’t cut the line. And it’s always bad to cut the line. It’s a lifetime pursuit, music, and it’s a series of false peaks. So every time you climb up a peak — “Oh, I think I get this. I think I understand album construction. I think I understand songwriting” — there’s always another. You get to the top, you look behind the first peak, there’s always another peak to climb, and then you die. Nobody ever figures it out, all of it.

So the fact that we’ve been able to grow at a natural pace has been, like I said, I think it’s, in a weird way, our superpower. The vibe at the shows is as intense as it is, the thing that most people describe that they love about Phish is the feeling at the shows. Because of the fact that we took every step along the uphill staircase, we didn’t jump in the elevator for two floors.

Ed O’Brien from Radiohead came to one of our shows, and gave me one of the greatest compliments in between sets. He watched the show from the audience, and then he came backstage and he said, “I spent a lot of the night facing backwards. I was watching the last row of the arena, in the way back, all the way at the top. Every single person in the room was completely involved in the concert. Usually there’s a crew up front that’s really into the band, and then there’s a crew kind of in the back that … it’s hip to come see the band.”

He was saying, “Sometimes at Radiohead shows I look back, and I think a lot of people are here because it’s cool to go see Radiohead, but they don’t necessarily know all the material, and they’re talking. And your fans are completely involved with, and informed about every detail, all the way to the back row.” And I thought that was a really astute comment, being at his first Phish concert. That’s what you get by taking your time.

I’m trying to imagine in my head what a Phish radio hit would even sound like. Have you ever even attempted to write one?
I don’t think I’ve ever attempted it, and I don’t think I would know how to, anyway. I also have this other weird theory about this. That’s not the world that we live in at this point in our career, just based on how long we’ve been a band. The realm of hits are, generally speaking … You go back through your whole history of music. “Be My Little Baby,” [the Ronettes] were 19-years-old. The Beatles were 23.

Sure. But when you guys were young in the Nineties, a lot of weird alt-rock bands had these fluke hits.
I want to ask you a question, and this is going to mess with your mind. Go back and look at how old some of these people actually were.

They were probably around 23 or so.
Exactly. I want to read you a list of albums by 28-year-olds, since I was just playing this game with my friends. Ready?

Go for it.
The Band, The Band. Levon Helm and Robbie [Robertson] were 26 and 29. Bob Marley, Catch a Fire, 28. Joni Mitchell, Blue, 28. Carole King, Tapestry, 28. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde, 25. Public Enemy, It Takes Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Chuck D was 28. Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life, 28. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly, 28. The Clash, London Calling, 28. Led Zeppelin IV. Jimmy Page was 27. The Beatles, the White Album. John was 28. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run. He was 26. Radiohead, OK Compute. Thom Yorke was 28. Sly and the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Going On. Sly was 28. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street, Mick and Keith were both 29. They were old.

Velvet Underground, Loaded. Lou Reed was 28. The Who, Quadrophenia. Pete Townshend was 28. Nirvana, Nevermind, Kurt was 24. Hank Williams, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Moanin’ the Blues is his great album. He was 28. Patsy Cline, “I Fall to Pieces.” She was 28. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. He was 33, a little older. The Smiths, The Queen is Dead, their masterpiece. Morrissey was 28. Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack. Freddy was 28, for both those albums. Taylor Swift, Reputation, 28. Neil Young, Harvest, 28. Talking Heads, Remain in Light. David Byrne was 28. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Boatman’s Call. I could go on for six hours this way. But do you see what I’m saying?

Yeah. Hits are for young people.
Yeah, so this is why it’s our superpower, and why it’s liberating. We’re not in this game. And the game that we are in, is so deeply satisfying for other reasons. And by the way, even when we were young, that wasn’t our goal. We wanted to improve the live show. That’s all we ever talked about, “How good a live show can we make?” I would write this material, and we would practice and practice and practice. We just wanted to have this live show, and we had to have more options to choose from, and more organic. That was our happy place. And so, we reaped what we sowed.

The band broke up between 2004 and 2009. What was that time like for you?
At that time, I just needed to get healthy. And we were getting devoured by substance abuse and stuff. On the inside, there was exhaustion and the problems that come with growing too fast. I mean, we grew really fast. People have forgotten that we were some of the first people to do festivals in America. There weren’t any festivals in the Nineties besides Phish festivals. I know that sounds crazy, but Lollapalooza was a tour at existing venues. We created fully-built festivals, and drew 80,000 people. And there were a lot of hangers-on. So that was why we stopped. We really reassessed everything in that time, and came back in 2009, and everything has been pretty smooth since then.

What did you learn about yourself during the hiatus?
I learned who my friends were, and how lucky I am to have a family, in all directions. I mean, I was in trouble at that period in time, and I’m glad I survived it. That wasn’t the assured outcome. But for the first two years off, I spent every waking second with my kids, my wife, my mom, and my dad. I didn’t even talk to anyone for two years, almost.

The next three people that came back into my life were Jon [Fishman], Mike [Gordon], and Page. And I love these guys. It’s impossible to describe the level of the love within the band. All four of us have gone through a lot of things over the years. It’s been 40 years. When it was my turn to crash and burn, I don’t have enough words to describe how much they were there for me.

Most longtime bands absolutely loathe one another.
A lot of bands smile onstage together. And as soon as they get offstage, they go in six different directions, as fast as they possibly can. Almost always. They can’t even be in catering together. We really, sincerely like each other. It’s weird, after all these years. The only other bands I’ve ever met where that wasn’t the case was Rush and U2. They really liked each other. But Rush knew each other in middle school.

All of these other bands were genuine friends at one point. What happens?
There’s just too much water under the bridge. Anyone that would be reading this, picture who your best friends were when you were 18. That’s how old we were when we met. And imagine you got trapped in a van with them for 40 years. Because that’s what happens. You’re in a car, and then when you’re lucky, it moves to a van. So you have an extra 35 inches of space. And then you get on a bus, but even when you’re on a bus, you’re in a van together to the bus. And you’re backstage, in a little room. It’s a hockey rink, so you’re in basically the ref’s room in an arena. It’s not glamorous back there. And for hours and hours on end, for years and years and years. And then people get married and they get divorced. And we’ve had five divorces in Phish, four band members, five divorces. So there’s animosity with ex-wives or whatever. It just builds up, and personalities clash. I’ve seen it with the best bands. I’m talking real loathing, like, “Don’t put a gun in the room.” It’s really crazy.

You guys seem to genuinely like one another.
We were 18 when we met. We’re going to be 60 years old soon. It’s crazy. Every night before a show, we got into this little backstage room. We have a teeny keyboard and a little two piece drum set, and a five-watt Fender amp. And we get in there 10 minutes before we go onstage, and play a couple of songs for fun. We usually have some homework that we’re supposed to do, and we bust out a song, or learn something hard. Usually it doesn’t happen because the second we get in the room, everybody starts laughing so hard that you can’t even play. We’re like, “We’ll play a little bit.” And at this point, it’s such a lucky thing that it happened that way.

It’s really a miracle.
We had conflicts before Page joined, the first year or two. We had a different band member [Jeff Holdsworth], who wasn’t happy, and he’s a great guy. But when Page walked in, and it was the four … the chemistry is just … If people are wondering why it got so popular, I would say it’s because the chemistry of the four people, and the friendship that emits off the stage. And that, likewise, the friendships in the audience. Our audience is a huge community. A lot of times we feel like a wedding band or something, we’re out there watching people coexist who have been friends for 30 years.

If somebody quits Phish, is it over?
That’s it. Listen, line me up and shoot me when I’m wrong. But there is no way that this band could exist without any of the four members. And the reason that all these bands kind of keep going on, with one or two members, especially Seventies bands, is just because there’s so much money to be made. It’s all money, at a certain point. I mean, it’s nostalgia, and money, and oldies.

But Led Zeppelin didn’t do that. You don’t have to do it. But usually, you get a manager involved, and some young musicians who want to jump on the bandwagon, and make all the money off the old band that they aren’t actually in. But I hope that doesn’t happen.

You fronted the Dead at their farewell shows in 2015. What did you learn from that experience?
That was an incredible honor. But I’ll quote Jorma Kaukonen, who was there from the beginning. He famously said, “It’s Jerry’s band. Sorry guys.” That’s what I learned working with them. The songs are incredible, and it’s great there are a lot of tribute bands going and playing it. But every once in a while, there’s a titanic American musician that comes through the ether, whether it be Louis Armstrong or James Brown. I mean, James Brown had a great band, too. And Jerry had a great band. We were lucky we got to experience that genius of American music in Jerry.

We now get to sing his songs. Everybody gets to sing his songs. I was honored to be there and pay tribute to this incredible musician who I was lucky to see play many, many times. But other than that, it’s pretty much just nostalgia. Sorry. But it is.

The end of Jerry’s life was very sad. He was on this giant merry-go-round and he couldn’t get off. Do you empathize with some of the burdens he faced?
I do. This is going to sound funny, but Chappell Roan just said something onstage like, “This is everything I always wanted, but why am I so unhappy?” Thank God she’s saying that and not holding it in. What she’s going through always happens. Just think of Amy Winehouse.

When that train leaves the station, there’s so much to be gained from so many people around you. And everybody has an agenda. And most people with this job are people pleasers or they wouldn’t be good entertainers. When you’re an entertainer, you go out onstage, and you desperately want the audience to have a good time. And you spend hundreds and thousands of hours trying to get to that point — whether you’re a Broadway actor, or Chappell Roan, or Amy Winehouse, or anybody. You want it to be good, so you pour everything you can into it.

But then by definition, people in your orbit have something to gain by being attached to that. And they’re not bad people, they just … suddenly they have something to gain. So maybe you’re in the entourage, and you get to stay at the Four Seasons. Or maybe you’ve always wanted this, but it was never going to happen for yourself, but by attaching yourself to it you get your backstage pass, and there’s people cheering. And you get to go to the party. It gets very hard to say no to people. And then there’s more and more and more and more and more people that you can’t say no to. You start agreeing to do stuff that you didn’t want to do. It’s just … it’s a tsunami.

I think for a young musician, it takes a minute to identify what’s actually going on. Like, “Why do I all of a sudden have 750 best friends? When two months ago, before I was famous, I had one best friend.”

Danny Clinch photographing Phish in New York City on March 26, 2024.

Danny Clinch*

And those people truly don’t care about your well-being.
The worst-case scenarios, it can be your own family, if it’s Justin Bieber or Britney Spears. This stuff starts rolling, and your own dad can turn on you. This happens all the time, and it’s all a hippie-dippy peace and love and happy dancing bears. But I wish Jerry Garcia was still alive, personally. I wish everybody had just stopped, and left him alone, and let him get his shit together, so I could still hear him play and sing those songs, and play that guitar like he used to, which is better than anybody ever.

What do you understand about drugs now that you didn’t get in your twenties or thirties?
That they suck [laughs]. And I guess that you don’t even see it happening when it’s happening. Especially hard drugs. But alcohol, which is probably the hardest of all of them, in a weird way. Nothing will do you in like a big, giant bottle of vodka. But I think the craziest thing is to end up in a situation like I did, having spent my entire life saying I would never do that. Going through the Eighties in a band, and most of the Nineties, just completely avoiding it. And then all of a sudden it creeps up on you. You don’t even really see it happening.

Something somebody said when I started cleaning up my act, 17 and a half years ago, one of the first counselors that I worked with, he said, “What was your drug of choice?” And I said, “Heroin slash painkillers.” And he said, “Well, you were probably in pain. People who take that shit usually are in pain.” Why would you do that to yourself unless you were just trying to turn everything off for a minute?

Is it weird, as a sober guy, to look out at a crowd of people where a good portion of them are on drugs?
No, actually. And I’m also in a band with one sober guy: me. I look at it like some of my friends are vegan, and some of them eat meat. I’m not here to sit in judgment and say, “One life choice is better than another.” There’s a million life choices.

I had some great experiences when I was young, on psychedelic drugs and stuff like that, before it all went to hell. I certainly don’t have any judgment about anything, except for myself. I’m very judgmental of myself. But what I can add to the conversation is that there’s a way out. I think if you’re having a problem, you know it. And if you have a friend who’s having a problem, you know it. We’ve all had either a problem ourselves, or known someone who has. And you know it when you see it.

When I go out to dinner with my parents, or with my children, who are 27 and 29, and my dad, they have a cocktail. I don’t. They don’t have a problem. So I’m not blaming the cocktail, but I can’t have a cocktail. And I love not having a cocktail. I don’t even think about it anymore. Like I said, the only thing that I can add to the conversation is that there’s a solution, and it’s a really good one.

In 2003, you told Rolling Stone that you hope Phish plays at least one show when you guys are in your eighties. Do you still hope that?
Now, I hope it’s nineties. I want to do a Willie [Nelson]. And the reason is coming clearer, and more into focus, because I want [bandmates] Jon and Mike and Page to be healthy. Because I love them, and I want us all to take care of ourselves. Statistically, things happen. And some day, someone, something will. When you’ve got four men who spend four or five decades together, it just has to, right? So now it’s like, we stand on the side of the stage every night and look at each other, and we’re like, “We’re so grateful that we get to do this for one more night.” It’s become more and more tangible. It’s like a ritual now. We stand in a circle, and we’re like, “Everybody’s healthy today. We get to do this again. Everybody’s in the room. We’re all here. Everybody’s here. We get one more day together.” And that’s why, gosh, yes, I would like to play in our nineties.

What should the final song be at the final Phish concert?
I would say probably “You Enjoy Myself,” with the vocal jam. That’s got to be the last song. To this day, I don’t know exactly why it works, but it works. It was on our first record, and it put us outside the mainstream. Nobody knew what to make of us. I remember when I brought in all these charts to band practice, and it’s, like, all atonal composition in there. I remember handing it to Page, and he was like, “I can’t wait to play this.” He loved it. And then we added all the other weird stuff, and it still puts a smile on my face whenever we play it, because it brings me back to those years. It would be a perfect song to end with.

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