In a time when jazz is barely a smudge on the cultural radar, the marriage of improvisation and popular music continues nowhere more apparently than with the Vermont rock band Phish. Other artists may be touring and improvising—and they are—but they don’t sell out Madison Square Garden for three nights in a row and continue to host a series of annual, one-band festivals that draw upward of seventy thousand people, all for the adventure of musical improvisation.
A highly divisive band, known best for their obsessive, vagabond following, Phish remain a baffling success in the music industry. Since they began, their musical style has continued to be a fluid spate of genres, most of which have very little in common with contemporary music, and some of which are laughably silly. A typical live show will include streaks of calypso, ’70s hard rock, jazz fusion, salsa, labyrinthine prog-rock, old-timey music, new wave and barbershop quartet, and, at any moment, one of these genres might be stretched out to forty-five minutes of wordless improvisation. Unlike many equally successful rock bands, Phish are relatively ignored (or dismissed) by the media, and do little to engage with the publicity cycles that dictate the peaks and valleys of most bands’ careers.
Trey Anastasio, the singer, guitarist, and sometimes composer for the band, is one of the revered, old-fashioned rock guitarists from the last quarter decade, playing the type of soaring, lyrical guitar melodies that have been all but banished from pop music since the early ’90s. Phish—and Anastasio in particular—are often cited as the musical heirs to the Grateful Dead and leaders of the new generation of so-called jam bands, but while the audiences may overlap, the band’s music bears little similarity to the bluegrass rock of the Dead or the electro-psychedelic “livetronica” style that dominates the current jam-band culture.
Over the last decade, Phish has gone on hiatus, disbanded, dispersed into solo projects, and reunited. During breaks, Anastasio performed solo acoustic sets, founded a new band with a full horn section, and composed a lengthy composition, “Time Turns Elastic” which has been performed by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Currently, Phish is preparing for a summer tour and for Super Ball IX, their next three-day summer festival, to be held in upstate New York.
I met with Anastasio in New York at Soho House for a conversation over soup. He talked about his long-standing interest in the art of improvisation, playing seven-hour-long shows, set lists, and the problems of conjoining art with daily life. After we spoke, I attended a Phish show at Madison Square Garden at which the audience was at full, standing applause for forty-five minutes before the band even stepped onstage.
I. ANYTHING BUT YOURSELF
THE BELIEVER: Do you remember when you first cared about improvisation as an art form?
TREY ANASTASIO: I started listening to improvisational music when I was in high school. Before that, I was more interested in composition. I listened to West Side Story and Sly & the Family Stone—really listening to their arrangements and how they laid all the melodies. But, in that way, good improvisation has a structure. It has a form. I remember, like many guitarists, being obsessed with Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. It was the record. I listened to that solo on “Machine Gun” a million times.
BLVR: With that one amazing note.
TA: Yeah, the note! And I started noticing that, in his playing, it was almost like he was speaking in paragraphs. His solo has a thinking, or vocal, quality to it. It starts off thin, and then he rolls off the tone, pauses, and starts another paragraph. Maybe I’m thinking about it too hard, but, you know, from everything I’ve read, Hendrix used to sleep with his guitar and practice twenty thousand hours a day. So I think that’s what it takes. It doesn’t just happen. There’s a certain level of elegance that I only hear in a great improviser like that.
BLVR: Would you say that with improvisation you’re trying to get to a place where it’s as fluent as speech?
TA: More fluent. I feel a lot more bound up in a conversation than when I’m playing the guitar. I don’t necessarily sit there and practice scales every day, but I do get up and start making some form of music from the second I wake up.
BLVR: Who were the important improvisers for you?
TA: I liked Clapton, Jimmy Page. But there was this one year that changed me. It was when I saw Pat Metheny. He came to Richardson Auditorium, and he was playing with a jazz, harmonic vocabulary but with a pop sensibility. I saw King Crimson around that time, too. Robert Fripp was playing these crazy mathematical patterns. He’d be playing in a time signature of 7/4 while the other guy, Adrian Belew, played in 5/4, and they’d meet up thirty-five notes later. This kind of thing. But you have to put yourself in 1978. I was born in ’64. So I was fourteen. I saw Stanley Jordan in that same place. And Wynton Marsalis. All those concerts were in one year, and that’s the year I got into improvisation. That was the year before I left Princeton, New Jersey.
BLVR: In what ways do you work with Phish on improvisation? Like, improvising as a full band, rather than as four individual soloists.
TA: We had this series of exercises that we developed, called “Including Your Own Hey.” It sounds weird, but we did them a lot. They start off with a pulse. [Snaps in time] The first level is, I play a four-note phrase [sings “do-do-do-do”]; Page [McConnell] is on my right, and he imitates it on the piano; Fish [Jon Fishman] does his best to play it on the drums; then Mike [Gordon] does it on the bass. Now everyone goes around the room in a circle and everyone starts one.
BLVR: It’s a copycat listening exercise.
TA: Yeah, and then there were more levels. The next level is, I start a pattern and then Page harmonizes with it. We make a jigsaw-puzzle pattern. Then Mike finds his place in the pattern, and Fish finds his place in it. And we’re all listening to each other. Now, only when you hear that all the other musicians have stopped searching, once you hear they’ve locked in with what you’re playing, you say, “Hey!” So, since we’re still listening so intently to each other, we should all say “Hey” at the same time, but if we don’t—if someone says “Hey” when you’re still searching, they’ve basically just told you, “I’m not listening to you.” So we found, very quickly, that it meant you had to always be listening to three people other than yourself. And the music, we found, improved immensely by not navel-gazing. So now the idea is, I’m not paying any attention to myself at all. I’m just responding to what they’re playing.
Then there were other levels, where you’d leave a hole in a musical phrase, and the other person could only play in that hole. That was called “Including Your Own Hey Hole.” [Laughs] So the bass lands, then the cymbal, then the guitar. [Sings, “Ba-bo-da-bing, ba-bo-da-bing.”]
BLVR: And this helped solidify you as a band?
TA: Oh, yeah. We should do it again, though. We haven’t done that stuff in years. Then, in the early ’90s, we started realizing we were having tempo battles onstage. Fish would decide he’d lay back, and I’d want to rush. Every band who’s ever improvised goes through this. Then someone gives the angry glare. What are you doing? Oh my god! The gig is falling apart because you’re rushing! So one day we went into the practice room and we decided, we’re never doing that again. We did “Tempo Heys” for a week. So we’d play one note. I’d slow down. Everyone follows me. I’d speed up. Everyone follows me. I can’t lose them. And there’s no fear. That’s the important thing. Slowing down is cool. Speeding up is cool. Then we say, “Hey.” Now it’s Page’s turn. Page is speeding up and slowing down. Within two days, it stopped being a problem. When we were onstage and someone sped up or slowed down, instead of glaring, we all looked over at each other and followed them.
BLVR: This is all a pretty analytical approach to improvisation, where I think a lot of people consider Phish’s music to be just “made up on the spot.”
TA: We’re the most analytical band, in some ways. We’d talk and talk for hours about this stuff. I see improvisation as a craft and as an art. The craft part is important. There’s a lot of preparation and discipline that goes into it just so that, when you’re in the moment, you’re not supposed to be thinking at all.
BLVR: I’ve heard you guys had a no-analyzing rule for a while. You wouldn’t talk to each other about how the show went.
TA: That was for about a year. You come offstage and no one can say anything. At all. At all. Because everyone’s got their own perspective.
BLVR: Someone might think it’s a horrible show and another person could think it’s a great show.
TA: Today what I do is—I do this every night we play—I have a little quiet moment where I picture some guy having a fight with his girlfriend, getting into his car—the battery’s dead—then he gets to the parking lot and it’s full. Meets up with his friends. Comes into the show. I try to picture this one person having their own experience, and I picture them way in the back of the room. And I try to remember how insignificant my experience is, and how people’s experiences with music are their own thing. We put it out there, and if it’s of service to someone, great, but I try to get away from the idea that it’s even starting from us. And when you do that listening-exercise stuff, when I actually get into a moment where I’m only listening, I find that the music gets so much… beyond us. And I can tell that from the reaction I hear from the audience. It always feels more resonant if I can get my hands off it. If all four of us were here, they’d all be saying the same thing. It’s great as long as you listen to anybody but yourself. Anything but yourself.
BLVR: Seems to be true of life, just walking around.
TA: Right. It’s when I start applying my own fucked-up perspective to a show—so I had a bad day, whatever—that I start adding judgment to it. Or I play something and start judging what I’m playing. It’s just like that, walking around in life, that’s true! How often do I find myself walking around and being aware of my surroundings and not having some fucked-up internal dialogue in my head that never ends?
BLVR: You put out a free-improvisation record [Surrender to the Air] a while back. What does free mean to you in that context?
TA: I’d been studying with a composer and writing a lot of fugues. Fugues are very disciplined. It’s one theme and all development. You’re never allowed to bring in fresh ideas. So there may have been an element of rebellion to that record for me, because I knew my teacher absolutely loathed that kind of music. During the recording, people were just walking in and out of the room, picking up instruments. It was great.
BLVR: Did you ever learn anything about improvisation through a book?
TA: A lot. A lot. I studied with a guy named Ted Dunbar at the UMASS Jazz summer workshop. He taught me the system of tonal convergence. When I give guitar lessons, I recommend his book. There are twenty-eight scales that converge or bombard the tonal center. They are all tension scales, and they all come with a series of chords. If you listen to the great improvisers—Pat Martino, Sonny Rollins, someone on that level—these guys all studied this stuff. Yusef Lateef. All those ’60s jazz guys. They’re not playing the diatonic notes of the chord. They’re playing outside the chord, but it’s a very natural thing to do.
BLVR: Natural how?
TA: Let me see if I can explain this. There are only three chords in music, period. Minor, major, and dominant. A dominant chord wants to go somewhere because it has a tritone in it. A G dominant chord wants to go to C. That principle is physics. That’s not something that was assigned to music by theorists. When two strings are vibrating together a tritone apart, there are so many overtones that all you feel is tense, and the notes want to squish together into the home chord.
Stewie sings about it on Family Guy. [Sings, “You’ve got your G chord right here / It’s like your cozy house where you live / That’s where you start your journey / Here I am in my house nice and cozy / and then you poke your head out the door with a C chord / And everything looks okay out here / Maybe I’ll take a walk outside to the D chord / Walkin’ around outside, look at all the stuff out here / And then we go to an A-minor, gettin’ a little cloudy out here / lookin’ like we might get some weather / Then we go to E-minor, oh definitely got some weather / Things are a little more complicated than they seemed at first / And then we go back to my house.”] It’s great. The twelve-bar blues are based on this, too. But the jazz guys from the ’60s took this concept to Mars. They came up with twenty-eight scales, all of which were basically substitutions for that dominant chord. The music is still simple: Major is happy. Minor is sad. Dominant is tense. That’s all there is. It never goes further than that with chords.
BLVR: And you’re working with these sorts of “tonal convergence” theories when you improv onstage?
TA: If you’re going to be doing a long improvisation, it’s boring to sit on one scale and just go up and down. There’s a lot of jam music like this, and that’s why people don’t like it. It never goes beyond that. Sonny Rollins isn’t doing that, even though he’s playing over a G-major chord for eighteen minutes. It’s not just a G-major when Sonny Rollins plays it.
Herbie Hancock has this thing about an informed vocabulary but a childlike approach. He plays simple, simple, catchy melodies, but all his chord voicings have forty or fifty years of this theory in them. So when he gets onstage it can be all childlike. Not childish. But if you ever stopped a Hancock recording and looked at a few measures of what he’s playing, you’d be floored. The voice leadings are filled with all these ideas. It doesn’t sound complicated, but it’s a more mature, elegant palette of emotions. These guys can hit an emotional chord that a lesser player couldn’t. It’s the same way a great writer with a great vocabulary can bring out subtler emotions.
BLVR: And you’re still practicing this type of thing at home?
TA: Yesterday. It takes forever, because once I learn one of these scales, I can just play it from my brain. It doesn’t sound right—if I’m playing it from my brain. I have to play it so much—until it sounds tossed off, until it is tossed off.
BLVR: There’s that Charlie Parker quote: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
TA: That’s what he did. It sounds like water when you hear him play.
BLVR: It’s impossible to think that fast.
TA: You couldn’t. They were all doing this. Coltrane. All those jazz guys. I heard that Ted Dunbar’s theory of convergence is like the Holy Grail. There’s stories about this legendary dinner these guys had where they wrote it on a tablecloth, and nobody knows where.
BLVR: There’s actually a Coltrane quote I wanted to ask you about. He says, “I’d like to get to the point where I can capture the essence of a precise moment in a given place, compose the work, and perform it immediately in a natural way.”
TA: I love that. I love that he said “compose the work.”
BLVR: Right. And I wanted to ask you, do you think composition and improvisation are the same thing? Or are they inherently different?
TA: I think they’re the same thing. The struggle is not giving up the best element of composition, which is the time to figure out that it’s all right, and also to not give up the best element of improvisation, which is that it’s happening in real time, so you can’t stop to ruin it. You don’t have any time to screw up.
BLVR: So you think in the best instances, improvisation and composition would produce the same results?
TA: Yes. Yes. I’ll give you an example. On the song “Billy Breathes there’s a guitar solo I like a lot. That’s a composed solo. I didn’t labor over it. What I did is, I walked around the kitchen—my daughter had just been born and we were living out in the woods in Vermont. I was in my union suit, chopping wood. I was not thinking about anything, and then I just started singing [sings melody] the first four notes of the solo. I had a cassette player and I’d run over and get it recorded. Then I’d forget about it. And then the next part came. It was a lot of wearing headphones while walking around. Cassette player in my pocket. Change a diaper, go to the store, and whenever I can disconnect from whoever I’m talking to in the room, I’d put on my headphones. So the point I’m making is that it still felt like improv.
BLVR: You were just capturing moments out of your daily life.
TA: I would just wait for the moment to come. It didn’t feel any different than what happens on stages. I was busying myself with other things. I wasn’t sitting there working, like capital-W work, but, in the end, it took days and days.
BLVR: You write a lot that way?
TA: Yeah. And since you’re feeding the cat and you’re not paying attention and then you listen to what you just recorded, you can really hear when it’s wrong. If it’s wrong, it’s like when you put on bad music in the background. But going back to Coltrane, it sounds like he just wants to be doing that in an immediate way when he’s onstage. I’m starting to think that patience is the biggest part of the whole thing. And, you know, another thing that just popped into my head, and I’m not sure if this answers your question, but like a week ago, I was writing this thing. Single lines and chords moving and blah, blah. I was going for about four days, and I wasn’t really thinking about it. I had six minutes’ worth of music, and then all of a sudden it just stopped. And I didn’t really realize that it stopped until I put all the pieces together. It’s everywhere: on my cassette recorder, on my phone, on a 4-track recorder, on the laptop. It just stopped. All of a sudden. It’s the concept of being a channel.
BLVR: You’ve said that before.
TA: A lot of people end up saying it.
BLVR: Otherwise you point at yourself and it becomes an ego-y thing. That’s dangerous.
TA: I mean, it’s still craft. It’s still work. I got to play with these orchestras recently, at Carnegie Hall. One of the best musical experiences of my life. You go in and there are all the walls covered in photos of great conductors. A picture of Mark Twain standing on the stage. This is what you walk by before you go onstage, in case anyone ever wants to try and have an ego in that room. But so I get a two-hour rehearsal with these musicians, with the New York Philharmonic—maybe the top orchestra in the world—and every single musician on the stage is so far beyond anyone I’ve ever played with. All ninety of them. They were the top in their school and then the top at Juilliard and now they’re playing second cello. And the humility is as high as the musicianship. Let’s say you’re playing a Beethoven piece in a room where the same piece was played one hundred years ago. They’re sitting in the same chairs, wearing the same shoes and suits, playing instruments that are one hundred years old, playing the same sounds with the best conductor of their time, who is standing under photos of twenty of the greatest conductors. And when the music started playing, I had this idea that the music was coming through this little channel—for lack of a better word—for years and years. Musicians come and go and they’re stewards of the music for a brief period of time. But once the music plays—it’s really between Beethoven and the listener at that point. The musicians are there to get their goddamn hands off of it. All that training! Thousands of hours! Sight-reading every day! All so they can get the hell out of the way because nobody gives a crap about them at all. The less you notice them, the better it sounds. I mean, it was the highest level of art in music that I’d ever seen, and it was performed by people who had spent countless hours of work just to be invisible.
BLVR: In music, you never notice that quality anywhere more than in the orchestra.
TA: And the challenge of getting ninety people to play together! Try getting four people to play together.
III. TALKING TO COPS
BLVR: Your early music sounds orchestral in a way, or at least compositional. But you’ve since moved further toward the tradition of songwriting.
TA: I’m starting to go back to the compositional side a little more. Recently, I just wanted to sing more songs. That’s a simple answer. But Tom [Marshall, Anastasio’s cowriter] and I went through a period in the ’90s where we started going on these songwriting junkets. They were just a lot of fun because we would turn off the world. It’s been a long time since we’ve done that, what with cell phones and everything. We would lock ourselves in a farmhouse. A lot of the songs off of Undermind and The Story of the Ghost and Farmhouse were written during that period.
BLVR: And a piece like “Time Turns Elastic” the one you played at Carnegie Hall: how does that get written?
TA: I wrote that over the period of a year. It was supposed to be an orchestral piece, and it was first recorded and released that way. But then Phish got back together and our producer, Steve Lillywhite, said, “You know, this wouldn’t be a Phish record without a big, long thing,” so we put it together and played it. There was a lot of process skipped when it went to the Phish version. The orchestral version is the real version, to me. It took a real long time for a piece like “You Enjoy Myself” to work. It needed tender love and care. This one didn’t get that. If you want to hear what that piece is supposed to sound like, listen to the orchestral version.
BLVR: How did that process work?
TA: I wrote the form. Don [Hart] did the orchestration. But that’s a bit of an oversimplification, because the guy who did the orchestration is a close friend of mine, and we were on the phone for a year, working on it. He would fly up, and we’d spend three days on it, sketching it out. I orchestrated a couple of Phish pieces, like “Guyute,” and basically found out that I’m a crappy orchestrator, but I knew enough to know it would be cool if, say, the brass took off in this spot. We would have conversations like, How are we going to keep the rhythm going here? And we’d go online and listen to some Afro-Cuban bands—because an orchestra has three percussionists. So we’d try to comp that kind of a vibe and then go home and work on it.
BLVR: And that’s pretty different from the way the song-y music is created.
TA: Yeah. Tom and I just have a blast writing the songs. It’s our social life. We go out and by the end of the night we have three new songs. We basically talk to each other in song. This is how it’s been since eighth grade. I text him songs.
BLVR: You guys have interwoven music into social life.
TA: I have. I think that’s the truest thing that has been said in this interview so far.
BLVR: There’s no off and on switch.
TA: Yeah, but that can be dangerous. People in my immediate family think I’m losing my mind, because I don’t know how to turn it off. I really don’t. As a matter of fact, I’ve been encouraged by my wife and those around me to, on New Year’s Eve, hand over my phone for a month. This is actually something I’ve never talked about before. This is what I’ve done to my life. Anybody who comes into my life, I start collaborating with. It’s not just Tom. It’s Steve, the Dude of Life, who wrote “Fluffhead” and “Suzy Greenberg”—a lot of good songs. And then it’s my first pal [Suzannah Goodman], who wrote “Bathtub Gin” with me, and then my friend Dave [Abrahams], who wrote “Runaway Jim” with me. It’s my daughter, who I wrote “Goodbye Head” with. It’s like it’s always happening. The only problem became when we started employing all our friends. That kind of thinking got out of control. I didn’t know where life began and music ended.
BLVR: Is that bad?
TA: There shouldn’t have to be a separation, but sometimes reality sets in. So I’m writing songs with friends all the time, and then you start getting phone calls, years later, like “I need more money to write songs.” I mean, anybody in the room gets a songwriting credit. That’s how I do it. You open up this door, and all of sudden people are calling and saying, “Let’s do more.” What starts out as a sort of gift turns into a situation where you’re on the phone all day, fielding these kinds of issues, and you’re not walking down the street, looking at architecture, thinking about music. I just say yes too much. I’m working on a Broadway musical and a Phish record and a solo record and a quintet thing.
My family recently made me change my phone ringer to a barking dog so it sounds like no. No no no. The problem is, if I don’t learn to have boundaries, which, historically, I don’t, then a lot of moments become, well, talking to cops or whatever. You can get a little crazy. It’s a blessing, but there’s a certain point at which you have to go to bed.
BLVR: Right. You have to stay healthy, I guess.
TA: I’ll sleep when I die!
IV. MUSIC AND ENDURANCE
BLVR: Your set lists are analyzed by fans and published in books. What is your thinking about the art of the set list?
TA: In the mid-’90s I was incredibly obsessed with it. I’d always be thinking about key changes between songs. So you’d put one song in D, and then the next one in E, and then rise up to it. Then there was an attempt to make everyone onstage sing. Much of the songwriting was written to the set list, not the album. We’d say, “We need a set-closer. We need a big whopping set-closer.” Or we’d need a song for Page to sing. Or we’d write a song for a piano solo. But then later in the ’90s it became more organic, spur-of-the-moment. We’d just let it rip. The problem is, there are so many songs now.
BLVR: I heard you don’t use set lists at all, sometimes.
TA: Yeah, since Phish came back, I’ll just walk around backstage and ask everybody, “What do you want to play?” and people will say, “Oh, I want to sing this or that until I have thirty or forty songs on a piece of paper. It’s like the writing. The set lists are all over the place. A mess. Then we go out onstage and just forget about it. We give a set list to Chris every night and he just laughs and rips it up. We never even play the first song.
BLVR: Do you call it out?
TA: I’ll lean over and ask Mike or Page. It’s kind of like a big therapy group up there. I’ll yell out, “Is everyone cool with this?” But, yeah, usually, I just scream something out.
BLVR: For every song?
TA: Yeah, you never know until you get up there. It’s a sort of controlled chaos. Meaning, there’s a lot of walking around and asking questions. Like, I’ll walk into the venue and—I remember at Alpine Valley there was a girl standing by the fence, and I asked her, “What should we play tonight?” and she yelled, “Play ‘What’s the Use?’” And so I’ll write that down. The problem is that some of the songs are so complicated that, if we don’t run it beforehand, then it sucks and there’s lots of self-flagellation. Like, “Oh my god, I messed up ‘Peaches en Regalia.’” You know? Which is exactly what happened when we played it last time. I felt terrible.
BLVR: You guys have played some seven-hour shows, right?
TA: We played on New Year’s Eve ’99 all night. We played from eleven that night till about 7:30 a.m.
BLVR: What thoughts are you having at 7:29 a.m., when you’ve been playing all night long?
TA: Oh, that was one of the best nights of my life.
BLVR: Does the music get better or worse when you play that long?
TA: I don’t know. That night felt like a big dream. Have you ever stood in a field with a buddy and hung around until the sun came up? Well, it was that, times eighty thousand people. It was winter and we were outside. It was at Big Cypress. It wasn’t even a venue. We built it. It was a small city. One of the great nights on earth, for me. But I’ve never listened to it or anything. I don’t want to. The sun came up. It was all pink.
BLVR: I’ve heard you want to play even longer shows.
TA: We want to do the LG, which is some random gig, in the middle of some tour, in some random venue in Ohio. We’d shut the doors and say, “The only rule is, if you leave you can’t come back in.” And all your cell phones have to be handed over, and if you have to make a phone call, there’s a pay phone, and you’re only allowed to say, “I’m not going to be there.” There’s a big burly guard by the phone and he’s got his finger on the thing. There’d be food and everything. And then we’d play for two days, at least. So you’d go in when the sun was setting, and then you’d come out two mornings later. So it’d feel like you were up all night, but really you were in there for two days. I wonder how many people would stay? Ten?
BLVR: What’s the interest in music and endurance about?
TA: We used to do long practices. Really long. It’s another way to get away from the ego. You stop thinking. All this stuff all sounds so silly when you talk about it. But it happens. It also happens over the course of a tour. The first show, you walk onstage and you’re thinking about the shirt you’re wearing. By the end, it’s completely different.
BLVR: You have such a large community of people surrounding Phish, and I wonder what your thinking is about music as a social tool. Can music change society?
TA: That sounds like which came first, the chicken or the egg. Because I always think society changes music. In a big way. Think about the ’40s. My teacher was fifteen when Woody Herman was touring around the country. It was one of those ripping big bands, with four trombones. If you were there, it was like the rock and roll of the time. People were dancing and sneaking drinks in flasks and going out to the parking lots with their girlfriends. And then World War II came, and all those guys got drafted, there was rationing on rubber. Overnight, it ended, as soon as World War II hit. So society changed music there.
BLVR: That was a time when improvisation was actually a form of pop music.
TA: Yeah. If you look at the ’40s, it was the last time when rock—for lack of a better word—and high art and pop music were all one thing. They had the best singers and arrangers and drummers all in a three-and-a-half-minute song. My teacher would always talk about this. He’d go with his girlfriend, ditch her, and then run up with his guy friends to the front row. They all knew who the best trumpet player was. This was at Roseland. Same place we’re playing. So then World War II comes and then everyone’s sad for a while—a simplification of history—and then everyone wants to be cheered up, so along came the Beatles, just in time. “Whooo! Let’s have a party. I’m sick of these grown-ups talking about war all the time.”
BLVR: So you never consider your music to be a tool? You’re in a position where you have such a large community mobilized around you. And yet, you never seem to try to use your music to directly shape the community.
TA: No, but I feel like we’re a part of something that’s bigger than ourselves. When those first four Phish festivals happened, there were seventy thousand people in Maine. It was crazy. It’s like ten hours north of Portland. We didn’t know what the hell was going on. But then, look at what’s going on in culture. The internet wasn’t quite invented yet. MTV was still huge. Pop music had become, in the ’80s, this horrible plastic thing where you had to make a video before you made music. It was a terrible time in music, for me, other than some of the great punk bands like Bad Brains. I mean, there’s always good stuff going on—Prince, Talking Heads—but in pop culture, it was horrendous. And when we started doing these festivals, it just exploded. This whole community popped up. It was weird. Today, you couldn’t do a festival in Maine with every band in the world playing and get seventy thousand people to go up there. Think about it. A lot of these new festivals draw just eight or ten thousand people. It’s almost in Canada. It’s really far away. But was that us? I don’t think so. Again, if World War II didn’t end, you wouldn’t have the Beatles. You need a cultural landscape. Something just happened with those festivals—for about four years there, everyone wanted to be gathering.