Early in 1993, a rock band from Vermont called Phish came to play at Humboldt State while touring college campuses across the country. The band was on its way up, at the forefront of a new scene that was developing. Phish would eventually inherit the mantle of the Grateful Dead to lead the nascent jamband movement. Before the band played here I spoke with Phish’s founder and guitarist Trey Anastasio, the unintentional leader of a growing cult of Phish aficionados for an interview originally published in the now defunct Edge City Magazine.
Thirteen years later Trey is coming back to Humboldt for a show at the Eureka Muni Dec. 6.
Last week I talked with him again.
Hey Bob, how are you doing?
I’m in my new studio, which I just opened yesterday in New York City.
It’s really exciting. I’m pacing around looking at everything.
Yes. And a lot of old toys. I’ve been moving in. I’ve had a series of five or six little home studios in my life and I still have pieces of gear from the first one, which is where all the original Phish music was written back in New Jersey. A lot of the stuff went up to The Barn in Vermont. And now I’m doing this one in New York. Each time there’s new gear, plus all the old stuff.
Is The Barn turning into something else?
The Barn is changing. If you look inside the Bar 17 album [released in October] it says something about the Seven Below Fund. That has now started running. What we’re doing is, with help from my sister, we’re taking all the money raised on my last tour for philanthropy, and the money from the record, to go to a patron of the arts program.
For now The Barn has been divided into work spaces and we’re going to get three artists to come live and work there through the winter. The idea is that they work side by side and kind of vibe off each other, then they interface with this existing program in Burlington, a community of visual artists, metal workers glassworkers, etc. They’re in the city and the others are in the mountains at The Barn. And while the artists in residence are living in The Barn they’ll teach classes for Vermont school kids. So, the big [music] gear that’s in the Barn has been covered up as the space goes into its second life as an artist’s space.
The Barn is like a big piece of art in itself. It took five years to do. I didn’t do all the work myself of course, there were two brothers I worked with, but everything is made out of salvage. It’s really cool. Lots of local artists have put things in over the years, ramp ways, strange little elevators that go up into the cupola, crazy doors, so it’s very arty. I just needed a change after making seven albums in a row there. So there people will paint or sculpt or whatever, maybe put some piece of sculpture in the middle of the woods.
While you work in New York in what I assume is a very different sort of building..
The contrast is intense. I don’t even have any windows. I’m in a little hole in the middle of the city with a black ceiling. But it’s cool. I needed a change as I said.
I have to tell you a little story. I‘m calling from Humboldt County Calif. When you were going to play here last time, 13 years ago...
I went to the Co-op and saw Humboldt Bud. You know Bud?
I do. Bud Culbertson. He still works at the Co-op. He’s also a radio deejay. You stole his girlfriend away, well not exactly, not personally, but she went to work for you...
(Trey is laughing almost uncontrollably.) It was his wife by the way, not his girlfriend.
Shelly was with Phishnet, then she went to work for you guys in Vermont, didn’t she?
She did. I don’t know where she is now, she left a while ago.
I think she’s doing white water rafting or something like that.
Tell Bud I said Hi. He’s a very nice guy.
So, when I interviewed you, I didn’t know that much about Phish, but I was working at this restaurant, and our dishwasher was a big fan early on. With his help I did some research. When we talked on the phone we ended up yaking for something like 80 minutes. I put the interview in a local music mag (Edge City) and someone from Phishnet transcribed it and posted it on the web. My dishwasher was so thrilled that I had talked with you and asked for a copy of the tape. I gave it to him. Not much after, he quit his job to follow Phish on tour. Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I heard you were coming to play at the Eureka Muni in Dec. (on Wednesday, Dec. 6) and I wanted to send to interview to Matt, the guy who booked the show locally, another person who once worked for you. I did a Google search to find it and not only did I come up with the Phishnet interview transcription, I found the actual interview recording is being traded as a SHN file or as a BitTorrent download.
Really? Wow. I had no idea that was going on.
It made me wonder, what is it about Phish that inspired that level of unlimited devotion? What do you think?
I don’t know. There’s something about it. I’m probably the last person who could answer that question. But when things were sort of getting to be too much and then I guess I sort of pulled the plug. They certainly got mad. (He laughs again.)
I always thought that all the decisions made for the band were made from the heart. I think that’s why people liked us. I just try to do my best to do the right thing at the right time, then roll with the changes. I always thought that was what was cool about Phish. And I think when that change came it wasn’t what people wanted, but it came from the same place all those other decisions came from. When you go against an honest decision based on the heart it’s like trying to skip a stone across the Pacific Ocean. You know what I mean?
Again what I thought was so cool about Phish was that everything was so improvised and unplanned. It’s funny that the beginning of this conversation was about The Barn, because The Barn was made with no plans. That’s my space. I don’t have a MySpace, I have a barn. I did that as a pet project while Phish was going and it was all with salvage. At one point there was this school being torn down and we took the blackboards out. All of a sudden we had all this slate, so we used it to make a shower with a slate bottom because that’s what we had. The were no plans whatsoever. And there were no plans to start Phish or to have that happen, and there were no plans to stop it. I just knew it was the right thing to do at the time. And now, today, I’m standing alone in this studio in New York and I don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s the philosophy by which I’ve run my life, despite the reactions. If people are going to throw beers at you, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Getting back to the unlimited devotion question, I have my own theory, that Phish devotees and Deadheads use the band as something like a substitute for religion.
When we talked years ago you described the growth of the band as a word of mouth cult thing.And with that cult comes a framework. You know I just got this disc, a new release from Phish, The History of Colorado 1988. It’s a live recording from 1988. It was interesting because I’d never heard the show. It sounded like so much fun. And there are about four people in the audience. What happened was we got more and more popular and more and more popular and suddenly we had 80 employees. We had to tour so many nights per year. Everything became regimented.
Now, talking to you today. I’m in this different place. I’m in this teeny hole-in-the-wall studio and I’ve given my barn to some artists and I have my own record label. It’s so exciting and I very happy because it’s all so unknown. Eureka is going to be the first night of this new nine-piece band I’ve put together. I’m bringing this horn section and a couple of guys from a previous band and Jeff Stipe on drums. It’s a brand new band playing the first night ever. To me that’s exciting. People were all excited to see Phish 150 times and I suppose it was exciting. And I have to say, being in Phish was the greatest experience of my life, but now here I am coming to Eureka to play the first night ever with a brand new band. I don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s real excitement.
P.R. person intrudes: Guys, time to wrap it up...
We continue out talk and move on to discussion of Trey’s upcoming album, the meaning of Bar 17 and more... Check back when I return from vacation. Right now it’s time to pack...