Trey Anastasio straps on an acoustic guitar and walks to the edge of the stage, followed by Mike Gordon toting an upright bass, Page McConnell with a melodica, and drummer Jon "Greasy Fizeek" Fishman, who sports a rather buxomly shaped washboard. The 2,000-strong audience hushes to a silence that would have brought Maestro Segovia to tears. Without any amplification - no microphones, no piezo pickup systems, no P.A. - the band launches into a rollicking blue-grass-inspired hoedown followed by a comical version of "Dog Faced Boy," featuring a pantomimed "emotion" solo by Fishman. * Although no two Phish concerts are ever alike, they all share a "seat-of-their-pants" abandon. The band's "anything goes" sets can encompass everything from barbershop quartets to Led Zeppelin covers, with plenty of exploratory, improvised interludes in between. Fans may witness an entire night of extended jams, but no songs. The band may stop playing in the middle of the set, watching the audience's reaction for their own entertainment. Some nights they rock; other times the music might be spacey and moody.
The unpredictability of their live shows has garnered Phish a considerable following, which, judging by last year's concert attendance, numbers over 300,000 fans. Their newsletter is sent out to 50,000 "Phish Heads." Countless followers keep up with the latest Phish info over Internet, discussing details about Phish's concerts and other band doings.
"I think our music and shows are fun to talk about," says Trey Anastasio, relaxing poolside at his hotel during Phish's three-night stand in San Francisco. "People talk about sex a lot, and music is similar. It's this thing that is so powerful. It's about communication, so people are fascinated by it. And you can't ever really put your finger on it. Music moves people."
Anastasio, 29, and his bandmates look more like college T.A.s than budding rock stars. Even in his Police-brand sunglasses and black leather jacket, Anastasio looks like he'd be more comfortable in front of a Macintosh than a Mesa Boogie. But Anastasio couldn't care less about rock-star trappings. All he cares about is the music. With unbridled enthusiasm, Anastasio philosophizes on the Phish phenomenon.
How did Phish develop into a band that relies so heavily on improvisation?
We were playing in Burlington, Vermont, which was the big college town. There were 52 bars in a very small town, so you could get a gig anywhere. We would do three nights a week at this place called Nectar's, doing these plays on-stage, trying out experimental, written-out, strange pieces of music, swinging from that into hardcore stuff. It set our focus.
We never really felt any pressure that we had to be good. All we had to do was have fun. We were going to be back the next two nights anyway. It taught us to take risks. That philosophy has definitely been the most important thing with us. It's fun taking risks, and it's no fun being safe.
How do you decide who takes the lead?
Once we get onstage it's free, and anyone can take charge. That comes from having played together for ten years, touring a lot, and playing three-hour shows every night for eight months out of the year. We have taken on certain roles. It's pretty much up to me to decide what song we're going to play. I write up a song list before we go onstage, but we usually don't follow it.
We do these exercises in practice to open up those channels. We stand around in a circle. One exercise might start with me playing a simple three-note phrase. Each of the three other musicians will come in with a complementary phrase that makes a bed of sound until we're locked in. You have to actively hear what they're doing. As soon as I hear that everyone is settled in on their thing and locked, I say, "Hey." Everyone else is doing this at the same time, so when everyone says "Hey" at the same time, it moves over to my right. Then it's Page's turn to slightly alter his pattern. He might modulate. He might speed up. He might change the texture. We hear that and we change our music to fit what he's doing. He's the focal point, but we have to listen to each person. If I say "Hey" when the drummer is still searching, he knows I'm not really listening to him.
It's an exercise where you have to actively listen to each person, and each person switches from being the leader to a supporting role. That's the simplest version of our exercise. It's gotten much more complicated. We'll improvise purely on one aspect of music - tempo, melody, harmony, or tone color. We do exercises for 45 minutes where all we're doing is changing tone color. It opens up your mind.
Do you ever improvise to themes, such as "it's purple, it's humid, and you're running"?
[Laughs.] Yes, but not exactly like that. The other day I was reading The Noam Chomsky Reader, and there was this great quote in there - "The beginning and end of all philosophy is freedom." I printed that and stuck it on the piano and drums. We thought about that during practice. I thought that quote was interesting because we were philosophizing about music. That quote is true, because when we get onstage we want to be free to have anything happen.
Have you discovered any unorthodox sources of inspiration?
It seems like we're inspired by just about anything. We did this tour with Santana, and he said that when he was listening to us he envisioned the audience as a sea of flowers, the music was the water, and we were the hose. He said that the music is basically there. Musicians are the vehicle.
I thought about what he said while I was surfing. If you're surfing, you can't fight the ocean. The wave is coming, and it's a lot stronger than you. If you relax, have no fear, and you're with the flow of the wave, then you're going to be able to surf. If you try to fight it, you can't ride it. The same wave can be a source of incredible pain or beautiful flowing grace, depending on how you deal with it.
It's the same thing with live music to me. If you can let go of everything, it can be the most uplifting, enlightening, beautiful, charging experience. When that's happening you feel that you can do no wrong. The notes are just pouring out and you couldn't stop it if you wanted to. If you're a good musician, you know how to get out of the way so you're not thinking at all. You're just being. Soul. Let it go right through you. If you're thinking about scales and riffs, it's going to sound like thought. If you internalize all that, and it pours out of you, then it's a feeling of flowing.
It must be difficult for you to make records.
When we play live, people aren't going to hear the songs exactly like they are on the record. That has been difficult for us. We're getting better at it. With each record we learn something. Making records is a different experience from playing live. You have to learn that. For a while people said that our records sounded like a live band that stopped by the studio and decided to play a couple of tunes, which is basically what they were. They sounded real flat.
We would write these songs, go out for a tour and play the songs, and the songs would develop in front of a live audience. Certain nuances of the arrangement were almost written by the audience. There's a song we did last night, "Dash," where the audience does this clapping thing. They just started doing it one night and it worked its way into the song. The audience wrote it. No matter where we go, our audience knows to do that. When you get into the studio and you try to play the song, it's not going to be the same. There's nothing you can do about it.
Our new philosophy for this album was we weren't going to play any of the stuff live until after we've done the album, which is what most people do anyway. What surprised people is that our songs came out a lot more straightforward and simple. Now that we're playing them live, they're stretching out. On this album, I feel a certain excitement there. Plus the songs are a lot more songy. A couple of them are first takes. We worked out an arrangement of "If I Could" and we hadn't quite gotten it. We set up the mikes and it was almost there. Then we got it and it was the first time we ever really played the song. What I learned from that is the creation of the song has an energy to it. Then when you bring it out live you get a whole new kind of excitement, but it's hard to go back.
Your live sets cover a diverse span of music. What have you learned from playing so many styles?
The more styles that I learn, the more connections I start to see. I studied with a composer for a long time, my mentor Ernie Stires. One of the things that he always impressed on me was you might hate a certain style, but see if you can dig the music out of it and use it the way you want to use it. There's stuff to be learned. Let's say you hate jazz. You can still learn so much from playing that style of music and transferring it to what you do. If you like heavy metal, and that's all you like, that's great music. But if you pick up some of this jazz chord stuff, you wouldn't believe the ugly sounds you can get.
Have you ever taken a risk and failed miserably?
When we take a risk and fail, I don't feel like it was a failure. I feel like it was a failure when we don't take a risk. When we played with Bela Fleck's band, we decided to get everybody up onstage and just go for it. Everybody played at the same time. We did that for an hour. We never even met these people before. It was wild. Some of it was bad. Some of it was great.
We were going to Portland, Oregon, to play for a benefit for the old-growth trees. They said it was going to be on the green, there was going to be some other bands there, and they offered to get us some equipment. I said, "Don't even get us any equipment. We'll do the whole thing a cappella." I thought that would be cool. We'd never done that before. I was expecting only 200 people to show up. We got there and there were 70,000 people in the audience. The lineup was Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, Carole King, Kenny Loggins, and us. [Laughs.] I had no idea. They shuttled us on the stage and there was this one mike. They said, "Here's Phish!" All these people have never heard of us, and we're going [laughs] "Here we go. What are we going to do?" That was pretty bad. I'm sure they thought we were pretty out there.
Have you made additions to your live setup?
I got this Bradshaw system that is just amazing. My signal goes straight to my amp 80 percent of the night. It's hardwired through. For years all I used was two Tube Screamers. I didn't use any effects because I didn't want my signal going through my effects all night. I had all these effects lying around from when I first started playing guitar - an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth, some really crappy effects. Now that I have this switching system I can take them all on the road. I also have an Ibanez DM-2000, one of the first digital delays they ever made. It's got this bug in it. If you have the flange going and you hit the infinite hold button, it totally freaks out. It makes all these awful sounds. That's all I use it for.
Other than that, I've got Boogie amps and my Paul Languedoc guitars. I've got two, but one of them is just sitting there. I always use the same guitar. I haven't broken a string in five years. Paul also built me an acoustic that I use live.
Is there anything that Phish would never do?
Everybody in this band is willing to try anything. There are times when one person can't deal with it and the other three can. We just say, "Okay. We won't do that then." People don't say that unless they really mean it. Some songs I've written were just bad. I'd tell Page, "Sing this," and he would. Most people would say, "I'm not going to sing that". We have this philosophy, "I'm not going to diss it until I try it." I would never say never. I don't like that word.