Phish’s Trey Anastasio on Community, Commitment and Classical Music

August 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The symphony is not where you expect to see the guitarist of the world's leading jam band. Jeffrey Brown talks to Phish's Trey Anastasio about his 30-year career sneaking "harmonic elegance into rock & roll," being addicted to practicing, having a tight community of fans and his recent performances for classical music audiences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: how a front man of rock is charming new fans in the world of classic music, and yet still jamming for his adoring base after three decades on the road.

Jeffrey Brown has our profile.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s not where you expect to see the lead guitarist of what’s widely seen as rock ‘n’ roll’s leading jam band. But there was Trey Anastasio recently, best known for his work with the band Phish, performing arrangements of his music with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. And even for a man used to playing for thousands in huge arenas, this was exciting.

TREY ANASTASIO, Musician: When you stand in that spot next to the podium and an orchestra is playing, the sound is …

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

TREY ANASTASIO: Oh, my God, it’s in 3-D, and it’s coming in every direction. My knees get weak.

JEFFREY BROWN: It turns out that Anastasio’s love for classical music is longstanding, going back to his youth. He credits a college composition teacher for showing him how to write large-scale pieces modeled on symphonies, big band arrangements, and more.

TREY ANASTASIO: We used to talk a lot about not getting so hung up on styles, but being much more focused on content, so that you could sneak harmonic elegance into rock ‘n’ roll.

JEFFREY BROWN: You felt that from the beginning?

TREY ANASTASIO: From the beginning, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1983, Anastasio formed the band that would become Phish with three other musicians in Burlington, Vt. And over 30 years, with a brief breakup in 2004, the band has developed one of the largest and most loyal fan bases in rock ‘n’ roll, making their name not on number one hits, but for their live performances featuring extended improvisations, “the jam.”

Rolling Stone magazine dubbed Phish the most important band of the 1990s, and Anastasio himself one of the 100 greatest guitarists in rock history. And the community of hundreds of thousands of Phish fans is as rabid as ever, many following the group from concert to concert.

And that, says Anastasio, is fundamental to the band’s identity.

TREY ANASTASIO: A lot of the people who come see us have been coming for 20, 30 years. I have, as strange as this sounds, relationships with people who stand, like, 10 rows back and dance that I recognize and I walk on stage, and I say, hi, and it’s a good feeling, and we start playing. I have never spoken a word to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what many fans may not realize, Anastasio says, is all the hard work that goes into what they see on stage. For one thing, Phish is addicted to practicing.

TREY ANASTASIO: The way I see it, the freedom comes with an enormous amount of discipline first.

There’s lots and lots of hidden work and practicing that gets you to the point where you can play like that. And one of the things that we used to do as a band with Phish is that we would do jamming exercises.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jamming exercises.

TREY ANASTASIO: We didn’t want it to be a big mush of, you know, navel-gazing, self-indulgent solos.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wanted organized jam?

TREY ANASTASIO: We wanted organized jamming, yes.

So we would do very elaborate listening exercises where we would go around in a circle, and each musician would start a phrase, and then the other three would have to join in harmony or rhythmically.

We used to do rushing and dragging tempo exercises in a circle. It would be each person’s turn to drag, and if they dragged, we would have to go with them fearlessly. And if they rushed, we’d go with them fearlessly. So a lot of it had to do with being in a group of people and coexisting and being a community.

JEFFREY BROWN: That word, community, is clearly important to Anastasio and his bandmates. And the security of the band has allowed him to pursue other interests.

In addition to his appearances with many leading orchestras around the country, he tours with his own band and recently wrote the music for a Broadway production.

TREY ANASTASIO: I always like to keep in the child mind, I mean, childlike, but not childish, meaning a beginner’s mind. I like learning. I like being the beginner.


TREY ANASTASIO: Yes. And I like the challenge. I like getting up in the morning and learning something new. The other thing is that you learn stuff that you then take back to Phish.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really? It works that way?

TREY ANASTASIO: Definitely. So, you might be in a big arena, and there is some kind of music going on or some kind of guitar solo or something, and I think, wow, I wish I could get to the level that I heard with, you know, the Pittsburgh Symphony that night, when the brass section was playing, that kind of thing. So, you know, it opens your mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Performing with the orchestra, Anastasio says, is a way to re-imagine pieces he wrote for Phish, but to do so in a way that’s challenging and fulfilling for the musicians as well.

TREY ANASTASIO: The idea is that there is nothing as rhythmically tight on God’s green earth as an orchestra. The strings usually act in a percussive way, so we didn’t want to put a drum set up there.

There is nothing as harmonically elegant and there is nothing as texturally elegant as an orchestra. And we wanted to take advantage of all those elements.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, Phish goes on, having survived decades of incredible change in the music business.

TREY ANASTASIO: It’s probably hard for a young band right now to break through that.

But I will say one thing here. This is going to be — sound insensitive or whatever. There is no free ride, you know?


TREY ANASTASIO: Sometimes, I think people think they are going to get into music because it’s a way to not work, which is completely the opposite of the way that I have always looked at it. If you love it, you are going to get up at 7:00 every day and play all day long and work and find gigs. And …

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is a job. It’s something you work at.

TREY ANASTASIO: Yes. So, you have got to love it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have got to put in your 10,000 hours.

TREY ANASTASIO: You have got to put in your 10,000 hours.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then you have got to keep …

TREY ANASTASIO: And then you have got to put in another 10,000 hours. But, you know, if you love it, which I do, it’s easy.

JEFFREY BROWN: The band is once again on the road this summer, touring the country. And Phish fans everywhere will be glad to hear that a new album is in the works.