Trey Anastasio feels renewed creative urge
Trey Anastasio was on the brink of looking lame, until some teenagers set him straight.
He was taking a beach walk with his two daughters this summer, when one asked him what his band, Phish, was cooking up for Halloween this year — typically a red-letter date on its concert calendar. He said the group might not do anything special this time around.
“They both looked at me and were like: What? You are so lame!” says Anastasio, 50, on the phone from his New York City home. “They were just in my face about the whole thing. I think right then was when the idea sprung up.”
That idea was a surprise Halloween set in which the band — outfitted in white tuxedos and zombie makeup — performed 11 newly written instrumentals, augmented with sound effects from a 1964 Disneyland Records novelty release.
The band members initially fleshed out the details while flying to shows held over Labor Day weekend. Anastasio says the songs, which were rapturously received, will enter Phish’s repertoire.
As the group’s chief songwriter, guitarist, and general quarterback, Anastasio is first among equals in the Vermont-spawned jam band. Phish built itself into one of the world’s most dependably successful concert acts on the strength of ever-more adventurous rock music and rabidly engaged fans, who traded homemade concert tapes (through the mail, imagine!) and virtually invented the concept of talking obsessively about their favorite band on the Internet.
His to-do list lately has included the musical “Hands on A Hardbody,” which was a flop in its 2013 Broadway opening, but netted Anastasio and co-songwriter Amanda Green a Tony nomination and lives on through regional productions. He’s performed orchestrated arrangements of his songs with the likes of the New York Philharmonic. And he’s maintained a flourishing solo career in the rock realm, recording and gigging with an eponymous group that has its own original repertoire largely separate from Phish’s. (Trey Anastasio Band plays the Orpheum Theatre on Friday and Saturday.)
“He’s focused and driven more than almost anyone else I know,” Phish bassist Mike Gordon writes in an e-mail. “He might even have some leisurely distractions, but unlike 99.9 percent of humans, he simply stays on task. It’s extremely inspirational. He sets goals in a careful, systematic way and accomplishes them swiftly . . . He’s also a good leader by encouraging the rest of us to try as many of our own ideas as possible.”
Artists who’ve worked with Anastasio describe him as an uncommonly generous collaborator who approaches his work in the non-rock world with seriousness. Don Hart, a composer and arranger who crafted the orchestrations for Anastasio’s forays into the classical arena, says the songwriter’s affinity for complex rhythms and shifting tempos gives orchestra members more to work with than they had expected.
“One of the pitfalls of pop shows with an orchestra is that the orchestra can be sitting there just twiddling their thumbs, in musical terms,” Hart says. “Several shows we may have surprised the orchestra a bit. But I think word’s starting to get around that there’s some meat on the bone [with Anastasio’s program], so to speak. The musicians appreciate that.”
Anastasio’s concert-hall work also shines back into his style of rocking. “Standing up there with the orchestra and hearing the possible depth of texture and the elegance of the arrangements,” Anastasio says, “the next time I’m standing with Phish or TAB, I want that.”
Longtime songwriting partner Tom Marshall says he’s seen Anastasio’s work in one idiom affect what he does in another. “Especially in the old days, he would give my lyrics a once-over and then slap them into music, and boom, it would be a song. Since the Broadway phase, I feel that he is caring more about the exact nuances of what each line is saying.”
Still, it’s stunning that Phish, after 31 years, could utterly surprise its fans with a spectacle like that instant-classic Halloween show, which ranked somewhere among its best moments. After all, it was just 10 years ago that Phish (seemingly) broke up.
At the time, Anastasio cited his desire to avoid the nostalgia trap. He told the Globe in 2004 that he couldn’t let Phish become “a big corporation that plods around the country” collecting paychecks. (Darker issues at play were revealed when he faced felony drug charges two years later, but he avoided jail time by completing a strict rehabilitation program, and by all accounts was a model participant.)
Phish re-formed in 2009, and has caught particular creative momentum over the past two or three years. That spooky success this October, coupled with the Halloween show in 2013 — at which the band also debuted a set of new, albeit more conventional songs — convinced Anastasio that Phish is still fending off the industry clichés and creative malaise he once forecast.
“I feel like it’s as creative a moment in Phish’s history as it’s ever been,” he says. “We did so much forward motion this year, I think we rediscovered each other. The scene used to be so massive. Now we spend our time alone with the four band members together, and look what’s happening. That’s the way it always was, like, in ’94 and ’97,” he adds, citing two particularly creative years.
After Phish’s run of shows around New Year’s Eve, Anastasio reveals, he won’t play with any of his projects until Phish’s summer tour. Next year will be a “quieter” year for the band with fewer concerts, he says. But this winter he’ll release a new solo album, have a writing retreat with Marshall, and perhaps get together with Phish to hang out and maybe work on new material.
Yes, his version of slowing down can seem pretty rapid.
“I really wanted to write some new music,” he says, “and kind of move forward with, as weird as this sounds, an eye on 2030.”