Since the demise of The Grateful Dead, Phish has unassumingly established itself as the alpha jam band, attracting some of the most pathologically devoted fans this side of Ani DiFranco. But, as with DiFranco, the Vermont group saw mainstream media attention wane when it became clear that the band--singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman--wouldn't break into platinum-selling pop stardom any time soon. So Phish has settled into a far more relaxed existence, settling down (Anastasio has two kids, McConnell has one), touring less incessantly, and releasing albums (Farmhouse comes out May 16) that sound little like the windy live workouts for which the group is known. Shortly before heading out on a short tour with Stewart Copeland and Primus' Les Claypool as the inevitably indulgent supergroup Oysterhead, Anastasio spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about a variety of topics.
The Onion: How long are you guys touring behind this album?
Trey Anastasio: We're doing some strange shows at the beginning. We're going to do Radio City and then the tour. We go to Japan for about a week and then do about a month in the States. Then we take a month off and tour through the fall.
O: You're not going to go on one of those epic, eight-year tours?
TA: No. Too old. Too old.
O: Still, with all your touring, why put out records?
TA: Boy, that's a good question these days, what with Napster and all that. [Laughs.] I can't answer that question. To throw your money away? Why put out records? A record is a... You have to nail yourself down and you have to live with it for the rest of your life, so I think there's something good about that, even though I look back a lot of the time and cringe. But at the same time, it's good, because you're going to change as soon as the record comes out. Even by the time it comes out, it's usually been three or four months since you finished it, and you're a different person. I think it's good. It's a snapshot of where the band is once a year. That's why we put out records.
O: The next question, then, would be, "Why record for a label when you can probably make more money selling your music at shows?"
TA: I have been asked that question by a lot of different people. Why record for a label? I don't know why. That's a good question. Especially at this point, because now we're recording in my barn. We don't even need to pay for a recording studio. It still costs a lot of money to rent gear, but that makes a big difference. That would be the first answer: They'll give you the money to record. Most people don't have the money to record. But I think that's all going to change. You're asking the questions of the times. Something's gonna have to change. I don't know. I can't answer that question. [Laughs.]
O: What's your take on Napster? I'm sure every musician in the world is being asked that question right now.
TA: I really just... I kind of live in a hole. I don't have a computer yet. I really don't. I've just been hearing about it recently. I think a lot of people are very threatened by it, and it's essentially stealing. I think there's probably a lot of kids who are downloading stuff off Napster who won't even realize that what they're doing is no different than walking into a record store and taking something off the rack, and that it costs money to make these records. It's a little bit different for us because we play live. But maybe for a young band that just put out their first record and worked really hard on it, and then up it goes onto Napster and they don't make any money... They may not be able to record again. The other thing that's kind of bad about it is that we always try to be... We let people trade tapes, and even when MP3 came along, there were no problems: People can put their MP3 files up on the net as long as there's no advertising and nobody's making money off it. Which is not the case with Napster, because people are making a lot of money through corporate sponsorship and stuff. So you're basically just stealing and putting money in the pockets of somebody other than the bands you're taking the stuff from. So as long as people know that, and then... At that point, my feeling is that, well, it's the mob mentality. Just because there's a bunch of people and you could smash into the store and start looting, that doesn't mean you will. And people don't. Maybe people won't.
O: I would think that, of all the bands out there, Phish would probably be the most tolerant of Napster, because you've allowed and sort of encouraged tape trading. In a lot of ways, it's just a high-tech way of trading tapes.
TA: Right, well, there's definitely a big part of me... Okay, I have to say that I've been hearing a lot of people complaining to me. Now, if you really want to ask me my real opinion, my own personal real opinion, I've been kind of bombarded by different people from different parts of the organization telling me, "Oh, my God, Napster this, Napster that." What I really think is that in a certain way there's something really cool about it to me. And the fact that it's putting power in the hands of the people is so cool. And the fact that... I don't know. Things are happening on the Internet that I think are the best things that ever happened to music. First of all, the media are becoming disempowered, and that is the greatest thing ever. People talk to their friends and talk online about how good a concert was. They don't just read about it in Rolling Stone. The power is shifting back to the people, and I think that's the best thing that's ever happened. You know, the fucked-up thing about record labels is that you need to get signed for anybody to hear you, and there's so much bullshit involved in getting signed. So much of it has to do with who you know and being at the right place at the right time that so many talented people are never heard. Hopefully, that won't happen anymore. Maybe a young band comes out, starts playing in some town, and then everybody puts it on the Internet. They put the music up, you can get it via MP3 or whatever, and you can log on and hear people talking about what a great band this is, and the next thing you know, their music is available. But it's important to remember that the way Napster is set up now, that band would never be able to get off the ground because they would never get paid. You know what I mean? Part of me is really glad this stuff is happening, and part of me realizes that something's got to give. People need to get paid. It's expensive making albums, much more expensive than people think.
O: I think you can rest assured that the Internet will become just as horribly corporatized as the record industry is now.
TA: Yeah, there's all this money to be made. Somebody's going to make it. I've got to admit I have this sick feeling of joy at the Wild West situation out there right now, where people are just making up their own minds. I feel a probably naïve feeling that maybe something great is gonna come out of all this. I got that feeling after the New Year's show. That was just a real wake-up call to me. We did a New Year's show in Florida that lasted four days. The fans were there for four days, and we played outside all night. A lot of cool things happened: It was a multimedia event, and hundreds and hundreds of visual artists were involved. Everybody got together, and it was just this unique, cool event. It was all-night partyingjust out-of-bounds, crazy partying, but not violent in any wayand it was virtually ignored by the traditional media. Nobody would ever have even known about it if not for the Internet. The fact that something like that could even take place in this swamp in Florida... I mean, there was no advertising for it, either. Everybody just talked about it on the Internet. It opened up this whole door in my mind that other things like that could happen that were completely controlled by bands and the fans. There were no corporate sponsors or anything. And it never could have happened without the Internet. So maybe there are other things that could... I don't know. That's a long answer.
O: Going back a few records, through The Story Of The Ghost and the new one, each album seems like it's built around a conscious decision to separate the band from its concerts. The songs seem more compact, or quieter, or slower. There seems to be a conscious decision to make each one a different sort of document. Is that what you're going for?
TA: I would say there's probably a lot of truth to that, because maybe there was a realization that for the most part, a record... With this particular album, a lot of it was about the experience of making it. We purposely steered away from going to a recording studio. We were in the barn, people were hanging out, and that was something we've been heading toward. The album is a document of a month-long experience, and that experience was sitting at night in a beautiful, serene barn. You'd think that the music would then represent that in some way; it wasn't playing in front of a lot of dancing, screaming people. If it's a real document, then I wouldn't think it would sound like a concert. I think that's been our downfall in the past: trying to bring the energy we felt at concerts into the recording studio.
O: We did a story in The Onion a few years ago, "Phish Collapses Onstage; Popular Band Overwhelmed By Stench Of Audience."
TA: Oh, I loved that. That was one of the funniest things I've ever read.
O: I wanted to get your take on that story, because we still get hate mail about it.
TA: About that? I loved it. Loved it. That was a big day for us, being in The Onion.
O: That's funny, because a lot of your fans were like, "We are not smelly hippies! Fuck you!"
O: Yeah. We got a lot of really angry stuff. It was weird how much offense certain people took at a very gentle ribbing.
TA: That was a gentle ribbing. It could have been so much worse.
O: How do you feel about your fans?
TA: Uh... I personally thought the story was great, so I got a good laugh out of it. But, no, we feel lucky. We've got a great situation. Maybe you have to have been in bands to realize just how great our situation is. I mean, believe me, it's incredible. People come to the shows, they dance the whole time, everything about it. I've played with so many musiciansolder musicians, experienced people who've been playing for yearsand I hear it over and over again, "Don't overlook how lucky you are to have this kind of situation." That's really how I feel about it. I'm just hoping it'll last another year, or however long it'll lastas long as we keep getting along and stuff. You could make fun of any rock 'n' roll crowd. They're such an easy target, aren't they? That and the bands themselves. [Laughs.]
O: It seems as if you guys' own lifestyle is different from the perceived lifestyle of your stereotypical fan.
TA: Probably. In what way?
O: You just seem like a fairly clean-living lot. Aren't you a hockey player or something?
TA: Yes, I played hockey for years. I dreamed of going to Wisconsin and playing for the Badgers.
O: What crushed that dream?
TA: Lack of talent. And size, anything. No, I got into a band. I played hockey in high school, but that's it.
O: But just as far as... I guess the way I would put it is that you don't necessarily seem like a bunch of big hippie weirdoes. That would sort of be the shorthand for it.
TA: What do hippie weirdoes do?
O: I just mean the sort of patchouli-wearing...
TA: Oh, no, I never have really gone for that.
O: So it seems like you're kind of separate from the group that's perceived as your fans. You don't seem like guys who would follow a band around.
TA: No, I've never followed a band around. Well, maybe for short periods, like five shows. When I was in high school, I followed King Crimson around for a while, when they came through on the Discipline Tour, which just blew my mind. I didn't follow them around, but I went to New York and Philadelphia. I did the same thing with Talking Heads and different bands. I like to go to concerts and whatnot. But, no, I think we've all always been pretty hunkered down. But there are other aspects to our personalities that we share with the audience. I love the concept of... Have you ever heard about Burning Man?
TA: Things like that, where people just get together and... Like when you read about these tribes in the rainforest, where once a year they all take some drug and play the drums for 50 hours. Just get naked and, you know... That whole concept of finding a place where people can completely cut loose or go nuts in a fairly safe environment is something I've always... We always used to lock ourselves in a room and play all night when it was just the four of us. I think that aspect of the personality is pretty similar. Do you think that's what a lot of people are attracted to?
O: That sounds about right, actually.
TA: Raves. That's what raves are all about. It's a completely different fashion statement, but the thing was, when the whole rave scene started, that's basically what it was all about. The only difference is between a drum machine and Jon Fishman.
O: Also, the drugs involved in going to Phish concerts are probably a bit milder.
TA: Well, I guess that depends on your opinion of mild. Some people probably think... I don't know.
O: Do you feel like a deluge of jam bands has diluted the audience a bit?
TA: Not really, no. Things don't feel very diluted to me. And maybe I'm... No. In contrast to that one answer, which was 15 minutes long, the answer to that question is no. [Laughs.]
O: What's the worst thing a fan has done to you?
TA: Well, there have been some... There was a fan who broke into Fish's house and lived there while he was away for two weeks, eating his food. I don't even like talking about that one because it's so weird, you know? That was pretty bad. One guy threw a small glass full of liquid acid in our drum tech's face.
O: The guy threw acid?
TA: Yeah. Hallucinogenic acid, not like
O: Okay, because I was like, "That's attempted murder, isn't it?"
TA: Not to mention it's wasting acid. Weird stuff happens once in a while, but for the most part...
O: Have there been long-term effects? Was he tripping for the next week?
TA: Actually, he turned into a rock star. It was incredible. I'm completely serious about that. We have a song about that. He was this shy, timid, quiet guy who just stayed in the background, but now that I think about it, that was right about the time that the turning point took place. Now he's got his own tour bus and he's wearing rock 'n' roll clothes. He's definitely the biggest rock star on tour.
O: So what you're saying is that drugs make you a winner.
TA: Exactly. That's my point. They're the missing link between coolness and uncoolness.