Phish’s Trey Anastasio on Improvisation, Music and Life

I didn’t know where life began and music ended.” – Trey Anastasio

Phish is not for everyone – I understand that – but I also understand that the members of Phish are incredibly talented musicians, and that what they do is insanely difficult.  I highly recommend this republished interview with Trey Anastasio for anyone interested in the band, or in music in general. (hat tip to reader Lory for the link)

My favorite excerpts:

“I saw King Crimson around that time, too. Robert Fripp was playing these crazy mathematical patterns. He’d be playing in a time signature of 7/4 while the other guy, Adrian Belew, played in 5/4, and they’d meet up 35 notes later.”


In what ways do you work with Phish on improvisation? Like, improvising as a full band, rather than as four individual soloists.

We had this series of exercises that we developed, called “Including Your Own Hey.” It sounds weird, but we did them a lot. They start off with a pulse. [Snaps in time] The first level is, I play a four-note phrase [sings “do-do-do-do”]; Page [McConnell] is on my right, and he imitates it on the piano; Fish [Jon Fishman] does his best to play it on the drums; then Mike [Gordon] does it on the bass. Now everyone goes around the room in a circle and everyone starts one.

It’s a copycat listening exercise.

Yeah, and then there were more levels. The next level is, I start a pattern and then Page harmonizes with it. We make a jigsaw-puzzle pattern. Then Mike finds his place in the pattern, and Fish finds his place in it. And we’re all listening to each other. Now, only when you hear that all the other musicians have stopped searching, once you hear they’ve locked in with what you’re playing, you say, “Hey!” So, since we’re still listening so intently to each other, we should all say “Hey” at the same time, but if we don’t — if someone says “Hey” when you’re still searching, they’ve basically just told you, “I’m not listening to you.” So we found, very quickly that it meant you had to always be listening to three people other than yourself. And the music, we found, improved immensely by not navel-gazing. So now the idea is, I’m not paying any attention to myself at all. I’m just responding to what they’re playing.”

Then there were other levels, where you’d leave a hole in a musical phrase, and the other person could only play in that hole. That was called “Including Your Own Hey Hole.” [Laughs] So the bass lands, then the cymbal, then the guitar. [Sings, “Ba-bo-da-bing, ba-bo-da-bing.”]


“Today what I do is — I do this every night we play — I have a little quiet moment where I picture some guy having a fight with his girlfriend, getting into his car — the battery’s dead — then he gets to the parking lot and it’s full. Meets up with his friends. Comes into the show. I try to picture this one person having their own experience, and I picture them way in the back of the room. And I try to remember how insignificant my experience is, and how people’s experiences with music are their own thing. We put it out there, and if it’s of service to someone, great, but I try to get away from the idea that it’s even starting from us. And when you do that listening-exercise stuff, when I actually get into a moment where I’m only listening, I find that the music gets so much … beyond us. And I can tell that from the reaction I hear from the audience. It always feels more resonant if I can get my hands off it. If all four of us were here, they’d all be saying the same thing. It’s great as long as you listen to anybody but yourself. Anything but yourself.”

I found that last line especially interesting, especially considering the lyrics to Phish’s song “Anything But Me:”

“I am just a raindrop that accelerates without control
Losing bits and pieces in descent ’til I’m no longer whole
I am just another shooting star above that you might see
Until I have your full attention I’ll be anything but me”

Trey then gets technical:

“Let me see if I can explain this. There are only three chords in music, period. Minor, major and dominant. A dominant chord wants to go somewhere because it has a tritone in it. A G dominant chord wants to go to C. That principle is physics. That’s not something that was assigned to music by theorists. When two strings are vibrating together a tritone apart, there are so many overtones that all you feel is tense, and the notes want to squish together into the home chord.

Stewie sings about it on Family Guy. [Sings, “You’ve got your G chord right here / It’s like your cozy house where you live / That’s where you start your journey / Here I am in my house nice and cozy / and then you poke your head out the door with a C chord / And everything looks OK out here / Maybe I’ll take a walk outside to the D chord / Walkin’ around outside, look at all the stuff out here / And then we go to an A-minor, gettin’ a little cloudy out here / lookin’ like we might get some weather / Then we go to E-minor, oh definitely got some weather / Things are a little more complicated than they seemed at first / And then we go back to my house.”] It’s great. The 12-bar blues are based on this, too. But the jazz guys from the ’60s took this concept to Mars. They came up with 28 scales, all of which were basically substitutions for that dominant chord. The music is still simple: Major is happy. Minor is sad. Dominant is tense. That’s all there is. It never goes further than that with chords.”


On the idea of playing a true marathon show:

“We want to do the LG, which is some random gig, in the middle of some tour, in some random venue in Ohio. We’d shut the doors and say, “The only rule is, if you leave you can’t come back in.” And all your cell phones have to be handed over, and if you have to make a phone call, there’s a pay phone, and you’re only allowed to say, “I’m not going to be there.” There’s a big burly guard by the phone and he’s got his finger on the thing. There’d be food and everything. And then we’d play for two days, at least. So you’d go in when the sun was setting, and then you’d come out two mornings later. So it’d feel like you were up all night, but really you were in there for two days. I wonder how many people would stay? Ten?”

Good stuff.  I also recommend moe. and String Cheese Incident as incredibly talented “Jam Bands” currently out there on the live scene.   Catch them if you can.



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