On March 31, 1988, Phish played its first Manhattan gig at Kenny’s Castaways, a small, bar-like venue located in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village. A footnote in the Pharmer’s Alamanac, Phish’s performance wasn’t particularly memorable, yet it began the Vermont quartet’s longstanding connection to “the city that never sleeps.” For much of its career, Phish reserved its New York nights for big shows: New Year’s Eve performances, CD releases parties and hiatus-ending comeback spectaculars. But sometime during Phish’s two-year hiatus, Mike Gordon relocated to Manhattan, immediately immersing himself in New York’s burgeoning downtown music scene. Joining a three-dimensional crowd which forms the fabric of New York’s artistic community, Gordon quickly deconstructed his rock-star persona, sometimes filling the role of performer, more often fading into an audience already filled with eccentric pseudo-celebrities. He built a Tribeca recording studio and began gigging with Joe Russo and Marco Benevento, a jazz-rock combo collectively known as The Duo. And, by the time Phish parted ways, Gordon’s whitening ‘fro seemed more comfortable on the Knitting Factory’s blurred sidelines than on Coventry’s festival-size stage.
Shortly after disbanding Phish, Trey Anastasio also escaped Vermont and the state’s post-Coventry madness, relocating to Manhattan on a more permanent basis. After spending 2005 working on Shine, an album the guitarist describes as a set of more “simple, honest songs,” Anastasio returned to a batch of songs written shortly after Coventry and shelved sometime in late 2005. Bridging his two worlds, he recruited a number of downtown New York jazz freaks (John Medeski and Steve Bernstein, among others) as well as a crop of Vertmont stalwarts (including Ray Paczkowski, Jennifer Hartswick and Dave Grippo). He also reached out to his old friend Mike Gordon, inviting him into the studio with The Duo to lay down a track on his forthcoming solo album, Bar 17. The quartet’s initial recording sessions went so well that Anastasio asked The Duo to spend the summer on the road with him and Gordon, including a number of ampitheater dates with Phil Lesh. While riding to his Brooklyn rehearsal space with Gordon, and quoting lines from Curb Your Enthusism’s infamous “in the backseat” sketch, Anastasio clued Relix into his summer plans, his new album and why The Duo’s “Becky” may be the next “Fluffhead.”
In addition to touring with The Duo this summer, you also recorded a handful of songs with Joe and Marco for your new solo album. What initially sparked your interest in working with them?
Trey: I was working on a new album, Bar 17, in Brooklyn and Mike [Gordon] kept telling me how great it is was playing with them. So I asked them to record just one song with me and Mike. There was so much chemistry we ended up recording a whole bunch of songs, four of which are on the album. After meeting Joe that night we started hanging out a little bit and he came over and recorded some other tracks one night with me in the studio. We all also ended up writing one song together, “Dragonfly,” which I played down in Atlanta with my band in April.
Does your solo touring band contribute to the rest of the album?
Trey: Actually, not really [laughs]. It’s more of the record I was dreaming of a year ago. It’s a lot of different people: Marco, Mike, Joe, Cyro Baptista, Steve Bernstein and a bunch of other horn players from Brooklyn. I-Nine's Carmen Kaas plays on a couple of tracks. Also, John Medeski is on there and about 20 string players. From my band, Les Hall plays on a couple of tracks and, of course Ray Paczkowski and Jennifer Hartswick. Dave Grippo, Christina Durfee, Pete Apfelbaum, Andy Moroz also [contribute] and Fish [Jon Fishman] plays a little bit on one song.
You began working on this material in the fall of 2004. Why did you initially abandon those recording sessions?
Trey: What happened was [producer Bryce Goggin’s] wife had a baby and he had to leave in the middle of it. Then, simultaneously, Phish was dismantled and it was just an emotional roller coaster and I couldn’t finish it. I was just kind of left hanging. So, I signed with Columbia and Brendan O’Brien came into the picture. I had the possibility of just abandoning everything and making Shine so I went for it. But when I left, I left all these tracks… a lot of music that I had started writing and recording that was halfway done. After Shine I went back and started listening to it. Bryce is living in Brooklyn now so I finished it at his studio, Trout. Bryce’s baby has grown up a bit and he’s ready to start working again. And I’m really excited ‘cause like I said, this is sort of the record that it was originally intended to be: the first solo record after Phish.
Tony Levin was part of those initial recording sessions. Did his contributions make the final cut?
Trey: Tony didn’t actually end up on the record, much to my dismay, but there is material from those sessions. I started this record and I co-produced it… it’s the same basic “barn vibe” as Farmhouse, Round Room and my first solo records.
Yet filtered through a New York lens...
Trey: Yeah, exactly! It’s the same team of Bryce and I. I moved down here and he was one subway line away from my new place and Ray came down and Jennifer came down to record with me in Brooklyn. So, the first half of it was done in Vermont and the second part of it was done in Brooklyn. And, then, Mike was here and The Duo and I got to meet all these musicians. It’s really cool because all the musicians from Vermont are on it and then all these musicians from Brooklyn are on the same record. I really like that it bridges my two worlds.
After living in Vermont for 21 years, you recently moved to New York. How has that experience played into your creative process?
Trey: I love New York personally, but even more musically. It’s so easy. For instance, one of the last songs I tracked is called “If You’re Walking.” I called Bryce and I said, “I got a new song,” and he said, “What do you need?” And I said, “bass, drums, keys, percussion… whatever,” and he said, “O.K.!” I didn’t even know who was going to be there when I showed up and he introduced me to all these people. This woman Joan from this group Joan as a Police Woman sings back up on “Goodbye Head.” Just really interesting musicians and that’s been the most exciting thing about being down here.
On his MySpace page, Tom Marshall mentioned that you recently began writing songs together for the first time since Phish parted ways. Are any of those numbers included on your forthcoming album?
Trey: I wrote two of the songs on the album with Tom, but one of them is actually an old song, “Cincinnati,” which I had never recorded. Tom and I did recently take a songwriter trip and wrote this one song we really like called “Let Me Lie.” But most of the songs on the album I wrote by myself except for “Goodbye Head,” which is a collaboration with my daughter. It’s actually a pretty personal record. I just got the cover and was looking at the lyrics—it has a pretty personal lyrical theme. I don’t want to try to put it in words but when I read these lyrics, they seem pretty diary-like [laughs]… diuretic.
In a recent interview, Mike mentioned that you may have some additional musicians to join G.R.A.B. After rehearsing with The Duo, do you still plan to add horns and the like?
Trey: It’s pretty much just going to be the four of us now. We were practicing the last few days and it’s really cool, you know, playing as a quartet, so I think that’s what we’re going to do. I have these others shows with Tom Petty and the horns will be out for those and then I have the Oysterhead thing. So, I have a trio, a quintet and a seven-piece.
Do you plan to rearrange your solo material for The Duo and Mike?
Trey: Mike and I actually wrote a bunch of new songs together for the tour. I went up to his house outside Burlington one night after we decided to tour and ended up writing a whole batch of new songs. After we listened to them we got really excited, so he flew down to New York a couple of weeks ago and we wrote some more songs. I think we have four or five that we wrote together that we plan to bring on tour and then a few songs that The Duo and Mike did together in the past. We also all listened to a bunch of songs from Mike’s solo albums at practice yesterday and picked some to do and then we picked some Duo songs that we like a lot.
Mike: One of them [“Seasons”] is a beautiful, tragic comment. It’s sort of simple, with intricate passages in the middle of it. It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s has a touching message.
Do you think these lyrics are more personal than, say, Phish lyrics, which had a tendency to be more whimsical or told through third-person characters?
Mike: Well, I think it’s similar to our later Phish material. In a way, I think my own songwriting has gone along with the bigger bulk of songwriting Trey and Tom have done. In the earlier days, trying to be as whimsical and out-there as possible, and in the later days trying to be as from-the-heart as possible.
Trey: Mike and The Duo also recorded a song called “Homes Across the Potomac.” It was fairly complicated but because of Joe and Marco, it turned out so well. It’s just the four of us. We also ended up doing “Mud City,” which is kind of the album’s rocker.
Mike, did you add your own fingerprint to any of Trey’s originals?
Mike: There’s one in particular that Trey encouraged us to all throw in some chords and some lyrics and sort of made that one up. It’s a rocker, for Trey’s album, and then Trey strung the words together and turned it into more of a song. So, it’s kind of a variety.
Have you practiced any Phish songs with The Duo?
Trey: No Phish songs so far. I don’t think that was really the point of this project. Both Mike and I are really excited about this sort of new idea of writing together. After all these years, Mike and I have never written a song together. I think that’s one of the things that happened [with Phish’s breakup] that I’ve tried to explain with mixed success over the last few years. With Phish, so many patterns weren’t established in our lives, really deeper than it’s almost possible to verbalize. It was hard to make things like that happen. Now, I went and wrote with Tom and I wrote by myself and got to write with Mike. The idea of Mike and I sitting down just never really seemed to happen with Phish, but all of a sudden, wham, we’ve been writing like crazy and re-arranging songs in different ways than we had in the past. So it’s exciting to me because I’m feeling a little bit like the dream has slightly come true.
Compositionally, how would you describe the style of music you and Trey are working on?
Mike: There’s kind of a variety. There is this one song called “Motion” which we wrote together. Trey actually only worked on it one day, but my friend Jared [Slomoff ] put it into Pro Tools and created a little arrangement. It’s pretty cool because it’s Trey and me, for the first time ever, writing a kind of “epic” with a lot of different sections and meaningful lyrics. It was really cool to get to do that for the first time ever.
There is another funk song which we haven’t even rehearsed yet called “Hap-Nappy,” like maybe with a hyphen [laughs]. On that one Trey and I played this bass and drum jam—where he was playing drums—then I pieced it together.
The Duo are about to release a new record, Play Pause Stop, which actually has a more pronounced indie-rock feel. Do you plan to rearrange any of their new original material for your summer tour?
Trey: We’ve found that some of those songs sound really great with just The Duo but there’s a couple of them we found that really synch up in a nice way with electric guitar and everything, like “Something for Rockets.” It’s pretty exciting learning all this new material and kind of feeling these nose-to-the-grindstone practices. We went in there yesterday and we were like, “Okay, we need 25 songs.” I love that, I live for that feeling. We were trying to get them to do “Becky,” but Joe keeps saying no [laughs]. I keep trying to tell them, “You know, if there’s 13,000 people out there, virtually all of them have probably not heard of ‘Becky’ live.”
I guess “Becky” is kind of like The Duo’s “Fluffhead.”
Trey: He gets sick of it [laughs]! I heard Marco say something like, “What am I supposed to do—go around the country playing ‘Becky’ for the rest of my life?” I said, “How can you say something like that, you asshole [laughs]!” Who do you think you are, me?!
Mike: I really like working with The Duo. It’s really cool because not everyone in the music business likes to practice, but it’s so worth it when you do because you keep trying to put yourself in a new place that you haven’t heard before. It takes time to do it. Sometimes even the simplest things take time to work out and then when you add songs with hundreds of chords it takes time to make them sound like music—not just hundreds of chords [laughs]. I think that Trey and I have that in common: We both really like work. ‘Cause it pays off, you know? Discipline and time spent honing in on something and then you feel like you’ve created something massive. We just got off of my honky-tonk tour and I had to learn 70 honky-tonk songs and now there’s tons of new ones that we’re doing, but it’s cool. It’s cool to push yourself.
Mike, when we spoke a few weeks ago, you mentioned that one of your goals with Ramble Dove was to improve your vocal skills. Do you feel your tour met these goals?
Mike: I got to sing more than usual and it felt really good. The material we are doing this summer is mostly vocal—there’s hardly anything that’s instrumental. We really wanted to have some songs that people can sing along with, even if there just songs with catchy themes.
Trey, you recently played an entire night with Phil and Friends and will be sharing several co-bills with the bassist this summer. Can you talk about your recent experience playing with Phil?
Somebody called me and said, “come on over” and I came down and played. At first, I wasn’t going to play that much, but we started playing and it was good so we kept going. At the same time, I was recording with Mike and The Duo in Brooklyn, so we had the idea to all go out on the road together. I love his band, particularly Jeff Sipe. I’ve been seeing him since Aquarium Rescue Unit; we used to play with them all the time. He’s aged like a fine wine. He used to play a little bit more frantic and now he’s just grooving, amazing. And Larry Campbell, of course, is one of my heroes so that was pretty cool. When he played with Dylan at Bonnaroo a few years ago, I just stood on the side of the stage and watched the entire time.
Like many fans, I was a bit surprised to see that you were touring with Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks this summer. What are your goals heading into that tour?
It was a strange opportunity which came about because I’m trying to write these simple, powerful—well, simple, honest—songs. I’m just going to stand on the stage every night and milk it all in, watch him. Yeah, it’s very odd that the opportunity came up right now because I am curious about the quickest path to the heart.
Before Shine, which explored these “simple, honest songs,” you seemed to return to your multi-part compositional style with songs like “Goodbye Head.” Do you plan you continue in this direction?
On this album, yeah. I started writing “Goodbye Head” before I went down to do Shine. I actually had already started writing and recording “Goodbye Head” and, when I did that Bonnaroo orchestra thing, I met his guy Dan Hart who’s now my all-time musical hero. We’ve been talking about for, like, two years about ways to integrate that orchestral sound into the rock setting in a cool, new way. He wrote the string arrangement for “Goodbye Head.” It’s almost like the orchestral guy meeting the rock guy. At one point, there are two different melodies going off. It wouldn’t have worked except Mike and The Duo played on “Goodbye Head” [laughs]. Joe is a super giant and just handled that song so well. He played in the holes and in all these really beautiful ways. I actually went down to Nashville and we incorporated the strings into the whole thing. We almost wrote the string arrangement into where Joe did and didn’t play!
Mike: I love songs like “Goodbye Head ” because it’s kind of the best of all worlds to my ears. I’ve been telling people about it too… it sort of combines the composed and the multi-textural stuff, yet it just goes a lot of different places. At the same time, it has this kind of organic feeling and this emotional feeling. So, to be able to combine that like never before where there’s a million chords and rhythms and all this stuff but only for the intent of the emotions and flow of the songs. It sounds really natural despite the fact that there’s a lot of chords and I just think is a huge accomplishment to my ears.
Staff writer Mike Greenhaus stores his thoughts at www.greenhauseffect.com and co-hosts Relix’s official podcast, Cold Turkey. The program’s current episode features exclusive performances from Cracker, Jerry Joseph, Tim Reynolds and Perpetual Groove, among others.