Farm Boy: Trey Anastasio Sows the Fields of Phish

The first words you hear on the new Phish album are, "Welcome, this is our farmhouse," and you are invited, as never before, into the band's world of rural Vermont. This is a world of deerflies clustered on the screen door while the Northern Lights shimmer overhead (the key images in the album's title song, "Farmhouse"); a world that still uses pine-plank outhouses (photographed on the album's cover); a place abounding with dirt roads, maple-syrup taps, live-and-let-live Yankee philosophy, white steeples, village greens, unwashed pick-up trucks, four feet of snow all winter and lush green all summer.

The lyrics are the least part of it. The four members of Phish, who often seemed to cram as many notes as possible into each song just to prove they could, play a lot fewer this time. But the notes they do play are more melodic, more twangy, more song-structured, and more indicative of their backwoods New England turf. And the songs are more forthcoming about acknowledging Phish's debt to such country-rock, rural-hippie predecessors as the Grateful Dead, the Band, Little Feat and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

This is quite a change for a band better known for bringing the modernist funk of the Talking Heads and the free-jazz of Sun Ra to the jam-band world ? or at least, it seems that way. But Trey Anastasio, Phish's singer/guitarist and the only band member listed as a songwriter or producer on the new album, disagrees. He insists that Farmhouse is simply the fruition of trends that have been present in Phish all along. From the outside, this album feels like a big departure for the band, not only because it's so song-oriented and so country-flavored, but because you took such a dominant role in its creation.

Trey Anastasio: You know, I've done a hundred interviews about this album, and this is the last one, so I'm going to tell you what I've learned from talking about it so much. First of all, there's this impression that I decided to write all the songs on this album, and that's not true. If you look back at our albums, I've always written about 90 percent of the material. I'm just trying to be honest here. The only thing that changed this time was that [ bassist] Mike [Gordon] didn't have a song for the album. He usually has one song ready by the time we go into the studio, but he's been so busy with his movie ? Outside Out, which he filmed, directed, edited and scored himself ? that he didn't have time. But on your last studio album, 1998's The Story of the Ghost, the whole band was more involved in song writing.

Anastasio: Yes, but that was the exception to the way we usually do things. Farmhouse is more similar to all the other ones we've done before. The Story of the Ghost was our democratic album, our socialist album; if anyone didn't like a song it was out. But what happens with that approach is the material gets watered down. You end up with songs that everyone is fine with, but the best songs are usually those where one person is passionately for and one person really hates, because the best songs are those that arouse strong reactions.

There were songs I thought should have gone on The Story of the Ghost album, that were better than the songs that got on there. Some of those songs, such as ?Farmhouse? and ?Heavy Things,? ended up on the new album. One of my problems is I tend to be prolific and I come with a lot more songs than the other guys, so we talk about it and try different approaches. On this album, they just let me run with the ball. The songs on Farmhouse seem a lot more carefully crafted, though, as if they weren't just vamps for jams but passages that would sound good on an acoustic guitar on the porch.

Anastasio: I'm surprised that people are so surprised by this album because I feel as if I've written songs like this all along. If you listen to the title track of Billy Breathes or "Prince Caspian," or "Train Song" or "Brian and Robert" or "Wading in the Velvet Sea," you'll find I've been writing songs like this for a while. Maybe it's because there are more of them on "Farmhouse" and they're better realized.

Anastasio: Maybe so. Listening or recording an album is a very different experience than being in a live concert. It took us a while to learn that the two are not the same, but we've finally figured it out. When we've tried to recreate the live experience in the studio, we've failed. Now we know we should create stage music on stage and studio music in the studio. What's the difference?

Anastasio: The ultimate example is the Beatles' "Something." It's such a simple song that you can sit down and play it on acoustic guitar and it sounds great. Only then did the Beatles add that elaborate orchestration. It always begins with that. A lot of the Phish songs were so far gone that if you start taking all the parts off, they didn't hold up anymore. That was something I wanted to change. Over the years, I've written a lot of songs with a four-track machine. I'll come up with a verse and a chorus, and almost immediately I start thinking about everyone else's parts and I get away from where the focus should be. But when I sit down with just a guitar, the whole focus becomes melody and words and emotion. Was there anything different about the way you recorded this album?

Anastasio: The environment where you record is going to have a huge impact on the music. Steve Lillywhite, who produced Billy Breathes, told us these great stories about producing the Stones, who are one of the greatest recording acts of all time. The first thing they do is move a bar into the studio; they have all their friends come down, it turns into a big party, and that party vibe seeps into the album. We didn't do that, but we wanted to do something that would similarly represent who we are. Some of our other albums have been pretty fantasy-like, but we wanted this one to be a close reflection of the way we live. We wanted it to be like Music from Big Pink, a document of a genuine experience, as opposed to a recreation of an experience. So we recorded it where we rehearse, which is in my barn out in the woods. There's no control room, so we put the soundboard in the middle of the floor. And what you hear is the four of us in a barn, hanging out, playing our instruments. That's who we are. What comes through is a real strong sense of Vermont.

Anastasio: Vermont is our life. We've lived here for 16 years now. We have homes and families and children. We're deeply rooted in Vermont. For anyone playing music, the atmosphere is everything. Why were there so many similarities between Ravel, Debussy, Matisse, Cezanne and early Stravinsky? It was that art scene in Paris; the music and visual arts were doing similar things. If one of those artists had been born somewhere else, their work would have been different. So it makes a big difference that we're here in Vermont. We're out of touch with a lot of things that are going on. I don't have a computer; I didn't even have a TV until recently. We're always dressing the wrong way. If you're enmeshed in the music biz, if you're going out with your friends and they say, `Why are you still playing that riff; that's so '80s," you might change how you play. But I don't even know what an '80s riff is. By staying hidden, we're spared a lot of that.

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