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POP MUSIC

Not Just Gone Fishing

As he and his Phish bandmates move on, Trey Anastasio explores new possibilities.

July 12, 2001|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Phish fans had to be let down easy. For them it was more than a band. It was a calling, a community, its concerts a gathering of nomadic multitudes, a place to sing along or dance the hippie shake. Phish couldn't just break up.

So a surprise announcement late last year declared that Phish was merely taking a hiatus from the blend of rock, jazz and folk that spearheaded the '90s "jam band" movement. But the future of Phish remains open and uncertain as its members scatter to other musical paths and collaborations. For singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio, at least, a Phish reunion remains only a far-off possibility.

"We didn't want to make any big statements or anything because people get too worked up, and that was the opposite of what we really wanted at the time," Anastasio says of the Vermont-based quartet.

"We had a great 17-year run, and everybody was still healthy and happy and things hadn't gotten weird. It was just time to put the thing to rest."

The members remain friends, he says. But the nine months since Phish's final show near San Francisco have been some of the most creatively satisfying of Anastasio's career. He's been very, very busy.

Aside from his current solo tour, which tonight brings his eight-piece band to the Greek Theatre, Anastasio has a new collaboration called Oysterhead with singer-bassist Les Claypool of Primus and ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland. The power trio will release a debut album, "The Grand Pecking Order," in October on Elektra.

Anastasio also recently recast Phish's "Guyute" into a symphonic work for the Vermont Youth Orchestra. And the studio he built near his home outside Burlington is so busy with other bands that he has to squeeze his own work into the schedule.

"Now there's a lot of creativity and excitement happening with these other projects, in terms of growth as an individual and as a musician," says Anastasio, 36. "Nothing is better than playing with other musicians and getting out and challenging yourself.

"It means there could be a future for Phish, an exciting future where we would get back together and be new people that all came together and tried something new. The way we were going, we were heading toward some kind of burnout. And I didn't want to see that. There are really no plans. That's what's going to enable us to become human again."

The hiatus was announced just as Phish was crossing over into mainstream consciousness, with a feature-length film documentary and national magazine covers spreading the band's fame. But Anastasio has no regrets about stepping away from that spotlight.

"There's nothing deeply satisfying about it," he says. "It's fun for a while, but it just starts to be embarrassing unless you're doing something that you're really proud of. And in order to do that you need time, to rehearse and write stuff. And it wasn't all fitting together in the same puzzle."

His solo band inevitably features some of the same textures as Phish, but with a big-group sound bolstered by a four-piece horn section inspired by the Afro-pop examples of King Sunny Ade and the late Fela Kuti.

"Everybody dances the whole time, but there's amazingly cool stuff going on, if you want to hear it," he says of those African bandleaders. "You can just dance or listen to the intricacies of the patterns, and it's there for you if you want it, but in the context of a great dancing, partying night. That's what I'm trying to do with this band."

For Oysterhead, Anastasio joins two players with their own formidable reputations. The collaboration began casually a year ago, when Claypool invited Anastasio and Copeland to perform with him at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Plans are for Oysterhead to tour in the fall.

"The natural reaction of people will be to compare it to Phish, and that's fine," Anastasio says of his new bands. "I know that it's not going to be anything like that. And I'm finding out more and more, now that we've stopped, the depth to which people really liked Phish.

"Among the four of us, it was like, 'Why ... would anyone want to put us on the cover of a magazine?'

"All right, whatever, if that's what you want to do. But we never did understand what all the hoopla was about. I still don't know if I do."

*

* Trey Anastasio, tonight at the Greek Theatre, 2700 Vermont Canyon Road, L.A. 7 p.m. $35.50. (323) 665-1927.

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