trey anastasio’s empty house (greatest misses #7)
What with Trey Anastasio beginning his court-ordered dry-out, it seems a fine time to post a profile I wrote for RS.com last summer that got killed when RS instead ran an Austin Scaggs Q&A where Trey admitted to freebasing and, er, listening to Neutral Milk Hotel.
Also, “Empty House,” while not a terribly original sentiment, is one of the few cuts from last year’s Bar 17 that (I think) is unequivocally rather good, a solid Paul Simon-like ballad in a sea of acoustic tripe.
by Jesse Jarnow
Trey Anastasio could be having a nervous breakdown. Either that, or everything is just really funny. Anastasio laughs a lot.
The 42-year old ex-Phish guitarist laughs about the label he has just started, Rubber Jungle, which released his own Bar 17 in early October, and how he found the term on a website for hot air balloon enthusiasts. He laughs about touring with yet another version of his solo band, as he will for most of this autumn. He laughs about how the album’s two year creation was one of great catharsis, so much so that he’s not even sure if the songs are good or not.
And he laughs when asked about the decidedly dark tenor of the recording, which features titles like “Let Me Lie,” “What’s Done,” and — during one particularly uplifting stretch — “Empty House,” “Gloomy Sky,” and “Shadow.”
“Did you ever see Mighty Wind?” Anastasio asks. “When Mitch and Mickey break up, [Eugene Levy's Mitch] puts out those three albums?” While Bar 17 isn’t exactly Songs From A Dark Place or Cry For Help, the comparison isn’t unwarranted.
Begun during the disintegration of Phish in 2004, and temporarily shelved for the buoyant summer-pop of 2005′s Shine, Bar 17 is part expansive modern rock and part mid-life crisis. Elaborate big band breakdowns (“Cincinnati”), playful orchestral epics (“Goodbye Head”), and earnest horn-driven head-bobbers (“Mud City”) are liberally distributed, but so are a half-dozen acoustic numbers with exquisitely representative titles.
As the veteran Vermont jamband closed up shop, Anastasio fled Burlington, first for Atlanta, where he recorded Shine (working title nixed by then-label Columbia: A Circular Dive), and then Brooklyn, where he decamped at collaborator Bryce Goggin’s Trout Studios.
“Everything is good now,” says Anastasio, who is again spending time in Vermont, and recently toured with ex-Phishmate Mike Gordon. “But for a year there, it was hard to see clearly, not to mention the fact that I was such a wreck, to top it all off. Probably virtually everybody else I knew was waking up from six years of raging, or ten, all at the same time.”
“It was some shit to go through. It becomes cathartic to write this stuff, and there’s no value judgment about whether you’re writing good music or bad music. You’re writing just to clear your head.”
Following the souring of Anastasio’s relationship with Columbia — which included both Sony’s digital rights management debacle and Shine‘s poor reception by Phishheads — Anastasio spent his time on Bar 17. Anastasio clearly enjoys company with his catharsis. Either that, or he just hates being alone. “I really like collaborating,” he says. “It doesn’t make any difference if they’re a musician or not.”
In fact, one common trait of the scattered sessions that produced Bar 17 was their spontaneity. Even when jamming with world-class instrumentalists, the work was sudden, such as when Anastasio and Goggin roused Phish bassist Mike Gordon and indie-jam upstarts the Benevento Russo Duo late one Brooklyn night. For the man who piloted the country’s foremost jamband for two decades, this should come as no surprise.
Non-musicians included Anastasio’s 10-year old daughter Eliza (lyricist on “Goodbye Head”), and a sailboat captain named Kevin Hoffman (who was unaware Anastasio was demoing “A Case of Ice and Snow” into his cell phone at two in the morning in a St. Martin hotel room).
Anastasio says he is fond of the “fly-by-night” approach. And though Phish were known for their improvisation, Anastasio often describes how hard it was to maneuver them as their popularity grew. It is likely not coincidental that he describes the quick writing and recording of 2005′s Shine as “reactionary.”
“In 1996, we were already talking about how huge the scene had become, and the sense of entitlement around Phish. It’s virtually impossible not to get sucked up into it yourself. I’m completely guilty of that. It never stopped. It just kept going and going and going. Same old story.
Anastasio grows philosophical. “You’re surrounded by people who have an interest, everybody has an interest, and you lose yourself. Any kind of art is an attempt to point at something bigger than human beings. That’s what art is. It’s always a failure, it’s destined to fail, all art. But sometimes people can point a little bit, and sometimes people can get a glimpse of something beyond humans. But if you start celebrating the human who’s doing it, you have a problem, ’cause it’s not supposed to be about the person.”
He sighs again. “It just got so big, so many people, so much money, so many expectations, that we just lost our bearings.”
Part of Anastasio’s attempt to regain his footing has been a return to one of his first loves: composition. Though Phish started partially as an outlet for Anastasio’s fugues and mini-musicals, they rapidly evolved into their own beast. After releasing Seis de Mayo in 2004, a collection of string quartets, Dixieland fantasias, and bursting prog-rock, Anastasio met Don Hart while preparing for a Bonnaroo performance with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra.
“Before I started [Bar 17],” Anastasio remembers, “we started having lunch in New York City, and talking about ways we could integrate the string thing, into the rock music I do, improvised music. He did the arrangements on this album, and he did a great job.
“Sometimes, it sounds like the strings are riffing off the guitar solo, and sometimes it sounds like the guitar solo is riffing off the strings,” Anastasio says, describing the construction of “Shadow.” “We spent a lot of time talking about how to accomplish that. I like the sound and I like the emotion it can bring, but it can get real cheesy, if you’re not careful. Whoa, here comes the orchestra!” Anastasio laughs again.