Trey Anastasio Talks Beacon Jams, Music History, Phish’s Future

Jake Silco
– En Fuego
Anastasio performs from the Beacon Theatre stage during the fifth installment of The Beacon Jams, Nov. 6, 2020.

Across his four-decade musical career, Trey Anastasio has reinvented himself and his music countless times.

The beloved Phish musician did it again in 2020, playing to an empty room – once unthinkable – on eight consecutive Friday nights in October and November and broadcasting the shows for free via Twitch.

For The Beacon Jams, Anastasio took up residence at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre, just blocks away from his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, playing more than 150 songs – no repeats! – and raising money for the Divided Sky Fund, which will finance an addiction treatment facility in Vermont.

The shows were a resounding success, bringing in $1.2 million and garnering 1.8 million viewers. Along the way, Anastasio and his team innovated, flipping the orientation of the Beacon stage, conjuring up fresh arrangements and pushing the boundaries of what fan interaction could look like in the COVID era. (For more, check out Pollstar‘s new cover story about the shows.)

Anastasio connected with Pollstar for a wide-ranging conversation about conceptualizing The Beacon Jams, musical influences from Igor Stravinsky to Neil Diamond and what’s ahead for Phish.

For The Beacon Jams, you had one load-in, one load-out, and that seemed to help you get this almost rehearsal-like looseness at the shows. How did your comfort level with the residency progress as it went on, and how did that impact the music that you were making? 

One of the great blessings was that choice. There were conversations at the beginning, based on the COVID limitations. For safety purposes and for ease of transmission, and the ability to edit, I was told it would be a little easier for us to model it after Fallon or something: you record at 11 o’clock in the morning, and then people can fix it and then stream it. I didn’t like that idea. I wanted it to be live-live. That was a very important choice. That’s kind of what led us to Twitch. Based on quarantine and the expense of moving people around, it was suggested that maybe I’d film all eight of them at once and then stream them, so that everyone would come to town. I also didn’t like that idea. [Co-manager] Patrick [Jordan] and I agreed on that one – that if it was really once a week, we would get comfortable, and also every week would be sort of a creative journey. And that turned out to be – I just loved it, absolutely loved it. Because we would end on Friday night, it would click off, and I’d go home and start planning the next one. With each passing week, we got more comfortable, all of us. Everyone was making discoveries.

From the lighting to flipping the stage orientation, how important was it for you that these shows have a high-concept production element?
What made it feel successful to me was that we weren’t trying to recreate a live concert. Flipping the stage was the first decision that really led to the success. I was thinking about Johnny Cash’s variety show. There are a lot of artists who have had these moments in their careers where they embrace a different format. What I was hoping was that it would be some kind of a fresh form of entertainment – turning lemons into lemonade here. I feel like that turned out to be the case.

It would be hard to do “Harry Hood” with an acoustic guitar and four strings at a live concert where people were standing up or; this was perfect for that. It was also a surprise element. I would start a song on the acoustic guitar and no one knew what was gonna happen. In rehearsals, basically, I was still making it up an hour before the show started. We would do an arrangement of a song like “Harry Hood,” where everybody learned it: backup vocals, horns, whatever it was. Drums, bass, percussion, everyone. Then we would get [to the Beacon] and I would sort of deconstruct it, based on what worked in that room and that space through the cameras. We were able to come up with these really on-the-fly arrangements where it starts off, the camera’s tight on the acoustic guitar, you’re doing a solo acoustic version of “Harry Hood.” It pans out, there’s four strings. “Oh my gosh, it’s an acoustic five-piece version.” Then the horns can kind of enter because it’s not a concert stage. All you have to do is plan out the camera move. “You Enjoy Myself,” when the girls appeared from the back, through the fog, they walked from where the audience would have been – you could only have done it on TV.

I’m sort of a music history nut. One of the most fascinating things about music history is how often music and the distribution of music has progressed based on technological or cultural or social change. If you watched the Ken Burns country music documentary, one of the things you’ll see is country music is radio. The first radio station was invented, they needed musicians; local people would come in with songs. You can read online about the acoustic development of concert halls in Europe that contributed to the development of classical music. These things have always gone hand in hand.

Stravinsky famously wrote his greatest piece during the 1918 pandemic: “L’Histoire du soldat,” which he wrote for a small combo, seven or eight instruments, because there were no orchestras and he worked within the limitations that he had. He made great art based on the limitations that he had. 

Our feeling was, “OK, what can we do today that we couldn’t do 10 years ago?” The Twitch part was the first piece to that puzzle. You combine that with the flipping the stage around, because we didn’t want people to have a nostalgic feeling, “I’ve seen this band in that room.” We kept thinking, “This is a new form of entertainment.” There were many conversations where we kept thinking, “The ultimate compliment would be other bands copying us later in the pandemic.”

As the weeks progressed, you’d get deep into these conversations with commenters writing in – funny stuff, but also talking about loss and hardship. How did Twitch help facilitate that? Did you ever think you’d be using that type of format?
I didn’t know what Twitch was. I was told about it. This is before the Beacon. Patrick and I were talking a lot about what can we do here that I haven’t done yet before. The first thing that came up was that we live in a world today where we can communicate. The problem with fan streams and – do you remember there was that dance party [Club Quarantine, hosted by D-Nice] going on that Michelle Obama kept going to early in the pandemic? That was my inspiration. I was like, “I want to do that.” Why? Because it’s very similar to what Phish does. We have an audience that’s very similar. Everybody’s dancing. It’s fun. It’s like, there’s gotta be a way to do this. The first response that I got was, “The chatter for an audience your size will be so fast that you won’t even be able to read it.” This was the puzzle that needed to be [solved].

I heard about Twitch, and that it was a gaming platform. All my friends under 30 were like, “Oh, god, yeah, Twitch.” All my friends over 30 hadn’t heard of it. I started watching a lot of Twitch. I would just wake up and turn Twitch on. And there are some musicians that I became huge fans of through Twitch. They were my inspiration. They always have like 20 or 30 or 50 people on, chatting with them, but there was a looseness to the chat. I kind of felt like, this is like the advent of country music. There’s something happening here that, if you go 20 years into the future in your mind, this is always happening in the world, you just have to look for it. Something new is happening, and that’s where I found it – in these people’s bedrooms. 

That gave me the confidence to just be myself. Like, these people are in my bedroom. Then what we did to solve the problem of the speed of the chat, was that my daughter, Eliza, was the chatmaster sitting in front of me with it. She had a team of other people at home, who were grabbing things in real time and sending them to her.

I love that your daughter was involved. That must have been really cool for you to have her onstage with you.
It was so great. It was the best. She was also the audience, so I didn’t kind of feel like I was just playing to a wall, because she was sitting right in front of me with a computer screen. She also has a wicked sense of humor that is very fast and funny, so that contributed to her knowing what to grab.

Something I kept thinking about is you can’t have that conversation with people when you’re on stage at the Garden. It has other other benefits, but you can’t have that.
You cannot. But I gotta ask you this question. [MSG Entertainment president] Andy Lustgarten, [MSG Entertainment CEO] Jim Dolan, people like that, I would see them at soundcheck and we’d get into these conversations. Again, if you look at your sports, music and entertainment history, I would be shocked if we don’t come out on the other end of this with developments that will go forward and start to feel like part of the fabric of the entertainment industry. Why can’t you have a championship fight at the Garden that includes people at home in a way that the NBA, that the Beacon Jams, that all these people are making little discoveries? How come you can’t have people back in the room and people in those screens? Why can’t I talk to somebody on their iPhone from the stage? Why can’t you be in the back row of the Garden and type in – with 20,000 other people, so your thing might not get through, but it might – why not have a couple people and a little screen in front of me, and it says, “Hey, I’m going to the bathroom” or “I’m going to go get a pretzel in Section 217, whatever you do, don’t play ‘Split Open and Melt,’ that’s my favorite song. I’ll be back in six minutes.” And then I say into the microphone, like, “Hey Bill! You better hurry because we’re going to start that song! You’ve got four minutes to go to the bathroom.”

Or during your next New Year’s show at Madison Square Garden you’re talking about spatchcocking and having that back and forth with the audience.
And then Fuku chicken in section 119 is spatchcocking or – I don’t know! Or how about this? Some people are lucky enough to be able to go to New Year’s. Most people can’t travel to New York – it’s too expensive. So, use the Beacon developments to include people from other parts of the world and country in a way that they normally weren’t included.

That’s where I keep going back to this thing about looking at history. […] Another thing that might happen is – and I hope this happens, because I think it’s needed – is that the pandemic will end and there will be a seismic shift in the entertainment industry. That would be historically on point.

You were doing all this for an amazing cause, the Divided Sky Fund, to start a treatment facility in Vermont. The shows were free, which was a cool thing. Can you tell me about introducing that generous charitable component, and also providing a lifeline to people who have been struggling during the pandemic?
I am a sober person, and that’s just my life. I’m very active in the sober community. There have been big problems, of course, in this country, with the opiate [problem] over the last few years. Drinking in COVID has gotten a lot worse, just good old-fashioned alcoholism. Isolation is a rough thing. I had been reading a lot about that.

Vermont got hit really hard with the opiate problem. Bucolic, beautiful state, and like other rural states, it was really just devastated. This has been a dream that I’ve had for a while. There used to be a treatment center in northern Vermont that closed. There’s a few, but there’s not a lot of options for people who can’t afford [it]. So, we teamed up with some great people.

The progress on this thing is coming along very quickly. We have a site in mind. It’s a great spot. It has to go through town meetings. There’s justifiable discomfort. People have to have a chance to have their voices heard in the community when you’re going to move in a treatment center. The truth of the matter is that that’s what you want in your community. [Instead of] junkies robbing your house, you’d rather have sober people putting in a new fence. [laughs] But it still takes a minute for people to get used to the idea.

You said something about the shows being free. I said I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t free. That was really tricky in the beginning, because I was getting a lot of calls like, “This is going to be really expensive, it’s just impossible.” So many people are having a hard time [during the pandemic], financially, and I wanted it to be, to just turn your phone on and you can hear some music. Thanks to Twitch and thanks to Madison Square Garden, they made some really generous donations. My theory from the beginning was that, if it was free and then we were gonna do this treatment center option, that people would be excited to be part of something so positive during a year when all the news has been negative. That turned out to be the case, more than we ever could have imagined. It was overwhelming. It was almost hard to talk about some weeks. 

Everybody came together in the community, and it was beyond our wildest dreams that we would raise $1.2 million in donations. It shifted our whole concept of how we were going to open this place. With the generous donations of people online, many that were memorials for friends and family who were lost to addiction, it’s sort of readjusted our goals, based on the amount that we raised. Now the goal has become to raise enough money to own the space outright. That generosity of the fans, the end result of that is going to be opening, hopefully, treatment options to segments of the community that are sometimes shut out.

One of my personal favorites from the residency was the “Wolfman’s Brother” that you did. Like so many of the other songs, the Rescue Squad strings really round it out. Can you talk about getting that orchestral chamber music dimension to these songs?
I can talk with such joy about that! This was a fascinating, art-lives-by-limitation COVID moment. I’ve always loved complex arrangements in my own writing. When I was in college, I was studying composition. I was a music major, and I would write “Divided Sky” and songs like that, where in my mind’s eye they were orchestral pieces that were miniaturized to a rock band. I did an album called Seis De Mayo [in 2004], where I was doing my own orchestrations. I did an orchestration of [Phish’s] “Guyute.” Then I wanted to bring an orchestra to Bonnaroo, 2004, because I just love orchestras. I did bring an orchestra to Bonnaroo and met Don Hart, who’s an incredibly talented orchestrator. He reexamined my “Guyute” orchestration and improved it, because he’s a pro and I’m a hack. Whatever. I did write it, but… [laughs]

We developed a relationship, and we’ve done many, many full orchestra shows together. We had a bunch of orchestral shows scheduled that got canceled by COVID. When this thing came up, I called Don and I said, “God, wouldn’t it be great if we could use some of these orchestral arrangements?” My idea was, let’s call Juilliard, which is seven blocks from the Beacon. All of these young men and women who are so talented, let’s socially distance them in the venue, seated in the house, behind the band, and then I could have a whole orchestra. I was told that it was impossible due to COVID laws. That was my dream.

So then it kept getting smaller. Don as an orchestrator, I have asked him to miniaturize things before. He’s usually been like, “Gah.” He wants more. “Can I just have, you know, 12 strings, just 12?” That kind of thing. It was like, “Don, I can get four strings in there.” This is what I was saying at the beginning about having to think on your feet, do the limitations. I was like, why don’t I get my friend Jeff Tanski, who is a Broadway [musical director] and a wicked reader and a wicked player, and one of my close friends. I was like, “Let’s start with four strings, because that’s as many as they’re going to let me have, and if there’s musical information that needs to be there, [Jeff will] play the fifth, sixth, and seventh part.” It’s a limitation, but I think it’ll be really cool.

I had Jeff playing the orchestral arrangements, that as soon as he got his hands on, it was like, “Well, you know, as long as you’re playing it,” I would say to him, “Let’s make it a little more piano-y, because you’re playing it on a piano,” and he would fill it in a bit. He would kind of do a hybrid. And lo and behold, even Don, who was at home watching through the TV every week, started making these surprising discoveries. One week, we had eight strings instead of four. He was at home, and he was like, “I can’t believe I’m even admitting this, but honestly, it didn’t make that big of a difference.” I was getting as much impact out of the four.

In terms of my future, think what means. I’m jumping for joy about it. If COVID hadn’t happened, this never would have happened. From my world, I had to have three different tours in order to access all the aspects of my musical career. There was the orchestral world, then there was the Ghosts of the Forest world, with the three background singers, then there was the TAB world, which had the horns.

And now you’ve integrated it all.
Dude! My head was blowing up every week! It was like, “Oh, my god, I want the four strings and three horns.” [The Beacon Jams version of] “Harry Hood” is a great example. By that week, I had figured it out. I had my solo acoustic tours, my orchestral tours, they were all different tours. “Harry Hood” was all of them combined. [claps] It was Phish, because it was “Harry Hood.” It had strings, it had the orchestral element. By the end, I had the horns come out and join them, so I had four strings, three horns. Then, right at the outro part, the whole band came in. It was like, head blowing up. Because now I want to tour that band. [laughs] Because it’s Pollstar, may I tell you one more story?

There was a concert I saw that was really life-changing for me, and I’ve never been able to let it go from the back of my mind. It was sometime around the mid-’90s or something, and a friend of mine in Vermont said, “Oh, Neil Diamond is playing at the Albany arena. Can you get tickets?” I said, “I can get tickets at Albany arena, because I’m friends with those guys. Sure.” I didn’t know if I was gonna go or not. They were a group of women friends from Vermont that really love Neil Diamond and didn’t go to a lot of concerts, but they knew I was in the band. They were like, “Why don’t we all get like a big limo and we’ll go down and check this out?” I was like, “OK, let’s go.” I got like five tickets. Went to Albany, out comes Neil Diamond, and I didn’t know what to expect. The audience was on their feet dancing. It was sold out to the brim. Singing along with every word, like a Phish crowd, but 20 years older. They were singing along, every word.

[Diamond] had a 17-piece band, made up of like the best musicians from L.A. – probably an L.A. band – and this band was badass. The whole night I was like, “Oh my god.” I was so envious. They had four strings, percussionist, three or four horns, piano. It was pretty close to the Beacon Jams band. I was like, “Man, this band is so flexible.” You could do anything with this band.

I thought about that at the Beacon, because that was the first time that I was able to get there. That was closure. There were a couple nights where I was like, “Man, this band, if you could end this stupid COVID thing, and take it to Radio City…” 

The horn book is so deep now, from all of the years of TAB, I’ve been adding to it. Adding and adding and adding and improving, improving. It’s 20-plus years of improving that book. Even if the players change, they get the book. The book goes forward. Same thing with the strings now. That “Harry Hood” quartet arrangement, it exists now. Once you’ve played it once, it exists. It never would’ve happened without the Beacon thing. Never. If we had pre-filmed, it never would have happened. The only reason it happened was because it was eight weeks in a row. It was a residency. I woke up on Saturday morning, buzzing from the Friday night, pacing around the living room, like, “Oh my god, if that worked, imagine what ‘Harry Hood’ would be like,” and then, you know, start constructing.

You didn’t have all eight nights set out in advance.
No, no, no. It was a whole week of planning.

But you had no repeats as well.
I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had to live by limitation. [Trey Anastasio Band backing vocalist] Jennifer Hartswick called me [after The Beacon Jams]. She said, “You know what my favorite week was? Week six.” Week five was Ghosts of the Forest. Week six – ready for this? – week six was [going to be] special guest Jon Fishman stays for a second week, and I get to do Phish songs that I could never do without Jon Fishman, my oldest friend. It was all set, until Friday night at Ghosts of the Forest, when Jon turned to me and said, “I am so sorry, but I’m going through a divorce.” Which he is. I was like, “It’s fine.” He’s got five kids, and he’s in Maine. He said, “I know I told you I’d be here for the next week.” I had a whole week planned out that night. He was like, “I gotta go home, brother.” I said, “I love you. Go home. I’ll figure it out.” Then I woke up the next morning, Saturday morning, and I was like, I have nothing for week six. Nothing.” [laughs]

I had to start scrambling. I was like, “We should do ‘You Enjoy Myself.'” None of that existed. Nothing. None of the arrangement. None of it. […] In order to make that week work, and many of the other weeks, this was the pattern: I had to ask everybody to learn 20 or 40 songs, and then we would go to [rehearsal facility] Carroll Music. We would all get tested that morning, go into Carroll Music, and I would start playing through all these songs to find out if they were gonna fit. There were arrangements written that got thrown in the garbage. Some of the songs just didn’t sound good. We learned “Free.” I told everyone in the whole group, you gotta learn this song. I made a chart for “Free.” It just wasn’t very good.

We’ve got a few months to go before physical concerts come back, at the soonest. Phish fans, Trey fans, they’re voracious. Is there a chance that you might do more streaming in 2021 before physical concerts come back?
I want to do more streaming, because – OK, I was really depressed after [The Beacon Jams] ended. That was the worst week of pandemic for me, was the week after the Beacon. It was so much work doing that every week, it was just hours every day, just concentration and making it work, that the week after it was like, I didn’t even know what to do with myself. Empty the cat litter. Walk in a circle. Empty the cat litter. Watch the tiger show.

Oh, “Tiger King?”
Yeah. [laughs] I don’t know, walk in one room, walk into the next. So, I would like to do more. Because this is reality, there’s a lot of implications. I’ve run a lot of things by the Phish guys. I don’t see [livestreaming] happening, in terms of that band, especially with the way things are going. I foresee the four guys in Phish, who talk about this stuff together, I see us holding out until – the other day someone was commenting from the managing position that Phish is an extremely nimble band. Which is true. Incredibly nimble, meaning we can play anywhere you put us. We don’t need gear. The thought was, things are moving in the right direction in the industry, and we don’t know where that opportunity is gonna suddenly pop up. But the message I’m getting from the Phish guys is the second it does, we’re there. That is kind of what I foresee. It’s not that long now, hopefully. 

Let’s hope.
But I’m going to do something else. I traditionally am a little bit more restless than the other guys. My role in Phish has always been the cheerleader. Like, “What do you mean we’re not going to do something for Halloween? We have to! Let’s just make up a band! Come on! Come on, you guys!” That’s always been my role. I get excited and like call everybody up. I’ve tried that throughout the pandemic.

But there’s implications. I’ll give you an example. I did throw some things out about some Phish options, but the quarantine rules were so strict, and you have to go by the rules. Fish is in in Maine with five children, and he’s just going through a divorce right now. It’s not going to happen. [Keyboardist] Page [McConnell] has three kids and he’s in Vermont. We talked about doing some stuff at The Barn, [Phish’s rehearsal and recording facility outside of Burlington, Vt.], and everybody was kind of in. But what it turned out was that going from Maine to Vermont was so messed up, because you had to do like seven days on either end. It was like a 14-day commitment to play together at The Barn for one day. It just wasn’t useful.

So, we’ll see, but as soon as it’s feasible, we’ll be back. And I will say this, too: The amount of conversation and connection that the four of us have, it’s really over the top at this point. It’s kind of funny. We talk a lot. […] Because of COVID, they streamed these “Dinner and a Movie” concerts.

They’re amazing. That’s been a huge part of my quarantine music consumption.
This is going to sound really geeky: I’ve never seen Phish. The other guys are saying the same thing. Like, I watched them and it was weird. It was like, I want another chance now. Now I get it. I just never had the time. I was tired of Phish by the time the tour was over. I mean, I love playing with Phish, it’s like breathing air, but I wasn’t going to go home and watch a video of Phish. But now I did, and it was kind of like, “Oh, wow, OK. In 1996, we were accurate. I’m going to be accurate from now on.” Then 2011, I was consciously really listening to Page in a way that I could feel it, I could I see it. Each era had something to teach.

I have to say there is a secret part of me that is not just fine with, but deeply understanding the point of view of all four band members that we’re just gonna wait [to play together again]. Because the moment that we’re back onstage together is just gonna be so [laughs] – I can’t even. I played with Page up at The Barn [in mid-December]. We just did this big jam, and after it was over, we were both crying. Like, literally, tears. It’s so deep, after all these years. The brotherhood is just – everything. The loss, the friends, the family, everything. And it just comes through the music. Something about this idea that our community is in the room with us, after everything everybody has gone through, is going to be… just tell me where to be. I’m there. I’ll ride my bike with an amp on my back, if you let me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.