Cover Story: Trey Anastasio Talks Phish, Grateful Dead, Guitar Geekery and New Solo Record 'Paper Wheels'

The following is an excerpt from the January issue of Guitar World. For the full interview, pick up your copy here.

Trey Anastasio can’t contain his enthusiasm. “Check it out, man!” A giant grin splits his light-red beard, eyes twinkling behind his glasses. Anastasio jumps out of his seat, with his custom, unmistakable Languedoc guitar around his neck and plays a gorgeous glissando run. “Listen to this.”

He glances down, taps his left foot on a Tru Tron envelope filter and his lightning run takes on a funky vintage vibe. We’re in a small New York rehearsal space and Anastasio is showing off his newly tweaked stage rig, the pedals arrayed in a semi circle in front of him, a rack of gear, amp heads and speakers behind him.

“I’ve been geeking out in this room for six months and I’ve been so excited to talk to Guitar World because most people’s eyes glaze over when I get going on this topic. But what’s gone on in this room has been so important to everything I’ve done over the last year.”

It’s been quite a year for Anastasio. After ringing in the 2015 New Year with Phish in Miami, he was ready to take a short vacation and release a great recording, Paper Wheels, with his Trey Anastasio Band. But a letter from Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh changed his plans. It said that the core four surviving members of the Dead—Lesh, guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart—wanted to get together for one last run of shows and they wanted Trey to play guitar and sing. It was a tremendous honor but also a daunting challenge; anyone playing lead guitar and singing with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead is going to be compared to Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995.

Anastasio embraced the trial, renting this little rehearsal room near his Manhattan apartment and setting out to master the 100 Dead songs suggested by Lesh and Weir. He also decided to revisit and reassess the components of his stage rig for the first time since 1986. All the work paid off with five triumphant shows with the Dead—two in Santa Clara, California, and three at Chicago’s Soldier Field—in front of packed houses totaling over 330,000 and a live video feed of untold more. Anastasio started strong and grew ever more comfortable steering the good ship Grateful Dead, in the process cementing his status as jam rock’s top dog.

“Some people thought that all the charting might make things stiff, but once we stepped across the stage it didn’t matter and we were loose in a Grateful Dead way,” says Anastasio. “But the difference is, they had played those songs together 400 times. We had never played them together, so I needed all the help I could get. And after all the work, I walked out onstage and got to board the Universal Studios Grateful Dead ride!”

Two weeks after the last firework exploded over Soldier Field, Anastasio was back on the road with Phish for an epic summer tour, which many fans considered the band’s greatest run since they reformed in 2009 after five years apart. In October, the guitarist returned to the Trey Anastasio Band, a seven-piece ensemble featuring at its core longtime members Tony Markellis (bass), Russ Lawton (drums), Jennifer Hartswick (trumpet, vocals) and Ray Packowski (keyboards).

Paper Wheels, Anastasio’s eleventh solo studio album, is a 12-song collection of largely optimistic lyrics bouncing along on sunny grooves and crisp horn arrangements. The music is both more delicate and harder grooving than Phish. With the larger ensemble, Anastasio’s guitar is a bit less prominent, but it remains at the center, the clean tone vibrant and cutting. On “Liquid Time,” he displays a cutting, Mark Knopfler–esque Strat sound, while on “Flying Machines” his guitar lines take a languid stroll through well-orchestrated background vocals reminiscent of Steely Dan. It’s all part of Anastasio’s never-ending musical quest, a journey which only seems to be gathering steam as he gets older.

“There’s no off switch on Trey!” says Markellis, who has known Anastasio since 1983 and played with him since 1999. “He comes up with more ideas in a day than most people do in a year; a very high percentage of them are even good ideas!

For the full interview, pick up your copy here.

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Alan Paul

Alan Paul is the author of three books, Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, One Way Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band – which were both New  York Times bestsellers – and Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, a memoir about raising a family in Beijing and forming a Chinese blues band that toured the nation. He’s been associated with Guitar World for 30 years, serving as Managing Editor from 1991-96. He plays in two bands: Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, with Guitar World’s Andy Aledort.