Q&A: Phish’s Trey Anastasio on playing the Sphere, and keeping the creativity going after 40 years


LAS VEGAS (AP) — Phish has been performing for decades, but never has the band played the same show twice.

Over the 40 years since the band was formed at a Vermont college, Phish has amassed a reputation for its dedicated legion of fans and the dazzling light shows that accompany the improvisational jams. It follows, then, that the next stop for Phish is the new temple of immersive performances: the Sphere in Las Vegas.

Inaugurated with U2’s 40-show residency, the $2.3 billion arena will offer Phish fans something they’ve definitely never seen — or felt — before.

Mind-blowing visuals run up, down and across the floor-to-ceiling screen, designed to be manipulated in real-time during the band’s long jams. A sound system features more than 1,600 speakers, allowing for a Trey Anastasio guitar line in one spot and a line from Page McConnell’s keys in another. Seats make you feel like you’re inside every drum kick from Jon Fishman or bass bomb from Mike Gordon.

Starting Thursday, Phish will play four shows, with new visuals each night — and no repeated songs, of course. Anastasio, the band’s frontman, says fans will be able to discern a theme across the shows … and find lots of Easter eggs. The shows will be the first to be livestreamed from the Sphere as well on LivePhish.com.

“I love getting up in the morning and creatively thinking of another cool thing to blow people’s minds,” Anastasio says.

Anastasio talked to The Associated Press this week about the teamwork that goes into these shows, how their “giant rolling family” of fans keeps them going and whether there will ever be another Gamehendge.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

AP: How much different is the Sphere, both from a sound and visual perspective?

ANASTASIO: It’s extremely unique to any venue that we’ve played before. One of the things that we’ve tried to do is sculpt our show so that we can be the band that we always are and play to our strengths while simultaneously using the technology to kind of expand the elements of the show — like the adventure and the breaking free of boundaries.

AP: What has the planning process been like for these shows and were there things you decided not to use along the way?

ANASTASIO: Constantly. Daily. Yesterday. We dropped some things yesterday. It’s a constant process of waking up in the morning and looking for areas that we can improve. Everyone on the team is incredible, but the level of communication and proactive teamwork is hard to describe. And that’s what it takes to get something like this mounted. But yeah, there were ideas on what the thematic narrative that was going to run through the four nights that went on for a month. Then we landed on one. Then it was what songs we’re going to play, what the (visual) content was going to be, how literal we wanted to make it. The answer to that is not very literal. Our fans are really smart and really involved, and we wanted to take a night or so for people to figure out what we were doing, plant a lot of Easter eggs and things like that. But it’s a never-ending daily improvement.

AP: U2 played 40 shows here that were mostly the same set list and visuals. Why was it important for you that the four shows be unique?

ANASTASIO: We’re a very different band. We’ve never repeated a set and we didn’t want to start now. So we created four unique Sphere shows, top to bottom. There was a moment where we were discussing adding shows, because the tickets blew out pretty hard. And we decided as a team that they would be good, but not necessarily astounding — which is the level that we wanted to operate at — unless we just repeated the exact same show over again. The other thing is that Phish is such a wacky community that it kind of set up this scenario where a lot of people would probably want to come back. It’s just the way our fans are. It’s kind of like a big, giant rolling family or community or something like that.

AP: Have you always felt the same need to be creative and do new things, or has that changed as the band has kept going for four decades?

ANASTASIO: Always. Always. I just love the feeling of being part of a group, working on something creative, especially when it’s firing on all cylinders and people communicate well. It’s been one of the great joys of my life. That’s what a band is. A good band is a family. It’s a team. It’s communication and listening and it’s hard to describe what a joy it is when you spend almost a year working on — like what we did last year (with a New Year’s Eve performance of the band’s epic set of “Gamehendge” songs, complete with stage actors and puppets). It’s like you feel like you’re alive. And the Sphere has been like that, too.

AP: What role do the fans play in what you’re doing?

ANASTASIO: Huge. It’s everything. The fans and the community are everything. We have intelligent, focused fans and we have to honor that. You know, they’re not casual fans and that’s really cool. It’s an honor and it’s a massive responsibility. I feel like the longer this goes, the more we owe. The fans have supported us for 40 years — it’s our responsibility to keep raising the bar. Which is a great challenge. And it’s very unique. If you really look at the series of events that we continue to put on, that’s the thinking that goes behind it. You know, the fact that there were people in the audience last New Year’s Eve who have seen Phish 300 times, who were crying according to what I heard — and I was too, by the way — meant so much to all of us. It’s everything that we want. Which is to honor and respect the people that have been coming to see us for years. We feel like they’re family and they deserve our care and attention about every detail.

AP: So, will fans get to see another Gamehendge?

ANASTASIO: I don’t know, I actually don’t know. … OK, first of all, I wanted to improve it. As soon as it was over I was like, “Oh, I know what I could have (changed).” So then I thought, “Oh, we should save all these props that are really — they’re really expensive.” But then it was kind of like, if there is, it’s going to be better, or it’s going to be built upon. Sort of the way this one was built upon. The previous one, even though it was 30 years ago. I hope it’s not 30 years. I’d like to do it. In the Phish world, it’s like the second it’s over … the next morning you wake up like I start working on the Sphere. Go meet (co-creative director Abigail Rosen Holmes) downtown at a coffee shop with a laptop and start riffing. I mean, I’m here in Vegas, and yesterday morning I was on a call (about this summer’s Mondegreen festival) with the coolest, smartest people who are working on that. Oh my God.

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