Why the New Trey Anastasio Documentary Isn't Just for Diehard Phish Fans
It's an incredible time to be a Phish fan.
The average person maybe had a friend in college who never shut up about the rock-jazz-funk-jam band that occasionally plays bluegrass and sings barbershop tunes, but also blasts off into avant-garde ambient soundscapes. If you are that friend, however, you know that even with three decades under their belt, this group of Vermont-based weirdos keeps getting better.
In the past 12 months, Phish, led by guitarist-singer Trey Anastasio, debuted a new album's worth of songs on Halloween, tweaking their usual "musical costume." Instead of pretending to be someone else, like Talking Heads or Little Feat or David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars, they appeared as Kasvot Växt, a make-believe Scandinavian New Age group. Then, in April, Trey unveiled a massive new project called Ghosts of the Forest. It included Phish drummer Jon Fishman and members of his Trey Anastasio Band playing contemplative, moving songs that largely ditch Phish's silly side for more serious themes.
A lot has happened in Trey's life in the last decade. He was busted for drug use, got sober, and became an advocate for the Drug Courts system. Then his sister died from cancer. Then his oldest friend, Chris Cottrell, got sick with cancer. Ghosts of the Forest was inspired by Chris' death.
Filmmakers Steve Cantor (Dancer, Chasing Tyson, loudQUIETloud: A Film about the Pixies) and Jamie Schutz (producer on ESPN's 30 for 30 series, The Real Cancun, and a forthcoming film about Arthur Ashe) were there to document all of this and more, providing a window into Trey's world for hardcore fans. Between Me and My Mind -- the title comes from the song "Light," which doesn't appear anywhere in the movie -- is absolute joy for a guy like me, whose review from the Tribeca Film Festival premiere at the Beacon Theater is an unabashed rave. But it ought to intrigue anyone who's curious about the creative process and how the rock sausage is made.
Trey and Phish have been documentary subjects once before, in the late 1990s, when The Hangover director Todd Phillips was a bad-boy documentarian (he made the infamous GG Allin doc Hated) who got the gig partly because he said he'd never heard of Phish. The resulting film is good, but many believe its selective use of fan and band interview footage goes out of its way to make its subjects look bad (more on all that here.) The point is that Cantor and Schutz, without setting out to idolize Trey, clearly have different aims with this film. While there's no such thing as "truth" when it comes to analyzing a popular artist's legacy, everything about the movie feels a lot more real.
Between Me and My Mind has a one-day theatrical run on July 17 before its life on VOD and streaming, and below is an edited transcript of my conversation with its director and producer.
Thrillist: Did you hear last night's show?
Jamie Schutz [producer]: Only the highlights, but I see that “Jon Sullen Melancholy” came out. [Note: This would take a long time to explain, but all you need to know is that it involves drummer Jon Fishman coming to the front of the stage to play a solo on the vacuum cleaner.]
What's the best Phish jam you've seen?
Schutz: That's impossible to say, but I do have a memory of being at The Clifford Ball [Phish's first weekend festival in Plattsburgh, New York, August 1996] where I was in a gyrotron at the back of the grounds. The guy running the gyrotron didn't have a line, I guess, so he let me ride it for what felt like an hour. I know it was really only a few minutes, but in my head it was an hour. At the time they were playing "Free." That moment represented a lot to me at the time.
Steve Cantor [director]: I am not nearly the diehard Jaime is. I saw a few shows in the '90s and appreciated them, but about five years ago he started to get me more into it. Especially as we were making the film. The 30-minute jam of "Lawn Boy" at the Baker's Dozen [a run of 13 shows at Madison Square Garden in summer 2017] was unbelievable. Page [McConnell] with that keytar solo.
Your movie does a good job of keeping the interest of devoted fans like me engaged, but I'm pretty sure noobs can dig it, too. How difficult was it to find that sweet spot?
Cantor: It's something Jamie and I went back and forth on. I was trying to make a film for non-fans to engage with: the artistry of the guy onscreen, to care about him as a person. Jamie was there to make sure we were appealing to the fan who was clearly going to see this film and is starved for this type of content. All through, we went back and forth, hoping to accommodate both. I know, based on the response from the Beacon Theater screening, that we appealed to the fans. We're hoping to get the casual viewers, too.
That's part of a bigger thing. I'm a huge Phish fans and my friends sometimes poke fun that I'll go to a place like Camden, New Jersey to see the same band three nights in a row, but some of them will not listen to Phish for two minutes just to see if they like it. Now, it isn't like Phish isn't successful! But why do people refuse to give them a shot?
Cantor: You're either in the portal or you're not. I tell people I'm working on a movie about Trey Anastasio and 9 out of 10 say "ah, yeah, I kinda remember from the '90s, yeah" or maybe they've never heard of him. Then 1 out of 10 will absolutely fall over and freak out and can't wait to see it. It's weird!
Schutz: They suffer from the same thing the Grateful Dead suffered from -- and I am not comparing them musically -- but culturally. They've created a community, and they are a quote-unquote jam band, and they don't get radio play or make videos. So the casual music fan listening to Bono and Mick and The Killers or Beyoncé, they just won't get exposed to it. So, with that, it's unbelievable what these guys have been able to do by themselves. I'm confounded that the public doesn't know them for their achievements, but hopefully, in time, their name will be up there with the best.
Cantor: And they don't play catchy songs with hooks or easily defined riffs --
Schutz: Actually, you're -- that's totally untrue!
Yeah, man, go listen to "Suzy Greenberg" for God's sake!
Cantor: Well, it's not easy listening -- not easily defined.
Schutz: Yeah, it's not spoon-fed.
OK, OK, I'm sorry I yelled.
Cantor: It's more sophisticated. You look at these four musicians and all of them are just awesome. No one can watch Jon Fishman play drums and not realize he is a fucking awesome drummer.
Schutz: Trey never wanted to be in a rock band, he wanted to be a composer. The epic set pieces are heavily composed, so in some ways, what we're listening to with Phish is an intricate, classically composed rock band which doesn't really exist elsewhere. But Trey is very happy with his level of success and fame. He does not have a massive ego. He's a genuinely great dude who is appreciative of what he has. And the other guys are, too.
This leads to my next question. This is a movie about Trey, and his family, his solo album and the death of his best friend. But you can't make a movie about him without making a movie about Mike, Page and Fish. Was it difficult getting them on board?
Cantor: We had two paths. We were following Trey as he made his album, and the look inside Phish was centered on “Soul Planet” and preparing that New Year's Eve performance. For every one of those songs it starts with Trey, then he goes around and teaches it to the guys. There's a mystique that maybe the jam just unfolds on stage but there's a lot of preparation -- so we showed it. First in Trey's living room, then going to each of the guys. They knew we were making a documentary about him and, well, they all just love Trey beyond brotherhood, so no one was going to say "no cameras!"
You mention fans are starved for this content. It's true. We only have one documentary of the band, which is Todd Phillips' "Bittersweet Motel" from 1999, which is a controversial movie to some fans.
Schutz: Yeah, I saw that movie 20 years ago when it came out and had mixed feelings. I didn't rewatch it, because I knew what we were going to do was completely different. These guys are at much different points in their lives. But also we wanted to show something else -- the creative influences in Trey's process. That film… was something else. Different vision.
Cantor: We got Trey to say "yes" by saying this was a movie about [his] creative process, going into the solo work and Phish and TAB. We aren't looking to muckrake.
Trey's new album is different from Phish musically, but also lyrically. It's very emotional when you see the backstory about the death of his best friend. Last night they played "Icculus," which is a very silly song, and in Camden they played "The Mango Song," which is another goofy one. I love them both, but these tunes from the 1990s and the Ghosts of the Forest songs are worlds apart.
Cantor: He's in a very reflective state in the film. Primarily because Chris was dying, but also turning 50 or 52, you know, you think about things differently. He was always a living in the moment kind of guy, so the conversations with his family and parents [in the film] got him to a deeper place than he normally does with these songs.
Ever since the film premiere at the Beacon, in the shows he played right after and the current tour, he seems a lot looser. He's started being more involved on Instagram, especially playing around with his kids and their accounts. This wasn't happening as recently as a year ago. Maybe this is because his kids are in the movie? Maybe you can pat yourself on the back for that?
Schutz: I don't think Steve and I want to take credit for Trey's presence on social media, but, yes, he's been more interactive with fans and the public. He's got two grown daughters, he and Sue have been together for 35 years, the band has been together for 35 years, his parents are getting older, he's had a passing, and I think he's more reflective and ready to share those emotions.
Cantor: I think he's also aware that "Bittersweet Motel" captured a particular time, and he's ambivalent about that, maybe a little embarrassed. I know he is super proud of our film and feels like he worked hard on it and was rewarded. It's something he's sending his friends to go see.
For people who can't make the one-night screening, will you have a VOD option soon?
Schutz: We'll have more info soon, but yes. We wanted to do a theatrical event because the premiere went over so well. We wanted the fans to have a communal atmosphere.
The tables have turned. So much of Phish fandom has been about trading tapes and it all being free. Now this movie comes out, and the Phish community, which can act spoiled sometimes, can't just set up a link tree -- movies are expensive. How are you going to remind the fans this is a little different?
Schutz: I think you just did.
Cantor: We also have high contacts at the CIA.
Schutz: But I disagree with you a little bit. Since Phish has started webcasting and created the LivePhish subscription app, the community is pretty engaged with those services.
Dude, you gotta get in the right private Facebook groups.
Schutz: Oh, I guess so.
I'm joking, I'm joking. Anyway, I'll make sure I put in this article that anyone who pirates the movie is a dick. One of the scenes that just blows me away is watching Trey come off stage, super high intensity, final encore, then boom, down a hallway, onto his bus and gone. And that change in tone is just otherworldly. You are there with the camera, what is that like?
Cantor: You see the ecstasy and adulation of the fans, then the loneliness of being on the road. When Trey gets off the stage he's looking a little confused and tired, and needs to catch his breath for a minute. Then he needs to process what just happened for the last three hours. And after fifteen minutes he picks up his guitar and he's rehearsing.
Also it's around then when things with Chris are not looking too good, so one minute he's making death jokes with his friend, but he's realizing he's not going to be around for too much longer. He's still going on stage to entertain people and then coming off, it's a wave of emotions.
I know that immediately exiting the venue and not hanging around is part of Trey's sobriety practice, and another part of the movie that is quite special is when a random fan bumps into him the day he decided to get sober.
Cantor: Yeah, nothing fake about that. Trey was talking to his daughter and that guy, who was a fan, was walking by and recognized him and we shot it. Then he walked off and we didn't get him to sign a release form. We weren't going to include it at first, and then we realized it was touching and it shed a lot of light on things, so we had to go through a painstaking process to find out who the guy was so he would sign off on it.
Wow, how did you find him?
Schutz: It took a while. But he was happy to share and he's still sober. And he was at the premiere.
I feel like the jam scene on the whole is on the rise right now.
Schutz: Having multiple jam channels on Sirius XM doesn't hurt, plus venues that really cater to the community, like the Capitol Theater [just outside New York City] and Brooklyn Bowl [in Brooklyn and Las Vegas], plus others.
Cantor: What's undeniable is the live experience. You can't go to a Phish show and not recognize the energy. There's nothing like it. I'm a huge Rangers fan, but I've never heard Madison Square Garden like the way it gets for Phish. I love Radiohead, I'm a huge fan, but I saw them there not long after Phish and it's like “God, Radiohead fans, they politely clap. At Phish every song you think the rafters are going to fall down.” The live experience is growing. Everybody's home streaming shit in their living room; you've gotta get out and have a live experience. And this is a good one to have.
Between Me And My Mind will be in cinemas nationwide on July 17. Find your closest screening here.