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Oysterhead Revisited

I’m looking forward to seeing Trey Anastasio solo acoustic next month and it got me thinking about how he’s so often experimenting with new musical settings and ideas. He told me about a project he’d like to do when I interviewed him for Guitar world two years ago. It would be so cool. In the meantime, I present my 2001 Guitar World interview with Trey and Les Claypool about their one-off Oysterhead project with Police drummer Stewart Copeland. Enjoy. I have not edited it all – even where I see sentences or questions that make me cringe a bit.


The usually loquacious guitarist Trey Anastasio is momentarily stumped, struggling for words to explain the process of recording Oysterhead’s The Grand Pecking Order (Elektra) in his Vermont home studio. The trio, featuring Anastasio, bassist Les Claypool (Primus) and drummer Stuart Copeland (the Police) had only played one spontaneous gig together and had only a handful of songs together when they entered “the Barn.”

“It was… crazy,” says the guitarist with a laugh. “We just put three people who don’t know each other very well into a room and said, ‘Okay we have one month to write and record an album. None of us had a clue what we would come up with, or where to start because we all worked in such different ways.”

Claypool is a tad more explicit: “As soon as we got into the studio, we all went to a corner and started pissing in circles to mark our territories. Then we looked for the places where the urine streams overlapped.”

The result of all this territorial pissing is now available for the whole world to hear. To a certain extent, the sound of The Grand Pecking Order is expected: Claypool thumps his six string bass and croons some songs in his distinct, post modern vaudevillian style; Anastasio plays soaring leads and impeccable rhythms and pick sup his acoustic for a few tunes; and Copeland drums up a thunderous but tasteful storm. But while the musical elements are familiar, a larger Oysterhead aesthetic also emerges, with a sound distinct from anything any of the three had ever done.

The band came about in the spring of 2000 when Claypool was asked to serve as the linchpin for a night of jamming in New Orleans during the city’s famed Jazz Fest week. “I called Trey first because we knew each other a little and he was the first person I could imagine being able to play great stuff totally off the cuff. He said that the drummer he most wanted to play with was Stuart Copeland, who I had just met a little bit. I called him up and much to my surprise, he agreed. We also called Tom Morello, who was interested but couldn’t make the gig.”

The planned club show was moved to a theater, where tickets sold out in 12 minutes. One ducket was sold on Ebay for $2000.

“It was an insane event,” recalls Claypool. “But the chemistry I felt with these guys from the minute we got together was incredible, better than anything I had ever felt before, so I really hoped the gig would be more than a one off thing.”

When Phish took an extended hiatus, Anastasio suddenly had some time on his hand, and Oysterhead entered the Barn. Then the fun really began…

GW: You guys come from bands where your own roles are well established. Was it easy to find your own spot within Oysterhead?

ANASTASIO: It wasn’t easy, no. It was more kind of a lesson in keeping my mouth shut. [laughs] I disagreed with a lot of things, but we are all used to running our own shows. Each of us would have done some things differently, so we had to find solutions that all of us could live with. Everyone had to give up heir personal thing a bit in order for the group to come to the front. We wanted it to sound like a cohesive band, not like: “This is Trey’s song, this is Les’s…”

CLAYPOOL: We’ve all been at it for many years and we all have our methods of getting from Point  A to Point Z and we all took lessons in each other’s methods. There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat, but while it was a little rough at times, the cat got skinned. It wasn’t difficult in the sense of being a drag because the chemistry was always great, but it required each of us to rethink everything, from the process of laying down basic tracks to getting sounds to writing tunes.

GW: Is it a relief to be in a band with no expectations of what it should sound like?

ANASTASIO: Definitely. This recording was the first time I ever walked in to the studio with nothing prepared. I just felt the best thing to do was throw spaghetti to the wall and see what stuck. Ultimately, I did pull out a few songs I already had but we completely restructured them.

CLAYPOOL: I was quite nervous about the wide-open nature of the whole thing, especially when we did the original concert. I’ve spent the last year becoming a part of the “jam band” scene, but that gig was my introduction to this whole world. I thought free form jamming was what you do with your friends in a garage. I never thought people would pay to hear people play with nothing prepared and I was wrong. There is a huge community of people out there looking to hear great musicians stretch out.

So I was much more nervous than Trey but less than so Stuart was. Stuart is the guy who wants to make a set list and polish the act, Trey is saying no way and I’m in the middle. We’re all tugging each other in different directions.

GW: As long as you can reconcile things that can make for great interplay.

CLAYPOOL: Exactly. Each one of us pushed the other guys to do things that we wanted to hear as fans, especially me and Trey with Stuart, because we both have loved his work for so long. But we did it to each other, too. Like, Trey brought in this song, “Birthday Boys.” It was nice, happy song so I grabbed my upright and played a nice, low key part which seemed appropriate for the tune and Trey said, “That’s not what I want to hear from you at all. Go nuts.”

Or one time he played a solo that he really liked but it sounded restrained to me and like things I had heard him do before so I said, “That’s a cool solo, but I want to hear you do some crazy shit. I want to play this for Buckethead and have him go, ‘whoa.’” That became our running joke – play something that will wow Buckethead. It is very cool to be prodded to go in directions that you don’t think are cool or wouldn’t try on your own.

ANASTASIO:  Right. Les and I had lots of arguments. He is used to having very strong characters in his songs but not really strong musical development; he had never really been in a band that played more than one chord per song! On the other hand, I come from the world of harmony and development, as does Stuart, but he views it form a pop perspective, where you start with a simple structure. So we were coming from three very different directions and trying to bring them together. I think we did, but that’s up to you and everyone who listens to the album to decide.

GW: You spoke about challenging each other. How did Stuart fit into that?

ANASTASIO: He’s a firm believer in the song and he feels like he can’t play a song right unless he understands it. If there was a single line he didn’t understand he would take me to task and ask me to explain it. He would even say, “I can’t get with that” and challenge me to rewrite it so the whole world understands it and not just my friends. I’ve never had that kind of experience before. And that’s an example of why it is so good to open up and get out of your little world.

As much as I love playing with Phish, I had to break out. You get a lot of new ideas working with new people, and it makes you have to defend yourself. When you play with the same people all the time, no one ever pushes your buttons. I think it’s the best thing I could ever do and I want to do more of it. I want to do an album with Maynard from Tool.

And the advantage of opening up goes beyond whom you play with. Like, we used Les’s guy Toby Wright to mix Oysterhead and I loved working with him instead of my usual suspects. Now he is going to work on my solo record.

GW: What did you like about him?

ANASTASIO: A lot of things, but here’s one. He worked with Alice in Chains, whose guitar sounds I have always admired, so the first thing I did when we met was try to pry their secrets out of him. Hopefully, Jerry Cantrell won’t kill me, but this is one trick of his that we used. You record power chords through three different amp sounds — one which is thin and brittle, one which is very mid rangy and one which is very low and bass heavy. You record through two speakers for each of them so you have six tracks of just power chords which you then pan hard left and hard right. And you end up with this huge sound. It seemed appropriate to do this because Oysterhead is fulfilling my boyhood dream of being in a heavy metal band.

CLAYPOOL:  [laughs] That boy needs to play with some real heavy hitters! I may just take him to see Slayer soon. He keeps talking about Randy Rhoads and how he wants to just slam and rock on this tour and do all those things that guitar players want to do – play through giant amps and make their guitars squeal.

ANASTASIO: Definitely. This trio can completely slam live, and we have the perfect combination of enthusiasm and ego bruising to create a slight battlefield vibe. In concert the Police were Stuart Copeland and Friends. Primus was definitely Les and Friends and my frantic nature often led Phish to be Trey and Friends. Everyone’s used to taking over, so it’s going to be a dogfight up there and I can’t wait. There’s no other bass player or drummer on the planet that I’d rather play with. And I think Stuart is finally starting to understand the whole jam thing. He came to a few of my solo shows and said, “There are people who actually want to hear us play this way?” [laughs]

GW: Trey, when will you be recording with your solo band?

ANASTASIO: I already am! An album will be out this spring and I am just buzzing with ideas. I did an orchestral piece with the Vermont Youth Symphony that was probably the most satisfying musical experience I’ve ever had and I want to try and combine that world with the rock world. My group is an eight-piece with horns, so I’ve been writing horn charts and I am now trying to work out arrangements for some music that I thought would be another orchestral piece.

And I still talk to Page, Mike and Fish a lot because we have been working together on these Phish live releases. [Elektra will be releasing six complete Phish concerts every six months beginning in September. –GW Ed.] They came to a couple of my solo shows at the end of the tour, which was really nice. At this point, we’re like, “Nice to see you. Talk to you soon,” but who knows what will happen. All doors are open.