THE BELIEVER: Do you think composition and improvisation are the same thing? Or are they inherently different?
TREY ANASTASIO: I think they’re the same thing. The struggle is not giving up the best element of composition, which is the time to figure out that it’s all right, and also to not give up the best element of improvisation, which is that it’s happening in real time, so you can’t stop to ruin it. You don’t have any time to screw up.
BLVR: So you think in the best instances, improvisation and composition would produce the same results?
TA: Yes. Yes. I’ll give you an example. On the song “Billy Breathes“ there’s a guitar solo I like a lot. That’s a composed solo. I didn’t labor over it. What I did is, I walked around the kitchen—my daughter had just been born and we were living out in the woods in Vermont. I was in my union suit, chopping wood. I was not thinking about anything, and then I just started singing [sings melody] the first four notes of the solo. I had a cassette player and I’d run over and get it recorded. Then I’d forget about it. And then the next part came. It was a lot of wearing headphones while walking around. Cassette player in my pocket. Change a diaper, go to the store, and whenever I can disconnect from whoever I’m talking to in the room, I’d put on my headphones. So the point I’m making is that it still felt like improv.
BLVR: You were just capturing moments out of your daily life.
TA: I would just wait for the moment to come. It didn’t feel any different than what happens on stages. I was busying myself with other things. I wasn’t sitting there working, like capital-W work, but, in the end, it took days and days.
BLVR: You write a lot that way?
TA: Yeah. And since you’re feeding the cat and you’re not paying attention and then you listen to what you just recorded, you can really hear when it’s wrong. If it’s wrong, it’s like when you put on bad music in the background. But going back to Coltrane, it sounds like he just wants to be doing that in an immediate way when he’s onstage. I’m starting to think that patience is the biggest part of the whole thing. And, you know, another thing that just popped into my head, and I’m not sure if this answers your question, but like a week ago, I was writing this thing. Single lines and chords moving and blah, blah. I was going for about four days, and I wasn’t really thinking about it. I had six minutes’ worth of music, and then all of a sudden it just stopped. And I didn’t really realize that it stopped until I put all the pieces together. It’s everywhere: on my cassette recorder, on my phone, on a 4-track recorder, on the laptop. It just stopped. All of a sudden. It’s the concept of being a channel.
BLVR: You’ve said that before.
TA: A lot of people end up saying it.
BLVR: Otherwise you point at yourself and it becomes an ego-y thing. That’s dangerous.
TA: I mean, it’s still craft. It’s still work. I got to play with these orchestras recently, at Carnegie Hall. One of the best musical experiences of my life. You go in and there are all the walls covered in photos of great conductors. A picture of Mark Twain standing on the stage. This is what you walk by before you go onstage, in case anyone ever wants to try and have an ego in that room. But so I get a two-hour rehearsal with these musicians, with the New York Philharmonic—maybe the top orchestra in the world—and every single musician on the stage is so far beyond anyone I’ve ever played with. All ninety of them. They were the top in their school and then the top at Juilliard and now they’re playing second cello. And the humility is as high as the musicianship. Let’s say you’re playing a Beethoven piece in a room where the same piece was played one hundred years ago. They’re sitting in the same chairs, wearing the same shoes and suits, playing instruments that are one hundred years old, playing the same sounds with the best conductor of their time, who is standing under photos of twenty of the greatest conductors. And when the music started playing, I had this idea that the music was coming through this little channel—for lack of a better word—for years and years. Musicians come and go and they’re stewards of the music for a brief period of time. But once the music plays—it’s really between Beethoven and the listener at that point. The musicians are there to get their goddamn hands off of it. All that training! Thousands of hours! Sight-reading every day! All so they can get the hell out of the way because nobody gives a crap about them at all. The less you notice them, the better it sounds. I mean, it was the highest level of art in music that I’d ever seen, and it was performed by people who had spent countless hours of work just to be invisible.
BLVR: In music, you never notice that quality anywhere more than in the orchestra.
TA: And the challenge of getting ninety people to play together! Try getting four people to play together.
Also see: This Rolling Stone interview from earlier today.