"It was a great experience," says Trey Anastasio. "It actually surpassed my expectations," admits Les Claypool. "We got together and magic happened," professes Stewart Copeland.
The principals behind Oysterhead unanimously express excitement as they recall the making of their debut album, The Grand Pecking Order. Oysterhead is a combustible union of three extraordinary musicians — guitarist Trey Anastasio (on hiatus from Phish), bass player Les Claypool (stepping away from Primus) and drummer Stewart Copeland (long gone from the Police, now an in-demand film composer of films in Hollywood). The Oysterhead story began in 2000, when Claypool was tapped by the New Orleans-based Superfly Productions to organize one of their "SuperJams" — interesting and even startling combinations of musicians brought together for a night or two of live jamming in the Crescent City. Claypool recruited Trey Anastasio, with whom he’d jammed a few times (most notably at a 1996 Phish gig in Las Vegas), and Anastasio suggested Stewart Copeland — who, coincidentally, had produced a track ("Dirty Drowning Man") on Primus’s 1999 album Antipop.
Oysterhead played a single sold-out show at New Orleans’ Saenger Theater on May 4th, 2000. They took an ambitious tack, concocting a set that mixed newly written originals - including early versions of "Rubberneck Lions," "Mr. Oysterhead," "Pseudo Suicide" and "Owner of the World" - with open-ended jams and offbeat covers. The show was well-received and -circulated among the many fans of Anastasio, Claypool and Copeland.
The Oysterhead story might have ended there, but the trio were sufficiently jazzed by their musical chemistry that they decided to carry it to the next level. The momentum for taking Oysterhead from one-night stand to full-blown studio album began with Copeland, who edited the two-and-a-half-hour live show down to 50 minutes of highlights. "As I was screwing around with the live tapes," he says, "it occurred to me it was such a fortunate collaboration. I mean, there really is a spark. The other guys both had the same response: ‘Shit, this is a really good group.’"
Claypool sensed the potential at the three days of rehearsal that preceded the New Orleans show. "I felt the chemistry as soon as we got in the room and started writing tunes," he recalls. "Trey and I were bouncing lyrical ideas off each other. It was just flowing. I play with a lot of people, as does Trey, and I’ve never felt that kind of chemistry before. It was exciting, and I didn’t think it was something that should be passed by, so I really pushed for the making of an album."
When the time came to record, they found themselves in a no-pressure setup that encouraged hassle-free creativity. "The biggest point, I think, is that we had nothing to lose," says Anastasio. "We’ve all had our success. You’re not going to be in another Police, another Primus or another Phish.
Convening in Burlington, Vermont, they spent the month of April 2001 writing and recording at The Barn, Anastasio’s rural studio retreat. They immersed themselves in a collaborative creative process of sharing ideas, jamming till the wee hours and then shaping aural sculptures into crafted compositions. Forceful personalities to a man, they nonetheless forged a collective identity and struck a balance between experimentalism and accessibility.
"Here you have three guys who are used to running the show," laughs Anastasio. "We joked around, saying we’re three alpha dogs. I mean, it was really great because of that."
"The three of us are pretty strong in our opinions," agrees Claypool, "and it was going different ways at various times, so it was difficult to foresee where it was going to land. On certain tunes, it landed in places I would never have pushed it. But it’s been phenomenal because of that - watching it develop into something completely unique from the three of us."
"I’m a popsmith, so I guess that has been one of my contributions," adds Copeland. "The thing is, it’s the balance. If it had been me and two other guys with a pop background, it would’ve been too much. They pulled me equally back in their direction, and the place we ended up really seems to me to be the sweet spot."
Reconvening in California to mix the album a few weeks after what Copeland calls their "blast of energy in Vermont," they got the bug to tinker further. With a fresh perspective on the songs, they did some selective adding to and taking out in one room while mixing proceeded in another. This final coat of polish helped turned an excellent album into an exceptional one. "You’d be amazed at what just a little reshuffling can do," notes Anastasio. "We probably touched on every song in that room, and everything gained from when we were in there."
From the deep-space groove of "Oz Is Ever Floating" and the otherworldly acoustic dreamscape of "Radon Balloon" to the disturbing dark-side dispatches of "Shadow of a Man" and the absurdist tribal march of "Army on Ecstasy," The Grand Pecking Order is a richly textured and wholly absorbing musical tapestry. You will discern familiar elements — Anastasio’s brain-hosing lead guitar, the surrealistic vaudeville of Claypool’s bass and vocals, Copeland’s driving, syncopated drumwork — embedded in a larger matrix that is uniquely Oysterhead.
The overall sound might call to mind the term psychedelic, but not so much in a retro Sixties vein as a full-sounding, future-minded way. "It’s got this modern psychedelic vibe to it," explains Anastasio, "and it’s also got a heavier sound and some heavier issues."
What makes Oysterhead work? According to Copeland, "The players listen to each other, and the ideas we throw each other are ones that get us off. If I start on some rhythm, Les immediately gets it. He starts doing the right thing on it, which gets me excited so I can add something else to it, all of which makes Trey launch off on one of his stratospheric guitar solos. The ball bounces back and forth and you hit a critical mass where you’re really flying with this band."
"For me, it was exciting to be in a band project where everyone was so passionately involved in every aspect of the album," Anastasio reflects. "It was pretty close to a three-way deal on just about everything. Everyone was stepping up to do everything. Everyone was coming up with ideas."
"It was not our intention to be a band," marvels Copeland. "It was our intention to do one show. By the time we finished making the album, we realized Oysterhead is developing a momentum of its own that, in spite of being comfortable in our day jobs, is going to come and get us."