The Dude of Life, also known as Steve Pollak , first collaborated with Trey Anastasio while the two were in high school. The Dude wrote lyrics for a number of Phish’s beloved songs, including “Fluffhead,” “Run Like an Antelope” and “Dinner and a Movie.” However, Pollak’s creative output did not stop at collaborating with Phish. He has continued to perform and write his own original music and perform with his own band, as well as Fluid Druids. In addition, The Dude has collaborated with Fluid Druids member Charlie de Saint Phalle partnered to create music for LIGHTSCAPES, an art project in Westchester.
Calling on his way back from the Department of Motor Vehicles, The Dude of Life discusses his band’s upcoming shows, working with de Saint Phalle and Fluid Druids, his reaction to Trey Anastasio getting stuck on New Year’s Eve and more.
You’re at the DMV right now?
Well, we traded in our Mazda before we left for Mexico [to attend Phish’s Riviera Maya destination event]; we had to turn in the plates. There’s a long, long-ass line.
The stereotype holds true I suppose.
What you realize is, people think of hell as being fire and brimstone—it’s really not that. It’s a never-ending line at the Department of Motor Vehicles and then you finally get to where you’re supposed to be and they say, “Sorry, you’re in the wrong line. You gotta go to another line.”
Yep, endless line-waiting. Since you brought up Phish in Mexico, how was it? What did you think of the shows?
It was absolutely unbelievable, and I’ve been to Mexico each of the times Phish has played there. Changing the location to the Moon Palace was a phenomenal move because it was just a superior place in so many ways. The food was better, the transportation was better—it was amazing having everyone in one resort rather than spreading out between five or six resorts. It created an amazing sense of unity and fun. The only problem was that there were so many amazing people I wanted to hang out with, and I didn’t get the chance to spend as much time with people as I would have liked to.
That’s always a problem at Phish shows—I’m constantly trying to see everybody. For someone as connected in that world as yourself, it must be even more intense.
You can’t see everybody, but you try. [Laughs]
I’m curious about the rarities and bust-outs that they played, like “Sea and Sand” and “Willin’.” Does someone like yourself know that’s going to happen or are you as surprised as everyone when it does happen?
Once in a while I will know, but for the most part, I’m surprised as well.
That must be fun, too. Pivoting to the upcoming shows, you and your band were confirmed to play the TAB after-show in Asbury Park this coming May.
Over your musical and artistic career, you’ve played in a lot of variations of bands. How did this band that you’ve been playing with recently come together? I believe you guys did an afternoon for the MSG run. What do you particularly enjoy about playing with this group?
Well Doug Schneider, Adam Dell, and Parker Reilly were performing in a different band for Halloween [The PartyBox Raiders], and they invited me to sit in. It was so successful that we decided to take it to the next level. I like to say we opened up for Phish at Madison Square Garden—a few blocks away. [Laughs] That was even better; the electricity was flying and everyone had a great time. As Jerry Garcia used to say regarding his neck ties, he couldn’t think of any reason not to do it. Well with this band, I can’t think of any reason not to do it— we’re having so much fun.
In terms of what these shows consist of, you guys play a mixture of Phish originals and other covers. You mentioned some newly written material, so in general, what type of material are you working on?
Yeah! We play Phish songs, some of my originals and some wonderful vintage covers as well. But most importantly, we’re doing a bunch of great originals that haven’t even been recorded yet, and that’s what I’m really excited about.
How long have you had these songs written?
It’s varied; some are recent, some are from 10 years ago, some are from anywhere between.
How often these days are you writing new songs?
I write fairly often because my day job is teaching music therapy in the Yonkers public schools, where I work with kids who have special needs.
I have a friend who does pretty much the exact same thing out in LA, so I’m interested in that sort of thing.
I really love these kids I’m working with. I often infuse original music I’ve written into the curriculum; it’s a method I’ve had tremendous success. What I find is that these kids are the most amazing audience—and they’re very forgiving too. When I’m playing a song that I’ve never played before, if I make mistakes, they are very understanding. It really enables me to have a sense of freedom and not feel that I need to hold back. I’m able to explore and get creative and then when things are really flying musically, they let me know. But if things aren’t taking off, they also communicate that. It really provides me the building blocks to create some songs that can stand the test of time.
Have you been collaborating on songwriting with anyone in particular? Obviously in the past, you’ve collaborated with Trey Anastasio. I also listened to your appearance on Under the Scales and heard a little bit about your rather recent creative partnership with Tom Marshall. I’m wondering how often are those collaborations happening, and how often is it just you on your own working on material?
Sometimes I collaborate with Trey, and I was just hanging out with Tom in Mexico. We have some phenomenal songs that we’ve written together. We are looking to take those to another level as well. On top of that, for many years I’ve worked very closely with the Fluid Druids. We’ve written many songs, so if you add all those components together, I’ve got a lot of songs that I want to get into the studio for sure.
I think a lot of fans of the greater Phish community were interested in hearing about you and Tom’s relationship. You two have been some of Trey’s main collaborators, but you didn’t really become close with each other until 2009’s Festival 8 in Indio, Calif. How did that creative partnership begin? Was it instant, like, “Oh, we gotta write together,” or was it over time that you realized, “Oh, we want to write together”?
In the past, we were always very friendly to each other but maybe on some level we saw each other with a little bit of a competitive spirit. But by the time Indio came along and the band had been on hiatus, we got together and got drunk together. We realized we had so many connections, so many similar friends, so many things in common and we just had the best time together. That kind of was the spark, and we’ve been dear friends ever since.
In terms of writing with Trey, some of the more recent songs you’ve written together are, “Show of Life,” “The Architect” and “Can’t Always Listen” Of course, you also wrote lyrics for some classics like “Fluffhead.” How did the process of writing with Trey—if at all—change over the course of your relationship with him?
In some ways it has changed drastically, and in other ways it’s almost exactly the same. To expand on that, when Trey and I get together… going back to high school, we got together as buddies, and in college just as friends hanging out, having fun with it. So that aspect of it totally remains the same. When we’re in there, that sense of enthusiasm and fun and trying to create something that can stand the test of time holds true. But the difference is, now, when I’m working with Trey, he’s got an amazing studio right on hand. Whether it’s GarageBand or whatever hi-tech recording devices we’re using, everything is at our fingertips. You can have the choice of thousands of different drum tracks, thousands of different guitar sounds, thousands of bass sounds, whatever you want. So we can actually build songs just the two of us as if the whole band was in the room.
In more recent years, Phish has obviously jumped from where they were in the ‘90s to a more culturally ubiquitous status. What is it like for someone like yourself to see Phish playing your songs, such as “Crimes of the Mind?”
It’s always amazing to hear a song like “Crimes of the Mind” because the way they’re playing it these days has never sounded better. It’s like seeing your baby all grown up and getting that big job. That’s a bad example. [Laughs]
You still see it as your baby, but it’s being played at the MGM Grand in front of thousands of rabid fans instead of in a small room or even on your own with your band.
The quality of the band has never been better, and the band has never played it better. So it’s always exciting to see them do those songs these days. In my opinion, they’re at the top of their game.
I’m hopeful that the next time they bust out “Crimes of the Mind,” they’ll have you sing it, because I think that’s the way it’s gotta be. But that’s just my personal opinion.
I’m just as thrilled when they play it without me, too. I love it when they play it, any way, fashion or form.
Moving on to Fluid Druids, when was it that you first started to play with them? How did that collaboration begin?
Well Charlie De Saint Phalle and I are neighbors; we live about a mile away from each other. We met each other at a kid’s birthday party of a mutual friend. We instantly became fast friends. One thing led to another, and he had a studio in his basement, so next thing you know, we’re jamming there all the time. Daver Coats has been with Fluid Druids since the beginning as well; he and Charlie have known each other since they were eight years old. They had chemistry that went back to when they were kids. At eight years old, there were times when they were throwing rocks at each other, so there’s history. Sometimes that history is really important with music. Look at Phish: Those guys have been playing together for decades, and the amount of time that they’ve known each other and the brotherhood that they have—it gives the music its depth. It’s not just cool musicians playing together who don’t know the ins and outs of each others’ lives. So basically things took off quickly. There are also three different drummers that we’ve used, all amazing drummers. Moe Harroche—he’s also been with Charlie and Daver forever—Conrad Aamodt, and John Madden. From there we started jamming a lot, and then we started doing some small gigs. Even when we weren’t doing gigs, we were having so much fun at rehearsals. We were making music, and that’s really what it comes down to, so we kept moving along that trajectory.