Phish was founded on October 30, 1983, when four college students in Vermont got together to play a distinctive fusion of rock, jazz, funk, bluegrass, boogie, and even vacuum cleaner noises. Although Phish played to a lone fan in a local bar at their first public appearance, within 10 years their popularity and their quirky style mushroomed—independent of media hype—in an unusually obsessive, oddball manner; Phish’s longstanding devotees have jealously monitored the band’s burgeoning popularity and even begrudge them their new fans. In 1993, a decade after their formation, Phish sold 300,000 concert tickets—even though the band had not sold 300,000 copies of any of their first four albums.
Phish is comprised of bassist Mike Gordon, keyboard player Page McConnell, drummer Jon Fishman—the source of the band’s name—and guitarist Trey Anastasio, who is also chief songwriter and lead singer. The band was spawned after Anastasio, with an itch to form a band, distributed some simple flyers on the Burlington campus of the University of Vermont. Gordon, Fishman, and another guitar player responded, and the fledgling group began performing to small crowds at gigs on and around campus. Shortly thereafter, Page McConnell, a student at Goddard College, replaced the original guitarist and introduced keyboards to the band. Anastasio and Fishman soon transferred to Goddard, but Gordon remained at the University of Vermont to study filmmaking. Within ten years, Phish would be earning more than $5 million annually in concert ticket sales.
Since the beginning, Phish’s key to success has been the formation of a “secret” band apart from traditional media—one that relies upon word-of-mouth advertising from fans, memorable music, unusual concert antics, and “insider” jokes among fans that can only be appreciated by regularly attending their shows. For example, bandmembers provide certain silent cues for the audience that mean “turn around” or “fall to the floor“; a person who has never seen Phish perform live could conceivably attend a concert and be perplexed when most of the audience drops to the floor or turns to face the other way. This “insider knowledge” is part of the Phish act that longstanding fans seek to preserve.
Since Phish’s sound and style are difficult to peg, they have been compared to both the Grateful Dead and the late Frank Zappa, two acts that have faced similar dilemmas. Though not entirely unwarranted, these comparisons rankle many of Phish’s most ardent fans,
For the Record…
Members include Trey Anastasio (born Ernest Anastasio, September 30, 1964, in Fort Worth, TX; received music degree from Goddard College), guitar, lead vocals, songwriter; Jon Fishman (born February 19, 1965, in Philadelphia, PA; received music degree from Goddard College), drums, vocals; Mike Gordon (born June 3, 1965, in Boston, MA; received degree in filmmaking from the University of Vermont), bass, vocals; and Page McConnell (born May 17, 1963, in Philadelphia; received music degree from Goddard College), keyboards, vocals.
Group formed on October 30, 1983, in Burlington, VT; played in bars and small concert halls for five years before releasing first album, Junta, in 1988; released second album, Lawn Boy, in 1990. Signed with Elektra, 1992. First MTV video produced in the spring of 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019. Phish Update— P.O. Box 219, Lexington, MA 02173; or send electronic mail to [email protected] or to rec.music.phish through the Internet’s “Usenet News.”
who feel the band is unique. As with followers of the Grateful Dead, Phish’s fans willingly travel across the country to see them perform, and many even follow their tour from city to city. In addition, Phish bandmembers incorporate unusual sounds into their music— such as the swoosh of a vacuum cleaner—which is considered reminiscent of Zappa.
But the true inspiration for the band’s use of the vacuum cleaner as a musical instrument was drummer Jon Fishman’s mother. Putting a new spin on an age-old form of punishment, she once felt compelled to vacuum the profanities right out of her upstart son’s mouth. She “sucked all those f-words right down her Hoover,” according to Musician magazine. “I used to bring up the vacuum cleaner to make her feel guilty,” Fishman joked in the same article, “but now she just asks, ‘Aren’t you glad I did it?’ … The first few times you do it, you’re going to cut your mouth, so just resign yourself to it. Your cheek will get caught and it will be a nightmare. Bleeding all over the place.… [But] it’s the king of flatulence sounds.”
Although Phish enthusiasts form an enormous musical tribe at concerts and typically dance for hours, their support extends beyond the realm of live performances: in the 1990s era of computer cyberspace, fans created the Phishnet file on the Internet, which boasted over 40,000 subscribers in the summer of 1994. A Phish hotline was also created for fans who want to know the band’s touring itinerary, and the Phish Update Newsletter, with a circulation of 50,000, is published regularly in Massachusetts.
A glimpse into the Phishnet file reveals the nature of Phish fans and the struggle between old and new devotees as Phish’s popularity continues to grow throughout the 1990s. Esoteric debates as to the significance of particular Phish lyrics or items of clothing are heated and rampant; old fans scorn the “uneducated” newer ones; the pros and cons of drug use at Phish concerts are debated; rides to concerts are offered and requested; copies of live Phish performances are put on the selling block; the merits of general versus reserved tickets are discussed; and fans, for the most part, lament Phish’s rising popularity as a threatening prospect.
The mutual admiration society among Phish fans has created a camaraderie and a secret club atmosphere at live shows, which is one reason the fans feel too much media exposure will ruin their fun. With an emphasis on live performances instead of televised videos, Phish has been able to retain their ardent fan base. Phish concerts are also marked by whimsy; often a bandmember will jump on a trampoline while playing, or float a large, helium “earth” ball over the audience; the pitch and tone of the music will then mirror the ball’s journey.
“I think a lot of [our popularity] has to do with the feeling at the shows,” guitarist Anastasio told Newsweek writer Kendall Hamilton. Drummer Fishman added that their live concerts create “that communal spirit.” Each step Phish has taken toward greater popularity is accompanied by assurance to longstanding fans that this “communal spirit” will not be compromised—starting with their move from a small bar in Burlington to a larger bar in the same city. But when vocalist Alison Krauss joined Phish on their 1994 record Hoist, some original fans were irked—as evidenced on the Phishnet—simply because a guest vocalist was a departure for the band.
After playing in clubs and small theaters for five years, Phish released their first album, Junta, in 1988. They signed with the Elektra label in 1992, and the albums Lawn Boy and A Picture of Nectar soon followed. In 1993 Phish recorded Rift, their first record with an outside producer, Barry Beckett; Beckett has also worked with Etta James and Aretha Franklin, and his ear for a soulful tone is evident on Rift. The next year, the band released Hoist, produced by Paul Fox, who is noted for his work with Robyn Hitchcock and XTC.
Since the early 1990s, fans have been wondering if Phish would “sell out” and make a video for MTV; many hoped they would remain a safely guarded secret. In the spring 1994 edition of the Phish Update Newsletter, a longtime fan wrote: “Is it true that you’re coming out with a video? Please don’t! Do you know how trendy that will make you? It’s great for you, but it sucks for us.… You are so important to me that I feel protective over you.”
Phish finally did put out a music video in the spring of 1994 after debating the move for three years. The video may suggest a shift in the band’s aspirations, in spite of the fact that Anastasio once told People magazine contributor Peter Castro: “What worried us about doing a video was the thought of ‘What if we suddenly have this big success?’ But we’re already successful.… Not everyone needs MTV.” One Phish fan, a Brown student, told Hamilton, “Phish couldn’t play an empty hall. There needs to be feedback between the crowd and the band.”
In spite of their ballooning popularity, the members of Phish remain dedicated to their original personal philosophy. “It all comes down to that instinct for freedom,” Gordon commented in Musician. “Those moments of rock ‘n’ roll, of improvisation at its most intense, celebrate freedom.” And as Fishman explained to Castro: “I always believed that if you pursue what you love, all the material things will fall into place. When we start thinking … ‘How do we make this album big?’ instead of ‘How do we make it good?, ’that’s when our decline will begin. I hope that never happens.”
Junta, self-released, 1988, reissued, Elektra, 1992.
Lawn Boy Absolute A Go Go, 1990, reissued, Elektra, 1992.
A Picture of Nectar, Elektra, 1992.
Rift, Elektra, 1993.
Hoist, Elektra, 1994.
Boston Phoenix, April 8, 1994.
Guitar Player, August 1993, June 1994; September 1994.
Musician, September 1994.
Newsweek, May 2, 1994.
People, June 6, 1994.
Phish Update Newsletter (Lexington, MA), April/May 1994; June/July 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Phishnet on-line computer service.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
Phish calls Burlington, Vermont, its hometown. The rock quartet of Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Mike Gordon, and Jon Fishman have become one of the most successful rock groups ever. Phish has sold well over three million albums and have earned over $10 million on tours alone in 1997. The band is a modern anamoly in the rock music scene, growing to stardom without the assistance of MTV or commercial radio.
The fans and the music of Phish are most often compared to the Grateful Dead. Like the Deadheads before them, Phish Heads grew in number as a result of the group’s live shows, as the band toured constantly in the mid 1980s to mid 1990s. Phish Heads fill the venue’s parking lot a day before the show, establishing a temporary community, selling tie die t-shirts, playing hackysack, juggling, playing music, and dancing. True Phish Heads will live this carnival life and follow the band from city to city until tours end. Musically, the band’s shows are mostly improvisational jam sessions, and Phish Heads will never hear the same show twice. Their musical menu serves up a wide range of styles including rock, jazz, blues, funk, Latino, classical, calypso, and folk. The often fantastical lyrics that accompany the myriad of rhythms are influenced by J.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Dr. Seuss, and Sesamie Street. Phish’s drummer, Jon Fishman, described the band’s style of music to Parke Puterbaugh of Rolling Stone magazine; “We all have a certain desire to honor the roots and traditions of music, but there’s also this persistent desire to find out what else we can do rather than the common forms, the things you always hear.”
Phish came together in 1983, when two University of Vermont students, freshman Trey Anastasio and sophomore Jeff Holdsworth, began playing their guitars together in dorm lounges. They both shared an interest in the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Frank Zappa, and Led Zeplin. The two fledging band members found their first recruit in University of Vermont freshman Jon “Fish” Fishman. Fishman told Puterbaugh, “He [Anastasio] and a friend were having a conversation about who looked like they belonged there and who didn’t. I came walking by, and they both fell down laughing. They pegged me from a hundred yards in a crowd of people, going, ‘He doesn’t look like he belongs here”.” A few days after their first meeting, Anastasio would burst into Fishman’s dorm room, after following the sounds of his drumming, and encourage him to join the group. With two guitarists and a drummer, the band needed a bass player. A few days later Anastasio posted a sign for a bass player and Mike Gordon responded. They derived their name from Fishman’s nickname. Fishman’s appearance made him a regular campus character that the band enjoyed. One journalist described Fishman after meeting him for the first time as “something out of the Lord of the Rings.” (Go Phish; Dave Thompson). Subsequently, Fishman’s short, bearded, and bespectacled appearance helped identify the bands offbeat persona.
Holdsworth got the band their first gig after seeing aflyer for an ROTC party on campus. They used hockey sticks for mike stands. The band was given the boot after their fourth song. The DJ blasted Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and the once empty dance floor quickly filled up. The band took the not so subtle hint and left the stage. However, the band’s first show was not a completeloss; they gained their first official fan, Amy Skelton, who now works as the band’s merchandising manager.
After a year of playing in campus dorms, the band felt they were ready to hit the city of Burlington. They became regulars at Nectar, a popular downtown restaurant and bar. It was at Nectar that the band experimented with their music and put together an original stage show. Fishman told Puterbaugh, “Basically, the crowd was our guinea pig.” The band slowly developed a community with the audience. They interacted with the audience, allowing fans to read poetry or perform strange acts on stage. “All music is conversation,” Fishman explained to Charles Hirshberg and Nubar Alexanion of Life. They would signal the audience to rise or fall, or shout a line in a song. It was this early inside communication the
Members include Trey Anastasio (born Ernest Anastasio, September 30, 1964, in Fort Worth TX. Education: Goddard College), guitar, lead vocals, songwriter; Jon Fishman (born February 19, 1965, in Philadelphia, PA. Education: Goddard College), drums, vocals; Mike Gordon (born June 3, 1965, in Boston, MA. Education: University of Vermont), bass, vocals; and Page McConnell (born May l7, 1963, in Philadelphia. Education: Goddard College), keyboards, vocals.
Group formed on October 30, 1983, in Burlington, VT; played in bars and small concert halls for five years; self-released debut album, Junta, 1988; reissued on Elektra, 1992; released, Lawn Boy, Absolute A-Go-Go Records, 1990; signed with Elektra, 1992; released Picture of Nectar, 1992; Rift, 1993; Hoist, 1994; A Live One, 1995; Billy Breathes, 1996; Slip Stitch and Pass, 1997; The Story of Ghost, 1998; first studio produced video produced in the spring of 1994.
band developed with the audience that linked their fans to them so dearly.
For the next two years, the band plays regular gigs at Nectar and various Burlington bars. In 1985, Phish picked up a fifth member after performing at the Goddard Springfest at Goddard College. Page McConnel, a student at Goddard College, was the organizer of the event. McConnel not only convinced the band they needed a keyboard player, he also managed to convince Anastasio, Holdsworth, and Fishman to transfer to Goddard College. He lured them with Goddard College’s more liberal academic policies. The college rewarded McConnell with fifty dollars for recruiting each of the band’s members. Gordon, however, remained at the University of Vermont to study film.
In 1986, the band lost one band member when Holdworth became a born again Christian and followed the tele-evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Despite the loss of Holdworth, the band continued playing and developing their music and stage show. From 1988 to 1990, the band had two independent releases, Junta and Lawn Boy.
The band’s big recording break came while playing a show at Manhattan’s Marquee club. A Talent Scout from Elektra Entertainment, Sue Drew, caught their act and was intrigued not only by the sound, but also by the strange community that surrounded them. Drew gave her pitch outlining the great success to come with the band’s signing to Eiektra Entertainment. The band just listened, politely disinterested. She told Hirshberg and Alexanion, “They could not have cared less.” Phish members did not want to become tied to commercial success. The band enjoyed their freedom to experiment and create unpredictable music. Phish encouraged fans to tape their shows and would even set up sound boards to give their fans high quality recordings at their shows. Eiektra was not pleased with the bands policy of allowing fans to tape the show, but relented.
A Picture of Nectar was released in 1992. Their first major release was a tribute to the old venue in Bulington. The single “Chalkdust Torture” was distributed to radio stations to support the album sales. Although the album was more structured than their previous independent releases, critics felt the it was too scattered and did not fit together well. The album show cased the band’swide musical taste with tracks covering bluegrass, jazz, Latin, and casual instrumentais to furious punk. The album received moderate success.
On the road in 1992, the band was gaining exposure. Phish played four shows on the first HORDE tour. The radio play and large outdoor amphitheaters gave the band a much wider audience, which began to cause some stirrings from their once underground fan base. Phish Heads were concerned the band would be discovered, and the community would be destroyed.
In 1993, Rift was released by Elektra. Legendary producer Barry Becket assisted with the album. It was the first time the band had ever worked with a producer. Beck’s production credits included Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and Dire Straits’ Communiqué. The addition of a producer helped give the album more focus and achieved Elektra’s goal of increasing album sales. Oddly, the ballad “Fast Enough for You,” was selected as the single for radio play. The song received play mostly on adultcontemporary formats.
Things really began to move when the band released Hoistin March of 1994. Gordon, the film school graduate, directed the bands only studio-style video release for the single track “Down with Disease.” Phish called on Paul Fox to produce the third Electra release. Paul Fox’s previous credits included tracks for XTC, 10,000 Maniacs, and the Sugar Cubes. Phish invited some friends to the recording sessions—Bela Fleck, Allison Krauss, the Tower of Power horn section, the Ricky Grundy Chorale, Rose Stone, and Jonathan Frakes. Album sales doubled for Elektra, and the video received play on MTV. Again Phish Heads were not happy with the growing success, and the band was concerned about being chained to hit songs and losing there spontaneity.
In the fall of 1994, a new tradition was established. Phish played the entire Beatle’s White Album in costume for their second set of a three set concert in Glen Falls, New York. Later, the band would continue these costume sets at various shows. At the end of 1994, Phish was one of the top 50 grossing acts of the year as ranked by Pollstar. The band played over 100 shows to over 600,000 fans.
In 1995, the band released a double album, A Live One, which was recorded live at the Clifford Ball, in 1994. The album reached number 15 on Billboard 200. It captured the spirit of their show and received the approval of true Phishianados. The band’s 1996 release, Billy Breathes, peaked at number 7 on the Billboard 200. The band released Slip Stitch and Pass in 1997, another live album that was recorded at a show in Hamburg, Germany. The album peaked at number 17. In 1998, Phish released their ninth album, The Story of Ghost. Phish also published a book, The Phish Book, in 1998. The book is as unconventional as the band’s music, covering a year in the life of Phish on the road from 1996 to 1997.
With the growing commercial success of their albums and sell out concerts, Phish is not afraid of becoming imprisoned by record companies or new fans. Anastasio told David E. Thigpen of Time magazine, “It’s too late for commercial success to ruin us.”
Untitled Studio Session, unreleased, 1985.
The White Album, unreleased, 1987.
The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday, unreleased, 1988.
Junta, original release, 1988, reissued, Elektra, 1992.
Lawn Boy, Absolute A-Go-Go Records, 1990, reissued, Elektra, 1992.
Picture of Nectar, Elektra, 1992.
Rift, Elektra, 1993.
Hoist, Elektra, 1994.
A Live One, Elektra, 1995.
Billy Breathes, Elektra, 1996.
Slip Stitch and Pass, Elektra, 1997.
The Story of Ghost, Elektra, 1998.
Dean Budnick, The Phishing Manual, Hyperion, 1996.
Dave Thompson, Go Phish, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.
Amusement Business, July 27, 1998.
Billboard, October 3, 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, November 1, 1996.
Guitar Player, May, 1996.
Life, June, 1996.
People Weekly, November 27, 1998.
Rolling Stone, February 20, 1997.
“Phish: The Official Web Site,” http://www.phish.com (January 7, 1999).
“CD Now,” http://www.cdnow.com (January 22, 1998).
Formed: 1983, Burlington, Vermont
Members: Trey Anastasio, guitar, vocals (born Forth Worth, Texas, 30 September 1964); Jon Fishman, drums, vocals (born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19 February 1965); Mike Gordon, bass, vocals (born Boston, Massachusetts, 3 June 1965); Page McConnell, keyboards (born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 17 May 1963). Former member: Jeff Holdsworth, guitar (born 14 November 1963).
Best-selling album since 1990: A Live One (1995)
Phish is a phenomenon more than a band. It became a major stadium touring act by the late 1990s without having to make its way through conventional commercial channels like radio airplay, music videos, or corporate sponsorship. Instead, Phish blossomed in popularity due to grassroots organizing, a thriving Internet culture, and intensive touring. The band specializes in improvisational music and its lure is through its live shows more than its albums. Phish is the most successful band continuing the legacy of the Grateful Dead, the longtime San Francisco collective that groomed its own subculture from the late 1960s through the early 1990s. Phish helped contribute to its own mythology through a number of hallmarks such as marathon live shows, unusual cover choices, Halloween shows featuring setlists covering entire albums by other artists, and a dress-wearing drummer known to "solo" by running a vacuum cleaner onstage. Phish announced a hiatus in 2000, but after a series of solo projects from its respective members, the band was back on the touring circuit in late 2002.
Guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon "Fish" Fish-man, and bassist Mike Gordon met as freshmen at the University of Vermont. With sophomore and guitarist Jeff Holdsworth (who left soon after), the group played its first show at a basement party in 1983. Keyboardist Page McConnell, a student at nearby Goddard College and already a fan of the band, joined two years later. After a few years honing their sound at college parties, the group recorded its debut Junta (1988) to sell as a cassette at live shows. They then started touring outside Vermont, playing up and down the East Coast and later in Colorado and Utah. After an album on an independent label, the group was signed to Elektra, a major label, in 1992.
The Internet factors heavily in Phish's success. The rate of Internet development parallels the band's growth. When phish.net was introduced the band's popularity boomed. The website allowed the band to connect directly with fans. The Internet fostered tape trading and allowed for band minutiae to be archived and discussed. A subculture surrounding the band was nurtured without the conventional aid of radio airplay or cable television. Phish's popularity grew under the radar of the mainstream media. By 1996 Phish was already playing arenas. That year the band grossed $17 million and played forty-nine U.S. shows, including its biggest show yet, to 75,000 people in Plattsburgh, New York, on the heels of their most popular album, Billy Breathes (1996).
Phish is intrinsically linked to the Grateful Dead, the pioneering psychedelic group known for improvisational music, a subculture of devoted fans, and a touring life that stretched for thirty years. When leader Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the Dead had been headlining arenas, their popularity mainly due to live shows since they never sold many records and had only one Top 10 hit. Although dozens of bands thrived in the wake of the Dead, none did so with as much success as Phish.
Like the Dead, Phish expertly juggles rock, jazz, country, funk, bluegrass, pop, and spacey instrumental ambience. The group brings these styles together with simple lyrics and uses their songs as frameworks for improvisation.
Aside from their originals, they actively school themselves in rock history, peppering setlists with covers. (In 1994 they began an annual Halloween tradition of covering entire albums.) Phish live shows are dance parties with long stretches of improvisation that often feature giant inflatable objects. The group fostered their popularity by sanctioning arena sections to be reserved for tape recording. During this time the band played large outdoor festivals and multiple nights at stadiums. For New Year's Eve 1999, they played a record six hours, from midnight to dawn at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian reservation in Florida.
Much of Phish's jamming spirit is fused into their studio albums, although The Story of the Ghost (1998) and Farmhouse (2000) are considered their most song-oriented work yet. Phish made only one video ("Down with Disease") in the 1990s and never had a major hit song.
Ruling the Touring Industry
By the end of the decade, Phish had become one of the biggest names in rock. It grossed more than $61 million in ticket sales in 1999 and 2000. In 2000 the group announced a temporary hiatus due to exhaustion. Apparently there was one lesson from the Grateful Dead they did not want to learn: "A part of what killed Jerry Garcia was the bigness of what the Dead became. He couldn't stop touring. It's the antithesis of what I want to happen," McConnell told a reporter in 2003.
After releasing side projects over the course of a year, the group reunited in late 2002 and picked up where it left off, but at a decidedly slower pace and with ample room set aside for rest and solo interests.
Phish proved a rock band could reach monumental success by reaching out to fans directly, rather than through the established media. Its populist attitude spawned a subculture of devoted fans and made it phenomenally successful on tour. The band's prolific output of live albums, studio work, official bootlegs, and side projects helped whet fans' appetites, and the live shows redefined the psychedelic dance experience originally established by the Grateful Dead.
Junta (Phish, 1988); A Picture of Nectar (Elektra, 1992); A Live One (Elektra, 1995); Billy Breathes (Elektra, 1996); The Story of the Ghost (Elektra, 1998); Farmhouse (Elektra, 2000); Round Room (Elektra, 2002).