Believe it or not there was a time when Phish was not one of the most successful concert acts ever. Of course one wouldn't know that, judging by the Phishmania surrounding the band's twentieth anniversary celebrations, which include four shows at the American Airlines Arena in Miami at the end of this month.
Phish's exact birthday is December 2, 1983, when an early version of the band played its first gig at the University of Vermont in Burlington. But the group didn't establish its current lineup -- bandleader Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell, and drummer (and namesake) Jon Fishman -- until 1985.
The group's lean years were quite lean. Through the mid-Eighties, Phish played mostly universities in and around Vermont to little or no notice. By early 1989 it was not even the best-known band in Burlington, whose most famous musical exports at the time were post-punkers the Hollywood Indians, Pinhead, and Screaming Broccoli, and alternative popsters Undercurrent.
In a previously unpublished interview with Anastasio that is presented here -- apparently the earliest existing audiotape interview with the band leader -- he was clearly proud that Phish's shows were attracting a few hundred fans on some nights. He was also excited about new material he was developing for a tape that would soon become Junta, the group's first album, which they released themselves around May 1989 (and which was re-released by Elektra Records in 1992).
At the time of this interview, which took place in late January or early February 1989, the band hadn't yet sent out its demo to record companies, and the rock press outside of the Burlington region didn't so much as mention the word Phish in print. It would be a year and a half before it signed to independent label Absolute A-Go-Go for a brief period -- and nearly three years before Elektra signed them.
I found out about the group only because I was exploring the Burlington rock scene in 1988 for the East Coast Rocker, a New Jersey-based music newspaper. I asked dozens of Vermont bands to send me tapes. Among them was Phish, which mailed a 1987 demo featuring four originals ("Golgi Apparatus," "Fee," "David Bowie," and "Fluffhead," all of which later appeared on Junta) and two covers. I eventually wrote about the group for the newspaper's July 19, 1989 issue, calling Phish "an unlikely combination of the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan" in a story that is one of the first to mention it in a publication outside the Burlington area. But my Anastasio interview was never used in that story or any other piece for fourteen years. Until now.
Since then, Phish's sound has evolved into an inspired mix of unpredictable rock and jazz elements, open-ended song structures, and deliberate sonic weirdness that recalls the Grateful Dead's experimental Aoxomoxoa. On peak albums such as 1996's Billy Breathes, the group seems as if it is trying to capture the very sound of freedom itself through soaring vocal harmonies and McConnell's cascading keyboard playing. Though it has never had a massive hit on the order of, say, Nirvana's Nevermind, and is not as culturally resonant as the Dead, it has become a wildly successful -- and lucrative -- concert act. And the quartet is known for pushing the boundaries of live performance to the level of conceptual art, with playful shows that make imaginative use of things like vacuum cleaners and the Beatles' White Album (which it reportedly once played in sequence from start to finish live). Initially not a critical favorite, the general consensus today is that Phish is one of the most significant rock groups of the past dozen years.
But back in early 1989 Anastasio, then 24, was still toiling in obscurity. In this edited transcript he speaks candidly (and obviously not coached by publicists), opening a rare window into the early evolution of Phish and the making of its first album.
New Times: What does the demo include?
Anastasio: Now we've pretty much got an album. We've got almost two albums' worth of material recorded. We've only got one day left of recording. What it includes is more originals. All fairly new songs, newer than stuff on the old [six-song] tape [from 1987]. Two of them are very new; we just finished them. Two of them are things we've been playing for a while but haven't gotten around to recording. We're a lot happier with it than with the demo. When we choose stuff for the album, I think the only thing on the demo that'll make it onto the album is "Fee."
You write them all, right?
Yeah, pretty much. Mike [Gordon] writes songs as well. One of Mike's songs that's going to be on the album is called "Contact." Actually it might not be on the album. See, we're having a hard time deciding what to put on the album. And I think that's the first thing we're going to do is talk with record companies and tell them we have all these songs.
Have you started the process of sending the [demo] around to record companies?
Yeah, we've only just started talking to people [at record companies]. And we haven't really sent it out yet. We wanted to finish this last song. We [are performing on] three nights -- tonight, tomorrow, the next night -- in Vermont. And then we're going to Boston. And we're doing a mixdown on "Let's Go Out to Dinner and See a Movie," another Mike song. We talked to a guy at Rounder Records, we have a connection there, and they seemed pretty interested. [The band would eventually be signed by Elektra Records, not Rounder, in late 1991, after a short time with Absolute A-Go-Go in 1990.]
What about the Grateful Dead comparisons? It seems like a lot of people make those.
People are definitely starting to make the [Grateful Dead] comparisons less. But as far as those comparisons, there's nothing really wrong with it, considering that they're one of the most successful bands anywhere now. But the thing that's different about it is the kind of music we're writing now, the newer stuff is sounding less and less like that. No one in the band listens to the Grateful Dead very much.
Did you grow up listening to [the Grateful Dead]?
I had a phase where I listened to them. I was more into Led Zeppelin in high school. I was a Led Zeppelin fanatic and so was the drummer [Jon Fishman]; he went to see them all the time and followed them around. When I got to college -- the last year of high school and into college -- I got into a little bit of a Grateful Dead phase but [grew] out of that and went into a sort of jazz phase. I mean I've seen Pat Metheny as many times as I've seen the Grateful Dead.
Mike [Gordon] was talking to me about the jazz aspect of ... your music in the sense of improvisation. Do you do long extended jams?
Yeah, we've kind of been cutting [the jams] down to like one per set, two per set. But we do do that. That's definitely where the Grateful Dead connection comes in. As well as the fact that a lot of the people that come down to see us are hippie types.
Young hippies or old ones?
Umm ... young hippies. More like college -type hippies. You know what I mean? But actually when we play in Boston -- this is one of the great things that's happening to us in Boston right now -- it's not really that way. We're getting a different type of crowd. When we first started, we had much more of a Dead sound, even through that demo with "David Bowie," that song. So our following up here [in Boston and in Burlington] was definitely a "Deadhead" type following. And it still kind of is.
How do [fans] hear about you?
Word of mouth.
Are you getting people who show up at all your gigs?
Oh, yes. Definitely.
Are you familiar with a band called Widespread Panic?
No, I'm not.
They're a band from Athens, Georgia, that has a following similar to what you're describing. They really go very far into long-form jams and attract a lot of Deadheads.
It's a great thing. I was talking to some girl from the BU [Boston University] paper, and she said the closest she had seen in crowds was actually the Radiators. I've never seen the Radiators. The word of mouth thing is working out real well. I think there's also a lot of people who like us because we do -- have you heard "Fluffhead" on the demo? -- a lot of stuff that's pretty different. [But] that's where the Dead connection really ends. A large bulk of what we do ... we don't play the same three chords over and over again. We do a lot of variety. Like last night, we did a couple jazz songs, "Take the A Train," "Satin Doll." Things like that. And then we'll do in the same set maybe a Led Zeppelin song.
But you lean heavily toward originals.
But almost all originals. Usually not more than three or four covers.
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What did you do by Zeppelin?
We did "Good Times, Bad Times."
So what's your next step?
We're definitely going to keep playing live. But the album thing is important for a lot of reasons. We're pretty much done recording it. Like I said, we've got so much material recorded we could put out a double album. So I guess the next step is to try to get signed to a label, even if it's an indie. I think we'll do all right. Because if the distribution isn't that great, we've got such a big following -- we've got a mailing list now, we've got a hotline, and I think we'll be able to sell it ourselves.