School Daze

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In a previously unpublished interview with Anastasio that is presented here -- apparently the earliest existing audiotape interview with the band leader -- he was clearly proud that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.

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Paul Iorio