Phish Story

updated 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

OUTSIDE ATLANTA'S FABLED FOX THEATRE, thousands of teens and 20ish men and women, decked out in tie-dyed shirts, sandals, dreadlocks, pigtails and nose rings, confirm the marquee's message: Phish Sold Out. As this Woodstock flashback unfolds, a yuppie, rolling by in a BMW, pops his head out and asks a barefoot concertgoer, "Phish? You mean the kind you fry?" "No, man." says the shoeless fan. "It's a band. And they don't fry—they cook."

Especially during their highly charged and profoundly quirky live shows, which may find band members bouncing on trampolines or tossing beach balls into an audience usually dancing in the aisles. Last year alone, such antics sold 300,000 concert tickets for a band that hadn't sold 300,000 copies of any of their first four albums. A problem? Not for Phish, which reeled in $5.5 million in 1993 thanks to concert sales. And not for Phish's army of fans, who would prefer that their band remain the subculture's best-kept secret. "We almost have a crowd that doesn't want to hear our "hits,' " says Trey Anastasio, Phish's lead singer and chief songwriter.

It's a crowd that also doesn't want to hear their beloved band compared with the Grateful Dead. But the similarities are hard to ignore: Besides sharing the Dead's tour-driven success, Phish (a meaningless name the band decided to keep) is given to three-and four-hour improvised sets and attracts a rabid, proto-hippie fan base that follows the band, Dead Head-style, from concert to concert, gossiping via Phish Net, a computer network that reaches 40,000 subscribers. "No, no, no, they're not alike." insists Ah a 20-year-old disciple who has driven 150 miles from Birmingham, Ala., to catch the Atlanta show. "People compare the Phish Heads to Dead Pleads, but the bands sound totally different."

True enough: Phish's oddball blend of jazz, bluegrass, rock and the occasional Electrolux vacuum cleaner sounds little like the more melodic Dead. Some critics, though, have not been that entranced by the band, which includes keyboard player Page McConnell, 30, bassist Mike Gordon, 28, Anastasio, 29, and drummer Jon Fishman, 28 (who is partial to sundresses and goggles when playing his kit). "There was one critic," says Fishman, "who ragged on us really creatively. I used to save her articles because her adjectives were so good."

Yet despite tepid reviews, Phish finally has an excellent chance of swimming into the mainstream. Their latest release, Hoist, their third for Elektra, has already sold nearly 300,000 copies, and for the first lime Phish has put out a video, a move that was hotly debated by the quartet for three years. "What worried us about doing a video," says Anastasio, backstage after the Fox gig, "was the thought of 'What if we suddenly have this big success?' " Adds Fishman: "But we're already successful, and on our terms. No everyone needs MTV. We definitely don't and I'm proud of that."

That Phish hasn't even gone gold yet worries Elektra, which signed them in 1992, as little as it worries the band. "Metallica, Mötley Crüe, 10,000 Maniacs weren't selling a lot of records when we signed them, and they are all tour-driven bands," says Elektra chairman Bob Krasnow. "I think Phish will have a double-platinum record in a year or two."

Double platinum or not, Phish today is a far cry from the Phish of 1983, the year these four Northeasterners met and formed a band at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Only one person showed up at their first bar gig that same year, and she, says Anastasio, "is now our merchandising woman. The second week there were two people, and along the way more and more people came." In 1988 they released their first album, Junta, themselves and also went indie on their second album. Nowadays, Phish tours nearly half the year and rehearses the rest of the lime near their homes in Vermont.

Should they never reach the dizzy heights of, say, Metallica, Phish will be happy to continue gliding through the pop underground. "There will always be enough people who would come back to fill a small theater," says McConnell, "and we were happy just doing that." Agrees Fishman: "I always believed that if you pursue what you love, all the material things will fall into place. When we start thinking about '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."

PETER CASTRO in Atlanta

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