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Phishing Trips

Something Phishy: Page McConnell (from left), Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman and Trey Anastasio have taken a roundabout route to fame.

Photo by Danny Clinch

Internet-saavy underground phenomenon Phish swims into the mainstream with its newest album, 'Billy Breathes'

By Alan Sculley

WITH THE release of Phish's new studio CD, Billy Breathes (Elektra), the pages of the national, regional and local press are filling with predictions that the group is about to go from underground phenomenon to mainstream sensation. The high-profile magazine Entertainment Weekly, no less, recently led off a feature on the band by calling Phish the "biggest rock stars in America."

You could excuse Phish drummer Jon Fishman if, in a bit of mock aggravation, he rolls his eyes at the suggestion that Phish is about to rocket up the charts. He's heard it all before.

"Oh God, they say that about every album," Fishman says, almost groaning at the notion. Fishman, though, knows why Billy Breathes, the sixth studio album by the Vermont-based foursome, is being touted as a sure-fire hit.

"I think the reason they seem to be saying this more about this album than any other album is just because every year that goes by more people know we exist," he says. "And this is due to, like, mostly our live show, and mostly now that the media has started to recognize that we exist and because we had this huge concert in the northeast this summer that no one covered when it was happening."

The two-day event this past August, the Clifford Ball, drew upward of 135,000 fans and was the largest single concert of the summer in North America. After the show, Fishman says, "Everybody went 'Wow, where did all these people come from?' What the [heck] is going on with this band? So all of a sudden now, we're getting all the more attention."

Fishman continues, "But you've got to realize when [the 1994 Phish CD] Hoist came out, Bob Krasnow, at the time the president of Elektra Records, was storming through the offices going 'This is the album that's going to break them! This is the album that's going to be the hit!' And all these people, all the people that knew about us then, and any of the media who knew about us then and anyone who as paying attention to us then was saying exactly the same thing--except there were just less people saying it."

If Billy Breathes, however, does storm the charts, it will introduce the masses to a group that has quietly been one of rock's most unusual success stories. The current lineup--Fishman, guitarist/ singer Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell and bassist Mike Gordon--came together in 1985 in Burlington, Vt.

From the start, Phish was a self-contained operation. Using only a local manager--as opposed to a national booking agent--the group quickly advanced from doing local shows to gigs throughout the Northeast to full-fledged national tours. The band relied on its own sound and lighting crews, and even financed and self-released its first two CDs--Junta and Lawnboy, released in 1989 and 1990 respectively.

But what also made Phish unique was its approach to building a grassroots following, a process that went beyond the time-tested method of extensive touring. Early on, the group developed a computer network--called the Phishnet--that allowed fans anywhere to link up by email and discuss the latest Phish songs, the latest concert set lists and even trade their own homemade bootleg concert tapes.

It's an approach the Grateful Dead used to build its huge following--and with most every record label and band possessing a Web site, a concept that has been widely imitated in recent years. But as evidenced by Phish's ability to sell out arenas nationwide--not to mention the huge crowd at the Clifford Ball or a newsletter mailing list that now numbers 125,000 subscribers--few bands have cultivated a large and loyal following as successfully as Phish--without the benefit of radio singles.


Phish Links:

Phish: The official home page.

Phish.Net: By and for the fans.

Phish FAQ: For frequently phished questions.

Yahoo's Phish List: A barrel of Phish online.


NOW, WITH the release of Billy Breathes, even Fishman admits he can see the CD spawning hit singles. Where early records like Lawnboy and A Picture of Nectar (the group's 1992 major-label debut) were defined by an eclectic array of influences--everything from rock to folk to jazz and beyond--and considerable improvisation, Billy Breathes features a focused set of tightly constructed songs that makes this a far more accessible and radio-friendly work.

"I think now that it's all said and done that this album probably has the best chance of [being a hit] because it's the one album that we've finished that I didn't hate, like, two weeks later," says Fishman.

In fashioning Billy Breathes, Phish took a new approach to the album-making process. Where in the past, the band had been primarily concerned with trying to capture the sound and the freewheeling feel its concerts on tape, Billy Breathes marked the first time Phish had approached a record as a creation of the studio, where the songs and performances would stand apart from whatever shape they would develop in a live setting.

This outlook meant focusing much more strongly on songcraft and simplicity--an approach that resulted in Billy Breathes containing some of Phish's most compact and accessible songs to date, such as the punchy rocker "Character Zero," as well as the poppy and buoyant tunes "Theme From the Bottom" and "Free."

"The [songwriting] process we went through on this album was really very literally starting with one note at a time and putting it on the tape, then gradually letting that expand into small ideas and then gradually starting to work on songs," Fishman explains.

"I think it was so literally a from-the-bottom-up-process that it just was really organic. It was really like you start with a seed, and you put it in the ground, and you let it grow into a little plant, all that kind of stuff. And we really weren't concerned with hits--not that we ever really have been--but there have been times in our lives where it was more of question. Should we try to make something for the radio? Whereas when we made Junta, the point was to make the best album we could, that we were proud of, that we liked.

"This time, I think we considered a lot of the things that made up our favorite albums, just good, tight, concise song arrangements, good strong melodies, good lyrics--we wanted all our lyrics to be good," Fishman says.

"We wanted the arrangements to be tight and to not meander," Fishman concludes. "And we didn't want the songs to have a lot of fat. We wanted things to have different textures, just all these things that we've thought about and experienced about what makes an album good over the years of our existence. We wanted this album to have all these elements. We just sort of went in there with this sort of pure ideal of what a good album is."

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro

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