Phish is an American rock band noted for its musical improvisation, extended jams, exploration of music across genres and devoted fan base. Formed at the University of Vermont in 1983 (with the current line up solidifying in 1985), the band's four members - Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, and Page McConnell -- performed together for over 20 years before breaking up in August 2004. They reunited March 2009 at the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia, and have since resumed performing regularly.
Phish's music blends elements of a wide variety of genres, including rock, jazz, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, hard rock, funk, folk, bluegrass, reggae, country, blues, avant garde, barbershop quartet and classical. Each of their concerts is original in terms of the songs performed, the order they appear in, and in the way they are performed.
Although the band has received little radio play or mainstream exposure, Phish—much like the band it is most often compared to, the Grateful Dead -- has developed a large and dedicated following by word of mouth, the exchange of live recordings by trading tapes with other fans and selling over 8 million albums and DVDs in the United States. Rolling Stone stated that the band helped to "...spawn a new wave of bands oriented around group improvisation and superextended grooves."
Phish was formed at The University of Vermont in 1983 by guitarists Trey Anastasio and Jeff Holdsworth, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman. For their first gig, at a Halloween dance in the basement of the ROTC dormitory, the band was billed as "Blackwood Convention", a reference to a bidding convention in contract bridge. Blackwood Convention had many gigs which were set up by their earlier manager Karoline Karliyil. Their second gig — and their first billed as "Phish" — was November 3 in the basement of Slade Hall at UVM, though another source gives the date as December 2. The band was joined by percussionist Marc Daubert in the fall of 1984, while the band was first promoting themselves as playing Grateful Dead songs. Daubert left the band early in 1985, and Page McConnell joined on keyboards in September. Holdsworth left the group after graduation in 1986, solidifying the band's lineup of "Trey, Page, Mike, and Fish" — the lineup to this day.
Following a prank at UVM with his friend and former bandmate Steve Pollak — also known as "The Dude of Life" — Anastasio decided to leave the college. With the encouragement of McConnell (who received $50 for each transferee), Anastasio and Fishman relocated in mid-1986 to Goddard College, a small school in the hills of Plainfield, Vermont. Phish distributed at least six different experimental self-titled cassettes during this era, including The White Tape. This first studio recording was circulated in two variations: the first, mixed in a dorm room as late as 1985, received a higher distribution than the second studio remix of the original four tracks, circa 1987. The older version was officially released as The White Tape in 1998.
By 1985, the group had encountered Burlington, Vermont luthier Paul Languedoc, who would eventually design two guitars for Anastasio and two basses for Gordon. In October 1986, he began working as their sound engineer. Since then, Languedoc has built exclusively for the two, and his designs and traditional wood choices have given Phish a unique instrumental identity. Recently, however, Languedoc has begun crafting guitars on custom order and, on a very limited basis, to the general public through local music shops.
As his senior project, Anastasio penned The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday, a nine-song concept album that would become their second studio experiment. Recorded between 1987 and 1988, it was submitted in July of that year, accompanied by a written thesis. Elements of the story — known as Gamehendge — grew to include an additional eight songs. The band performed the suite in concert on five occasions: in 1988, 1991, 1993, and twice in 1994 without replicating the song list.
Beginning in the spring of 1988, the band began practicing in earnest, sometimes locking themselves in a room and jamming for hours on end. Dubbed "Okipa Ceremonies" (also spelled Oh Kee Pa), one such jam took place at Anastasio's apartment, and a second was at Paul Languedoc's house in August 1989. The band attributes the sessions to Anastasio, who discovered the concept in the films A Man Called Horse and Modern Primitives. The product of one of these sessions was included in the band's first mass-released recording, a double album called Junta, later that year.
On January 26, 1989, Phish played the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. The owners of the club had never heard of Phish and refused to book them, so the band rented the club for the night. The show sold out due to the caravan of fans that had traveled to see the band.
By late 1990, Phish's concerts were becoming more and more intricate, often making a consistent effort to involve the audience in the performance. In a special "secret language," the audience would react in a certain manner based on a particular musical cue from the band. For instance, if Anastasio "teased" a motif from The Simpsons theme song, the audience would yell, "D'oh!" in imitation of About this sound Homer Simpson. (help·info) In 1992, Phish introduced collaboration between audience and band called the "Big Ball Jam" in which each band member would throw a large beach ball into the audience and play a note each time his ball was hit. In so doing, the audience was helping to create an original composition.
In an experiment known as "The Rotation Jam", each member would switch instruments with the musician on his left. On occasion, a performance of "You Enjoy Myself" involved Gordon and Anastasio performing synchronized maneuvers on mini-trampolines while playing their instruments.
Phish, along with Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and The Beatles, was one of the first bands to have a Usenet newsgroup, rec.music.phish, which launched in 1991. Aware of the band's growing popularity, Elektra Records signed them that year. The following year A Picture of Nectar was complete: their first major studio release, enjoying far more extensive production than either 1988's Junta or 1990s Lawn Boy. These albums were eventually re-released on Elektra, as well.
The first annual H.O.R.D.E. festival in 1992 provided Phish with their first national tour of major amphitheaters. The lineup, among others, included Phish, Blues Traveler, The Spin Doctors, and Widespread Panic. That summer, the band toured Europe with the Violent Femmes and later toured Europe and the U.S. with Carlos Santana.