MUSIC : Reputation on the Road Makes Phish a Big Catch : Touring the country in relative obscurity until recently, the Vermont quartet is now tasting fame.


No one hears much about Vermont outside of Vermont. The locals probably like it that way. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys gained fame during the Revolutionary War; then Stannard’s Vermont Brigade helped turn back Pickett’s Charge on the fateful third day of Gettysburg in 1863. Over 100 years later, there’s great ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s; and now, finally an exportable soundtrack, those road dog rocking non-spellers in Phish.

If most bands in Hollywood can’t get a record deal, what chance would a band like Phish have?

But Phish did things their own way. They didn’t make a demo, send it off and hope Mr. Big from Megamondozilla Records would listen, then love it and sign them.

Phooey, figured Phish. They took their act on the road, touring as relentlessly as any blues band, releasing their own stuff, and attracting an ever-growing horde of appreciative fans. A fan club network, the Phish Net, claims more than 50,000 members.


When they were signed to Elektra, Phish already had two albums (since reissued). Their fifth album is new for ’94--the mind-bending “Hoist.” There’s some jazz, a bunch of rock, and endless jams, which gives a small preview of the live show, where the songs are so different, it seems like Phish is about five bands. They’re one of those so-called “jam bands,” beloved by Deadheads and dancers everywhere along with the Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, the Samples, Big Head Todd & the Monsters and Widespread Panic.

Once four guys driving around in a van, Phish now has a small convoy at their disposal, and frontman Trey Anastasio and his pals stay in hotels under aliases. Famous musicians now guest on their records. The current Phishing trip, which will serve up a slew of surreal tunes, will stop by the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara Tuesday night. Anastasio, a.k.a. Sty Bateman, discussed what’s what from a New Orleans hotel room.

How is ‘Hoist” different than the other albums?

We went and recorded completely new material that no one had ever heard before. Usually we write on the road, and by the time it would come out, there’d be all these bootleg tapes going around. We have five albums and they all sort of flow together into one big thing. Making “Hoist” was a lot more fun and relaxed than the other ones. It’s doing very well, but traditionally, albums have not been our selling point. Our focus is still on the live thing, and we’ve always had a great live following.


People tape your live shows?

Sure. We don’t care. That’s what put us where we are--bootlegs passed around. Every show is different every night, and the albums are different, too, so we figure people will buy the albums, too.

And now you’ve got famous people on your album like the Tower of Power horn section, Bela Fleck and Alison Krauss; what’s up with that?

Our producer had some connections, so the Tower of Power people played. Alison Krauss was playing one night, and we went to the show and went up to her afterwords and asked her if she would sing on our album. She’d had never even heard of us before, but she said OK.


Most bands try demos and showcasing to get signed, but not Phish. You took your show on the road, and it worked.

We basically toured the whole country before we signed. We put all of our energies into the live thing. The great thing about that was that we never felt like we were relying on the record company to do anything. The problem with young bands is that with tour support and all that, you get in too deep and you have to pay it all back. I think people want the quick fix; it’s faster to get the big check now. But we’ve been doing this for 10 years--we started in a Plymouth Voyager. It just takes a long time. You have to really love traveling around and playing. We picked up our crowd one fan at a time.

A couple of years ago, you guys were cruising around in a van sleeping in campgrounds; now it’s a convoy and an alias in a hotel?

Yeah, well, we’re up to two trucks and two buses now. We lease all that stuff because the maintenance will kill you otherwise. I gotta have an alias now or otherwise people will be calling me at the crack of dawn--four in the afternoon. On the road, you have to learn to go without sleep for about seven months. I’m not complaining; our fans are sort of mellow, and I really enjoy going to meet them. I don’t need a flak jacket or anything, and I’m glad about that.


Phish usually plays alone, why?

We really want to play after all the traveling and hanging out in a hotel room. We usually play around three hours, maybe two 75-minute sets, plus an encore. We try and start pretty much on time, and if anything, we play too long.

What’s happening in Vermont?

Us, Ben & Jerry’s, and a lot of bovine growth hormones. Vermont is too cold for most people, but I like the cold.


What’s in the future for Phish?

Tour. Life has been good lately except for the incident in Buffalo where I fell through the floor. I tore some ligaments, but everything’s working again. We just want to keep getting better.


* WHAT: Phish


* WHERE: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara

* WHEN: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

* COST: $18

* FYI: Call 963-4408