It’s worth examining how four dudes from Vermont with a passion for playing quirky music became multimillionaires shepherding a flock of overly obsessed fans who analyze everything from the notes guitarist Trey Anastasio plays to the kind of scarves bassist Mike Gordon invariably wears on any given night.
After all, the top-tier jam band’s tours grossed more than $120 million between 2009 and 2012. That’s a lot of cheddar, even for those from the Green Mountain State.
Phish formed at the University of Vermont in 1983. In the ensuing years, Anastasio and Gordon—along with keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman—traversed the country numerous times, performing in front of sold out crowds from coast to coast. They’ve also played extensively in Europe and toured Japan.
1. Hard work pays off. But every now and again, you need to take a break.
After touring relentlessly for 17 years, Phish announced in 2000 that its show at California’s Shoreline Amphitheater on Oct. 7 would be the last one for some time.
No, the band wasn’t breaking up: This was simply a hiatus.
Following that gig, the members of the foursome went their separate ways. They worked on side projects, taking a break from Phish altogether. But it proved to be a short-lived vacation.
Taking two years off made Phish extremely thirsty to create new music.
Shortly after the quartet decided to start playing together again, Phish recorded its ninth album, Round Room, in four quick days. The record, which was generally well received, was released in December 2002.
The band then returned to the stage shortly thereafter, ringing in the New Year at a sold out Madison Square Garden.
2. Sometimes, you’ll do great work on your own. Other times, four heads are better than one.
After the hiatus, Phish’s reunion proved to be brief, as Anastasio announced that the band was done for good in May 2004.
At the time—much to the chagrin of both the band’s fans and its other members—Anastasio said he felt as though Phish had run its course and the last thing he wanted was for the band to become a “nostalgia act.”
It later came to light that the guitarist was battling demons of his own. After pursuing their own musical endeavors over the next five years—and earning acclaim on individual bases—the band reunited again, this time ostensibly for good, in 2009.
Though the members proved they could be successful on their own, the band has continued to write impressive new chapters in its history.
For example, every time since 1994 that Phish played on Halloween, the band donned a “musical costume.” The group would cover classic rock albums ranging from the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street to the Beatles’ White Album to Talking Heads’ Remain in Light.
On Oct. 31, 2013, however, Phish had something different in mind.
That night, in Atlantic City, the band covered a future version of itself, so to speak, debuting a set of tracks it envisioned would appear on the group’s upcoming album. That set resulted in Phish’s 2014 effort, Fuego, which the band wrote and recorded as a unit, rather than having individual members bring their own ideas to the table as the group had done in the past.
The result of that collaboration? Some critics even declared Fuego to be Phish’s best studio work to date.
3. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope. And never be scared to take risks.
There’s a reason Phish metamorphosed from a group of pimply-faced faux hippies into an underground cultural phenomenon that doubles as one of the nation’s highest grossing touring acts: For more than three decades, the band has routinely defied expectations and redefined what it means to play live music.
What’d your favorite band do to ring in the new millennium? Phish watched 1999 fade into 2000 at its own festival in Big Cypress, Fla. As the ball dropped, the quartet had just begun what would inarguably become one of the most important sets of its career: a seven-hour marathon that started before midnight and didn’t stop until sunrise.
Fast forward more than a decade later: Refusing to become stale a year after debuting 12 new songs in Atlantic City, Phish took the stage in Las Vegas on Halloween in 2014 and served up another treat for its fans. The band played 10 new songs inspired by the classic Disney sound effects album Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House—a set that was even better received than the one a year prior.
Even after 30 years of success, the band remains committed to taking risks—and the results have been extremely positive.
4. Focus on the present moment. You never know where it will take you.
Phish’s rabid fans follow the band from city to city—and even overseas, too—because they know that every show offers something unique. That’s because the quartet varies its set lists every night. And though Phish might play some of the same songs over the course of its tours, there’s no chance that any versions will be the same.
Case in point? “The boys,” as the basement dwellers on Phantasy Tour so lovingly call them, have covered the Velvet Underground song “Rock and Roll” 69 times since 1998. Usually, the band will play its standard interpretation of the song, and the result is a classic rock dance party.
But since its inception, when at its best, the group has always focused on the present moment, allowing its collective subconscious to direct where songs wind up. When the quartet truly surrenders to the flow, the results speak for themselves.
Just check out Phish’s take on “Rock and Roll” on Aug. 5, 2011 at The Gorge, where the standard rock tune bloomed into a sort of psychedelic funk masterpiece that some folk might argue defied the space-time continuum.
Some of the band’s finer moments have come from this commitment to improvisation. Which just goes to show that while you can’t go wrong preparing for the future, you can’t afford to neglect the now. You never know where it might lead you.
So take risks. Focus on what you’re doing this moment. When at last the work is done, take a break. And remember, oftentimes, your best work results from collaboration.