Phish goes mainstream -- The ''Billy Breathes'' group expands their legions of fans

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated November 01, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

This is how one of the biggest rock stars in America tricks the paparazzi. He arranges a rendezvous at the Country Pantry, a cozy diner across the street from a cornfield in rural Vermont. Smart. Comes alone, without a Ziggy Stardust entourage of flacks and groupies. Very smart. Even eats like a regular American guy, opting for a thick cup of clam chowder and a plate of deep-fried chicken fingers. Brilliant! A couple of tourists pass through the Country Pantry dangling cameras, but they’re on a quest for maple syrup, not celebrities. They don’t even notice him.

Then again, your average shutterbug might miss Trey Anastasio even if he walked through Times Square wearing a sandwich board that proclaimed, ”I am the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Phish!” Anastasio is that rare creature in the celeb-drenched sea: a star who manages to duck the klieg lights of stardom. Phish put out a newsletter for 125,000 subscribers. They hawk hats, shirts, and stickers through Phish Dry Goods, a lucrative L.L. Bean-style merchandising company in Burlington, the band’s home base. They grossed $16 million on their 1995 American tour. They command an army of tie-dyed nomads that rivals the Grateful Dead’s in scale and devotion. Just like another Vermont institution with spiritual ties to Jerry Garcia — Ben & Jerry’s ice cream empire — Phish have figured out how to fuse a nuts-and-grains sensibility with a nuts-and-bolts capitalist machine.

But judging from the indifference of the rock elite, Anastasio might as well be Howard Hughes. His bushy, bespectacled mug never appears on MTV; his songs only sporadically graze the airwaves. All summer the media heralded Kiss for selling out 15,000-seat arenas, but just last August, Phish put together the Clifford Ball, a massive two-day jamboree on an abandoned Air Force base in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Somewhere between 70,000 and 135,000 people showed up. Tabitha Soren was not among them.

”The media just ignored it,” Anastasio marvels. ”It’s just like we weren’t even there! Which feels really good to me, to be the band that is ignored by the media, and meanwhile to be putting on the biggest concert in North America.”

Of course, the media will let such a phenomenon swim undisturbed for only so long. If Phish are the Loch Ness monster of modern rock — a mysterious behemoth that manages to elude nets, bait, and conventional radar systems — there’s a growing sense that the beast is about to surface. The source of such breathless anticipation is Billy Breathes, which flooded record stores last week. Until now, past Phish platters have failed to live up to the sensation; the last two, 1994’s Hoist and 1995’s A Live One, barely went gold. (Hey, who needs an album when the band lets you tape every show for free?)

But Billy, unlike the six collections of endless fugues and computer-geek limericks that preceded it, is a sweet, catchy, stripped-down song cycle in the spirit of Neil Young’s Harvest and the Dead’s American Beauty. In other words, it’s ripe for commercial breakthrough. Indeed, Billy debuted at No. 7 on Billboard‘s album chart. As a hint of what’s on the horizon, The New York Times even plopped Phish into a list of ”new party faces,” side by side with freshly minted glitterati like Beck, Ewan McGregor, and Jenny McCarthy. None of whom, it’s safe to say, spend a whole lot of time at the Country Pantry.