In A Pond Of Their Own

MOST ROCK FANS WANT TO INTROduce you to their favorite band. But when word got out that Phish's new album, "Hoist," would include a song or two that might-just might-get played on the radio, the grumbling started. When news spread that they would release-gasp-a video, the end was clearly at hand. As one panicked fan wailed in a letter to the band: "If you put out a video, music as I know it will no longer exist."

What many Phish fans don't want you to know about is the burgeoning subculture surrounding this decidedly quirky quartet. "Hoist," their fifth album, debuted last week at No. 34 on the Billboard album chart, no small feat considering that most people have never heard of them. Not that it matters. Last year Phish sold more than 300,000 concert tickets to a dedicated school of crunchy youngsters who spend days on the interstate following the band and late nights on the Internet debating the minutiae of their performances. Those without net connections keep in touch via a newsletter with a circulation of 50,000.

Phish's music, which can swim laps from improvisational rock to jazz to bluegrass to barbershop quartet in the space of a single show. sounds very little like the Grateful Dead, but the devotion of their fans has made comparisons inevitable. As a phenomenon, "there are a lot of similarities," allows guitarist Trey Anastasio, 29. Like the Dead, Phish built their audience onstage, not in the studio. Bar gigs as students in Burlington, Vt., 10 years ago gradually led to larger venues. Drummer Jon Fishman, 28, knew he'd arrived when he took the stage at the Centrum in Worcester, Mass., this past New Year's Eve. "I looked out and realized I'd seen Kiss there." "We've become Kiss!" grins keyboardist Page McConnell, 30.

Be careful. Diehard fans, apt to deride the Dead as "that other band," insist Phish is in a class by itself. They fear that the video, a subject of much on-line debate, could dissolve their intimate bond in a wash of MTV-educated newcomers. That bond can be a bit, ah, intense. "When I listen to one of your jams ... I have this huge feeling that lifts me and makes me feel as if you are playing just for me. Sometimes I feel as if I'm having an orgasm," wrote a female fan.

The uninitiated, who may not share her response to lyrics like I can't spare a moment on the dogfaced boy / I won't lend another hand to the worm-girl of Hanoi, might wonder where the passion comes from. "I think a lot of it has to do with the feeling at the shows," says Anastasio. Fishman calls it "that communal spirit." The shows are spirited: thousands of flannel-clad bodies bobbing in time as Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon, 28, jamming furiously, bounce on trampolines in an ironic mockery of overblown stage presence; or the cheer that erupts when Fishman, in a dress more suited to wrapping fish than Fishman, grabs an Electrolux for a riotous, dissonant vacuum solo. All in all, the shows have the air of a colossal inside joke. "Phish couldn't play an empty hall," says Brown student Lee Silverman, 22. "There needs to be feedback between the crowd and the band." There they go, sounding like the Dead again. But isn't it a bit hard to picture Jerry Garcia on a trampoline?