Phish Hoist

Phish Loaded Up on Guest Stars for ‘Hoist’ 30 Years Ago

Phish’s Hoist was their fifth LP and they were in the mood to try new things. Consequently, it felt like their version of a big commercial swing.

29 March 1994

In the early 1990s, Elektra Records were humming along as a major label (a division of Warner Bros.) with a reputation for being unusually artist-friendly. Elektra were patient, letting acts develop over the course of several albums without demanding radio hits. Their diverse roster included Metallica, 10,000 Maniacs, and Stereolab, as well as older artists like Linda Ronstadt and Anita Baker. They also signed some truly left-of-center acts, including They Might Be Giants, Ween, and Phish.

As it happens, all three of those bands had albums released on Elektra in 1994, when alternative rock was broadening its horizons as the grunge boom wound down. For Elektra, it probably seemed like the perfect time for their collection of weird, geeky groups to break big commercially. However, Elektra’s leadership changed hands from respected veteran Bob Krasnow to first-timer Sylvia Rhone in September of that year, and, coincidentally or not, none of the three acts made any real impact on radio or MTV at that time.

In the case of Phish, whose album Hoist hit stores on 29 March 1994, it’s an open question whether radio and MTV were something they ever cared about. To hear their A&R person at Elektra, Sue Drew, tell it, Phish were never interested in promoting their albums, so they didn’t make music videos or worry about radio singles. They were a jam band who had grown their audience organically, gradually spreading out from their home base in Vermont to the greater Northeast and, from there, finding hot spots around the country to expand their reach.

Hoist was Phish’s third album for Elektra and fifth overall, and they were clearly in the mood to try some new things; consequently, it felt like Phish’s version of a big commercial swing. They left their New England comfort zone and traveled to Los Angeles to record with producer Paul Fox. Fox was an accomplished session keyboardist who had recently made the jump to producing. At that point, he produced albums for XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, and Elektra acts 10,000 Maniacs and the Sugarcubes.

Phish independently made the first two albums, Junta and Lawn Boy, which had some short, snappy songs but stocked with the meandering musical excursions that built their live reputation. For Elektra, the next two (A Picture of Nectar and Rift) tamped down the long-windedness but mainly just featured the band doing their thing, figuring it out independently. Fox gave Hoist a slick, clean sound, focusing on Phish’s songwriting chops and bringing in many guest musicians to emphasize the group’s genre-hopping tendencies.

This is apparent from the first track, “Julius”. A slightly funky acoustic guitar line starts it off, as guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio comes in, softly singing, “Danger / I’ve been told to expect it / I begin my descent down the cold granite steps.” Quiet finger snaps and a barely audible tambourine provide percussion. Meanwhile, keyboardist Page McConnell does some brief vocal harmonies. Bassist Mike Gordon enters during the second half of the verse with subtle accompaniment. As the verse ends, though, the voices of the Ricky Grundy Gospel Chorale chime in, singing, “Don’t take another / Don’t take another”, and then the Tower of Power horn section enters as Anastasio suddenly rings out an extended distorted electric guitar chord.

Before this, Phish occasionally used horns in live performances, usually with a trio of local Vermont friends dubbed the Giant Country Horns. Tower of Power, though, had hits of their own in the 1970s and, by the mid-1980s, were essentially the go-to horn ensemble for pop artists. They were a big name in 1994, and their inclusion here, less than a minute into Hoist, announced that this was going to be a different kind of record for Phish.

Once the whole band kick in, “Julius” is essentially four minutes of a big rock-soul song. There are dynamics as Anastasio alternates between focusing on the guitar riff and the vocal refrain, “Before you take another step / Don’t blame it on yourself”, but the whole track is lively and fun. The chorale sounds excellent, and the horns are loose and funky, with a variety of solo features. McConnell gets to rock out on the organ while the rhythm section of drummer Jon Fishman and Gordon holds the whole thing together. It’s essentially just two verses and a chorus anchored by the guitar riff. The bulk of the studio track is just a big musical party between Phish, Tower of Power, and the Ricky Grundy Chorale. It’s fabulous, but it’s unusual to hear Phish suddenly blossom into a 15-member ensemble.

“Down With Disease” also gets an injection of soul. The signature bit may be the watery bass riff that opens the song, but Rose Stone and Jean McClain’s backing vocals drive the chorus. The extended outro features a superb solo from Anastasio, and it’s Stone and McClain chant-singing “Stop stop stop stop…” that lifts the end of the track.

“Down With Disease” also has the dubious distinction of being the only song Phish ever made into a music video. Rewatching the video today, it’s very goofy, with the band spending most of the clip in scuba suits “swimming” around a cheap but colorful set. Mike Gordon directs the video and makes the bizarre decision to spend the first 3/4 of the track entirely on this set, but then the final 70 seconds is footage from a live concert. It’s no surprise it didn’t make it into the rotation on MTV, but they were far from the only 1990s band to go with “cheap but colorful” as their music video aesthetic.

Hoist also has a bit of a folk-bluegrass aspect, first appearing on “If I Could”, which is essentially a folk ballad with a beautiful melody. Anastasio is joined on vocals by Alison Krauss, then a rising bluegrass star, who sings a verse and harmonizes. In its final minute, the song goes full Hollywood ballad, adding a full string section that really dominates the ending.

Banjo superstar Béla Fleck, a rising name in bluegrass, makes two appearances. He pops up on the lovely acoustic ballad “Lifeboy” along with violinist Morgan Fichter, performing a straightforward arrangement. Mike Gordon, who often serves as Phish’s change-of-pace songwriter, employs Fleck in his only song on the album, the very wacky bluegrass barnstormer “Scent of a Mule.”

There are a lot of instrumental pyrotechnics in the song, from train sound effects to Fishman’s energetic snare drum work to Anastasio and Fleck trading off high-speed bluegrass licks. Gordon, though, doesn’t want listeners to focus on the musical skill on display. Instead, he’s singing a story about a stubborn country girl who stops an alien invasion with only her Southern hospitality. The story’s silliness effectively distracts from the musical prowess, at least on the first few listens.

Speaking of silly, Phish, at this point, were entirely willing to be as weird in the studio as they often were in the live setting. The 20-second-long “Riker’s Mailbox” is a case in point, which sounds like absolute chaotic nonsense. At some point in the recording process, Phish discovered that Paul Fox’s next-door neighbor was none other than actor Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fox and the band coaxed him to come to the studio to play trombone. The song he played on, “Buffalo Bill”, was not used for the album. So the band cobbled his trombone moments into a bizarre sound collage with Phish members chanting “Olaffub” in falsetto. It makes zero sense without this context and barely any sense with it.

Hoist does have a handful of tracks that feature Phish without any guest musicians. “Axilla Part II” is in the running for the hardest rocking song they ever recorded in the studio. It’s a joy to hear them cut loose, yet they undermine any chance of getting radio airplay with that “Part II” affixed to the track. There is a “Part I”, but it was a lightly played live song to this point. The music was the same, with only the lyrics being different, which is an interesting musical choice.

The self-sabotage continues in “Sample in a Jar”, among the tightest, most radio-friendly pop-rock songs Phish ever wrote. Technically, it was the second single after “Down With Disease”, but it made zero impact on radio. Perhaps because the chorus includes the couplet, “I saw you dancing with Elihu / Up on Leemor’s bed.” There is seemingly no reason to include these obscure Hebrew names in the song, but Phish didn’t care about reaching a broad audience. To some extent, they were right. In 1994, they were playing 5,000-seat theaters, but by 1995, they’d moved up to 15,000-seat arenas and amphitheaters. Hoist‘s lack of success in mainstream music outlets had no effect on the band’s quickly growing word-of-mouth popularity.

Phish save their weirdest guest star for last on Hoist. “Demand” is a ten-minute, three-part concept track that features a guest appearance from… Phish. The opening two minutes are a catchy, upbeat song with oddball percussion from Fishman and complex piano chords from McConnell. The lyrics tell the story of a college kid who is “Yelling at the parking lot / Throwing beer cans down the stairs” but also “Driving home to mom and dad / To spend a weekend with no cares.” From here, the song stops for some sound effects of a person getting into a car, starting to drive, a little bit of radio chatter, and then the sound of a cassette tape being taken out of its case and placed in the car’s tape player.

At this point, the sound of a live Phish performance (hardcore fans pinpointed it as a show in Columbus, Ohio, in 1993) of the song “Split Open and Melt” comes on the car stereo, mid-jam. As the song plays, driving sound effects continue to happen over the top of the music. As the jam intensifies, so do the sound effects until squealing tires and skidding brakes give way to a violent crash. Their studio version then reappears, singing a cappella, a haunting-sounding Hebrew hymn. “Yerushalayim Shel Zahv” is a requiem for the drunken, college-aged Phish fan and closing out the Hoist.

Phish’s idea of a commercial album in 1994 didn’t align with what was happening in commercial music then. That was despite 1994 being the beginning of perhaps the best stretch in memory for left-of-center rock groups to break through into the mainstream. The various guest stars enhanced Phish’s sound in the studio, but they weren’t the type of people who were likely to bring significant numbers of curious new listeners to the band. Krauss and Fleck were probably the most prominent names at that time. Yet it’s not like bluegrass was a hugely popular genre, and it was several years before either of them reached the peak of their popularity.

Hoist ended up being essentially a one-off experiment for Phish. Their next album, the subdued Billy Breathes, with super producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, The Rolling Stones) at the helm, had no guest musicians. Yet it produced a minor radio hit with the song “Free”. Those two records, as well as 2000’s Farmhouse, present a sort of hypothetical portrait of Phish as a radio-friendly band.

However, Phish were busy carving their own path in the mid-to-late 1990s. They created several entire music festivals where they were the only act. They released a live album with multiple songs that lasted over 15 minutes. Between the poppier studio records, they also released The Story of the Ghost, where half the songs were carved out of a single extended jam. Then there was the one (The Siket Disc), which was entirely improvised instrumentals. In retrospect, Hoist was not where Phish were headed, but it remains a fun and intriguing record.