Mike Gordon: Mind Left Body
The Phish bassist offers a State of the Union on his revamped solo band and life at 50
50 TRIPS AROUND THE SUN
For improvising and rock-type stuff, there is just a certain intuition that you need to experience—it takes a certain mind to know a certain drum beat that you have heard a lot of times before but is fresh each time and it can bounce. If you’re trying to figure that out, then you might be less inclined to experiment in new ways that are pretty far from those genres. I guess I’m talking in hyperbole, but that’s general idea.
Also, when it came to Johnny, not to make a stereotype, but it’s cool to go with someone younger from the management perspective rather than some of the seasoned types on my list because he has some new influences. That ended up being so true: he brings some some new experimental stuff that I had never heard or tried. As soon as we met him, even though he is an incredible musician who used to hang out in Jerry Garcia’s living room, he brought in all all kinds of new music, from neo-classical to indie experimental stuff. He also has an intuition of thinking in that experimental artistic kind of way, and on top of that his grooving and assimilating into a groove felt so good. So it was kind of like all of the ducks were aligned.
I think I just had too many options. There are hundreds of different drummers [who could have chose from], like Keith Carlock who is Steely Dan’s drummer and one of the top drummers of all time. He has been very friendly, but much too busy and probably expensive, so this just worked out perfectly.
In terms of Robert, he played on Overstep and we first talked about [him joining the band] when he came in for Phish Halloween one of the nights in Vegas, and he said he’d like to try and do that gig. I said, “First of all, you don’t sing. Second of all, you live on the West Coast.” He recommended some other great guys on the East Coast, including Marco Benevento—we actually had a handful of people that we have played with and they are all tremendous, incredible people. Robert just had an extra bit of something that hit the group.
We listened back to the tapes and we had a feeling that these two people were just fitting in a certain way that you can only figure out when you put a bunch of people in a room. Then at the end of the rehearsals and our first tour, the inclination sort of shifted around and the results were so satisfying for me. I even said to Joe Russo when he came to a Phish show, “You know, Robert is so great. He’s a rootsy guy, and one of my goals was to step a little away from my earlier influences in a natural way and just see happens,” and Joe said, “Robert is already good at stepping out [of his comfort zone] with some demos that he has been recording and with his soundtrack music.”
I listened back to some tapes from the tour. I am always critical [of my playing]. I used to not listen at all, but now I am going to find things that I am critical of. The fact of the matter is that every step of the way that you’re making something, you’ll change it and get inspired. I don’t know some of the other bands we come from or listen to a lot but that’s not terrible because we are doing a good job at standard funk grooves. What was really inspiring to me was to hear some stuff that was completely different to me. That was the key to the future and the next step. There are a handful of those melodic jams that Scott and I have already been writing from and turning into and it’s so terrific. When we were all together after we played Grace Potter’s festival [in September] we worked on some stuff which was great.
We wanted to just experiment and create a base that could be used for writing, but even before the gig and our rehearsals we had a meeting where I said that everyone had to express their thoughts. My thoughts were that anything that sounds unique to us—whatever that might be, any five people are going to be very unique—lets try all these ideas out and not just the jams. My opinion would be to play less, have less notes and to repeat more. I wanted us to listen to each other more and to do even more than what we are already great at. If we can do those things—be more unique, have more listening, less notes and more repetition—then we will really have the most incredible practice that day and it will be the entire repertoire from old to new have been transformed.
Then we did the deed and the deed is fun, but I almost feel like it’s two steps forward and one step back. We sink back to old habits, and not necessarily in a bad way. It’s always like that for me. I’ll say I want to be more experimental and less glitzy and then we work on it with that inclination. We’ll listen to a lot of experimental bands for a few months that we would never listen to and we’ll do some writing with different sounds. I’ve been listening to some experimental music and these Krautrock and psychedelic-rock playlists on Spotify that one of my managers, Julia Mordaunt, made for me.
Robert is constantly surprising the hell out of me. Everyone is—Scott and Craig are trying out interesting sounds and Robert has a bank with thousands of sounds that are mixed together in unusual ways. I’ll hear these weird drum beats on the tape and think it’s Craig because he has a cool set-up with all of these analog effect pedals, and they’ll say “Nope, that’s Robert.” He never ceases to amaze me.
After that gig with Grace, we saw The Flaming Lips at the festival and then, we had two days in the studio. Scott and I already had so many new songs from almost a year ago that we hadn’t done anything with yet, but we wanted to keep going. We had one day of freeform experimentation with the band in the studio, and then we had another day where we just did some more specific experiments with some of us and it was so fruitful. Scott and I have been having the most fun writing new stuff. We are just trying not to get bogged down with a certain process or even a certain group of songs. If we want to try something out, we try to be pretty spirited about it knowing that it’s always months or even years before the material can assimilate into repertoires and albums. But that’s okay; it’s quicker than it used to be.
The picture that I’m painting here is that it’s pretty exciting to have a group of people that are gelling in a certain way that allows for us to get outside of our comfort zones. I think that’s kind of the feel of the era.
I definitely want to make a new album. We have more than two albums worth of material now. I would just rather not rush it. I’m probably talking about it too much, these things are so small. I felt like working on some ideas [with the band] would be a next logical step and then the next album. I’ve been digging this new sound and I wanted to experiment with it, and Scott agreed and we just kept going, so I definitely want to make another album. I don’t see how we could possibly fit all of this material onto one album. One of the main reasons [we have so much material] is that I turned 50 and this is what I want to be doing with most of my time—writing and recording.
There is such a long list of influences. I love the album A Different Ship [by Here We Go Magic], which is actually produced by Nigel Godrich. They have another album that just came out and I like it how it mixes some acoustic sounds with some of those palpating synthetic sounds. I really like that juxtaposition and Luke’s voice.
Johnny turned me on to The Books. They’re a duo from southern Vermont. They have two spoons that they invented that cover and clap against holes in a box. You can hear songs made up of instruments that they invented like that, so that’s just one example. There is some really obscure stuff that I probably wouldn’t even remember the name of. There is just such a wide variety of stuff. That was maybe one of the more mainstream ways to get some recommendations. It was just coming in on all different directions—interesting rhythms and interesting sounds. I like stuff that is kind of bare, with not too much going on to get in the way of the vocals so that what is there sounds unique.
SHARING THE PROCESS
I really enjoy the collaboration with Scott. I’m not opposed to other collaborations someday. Scott and I had a week together working nights a couple of weeks ago. It’s just such fun for us. I think that whatever you are spending long hours on and whatever you feel is fun is what you are going to be committed to.
We are having so much fun together, just laughing. It doesn’t mean we are looking for silly ideas because usually we aren’t. It shows our personality and that we both have the same values. It’s a healthy relationship because we communicate well. We have differences but we’ll express them. We don’t always think in the same way—that would be boring. We are quicker because we know how we work together. Instead of taking two years to put together a bunch of songs it only took one year, and we wanted to keep going.
There are parts of songwriting that just work well when you’re alone. I’ll spend weekdays just going at it. When we’re at home in Massachusetts or Vermont, we’ll have those long Skype calls once a week and we get into that groove and I really enjoy it. There is something beneficial about Skype because you are both looking at each other or the same screen of lyrics and you’re focused. It’s not that I need to work with Scott, but I really want to. I like sharing the process. I like sharing the groove when we hit something that just feels good.
Sometimes I speak like that about artists in general because I don’t want to take credit for some incredible revelation on how to create art when I realize everyone is trying stuff. I think people make albums or whatever they are making to try to one-up themselves or at least to overcome challenges that were presented by the results of the previous one. I really love Overstep. It strikes me as being rootsy. I wanted it to rock. I’d like to experiment with writing and sounds and rhythm. I didn’t want to settle for something that sounds like we have heard it before. That is an exaggeration, because of course we have our influences and everything sounds like something else. What I mean is that there is always something really good in there. It’s us trying to be fresh and trying to interest our own ears with fresh sounds inside out and outside in.