Mike Gordon: Mind Mischief

Rob Mitchum on January 6, 2018

Rene Huemer

Mike Gordon’s soundcheck is running late. Three weeks into their tour, his band is about to play their fourth show in four nights in four different cities—not counting a session at The Onion’s offices earlier that day—and they’re going on just a few hours of sleep. Though the quintet’s warm-up is creeping into their dinner hour, singer/guitarist Scott Murawski insists they do one more thing: the “non-varying exercise.”

For the next 10 minutes, Gordon’s group—which also includes keyboardist Robert Walter, drummer John Morgan Kimock and percussionist Craig Myers—vibe around 

a simple three-note melody and a loping rhythm. At one point, Gordon lays down on the stage, head on a speaker, to focus on the vibrato of Walter’s keyboards. After a brief tempo upshift and a goof on the theme song from The Munsters, Gordon’s band is in shape for that night’s performance at Chicago’s Metro.

Later, over a very large superfood-filled Caesar salad, Gordon explains the philosophy behind the exercise, which he adapted from his brief spell rehearsing with Dead & Company, and how it’s informing his playing with both his own band and Phish.

“It’s hard to explain how powerful it is,” Gordon says. “When the jamming isn’t good, when it feels like we’re noodling, it’s not powerful. It’s not playing itself—there’s a lot of over-thinking, over- playing, over-rhythm, over- melody, over-everything. When we do the non-varying exercise for 5 or 10 minutes, it forces us to accept the beauty of repetition; that’s the simple part. Then the next part is: You hear subtlety, the nuances between the notes and the rhythm, the internal rhythms.”

The emphasis on minimalism carries over to the tour’s aesthetic—a stark stage set of in-ear monitors, wireless guitars and gear hidden behind black screens gives the show

a look of almost post-punk severity—at least, until the custom guitars light up neon as the jams peak.

It’s also easily detectable in Gordon’s newest album, OGOGO, a collection of tightly arranged and brief but subtly layered and thickly grooved songs. Despite being a member of the world’s most popular jamband, Gordon is finding new inspiration in an unlikely genre: indie-rock.

OGOGO was helmed by producer of the moment, Shawn Everett, who has also worked on recent albums by The War on Drugs, Grizzly Bear and Broken Social Scene. On this tour, Gordon’s band introduced a new cover of “Mind Mischief” by Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala, joining similarly new-vintage takes on material by Aerosmith, Here We Go Magic and The Flaming Lips. While Gordon once thought of indie rock as “an excuse to play a little bit out of tune,” lately, he’s been listening to acts such as LCD Soundsystem, tUnE-yArDs and Mac DeMarco.

“I was just ready for new sounds, especially in my own band, where it just feels like we’re not going to be as good as the bands we’ve been influenced by our whole lives— to start to hear new sounds both coming in my ears and coming in the band is just so refreshing,” he says, having recently stressed that he consciously avoided imitating Phish and his longtime heroes, the Grateful Dead and The Meters, on his new LP. “So that which used to seem, in some ways, a little distasteful to me, now just seems fun and experimental, like uncharted territory.”

With those influences in mind, Gordon came to the OGOGO session with the goal of creating “even more air and space between the notes, where it could be even funkier, and even sparser,” he explains, adding that “when you do hear the notes and the hits and everything, it’s more warped. So it’s trying to be more catchy and more experimental at the same time.”

Gordon found the perfect accomplice in Everett, who came at the recommendation of recent Phish producer Bob Ezrin. Impressed by Everett’s balance of groove, space and texture on Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color and Warpaint’s Heads Up, Gordon landed time with him at Q Division Studios in Somerville, Mass. There, the producer challenged Gordon and his touring band to use different instruments and effects to create a sound that varied from their live approach.

“Every single instrument and the vocals were recorded in ways I’d never seen before,” Gordon says. “Shawn is so experimental and so nice and, even in the digital world, he’s lightning-fast and wants to serve the song, so it’s kind of like a dream come true.” 

At soundcheck, it’s clear that Gordon and his band are still figuring out how to best translate the studio intricacies heard on the LP to the stage. Reading off notes from his phone about the previous night’s show, Gordon asks Kimock for a bigger finish to “Pendulum,” frequently used as a set-closer on the tour. For a cover of Robert Palmer’s “Looking for Clues,” Gordon encourages Walter and Myers to add some more air to the verses. “Let’s keep the mesmerizing qualities, but avoid letting it just kind of lay there,” he says.

For fans used to Gordon’s stoic stage persona with Phish, it’s particularly satisfying to watch him in bandleader mode: crafting the setlist, orchestrating the jams and chatting between songs. With the current lineup of the band now in its third year together, there’s also a natural communication among them that dispels any sense that this is just a side-project.

“Part of being a bandleader is pulling together the right people and trusting their creative instincts enough to relinquish some of that control, and I think this is happening more as the band develops,” Murawski suggests. “Relinquishing some of that control allows the band members to express themselves creatively, which is crucial for the happiness of everyone involved. This band really is the sum of all its parts, and Mike’s leadership has encouraged that.”

“It’s pretty cool to tour an album with the band that played on it,” Gordon says. “I think there’s extra camaraderie, extra spirit, that just comes from that full-circle experience. We’re all involved in the writing process, the recording, the touring. So we feel like we’re in it together, and that’s pretty special.”

Gordon put together his original long-running solo group in 2008 near the end of Phish’s “breakup” period. After years of sit-ins and short- term side-projects, he took his first real breather from the road and started looking for a new group of improvisers. With the exception of his steady collaborator Murawski—Gordon grew up taping his band, Max Creek—he purposely zoned in on relatively unknown musicians, including Myers (who was then best known as a member of Rubblebucket), keyboardist Tom Cleary and drummer Todd Isler. He continued to tour under his name between Phish commitments through 2014, before rethinking his solo project and reemerging with his current quintet in 2015. Slowly, especially given Kimock and Walter’s stature in the jamband world, they’ve coalesced into a true band.

The setlist for Chicago’s concert reflected an enthusiasm for OGOGO—nine of the show’s 16 songs are from the album, including the Murawski-sung opener “Victim 3D” and the night’s lone encore, “Steps.” They also offer the very eerie, strange, as-yet-unrecorded song “Trapezoidal Sunshine” (a verse of which Gordon sings crooner-style into a handheld mic) and the Big Boat tune “Waking Up Dead,” which carries a savage edge that Phish versions never reach. The improvisation stretches the terse focus of the recorded takes to double their original length, but without significant deviation from their underlying groove.

“It’s good to sink our teeth deeply into less material and get better at it, rather than try to do too much,” Gordon says. “[The new songs] are all evolving; they evolve in subtle ways, but subtle ways make a huge difference, especially since a lot of them are based on these simple patterns.”

This tour’s intimate settings have proven to be an effective incubator. At the 1,150-capacity Metro, which Phish last played 25 years ago, fans casually greet Gordon as he enters the venue through the front door and there isn’t a rail separating the front row from the stage. Inside the entrance, Gordon finds his mother, artist Marjorie Minkin, who’s in town for a family bar mitzvah, and they catch up by the coat check before ducking backstage. (Longtime fans may remember that Gordon’s mother used to paint Phish’s onstage backdrops and is the subject of the bassist’s early original “Minkin.”) When the “Reel”—the donut-shaped percussion pad contraption that allows fans to jam along with the band—surfs its way over the crowd during “Normal Phoebe,” it conjures up visions of the “Big Ball Jam” from Phish’s long-ago club days.

Gordon says he feels invigorated by the close surroundings, telling a story of how he wandered away from Colorado’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Park one afternoon this fall to admire the posters at a nearby tiny venue.

“These bands just seem like they’re on the cutting edge— this kind of striving feeling that comes with it, you don’t know what’s going to happen next—we haven’t been a band for as long and we’re still evolving,” he says. “There’s something about the freshness of that in a little place, that’s a discovery period.” 

Across the street from Metro is another venue that Gordon recently played: Wrigley Field, the site of two massive Phish shows in the summer of 2016. And, in a couple of months, Phish will return to the legendary stage of Madison Square Garden, bringing their total 2017 plays at the arena to a staggering 17. With most of Gordon’s attention focused on his solo work these days, his feelings about Phish are a little detached, yet warm.

“What I love about [Phish] is that I can still just go for a ride. There’s someone to write most of the songs, there’s someone to make the decisions and there’s someone to do the solos, and I don’t really want to be doing the solos because I like being the bass player,” Gordon says. “I love going on that ride still—the chemistry gets deeper and bigger and better, we’re still growing and we still love each other.”

When the conversation shifts to this summer’s successful Baker’s Dozen run, the bassist is quick to give credit for the concept to Trey Anastasio (“he worked on this for months and he had a gigantic chart”) and says he was mostly focused on his bass sound—adding more vibration, less treble and aiming for “a body thing rather than a mental thing.”

But when talking about his favorite moments—“Scents and Subtle Sounds” and “No Men in No Man’s Land” from the run’s “Lemon” night, which topped his list, the “Jam-Filled” night not so much—it’s clear that some of the same minimalist goals he’s exploring with his own band were at play for Phish as well.

“There was a lot this summer about ‘less is more’ in terms of how the simplest little melody in a big jam can go so far,” Gordon says. “To an outsider, it might sound kind

of trite, but the actual melody isn’t the point; the point is, as with the non-varying exercise, that this simplifying is allowing it to be easy for the music to play itself.”

When things felt especially good with Phish this summer, Gordon said he would immediately text Murawski and the other members of his band any takeaways he thought would translate. Even with Phish, his mind keeps drifting back to his solo work.

“I could write a book based on only Mike’s texts!” Murawski says. “The texts I got from him during the Baker’s Dozen were mostly inspirations that he felt during the shows. In some cases, they had to do with some of the jams that they did where he felt that the music was ‘playing the band,’ how they got to that point and how we could take steps to stop thinking when we’re jamming to let the muse drive us. In other cases, he would text about the effect certain Phish songs were having on the crowd and why. This somewhat influenced the new covers that we brought in for the tour.”

“The Phish guys are really open and encouraging of each other,” Gordon says. “They’ll tell me to bring songs of any kind—weird, normal—they’re very open. But at the end of the day, if I want to write a lot of songs and sing a lot of songs, then I have to have my own band. At this point in my life, what I need is a creative outlet.”

What comes next through that portal is an open question. Gordon says he has ideas for 10 more albums, and a deep reserve of material that wasn’t recorded for OGOGO. He’s started “dabbling” again with Leo Kottke, the fingerpicking guitarist who made two records with Gordon in the 2000s. He wants to start making movies again, and plans to write a screenplay for the first time. And, Gordon seems happiest when he has a variety of different potential projects on the burner.

“I have so many ideas about how I would like to make different kinds of albums that would be radically different from one to the next,” Gordon says. “Some would be all about the flow and less about the song; some would be more about the song and less about the flow. I just get excited because when you dabble in something, you see what the possibilities are.”