Postcard from Vermont: Mike Gordon (Throwback Thursday)
Today we look back to our August 2008 issue and this feature on Phish bass player Mike Gordon.
It’s a dreary Vermont morning when I meet Mike Gordon at Sacred Ground, a quaint, coffee-stained café located somewhere between downtown Burlington and The Barn, Phish’s famed clubhouse and latter-day recording studio. Even before he orders, the woman behind the counter knows what he wants for lunch, and that he is a vegetarian who wants tea, not coffee. And that’s not so much because he spent 21 years in Vermont’s biggest band, but, because, in his own words, he “tries to only come to Sacred Ground two or three times a week ,” and has spent countless afternoons at the restaurant catching up with friends, working on his website and just “being Mike,” since returning to the Burlington-area after Phish disbanded in 2004.
Though Gordon has a reputation for being Phish’s oddball eccentric, he’s actually quite grounded, a man of routine that is a far cry from the rock stars he’s rubbed elbows with over the years. When not working on his new album or new studio, he spent most of the past year frequenting his favorite bars, taking his old Saab for drives and sitting in with enough musicians to earn the Burlington club Higher Ground’s esteemed Sit in Slut Award.
“When I was ten, I found a postcard from Vermont, and, since then, that’s where I wanted to be,” he says, staring at the mountains through one of the café’s windows. “There are less people, more trees, and I think it’s important to be part of a community. Whether people are friends or fans, there is a better chance I’ll get to know them here because I see them on a regular basis. Famous people tend to like New York, but I didn’t like the feeling of being one person among millions, not to mention that the Twin Towers fell down in my backyard.”
For years Gordon was the most visible member of the Phish family, known for his sit-ins with everyone from The Chieftains to STS9 and his pre-show parking lot jaunts. Unlike Trey Anastasio, who has fronted his own eponymous bands since 1999, or Page McConnell, who led both the trio Vida Blue and a solo group, most of Gordon’s recent projects have been collaborative: a pair of albums and accompanying tours with acoustic guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke, a short lap with the honky-tonk outfit Ramble Dove, a side gig in the Dead offshoot The Rhythm Devils and a sprinkling of runs with The Benevento-Russo Duo (which morphed into a short-lived band with Anastasio unofficially known as G.R.A.B.). In fact, the only time Gordon has toured under his own name was in the fall of 2003, when he put together a band to promote Inside In, a loose soundtrack to one of his experimental films. Besides the occasional guest spot, for most of 2007 and early 2008, Gordon has been relatively off the radar.
“Transitions seem to happen in groupings for me,” Gordon told me in 2005. “Phish ended and my 18-year-old cat died a week later. Then I lost my New York loft and moved back to Vermont. I’ve sort of accepted that it was just a huge transition period.”
Three years later, his life is again marked by a series of changes. In a five month period, Gordon will marry his longtime girlfriend, release his first proper solo album since 2003 and welcome his first child into the world. He’ll also roll out a new band and hit the road for the first time in well over a year.
“When Phish first broke up, I thought that maybe I wanted to go on the road as a sideman,” he says. “Trey said to me once, ‘If you had a good manager, he’d be getting you an audition with Metallica or something totally unexpected.’ And it’s good to have different experiences and play with different people, so I did The Rhythm Devils, Ramble Dove and the tour with Trey and The Duo.’ But after that I thought, ‘Well, if all these other people want to hire me, why don’t I just hire myself?’ I wanted to bring more writing to the table, and said, ‘I am going to do a year without any gigs and just write.’”
Gordon kept his word: Aside from the occasional sit in, he played only two shows last year – an inauguration party for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and an intimate jam in the Tropics with Bill Kreutzmann and Steve Kimock. “I went to visit Bill in Hawaii and told him, ‘no gigs,’ and he said, ‘Well, I have this gig on an organic farm’ and I was like, ‘I can’t turn down playing with the world’s most incredible drummer.’”
“My goal was not to just make one album, but a whole repertoire,” he says with an honest smile. “At first, I thought I wanted to write mostly instrumental music, but then I realized I wanted to sing about something I really cared about, so I spent a month or two just thinking about lyrics and getting inside my process.”
As opposed to the ever-prolific Anastasio, Gordon only showcased a handful of original songs throughout Phish’s entire career, many of which were among the group’s most whimsical. Sometimes he’d labor over a single composition for weeks or even months. He tried different methods as well: During Phish’s hiatus, he even rented space in New York’s Woolworth Building and wrote for eight hours a day, as if it was his office job. “I have my antennas up for catchphrases or concepts, some ironic vision or philosophy and, when I have a certain groove or melody I will remember those concepts and kind of match them.”
For his current project, Gordon spent January through September 2007 working on a batch of songs by himself, sometimes spending two months on a single number. For the most part, he played all the instruments, sharpening his guitar chops and working off a series of drum loops. Then last October he brought in longtime collaborator Jared Slomoff.
“I came up with two rules: one was that Jared and I would work for eight hours and completely demo a song each day. Sometimes we’d sit here, at Sacred Ground, and have these ‘lyric lunches’ and, at the end of the week, we’d listen to these five new songs. The other rule was that nothing could start from scratch. Mostly we worked off of some idea, guitar pattern or a bass/drum jam I had done with Joe Russo, Doug Belote or Jon Fishman at some point over the last 20 years.”
Gordon finished out the year by himself, working at a brisk pace and, by December, had 62 new songs, which he then whittled down to 27, 17, 14 and, eventually, the ten songs that comprise The Green Sparrow.
“I wanted to make a rock album,” Gordon says, firmly. “I’ve done bluegrass, calypso, country and jazzy stuff, but I wanted to make a funky rock album that is uptempo and dancey because that’s what this phase of my life feels like. My other goal is that I wanted my music to be more accessible and my lyrics to be less obscure. I wanted the songs to reach out, but be more sophisticated at the same time.”
In order to sculpt his demos into fully realized songs, Gordon brought in a who’s who of jam talent to record overdubs, including Fishman, McConnell, Belote, Russ Lawton, the Antibalas Horns, Gordon Stone and Ivan Neville, the latter of whom actually laid down his tracks at 3 a.m. after a gig. Over Leap Day weekend he also spent time at New York’s Electric Lady studio, recording a few songs with the dream team of Anastasio, Kreutzmann, Chuck Leavell and, on one song, Max Creek’s Scott Murawski. Russo also stopped by to play with the ad hoc group on “XX,” a number Gordon built from a bass/drum jam the pair recorded five years ago.
Part of Gordon’s creative process was simply figuring out what direction he’d like his solo album to take. “I didn’t want this album to sound like Phish with my voice turned up in the mix,” he says, sitting behind the mixing console at The Barn after lunch. Though Gordon is finishing his album in The Barn, most of The Green Sparrow was actually recorded in his home studio. “I always felt like The Barn was Trey’s, so I hired the same guy to build a studio on my attic level,” he says, after remembering one particularly crazy party he hosted here for Jim Carrey and his film crew. “My studio has all these different materials, surfaces and shapes. It almost feels like a tree house or wizard’s castle.”
“During my year of no gigs, I read five books on creativity, including The Artist’s Way that Trey recommended, which was pretty life-changing,” he continues, itching his graying ‘fro. “The basis is that you have to recover your childlike sense of wonder and joy. As you get older, and your parents and teachers inadvertently tell you that you suck, when you sit down and write a song, some part of you is already telling you that you suck. There is a censor built in and this workbook is about trying to make the creative process fun and joyous again.”
Oddly enough, even before he knew his fiancé was pregnant, Gordon wanted to write a song that included the word “baby.” “Trey talked about it a lot about it ten years ago when he was first having kids. In order to move from the known to the unknown, you have to have three things in place: energy, a sense of possibility and a feeling of safety,” he finally says. “Your first example of all those things is your mother and then you move into all these other spheres. And when I was growing up, creativity was the word my mother used to describe the highest human ideal.”
So it is no wonder much of The Green Sparrow deals with themes of running, flying and digging, only filtered through Gordon’s quirky sensibilities and equally unique rhythms. “I wanted to have two drummers because I really like when two different drum beats or sounds are juxtaposed,” he says latter that day, relaxing in the Cupola, a lighthouse-like loft built out of wire that is located at the top of The Barn (accessible only by a forklift elevator). “Kind of like the jam at the end of ‘Split Open and Melt.’ I really like the number five, so I wanted to have a five-piece band. I didn’t want it to be four because of the Phish thing, but I didn’t want to have eight like I had in ’03.”
In addition to his frequent collaborator Murawski, Gordon’s band features keyboardist Tom Cleary, a jazz instructor at the University of Vermont, Rubblebucket Orchestra percussionist Craig Myers and drummer Todd Isler, who Gordon stumbled upon by chance through Chris Thile collaborator Michael Davis. “Todd didn’t know anyone I knew, but I think jamband fans are going to be in heaven. His playing is funky and danceable and mesmerizing, but very creative at the same time. He’s like this secret treasure.”
As he talks, Gordon causally references his former bandmates, usually more as friends than collaborators. “I had a weight bet with Jon Fishman which he won, and now I have one with my brother,” Gordon says with a smile. “We are both trying to get to the same weight and then both lose five pounds.” But, when the conversation shifts to Phish and a reunion fans deem inevitable, Gordon is hesitant to say anything definitive, not so much because he doesn’t want to play with his former bandmates, but because he also wants to play with just about everyone else. While in New Orleans in May, he laid down some tracks for drummer Russell Baptiste’s new solo album. He’s been tossing around ideas with singer/songwriter Brett Dennen. And there’s always the possibility that he will sit in with the trio he assembled for Kreutzmann. ( “We joked about calling it The Mike Gordon Band, even though I’m not in it,” he says with a hint of Phish prankster-like pride).
He’s also already thinking about another solo album, which may include The Green Sparrow songs left on the cutting-room floor, mostly for stylistic reasons. “Fishman recorded a track we ultimately didn’t use because it was kind of ballady,” he says. “It’s hard to find a drummer that is so tasteful and relaxed – he floats over the groove. I was texting Trey the whole time saying, ‘I know you love Fish, but in case you forgot how good he is, I want to go on Jon Fishman tour.’”
While much of his future is still unsure, one thing Gordon is certain about is that, despite becoming a father, he’s excited to take his new band on the road: “I don’t think it slowed down my Phish bandmates to have kids,” he says with a laugh. “When Phish was touring, I was always the one who liked being on the road and in hotels. I don’t always like to travel, but when I’m on a mission like that, I never got sick of it, even when other people got sick of it. So, even with having a kid, I look forward to more touring. I’d like to play with my new band for years. I’m hungry for that feeling of longevity and hungry for that growth. It could happen with Phish again – that’s a possibility – but I like the idea of germinating something new and seeing it through over time.”