The Core: Mike Gordon

Mike Greenhaus on December 14, 2021
The Core: Mike Gordon

photo credit: Rene Huemer 


The Phish bassist opens up on rehearsing for his first tour with Leo Kottke in 16 years and figuring out how to find “the fabric of the band.”

The Fabric of the Band

Rehearsing for this tour with Leo [Kottke] has been really fun—we’re piecing together some material from all three of our albums, sort of dabbling. And then we are working on some stuff that’s not on any of our albums. What I really like about bands, and maybe even duos, is when they have a certain sound that transcends whatever song they’re playing—a groove and a tonality and a sensibility. I call it the fabric of the band. There’s a certain flow.

So what’s been really cool about rehearsing this week is finding new levels of that. It’s not really that different than what we’ve done before, but I enjoy just being able to bask in the flow of the way we play together. And then, from there, it almost doesn’t matter what song we’re playing as long as we make sure that there’s nothing in there that feels uncomfortable.

As an analogy, it’s like the way Phish handled Halloween. We did a bunch of writing together; I really like the way that we didn’t overwrite it, where we let it do its thing so that each song was unique but not overthought. That’s what Leo and I are finding.

Building Up This Context

When it comes down to it, with Leo or with any of the projects that I’m in, I don’t feel an obligation to play the whole new album [on tour]. We play some of it. And so, whether an album just came out or whether we are touring a year after it came out, that’s kind of what we’re going to do. [Noon, Gordon and Kottke’s third LP, was released in 2020, but they were unable to launch a support run due to the pandemic.] We’re not going to play all the material from it because, to get that flow going, it’s so important to be in the comfort zone. With my own last album, [2017’s] OGOGO, we really leaned on it—maybe even a little too much for my preference. I enjoy just building up a repertoire over the years, and we can reach back into the older stuff. That’s just as appreciated sometimes. There’s not as much pressure to play all the new stuff.

It’s almost like taking certain songs out of the repertoire is as good a feeling as adding new ones in. The taking out makes the ones we keep feel better— we’re building up this context. I enjoy seeing how artists carve out what they’re going to do— and what they’re not going to do—as time goes on and how those things inform each other.

We were just playing my song “Invisible” from [2005’s Gordon/Kottke collaboration] Sixty Six Steps—just getting to know it again. Sometimes I have a hard time with older things just because I get sick of them. But if they’re not overdone, then playing them can be like meeting up with an old friend.

Positive-Minded People

The whole Noon process was so joyous. It took a little while but that was part of what made it OK—no one was pressuring us and then, finally, it was done. All the elements—making the videos and whatnot—were handled in a really organic way. So [our rehearsals] feel like an extension of that vibe. We were talking about making an album that could be a bit darker in mood—like Leo’s song “Noon to Noon.” A few of them have this melancholy feel—like my song “Peel” or his song “Sheets.” So we are tapping into some of that for the tour, but we’re also just positive-minded people. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t hard things going on in our lives sometimes but, when we sit down to play music, I’ve always liked that Leo’s stuff has this bounce to it. And I like keying into that.

I was just thinking about how, when we were on tour in November ‘05, Leo played me this album by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories).It’s a bass and guitar record, and it just has this melancholy feel—not peppy, but not ambient either. It could be a film soundtrack and the film could be slow and sad, and that would work. I thought it was a good idea to sort of tap into that with our own personalities for Noon. And our stuff often just bounces along.

There’s only so much an album can do to change a band—maybe there’s a rare album that is so monumental that a whole band’s sound is changed but, ultimately, we are who we are, whether an album comes out or not. And, sometimes, the greatest music is when the mood of the music doesn’t match the mood of the lyric. Bluegrass songs are often that way; the music is really upbeat and cheerful but it’s all about death and murder.

People have even said that if the lyrics match the music exactly, then that’s not good enough. It’s like they say about a really great actor reading a script—they have to deliver the lines with subtext. It’s not going to have meaning if it is just on point.

Firstborn List-Maker Type

 [Max Creek and Mike Gordon band guitarist] Scott Murawski and I wrote so much material for my [forthcoming] album. It was a few years of writing, and my album has been in production for over a year—I am working with Shawn Everett again. We have two albums worth of material and we are starting to make some choices. So I wanted to take a break from writing for a bit. I always have this temptation—there are so many writing experiments that I’d like to try. And, even though it all comes from emotions musically and lyrically—I’m just a firstborn list-maker type. I say firstborn list-maker type because that’s how I see the problems in my personality. I have all these goals like, “Write something where the guitar goes through this pattern and the bass doesn’t.”

It’s funny. If my new album were to come out next year, which it should, then everyone will be talking about these new songs and some of them will already be five years old, but no one’s heard them because there’s been such a freaking time lag. The pandemic didn’t help that, but there is always such a time lag between when we write these songs and when they actually come out. But they’ll still feel new.

Sensitive Sonic Focus

It’s just a different challenge [to play largely seated, intimate theaters with Kottke]. Leo has had phases in his career where he has stood up. And we have played together at places that were more like bars—where everyone’s drinking and there is more of a fraternity-party feel. I like to have a variety of experiences and [playing seated theaters] matches my current era pretty well, too—I like having this sensitive sonic focus. And it’s always a joy to play with him. As soon as he wakes up, he picks up the guitar. At home, he puts it by his bed. As soon as he discovered the guitar, when he was a teenager, he just fell in love. It was like he discovered an E-chord and said, “This is the passion of my life.” And that hasn’t gone away.

For this week, while we have been living together and rehearsing, I’ll be getting ready for my workout upstairs, and Leo will already be downstairs coming up with some new tune. It’s just a delight. He’s a treasure.

He actually recorded these cellphone videos for me so that I could watch his fingers while I learned all these songs, and I spent an entire summer trying to get those eight bars to sound right. I’m like a kid in a candy store.

We are not going to have a drummer on this tour, but Leo has been playing with a drummer, Dave King from The Bad Plus, on some gigs. I really want to go to Minneapolis and jam with him and just see what it’s all about—rain on their parade a bit. The other drummer we hope to play with—but he’s not so available— is Brian Blade. I like how drums can anchor my playing, although not all drummers have that effect. Since Leo and I can both be all over the place, it’s nice to have an anchor-y thing in there, unless it’s too straight and then it doesn’t match. Sixty Six Steps had a lot of overdubbing on every song so—even though we had [Jon] Fishman on some songs and we had a little bit of overdubbing— with Noon, I liked that the net effect was that it still sounds like two guys in a café. I kind of imagine this ski lodge in Wyoming and these two random people, who are kind of quirky, are on this stage finding a groove together. And then you say, ‘Oh, there’s Fishman’ so he’s invited onstage for some of the songs. It’s not as simple as just adding a drummer to what we are doing.

Also, Leo’s really been liking the idea of improvising—Dave King opened it up for him. He’s been saying that he’s been willing to hang over the edge and take more risks. He’s always done a lot of improvising, but he just doesn’t give himself credit for it—every time he plays one of his songs, even just going from one chord to the next chord, it’s going to be a little different. But, this feeling of going out on a limb—he wants to take it further. I’ve been telling him how long some of these Phish jams go. They often start from a really simple pattern—a comfort place—and then we’ll see where they want to go.

Enjoy the Ride, Not the Destination

I get in this mode of practicing—I really like to get through a punch list of, “We need to work on this, we need to work on that, we need to work on this” and then we get to the show and let loose. Trey, as a bandleader, or the Phish guys together—when they get into The Barn—are really good at remembering that even the jamming needs practice. It needs space to fill. When we work on a song—whether we’re writing a new one or practicing an old one—the Phish guys are really good at just saying, “Well, we might just play for 20 minutes. We don’t have an audience or anything, but that’s where the flow happens.” But I’m like, “Let’s get this done, let’s get that done.’” I just love being goal-oriented. So with Leo, I’m trying to be mindful of that and say, “If we’ve played a song and we have 20 more to work on it, that doesn’t mean we should go onto the next song right away. We can sit here for a few minutes and bask in it and enjoy the ride, not just the destination.” 

 Creative Heaven

I always like collaborating. And over the lockdown year, there was still some collaborating going on. Everyone got into Zooming and Skyping. Scott and I would still work on new music. I was working with [longtime engineer and producer] Jared Slomoff—he joined our bubble and, every weekday for eight months, he worked with me on my album. It was supposed to be recorded in two weeks, plus a week for overdubbing, but those three weeks became eight months. They ended up being some of most fun months of my life. I got to have all this family time and I was in creative heaven. The players in my band were contributing from afar. I would go for a ride and play some demos for my wife and she would chime in. I like the idea of meeting new people and, even with unlikely matches, just seeing where the creativity will lead.

I like the idea of making a whole album with Leo, where we don’t bring in any of the material individually and just write it together, which is one of the things that was so joyous about [Phish’s Halloween “special”] “Sci-Fi Soldier.” The only things that people brought in individually—last year, actually —were the parts that everyone had saved on one instrument that were so cool and then, everyone else added to that. And, eventually, we were able to get together in a room and jam and put it together. It was very collaborative throughout. I like how much personality an album has when people are not just bringing in individual songs.