Track By Track: Mike Gordon _Overstep_
It is tempting to call Mike Gordon’s latest studio album, Overstep, a departure but, then again, the Phish bassist’s solo career has been defined by its amorphous definition. Gordon has come by his eclecticism naturally, pursuing the music and the method that feel vital to him in the moment. For Overstep, this means that Gordon wrote all 11 tracks with longtime friend and collaborator Scott Murawski over a few years and that Murawski even takes a few lead vocal turns on the record. In addition, rather than utilizing the complete current incarnation of the Mike Gordon Band, Overstep features Gordon and Murawski as the lone representatives of that group, along with drummer Matt Chamberlain (Critters Buggin, Bill Frisell, Marco Benevento).
Producer Paul Kolderie, who has helmed records for Uncle Tupelo, Radiohead and Portugal. The Man, provided another new face. As the bassist explains, “It was not an obvious fit but I want to be ripped away a little bit from my comfort zone and, at the same time, I wanted to work with someone that would believe in us—and be easygoing and accepting of the weirdest of ideas if someone thought we should try them. Paul was that mix where he had been around the block, we knew we could trust him and he does everything: He could be the guy who fixes the guitar, the producer and the engineer. That’s nice to have. When we played him the first demos, he really liked what was a little bit unexpected, and we were warmed by that and it didn’t take long to figure out that it would be a good equation. I also appreciated that he liked to philosophize and then, we were talking to him and lo and behold, he went to Yale and he was an art history major and so, of course, he is going to be able to sit around and philosophize about art.”
Visual art was deeply entwined with the process of developing Overstep, as the impetus for much of the material on the record took place while visiting Gordon’s mother, the abstract painter Marjorie Minkin, and strolling through the galleries of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). Yet, that’s only part of the story—or make that the stories on Overstep—and in speaking with Gordon, it becomes clear that each song is a distillation of multiple concepts and constructs, only some of which can be encapsulated in this issue’s installment of Track By Track.
There were so many demos and versions of this song. For every musical and lyrical idea, my personality is that I’ll want to try every permutation of everything. I’ll take all my hard drives—all my ideas, all my lists, everything I can think of and I’ll try everything, which sometimes is great and other times it’s like, “I don’t know how anybody deals with me.” [Laughter.] Whereas Scott is a go-with-the-flow type of person, which makes us perfectly matched. Time and time again it’s: “Thank God that Scott’s here because I would have been trying 1,800 more permutations without him being able to say, ‘Oh, try an E chord here’ and it’s like, ‘Yes, that feels good.’” He’ll say the thing that punches it, that just makes the whole thing listenable, whether it’s a lyric or musical thing.
The hardest thing to do as an artist is to let go of an idea. I’ve never been too good at it, but I’m getting better at it and saying, “Well, that was that version and this version is great because the grooves just flow.” A song doesn’t need to have every experimental element floating in the background. It can still be a floaty song about floating without having a million voices and kazoos, although on “Ether,” there is still one kazoo in there. My desire, as I get older, is to tear things down, to do more with less, to try to have less ideas, less basic concepts, and flesh them out in more ways.
Tiny Little World
In its earlier permutations, “Tiny Little World” was all music and humming, but I really liked the rawness about it and it was almost punkish. Not real punk, but as far toward that as I would ever end up going and I thought, “This will be the trashy song.” But then in talking to Paul, he said, “You could get an R&B drummer for this one.” This was before we decided to have one drummer throughout, but it just took a turn where the whole vibe of the song became more dancey and funky. I loved having a track with that synth bass sound because I use it in shows but I’ve never recorded it.
I like the concept of the song where a guy is sitting in a coffee shop having this fantasy and the fantasy itself just goes awry and sours and it’s like, “Oh, if I really follow this fantasy all the way through then I’m going to fuck up my whole life. So, uh, never mind.” [Laughter.]
The original impetus for the song was Scott and I were on a tour bus, and we started doing these writing sessions. Usually, I don’t do a lot of writing on tour, but I hope to do more because sometimes I’m revved up with ideas.
So we were on a tour bus and everyone was asleep, and we were coming up with this rhythmic pattern where it starts at nine beats and then half a beat is taken away so the next part is eight-and-a-half beats and then eight and then seven and a half and then, seven and that rhythmic pattern is kept intact. It’s just the end is lobbed off, lobbed off, lobbed off, and it just goes from six and a half to six and then, to five and a half and on down to half a beat. Then once it gets to half a beat, which is an eighth note, it adds back up but it doesn’t keep the same pattern when it adds back—it just very quickly adds back and stops at six. Scott and I were on the tour bus, which was going pretty fast down the highway, and we were jumping up and down strumming this pattern and trying to drop beats and add beats. It was so much fun.
Then, the first time that we met Matt Chamberlain, he came in for a rehearsal date and we said, “Well, we might as well start with the hardest thing first. We’ve got this outro that starts with nine beats goes to eight and half, goes to eight, goes to seven and a half…” And he’s like, “OK…” It was not easy and he’s a top drummer. In the middle of it I said, “Well, the moral of the story is don’t ever take a session from a guy that plays in the band Phish…” [Laughter.]
We spent a lot of time in North Adams, Mass., where my mom has an artist’s loft in this building with tons of artists, and we spent some time at the Mass MoCA museum. We ended up writing a lot of poetry, which changed into lyrics via a few steps, and worked with some grooves and lyrics that stemmed from artwork. Then, flash forward to later when we’re doing our final songwriting, and we decided to walk from Boston to South Boston where my uncle has a building full of artists, and we were going to walk out on the roof of this woman who has the biggest loft and just finish all our lyrics and anything that was still pending.
We had spent the whole walk to South Boston working on this song called “Styrofoam Men” about a robot living in a geodesic dome or something like that. It was way out there. [Laughter.] But then this woman—we didn’t end up using her rooftop but she did have this honeycomb-shaped sculpture covering several ceilings made from the material you would use to cut shirt materials. It might not even be a hex pattern but it is yellowish and it looked like a honeycomb. So while we walked back from South Boston and across Boston Common, down Newbury Street and into this Indian restaurant, I was kind of latching onto the bees and the honeycomb and, suddenly, it was all coalescing—the song was writing itself. I was thinking, “Wait a minute, this is somehow giving the song essence and I don’t know why.” I love things that I don’t understand and I went back to my hotel room and the whole thing wrote itself.
A lot of times when Scott and I were in North Adams and we wrote the lyrics to artwork, what happened is that the artwork was just like an opening of the door. It’s kind of what led us to do some creative writing, and some freeform writing, that brought out stuff that we were thinking about individually and that we could combine to get each other’s take.
It was in some of that freeform writing where I recalled this experience where there was this girl that I had a crush on in high school. And this one time, she was at her locker and no one else was around so I thought, “OK, I’m finally going to say something to her,” and I walked up to her and she’s at her locker and I’m 10 feet away and, right at that second, some punkish kid kicked open an outside door across the hall. He had tapped the fire hydrant and he had a fire hose and he sprayed thousands of gallons of water against the lockers right next to hers, right between me and her, right at that minute. And then, suddenly, it stopped and the guy’s gone and there’s water everywhere and it’s like, “Huh, what clever thing can I say about this to this girl?” And there wasn’t anything that came to mind so I turned around and walked away. [Laughter.]
So there’s that bridge: “Just when you get a little impulse to almost start vibration in the inside of your throat, someone has to make an interruption, they tap into a hydrant and spray us with a hose…” That’s just straight out of real life and it’s funny how a lot of these songs are straight out of real life, but the idea is not to tell our own story but to make a tapestry of words and music that resonates. It has to start from something personal, I think, if it’s going to resonate—in this case, being like the shy little kid always wanting to say something and then wanting the other person to say something and kind of getting caught up in that.
A really fun challenge for that song was to make the lyrics be a list. It was so tempting to put a verb in because it would have been so much easier to say what we wanted in a line or a verse if we could use subject, verb, object. But we just kept saying, “No, no, no, art exists within limitations.” It was better when the list was the something and the something and the something, and to be hovering on the chord in the beginning, and then moving from this chord and then to this chord and then to this chord. It’s like in a musical where someone gets more and more into the line they’re singing and it’s taking off and it moves from chord to chord, and then more happens in the lyric and then more and then more and then we’re back at the first chord. I really like going through those permutations both in terms of the list and in terms of the chords.
We were around all these paintings—a thousand amazing paintings—and, some- how, I came to the idea that someone in the painting wants to join the real world. It really appealed to me: “Get me off this canvas, I just want to hang out with you, I’m tired of this two-dimensional thing here.” But then I kind of like the irony of how he jumps into the real world but discovers that it isn’t so great: “The painter is the only person I know and she is kind depressing. She doesn’t even like her own paintings and—wait a minute—I am of her own paintings and she doesn’t even like me enough to have fun with me. I’m going back to the canvas.”
I was going out for my run one morning, and I walked out into this clearing that must have been like a hundred acres of charred debris from a cyclone that had happened 10 or 15 years earlier that no one had touched. It was really wild. I wanted to take Scott back out there but instead of taking him back out there, we just sat down and wrote a song. It begins: “Debris and branches all twisted flat” and then explores the idea of chasing a femme fatale.
“Peel” stemmed from Scott—both musically and lyrically. I really like how the chorus is kind of thrashy and more distant-sounding and the verses and all of the sound-effecting parts are very close. The way I imagined it is: There’s this huge empty warehouse and Scott and I are in the middle and we’re playing with no reverb so you’re right next to us, with no reverb and no drums at first. And then, you get this sense there’s a vast space where there are sounds that are way off in the distance. It’s a juxtaposition—this idea of being in a vast space and being right next to something. When I was little, I would get sick and lose my sense of balance and I’d be lying in bed with this feeling of being teeny-tiny and huge at the same time, that sort of feeling.
Long Black Line
In North Adams, we met this guy Rick Harlow. He makes these gigantic green psychedelic paintings and he goes to the Colombian rainforest and works with shamans and gets inspired for the art, but he’s also involved with a political movement. There’s a triangular ridge of mountains and these people called the Mamos Elders, who have been making sacrifices to the gods and believe that the whole health of the planet centers at the area connected by these ridges called the Long Black Line. This area is subject to deforestation and chemical dumping and all other kinds of problems.
Rick Harlow is involved with helping raise money to protect the native traditions and the native people and their land, and so we wrote a song about it. The original song was more about that and then we decided that while we love the image and the sentiment, we wanted to have it be more personal. So we just started imagining us as individuals walking up there, not as Mamos Elders but as Mike and Scott. What would we be thinking about? So it became more personal and it’s got a darkness to it.
Originally, we were writing this stuff together and there was no plan to make a Mike Gordon album—there was just a plan to work together. So at some point, we thought it was interesting the way it was unfolding, where I sing most of the songs but I don’t sing all the songs. There are demo versions of “Surface” and “Peel” where I sing. With “Surface,” the very first time we recorded it, I sang the lead part and then the next time we were working on it, I had laryngitis and so Scott did it. So I went back and I thought, “OK, let’s just do a test and see who fits the mood of the song better,” and I genuinely liked Scott better.