Your Trip is Short: Mike Gordon on the Importance of Doing Things Differently

Concert Preview

Mike Gordon tells me he’s hanging out in a St. Louis coffee shop today, and his Twitter account confirms the same. Even when it’s not a photo of him reclining on #couchtour, his social media presence is evincing the things that make Mike Gordon Mike Gordon: coffee shops, concert posters, whisks, rehearsal video loops and the left-of-center answers he provides to the hordes of questions lobbed his way by earnest fans.

The bassist and founding member of Phish has embarked on this summer's solo tour — a month-long trek across haunts familiar and new with a fresh quintet and a batch of debuts for the road. In the earlier part of this year, he split his time between rehearsals with Phish and his own band. More than three decades into a deep, deep career, Gordon finds himself at a nexus of influences past and present. He says he’s never felt better about his work than right now, and isn’t that the point of all of this?

"I had heard that Prince practices with his band, I don't know, seven hours a day, six days a week — even for years, every week. Even if there's no tour for two years he'll do that," Gordon says. "I was thinking, oh, that's cool."

With two new musicians brought into the fold — John Kimock on drums and Robert Walter on keys to complement guitarist Scott Murawski, percussionist Craig Myers and Gordon himself — and a well received album marinating for about a year now, the path to this summer tour was blazed with long, experimental rehearsal time.

That’s the ethos here. As an artist, Gordon shifts into and out of his work, re-evaluating and debating and stretching. He takes other artists’ perspectives into consideration. He pulls on the ether around him. Overstep is certainly his most polished and comprehensive solo outing to date. The album was co-written entirely with Murawski, whose own approach to music is indelible to the Gordon universe.

“The question about the band and the practices stems from a lot of talks Scott and I had last year about wanting to sort of shed our older influences,” Gordon says. “In a way, Overstep was the perfect album for us to make, because it sort of represented everything that we liked up to that point. I would describe it as sort of rootsy — or allowing ourselves to get into some rootsier stuff — and then we thought, well, we did that, let's try not to be rootsy in that way. Let's now try to do a bunch of writing where the grooves are maybe even sparer than before but more unique, where the sounds are kinda fucked up or tweaked in some way.”

Take “Jumping,” for instance. Murawski’s guitar trucks along a pretty simple chord progression for much of the tune. Through off-kilter effects, Gordon’s quirky falsetto and sliced-and-diced time signatures, though, the song balloons into a psychedelic romp. Still, it’s weirdly accessible stuff, even as the band flips conventional moves on their head in the studio and onstage.

Gordon uses the phrase “pop music” a lot when he talks about his stuff, and it seems pretty clear that he’s aware of how important it is to understand straight-and-narrow song structures in charting his own experimental routes. Between him and Murawksi, the recent writing has taken into account both sides of the coin.

Where the power dynamics of Phish have only recently become as collaborative as they were in the run-up to 2014’s Fuego, Gordon has been the captain of his own ship for years. He’s been writing more and more with Murawski as a close-knit partner for about six years now. They’ve become the sort of X and Y axes that comprise great creative teams. Gordon says his friend helps him turn off his own brain during the writing process.

“I have to sit at my laptop for four hours and plan things and never actually end up doing them,” Gordon says. “Scott’s really good at just doing.” Each brings a bountiful career and personality to the table here, and they’re developing as musicians together.

“My theory is that everyone is on the cusp between being completely cliche and, you know, just redoing things in their life that they’ve done before and being complete cutting-edge and fresh and experimental,” Gordon says. “We have to keep ourselves in check. David Byrne said in some article that I read that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is the hardest thing to do and the most important thing to do. But this doesn’t mean that you’re going to throw away all your talents and abilities and sensibilities — but whatever it is that’s a little too comfortable is going to create music that’s not of the moment.”

That philosophy drove the making of Overstep and it drove the rehearsals in April and May. This tour, which has already seen several original and cover debuts (like Robert Palmer’s “Looking for Clues”), promises a visceral expansion of the present moment — wherever and whenever the band happens to hit the stage.

Gordon mentions in particular Craig Myers’ new mixing board, where he can take sounds from, say, Kimock’s hi-hat and run them through any number of cool filters. And this is the second year where the band will have a long keyboard device running along the edge of the stage where audience members can interact musically — an example of “just wanting to do stuff that hasn’t been done before,” Gordon says. 

Still: “We’re not trying to make it like a science fair. We’re trying to make it all for the sake of passion that we find in the music. That’s one of the balancing acts: wanting to be experimental, but not at the expense of whatever’s strumming our heartstrings or making our bodies move. Having jams that are really angular and dissonant but where there’s still a pulse going through — it’s really just fun for me. In fact, I would say that I’m probably having more fun than ever before.”

In a lot of ways — even aside from him just outright saying that — the fun and the curiosity seem very apparent. Gordon, ever the band-to-fans chronicler of what’s happening on tour, blogged twice last year about how he thought Phish’s jams were playing to his ears. He’s a junkie for the nuts and bolts of what goes into good improvisatory explorations.

From Aug. 1, 2014:

I’ve had a few favs so far, but I’ve never liked a first gig as much as I did this Summer. Bass players spend their lives worrying about “punch.” The amp must have punch. And it makes sense because it needs to be physical. But if it’s just a lot of deep vibration, that excludes the sudden impact that “punch” implies. And so many mentors have talked about how all you need is “time and tone” – and they are so interrelated.

At Mansfield I learned that it’s all about swing. I don’t know what combination of mood and acoustics makes for a gig that will swing, but that is my sole job as bass player. The rhythm doesn’t have to be “swung” per se – a rhythm that has tiny divisions of three. It’s just that the feel has to be actually like swinging the notes back and forth like a swing. Straight rhythms can feel swingy, not to mention those incredible half swung feels that rock and roll is based on. Bob Weir recently said that that is what the Rock and the Roll are – the combination of swung and straight, along with the sexual innuendos, etc.

So I swung my ass off. I can’t always get myself to, and then the tone came together. Then came the punch. I liked Philly 2, Randall’s 3 a lot, just like everyone else, and Chicago 3, and bits of all the others. The swingy punchy thing – instead of picturing a swing, picture a rubber band – it’s not literally my bass strings, but might as well be – it’s the moments – the notes within the flow – one snaps back at the next with the inevitability of snapping that rubber band. On a good night.

Like the way popular song structures define the boundaries of musical experiments, Gordon says he’s finding that the space between notes defines the impact of those notes — and of the jam as a whole.

Of course, lessons like that take time and chemistry to bloom. Phish has decades of both, and what Gordon learns with that band translates to his solo stuff. And vice versa.

Last Halloween, Phish covered Disney’s 1964 sound effects album, Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. The band began the night’s second set from within a massive haunted house in the middle of MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. After two songs, the walls of the house exploded, revealing the band members in zombie getups.

The music was written by the band to be overlaid across the Disney effects and narration. Phish slipped off their longstanding tradition of covering another band’s album in 2013 when they covered their own album from the future. For the 2014 show, they wrote simple melodies to fill the spaces between whatever was on the Disney album, and then jammed from there.  

For the engaged, critical fanbase, the set was something of a revelation. Same for the band, based on the ensuing shows in Vegas and during the Miami New Year's Eve run.

"Every time we cover an album, it sticks with us. Aspects stick with us," Gordon says. "It's the combination of how open-ended each tune was, because we made up our own music more or less — and then how specific the grooves were, and the patterns. It kinda goes along with what I've been saying anyway and probably what the Phish guys have been wanting too. At least for me it's consistent with that, where there's a really simple pattern and we stick with it and not try to, you know — songs don't always have to be epic with crazy arrangements to be really enjoyable. A lot of the stuff that I listen to and get influenced by takes one thing and really runs with it. That really happened on Halloween. I don't know, maybe that's something that — again, it's kind of a technical answer — but maybe that's something that made the fans like it so much, where we were just taking some groove and making it really powerful with no other obligations.

"One more side note — you just got my brain thinking — maybe people like best the 'Martian' one. People have said, 'Where'd you get the bass line for that?' And I think I just made it up; we just all made stuff up together. But that's a perfect example for me of a bass line that plays six notes and then a bar with nothing. In the past, I might have thought that that's gonna be less 'flowy,' because it starts and stops and starts and stops, but I don't really notice it starting and stopping. I feel like the starts on those bass lines are like a trampoline thrusting you into the air and then the stopping is, OK, you're in the air and you get to kinda bounce back and forth and pay attention subconsciously to what's happening in between the bass notes. In a metaphysical way, that 'Martian' one — I agree with the fans who like that one and the way the groove works. Also, it's not very syncopated. A lot of my songs in the past have had very syncopated bass lines, and I'm really eager to work with bass lines that are very grounded, and allow other people to syncopate. If everyone is syncopating, then it doesn't feel good."

Mike Gordon
8 p.m., Sunday, June 14, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-771-9284
Tickets: $30 ADV, $35 DOS,

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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