Mike Gordon: In His Own Words

By: Andy Gadiel

Mike Gordon
Mike Gordon is an enigmatic, ultra-creative, quirky, passionate and serious musician who constantly strives to reinvent himself and push the lines of artistic expression. Since the break-up of Phish he has hardly slowed down, performing with Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart from The Grateful Dead, Steve Kimock, Bruce Hornsby, Warren Haynes and the Benevento/Russo Duo just to name a few. On August 5, he released his second solo album, Green Sparrow (Rounder), which features Bill Kreutzmann, Trey Anastasio, Chuck Leavell, Page McConnell and Ivan Neville, and then quickly embarked on a nationwide tour to showcase the recording.

JamBase caught up with Gordon in between the first leg of his tour, where he had just played the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, CA and then flown to the Rothbury Festival in Michigan the next day. He was resting and rehearsing at his home studio in Burlington, VT.

JamBase: Let's start with the album itself, Green Sparrow, and the process by which you wrote the songs, brought the musicians together and recorded over the last year.

Mike Gordon: In a way it's such a whirlwind because not too many people carve out a whole year to work on songwriting everyday. I had twenty songs from previous years that I still liked that I never used, and then 42 more, so of the 62 there's only ten that made it on the album. I have all these thoughts and I keep all these lists of ideas on songwriting and how I'd do things differently. I have about ten albums of ideas on things that I'd like to try. Taking it to the stage is completely different. I want the songs to be different, extended, take on a different life on stage. At these festivals, I see a lot of different bands and start to feel inspired and think, "I wish I had songs like this or a set opener." And then some of the songs on the album become new, and they're just starting because we've only had three gigs so far as a new band and we're just starting to uncover the possibilities.

JamBase: Given your previous efforts with Leo Kottke, what were your expectations going into this album?

Mike Gordon: I wanted it to be up-beat and fun and rocking and not bluegrass or country or other things I've dabbled with. I wanted it to be more sophisticated, in terms of more chord progressions and rhythms and juxtaposition of rhythms, [and] more going on lyrically. I wanted it to be more accessible, sophisticated and heartfelt. I knew with six to twelve months of work, which ended up being twelve, that something good would come of it. I took a drive a few weeks ago from Boston and was driving at two in the morning, so there was no one else on the highway and it was a dark night. They closed the northern side for a while so they shuffled the lanes back and forth for a while. So, there was a lot of quickly going between concrete blocks. It was really cool. I knew that was when I loved every song and how they went from one to the next. Enough time had gone by between the mixing and mastering that I could really take it in as if I were a fan. So, I really fell in love with it at that point. I'm very happy with the way things turned out. I'm constantly learning about things I'd like to try differently, in terms of the process and the creation, but also in terms of what it became I'm ecstatic about. I somewhat achieved most of those goals.

You've always been one to dabble in new technologies. In many ways your original newsletter column, "Mike's Corner" [which later became a book by the same name], could be considered the first primitive blog. What are your thoughts on the direction technology is taking today, especially around music?

Mike Gordon
I think we can all embrace the new technology. There's things we haven't even realized yet in terms of what the technology provides, and if we look forwards rather than backward there's no reason to try to hold onto a technology or even a process if it's not relevant anymore. I say skip the fear part and just get excited about what new possibilities there are.

When Phish was making Billy Breathes in the studio I spent a lot of time in the control room, partly because there was a computer there and it was '95. It was my first time going online a lot. I was on AOL, going in the Phish Bowl and I was trying to give people updates on the state of what was going on in the control room. I said Trey walked in and he's trying out this new effects pedal, and then I started these experiments where we tried to get the chat room to max out at 90 people and then we'd try to get everyone to type as short and fast as they could to try and get the screen to scroll really quickly. Then we'd have a moment of silence afterwards where we would have these 90 people all for a whole minute say nothing. And then, if someone else would come into the chat room and not know what was going on they'd be really surprised because it'd be maxed out with no one saying anything and they'd be all confused, and other experiments like that. We tried to ESP to each other or telephathize, where everyone thinks of a color and we try to get someone else to know what the color is, and just all sorts of experiments, which I'm doing more on my hotline [now].

Your website appears to be an extension of your musical and artistic expression. How much involvement do you have with the overall design and maintenance of the site?

I had a lot of involvement. I spent a lot of time just planning out some things I wanted in there and sort of a vibe. I was working with a design company [and] we were going in one direction visually. I had a vision of an owl on a conference table. It might have come to me in a dream [and] it just resonated. I realized the way I had been going wasn't as deep for me, so I just called everyone and said I really want to try to make this work, because it has a deeper, spiritual meeting for me. I have a ton of ideas for it.

The problem with being a creative person with a lot of different interests is that there isn't enough time. You have to budget your time to do everything. So, I keep all of these lists. I have tons of ideas for the website, and also for ten different kinds of albums I could make, films I'd like to make, books I'd like to write, and even inventions I want to make, build and market, all music related pretty much. So, I have all of these ideas for the website, and it's been a little bit stagnate in terms of some of the extras. I have 10,000 pictures I'd like to look through, from all different sources since I put the website up, that I wanted to update and put in fun stuff but there hasn't been the time.

Continue reading for more on Mike Gordon...

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