Mike Gordon hasn't slowed down in the last twenty years. Beyond being founder and bassist for the formidable rock band, Phish, Mike has:
Directed his own movie (Outside Out)
Written his own book of poems (Mike's Corner)
Directed and filmed the documentary Rising Low about the recording of Gov't Mule's album The Deep End in the aftermath of bassist Allen Woody's untimely death.
Recorded an album (Clone) and toured with guitarist Leo Kottke
Sifted through years of archival footage and journals to select the current set of Live Phish releases dubbed "Mike's Picks"
Reunited with Jamie Masefield and Doug Perkins for Grappa Boom
Super-jammed with Dr. John, Stanton Moore and Luther Dickinson at Bonnaroo
Recently shared the stage with such up bands such as The Dead, The Slip, and Sound Tribe Sector 9
Additionally, for the last four years (with the middle two years taken off), Mike has been working on his first solo album entitled Inside In. Released August 26th on ropeadope Records, the album features a flurry of different instruments, sounds and guests including: Bela Fleck, Vassar Clements, Buddy Cage, Jon Fishman, Jeff Coffin, Future Man, Russ Lawton, Gordon Stone and Col. Bruce Hampton, ret. While many of the songs on the album were inspired by and taken directly from the film Outside Out, the album carries a voice of its own and represents a musical evolution for Gordon, who is always striving to break down barriers in music and beyond.
Last week, Mike announced his 9 date solo tour to support the album featuring artists handpicked by Gordon including James Harvey (keyboards), Gordon Stone (pedal steel), Josh Roseman (trombone), Scott Murawski (guitarist), Jeannie Hill (vocals), Julee Avallone (flute) and Doug Belote (drums). The band plans to perform sounds both in and outside of the album.
If there was any doubt in Mike's ability to hold his own as a true artistic innovator, my recent conversation with him should prove to all that he is as centered and real as he appears weird.
Andy Gadiel: Lets begin and dive right in with Inside In. You talk a lot about the album being a dreamlike experience.
Mike Gordon: I had such magical experiences with dreams; sometimes I say my goal in music is to bridge the gap between waking and dreaming, so it makes sense that my first solo album would have dreamlike elements. I think that comes through in the textures because there's a lot of ambient sounds in the background, and some of the segues between songs are like the way that dreams might segue and there’s some sounds remaining.
By David Barron
AG: One of the coolest segues on the album is "Soulfood Man" > "The Teacher." How did that evolve?
MG: I really liked the way that came out. It's the half speed drums and clavinet from "Soulfood Man" where you’re getting both of them and the full speed song fades into the half speed version, and then "The Teacher" comes over. That transition was actually made separate from "The Teacher" to sound like part of "The Teacher." I remember in mastering, that guitar part was only like 10 seconds. It was a separate piece, and he had to EQ it at great lengths to make it sound like the same guitar because I think it was actually a different guitar.
AG: The album starts with "Take Me Out" and then goes into the two space-like instrumentals "Bone Delay" and "Admoop" before coming back to the thematic "Outside Out."
MG: That sound in "Admoop," which goes "nanaaanananan," that was one of my million sounds that were cataloged for the Outside Out soundtrack, and that sound, it's in the center and it pans to the side during that transition. Then it pans to the right side and then it remains in the background and now it is actually in the background of both "Bone Delay" and "Admoop" - although it gets drowned out by the other stuff going on.
It's really weird in the background of "Bone Delay," because it's a tritone. For those that know musical intervals, tritones are used all the time, but alone, out of context it's just strange. It's what used to be called the devil's interval, you weren't even allowed to do a tritone interval back in the religious day. So a tritone, the flat 5, the guitar is playing that note. It's really a non-scalar note which makes it more of a sound effect.
By Tony Stack
The next song, the "Beltless Buckler," in the movie [Outside Out] it's background music. Actually lots of these were background music in the movie and turned into song. I played the country star Matt Gizzard and so when you see me walk away you hear "Beltless Buckler." It's kind of my theme song.
In addition to playing bass, vocals, plates, keyboards, banjo accordion, blue button, washing machine, dryer, vibe tube, pedal steel, bass harmonica and percussion, you also play guitar throughout the album. One of the more impressive guitar riffs on the album is the guitar on "Couch Lady." I don't think we've ever heard that kind of guitar out of you before.
Yeah, I play both acoustic and electric guitar. It's kind of Trey [Anastasio] influenced there, a repetitive pattern. I've only played guitar with Bruce Hampton on stage, but I pick it up at home and piddle.
By Tony Stack
The other transition I really like is the end of "Exit Wound" into "Steel Bones," there's a sound at the end of "Exit Wound" that carries over and I think it blends into the trombone at the beginning of "Steel Bones."
Getting into the lyrics – what do you see as the major lyrical themes throughout the album and specifically in the lyrics of the songs?
The general idea is that they relate to themes in the movie but not directly. In a way it's a shame to specifically interpret songs, because it's better when people find their own interpretation, but I’m going to try anyway to find my interpretation.
I'll read a lyric from each song of the album – you tell me what they mean for you today. Lets start at the beginning:
"Take me out - there's nothing left inside me that feels like home" ("Take Me Out")
What it always felt for me, I guess it's probably about a state of imbalance when you're not accepting of yourself, or I'm not accepting of myself and I'm wanting to be taken out of this rut or cycle. That's what it feels like for me, a melancholy feeling.
By Thomas Smith
Since they come from the movie, it ties into another dilemma which is, "What the hell is the movie about?" which I didn't necessarily know when I was making it. If I could represent in the end what it was about, he kind of says it later in the movie, it's about someone who's trapped within their own expectations or their own head or cyclical thinking and somehow wanting to be brought out of that.
So that's what "Take Me Out" is. It could mean I'm worrying about the same thing hundreds of times in a row over and over again so take me out of that, and "there's nothing inside me that feels like home" is like that because I would be home if I didn't have to think about that anymore but my mind is keeping me from being at home so take me out of that.
"I've been rollin' on the wheel of doubt, I've been seeing myself from the outside out" ("Outside Out")
That lyric came from my friend Joe. I guess "seeing yourself from the outside out," is kind of like, instead of being in the moment, you're just analyzing yourself. On the other hand, it could be a real meditation to find The Universal, to put yourself outside of yourself to find the universal eye, looking in. It's not always negative.
That line made me think about mental traps where you can't get out of that moment where you're thinking about a problem and you can't solve the problem. If you're having a problem with a person but talking to the person is almost more problematic than the actual problem, or when the person's action is another example of that problem, you get trapped in this mental state of not being able to resolve anything and it totally wears you down.
And the way to get out of it is to just stop thinking sometimes, break the pattern. I was getting into Vipassana Meditation. And meditating is really hard; concentrating on your breath for more than 20 seconds at a time is nearly impossible. I did it for 10 days actually. I went to a silent retreat. I needed to because I was going through a tough time at the time.
By Adam Foley
There are all these lists of the Buddhist teaching, one of them was the five basic hindrances that will keep you being able to focus and focusing is what it's all about. The 5 hindrances are: 1) Being restless, 2) being lazy or tired, 3) clinging, if you've got fantasies that you can't let go of, 4) aversion, like a pain in your knee or whatever from sitting in a position, and then the 5th is self-doubt. So one of the Buddhist five basic things that will keep you from eventually reaching nirvana is doubt.
"when they embrace she felt them slowly fall" ("The Beltless Buckler")
You could sort of interpret that as being one sphere in relationships where some people have fear of loneliness and others have fear of immersing themselves. In relationships it's important to try to keep your own voice while you're also becoming part of a relationship. So you don't lose yourself, but rather you're increasing yourself, but it could be a problem if you're feeling like you're losing yourself.
And then you help yourself out in the next line with the therapy of:
"And the only thought she had was not to think at all"
"and all you would hear him play is one note, but he better not start cause he knows in his heart that the sound of the note would grow." ("Soulfood Man")
Just trying to think about Bruce Hampton – all the lines in that song are all about Bruce. He's this guy who puts these bands together but he doesn't always play more than one note sometimes. He'll just stand there and let the rest of the band play around him; he's sort of the spiritual caldron they draw from. So maybe that's how they relate.
I used to talk about how I would sit around with the bass when I first got one and play one note over and over again while I'm falling asleep just getting into the vibration and kinetics of the sounds. There's lots that happens within one note.
There's this Eric Clapton quote where he said he wants to play the one note guitar solo and sleep with 10,000 women. Trey said his goal in life was to play the 10,000-note guitar solo and sleep with one woman.
"No one else around cares about my sound, the only time I'm free is when the noise is hearing me" ("The Teacher")
I really like the way it sounds.
Like "neutron mitodextrication synthezoid wheelenta pilactin correctin suv-feed suv-feed suv-feed suv-feed suv-feed"?
That's kind of Mike Cornerish where it sort of disintegrates. Some of the earlier ones sort of disintegrate. The first disintegration like that that I experienced was in a high school French class when we read Lonesco, The Bald Soprano. It's this play where there are two people who meet for a dinner party and they're invited separately. They're waiting to be let in and they're on the doorstep, and in their conversation on the doorstep they discover that they actually came from the same neighborhood and had the same last name and lived in the same house and lived in the same room and discovering that they are the same person and married but they've never seen each other before and the play disintegrates. It starts out kinda normal and becomes weird words and then made up words and then phony and then letters. That's the first time I saw something like that and the Mike's Corners are kinda like that...
By Susan J Weiand
Are there going to be any more Mike's Corners?
There are a few I have floating around. There is one from this year when we launched the new website on Phish.com (July 2003). What I'd like to do, but I don't have time to do hardly anything I'd like to do, if I could get into a little bit of longer form, like move from the blurb to the short story, that would be cool. One problem is that I don't read enough to become a good writer, or write enough for that matter. It's really good to try to limit the number of things you try to do.
"People who've gone inside always rave in there they learn a better way to behave it's wild out here and it's cold and lonely and being in there is what I crave" ("The Gatekeeper")
I didn't know what I was thinking. Someone on the hotline said is this about heaven, and I hadn't thought about that but it makes total sense. Or something about sex, or meditation, getting to that spot.
"Some folks aren't good enough to be humble" ("Couch Lady")
Someone asked today about the dedication of the album, the couch lady. She was a great neighbor. Until her 80s she was living by herself and taking care of herself and happy. She had a cute little dog and was a great person. She was the couch lady in the movie. And it was her idea to wear her clothes inside out, so she came over with inside out clothes on. The song is kind of about her taking lessons from Bruce Hampton, not that it really happened.
By Michael Weintrob
In the movie it said she's been taking lessons since 1926 and the total number of time for all the lessons was six seconds. That line is from Bruce Hampton, one of his millions of phrases he would use if you were around him. He'll say you're not good enough to be humble. Someone in the band would be humble in some way, and he’d say, "Oh, don't try to be humble. You're not good enough to be humble." Like Maybe Mother Teresa is good enough to be humble, but you might as well just play a raging bass solo.
"The best things are the ones on which you stumble."
I'm reading a book about how some of the most traumatic experiences, something like "10 minutes of trauma helps you more than 10 years of happiness." Even when things are really difficult, it's when you can realize to learn from the experience that you make that experience worthwhile. You have to open your eyes to see that opportunity.
"The question that is burning in my head is on my self-esteem" ("The Lesson")
Wow, I never realized how tied in these things were until now.
"No worries now, nowhere where I'm bound" ("Exit Wound")
That one's really tragic for me, that song. It really hits me hard, it comes from a deep spot – it's kind of that spot you have in you to give up - not commit suicide necessarily, but give up – and everyone I think has that space and hopefully they don't go to it. It's managed so they can be constructive about their pain.
Lots of people are familiar with that space of hopelessness, just getting to sing that song "Helpless" with Neil Young sharing a microphone at Bridge School Benefit was so incredible - listening to it during those episodes in high school where I felt helpless listening to that song.
By Susan J Weiand
That reminded me of that movie - 7up, 14up, 21up – it's really pretty wild, this British filmmaker filmed 14 kids at age 7 and went back every 7 years and filmed them same kids. 7, 14, 21, 28, 35 and I just saw 42 probably 3 years ago. Every 7 years every cell in your body is newly regenerated. Sevens are pretty significant. I think life changes by far happen at 7's.
Like my 21st for example: I graduated from college, it was the first time that the band was taking a summer off so for the first time in 16 years there was no school and no band. I went home to be with my girlfriend of five years and she broke up with me, and I was just going to spend the summer with her and my grandmother died and she was the first person close to me that died. All within a week and all within the week of my 21st birthday. My 35th recently was just like that – I'm bracing myself for 42.
Back to the movie, they follow these kids and it's kind of weird to watch. It's sort of unnatural. First you see these kids at 14 and they say they want to be so and so when I grow up and it flashes when they're 28 and they are that thing. Then they show a woman at 21 saying I'm never gonna have kids and at 28 she has a baby next to her. All of these comparison of how you think you're going to be and how you end up, and it's real people so it's scary almost.
The reason I thought of it is because there's one of the 14 people who dropped out of society completely. For one of the movies they couldn't even find him, he was a hobo. He was the person in "Exit Wound" who gave up and just left. It's about that sense of tragedy that comes with that moment probably, and hopefully getting something out of it.
Your lyrics in the album can clearly be quite literal sometimes.
It's ironic because as much as I prefer there to be lyrics, I don't usually take them in consciously. They become emotional triggers, or I take them in subconsciously. It's important for them to be there, lurking. It's embarrassing, I don't know all the lyrics to any Phish song that I don't sing all the words to – any song that you can name that Trey sings, I probably couldn't recite the lyrics, even though I've probably heard them hundreds of times. But I would know if they were sung differently, if he forgot a word or changed a word. I like lyrics, so I have an interesting indirect relationship with them.
By Tony Stack
Do you think that lyrics, music and art are a reflection of society – or society can be a reflection of music and art?
We talked about that kind of dilemma when I was sort of a communications major, I don't know if I have a personal opinion on that. But - I wonder – It's got to be one of those things that's sort of unanswerable for me, one of those questions like: do you think that life has been around forever, backwards – or do you think that there was a moment when life hadn't been around forever and suddenly started? Both of those possibilities are completely preposterous seeming, and it had to be one or the other, so something preposterous has happened, no matter what.
But it's hard to know what or which. In my mind they blend together pretty closely, the music and the movies – plus I'm making movies about music – so they blend.
I've had this sort of related, but different inner dilemma for a long time that I think about sometimes, which is that for me, what I like about music isn't artistic quality. I often think that it's either a craft, or, if you look at what makes the art great by the common definitions, there are qualities like: 1) timelessness, 2) that you can objectively look at it and see that it's critically acclaimed, and 3) that it be art for art sake.
In terms of the timelessness, I like music that is time-full, that even if you heard the tape later it won't do it justice because there was an experience that was happening. Or maybe you hear the tape and if you're in the right mindset then that can be where the time-full experience happens. Something about being there that is pretty special.
That you can objectify yourself from it: now, of course maybe a painter is completely in the moment, one with the painting. But ultimately to be able to say that it's a great painting, you're supposed to be able to step back and see it in a greater context. Whereas with music for me I want to be in the moment, I want to reach that point where the music, the experience and the experiencer are the same thing...
The third thing - art for art's sake - for me, what I often like about music is more related to pragmatic things, or at least an abstract view of pragmaticism, where the goals are to stimulate the body, the mind, the heart and the soul. So, body – it could be music to dance to. I like a band to have function so you can dance to. It can bring you to nirvana, it can stimulate your mind, it can make you fall in love and it can be in the background music to all of that. It doesn't even have to be foreground necessarily to the stuff going on in your life.
By those three definitions what you would consider great art, is not necessarily what I look for in music, but more of maybe it's closer to religion or craft or something like that.
What advice would you give young artists and musicians?
I think I want to make an instructional video that focuses on a theme. If you're playing music and an image comes to mind or a dreamlike mood or state or group of sensations come into mind and envelop you, then what's important for the music is only to think about that dream and not to think about the music. Not to think about the technical aspects of the music, or anything else but just to put yourself in that dream is by far the most important thing for success. "Success" meaning to reach higher levels for you and the people listening.
By Eri Sakai
Focus on what the music evokes rather than the music itself.
Right, what it evokes becomes sort of the point. I don't know which comes first, the life or the music, it's still going in both directions, actually. It all really depends on your perspective.
What role do you feel technology has in our art and society?
Trey is one of my biggest mentors, and he doesn't have a computer, he doesn't have email, and he and his daughters took his TV – gutted it, brought it to the front yard and set it on fire. This is really the interesting one though; he gave away his LP and CD collections as well. He didn't want to be a collector, because if you're going to have time to be a musician, then there's things you can't be. Think of how much better of a musician you could be if you didn't email. Now there are incredible musicians who do email, so I'm not saying, but by cutting things out of your life – limiting...
Is it making our lives better?
Well, that's an interesting question – honestly, I have mixed feelings about that, because I love gadgets and like immersing myself in them. I wanted to be an inventor before I wanted to be anything else and when I was little I had a workshop so I'm really into trying to be cutting edge and I like it when bands try to use cutting edge sound systems and new technology. On the other hand, I have a general red flag up in my mind when it comes to the industrial age because there have been all of these studies that show that people were better off even as hunter gatherers when they had something like 21 hours of the day leisure time.
I always think about if there's technology, you know, if there's a company that makes technology then that company is going to have Xerox machines then there has to be another company that makes the Xerox machines and another company to make the paper and you know it goes so that to a certain extent I feel that it fuels itself, that its technology for technology's sake.
By Josh Cole
I don't know whether I would be happier with more or less technology. I know I have to limit myself in some way because I'm an organization freak and if I'm spending all of my time on the computer organizing files I'm not practicing music.
It's analogous to the study they did and found that if they were to put a highway down the middle of Manhattan from the absolute top to the bottom with plenty of lanes and fast, that it wouldn't improve traffic conditions one bit, because just more people would use it. So, it's kinda like that... That's an interesting thing, if we suddenly didn't have any technology, it would suddenly be rough because we're used to it. If we found that we had to live like 200 years ago whatever – would we be less happy, more happy or whatever?
Speaking of which, how did you spend the recent "Blackout"?
I was getting so busy with phone calls and this and that; I just had to do nothing for a while. For a few hours the two people that work with me and I were trying to save the fish next door at the fancy restaurant. They were exotic fish from all over the world, and they were like pets and they were going to die so we were trying to find oxygen. After that I had 10 straight hours of just sitting around playing acoustic guitars with some people in a back yard – there's no way I could have done that.
A lot of people probably got to relax for a little time.
Do you prefer electric or acoustic?
I prefer to play the electric bass – I love the sound of the upright bass, but I prefer the electric bass because you can still get that huge amount of vibration and be able to walk around and jump around or whatever you do – not that I jump around or climb a tree. Of course you're tethered to the amp which is kinda weird too – but it kinda affords you that extra freedom.
How would you describe your experience of evolving technologies from the Golfcart to the Segway Scooter?
I read about the Segway and was really intrigued when they first announced it, so I always wanted to try it from the invention perspective. But also I do like getting around. It's been really fun. The first time I went on a long ride in New York it was two in the morning I was gliding down these hills, along these roads - it was the coolest feeling.
By Tony Stack
That peak experience that I sometimes talk about in '85 – the first thing that had happened was I smoked just two hits of this joint and somehow it was really altering. It wasn't laced with anything, it was only two hits but I was completely numb so when I walked away from this hallway to start playing it felt like gliding. It felt like my legs weren't moving, that I was just gliding steadily horizontally, and that's what the Segway is like.
Before the album came out, you launched the Inside In Hotline, a voicemail system that people can call [212.330.9092] and listen to you talk, hear interesting stories about the album, how it was made and even leave messages of their own. How has the hotline evolved since its inception?
I realized at one point when I started saying I might answer your questions that people might call back more to see if I answered their questions. And I wasn't necessarily trying to get more hits or anything – and now it's full.
That reminds me of the early days of my Phish page. I would keep it fresh to keep up with the information, and people would continually come back and supply new information, self-perpetuating. Sometimes if there was nothing new to report I would just re-organize the information that was there so it would appear new.
It can get quite addicting.
[Author's note: Thank you for the over 300 questions I received in just under 24 hours of posting to my Phish page that I was interviewing Mike. Mike was thrilled and astonished by the number of inquiries, and wishes he had the time to answer them all.]
What's in store for your future? Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
I'm collaborating with my mom on an art project. We're hoping to do it this year but it might have to wait until next. Hopefully it'll be in a gallery in New York and then maybe it might move around at some point. She's going to do as many as 100 little tiny art pieces which are like album covers for Inside In, but it's more of a wall unit where you would slip the album in to store it, like a slip cover or an o-box, with a painted one of the Minkin paintings plaque on the front. Each one is going to have a sound effect from the album, maybe 100 different sound effects or looping guitars, so each painting will have a different sound, and there's going to be proximity detectors so when you get closer to certain paintings you'll hear those sounds getting louder. She's going to actually listen to that sound to be inspired to make that painting, and you'll see the Inside In album cover appearing through a hole or a transparent part of some the paintings. You can play the sound environment by moving farther and closer to different paintings, or several people can do it and you would essentially be making a new Inside In album from scratch with some of the sounds I used to make it.
Thanks Mike, good luck.
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