Going To ‘OGOGO’: Mike Gordon Talks New Album, Upcoming Tour, Phish & More
Thursday, August 3 was the one off day Phish had between the last five shows of their historic Baker’s Dozen residency at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Despite putting in what Mike Gordon estimated was at least three hours of prep work each day to work on debuts and bust outs for the repeat-less run, Gordon held a listening party to premiere his fifth solo studio album for select invitees at the famed Electric Lady Studios. Mike would have been excused for being exhausted, but his excitement for the release of OGOGO and the tour that kicks off on September 22 was palpable.
The bassist explained the long process of picking a producer for OGOGO and how all signs pointed toward Shawn Everett, who won a seal of approval from Bob Ezrin, the man behind the board for the last two Phish albums. Mike sat and listened to the 13-track album, due out tomorrow, with those assembled at Electric Lady. It was clear right from the opening track, “Equilibrium,” the LP was more inspired by the pop world than the likes of Phish and The Allman Brothers Band. Gordon had been listening to a lot of pop music when he drove his 8-year-old daughter Tessa to school each morning and the influence of the contemporary hits he heard seeped into his new music.
Everett made full use of the studio to layer multiple tracks to create each of the songs found on OGOGO, in some cases using a dozen tracks or more of the same instrument on one tune. The result is unlike anything Mike has put out in the past and the insanely catchy “Let’s Go” just may be the bassist’s first crossover hit. While the Massachusetts native was stoic throughout the listening session, a huge smile came over his face near the peak of “Whirlwind,” when those listening looked at each other in confusion thinking perhaps the console was broken. No, the wild conclusion to the studio version of the tune was just another aural experiment dreamed up by Mike and Shawn.
OGOGO is credited to Mike Gordon, yet it’s a full band album showing off the impressive skills of each member of his five-piece. Gordon will soon head out on tour with the quintet, which finds Mike joined by guitarist and longtime songwriting partner Scott Murawski, percussionist Craig Myers, drummer John Kimock and keyboardist Robert Walter. JamBase chatted with Mike about the upcoming tour, OGOGO, keeping a balance between home life and all of his creative endeavors, the current state of Phish, the Rock & Roll Of Fame and more.
JamBase: Your upcoming tour is more extensive than your other recent solo runs. Are you excited to stay out on the road longer than usual?
Mike Gordon: It’s really good to take a bigger bite like that, because while we’re on tour stuff gels the longer we stay out. And then to have new material has been the fantasy, it’s a great equation. The band lineup has gelled nicely and now we have new material and plenty of time to do it.
JamBase: In some of our past conversations you’ve talked about keeping the repertoire small so that you can dig in to the nuances of the songs you do play. How do you find that balance so that the older material doesn’t get lost?
MG: That’s an interesting puzzle for me. It’s interesting for me because I have funny relationships with songs in that it can go a lot of different ways. If I really love a song, sometimes I don’t want to play it very much because I want to keep that spark so it feels like the first time each time, which is sort of a funny equation to have when you’re a touring musician. I’m not always worried about that, but it’s just an example of how my creative brain ticks.
With older stuff, some fans have been requesting that I play older Mike songs like songs from Inside In, but what it comes down to, even if they are requests or whatever there is, I just have to resonate. It’s more important than ever to me to sing from the heart and to believe in what I’m singing. That doesn’t mean that it always has to be some very literal sentiment that’s being processed and that’s what I have to sing – it still could be an experimental thing, or playful thing, or even maybe just a bunch of patterns, but on some level it has to be the truth. I guess I feel like there are certain songs that I appreciate from the past, [that] I appreciate something about, but the overall experience is not resonating, so I just say, “OK, well maybe someday there will be something to be salvaged here, but right now I just have to go with what feels right,” so that serves to reduce the song list. Not to mention that Scott and I wrote a lot of material for the album. We wrote three albums worth … there is an inclination to play songs that just didn’t fit the album but we love anyway. OGOGO is the big focus but it’s not the only thing going, it’s juggling.
JamBase: I’m sure the mix of material you’ll use is something that will bear itself out as the tour progresses and as you start to dig-in to these songs more.
MG: The other thing that happens, sometimes as far as the songs we are playing, a craving develops and I’ve had all different kinds, but one that comes up a bunch is craving songs that are not so syncopated. I know I speak in technical terms sometimes being a bass player, but stuff that’s just simpler, rhythmically. So that kind of craving will come up and we’ll say, “What do we have that’s like that?” Even if it’s a cover song or an older song or whatever. That’s one of the cool things about playing a lot on the road, the muse tells you what you want and we just try to deliver it.
JamBase: It’s interesting you mentioned you wrote three albums worth of material. How much of that did you record for OGOGO before settling on the final tracklist?
MG: It was funny this time because there was so little second guessing that went along. We just had this cluster of new material that wanted to be the album and we recorded that stuff and didn’t record anything extra. It’s sort of the first time, as every time I tend to go in and record three to five extra tracks. The last time we liked everything we recorded so the extra tracks we put on The Last Step. This time there wasn’t really an inclination to do that. There’s certainly so many other songs that I love. There’s one of them – I’m not going to say anything about it specifically because it’s a crazy one, it’s like a weird secret weapon – but there’s one that’s not on the new album that we are going to start playing. It’s been hovering for years. It’s pretty strange and that’s what I like about it. It’s also pretty powerful in its strangeness.
Anyways, when we went in [to the studio] there was this feeling of identifiability that these songs just want to be together and we want to really focus. We’d rather spend more time fleshing out the ideas – whether that’s adding or subtracting or whatever it is from these songs rather than have a handful more that we’re doing less on due to time constraints. Scott and I did a bunch of writing and we worked a lot faster than we had the previous time. We had a bunch of material, we’re just learning how to work the more years we do it.
We started playing some of the material, and “Waking Up Dead” was in that batch, which Phish recorded, but there was something that I felt that even though it was a big batch of songs, there’s something I felt that I still yearned for. So we just took some more time to find what resonated musically and lyrically. In some ways it was going for more simplicity, going for more direct, trying to get whatever feelings to come out in a simpler way. So we just kept going and that was our goal in a nutshell and it worked out really well. We mostly used the second batch of material, from the next period of time.
JamBase: Was “Let’s Go” part of the second batch?
MG: That was in the first batch. We like having a lot of material because there’s something that is playful about just sort of getting an idea going and not really overthinking it and then going on to the next thing. It creates a sort of flow in the process.
The last Phish album I think I brought 15 songs from our batch and we recorded one of them. Of those songs, “Let’s Go” was the only one that Scott and I recorded for OGOGO, and we skipped the other ones as well, and I went on to different ones. I just really like experimenting. Music is such an emotional thing and really it’s just whatever moves you on some level.
“Let’s Go,” that was one that Phish sorted gravitated towards and we even morphed it a few times before we recorded it. It took some different forms. But by the time we got together with Shawn, I wanted to try making it more like the demo which was had a simpler, more synthetic drum beat even though we had Johnny play it. On the demo it was almost like the skeleton of a hip-hop beat, really just very simple. I liked the idea of returning to that. Phish recorded [“Let’s Go”] and it didn’t seem quite right and then right after we finished that album, Bob Ezrin came to see Phish for a night or two in Nashville. We were playing it at a soundcheck and he said, “Oh god, I know we screwed up. We didn’t have the right drum beat or something.” He said, “We should do what pop people do and release a different version of the album.” He just was teasing, but I still liked the idea of toying around with it more like the original demo was.
When we went in to record the OGOGO stuff, we took a variety of approaches. It spanned from moments that we actually recorded during live shows in the middle of long jams where something happened, so there are a couple of those. And there was a lot of experimentation in the studio and there’s a bunch of that. And then there was a desire – when we were recording we were on occasion using stuff that we had already started to record,, and playing live together in the studio and doing whatever overdubs – but I really wanted to try some things layering one instrument at a time.
In the case of “Let’s Go” I think that that’s how it was put together. You would never know it, but there’s about 80 different instruments or tracks. Shawn really wanted to get this sort of dense thick thing going in a way I never thought to, but especially in the chorus where there’s just a lot of churning, it’s just so many tracks. It might be five tracks of resophonic guitar, 10 tracks of electric guitar and 30 different keyboards all playing the same four notes, all to create this massive smear.
JamBase: I love the Twitter Q&As you’ve done and the most interesting question was the one you posed, “If you could change anything about my band or Phish what would it be?” What were some of the most interesting answers?
MG: The biggest answer was “play more” for both bands or “play more places.” Phish does the major markets or whatever because we don’t have time to play everywhere and then my band might play in Santa Cruz and not San Francisco or something. Either way, we can never get to enough places. Anyway, but then, actually, just returning back to what I said before, it was on one of those Twitter session where some people said to bring back older Mike songs. That’s where I have to evaluate it one song at a time. It’s sometimes hard for me to be in one frame of mind and re-enter the emotional state from another decade or 12 years ago or something.
JamBase: Do you feel like you have a good balance between time on the road and time at home?
MG: I feel pretty good. Something could change that would merit a different kind of schedule, but considering how things are, all the things in my life, and my career, everything seems just right. I really like having a lot of time to experiment, especially with songwriting. That could be musical experiments and lyrical experiments. It might not always be more working on a full song it could be just some of the elements. I really like just dabbling and I’ve got time more than ever to be playful about that and I’m a little less goal-oriented. Like, “Well, we have to finish these certain songs so we can do this certain thing.” I like to have lots of buns in the oven and just see what resonates, so I need a lot of time to do that.
My daughter’s 8 and everyone says, “Spend a lot of time, because they grow up really quickly,” and I don’t know if they’re right or not but I really enjoy these adventures we go on. We find a town nearby and we go and we play chess and lately we’ve been playing Stratego, and time with my wife, and I really like being in Vermont. I’m never just sitting on my butt. I’m not bragging about that, but I have a problem maybe with being still because my biggest fear is the fear of boredom.
For me, there’s constraints that make it so that I can’t tour more. For instance, with my band there’s things with the schedule, but I feel like it’s just kinda just right. But you know, if there was an occasion in my life to do something like a two-month tour like I used to do back in the day, that would be fun too. I’d run with it. I just have so many things I want to do: movies and books and other creative projects and especially musical projects and experiments. I always have stuff to do and it someone says, “Well you can’t tour this month because it’s just logically not going to work,” I’m like “fine” I’ve got other stuff that I want to do.
There’s one more piece of that puzzle, one of my goals is to try to blend it more. Where the feeling of playing a song or working on music at home, taps into that feeling that we might have onstage. Being on the road, whether I’m at the venue or in the middle of playing or being in a hotel room or at a coffee shop or something where I can kind of pursue other intellectual kinds of creativity and blend it more. For me, it can’t be entirely blended. There’s a mode and then there’s another mode, but to be more partially blended is one of my goals this year.
JamBase: On that note, after putting out Big Boat and playing the Baker’s Dozen, which by all gauges seems to be a massive success, and no Fall Tour for Phish, it feels like the end of a cycle. Other bands will put out an album, tour on it and then go off the road for a bit. Does it feel like the end of a cycle for you for Phish or the start of a new one?
MG: Well, Phish runs itself so well – and I don’t mean without people because there are people – but a lot of times I just don’t have to think about it. All year and last year I’ve been working on my album as the main thing long before the Baker’s Dozen. It’s kinda like there are other people to make decisions. I bring some songs to Phish and I bring myself and my soul. From day-to-day, even if I’m on the road with Phish, I might be doing a little bit of plotting and scheming for my own projects. I don’t think of it one way or the other, I appreciate having this extra time to really get out there and, like you said, do a slightly longer tour with my band and follow through with album stuff. I’m really thankful that I have my time.
JamBase: Has Phish learned from the past in terms of the hiatus and the breakup where you’ll play when you feel like playing instead of needing to have defined huge breaks?
MG: Yeah, I don’t think it has to be defined as a breakup or hiatus, I mean maybe there would be a hiatus, but I think we’ve kind of figured out it gives us the enjoyment and the musical challenge that we need if we let it breathe and don’t try to overdo it. It’s just a matter of allowing it some breathing space so it can come back and be rejuvenated. I mean, we can do more and we can do less and it would be fine either way, but just kind of monitoring it like “OK, let’s take a break” and that works fine.
JamBase: Have you given much thought to Phish getting into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
MG: Not a lot of thought, it was talked about years ago by people in our organization about how there are rules, like it has to be 25 years since your first album release. It would be nice but there are bands … I mean last time I checked Yes wasn’t inducted …
JamBase: They actually were just inducted.
MG: Well, case in point, because last time I checked was a couple of years ago. I grew up listening to them, one of the many, but they should certainly get in there before we get in there. It would be nice, but it’s not too much of a thought. I’m very thankful and proud of the stuff that goes on with Phish, but if something happened with my solo career that was … it wouldn’t be the hall of fame … but something … I like it when I know I’ve been able to make a splash in that world, so I just focus and fantasize about those type of things more.
I feel like Phish is already breaking new ground. I don’t know, maybe the Baker’s Dozen is more important than the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in a way.
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