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.

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There is sometimes a fine line between complete heaven and complete hell, where I wake one morning and I feel like, “What am I? A joke? The bass player from some band, that sure people liked but the music industry in general didn’t take seriously, plus I wasn’t the principle songwriter and no one knows who I am and I don’t matter.”

Mike Gordon


How do you stay focused?

It’s hard. This is a very busy year for me, both personally and career-wise. I have a new album, a new band, [a new] tour and I have all of this culminating at the same time. So, there’s just a million decisions every day. There’s concert events that need to be named and contests that need to be planned. We’re doing this variety show in Chicago, where there’s all kinds of possibilities. It’s been pretty much a year where there’s ten new decisions to make, and each takes some serious consideration. Not to mention learning all the songs and figuring out cover songs and working with the band members. It’s kind of been a whirlwind.

Murawski & Gordon
Rothbury by D. Vann
Staying focused is hard, but I guess what happens is when I’m so busy then by default I have to just pick one thing and stick to it. Right now, that’s playing with a new band. It’s what I think about when I wake up in the morning. The idea is just to make it as fun as possible, and Rothbury just felt so good and was so inspiring. It was only our third gig and I think it took us a few to really just get comfortable. It can take bands months or years to have that good feeling. Even the week of practice in my studio in Vermont was very inspiring. It was a lot better than I thought it would be in terms of where the music would go and then applying it to the stage. [With] so many things on my to-do list, I basically shut down and say I have a new band that I want to focus on, and that’s what I’m going to do.

How do you stay inspired and innovative amidst the focus?

It always goes in phases, but this book, The Artist’s Way, was very inspiring in terms of that. Trey had recommended it ten years ago, and then I ended up reading it last year. It’s the best selling book on creativity ever written and it’s about returning to your childish sense of wonder. Even though it’s been months since I read the book, there’s two weekly exercises that I still do. It’s really helpful in terms of inspiration. The weekly one is that you go on an artist date, a date with yourself for two hours. It’s sort of leisurely. Every week I have an appointment where the first hour is unwinding and realizing what box I had been in, where my consciousness had been tied up, maybe thinking about a bassline or thinking about other responsibilities. And then the second hour, once the unwinding has happened, I get really inspired and think of all these ideas for things.

So, I’m on my artist date and I’m walking around – I actually did it with Scott Murawski, the guitar player [in Gordon’s band] – and we walked through Boston on Newbury Street and we just brainstormed: If we could do something crazy with the new band and logistics didn’t matter, what would it be? We took turns and it was really great to just have that little bit of time when there’s no responsibility. Just for this evening, we’re not going to learn songs or make decisions; we’re just going to, say, unwind a little.

With Phish we always did that, even riding around as a band together, especially the earliest years. Any time we had together was spent brainstorming fun or crazy things we could do. Even if there were a 100 brainstorms on every van ride and we couldn’t do them all, there were a few that got done. And that became what Phish was.

Later, there were so many talented people involved that sometimes there was less of the four band members doing this thinking together, and we were so busy that maybe it got to be a little more letting other creative people do some brainstorming and get together for meetings. It’s better when the band can really give a lot of input. So now that I have this creative outlet I’ve always wanted I’m finding it overwhelming, because there’s so much [to handle]. I wish I could sit down for a day with some of these decisions and just contemplate, but there are no days. I don’t have a single day in my calendar when I don’t have stuff to do. But it’s good to be busy.

You were the one member of Phish who was against the break-up, but now it seems as though you’re the busiest. Are you even craving Phish at this point?

Gordon & Anastasio :: Rothbury by D. Vann
I was the one against [the break-up], but only at first. Not too much time passed and I was really into the creative spaciousness that was there in my life that I would be able to fill. There’s always this fear, sometimes I don’t know if it’s me or the nature of being an artist in general, but there is sometimes a fine line between complete heaven and complete hell, where I wake one morning and I feel like, “What am I? A joke? The bass player from some band, that sure people liked but the music industry in general didn’t take seriously, plus I wasn’t the principle songwriter and no one knows who I am and I don’t matter.”

In a matter of hours, I’ll be working on a song and thinking, “This is the best thing in the world, it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before. It’s directly from my heart and it’s got so much potential and I’m so excited and I can’t wait to play it onstage or record it for the album.” So, all within the course of one day, I can have pretty serious attitudinal shifts, which is why something like The Artist’s Way can be so helpful because it balances, takes away the fears and puts them in their place and goes for the joys.

In terms of Phish, after that initial grieving period, which was a lot quicker than I thought it would be, I ended up having dreams, and the dreams were always backstage, they weren’t really on stage. Backstage was very exotic, like we’d be playing on some rolling hills and there would be this crazy canyon with this river going through it and we were all taking turns going through these gondolas down the water and having these really weird experiences. And then, the stage is maybe 40 feet up overlooking the rolling hills and everything is really exotic and the relationship between the band members is special. I think I just missed them as people, especially in the first year when we weren’t really talking too much. We didn’t need a hiatus from our friendships because the friendships never waned, but we were just taking some natural time off. But, I missed them. We would hang out at band practice in real life or on the tour bus, and there’s just this effortless rhythm of conversation or just shooting the shit and laughing and making each other laugh. In the last year when we’ve gotten together that’s come back.

I’ve had little feelings of craving Phish but I’m so wrapped up in this thing that’s so new for me that I feel like I need a little bit more time. I’ve got so much inspiration for the new band. Most of my inspiration is there and it’s not getting displaced by Phish cravings.

I’m very thankful that everyone in Phish is still healthy so that we might be able to do it again. When we broke up I said that longevity with Phish is that we could build something that is irreplaceable. I think we all know that the chemistry of twenty years together is irreplaceable, but it’s so great for me to get to do these new things and try out new combinations of people. There’s no reason that both things can’t coexist eventually, potentially, and so I’m not really antsy about the Phish thing. I’m much more antsy to get out on the road and make another solo album. But, I’m gonna really enjoy it when Phish does happen. ‘Craving’ isn’t the word that comes to mind but ‘excitement’ is, about all these things.

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We didn’t need a hiatus from our friendships because the friendships never waned, but we were just taking some natural time off. But, I missed them. We would hang out at band practice in real life or on the tour bus, and there’s just this effortless rhythm of conversation or just shooting the shit and laughing and making each other laugh. In the last year when we’ve gotten together that’s come back.

Mike Gordon

Photo of Phish’s final performance at Coventry by Jeff Kravitz

How do you gauge the fan reaction to your music and their own cravings?

Mike Gordon
I hear from people on my hotline [and] that’s a good way I can gauge. People that just say, “Why don’t you get the guys back together?” I usually hit delete because I’m bored of it. Phish kind of was what it was, and for us to do it again I’m sure, at least in some small way, we’ll want to reinvent ourselves and try out some new music and new ways of doing it now that we’re in the next part of our lives, in the next era of our lives. Whatever it was it’s not gonna be [again] anyway. At least I hope it isn’t because that wouldn’t be as exciting. The four of us have this rapport that seems lifelong, so it could be something great but when people are just saying, “When are you gonna play these old songs again?” it just kind of bores me, so I hit delete. But, it seems like the people are interested enough. If I were to go back and do Phish and not put myself into it fully then I wouldn’t want to do it at all.

All four of us want it, to some degree, [and] it’s just sort of a matter of timing. I feel like I have many years of ideas here on my own that I really want to try out. I have so many ideas that I feel like the Phish dynamic is one thing, and it’ll be something new because we’re older now, but this [new band] will be something different and a different dynamic, and I really feel like I can soar with it. It’s gonna take a while to figure it out. It’s baby-steps just to do a first gig after Phish had done 1400 gigs.

You wrote all of the songs on this last album. Tell me a bit about your songwriting process and how you get yourself into that zone?

I keep trying to discover what’s working for me and I keep finding different things that work, but then I want to try something different. A lot of what I did in the past with the albums with Leo [Kottke], when I contributed songs, involved going to the Woolworth Building when I was living in New York. It was pretty much an hour a day, and I’d try to write a song in that hour and record it so the songs were sort of simple and undeveloped, because it was a quick thing each day and I wanted to do one a day.

There had been times earlier in my life like when writing “Mound” or Round Room or certain projects, even “Destiny Unbound,” where it was weeks on end working on one song, but the one thing I had never really done was make it a full-time job. I don’t know a lot of people who do that but I knew I wanted to. 40 hours a week I’d go out to my studio. It’s a small but exotic little place, very inspiring up in the trees in my attic level. Just to spend a year there seemed like a nice idea, so that was the main difference. The first difference was that I wanted to do it full- time and not just for an hour a day. And then I kept experimenting in all sorts of different ways. I wanted to do more writing by improvising, because there were a lot of times I was sort of piddling on the bass and practicing and came up with cool basslines, and I remember a couple of times jamming with me and Fish [Jon Fishman], coming up with bass and drum things, thinking, “I wish this was recorded because I would write a song from this,” and not so much following through.

Mike Gordon from mike- gordon.com
So, what happened was at the end of ’06 I compiled twenty years of jam sessions and ideas from different mediums – 8-track, 4-track, mini-disc, sequencer, mini-cassette, cassette, reel-to-reel tapes and computer sessions. I put all of this on one hard drive, and there were a lot of bass and drum jams because that’s sometimes conducive to coming up with patterns. So, when ’07 started, which was my big writing year, I didn’t want to use those at all yet. I really wanted to start from scratch because that’s not really something I’d done too much yet.

Inside In started from the movie soundtrack, which I guess was starting from scratch, which was an evolution of the stuff with Leo. The last one was recorded in the Bahamas, where I’d taken these bass and drum jams and set some calypso kind of grooves. I really wanted to just get into a room with no previous inspirations and see what came out. So, that’s what I was starting to do in January ’07, and I thought it would be a lot of instrumental music but then I really wanted to work on lyrics and ended up only spending a few months working on lyrics, and then going back to recording some songs and spending a month or two on each song playing all the instruments. These became songs that weren’t just demos and they became songs on the album.

Then, I thought I would spend six to twelve months just writing songs and actually used the whole twelve. By October, I switched everything up, and I knew sometime in the second half of the year I wanted to switch all my methods because it had been enough already and one thing I wanted to do was I wanted to work quicker. I wanted to work with someone else and I wanted to go back to those jam sessions that I had archived and use them. So I got with Jared Slomoff and we had a rule: a song a day throughout October and everyone had to start from one of those archived fragments. We came up with nineteen songs in October, and I had six from the first nine months, and then I came up with a handful in November after Jared left. So, it was all different methods in the course of the year. There’s a lot of different things that I was trying to do differently each month, trying stuff differently from the previous month.

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I’m much more antsy to get out on the road and make another solo album. But, I’m gonna really enjoy it when Phish does happen. ‘Craving’ isn’t the word that comes to mind but ‘excitement’ is.

Mike Gordon

Photo of Phish in 1995 by Nubar Alexanian from phish.com

Mike Gordon
I like songs to be as long as possible, onstage at least. I would rather a song went for an hour and a half than three minutes because if I’m enjoying it I don’t want to stop. I like things that go on for a long period of time. I like David Lynch’s movie Inland Empire, which was three hours long and was weird the whole entire time. My friend left in the middle of the movie but I just wished it had a fourth hour. So much of our lives are spent, ya know, brushing our teeth, going from one responsibility to the next, trying to drive and do errands, that if I’m in this unique headspace, if I’m in this euphoric state, I want it to last for a long time. But, on an album I want it to be exciting but part of the excitement is for the songs to be concise and to make their statement.

Do you find yourself getting into a songwriting rhythm?

It was down to a science almost, but even when it’s down to a science songwriting is still a strange art. I think that you have to balance what inspirations you get from life and from your daily activities with a real discipline, and that balance is a struggle to find. But we had it down to where we were taking and figuring out which fragment we wanted to start with in the morning and then started to loosely put it together. If it was a bass and drum jam we would take different parts of the jam and start to make little loops and maybe verses and choruses and that kind of thing. Then, I would play guitar or sing a melody, and then we’d go out to lunch and we’d call it “Lyric Lunch,” everyday.

I really like [that] routine because there’s so many variables within that habit. I do well with it. I get a little freaked out when being an artist and being in the music business is so dynamic and always changing. I need some constants, so having a certain routine or place where I go, or maybe even a way to unwind or even reflect that’s regular, ends up being really important to me, and then sometimes tearing up the routine and doing something completely different to mix it up.

My favorite thing is if I’m onstage playing it feels like home. Or I guess being anywhere where it feels like you don’t want to be anywhere else at that given moment is a great feeling, and I think all therapy is geared towards that [idea of] living in the moment, and that all of the problems people have that lead them to find a therapist are based on worrying about the future or ruminating on the past. As soon as you can embrace the moment [things improve], which is why meditation is so helpful.

Do you still meditate?

Mike Gordon
I haven’t been meditating lately, but last year I did some meditations. I read David Lynch’s book Catching the Big Fish, where he talks about meditation and how even if he’s on a big twelve-hour day of filming he’ll still, in the morning and at night, take twenty minutes each, and he thinks that some of his best ideas for the film will come out of that. He’ll change around a scene or something, so I did that, but it was minuscule compared to what I did a few years ago where I was meditating a lot.

A lot of meditation like Buddhist meditation will start you off, at least in the first few years, concentrating on your breath a lot. It’s regular, repetitive, built in, happening, flowing. So, I’ve done a lot of that and it really teaches you to embrace the moment, because that’s what’s happening. To allow your mind to calm down when all the other thoughts come in as distractions can just sort of come and go without taking over because normally we’re living life as distraction to distraction, almost as if we’re asleep.

This is an election year. How do you feel about the connection between politics and music?

With Phish, we always had a stance that we should avoid endorsing a candidate or a party simply because we’re musicians and not politicians, and why should we tell people what to think about politics when we’re not politicians? But, with me, I’ve taken a little more license. I did one other thing with Bernie Sanders where we did the “Honkytonk the Vote,” and now he’s a Senator and he said that was an important event for him. It’s not that I want to alienate the people who might not agree with my politics but at the same time I just feel so passionate about Bernie and I have for over twenty years, and I really believe in what he stands for. He’s an independent. There’s actually Republicans in Vermont that vote for him, and now I’m doing something else for him [a free concert on August 15 on the water in Burlington, VT]. I don’t feel like I want to get heavily involved in politics because I don’t feel that it’s my arena, exactly. I feel like if I believe in something there’s no need to censor it either. This is a chance to do a free concert and turn people onto Bernie and politics. He’s pretty much aligned with the Democratic party.

Where did you get those purple pants?

That’s definitely American Apparel. I used to be completely Banana Republic but I switched. I know they’re both big chains. I started getting colored pants from this guy J Kos in New York, a little boutique [where] I’d see these lime green pants that I really liked. I’ve been going to American Apparel lately and getting all these sort of weird pants and shirts. High Sierra was the green and then Rothbury was the purple, so I was completely American Apparel all weekend.

Mike Gordon is on tour now, dates available here.

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