Mike Gordon Talks Solo Band, Madison Square Garden & More

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:: Interview :: Catching Up With Bassist Mike Gordon ::

2015 has been an exciting year for bassist Mike Gordon as he changed up the lineup of his five-piece solo band for the first time in seven years and embarked on arguably the best Phish tour since the foursome returned in 2009. The year will end with the start of a four-show Phish run at Madison Square Garden in New York City and following the jam titan’s first-ever concerts in Mexico, Gordon brings the new version of his solo band back on the road for a 12-show tour focusing on the western half of the U.S.

Mike’s current lineup features new additions Robert Walter on keyboards and John Kimock on drums in addition to longtime members percussionist Craig Myers and guitarist Scott Murawski. The quintet toured for the first time in June and won raves from fans and critics alike. What led to the lineup change?

“The [former members] are amazing musicians and something about a fit is hard to put into words, where it fits one way or another way,” Gordon said. “They were jazz players who could play any style of music with a focus on jazz, but there’s something about musicians who are more road worn in the rock, funk and etc. departments to be able to know ways of reacting in those situations. It was just a feeling of wanting to make some changes.”

Walter wasn’t completely new to Gordon’s musical world as he contributed to the bassist’s 2014 studio album Overstep. Mike re-connected with Robert before a Fall ‘14 Phish show in Las Vegas and laid the groundwork for the keyboardist’s addition to his solo band.

“I told him I’d love to do it [and that he should] give me a call sometime,” Walter said about the meeting in Las Vegas. “I was half joking, I didn’t know if it was a real thing, but a couple of weeks later he called me and we started talking about it.”

Mike was looking to focus more on groove and feel with his own band, similar to what he’d felt at past gigs from Walter’s The Greyboy Allstars outfit, “There’s this thing about grooving in a band setting and that’s an example of band with a capital ‘B’ where in the middle of the night something starts to gel and it’s just deeper than you remembered could even be possible,” said Gordon. “I’ve felt that at Greyboy Allstars shows sometimes, where it just gels. It’s so easy in a band context to overdo it or underdo it and I think that’s where the lacking can come when you don’t have years of clicking in a rock band or funk band setting. Robert already had that, he had a sort of greasiness, but at the same time I’ve really been wanting to experiment with whatever sounds were not so rootsy because in the past I’ve always gravitated towards rootsy style and feelings of rock and reggae and funk and blues, etc.”

Both Mike and Robert spoke about the need for experimentation. “I’ve been wanting to be more experimental,” Gordon said. “In talking to Robert and other people talking about Robert, everyone was saying ‘he’s just in the perfect spot in his musical career to want to get out of his comfort zone.’ And he’s already worked on movie soundtracks, so he’s already an experimental guy, but he has really done exactly what we were hoping which is he can always do the rootsy stuff in this way that just feels so good but then he keeps pushing himself.

“He has this laptop with a thousand interesting sounds in it. I love that. I think it’s the same with myself. There’s some older influences that I have that I’m not trying to throw out, but in the meantime I’m trying to listen to whatever comes my way and not harp on the old influences so much, so Robert’s like that.”

Walter added that collaborating with Mike, “really helped my playing a lot by forcing me out of my comfort zone of funk and New Orleans music. It’s been real interesting to improvise over such a variety of structures and sometimes without a net where things can go anywhere.”

The other new addition to the band, John Kimock, also has a taste for the experimental which he shares with Gordon. “I was impressed that for a 25-year-old he’s already played with all the George Porters of the world, where he’s provided something greasy or funky or whatever’s needed,” said Gordon. “He’s not one of these incredibly seasoned New Orleans guys that grew up playing in the streets of New Orleans from the age of 2 yet he can summon that sort of swagger or lilt in his drumming really easily. Despite how connected to the Grateful Dead his dad has been, he’s really been listening to and exposing me to a lot of music that’s kinda on the fringe of experimental, indie and neo-classical.”

In the case of Kimock, his young age actually was a selling point for the bassist. “There’s some seasoned drummers I was looking at that I loved, but some people said if you go with someone younger it might be nice if they’re not only younger but they have a willingness to experiment and learn new things. He’s been exactly that. They’re both more seasoned in the rock and funk world, yet both are really into exposing themselves to experimental stuff,” Mike commented.

Both additions played out as Gordon had hoped over the course of his June tour. What impressed him most was when the new mix of musicians were able to explore different sonic territories than what might be expected from a Mike-led outfit.

“I’ve listened back and the times I’m more critical are the times we sound more like what you’d call a jam band or Phish or any of the other bands that we come from,” Gordon said. “And the times that I’m just elated [are when] it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before. It doesn’t mean that it’s crazy dissonant avant- garde – it’s just that the overall tonality between the rhythm, textures and the tones is just fresh. I hear these moments and I’m just really blown away to the point where Scott and I recently started writing some songs to those jams. I’ve done that before and I’ve become known for doing that, but this is just so exciting because those moments are really compelling to me.”

The bassist was quite excited about the new aural directions the band has taken, “After almost 2,000 Phish gigs I’m certainly not going to throw away the inspiration I get from that or keep getting from that, but there’s no point in trying to sound like that or trying to sound like the Grateful Dead or Little Feat or even Radiohead. The only thing you can hope to do is to sound like yourself. I started to hear that on the June Tour.”

Mike and the band will head out for the first of 12 dates on January 22 in Austin, Texas with the tour set to conclude on February 6 at the Gothic Theatre in Denver. Fans can expect both new originals and covers from Mike and his band on the Winter Tour.

“I keep such long lists of both covers and originals that I would like to play, but I keep trying to resist the temptation to learn too much because I find we can really sink our teeth into the material we have if there aren’t too many songs,” the bassist said. “If I had a choice I would never go on any tour without some new material because it ends up being so fun. Scott and I have gotten faster at writing since Overstep so that now we just have piles of songs. Some of them are really quirky so I don’t know if we would end up playing them or not others are the opposite and are a little too generic so I don’t know if we’d play those.”

As this lineup grows more comfortable with each other, the question of when this group might record together is a logical one. Gordon has his eyes on the follow-up to Overstep, but isn’t quite ready to bring the band into the studio yet. “I’m just so excited about [entering the studio] that I can’t contain myself even though we’re not ready for it. Sometimes I like to save stuff and have it first developed on the album but I’ve changed that because we brought up three songs on the June tour that were never on an album that are new and those worked out really well so I’m kinda glad that I loosened up that rule a bit. It’s always good to have some new material.”

Besides the new material, expect to hear changes to some of older repertoire. “We’re doing seven days of rehearsal right now really intensely, and we did it all day today where we only worked on older songs. Not to make it all scientific because ultimately a song is a story and it’s an emotion and that’s really what it should be without overthinking. And honestly if we get into rehearsals where we’re just working on changes all day, starts and stops and harmonies, the brain can kind of take over where all you’re doing is trying to nail the changes.

“Today was great because it wasn’t that, we were definitely changing harmonies and all that technical stuff kinda went away for each song, we kinda let loose,” Gordon explained. “To me, the old stuff winds up sounding new because of a subtle change.”

One constant on the last two Mike Gordon tours was the use of fan-friendly elements such as interactive instruments, programmable LEDs and projections. While attendees can expect similar elements this winter, they won’t be exactly the same.

“The scientists are in the lab [as we speak]” Mike said when asked about whether the elements would return for the upcoming tour. “We’ve had two tours now with the same production. What I’ve wanted to do is experiment with that in ways of evolving it to the next version, version 3.0.”

The bassist feels the production elements help give his band a nontraditional look, but doesn’t want the elements to overwhelm the music, “I have a lot of respect for a lot of bands that don’t need to look like other bands. So the experience is a complete experience in every way we can think of but not overdo it either. The music is hopefully what counts and the other stuff shouldn’t get in the way of it.”

In addition to his focus on the five-piece’s Winter Tour, Mike is starting to get excited about returning to Madison Square Garden with Phish. The band has played 31 concerts at the famed New York City arena since making their debut their in December 1994.

“It’s a classic venue of course. It’s round and I have a special affinity for round rooms. It has a playground feel like being on a big trampoline – plus [MSG is] not that far from home.” After more than 20 years of playing such rooms, the quartet has learned how to handle the “big” shows. “Back in the day we got nervous for the prestigious gigs but we’ve done it so many times that we just go and we let it roll and it winds up being just as much fun as the random gig from Iowa that we know is gonna be fun because it’s random.”

Gordon revealed that Phish recently worked together to “dabble” on album ideas “that will probably lead to something.” The Massachusetts native also said he completed another songwriting session with Murawski to create material that he calls a “departure” from the last batch.

“There’s all sorts of good things in development both for my own stuff and for Phish stuff, the tendency is not to talk about it too much when it’s in development,” Mike said when pushed for details on both his work with Phish and Murawski. He also mentioned he got together with Leo Kottke in October and they are talking as well.

“I would do everything that feels like it’s a quality experience where it’s a flowing creative outlet. There’s at least three possibilities of groups there that have already done some talking and I just hope it can happen as soon as possible,” Mike added. “It’s going to be a very busy year. I love my work though, so I can’t complain.”

Neither can the fans.

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