Last year you told us that you had been going through a phase of listening to female vocalists. You cover Gillian Welch’s “Time the Revelator” among others in your own band and have now brought one of her new tunes “The Way It Goes” over to Phish. What is it about Gillian and these female vocalists that appeals to you at this point?
Since a year ago I’ve tried to move on to covering male vocalists. [Laughs]. I guess it’s that there’s sort of a rawness of intention where what she’s saying is uncluttered by pretences or fluff. It just seems to be a raw feel. She often goes for a certain style that’s reminiscent of older styles or, you think about…not cowboys…and it’s not bluegrass, but you think about mountain people and these sort of tragic or sad situations.
Maybe that’s what it is too. Generally, my life is so happy that one of my overlapping phases is sort of seeking the darkness because I think it’s important for people to allow their dark side…to embrace it and to hold it. As a musician and as a songwriter I want to look for that. So she has that. Her songs have a certain melancholy furiousness to them and they’re so open-ended since they’re not specifically bluegrass. I suppose they’re more like old timey music than bluegrass. They’re just kind of open for interpretation so that ends up being pretty cool too, in that you can do anything you want with them. But with “Time the Revelator,” we were seeing that in my band as like a Neil Young sounding jam—kind of an excuse to get raunchy but let the words tell a story in that context.
So when you enter a songwriting phase like this, do you distinguish ahead of time whether the songs will go to Phish or to your own band or is that a decision you make after they are completed?
Not really. I guess the way it works is, and I’ve said this before, I get a lot of encouragement from Trey and the other Phish guys to bring material. However, there’s only so much time in the setlist and in the course of the tour since we all sing, but Phish has a lead singer and it’s Trey and Phish has a principal songwriter and it’s Trey. So, I don’t really plan on what’s going to be for what.
Sometimes it’s counterintuitive. For example the song “Got Away,” Fishman played on the track on the album and I love the way it came out and it sounds like a Phish song. I think it was a success story in terms of taking some passages of music that are composed and making them sound, well, carefree to take that word back. I think that’s one of the things that Phish has done really well, which is to take music that’s got a lot of orchestration to it and made it sound tossed off or almost improvised.
And so that’s why I thought the song “Got Away”…I did a great job of writing it in a way that it’s not bogged down with notes so that it sounds like a mental experiment. It’s sort of that all of the notes that are written for it sound, to me, like they ebb and flow with the emotion of the song. I thought that would be great for Phish. On the other hand, my band did a great version and Phish probably doesn’t want to do it because we’re not learning composed stuff in this era. In a way, it would have been great for Phish 10 years ago. And so I kind of just put songs together and see what happens. Some might be for Phish, some might be for my band, there’s some that I might just record and not know who’s going to play them but just concentrate on getting an incredible recording and a good music group. So, I guess that’s part of the carefree Mike-era.
Can you explain what this new “carefree” approach entails for you?
What I’ve done a lot of this summer—I had a lot of extra time to do some soul searching…that’s a cliché term, but, you know, some contemplation. Halfway through the summer I thought the only thing that’s going to make this carefree…it’s not just a phase I think it’s really over a few years that I’m trying to gradually change my way of working. So I found out in the middle of the summer the only thing that’s going to make that work is to have very specific goals—higher goals and then the subgoals under them. Then at the end of the summer I did more contemplating and I realized that’s not true, I don’t want that at all. I don’t want to set goals.
I mean, people that inspire me are often people who set goals and are great at accomplishing them—so it’s important. But part of my ebbing and flowing with my creative work and my existence, I think, is going to be to not necessarily have a specific goal but just to be able to follow my views and inspiration as it comes. And if that’s to make a funky song then I’ll just see that through and not know what it’s going to be for. It’s hard to tell. Sometimes a funky song can become intricate enough that people aren’t really going to want to dance to it, but it will sound interesting. Other times, it will be pared down to such a raw essence that dancing to it is all you would really want to do with it. I don’t know and that’s what I’m trying to do—I’m trying to know less more often.
You mentioned that Phish is straying from learning composed material in this era. Why has the band made that conscious decision?
It might not be a conscious decision; it might be a subconscious decision. Well, with Phish the last thing that was intricate was “Time Turns Elastic.” We haven’t played that this year, I don’t think. I think I read in an article that Trey prefers the orchestral version and so maybe that’s why we’re not playing it. But it doesn’t really matter, I like playing it and I’m also fine not playing it. We learned that in the studio. The way we ended up learning it was with Steve Lillywhite kind of guiding us and recording it—learning it while we record it in one minute clumps. So that was pretty cool, it was really fun.
But generally speaking, I can’t really answer for the other guys because I’m not sure that we’ve talked this through, but I answer from my perspective. And my perspective is that, as we get older as a band we kind of get more knowledgeable about what works and what doesn’t. As a band and as individuals, often what I’ve been finding is what works is very simple. The simpler the framework for the music is, whether it’s a song or a jam even a composition I guess, the more we can do with it where it’s not just reproducing the notes—churning out the notes. It’s more being able to pour our whole soul into the passage of what’s happening, whether it’s the bass line or the rhythm or…just being able to really dig into it, I think, requires it to be a little simple to start with, at least in terms of seeing what makes for really powerful experiences onstage and feeling that. I’ve just been seeing that.
A lot of the music with my band is pretty intricate rhythmically and I love it that we’re starting to have some material that is very simple and we can just…I mean it juxtaposes back and forth. Well now to complete that thought, ‘cause now you got me thinking…ironically, when I say that, I don’t like music that’s so simple that I’m bored. I like people who are great, dazzling soloists and chord progressions that are interesting and take you to unexpected places and song forms that are unexpected. I like being taken on a journey in music and, for my taste, it requires some level of sophistication.
For an example of that, with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings it’s very pared down to its raw essence. But David’s playing is so interesting to watch from note to note and to listen to that that alone, is a level of sophistication. Again, it’s not a mental thing—it’ a level of intricacy and just an interesting journey to go on, even if it’s only four bars or eight bars when he’s doing the solo, it’s captivating for me. So that’s an example of music that’s very raw and paired down but still has a level of sophistication—it’s another one of those balancing acts, I think. But it’s picking and choosing which aspect of the song…
Here’s another thing, Trey is really great at having little—I’m getting really technical here—chords either ascend or descend in unexpected ways, but they sound so natural that they sound like water pouring out of a faucet or something. It might be unpredictable in the sequence—it might go up for three beats and then down for four beats and up for five and then down—but, you know, it doesn’t sound like numbers. It just sounds so organic.
I think it’s really cool when that can happen, where you get music that on one hand is very simple so you can dig into it, but on the other hand it’s not been made so skeletal that it’s boring. That could go for the music, it could probably go for the lyrics and it could probably go for the just the raw emotions, which are gonna move you. And if it’s gonna move you in a way that’s simple, whether it’s strumming your hard strings and making you think about a relationship or something that you’re passionate about…but at the same time, even emotion itself can have levels of sophistication where you realize, “oh well, it’s a little ironic that I’m in love with this person and yet I guess it’s not really good for me,” or the other way around. In all areas of music there can be that balancing act. I’ve been finding so much of life and of music are balancing acts.