You also pointed out that Trey is still the principal songwriter behind Phish. With you becoming more comfortable as a songwriter on your own do you intend to bring more songs to Phish in the future?
It’s not that it’s set in stone because over the years clearly I’ve done some writing and Page and I have both worked on our craft of writing. I really like some of the stuff that Page is writing, a lot. Some of his songs are some of my favorite Phish songs to play. There’s definitely room and the band does change. If you look at the ‘90s, there may have been one part of it where we were playing all Trey and Tom songs. But then at the next point we might be doing some experiments—to do some writing by jamming or writing in the practice room together—that we’ve dabbled in before. It’s not set in stone. It might be one way for a while and then it might be another way for a while. Trey’s a great bandleader in that he likes things to evolve, including methods and approaches and he’s very encouraging to bring out the talents of the people around him. So things can change.
But I also like to be realistic. If I want to write a lot of songs and see which songs and which jams are allowing the band and the audience to reach nirvana sooner, then my band is the place to do it because there is just time to try things over and over and over again, a lot. Often with Phish, we’ll learn one of my songs and we’ll play it once or twice and then sometimes over the years we’ll play it a bunch of times. But for me to want to take a whole bunch of material and really want to flesh it out and really make it incredible by seeing what is working—and get rid of what doesn’t work—then my band is the place to do it.
I just feel really lucky that I have my band and I hope that as with me getting to do some creative work in Phish, I hope that with the other people in my band that I’ve made them that see it as a creative expression. I don’t aim for it to just be the Mike show entirely. Clearly Phish fans are coming to see me, but the other guys have such strong personalities that I’m glad to make it a real band with five of us. Just finding ways to throw the energy around and see what happens.
You brought out a Fender Precision bass during some of Phish’s encores this summer. What inspired you to try out a new bass and do you have any plans to use it more in the future?
A couple of things inspired it. Learning the Little Feat album [ Waiting for Columbus ] last year where Kenny Gradney played a precision bass and it sounded so good. Also, I borrowed a bass which was Nick Forster’s bass—Nick Forster from eTown and from Hot Rize—and I played it for a soundcheck and maybe a little bit for the gig and it sounded so good. I think there’s an aspect of a Fender bass, it has a certain growl to it—a certain midrange warmth to it.
I mean, ultimately I kept coming back to what I’m used to, which is my Modulus. I actually did some switches of different pickups in my Modulus and in my spare Modulus bass and it would change things up a bit. But I keep coming back to what I’m used to. Sticking to something goes a long way and you don’t even realize how many ways you’re used to it and how many ways you can work it. So to bring in a Fender bass or any bass with single coil pickups throws me too much for a loop on the big stage. In the studio, I used a lot of different basses to record with. It’s kind of funny because usually at a soundcheck I’ll be playing a Fender bass or something different and have a great time. But then once it’s all revved up, it throws me too much for a loop.
Recently, with my band, we had this weekend where we went to a recording studio in the middle of nowhere on a farm and we just did freeform jamming—just as a bonding experience. I was talking about not having goals in mind, well, this was one of the times. It’s really interesting when everyone’s lives are so busy and then we get together for a weekend and what we do has no specific goals in mind—it was a really funny feeling and a great feeling. We weren’t songwriting, we weren’t practicing, we were recording but we didn’t necessarily need to be. We weren’t getting ready for the tour yet.
Anyway, I brought the Fender bass and I actually had an awesome time playing it. Actually, for part of the time, I was playing with my fingers which I rarely do anymore and so it was a lot more of a classic bass sound and I was really embracing that and getting into it. Sometimes with the really modern basses, they are the best tool for the task because they have such a wide range of reliable sound. But there can be a sort of coldness in the sound and by getting back to the basics—since the Fender bass was one of the first popular electric basses—it almost returns my consciousness to the original role of bass playing, which is also nice to get into by playing the original bass that everyone played. So, yeah, I like to dabble.
This year, I did a lot of switching up of things…more than usual—trying some different effects pedals and different basses and different ways of EQ-ing things. Then with my band, I’m trying different speaker cabinets. I’m trying not to get stuck in my ways so that I just can keep finding what’s best—it’s another balancing act. If you work with what you’re used to, you’re rewarded by having a good time and being able to go further from being used to it. But at the same time, it can get a little stale—even something like a bass tone where it can start to always sound too trebly and then you turn down your treble and that doesn’t help. Then it’s time to say, “Ok, well I’m just going to try a bunch of things and not worry about it but just see what happens. And so, that’s been a bit of an era and it’s been good. Even playing a Fender bass and then coming back to my regular bass, I can learn what about the sound is nice and dial that in to my bass and just learn from the experience.