photo: Dean Budnick
Here’s another article from our Jambands 25 celebration: an conversation with Mike Gordon that appeared in September 2009, six months after Phish returned to the stage following the group’s extended hiatus.
It’s been over nine months since Mike Gordon last took the stage with his current quintet. That group [which featured current MGB members Scott Murawski on guitar and percussionist Craig Myers, along with drummer Todd Isler and Tom Cleary on keys] closed out 2008 with a late December run. Then, during most of 2009, the five musicians focused on their other musical endeavors. For Gordon, much of that time was devoted to Phish, which has just released Joy, while a second album, Party Time, that offers some other songs from those same recording sessions, will follow next month.
The bassist’s present focus, though, is his solo band (even if Joy did happen to hit on the day his tour opened). Mike has a new animated “Andelmans’ Yardsale,” interactive feature on his website, which offers some insight into the genesis of “Andelmans’ Yard,” (a song which Phish learned but never performed this past summer- read on) along with multiple destinations for folks who get things “wrong.”
The following conversation, which spanned two days due to some dicey cell phone coverage in the mountains of Vermont, mostly took place the morning after Gordon’s opening gig at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on September 8.
DB- I just spent some time with “Andelmans’ Yardsale,” on your site. I’m always interested in learning more about process, so I really enjoyed it. I’m curious though about the incident you describe in which you walked out of a tea house, started banging on a lamppost, recorded it on your phone and then emailed yourself the files. Were you actively searching for a particular sound that day or did it all happen spontaneously?
MG- It was not preconceived. I probably walked out after the tea house closed and I started banging on the lamppost. I liked the way it sounded, so I decided to record it. And then it seemed to sound so good on my cell phone that I decided to look for other things to record. And they all sounded good, so I decided to follow through the rest of the process of mailing it to myself right then and there. I was working on it during my year at home, thinking, “Oh it could be used for this.”
DB- Was that lamppost recording solely a product of the fact that you were immersed in a recording project or is that something you’re always exploring in your daily life?
MG- I think it’s a combination but it’s great to have a project, whether it’s a song or a year of songs or a film or whatever it is, where all your creativity gets funneled in that direction because I do have a lot of creative ideas but I don’t always follow through with them. Sometimes I keep lists of ideas that I refer to when I need one. My mom always used to tell me that ideas were a dime a dozen and that it’s the following through that matters.
David Lynch was a big inspiration. He often does his own sound design and he does this thing where he goes around the world just collecting sounds. Sometimes they’re musical sounds, like he recorded an orchestra somewhere in Europe through a long tube. He calls it collecting firewood. Then when he’s back at home in the studio and he wants to make his fire, he sees what firewood he has. So he took just the reverb of the orchestra recorded through the tube and that was used somewhere in the background of a movie.
I think that a lot of artists and musicians do that, where they have lyrical ideas and melody ideas and maybe some recordings or notebooks. What’s daunting to me is a way to catalog all that so you can reference it easily. I’m in the process with Jared Slomoff, we’ve done it before but we’re consolidating even better now, where everything that I’ve recorded from every kind of media from my cell phone to a 4 track recorder, everything from the past and the present is all put on one hard drive. We just got these removable cartridges but we upgraded to the 1 ½ half terabyte cartridges so that my whole catalog can be on that one disc and then there’s a backup and then there’s another backup to put off premises.
But it will all be in one place because it gets to be a little bit daunting: “ I think I had this idea. Is it on my laptop because I recorded it on my cell phone and emailed it to myself? Or is it a Pro Tools session on the hard drive? Or is just a lyric written in a notebook and if so, then which notebook?”
DB- You mentioned that you had done this once before in preparation for writing new material. Do you have a specific purpose or project in mind that has led you to aggregate all of this media at this particular moment?
MG- Well I am putting out a studio album but most of those basic tracks are recorded and then I imagine more albums after that because I’m already going to have extra material. But I also have concepts of how I’ll be recording and writing that will be different from the past.
Here’s an example. Scott Murawski and I are starting to do songwriting sessions where we’ll go to a remote place and toss some ideas around. And we’ve done two now and the interesting thing about it is we don’t know what it’s for.
I like that about it. We don’t know if it’s for an album or to play live or neither. Or if we came up with stuff, he could take it to play with his own bands or I could take something to play with Phish. It’s more about process for the sake of process rather than the outcome.
I’ve read about Bob Dylan and everybody else on down who has years of stuff stockpiled. And he’ll look through that when he needs it. I kind of like that concept, too.
Jared and I currently have about 5 projects going, one of which is my next album but there are a few others that are ongoing. One of them is to do more of what we’ve done in the past, which is to take jam sessions and to try to glean some musical moments that could become songs from those sessions. That’s what we did in October of ‘07 when I came up with so many songs that have been used both on my album and now with Phish and for my upcoming tour. It was a very fruitful month. Our only two rules were that we had to do one song a day and that everything had to start from something pre-existing, even if it was just a groove.
We went through years of material. Now we have about 15 more jam sessions since we did it last to go through and try to pick out little moments. There’s one with me and Bill Kreutzmann and there’s one with me and Zach from Sound Tribe Sector 9 and a bunch of others. It’s about three years of them, since we last archived and cataloged back in December of ’06.
DB- In terms of those sessions with Scott, did any new songs come to fruition? I noticed you debuted some new material last night.
MG- Not yet, they’re still in the germination phase. We’re still exploring the process as collaborators and trying all kinds of different methods, different places and different things to work on. Different gadgets to use to record with, a different schedule…it’s pure experimentation. There are some fragments that are looking pretty promising but no not yet.
DB- What instrumentation did you use in those sessions?
MG- He’s a good drummer and the first time I wanted to bring small stuff I could fit into my car so we wouldn’t need to have people set things up for us. I got a kids drum set because that would be small and we set that up. He also brought a couple guitars and a mandolin and I brought an acoustic guitar bass and an acoustic guitar and then we had an eight track hard disc recorder. But it ended up being too much stuff. Like I said, these are just ongoing experiments, so I wanted to try the next one with less stuff. Also the rule was no computers because we both work with computers a lot and we wanted to use our ears and not our eyes to edit songs.
The next time we wanted to have less stuff, so it was no pedal boards, no amps, and a two guitar limit per person but we really only used one each. We both played the bass a little but mostly we used acoustic guitars, so it was two guitars with the idea of experimenting.
We actually wrote this song “Short Circuit” ten years ago that I ended up playing on the tour in ‘03. We had spent 24 hours straight writing that song, with him playing drums and pedal steel and electric guitar and me playing acoustic guitar bass and some other stuff. One thing I like about working with him is we both have a whole bunch of different talents and they’re not necessarily the same.
DB- Getting back to the notion that ideas are a dime a dozen, I would say, though, that one thing I like about your music and also certainly about Phish, is that you’re never lacking for ideas. Sometimes I think that contemporary society gives short shrift to the whole currency of ideas, which has always kept things active and lively in social, political and cultural realms.
MG- I think there’s two sides of the coin. One of those is that ideas are cheap. You can think of a million ideas in a minute and it’s the following through that counts. I spent the first fifteen years of my life typing up very elaborate schemes, even when I was six years old. Then finally when I was 15, I saw the value of following through and finishing something. I just decided from then on, I would plan a lot less and do a lot more. So it’s definitely all about the following through.
Although the other side of the coin is I have been learning that quantity is sometimes more important than quality. There’s a quote from The Artist’s Way. She [Julia Cameron] has lots of quotes in the margins and it’s a spiritual book, so it’s something like, “You provide the quantity and God will provide the quality.” She’s saying, “Do it a lot, do it every day, do it many times,” which goes along with the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers where he says anyone who does something for 10,000 hours is an expert at it.
The first time Scott and I did one of those weekends, we were finding that we were working on a single concept a lot and sometimes getting stuck on it. So I started to think after that we should just do many different ideas really quickly and as soon as we’re stuck, just move on to something else because there are so many possibilities and to be stuck isn’t worth the time in a way.
DB- You mentioned your next studio album. Will that material focus on all those songs you wrote a couple years ago but never appeared on The Green Sparrow or songs you have written since then?
MG- There’s a combination. In ‘07 I set out to write 3 albums worth and I basically succeeded. So on one hand I’m wanting to move on and on the other hand, I’m really attached to some stuff no one’s heard yet. I’m still finding it fresh. So there’s a bunch of stuff that was recorded. I ended up making these demos that sounded so good, I ended up working with them as the basic tracks and adding to them. Some of the songs on Green Sparrow are like that. So there’s a few more like that and a few that I wanted to redo or I’ve done since then.
I went to a studio in Vermont this spring before we did the Phish album and recorded a handful of tracks with this band that I’m playing with. Actually Craig was in Europe, so he wasn’t playing percussion and Tom Cleary played on a couple things but we also did a few things as a trio with me and Todd and Scott, all these different configurations. So there’s a few tracks from there and usually with these ventures, it’s a matter of experimenting and seeing what works. I might not use everything I recorded at that session.
I think most of the basic tracks are done. I have about 15 songs that I would really like to use on a 10 song album. So I have some choices and really what’s left to do is the fun part, which is creative editing and overdubbing. So it’s still possible that maybe I’ll record one or two more or actually it’ll be rerecording one or two more.
DB- Do you have target dates in mind in terms of when you’ll be done and the album will be released?
MG- I wish that I could finish this year and put it out at the beginning of next year but I’m finding that it’s requiring a fair bit of time when we’re not playing. So while it seems like there might be a few months in this year available, it’s actually not the case. So it’s just cramming when I can.
DB- In terms of that earlier era of songwriting, were “Sugar Shack,” “Only a Dream,” and “Can’t Come Back,” the three songs on the two new Phish releases, composed during that period? [The first is on Joy , the latter two will appear on Party Time ].
MG- “Sugar Shack,” that also was one from October of ‘07. I really loved the demo a lot and it was definitely going to be on my next solo album. But I’m glad it turned out as it did because the band and [Steve] Lillywhite liked some things about it and they didn’t like other things about it. I’m glad they liked some things but I’m also glad they didn’t like some things because I learned a lot about watching a song evolve.
Steve really liked the guitar melody when he heard it. On the demo you hear that first. You hear just the drum beat and then you hear a Caribbean-sounding melody and the strumming is like the guy from Brazil who did the David Bowie songs in The Life Aquatic movie [Seu Jorge]. It’s sort of the way he would strum, this kind of Latin lilting rhythm. But what Lillywhite didn’t like were the verses. He liked the chorus and he liked the melody. The verses were very sparse with only a few words in each, so I worked at it and took the same vision I had and fleshed it out.
We had too many songs to put on an album and up until the end, it wasn’t going to be on it. We had a few songs we wanted to try again on the very last day and that was one of them. It was actually the last one on the last day that we were trying to do again. It really hadn’t sounded so good the first time we had played it, which is why it wasn’t going to be on the album. But at the last minute, we decided to throw away everything about the demo. We did have one idea to use the drum beats from the demo and Fish said, “Now wait a second. I love this drum beat and I’ve been practicing it for weeks but I don’t want Joe Russo to have a cool drum beat on the first Phish album back,” which was a good point because we wanted to internalize stuff and make it our own. So we abandoned everything about the demo and just did that funky reggae groove which is different from how the demo was.
That’s the long answer but it’s from yet another Mike and Jared October ‘07 session. We wrote about 19 songs and about half of them are being used for something or other. Actually a couple more were used on the bonus tracks on Green Sparrow. There were four bonus tracks, for Amazon, iTunes. They’re harder to find and they’re stranger. There’s one called “I’m Doing It Anyway” which is a very quirky odd song.
“Only A Dream,” that was from the same thing October ‘07 session. I had recorded that for Green Sparrow with Trey, Chuck Leavell and Bill Kreutzmann and it just didn’t come together. We used other stuff with that group but that one just didn’t feel right. Then I recorded it again with my band. So I just keep recording it over and over again (laughs).
But with Phish, again we changed some stuff around, like the drum beat. Obviously many of the songs on Party Time were in consideration for Joy but when we all listened to what we had in the end, I didn’t vote for it myself because it didn’t seem to sound right in the context of the other songs on the album. But I really like the song. My band started playing it last December and we’ve had a lot of fun with it becoming a high energy jam vehicle.
I really like the Phish version and I think it’s the best version but it occurs to me that I can imagine a different kind of version, which I may also put on my next album. I’ll have to see how I feel about that.
And “Can’t Come Back,” again that was Mike and Jared Slomoff, October ‘07. We had a very fruitful month. Everything stemmed from something else and that had stemmed from a guitar lick that I recorded in ‘93 while walking around South Boston that we had archived.
DB- Since we’re on the topic of your compositions, can you talk about how “Destiny Unbound” made it back into rotation with Phish?
MG- That was Trey. He’s very good at listening to old Phish and new Phish and Top 40 radio and everything in between and just becoming very aware of what seems to work and what doesn’t work in different situations. We wanted to bring out songs that we hadn’t done for a while that could be rekindled this summer, so that was definitely Trey’s idea.
DB- Were you uncomfortable with some specific aspect of the song that led you to shelve it back in 1991?
MG- I would say that back then the groove might have felt a little bit jambandy, which we sometimes tried to avoid, like jamband groove 101. So that was one thing back then anyway. It’s also a story song and maybe the lyrics just didn’t resonate although much later they did. We heard some old tapes, it might have been Crested Butte or some other tape where it was high energy. The first time we brought it back was a few years ago, I think. Didn’t we play it in Nassau?
DB- That’s right, you did [/2/28/03].
MG- Oh, what a guess. And I’m sure that was Trey also. I’m always looking towards the future. Trey does a great job of being able to fathom all of the different eras at once and mix and match them. For me, I might look at an old song and say, “Oh, I remember where I was when I was writing that song and I can’t relate with that now.” Then, lo and behold I hear an old tape and I think, “Wow, this is raging, we’ve got to play this.” But it was Trey who had originally suggested it.
DB- What about “Middle of The Road,” the Leo Kottke composition on Clone?
MG- After the first leg in June, we talked and we decided we wanted to learn more older Phish songs and different songs from band members. We actually learned all of “Andelmans’ Yard,” which again was Trey’s idea, he always really liked it. I had played him the original demo and he always thought it was a cool song and he wanted to learn it. It’s got some tricky parts. Not tricky like “Split Open And Melt” tricky but tricky and we put in the effort but it didn’t feel right for some reason. There were a couple from Green Sparrow Trey had recommended. He suggested “Dig Further Down.”
Budnick grunts in approval.
Yeah, I think that would be great with Phish too, although it’s great with my band, so either way I get to play it (laughs).
“Middle of The Road” had been on my mind for a while. It has this incredible flow that I thought would be good for a rock band to take on. It’s got this gliding, flowing rhythm and the melody is catchy to me. I guess I had originally thought I would learn it for my band and then in the meantime we were learning songs for Phish and it seemed like the perfect thing.
DB- You mentioned that for a while “Destiny Unbound” didn’t quite resonate but eventually it did once again. Can you think of other songs that have elicited a similar reaction?
MG- One song I can mention is “Who By Fire,” the Leonard Cohen song. Phish used to watch it every night on the tour bus when it was on. We had a tape of David Sanborn’s TV show Night Music. It was with Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins together, you can YouTube it.
It’s a really incredible combination of people. Phish played it once and I can’t remember what got me thinking about it again. It’s one of those songs where the chord progression is fun because it’s simple and the melody is eerie and the lyrics are from a different era. It’s not from the jamband world at all and the vibe is just very different. It’s also abstract in terms of what it’s about. I don’t want to imagine that I’m Leonard Cohen because I’m not. That wouldn’t be a genuine thing to feel. I want to internalize it but it’s a different part of my own personality.
A lot of songwriters talk about writing not from their own character but from another character, yet they’re still archetypes within each person’s personality, so you can visit the different ones that you haven’t normally visited. So what I’m looking for or discovering are parts of my personality that have been hidden away for a while. I’m looking to see if the “Destiny Unbound” part of my personality still resonates and if it doesn’t, then forget about it, it’s not worth doing. It has to resonate and if it does, then cool.
DB- Somewhat along these lines, in the content of rehearsing songs with your band can you think of any songs that really surprised you once you revisited them and were inside them?
MG- I had a list of 56 possible songs I wanted to bring to the band. I weeded it down but I still probably brought too many when we were practicing a couple weeks ago. That’s probably when the process of surprise was happening because I practiced them a lot before I got to the band practice room to be able to know what they would feel like.
As an aside, though, I’ll give you a song that I could not get out of my head. For a second I thought I would do it with my band but then I thought there’s no possible way I can do it. It’s called “My Uncle Used To Love Me But She Died.” My advice though is not to listen to it because you won’t able to get it out of your head.