By Timothy Dwenger
For 30 years he’s been the bassist for one of the biggest touring phenomenons of all time. As the bassist for Phish, Mike Gordon (according to Phishtistics) has played more than 1,600 concerts worldwide during this tenure — a total of 811 songs in 361 cities. And most of that, mind you, was done with little to no attention from “mainstream” media.
“Cactus,” “Gordo” and, of course, simply “Mike” is known for his quirky, off-beat lyrics, use of obscure time signatures (like the 17/8 time in which he wrote “Fuck Your Face”) and, most certainly for his thunderous, arena-shaking bass lines.
Amidst all of that ruckus, though, Mike Gordon is quietly developing quite a catalog of solo material. While he and his bandmates basked in the spotlight of a brilliant thirtieth anniversary year for Phish, Gordon was toiling away behind the scenes on his fourth solo album Overstep.
The album veers away from the complex weirdness of Gordon’s previous solo efforts and focuses on more of a bubbling rock feel. It’s a little bit more accessible, but in the end it’s still very much “Mike.” “I go for the quirky a lot of the time, whatever that means, but some of this album really rocks pretty hard, in my opinion,” said Gordon during a recent interview with The Marquee.
All eleven songs on the record were written by Gordon and his longtime friend and writing partner Scott Murawski of the seminal New England jam band Max Creek. “I first saw Max Creek in ’83 and we met a little after that, when Phish played a gig with them at UVM, but we met more formally around ’92,” said Gordon, who was on a layover in Chicago on his way home from L.A. after spending some time working on a top secret video project. “We had a jam session at my house and ever since then we were putting together little projects that would only do a gig or two. In 2007, I really wanted to put together a band that was a little longer term, where we could build and build on what we were doing, and Scott and I had so much history at that point that it just felt really comfortable to build it with him. We fill in the gaps for each other’s personalities. We have some very similar values about music, and maybe about life, but we have some pretty strong differences in our styles and that’s what works. If you have two people who work together exactly the same it’s kind of like, ‘why bother.’ He’s the go-with-the-flow guy and I’m the make-charts-and-lists-and-check-stuff-off guy.”
Over the course of several months, these two friends took their yin and yang relationship and ventured off on short retreats around the Northeast, which allowed them to harness their surroundings for inspiration and write without the distractions of home. Whether it was in a motorboat on Lake Sunapee, deep in the woods near Concord, New Hampshire, or in the heart of an industrial area in Boston, each experiment proved fruitful and eventually rewarded them with the nucleus of a song.
Between retreats, the pair spent countless hours on Skype working with and interviewing each other in an almost therapeutic manner. “There is this big question about how personal songs should be. If they are too personal they don’t really relate to other people, but, on the other hand, if they don’t draw upon your personal experience then there is nothing in the song that resonates enough to put passion into singing it,” Gordon explained. “When we were working on these songs, we started with some concepts and started pushing them through and then there was a checkpoint where we said, ‘O.K., we want to sing this from the heart, so how does this really relate to us as two different individuals?’ We went through these personal quests and discussions as each other’s therapists without the intention of sharing everything we came up with, but with the intention of understanding how the song is resonating in a deeper way. Even though it wasn’t therapy, per se, it felt like it because we would take turns asking questions that would carve out the psychological back-story that would really indirectly feed into the music we were making.”
Once the demos were completed and it was time to enter the studio, Gordon decided he wanted to shake things up a bit and work with an outside producer for the first time in his solo career. After a series of interviews, he and Murawski agreed that Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Uncle Tupelo, The Pixies) was the man for the job. “It wasn’t so different this time around, except it was a conscientious decision to say, ‘I want to surrender some control because I’m doing enough with the writing and singing and I want someone else’s personality in the equation here because I think it will yield a stronger product,’” Gordon said. “I think it was the inevitable next step. I loved having a producer and defaulting to his ideas as soon as the demos were done. It was a very refreshing change to just trust that this guy — who has so much experience, and who I like and trust — would be able to make the final call on everything. Paul made it easier to cut to the raw energy of the songs.”
The first time that any of these songs saw the light of day was on last summer’s Phish tour and that wasn’t an easy decision for Gordon. “I was in the Galapagos with my family and just sort of obsessing over whether I should play a couple of these songs with Phish or wait because the album wasn’t out yet and the tracks weren’t even mixed yet. It seemed a little premature and I didn’t want to leave Scott out,” Gordon explained. “I had a handful of songs that were possible and it came down to gut feelings. When ‘Yarmouth Road’ finally came into its form I had this feeling that it was catchy and I didn’t even know why. It’s not necessarily the groove or the lyric, but maybe it’s the way certain phrases or melodies come together. Something about it was catchy and I felt like ‘this will be fun and easy for Phish to do.’ I had similar thoughts about ‘Say Something.’ … In the end, I just picked these two and I was really glad I did because it was really fun to play them with Phish and I appreciate that those guys always encourage me to bring my stuff to the table.”
While the album’s opening track “Ether” is the only song on the record that stretches out beyond the six-minute mark, Phish pushed Gordon’s songs well beyond their recorded limits last summer and he didn’t seem to be afraid of pushing the envelope and stretching out when he hits the road this month with his own band. “On the last tours we did, it got to be about a lot of exploration. Though I’m interested in choosing the battles and I feel like it’s nice just to play a song and carve away the fluff sometimes, at other times I like to go on an exploration that’s unexpected, not somewhere we would usually do it, and have it be really long, maybe a whole set long. It’s fun to go in both directions, to tighten some stuff up and loosen up others,” Gordon said. “I saw this Radiohead show at the Hollywood Bowl and it hit me that songs were so floaty and mesmerizing and then after a few minutes they would just end, each one. That was such a strange juxtaposition for me. If they were just short normal pop songs it would make sense and if they went on for 20 minutes it would make sense, but this was just weird to me. That said, it was sort of inspiring, too. In the end I think we are gonna feel it out on stage, but I do love the unexpected and I think it’s fun to jam with groups of people when I’m not as accustomed to what they might do.”
While he may not be “as accustomed” to what the members of his solo band might do as, say, his bandmates in Phish, Gordon has been touring with Murawski, Tom Cleary, Craig Myers, and Todd Isler since 2008 and he is excited to be on the road with them again after a break in 2013. “We’ve revamped everything: the music, the stage, some of our values and goals. So now it’s time to forget all that and go out and do it,” said Gordon. “I’m very excited to take the potential and run with it.”
:: Mike Gordon ::
:: Boulder Theater :: March 14 ::
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