Mike Gordon, best known as the bassist for Phish, is also a prolific solo artist. "OGOGO," his fifth and latest record, is his best yet, and the chemistry of his current band — guitarist Scott Murawski (Max Creek), keyboardist Robert Walter, drummer John Morgan Kimock and percussionist Craig Myers — has jelled considerably over the last few years.
Talking to Gordon you realize that he thinks about music all the time in ways most of us aren't capable, from the standpoint of someone who's spent thousands of hours on stage. He has theories, attitudes, strategies and lists — literally, file boxes full of them — cross-referenced with concepts about art, meditation, lifestyle, energy, wisdom and sound. He's all-in. Gordon's only weakness, perhaps, is having too many ideas. (I'm sure he thinks about that, too.)
Gordon's band returns to College Street Music Hall in New Haven on Sept. 27. He spoke to CTNow about working on "OGOGO," which hits the streets on Sept. 15, and other musical topics.
Q: My first instinct is tell you how good "OGOGO" sounds. You seemed to enjoy your time in the studio.
A: Definitely. I started hearing a lot of stuff from all different directions, different kinds of music where the groove is pretty strong, but there are some elements in there that are tweaked and warped in interesting ways. That started to really appeal to me, and to Scott [Murawski], who I do all the writing with. We followed a trajectory based on that: wanting it to be kind of spare in one way, but also being experimental with sounds in another way. We ended up with the right band for it and the right producer [Shawn Everett].
Early on, I thought there could be a rule: Every song had to have something in it that was a little bit warped, even if it was just one thing. That's all it takes. But also that there would be a lot of room between the notes.
Q: What are the variables that could be warped?
A: There are so many. It could just be the hi-hat. For most of this album, the hi-hat was recorded through earbuds — actual Apple earbuds, taped to the hi-hat. Our demos were pretty different this time than the others. Shawn is so experimental that every single instrument and voice was recorded in a strange way. If it was too perfect or typical-sounding, like maybe some keyboard had the right part, but it sounded like other stuff, he would sample it into a little toy Casio keyboard with a built-in microphone and play it through a half-broken speaker, in order to dumb it down and make it more interesting.
Every time, something like that was done. Vocals were recorded many times over, singing in different octaves. He would encourage me to take on different personalities, and then he'd distort them, put them through different amps. I sang into a tin can with a little microphone in it. Maybe not every experiment would get used, but in some cases, several were layered together. I can't always point to how the sound was created, because it's such an interesting mixture. But there was an attitude of playfulness that I just loved. It was a life-changing experience.
I really like being in the studio. I always have. There's something exciting about having a song become bigger than life. But this is the way it should be done, I think, where people will go to any length to have fun and experiment. And then, to always let the experimenting serve the song, to try not to have too much get in the way of that. Sometimes that means experimenting a lot, and then erasing half of what you've done. Or not using every idea but being free-flowing about it. I'm thankful all the ducks were in a row, between the songs and the people, to get that vibe going. It was a very colorful experience.
Q: Did you and Scott feel pressure to come in with solid songs, in terms of structure and form, knowing this transformation would likely happen, once you got with Shawn and the band?
A: The pressure comes from inside, and it's not because of that. When we were writing the songs, we didn't know we would have Shawn. It was more of a desire. Artists tend to see what they've done and how it resonates over time, and then they take in all kinds of influences. My influences coming in ... I was really enjoying when someone takes a simple phrase and melody and just sings it a billion times in a row, but then fleshes it out. The music might not be a crazy arrangement. It might not be a crazy rhythm. Some of the things that could vary maybe don't vary, but that leaves room for other things to vary.
Actually, what I think you're pointing to is this huge philosophical discussion I've been having lately with both of my bands, about when you vary and when you don't. When you're improvising, you would think: OK, we're playing in some scale and some key and some rhythm and all that, so I can do anything. I can play all the notes. But often what ends up being a religious experience is when you only play three of the notes, over and over again, for half an hour. It becomes a meditation.
The same goes for writing. My daughter plays all the pop songs on the way to school. Some of them became guilty pleasures. I appreciate the genius it takes to have just a simple thing repeated a million times, and to have the music be interesting in other ways while that's happening. So, these influences are sprinkling in, and I'm realizing: there are a lot of ways we can reel it in before we stretch it out.
I also think that, every time you stretch your abilities and curiosities, you're always stretching in two directions. That's my recent realization. If I say I'm going to work on making things simpler, there's going to be more room to make them more complex at the same time. That's what was going on [during "OGOGO"]. Desires were burning in those directions.
Q: I have a theory about musical flow, how it works with both of your bands, in the middle of an improvisation. You can play any notes you want, but by keeping to a certain mode, scale or phrase, you're making sure not to impede that flow, the forward motion, if that's the goal, to keep people dancing, and so on.
A: I like when the experimentation can be free, when you feel like you could go to unexpected places. But what you're saying is exactly right, and I keep finding it. It's fascinating. You can say "less is more," and it sounds like a cliche, but it's really surprising the way it works out.
In thinking about meditation, which I've been doing: people think it's a way to get into a trance, to have these almost-psychedelic flights. Often, it's so much the opposite. It's a way to focus your mind on one very specific thing, whether it's your breath or a mantra or whatever, and build up the mind-power that comes with focusing. But then, what happens in the end is that thing people suspect might be the goal: by doing so much crazy focusing, you do have this elation, these bits of nirvana.
I was in Dead & Company for its first month. I decided I needed to do other things, and I hear that [current bassist] Oteil [Burbridge] is doing a great job on the bass. But we had rehearsals for a week, and we were going crazy on the Grateful Dead repertoire. At one point, four days in, Bob Weir said, "Can we do something where we play the rhythm of each song for maybe half an hour? We're not going to have singing, we're not going to have soloing, we're not going to have chord progressions and we're not going to have anyone doing ANY embellishing. We're just going to play the rhythm." I thought, "OK, here I am, off of some tours where I get to go crazy, and he's asking for this, the simplest, stupidest bassline? This is going to be boring."
I was completely wrong. Those half-hours were religious experiences. The air around me was crystalizing and becoming like these Grateful Dead jams I had seen back in the day, all from not varying. After that, with my band, we started doing this thing called the "non-varying exercise." By playing the same darn three bass notes for a half an hour, or even 10 minutes, you start to get into the timbre of each hit that the other members are doing. In general, you're not listening to yourself. You're listening to the other people. It allows your hands to fall into this stuff.
Every time we did a non-varying exercise at a sound check, a new song was written, basically. It's crazy, because we're not searching. We're just saying, "Bam, fingers: go... STAY." How can it be that you're finding more when you're not searching? These are the ironies of the universe that I've been discovering in this album cycle.
Q: Did you bring the non-varying principle to Phish? What does Bob Weir know that the rest of us don't?
A: Phish has been gravitating in that direction anyway. The jamming has been moving away from solos and toward people finding patterns. We've always done some of that, but to stick on the same pattern, the same chord for a long time, there has been more of that. With my band, it's a different bunch of rhythms and sounds, a different palette, and it ought to be, because who needs two examples of one approach? But the same thing does start to happen. That whole philosophy is working itself out. From night to night, I have to relearn these lessons, about what works and what makes it extra-special.
Bob Weir was going for what happens when art exists within limitations, when you're forced to see and feel in your whole soul, the internal rhythm that's going on, the way that each hit is going on. It's like when I used to do mindfulness meditation. They'd say, "OK, you're concentrating on breath. Now, concentrate on the beginning of the in-breath. Now, the middle of the in-breath." Finally, when the inhale is done, there's this moment before the exhale: "Pay attention to that for a little while."
It's like "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance," where Pirsig [the narrator] had all of his English students write about the neighborhood, and the writing was terrible. Then he said, "OK, just write about the building across the street," and the writing got a little better. Finally, he said, "You see that brick, the eighteenth one up? Everyone write about that brick," and the writing was just superb.
Q: With Shawn Everett, it sounds like you were expecting more of a sound-based producer, but you also got kind of a song-structure guy.
A: Scott and I are open to anything. We needed someone who knew about songwriting. I had been spoiled a bit by [producer] Bob Ezrin, who was happy to chime in on the songwriting end of things. Sometimes producers will draw the line: the lyrics, the arrangement of the song, that's your job. They'll stick to sounds. But we realized that most of the people who wore that hat didn't match our aesthetic, and also that we were getting pretty confident with our songwriting, after nine years of doing it together. We could always get another opinion on something in that department.
Bob Ezrin and others said that Shawn Everett was the most sonically innovative person out there. I started hearing the stuff he did, hearing not only that it was experimental-sounding, but also that the grooves were fat and deep and made you want to dance. I thought, "Not too many people mix that, the power with the free-form experimentation." He's doing it more from an engineer standpoint.
But Shawn cares a lot about the song. If a second chorus is needed, or a melody — so much about songs has to do with the melody — he'll come up with it. He came up with a lot of the melodies. It was a good situation. We all felt confident about the songwriting department, and we knew that nobody else was going to go in the combination of directions to make it sound interesting to us.
When we were starting on [Gordon's previous record] "Overstep," we met with a producer who was doing so much great stuff. He said, "As soon as an instrument sounds good, I move on. We don't have to belabor it." That's one approach. With Shawn, it's more like, "I saw a painting in a museum, and I envisioned that this keyboard can sound like that painting. I'm not going to stop until it does, or until it sounds like something else that's new." It's not a chore in that case. It's fun.
Q: Once you go down that path, it might be hard to go back. Or maybe the opposite is true: you might want that other thing next time.
A: It's exactly both. I developed a really great friendship with Shawn. The creativity was really flowing. He's getting so popular. He had to turn down a Jay-Z album because he's so busy. Maybe he just won't be available. But I feel like we had a special connection, and I would love to do it again.
The more I do, the more I get ideas about doing more. I have at least 10 albums in my mind that would have radically different approaches. I fantasize about sitting in a chair and writing a song, or sitting at the piano... I heard a John Mayer song recently that was like that. It's only piano and singing, and there's nothing sonically wacked about it. I was welling up a little bit when I heard the lyrics. It's whatever moves you, and as Geminis, we get moved by a lot of sh*t. There tends to be a lot of, "I want to make another movie," things like that. I'm trying to figure out how to cram one and a half lifetimes into what's left of mine.
MIKE GORDON performs at College Street Music Hall in New Haven on Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $30. collegestreetmusichall.com.