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Published: 2002/10/23
by Jeff Waful

Mike Gordon: Sculpting the Big Blob

Phish bassist Mike Gordon is no stranger to the readers of During the band’s hiatus, Gordon has been quite busy working on Rising Low, a film which documents the making of Gov’t Mule’s Deep End albums. He has also been collaborating with one of his musical heroes, guitarist Leo Kottke. The duo will tour next month in support of its new album Clone. Mike spoke to about all of his current projects.

JW: You first came in contact with Leo Kottke when you gave him a tape of his song “The Driving of the Year Nail” after adding your own bass line to it. That’s sort of a weird concept since he’s such a solo artist in the true sense of the term.

MG: Yeah. I just got inspired. I never thought that he needed any accompaniment when I saw him play. I just had this sudden feeling so I added a part that was kind of a duet part more than a bass line and he ended up liking it.

JW: He then eventually called you and you got together at Trey’s barn and started jamming. What was that first day playing together like?

MG: Well I could tell that we were thinking in similar ways, just the way that the lines on the guitar and the bass were moving. I was trying to go with it, but for a while it didn’t really click. It was like a non-clicking jam, I thought for a couple hours. We had these different ideas, either chord progressions or he would ask me to play along with this song or that song, but the complicated aspects of our playing were not gelling yet. And then we had dinner and we played again. After dinner, this little pattern kind of emerged. We honed it down to this one little rhythmic pattern, which became the song, “June.” We just played that for a long time, which just was a really good feeling. So it was kind of that feeling, playing that one little rhythmic pattern, with the bass sort of juxtaposing with the guitar a little bit that made us feel like oh shit, we gotta do this more a lot’ because it was such a good feeling. So it kind of stemmed from that. There is a lesson to be learned there probably, that after the first couple hours of jamming if nothing is happening, don’t necessary give up on the relationship or the situation.

JW: Just have dinner.

MG: Just have dinner, yeah exactly.

JW: Then you went and wrote fifty or so songs. It seems like you were quite inspired.

MG: Yeah, it was just where I was at in my life. After making Rising Low, which is a movie about music, I wanted to just make music rather than talking about it for a while. The schedule worked out right so that I had some time and I was in Manhattan and I got an office in the Woolworth building, which is a pretty spectacular building; a cheap, tiny little office. I went every day and tried to write a song a day. Sometimes they were just little pieces of songs, but there was enough stuff so that a few things came out that were usable.

JW: Now was this the first time in a while that you had written that much material?

MG: Ever. It was definitely the first time I wrote music on a regular basis. I’ve done it from time to time, but never like that.

JW: It seems that every artist has a different creative process. What’s your method?

MG: I’d have to say I’m still figuring it out. I did write some material for my Outside Out film, which is what I’m going down to mix tonight and for the next 10 days. That album is going to be called Inside In. I’m real happy with that. I’ve had a couple different processes. In this case, I had a drum machine and I just wanted to be using my bass and not other instruments. So I had the drum machine, the bass and a microphone. I had some piles of lyrics from my friend Joe and some of my own sort of ideas. Or I’d be walking down the street and something would just come to me and I’d say, Oh, today it’ll be a song about this.’

Originally I was going to the office for two hours a day and by the end it was one hour at the most. Really I wanted to get regular about it, rather than trying to do it in long hours to see what would come out. I was using a little hard disc recorder that has little drum pads built in so you can make your own drum beats. The same little machine will burn discs, so I was using that.

But I’ve had some different processes. Like when I was writing the song “Mound” years ago and it had intricate sections. That was sitting with a keyboard figuring out passages in an intricate kind of way with music paper. When I did the stuff for the Inside In album, I had a bunch of different instruments and I had a band and actually a lot of stuff was written from bass and drum jams where me and a drummer would just play and later I would write a song to that. So I edited the jams into songs. I guess my answer is that I’m trying different methods. Warren [Haynes] actually has a book. You should tell him I want that book. It’s about different writers and how they write and it’s supposed be to an interesting book.

JW: So with this wealth of songs, I know only a handful wound up on Clone, what’s going on with the rest of the material?

MG: There’s a couple that the band’s been toying around with.

JW: Phish.

MG: Yeah. There is a couple from that batch and a couple from Inside In that Phish is toying with too. I don’t know. We might not play any of them as far as I know. We’re just experimenting.

JW: So you brought the tapes to the band and they went through them?

MG: Actually we didn’t even have time to go through all of them. I just sort of weeded down to a few that I thought might be appropriate. Some are just idea fragments. In terms of whole songs, there’re a couple that nothing’s being done with right now. Who knows? I don’t know what will happen; they’ll just be there in case I need a song. It’s kind of nice to have a little well to draw upon. I’d like to do it again. I think now that I’ve done the bass thing with a tape recorder this year, I want to have a guitar and a keyboard around and not necessarily do all the writing on the bass.

JW: Most people would agree that thinking is a bad thing in improvisation. Was it hard for you to define your role when you first started collaborating with Leo? I mean his last album was called One Guitar, No Vocals

MG: [laughs] It should have been called One Guitar, No Bass Player

JW: [laughs] Right. Was there any sort of self-conscious, I’m not worthy’ type of feeling?

MG: Yeah, sometimes. When he’s sitting around the house and he picks up a guitar, you suddenly realize, Oh yeah, a master world-class guitar player is sitting here’ so it can be a little intimidating. But, we sort of gel. We just think alike. It’s just apparent.

JW: It seems like you have very compatible personalities.

MG: Yeah, that’s what it stems from. We’re figuring it out now more than before. There were times when he would play something and I wouldn’t knowIt’s tricky because a standard bass line tends to make his stuff sound a little bit clichIt defines it too much. On the other hand, I can’t really get too complicated and I’m not going to be quite as complicated as he is. So to figure out what to do is hard, but there’s where the not thinking’ comes in because as soon as I not think’ we just kind of get into this flow of notes and scales. He doesn’t even use musical vocabulary to talk about it. Like, you couldn’t ask him to play an augmented chord or the third note of the scale or a certain time signature. He just does it.

JW: Does he not really have that technical knowledge?

MG: Well he does, but he just can’t express it in words. He has it inherently.

JW: Like Hendrix.

MG: Yeah.

JW: Leo said he was blown away by the power of improvisation after playing with you. You have obviously been influenced by him over the years, but it seems like he was really turned on to the art of improvisation through you.

MG: Yeah. Well it’s interesting. In getting ready to go on tour, we’ve been talking about extending the songs and whatnot. So I started to explain to him how [with Phish] we just go on stage and don’t know what we’re going to do and hope that we’ll go on a journey with it. He really liked that concept, but he was curious about it. He called me up from [his solo] tour and he said, You know, I tried that improvising thing’ and he improvises anyway, he’s being a little modest about it because he’s got a really playful attitude with his instrument. But still, he tried it even more, taking a song that he would normally play and it would be a certain way and just really extending it for a while. I can’t remember what song it was, but he said he tried that and the crowd really reacted well. So he called me back and said, What happens if you just fall on your face?’ And I said, Oh, well good question, but that’s all just part of taking the risk and jam band fans are very appreciative of people going out on a limb and they realize that sometimes it’s not gonna sound good and other times it is. That’s why they go on tour because they know that it’s going to be different from night to night and that there’s going to be risk-taking and that’s where the beauty is.’ So Leo said, Oh! Now I’m starting to get it.’ So, it’s kind of cool to expose him to a different world, where clearly he’s exposing me to some intense musicality.

JW: What was the actual recording process like? I mean, this is your first time collaborating with someone outside of Phish. Did you learn different things about yourself? Did you have a new role in the studio?

MG: Yeah, well I had more of a leadership role. With Phish, Trey is a clear leader. Although it feels pretty democratic a lot of the time, where we’re all sort of contributing in different ways. But, when there’re four people there’s a lot of extra creative energy to go around. With two people, both people have toYou know it’s kind like when Jeff Holdsworth left Phish fifteen years ago and there were five people in the band for a year and then there were only four. There was a huge difference in jamming where there suddenly is another 20% of the sound to fill out. I felt I had to play more notes as a bass player at the time. It’s kind of like that with the recording process too. When there’s two people, both people have to do a lot and that’s kind of nice and we have mutual respect for each other so we both contribute to the ideas of what should be done, what we should work on or whose music we should start with. It’s pretty split. It’s almost half and half in terms of who brought the songs to the situation. So yeah, it gave me a chance to be very active, very pro-active in the situation.

JW: Looking ahead to the tour, you guys have obviously been talking about doing some more improvisation.

MG: Yeah I really like the idea. We jam well together I think. It’s pretty impressive considering the fact that he says that he hasn’t really done a lot of jamming. He’s real good at it. We just blend together nicely. So yeah, I really like the idea that stuff would kind of get extended out. I tend to like things well maybe anyone on this website would but when it’s not exactly like the album, except sometimes it’s ok. But generally, I like it when stuff takes a new form on the stage.

JW: Do you think you’ll play other material that isn’t on the album, like for example “The Driving of the Year Nail”?

MG: Actually, I’m glad you reminded me. I should make sure that’s still on the list because that would be cool. That sounds good. [Leo] got a little sick of it because it’s old. There are a whole bunch of his songs that I learned or know well enough even without having to learn from seeing him play so many times and maybe a couple of mine and then a bunch of covers. So we’re gonna draw from all differentWe have one more three day session before we actually go on tour. Actually, a three days session of practicing and then another couple days right before the tour. We’re just gonna work up these covers and some of them are really good. I mean, he’s got such a unique way of playing these songs. Even if it’s some cover that he’s never played before, it always comes out sounding immediately like him and not like the original version.

JW: Isn’t he working on a version of “Weigh”?

MG: Yeah, we started working on it and I forgot how many different sections there were, so I don’t know if we’ll have time to actually nail it down if we want to do it with all its sections, but that would fit.

JW: Let’s talk about Rising Low. You tackled three themes in there and one of them was trying to define the role of a bass player. Did you come to any conclusions or is it an ongoing quest?

MG: [long silence] Well, it is an ongoing quest. In terms of the role of the bass player, there was one thing that I learned that I already might have known, but it really got driven home by watching all of my bass heroes in the studio. It’s amazing how much restraint they used to serve the song and not overplay; not to show everything they could do at every minute or ever in the song, just to do what’s necessary for the song and thus have the experience be deeper. So that was something that I learned that I didn’t really express in the film so much.

But in the film, I was talking about the essence of bass and what attracts people to it and how it works and how it moves people. I think what I was trying to ask was a question that would transcend bass itself. As an artist in any field, what does it take to really get great at what you do? The reason I thought I could ask that question is because I had so many great, top notch players in the field. There were some noticeable absentees, but there was a really great cross-section of the most well-respected bass players. So I asked them that question and I tried notice what they were doing and that’s where I came up with sort of a three-way theory. The three levels I came up with are: 1) that the first step of greatness is being inspired by a lot of what’s already been there or what’s out in the world, a wide variety of influences; 2) to transcend those influences and develop your own voice and express your own voice through your craft and your instrument and 3) to forget your own voice, transcend that and kind of go back to the universal, but letting it flow in a more deeper, almost spiritual way; just to tap into the moment and whatever is already. So those were the three levels that I was sort of seeing these great bass players float between or show indications of. I guess I’m thinking in threes right now. The film itself does have three themes and one of them is the life of Allen Woody, one of them is the making of this album with all these bass players and the third is my quest.

JW: And it sort of goes back to the underlying theme of Outside Out, where you want to take all of this in, but then when you’re playing not think about any of it. It’s a weird dichotomy.

MG: Yeah, it was interesting with Outside Out because these ideas were being talked about in the movie that are almost clichnd almost interesting and sort of cool to think about, but the questions being raised weren’t being answered so clearly. We had some test screenings for Outside Out and people said, I know what you’re getting at, but what do you conclude from this?’ You have to sort of interpret for yourself I guess. For example, in Outside Out, it’s about playing out and in Rising Low it’s about having a unique voice on the instrument, but in either of those cases, you wouldn’t want to be weird for the sake of being weird; just to show how weird you can be if that’s not really true to yourself.

Even in making the soundtrack to Outside Out, [Col.] Bruce [Hampton] and I both had this gut feeling that it shouldn’t be that far out, but it should be pretty rooted sounding. So yeah, I guess it’s this balancing act that keeps going. Even at band practice with Phish, there’s the question of Should I be playing a bass line that’s what anyone else would play to this song, but sounds best or should I try to make it unique to what I do? Or how do I get at what’s unique to the situation and true to the moment?’ It’s a pretty difficult question and someone just last week at band practice was quoting Carlos Santana who said It takes a long time to play like yourself.’

JW: You said you concluded in Rising Low that a lot of these bassists played sparsely and didn’t play a lot of unneeded notes. Is that something that you think you were guilty of at times?

MG: Yeah. Well, when we were getting ready to play at Big Cypress, when we were already down there, someone had an old Phish tape or two. Maybe it was because there were archival tapes for the radio station floating around. So we listened to them and it was really interesting to hear because it was pretty old, like ’86 or something, and we were playing a lot of notes then. We all were playing a lot of notes, and that wasn’t just ’86 that was probably for years after that and it was only in the last few years that we learned how to play less notes. But it wasn’t a bad thing, it was a good thing. Then we ended up playing a set or two at Big Cypress, sort of inspired by hearing that old tape. I wasn’t worried about always playing fewer notes.

JW: Do you remember what set specifically?

MG: No, but there were certain songs though on that tape that we hadn’t played in like fifteen years. I can’t remember now.

JW: “Light Up or Leave Me Alone”? [Last played on 7/25/88]

MG: Yeah, that’s a good example. On the tape we’re just playing all these notes. On the commentary track to the Rising Low DVD, I talk about thinking about bass playing as a sculpture. When you start out, you just have a big blob. You play all of the things that you know: all the scales and the riffs and you just kind of pile it in there. Over the years, you learn what to take away and to leave only what’s really deepor at least you get better at it. It doesn’t always mean playing a few notes. It could mean sometimes having a whole flurry of notes or whatever, but really carving it down to the true essence and taking away the fluff. Then what you get is more of a sculpture rather than a big blob of clay or whatever. I always thought about Jimmy Herring with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. When he played with ARU, he would play tons of notes and in some ways he was the first guitar player that I saw do that it where it didn’t bother me. I don’t know who I would compare it to, like Al Di Meola or someone.

JW: With Jimmy Herring it’s almost like a Monet painting. There’re a million notes, but they create an overall flow.

MG: Yeah, exactly. What was interesting was when I first saw him playing with Phil & Friends, I hadn’t seen him for a while and then I went to see him play. It was amazing how he had stripped that down and I sort of missed the old Jimmy where there was just sort of this reckless abandon. Actually, there’s a scene in Outside Out I’m blending all my projects together in one paragraph right at the end, he’s going back to the admissions office and there’s this guitar playing. That’s Jimmy Herring and it’s sort of this wild flurry of notes. So he can do that. It almost seems like he does it for the right reasons. It’s not to show off or as a technical exercise, but it’s cause there’re just storms coming out of him. I would just assume have him continue to have that storm coming and not strip it down to the same few blues notes that another guitar player would play. So I don’t know. It’s a little tricky. The carving of the sculpture theory doesn’t always work in terms of quantity of notes, but maybe as I was saying, in terms of figuring out where the essence is.

JW: That’s interesting to hear you say that because in [the Phish DVD] Bittersweet Motel you’re kind of ribbing Trey about playing too many notes, so I guess it’s all in the context of the overall sound.

MG: Oh yeah. I guess it just depends, but it is a lesson to learn along the way, to be able to play fewer notes, especially in big rooms where it’s echo-y and each note takes a second and a half to bounce back. Sparseness can be a pretty powerful tool.

JW: Well, let’s talk about something that wasn’t exactly sparse, but what were your thoughts on taking part in the dual stage jam at the Jammys?

MG: I thought that was pretty cool actually. I kind of liked it. I had never done that before. I asked Bob Weir if he had and he said, Oh yeah, at the old Acid Tests they had a band at the other end of the room that often was mixed pretty loud.’ It was pretty cool because it was so loud, but it was all coming out of the front-of-house speakers so it was kind of like being just another person in the audience, but happening to have a bass amp and a bass and getting to jam along. So that’s pretty wild. I liked it.

JW: Almost like a lucid dream.

MG: Yeah, it was kind of like that in a way.

JW: Looking over and seeing the people you’re playing with across the room

MG: It was somewhat similar to looking over at Leo and doing my second gig ever with him and knowing that he’s been my guitar hero. It was like having a particularly good audience seat, which happens to be next to him with a bass strapped on.

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