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Published: 2003/08/29
by Benjy Eisen

Going OUT on an IN with Mike Gordon

Mike Gordon has cause for celebration. Today, August 26, is the release of his first solo album, Inside In, and it's a day that he's been looking forward to for years. "Today's the day!" he says proudly, from inside his Cactus Unlimited headquarters. "It's pretty exciting."

Four years in the making, Inside In is the complementary companion piece to his film, Outside Out. Not quite a soundtrack, yet thematically related, Gordon describes the music as "spacey, funky, white folk."

Like all good musicians who are honest, Gordon talks in the same way in which he plays music. That is to say he goes out on tangents and limbs, sometimes to the point of being maniacal, and he jumps from one thought to another and then back again the way that Phish sometimes sandwiches and segues songs. But while his bass playing makes excellent use of space, in conversation he can sometimes talk a mile a minute. This is good, because there are a lot of things to talk about and not enough time to talk about them all. After we get off the phone, Gordon is headed out to dinner with his record company, Ropeadope, for what he is calling a "low-key celebration" in honor of the album's release.

Ropeadope doesn't usually put out albums by rock stars. They've built a solid reputation as a jazz-groove and avant-garde label, whose flagship artists include Charlie Hunter, the Word, and DJ Logic, and when Mike Gordon originally approached them about releasing his solo album, label president Andy Hurwitz reportedly didn't even know who he was. A lot has changed since then. Gordon, who through Phish is under contract with Elektra, was in constant collaborative talks with Ropeadope in the months leading up to Inside In's release.

"I've been feeling like it's an adventure more than an album release," says Gordon. And indeed, from setting up a hotline, to creating a web-video, to plans for an interactive gallery installation, Inside In is, on all counts, more of an adventure than an album. Its cushiony textures recall the lucid dreams that Gordon has famously pursued, and its playful lyricism makes the album fun to listen to.

Recorded half in his home studio in Vermont, and half in his home studio in New York, Gordon says that Inside In gives him a "purple-y feeling, even though the cover is orange-y."

I respond that the album reminds me of mayonnaise, to which he immediately shoots back, "Prune mayonnaise broth." It is just this sort of humor that has made him one of the quirkiest superstars in rock music today, and which propels Inside In both emotionally and thematically.

The songs on Inside In developed out of a movie soundtrack. Can you talk about that connection?

That was helpful because they say that art exists within limitations. And that's kind of exactly what my songwriting needed, was an anchor. It meant that I wasn't going to think of where the songs would come from, because I always knew that they would come from somewhere in the movie. Now, that could be an abstract or indirect relationship. Like I might be describing one of the characters, sort of, or one of the situations in the movie. The movie itself is abstract enough so that there's a lot of openness, in terms of the way that I drew from the movie.

For example, "Soul Food Man" is about Bruce Hampton, and every line in the song is true about Bruce Hampton's life. So it's not really a character in the movie, except that Bruce is a character in the movie. And Bruce more or less plays himself. So then it is kind of related. Or "Couch Lady" is about the lady on the couch in the movie, where there's an advertisement for the Outstructional video. And you hear her saying that she started taking lessons in 1926 or something and she's been taking lessons ever since from Bruce Hampton and the total amount of time has been six seconds or something like that. So the song is kind of about her and imagining her as the person learning and kind of soaring to the moon and what not from what she's learning from Bruce Hampton. But none of that really happened in the movie. It just sort of was implied. It's all kind of like that, just inside and outside concepts, being riffed on, being indirectly related to the movie.

I don’t know if you did it for this project or for Phish, but you rented an office in downtown Manhattan for the purpose of disciplined songwriting, right?

Yeah. Not really so much for this project, but I was trying to find a 50-foot space and I couldn't find anything that small. I ended up finding some space in the Woolworth building, which was the tallest building in the world back in 1920. The songs on this album were conceived in and around my studios rather than doing writing in remote locations like that.

When I think of songwriting, I don’t really think of it as a discipline where it’s a nine-to-five job requiring an office, so much as a when-the-inspiration-hits kind of thing.

I just read an interesting book called Written in my Soul which Warren Haynes lent me. It's out of print I think, so it's kind of hard to find, but all of these top rock n' roll and folk songwriters talk about their craft. And sometimes it almost is more like nine-to-five. People go half and half. Some only work when the inspiration hits but usually, like any craft, you have to do it a lot and you have to do it regularly. So just waiting around for the inspiration to hit might not always work. You might have to do exercises like carrying around a notebook or writing down ideas or finding more specific ways to get ideas and then ways to patch them out. For me, I still don't feel like I've done quite enough songwriting to say I understand how I do it. I'm getting there but…but I do know that when I'm recording it helps because I get caught up enough in the gadgetry of the studio and the process of recording that I can't dwell. I can't get too caught up in over-thinking the lyrics. I like it when it's all part of a process rather than being in an empty room with a blank piece of paper.

Do you have a rhyming dictionary?

I do have a rhyming dictionary.

Do you use it?

I don't often grab it, but sometimes I do I have, sometimes. There are other similar books. Trey [Anastasio] had this book called the Dictionary of Clichand that's how "AC/DC Bag" was written.

I was never sure if that was true or a rumor.

That's true, yeah. And I have one of those too, and I have a dictionary of obscure words. It's not really a dictionary it's more of just an old-fashioned book of some obscure words. And a few other books like that. And then there's always the thesaurus. But I guess, yeah, the rhyming dictionary is what really gets to be useful in songwriting. That's true.

A friend of mine and I were going to try to compile a book like one of those, of all the words that sounded funny, but then we realized that every word can sound funny at different times.

I have the same sort of problem in that I like to come up with funny alias names for hotel rooms, or for people in my stories. And then, no matter how hard I try, there're always people I run into in real life that have funnier names.

Let’s talk about the musical side of writing these songs. I interviewed Russ Lawton shortly after he spent some time in the studio with you, and he told me a little bit about the experience. Given some of the other musicians on the album, were any of these songs collaborative?

It was pretty much all me. Everything I learned about band leading I probably learned from Trey, and I have done little of it myself, but it's important to draw people out and encourage them to do what they do best. And I know Trey's worked with Russ in that way a lot. Originally when his band was just a trio, he told Russ and Tony [Markellis], "You know, just do what you do best, make up some grooves that the two of you like together." And then he wrote songs around them. That way, you're maximizing the potential of the person, and sometimes it's cool to push people in directions they haven't been in but you want to let people shine. So anyway, I did a similar thing where I had some melodies in mind, I don't know from where, but there are a couple melodies that cycle through the film over and over again in the background. I would have Russ get a groove going, or we would get a groove going, and then we would try it in lots of different ways the same chord progressions and melodies. So one version might be funky, another one might be kind of jazzy, one might be a swing version, and a straight version, and a slow and a fast, just to see what felt right. Actually, an example of that is the tune that's called "Major Minor," which is just a jam. That's the only one that's a completely undoctored jam. There might be an edit in it but there's no overdubbing (or "underdubbing" whatever people do). Anyway, that jam was sort of just a jam to loosen up and get ready to play that song "He Taught Me How to Play Guitar," which is called "The Teacher" now.

That’s actually my favorite song on the album.

Oh really? That's cool. Good to hear. I didn't know if anyone would ever like that song, because it's such a bizarre nursery rhymish kind of thing. We tried that with some different feels and different grooves and some of them were used in the movie, in the background, during other scenes. There was one scene in the movie where Rick, the character, just sings that song. In the movie, I replaced his voice with mine, which took seven days at 14 hours a day and was just really awkward partly because my voice wasn't trained well enough to do what I wanted. I didn't want it sound like me; I wanted it to be neutral enough that you wouldn't know that it was a voiceover. Then I totally redid it again for the album because I was lip-syncing so it had to be phrased in a way that would move with his lips. But that "Major Minor" is just a jam to get ready. At the end of it, you start to hear it go through that chord progression for the "Teacher" song. It just goes through it one time or something. It was probably edited down. Anyway, the point being, I was just trying to encourage people to get comfortable with what they do. But in terms of the chord progressions and the melodies and the songwriting and that sort of thing, I guess that all came from me and from different experiments. It was all pretty simple. I think it was a big exercise for me in learning to use simple melodies and simple music and still find ways to make it sound unique.

On that note, do you think that you would ever record an album like this ten years ago?

It's hard to know, because albums definitely represent the time period that they're in, but I probably would've lacked some of the maturity. For example, even in editing, sometimes what makes a song or what makes an album is more what you don't use. Or a bass line actually more what you don't use than what you do use. Like a sculpture, stripping down to the essence, to a core, is very important. And an example with this album: In its longest form, it was 18 songs. And then I actually made an album that was 13, and now it sort of compromised at 15. We brought back two of the five that we had cut. (We being mostly me, but also Jared [Slomoff] who works with me). It was interesting to hear the 13-song version after hearing the 18-song version. Movies it's the same way; you cut scenes even if you like them if they're not adding to the overall. That's what takes more maturity than anything even if you like something, maybe even like it better than anything else to cut it if it doesn't serve the whole. It's interesting to hear the 13-song version because I thought I would miss some of the other songs. But I didn't, and it actually had a better flow. Then I went back and I found that there were two, and I think they were two instrumental things, that I felt like I couldn't live without. So I put those two back in. But probably, if it was 10 years ago, the album would have 20 songs instead of 15 and it would be a lot less cohesive as a result.

Not to demystify something, but what’s the blue button?

Oh yeah, the blue button! I've been finding it in everything that I work on. You push it and it beeps. You can probably hear the beeps in something. Actually, there are blue button beeps in "Bone Delay," that second song, in the background. There's a lot of stuff in the background you'd never know was there.

And actually I'm working on this studio installation thing with my mother. She's going to do a hundred paintings that are actually like album covers that the album fits into but you put on the wall. And this is a tangent but it's relevant and each painting is going to have a little speaker that loops one of the sounds from the album, with a proximity sensor. So when you get near that painting you start to hear that sound looping. It might be just that blue button sound from "Bone Delay."

Then when you're in the gallery, you can almost play the space around you by moving around, and you can kind of create your own Inside In album by taking the raw looping sounds and making them into, I don't know, a mixture.

But, anyway the blue button. It came into my life on an interesting day in Seattle when I was both hypnotized for the first time ever and I was at a strange store called Archie McPhee's. This all was within the same hour. To go from Archie McPhee's to the hypnotist I jumped on the back of a pick-up truck at a red light. It was surreal. It was just the perfect day for something like the blue button to come into your life.

Have you played Inside In for any of the other guys in Phish?

Yeah, and I've gotten positive feedback. We learned at least two of the songs. Actually, we tried recording them for Round Room along with some others.

Which songs?

"Couch Lady" and "Gatekeeper." And we blew it off. We blew it off, including those. And then we were going to learn them for the February tour and then we ended up blowing that off too. Maybe because I don't write a lot of songs for the band it really takes writing a lot to be confident about having a couple that sound good. Trey writes 10 songs for every one that he uses. If the band doesn't decide to keep working on a song, from the other three [members], then it's not always likely that I'm going to say "Can we work on my song?" Unless I'm just so into it that I feel confident it will be good. Otherwise I'm just not really into the promotional side.

There're a lot of dynamics in band practice like that. Like a "Let's work on my song" sort of thing. Reading about other bands, I find similar stuff. There's dynamics…but anyway, what was I going to say? There were other times, like I remember being on a plane and playing [these songs] for Trey, because he wanted to hear them. I got a lot of good positive feedback and that meant a lot actually. They were very supportive. They said, "This sounds great, Mike!" I produced the album myself, so I think they were kind of impressed by that too.

What are your thoughts on Phish’s summer tour?

Oh, I loved it. Actually, it was my first tour ever where I did not have a favorite gig because I liked them all. There were parts of certain ones that probably didn't feel as good as other ones, but it was very consistent for me. In twenty years I've never had that happen. Usually I can point to one. On the February tour I definitely liked Worcester the best, and then there were a couple others. My personal opinion, anyway. And then, on this tour, that didn't happen because I liked at least certain parts of all of them. So that made it a really good tour. Yeah. And it just felt like we were going to really deep places. A lot of the songs that were the songs that didn't vary were suddenly varying and that felt very open and free and that was a good feeling. I have no complaints about the tour.

So then, even though you just released a solo album, and you’re obviously psyched about it, would you say that Phish is still a priority in terms of everyone’s commitment?

Oh yeah. Yeah. We keep brewing with ideas. People still have their solo projects going, and we're just trying to find a balance and that sort of thing. But everyone's excited about Phish. It can be strange to go back and forth a little bit. For example, I'm going from a situation where I'm the bandleader because we're looking at doing this [Inside In] tour, which will just be a couple weeks long and then going back to working with Phish, where I'm probably the least vocal in terms of the creative process in band meetings and what not.

That's not to say that I don't feel like a quarter of the band at least, because I do. And on stage especially I very much feel like as much a part of the band as anyone else or more but when I'm at home…When Trey's at home working, if he has the choice, he's often working on stuff for Phish. And I would like to do more of that, but if I'm at home working, and preparing stuff and creative ideas, I'm usually preparing ideas for other projects, just knowing that there's so much creative energy already going into Phish. And from time to time I try to change that. I would love to have a songwriting month, or whatever it is, where I'm just thinking about Phish. But I kind of like just working on what I'm working on and then whatever band is playing…Trey probably does the same thing; he's just always writing. And then whatever band ends up being the next band that he's playing with ends up being the band that tries out that material. And in some cases he'll say, "Well, this song we did with Trey Ansastasio band but it sounded like it was more of a Phish song, so I'd like to try it with Phish," and that ends up making more sense. But again, I don't feel prolific enough to know what my own patterns are…yet.

When Phish first went on hiatus, did you go a long time without playing the bass?

Yeah…

What was the longest you went without playing it?

Hmm. 2000 is when we stopped playing, so 2001 I spent the whole year making a movie. Now within that year I had some jam sessions, but not a lot. I probably didn't touch the bass for like, hmm, well…I wasn't practicing regularly. Most of the time I'm not practicing regularly, but I should more. In terms of actually not touching the bass? I don't think I would've gone more than a few weeks, but it could've been a few weeks.

I assume that when Phish got back together you had to practice and relearn a lot of the tunes?

Yeah. I got back into musical stuff with Leo Kottke, because my whole 2002 was spent with that; first with writing and then recording and then touring. That was all musical stuff. And then, like you said, when the band got back together…well, first we were working on new stuff only. It was only in December, right before the New Year's tour, that any of us had time to think about the old songs. I actually was in a hotel room and just spent some long hours with Phish CDs. And eventually we got iPods with all of the Phish songs and all of the covers we ever did on the iPod. But I was using the CDs and playing along, and in some cases I had the written music. We made a list of songs we thought we would play, maybe a "half the repertoire not the other half" sort of thing. I went through that list, and it did help a lot. There's already stuff that I'm forgetting again, especially the written-out sections of music. I tend to remember the rhythms but not necessarily the finger positions or the note values.

I heard that on your hotline a lot of kids left messages this summer that were like, "Play Camel Walk!" or "Dude, can you play Destiny Unbound for my birthday show?" What’s your thought on comments like that?

I feel so distant from the whole subject of what songs to play because I'm not usually the one who picks the songs. If it's anyone it's maybe Trey, or someone else…

Except when it comes to denying "Fluffhead" at IT…

That was actually not true. What happened is Trey came up to me and said, "You know, they want to hear Fluffhead.'" And I said, "Let's just play it, even though we don't know it." It's actually for being a sort-of funny song or whatever one of the hardest ones because of how many sections it has. So we never relearned it. I said, "Let's play it anyway. Let's just play it and just stumble through the sections." And then he went up to the microphone and he said, "Mike doesn't want to play it." So that's exactly what happened there. People did ask about that too, on the hotline, and I haven't gotten around to telling them.

If Phish hadn’t gotten back together what would you be doing now? Do you think you’d be doing more for this album?

I think I've probably done as much as I could for this album. And now I'm going to be thinking about the tour. We don't even have the whole band lined up, but we're thinking about two weeks in October for the tour, and then one week of rehearsal before then. So I will be spending a lot of my time on that anyway. And I'm not really hanging out with [Phish] right now anyway, although we're just sort of loosely talking about ideas. I might record something Trey has this experiment going when I'm up in Vermont on Friday. But I'm not even in Vermont right now; I'm mostly in New York. I go back and forth a bit. Eventually I'll be back in Vermont all the time. Anyway, being back from the hiatus, we're sort of getting our feet wet, slowly, in terms of doing it.

If we hadn't gotten back together, I think I probably would've thought more seriously about putting together a band in the way that Trey did. I mean, not in the same way, but a band where I'm more of a bandleader maybe. Or just some other situations. Or maybe I'd just be spending more time on the Leo Kottke thing, which I definitely want to pursue more, and other projects. I've done a little bit of dabbling here and there with ideas of people to play with and kinds of music to work on writing. I would be doing a lot more of that, and I intend to, but it's really hard to prioritize yourself when you're self-employed and an artist and you have many different kinds of creative outlets and you have to kind of limit yourself and that's what I'm trying to do constantly.

Does Phish have any plans that are concrete? You said that you’ve been bouncing around ideas does Phish have any concrete plans for Halloween or New Year’s Eve?

Neither of those. There's the thought that we might play at the end of the year…or we might wait till next year. And we'd like to do some recording too, but that's probably not going to be this year and that's not concrete either. So nothing is concrete right now.

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