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Published: 2005/10/13

Mike Gordon: Access Me

Mike Gordon has spent the past twenty-two years in the public eye. In that time, he’s grown remarkably as a musician, songwriter and onstage personality, yet, some of his biggest changes have only arrived in the past eighteen months. Since parting ways with Phish, Gordon has moved from New York, toured with downtown groove gurus The Duo, started work on a new home studio and recorded his second album with guitar legend Leo Kottke. A sharp departure from the veteran guitarist’s previous work, Gordon and Kottke’s latest collaboration found the duo expanding to a trio with the addition and percussionist Neil Symonette, best known as the house drummer at Nassau’s Compass Point Studios. As expected, the trio’s results, Sixty Six Steps, explores an exciting new calypso direction and includes an odd selection of covers ranging from Aerosmith to Fleetwood Mac. More recently, Gordon and Kottke have also embarked on an extended tour, which will take the paired performers to clubs, bars and festivals across the country. After a busy night in San Francisco, which saw Gordon perform a 90-minute set with Kottke at The Fillmore, and join The Duo for a handful of songs across town at The Independent, polled the busy bassist on his current outing with Kottke, his forthcoming solo project and life in general since Phish’s final gig.

You’ve been known to keep well-detailed journals while on the road. Have you written extensively about any particular gig from your current tour?

Well, I’ve kept journal entries only when I am inspired to. If a show is just mediocre, I tend not to jot anything down. But, I do have some notes, which are building up from this tour—-there have been some incredible moments. It’s the first time I have been out on the road for a month since Phish. In L.A., we changed our setup around on stage and it really made for an incredible gig. We don’t have any amplifiers or monitors onstage, which is radical for me. It makes the sound very sensitive, so even when we were sitting a few feet apart, I couldn’t hear Leo’s guitar so well. So, we decided that we’d stand up—-which we were doing half the time anyway—-and that we’d stand about eleven feet away from each other, partly facing the crowd and partly facing each other.

What would happen is that we would have these incredible jams in the hotel room, but onstage it wasn’t really as incredible. It came down to how we were hearing each other. We had some long talks about that during the day in LA, and we decided that we’d switch it up and it worked out really great.

In both Phish and your own solo band you made a point to change your setlists on a nightly basis. But, for the most part, with Leo, you focus on the same selection of songs. Has this changed your performance approach?

That’s an interesting question. There are some things about Leo’s background that I’ve been catering to because he’s been doing it for so long. He does mix up the setlist a bit, but not a lot. We change the song order from night to night and rotate certain songs, but a lot of the set is based on songs we are doing most nights. I think it’s not just important to change the setlist for fun, but it’s important for variety, and, for me, it’s an unspoken rule that’s being broken. It’s actually one of a few that we’re breaking this tour. But, on the other hand, something really cool happens. The same songs are evolving in subtle, but big, ways from night to night. They get tighter for one thing and I’m not playing the same notes from night to night. I’m finding new things to do in the same songs in a way that I couldn’t if we weren’t playing the same songs from night to night. I’m able to go deeper with those songs, so that’s sort of been cooler than I’d expected. We also have some songs from the new album that we’ve rehearsed that I’d like to be playing, but Leo would rather play our more familiar songs. But, again, I am kind of glad about that because it means that we can really be confident and soar with it.

What other unspoken’ rules have you broken this tour?

Well, with Phish, we tended to do some extended jams—-well, a lot of extended jams [laughs]—-though there were phases when we didn’t do so many. With Leo, we don’t do so many extended jams, though we could do them. We have in the past—-our hotel jams can go on and on and for me it doesn’t really get boring. But, there are parts of songs that really feel like the kind of jams we would do with Phish, but only shorter. What happens in that shorter amount of time, for me, is really intense. That happened a couple of times last night [at San Francisco’s The Fillmore] early on in the set. It was almost like a funk jam, but it was only 32 bars or something, as apposed to twenty minutes. It was so free during those 32 bars. So, I guess that would be the second rule: less extended jamming.

The third rule would be the overall length of time for the set. We are doing one 90-minute set, which works out really well, but, some people expect longer and we are playing early. Phish played early too in the end, but that’s because we were in arenas or whatever, but Leo and I are playing early in bars—-we are playing from 8-9:30. Some people have tickets and they show up at 10 [laughs]. It’s not really a rule, it’s more of an expectation, but that’s the fourth rule.

Okay, the fifth rule [laughs]. I always recommend that people go to see Leo by himself because he is so entertaining as a solo performer. When he is by himself, he tells these really long funny stories—-that’s half the appeal, these morbid stories. When he is with me, he tells some stories, but not as many. Last night was perfect. He told some stories, but not that many. I have a theory that if people are standing up he should tell shorter stories and if they are sitting down he should tell longer stories. But all the talking is something that is very different from the Phish world. But, people are appreciating it. When he is on, Leo’s stories are really fresh and he’s telling stories I’ve never even heard before.

Have you worked on your own stage banter at all?

Yup, a little bit [laughs]. I can be funny sometimes, but I’ve turned into the wing man, throwing in a jab here or there. I’m like Andy was on Conan O’Brien or Ed McMahon

Over the summer you toured as a trio with Leo and percussionist Neil Symonette? Why did you revert back to the duo format?

Well, Leo’s ears are very sensitive [due to a freak childhood firecracker accident and a stint in the Naval reserves]. Its not really the volume of the drums because he had earplugs in and we limited Neil to using percussion. It was more of the idea that it made it into a busier, bigger thing to contend with. We had some great gigs as a trio, but at this point, we’re finding that its more intimate to play just the two of us. There is something really special about a duo, though Neil was really great on the album. We did an Downbeat interview recently and the interviewer said something I really liked: “well with one person you can do whatever you want, and with a band you can sort of fall back on each other, but with two people you sort of have to bounce off each other.”

On Clone you and Leo co-wrote several songs together. But on Sixty Six Steps you are credited individually. Why shift your songwriting approach?

Well, we worked on a bunch of arrangements together, though, we credited each other separately. Leo always comes up with his own parts pretty much.

Was most of the material on Sixty Sixty Steps intended specifically for this album then?

Well, there is sort of a whole variety of songs. There are some songs we had actually played together before and there are some covers. I went through this phase where in ’03 where I went down and recorded bass and drum jams with Neil at the same studio we eventually recorded Sixty Six Steps at. Then I went home and wrote songs from them. I probably have about 40 songs from that session. It was actually more in ’04 that I wrote the songs, once in the spring and one in the fall. They were all calypso sounding, but they varied in terms of how close to the traditional form they came out. Then, I brought all of those songs to Leo and we picked 3 or 4 of them to use on the album. Actually, the song “Access Me,” which we used in Phish, was from the same batch and intended for use with Leo. On the album “Invisible,” “Over the Dam,” “The Grid” and “The Stolen Quiet” were all from those sessions.

Since the mid-1990s you have collaborated with lyricist Joe Linitz [his name first appeared next to “Train Song” on Billy Breathes in 1996]. Can you shed some light on how your songwriting partnership has evolved over the years?

Well, he sends me stuff, but it’s not in song form. That’s always the way it’s been. Half of the songs I wrote from those demos were just me, and half of the songs stemmed from Joe’s stuff. But, more than ever, I took little bits of Joe’s work, a line or even just an image from some line he had written. With Leo, I’m playing the song “Foundation,” which we recorded, but ended up not making the album. It’s pretty much Joe’s lyrics right up until the middle of the song and all me from the second half. But, there are some songs when I’ll just read his prose and a line will trigger an image and I’ll write a song from that. He will usually send packets of stuff. We haven’t done as much writing in the room together as Trey and Tom, but we have tried some. On Clone I used some of his lyrics untouched.

On your album Inside In, you wrote most of your own lyrics. Later, you applied one of that album’s tracks, “The Beltless Buckler,” to your repertoire with The Duo. Even though it seems to boast some of your most abstract lyrics, it does deal with something I’ve heard you mention often in interviews, that your belt buckle scratches your bass when you play.

Well, in terms of the music, I knew I wanted to have that sort of Western theme. It’s kind of my own character’s theme in the movie Outside Out. When I dress up as the cowboy/musician that is the music you hear. It’s supposed to kind of make fun of itself, so the melody is very simple. The lyrics came from this one shot in which I stand up and I have a belt buckle on, but no belt. We were putting the scene together really quickly and we had a belt buckle but no belt so we just taped it on. So, it seemed the perfect thing to do [laughs].

I like that the melody is so simple and recognizable. I almost feel like I must have copied it from someone without knowing. Maybe I have and there is another song with that melody. The Duo have a lot of nice melodies, which are melodic and simple, so it seemed to go along with their sound.

Do you plan to tour with The Duo again around the holidays?

There is some talk, but I am not sure yet. We’re not even sure what cities we’d play, so I’d give it a maybe at this point.

Some of the most surprising selections on Sixty Six Steps are its covers. Whose choice was it cover Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion?”

It stemmed from the label saying that they’ve had a lot of success getting Leo airplay from covers, but Aerosmith was all me! It all stemmed from Fleetwood Mac’s “The World Keeps Turning,” which I was rebelling against covering. I was actually rebelling against the idea of covers altogether, but eventually, I thought it would be cool. I put together a list of over fifty covers and put them on CD including “Sweet Emotion.” I suggested it to friends of mine and they said, “No way, that’s not going to be good.” So, I recorded it first by myself. On the album, Neil played percussion and it sounded great, really eerie. But, when I took it home, I thought it might not even make it on the album. It sounded noodley to me actuallylike a jamband searching, but not finding. But, when we got to mixing, it we added a synthetic drum track and it sort of anchored it down the middle. It was really difficult because we had recorded the song live and we were speeding up down the middle and then slowing down, so we had to take every bar from the drum track and then stretch it out with the music at that moment.

After so many years in Phish, did you make a conscious decision to move away from jamming?

No. The jamming concept is dear to me. But [on “Sweet Emotion”] we were noodling and it wasn’t working. You can hear bands, or certain Phish tapes, or whatever when it sounds like we are searching and not finding it. It sort of implies that the people are in their own worlds and not connecting. Just sort of going up and down scales and thinking about different things. So, that’s what it sounded like to me—-the bad side of jamming. But, once we anchored the track, I really liked it. I tend to go on this one drive in Vermont and listen to music as an outsider, really objectively, “Sweet Emotion,” sounded so perfect to me.

Speaking of Vermont, can you talk about your new recording studio?

It’s this house I’ve had for a couple of years while I had been living in New York, but I just moved in this year. I am building a studio, but it is taking way too long [laughs]. I’m redesigning the whole attic level, but, again, it is taking way too long. I want to get in there and do some writing. I have some sort of abstract ideas for an approach to writing, but it can go in any direction. All I know is that I want to be really committed to it before I start.

Are you still living in New York now or based full time in Vermont?

Full time in Vermont. My loft was up for sale, I just rented it, so that might have been a trigger in my decision to leave New York. But, also, something about Vermont resonates with my soul. I have a lot of fun in New York, and have done some great things there, but something about New York wears away at my soul [laughs]. Transitions seem to happen in groupings for me. Phish ended, we had our last concert and my cat, who was 18 years old, died a week later. Then I found out about my loft. I’ve sort of accepted that it was just a huge transition period.

What’s the current status of Phish’s 20th anniversary video? Are you still hoping for a 2005 release?

The person who is really going to finish it is Jared who works with me. He is now doing some freelancing, but he was on salary for three and a half years. He is the one who edited that together, but we can’t really work on it yet. We’re waiting for all the clearances. The problem is there are all these great shots where there is either a special guest, which is a little bit easier, or a cover song, which is a little bit harder. Especially if it’s a Beatles song. Normally, they would charge $198,000 for eight seconds. What that means is that we would have to cut the moment out. It’s tough. Like there is a great shot of Tom Marshall singing “Tommy.” It’s the only shot of Tom and its unlikely that we are going to be able to get the rights to that song, so we might not be able to get Tom in the video. So, that’s a challenge we are going to have to face. Its like a six month period of trying to acquire licenses.

After Phish’s hiatus, Page told Relix that he came back to the band with a greater respect for the responsibility of “the leadership role.” Do you find, being the leader of your own career at this point, that you are comfortable in that role?

I think it’s great for me…And I am feeling comfortable? Yeah. I never really needed to be a bandleader. It’s not necessarily my personality. It’s kind of like being in the engine room and making the ship work, but not necessarily steering. I never felt the need to really plan out where we were going to play and make these great decisions. But, now, I think its great for me. It forces me to take more initiative and I’m just really excited. Sometimes it’s nice not knowing what something is going to be like. For example, the band I am going to put together. I am not sure what type of repertoire we’d do. I think the band I put together after Inside In worked great and I think I might use some of the same musicians, but I want this to be a little different. When you don’t know how something is going to be like, I think you have this vision that can really be incredible. When it starts to be solidified, it gets more contained [laughs]. So, right now, I am really just enjoying the fantasy and coming up with an idea for writing and playing.

Is there anything you took away from your experience in Phish that you plan to apply to your upcoming project? Do you find that you’ve tried to apply many of the same creative methods, especially in terms of songwriting and rehearsal techniques?

Well, my process was always very.well I wasn’t very prolific first of all. It’s more that Trey had a process, not that I would want to copy his process. He tried a lot of different things, which is cool. He is really good at setting a specific goal for a certain time period and following through with it and each time trying something different. But, it would still be kind of fresh for me to try some of his methods. Unless, of course, I got Ernie Stires, as my composition teacher and Tom Marshall, as my lyricist. Well, actually [laughs] Tom and I have talked about doing some stuff together. But, if I was to follow in his [Trey] footsteps it would be weird.

There are different directions I could go in not being in Phish. It its hard to know what they are [pause]. I just have so much admiration for Trey’s songwriting and the songs he brought to the band. If I did anything as cool as “Split Open and Melt”, I would be really happy. But, on the other hand, it is a chance to try new directions and I am just figuring out the paths.

This is what Trey would have said too: “If you really allow yourself to create with your own voice, then it’s going to be unique. Whereas if you’re striving to copy someone you’re not allowing the moment to exist.” I think he might have heard me write a couple of songs over the years where I was trying to sound like another band or something. But, then he would hear me do something which was very Mike-ish—- maybe have a certain voice or something and say, “Oh that’s really Mike.”

It’s the same with my filmmaking. If you apply discipline to the equation there is a lot of room to take what is purely inside and let in everything from certain sounds to chord progressions to certain approaches. There is stuff that I’ve always wanted to do, but never done. I’ve always wanted to be in complete darkness playing the bass, seeing what bass notes come up and then writing songs from that. So, if I was that open to the moment it wouldn’t be something that Phish would have done.

Your songs tend to deal with somewhat abstract concepts. Yet, you seem to be very in touch with your thoughts and inner emotions. You even keep a dream log. Do any of your newest songs approach these recent changes in a more abstract way?

Well, I have been liking singing the song “Invisible,” which is the last song on the album. It’s about being with someone who is disappearing. But, that’s change. As someone whose been divorced, someone disappearing is definitely change. I think it kind of addresses the tragedy, or the irony, of that but it does address that, or at least attempts to somehow. In a way, I think my own songwriting has gone along with the bigger bulk of songwriting Trey and Tom have done. In the earlier days trying to be as whimsical and possible, and out there as possible, and in the later days trying to be as from the heart as possible.

Actually, in November [04], I wrote a whole batch of songs that Leo and I didn’t use at all. But, there are some good ones in there. I am using the same sort of calypso bass and drum tracks, but you can tell I am tying to push further away and I’m trying to get more sophisticated both in terms of the chord progressions, the guitar parts and the lyrics. But, in a way, it came out kind of how you would expect something described as “sophisticated” to come out [laughs]. Like it needs to lose that aspect [laughs].

But, I think it was an important clump of songs to write and an attempt at development. People I’ve played them for say I should do something with those songs but I don’t know if I will. It’s sort of an attempt at stretching in a different direction. In a way, since I’ve written so few songs, there is so much room for growth. With Phish, Trey’s songwriting was so great that I didn’t need to write as much and now I just enjoy the concept of writing songs. When I have the solo band, I really want to do something I’ve never done before.

Have you written or recorded with your former bandmates at all recently?

No, though there is definitely talk of pairing off. Fish and I live in the same town and we really want to get together and do some recording and Trey and I have been talking. We’re all friendly and we all appreciate each other’s musicality, so it makes sense for some of that to go on.

Do you a see a time when Phish would get back on the road?

I don’t think sobut you never know. If I had to put my money on something it would be us not getting back together on the road. If it happened, we might have a different name and a whole different context of music. It would still be the four of us, so it would be very much the same chemistry, but otherwise it might not be recognizable as Phish at all.

For more on Sixty Six Steps be sure to check out the recent interview with Mike Gordon and Leo Kottke in the September/October issue of Relix.

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