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Published: 2006/05/18

The Aspect of Awareness: An Archival Interview with Mike Gordon

Over the coming weeks Mike Gordon will take to the road in three separate contexts. He will perform with his new Ramble Dove project, he will gig with the Benevento/Russo Duo and he will embark on a tour with the new GRAB in which Trey Anastasio will join Gordon and the Duo. In the days to come, Mike Greenhaus will have more with Gordon on the development of Ramble Dove and these other projects. However, to mark the occasion, we offer the following unpublished interview with Mike from the spring of 2004, which focuses on the motivations, abstractions and philosophies that foster and inform his music.

Bret Gladstone spoke with Mike in the spring of 2004 about these matters, for a Phish story that ultimately fell by the wayside following the band’s announcement that it would perform its final shows at Coventry.

BG- One of the things that makes Phish so unique is the width and breath, the diversity of influences. How do those influences become cohesive? Coming from different musical backgrounds and predilections, is there ever any difficulty, creative pressure in paying each its due?

MG- In the last decade, or more in the last few years, it’s been more about trying to shed the influences. That doesn’t mean to turn our backs on them and to deny those influences, because its great to have influences, but you can’t exist in a vacuum. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. But what happens I think is when you’re recording a song or practicing or whatever is that if you can learn to be really true to yourself, then it comes out in a purer way, and even though the influences are in some way done justice, there’s a kind of purity and a freshness, and that’s what we strive for.

For example, I brought one song to the album we’re making now, and I had done some jamming with a Calypso drummer, and so these were kind of calypso grooves, and the band liked one of the song, but, immediately we got rid of the Calypso groove, because we now kind of steer further away from the “tour of the world” set of music. We’d rather have it sound a little bit more like us, and less like one of the influences. That actually happened with more than one song. There was another song that had kind of a world beat, almost African sort of rhythm to it, and the producer didn’t like it. He thought that it sounded like we were imitating a style rather than doing what we do naturally. So we were going to scrap the song, but instead we wound up just coming back and giving it a simpler sort of groove, and it ended up being almost sort of countryish but not really, but whatever it was it was sort of more pure to ourselves.

But at the same time, it’s also cool to go even deeper into the influences and trace the roots of the roots, and figure out where its all coming from further back, to look at your influences and see what their influences were, that’s always a good thing to do. For example, being the band member who listens to the most bluegrass, in the last couple of years I hooked up with some friends of mine that play only pre-1960’s Bluegrass, old Bill Monroe, and Stanley Brothers and that kind of thing. I had heard some of that, but most of the bluegrass I listen to was later, so this was a way to sort of trace deeper into those roots. So ultimately, it’s kind of a matter of stretching in all directions when possible, taking the influences and going even further back, and taking the fresh sound and making it even fresher, and less steeped in the influences. We’ve definitely had red flags over the years where we’ve had to say, oops, too much like something. On the other hand, when you write a melody, or a chord progression, it’s always going to sound like something, that’s sort of undoable. I think it’s just when you process it more through your own filters that it becomes more like you, or like us.

BG- What’s your personal definition of groove?

MG- First, I would say the groove is something that transports you. So that even if you’re standing in a club and a band is playing, and if groove is playing, it’s transporting you, then you feel like you’re gliding across the floor, like an air hockey puck. And you don’t have to be moving literally or necessarily, although you can be. If music takes you to different places, there has to be an engine that gets you there, and that’s the groove. But also, if music can work on several different levels, then that’s really good, or not levels, but ways, and the four ways that seem most obvious to me are the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul. So the heart is the emotion part and I definitely love it when songs affect me in the heart, but that’s not necessarily what I’m looking for all the time, like, at times I may have my own heartaches and I want music to lift me out of that, to transport me.

BG- I read Picasso once say that every child is an artist, and the problem is remaining one as you grow up. In an interview with Relix you said you felt that sense of wonder had been misplaced- over the last year, have you found it again?

MG- Yeah, I think we’re moving in that direction. It’s just a matter of keeping the child’s eye. A lot of my favorite music is like that, where it sounds like it’s developed, but at the same time it sounds like someone’s discovering it for the first time. And I’ve definitely had that feeling, even over the last couple of months with some of the songs that we’ve done. I don’t know that we had entirely lost it either. But yeah, I guess there was a direction of worrying about whether we had lost it.

BG- Though setlists are improvisational, it seems, and I think this is one of the really great things about Live, that each show seems to develop its own linear quality, or at least a character of its own. Do you find that and how do your shows develop that character?
MG- A lot of ways. The weather (laughs), everything has something to do with it. But ultimately, if you’re doing enough surrendering, then you can’t really predict. Actually, I think the whole body of music over the three or so hours, the character of the show, might start developing earlier on in the day. If you have an experience that is really grounding, or some sort of opposite experience, maybe you have a fight with someone, that can affect the flow and the character of a show.

It’s true, it does have a character, because people will ask me what songs I like to play, or what songs I like to play on a certain night, and what happens is, when we’re playing well, or if there is a specific character or flavor to the mood, then everything will be within that, and everything will sound good. Or if it’s a bad or boring mood, then all the songs will be within that character, and that’s not necessarily as pleasant. But sometimes, it’s interesting the way that can switch in the middle if there’s a break, and there’s a different attitude for the first or the second set. It’s not always that I can predict that second would be better either, sometimes I like the first.

I don’t know, there’s a lot of different factors- choosing a songlist, if it’s not prewritten, is one of them, and everything having to do with where we’ve chosen to play, and the gear, and what people are there. It’s more of its own thing if you do surrender, because then you’re not imposing your expectations of a situation, you’re just going with it, and everyone’s just going with it, all the fans and all the musicians, together, don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of the mood that’s going to get created. Then it’s more likely to be some mood that’s inevitable in the universe for that moment.

BG- When each show seems to form its own groove in that way, how much does having an idea of what song you want to hear affect your acceptance of what’s happening? When particular songs like “Fluffhead,” “Harpua” and “Destiny Unbound” began to accrue this mythological quality about them, a kind of collector’s mentality, how do you see that as a band?

MG- Well, I don’t know, that’s tricky, because, thinking about going to concerts that I’ve really liked, I guess there just might be songs that I might like better than others. Even as the musician, I’ve felt over the years that some songs have more easily lent themselves to me enjoying them than others. Whereas again, if it’s a good night, even the songs that I don’t usually like sound good, so it overrides that. So I think it make sense to have taste but I guess the problem, or the danger, is not opening up, and the reason it’s a problem, I think, even more than the close minded might realize it
is because when you open yourself up you don’t realize the power of what can enter.

For example, Paul [Languedoc] just doesn’t like the Grateful Dead, never did. We all went to see them one time, and, I was just trying to think about what it was like for someone who, well, just isn’t into this kind of thing. Or in my case, sometimes with straight ahead jazz that happens with me. It’s hard for me to appreciate because it just doesn’t match my mood, and I don’t know if there’s anything that I can do but then again, if I could just somehow open myself up I might be missing out on what could enter. So, yeah, it’s tricky. Music is so subjective that I don’t know if you can ever take those things away, but I think if you can be who you are, with all your tastes and values and everything, and then try to open up then that’s going to help.

BG- The aspect of awareness is where Phish seems to really transcend in a modern setting as a band. How has that developed, and how much of the maturing process as a musician is being able to shed ideas about where you want the sound to go? How hard actually is it to stay in the moment?

MG- The aspect of awareness is huge, and in fact I would day it’s our main selling point, because, again, it’s that openness. The interplay is a dance between the musicians, and if no one has any pre-conceptions, then it’s actually coming from “the gods,” ideally.

It starts, though, with just hearing the other instruments. If I’m on stage and I’m not hearing the bass, if I’m hearing the other three instruments and the vocals and whatever else is going on, and even the reverb in the room and everything, louder than I’m hearing myself, then that’s a good starting point. It could even be to the point where I’m not hearing myself hardly at all, because then its almost like the room is playing me, and then it’s a more satisfying, powerful, and life-changing experience, for me anyway, when that happens.

So listening is really important, especially with improvised music, with a jazz band it would be the same thing- they always talk about that, people are considered special if they have big ears. With Fishman, for example, it’s incredible, no matter who he’s playing with, how sensitive he is. He’s just a really, really sensitive guy, and it used to be that he would always imitate what he heard on his drums and cymbals, and today he doesn’t necessarily do that, but still the sensitivity is there to an incredible extent, and because of that, he’s going to be somehow better than drummers that can pound it out and be really big sounding but without the sensitivity. Without that sensitivity and listening, it’s just not as magical. That’s, I think, the first step towards finding the magic.

It’s been cultivated a lot of different ways. Talking about it, emphasizing its importance, sometimes criticizing people for being in their own worlds. Then there were our listening exercises which were just one step along the way, exercises designed to open the ears in an organized way. Just awareness. It’s like, if you suddenly become aware that you’re unfashionable within your sphere of friends, or whatever, then you might at that point go and get new clothing or do whatever it takes, or you might just put up with being unfashionable. But it takes that first step of awareness, and that’s probably it, talking about it and just realizing how much better it is when the ears are open.

It’s pretty hard to stay in the moment. I think you learn over the years, many years probably, to get better at it. It’s the same thing as practicing meditation, which is something that I’ve done in different phases of my life, where you’re concentrating on your breath, and you find that you can really only concentrate on your breath for 10 seconds before you have a distraction, which is O.K., but after like a year of doing it you can go like 30 seconds without a distraction. So you’re building up mind power, it’s all about focus, focusing on the moment is what it’s about.

A lot of pain in the world, I think, I never read the book The Power of Now, but a friend was telling me about it last night and all the pain is created by focusing on the past or the future, so it’s really nice to be able to learn and cultivate that kind of mind power, to be able to focus on the moment. There are so many other things to think about, to worry about, having to do with life and relationships and health, or whatever it is. I suppose, even, if a room is really echoey to the point where it’s hard to hear, you can worry about that. But if that’s the moment, then even accepting that as the moment, even focusing on something that’s sort of hard to focus on, in some ways can make you focus harder. So it’s just accepting whatever it is. It’s not easy, but as you get older and work on it, hopefully you get a bit better (laughs).

I think having a preconceived notion about where the music should go is something you hopefully shed, to an extent. On the other hand, you develop tastes, and methods. An example of that would be, if we’re playing a song, and if I think the tempo should be slow and Trey thinks it should be fast, and we both have unyielding attitudes, then it’s obviously just not going to blend, it’s going to be pushing and pulling too much, although some pushing and pulling is OK. So accepting winds up being a huge thing for me. All of my peak experiences start with accepting, and if Trey and I are both accepting that whatever tempo is taking place, even if it’s a tempo that the song has never been in before, then that’s cool. It’s so much more fun for everyone, and it’s just a lesson, one of those lessons we have to learn over and over again. I guess it’s hard to avoid having some preconceptions, but it’s just how you deal with them, and being able to say well, “Oh, this is unwinding differently.”

BG- Can you talk about the experience of playing for an audience that listens as carefully as the Phish audience does, and, on the other side of that coin is as analytical about each show?

MG- It’s definitely something we appreciate, it’s really amazing to have people that listen carefully. Not that it’s necessarily a very deep thing to get caught up in details, although I do as a bass player. I’m thinking about little clusters of notes and as long as I’m thinking of them in the context of how they relate to the dream that’s being created in the music, then it’s O.K. I have fun thinking in that way.

Another article I read one time was about Twin Peaks and cult followings, and it said that one of the definitions of a cult following is that there must be an interpretive community, and in a way it’s a nice thing they would care to dissect it so meticulously. We’re so lucky that we have fans that have an appetite for variety, and change, and different kinds of music, so if hearing “Iron Man” in the bassline in 92 is an indication of that, then it’s probably a good thing. Risk is important for taking adventures, so it’s great they appreciate that, that they can enjoy it when it’s working and endure it when it’s not.

BG- How, in your mind, has the band evolved over those 20 years?

MG- Well, there’s a lot of evolving between 18 and 38. Wow. (laughs). I guess we’ve tried to get more at the essence of what we’re doing. Lyrically, getting at more lyrics that strike a deep chord, and musically trying to get more into what really flows and what really moves us and what moves the people around us and trying to strip away the extra, because sometimes there’s a lot of extra, especially if you’re trying to prove something with either lyrics or music or other career decisions.

We were lucky enough to get to be respected enough, in some circles anyways, so that we feel like, well, we’ve done that, so now we don’t feel like we have anything to prove. So let’s forget trying to prove something and keep trying to stretch the music in different directions. I suppose someone could argue that when we first started there was this idealism and an immaturity and naivetith our first album and the early tours that might have gone away as we’ve matured. But it doesn’t really matter because life includes a lot of change and you can’t really fight against that.

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