Ornithology with Mike Gordon: From An Owl To A Ramble Dove
Mike Gordon didn’t invent county music, but he sure taught a lot of people how to play it. For 21 years, the bassist served as Phish’s resident bluegrass aficionado, helping bring bar standards like “Uncle Pen” and “Ginseng Sullivan” onto an arena-rock stage. Along the way, he taught a generation of open-eared fans the ABC’S of Americana music, making such diverse acts as Alison Krauss, Del McCoury and Wynonna Judd feel comfortable in a jamband setting.
Shortly after parting ways with Phish, Gordon relocated back to Vermont, quickly immersing himself in Burlington’s close-knit music community. At home in a city filled with artists, musicians and other quirky creative types, Gordon quickly faded into the background, exchanging his celebrity status for the security of a local community. He built a webpage, worked on his home studio and waxed poet at bohemian coffee shops with smaller capacities than your average Clinic guest list. At the urging of his friend Brett Hughes, a local singer/guitarist and resident honky-tonk expert, he also began gigging every Tuesday at Radio Bean, a cafize watering hole known for its weekly open mic.
Comfortable with the honky-tonk and country/western material Radio Bean’s patrons favor, Gordon found himself jamming with old friends like Gordon Stone, as well as younger Vermont musicians like RAQ’s Chris Michetti and 23-year-old indie-punk guitarist Marie Claire. After gigging at Radio Bean for six months, Gordon began to assemble a more permanent honky-tonk project, Ramble Dove. Named after a character from the bassist’s 2000 feature film, Outside Out, Ramble Dove features a number of Radio Bean’s regular visitors: Hughes (guitar/vocals), Stone (pedal steel), Claire (vocals/piano) and Neil Cleary (drums). In addition, Gordon recruited his longtime friend and collaborator, Max Creek’s Scott Murawski (“He is just great at those tasteful, but still ripping, country leads,” Gordon says. “He had never met Brett before, but they locked immediately.’)
Amidst a busy summer, Gordon will take Ramble Dove out on the road for a number of club and festival appearances, beginning May 28 at New Haven, CT’s Toad’s Place. Below, the busy bassist talks about Ramble Dove’s genesis, his first tour with Trey Anastasio since Phish, and why owls and Cacti are anything but strange bedfellows.
Ramble Dove grew out of a series of weekly jams at Burlington’s Radio Bean. What initially drew you to the bar’s open-mic night?
I went to this bluegrass-picking party at my friend’s house and bumped into Brett Hughes, who has been keeping track of these hundreds of thousands of old country songs. He actually used to work for Phish in the late-1990s as a designer. Brett was there and we sang some songs which were actually more bluegrass-based. I was just really blown away by the way he sang. I had been seeing him for a while, but it pushed me over the edge. I said [deadpan], “must collaborate” [laughs].
So, he had been running the Honky-Tonk Tuesday sessions for about eight or nine months now. He’s also done some film scores and theater stuff. He brought me down one Tuesday and, well, I’ve been going back almost every week now for about six months. Actually, the first couple of Tuesdays I was playing electric guitar and then I switched to bass. There were two other upright bass players at that time—-everyone swaps in and out, so we’d take turns singing. It just depends on who was there and who jumps up to the microphone.
There have been different drummers throughout the Tuesday nights, one of which is Neil Cleary. He actually used to play in this Burlington group the Pants. Trey produced one of their albums and we used to do some collaborations with them. They were sort of hard-edged. He is a great drummer and also a great singer and guitarist. He plays an incredible groove for that type of music.
You also have a handful of guests scheduled to join you on the road.
We are also going have this great singer named Aya singing duets with Brett on a bunch of dates and we are also trying to get Mark Mercier from Max Creek to sit-in at a couple of shows at well. He is so good at the honky-tonk piano. We are also playing this benefit for Bernie Sanders and Fish is going to play drums while Neil sings. Everyone sings in Ramble Dove. Sometimes we do this thing where Neil sings and Brett will play drums. But, on tour, I think Neil is going to sing his songs from the drum-set, which is pretty cool visually.
Grace Potter is also coming out on the road with us, so we might collaborate with her a little. The honky-tonk thing has been going to about twelve-thirty on Tuesdays and then we usually hang out until 2 AM when the bar closes. One night, Neil and I went to Grace’s guitarist Scott Tournet’s house and sang songs until sunrise.
What does Ramble Dove’s setlist look like?
It’s mostly covers. Most of the material is sort-of 1950s honky-tonk, but there are a few more recent 1970s songwriters, like Gram Parsons. We’re staying away from more modern singers, like Gillian Welch. She does that stuff so well.actually, the other day I was going through my Gillian Welch albums trying to find some songs to play, and I thought, “she is probably playing the same venues as us this summer, so that would be kind of weird” [laughs]. Brett also has some originals which he is bringing on the road.
Are you going to rearrange any of your original material for Ramble Dove?
I actually also ended up writing some songs for the situation. One of them I called “Ramble Dove” because I felt we are the type of band which should have a namesake song. Another is called “Loosening Up the Rules” and Brett and I wrote one together called “One for you Neil.” All the songs were sort of germinated from ideas we had while hanging out at the bar on Honky-Tonk Tuesdays. We also might revamp my song “Weekly Time.” Some Phish fans might know it since it was an outtake on Billy Breathes and was leaked a few years back.
I really love the feel of having a hometown bar. Well, actually, even calling it a bar is a stretch since its capacity is only 39 people [laughs]. It’s a ritual almost: it’s a practice, it’s fun and it’s every week. Brett and Gordon have been playing together for over 20 years in bands like the Chrome Cowboys. To go on the road with this old country stuff, which has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, has been a dream come true.
How has playing this weekly gig impacted on your approach or abilities as a musician?
One of my initial goals for this project was to learn some things about singing by playing these old songs and working with Brett. It’s been a dream come true. I have been singing so much these days. For instance, last weekend, for two or three days, from first thing in the morning until late at night. I think I actually hurt my throat [laughs]. I’m not used to singing so much at a time. I am sure I’ll be critical when I hear the tapes back when I’m flat, but I have been really loving singing. On tour, I am going to be singing lead on about 10 or 15 songs and harmony on another 25. So, it’s much more singing than I’ve ever done before.
What was your first exposure to honky-honk music growing up in Massachusetts?
I went to Nashville with my dad when I was 12. We went to the country musicians wax museum and it’s resonated with me every since. Some people hate country because of the current top 40 stuff on CMT, but this is nothing like that. I feel it’s separate from the bluegrass I play, but there is some cross-over. A lot of it is actually really hopping and danceable—- bouncy, really.
What made you decide to take Ramble Dove on the road?
Well, the people at Bonnaroo asked me to put something together for the festival. Originally, I was going to spend this year writing music and avoiding all gigs, so I turned them down. But, my studio wasn’t ready yet and projects started to come up. Then they called back a couple of months later and said, “Well, I know you said no, but we are holding a spot for you” [laughs]. My friends were like, “Why don’t you take the honky-tonk thing down there since it’s been so fun for you.” So, it grew from there.
It sounds like Ramble Dove is primarily a song-based band. How much room is there for improvisation?
It’s interesting. At first, the band didn’t really feature me that much and I wasn’t doing too many solos. We’ve been sort of purists about the whole honky-tonk thing. Unlike some other projects I play in, we are trying to find the heart behind the original versions of these song. But, now, I am singing a lot and doing a lot of solos. Right now we are experimenting with stretching the songs out, which I like too, being a jambander.
I’m so passionate about the songs, but it’s still the spontaneity which I like the best in this band. With the Tuesday night thing, half the songs we play I’d never heard before and I wouldn’t even get them right until halfway through the songs [laughs]. I really like that: figuring songs out quickly and flying by the seat of my pants. We’ve been rehearsing for this tour but, at the same time, I want to keep some of that spontaneity on the road. So, it’s not improv in the same sense, but I am looking to find some places to do some extended jamming and longer soloing. For me, I see it as a challenge to take songs that I am completely in love with, that are shorter or simpler songs, and try to find some places to stretch those. They are all people who are quick, talented and smile a lot. They are just up for having a good time.
I really like taking a certain structure and trying to see how it can be warped or stretched. There might be a bass line—-which normally might be a country bass line—-and I am trying to find some beats to syncopate with it. Actually, on the last tour I did with the Duo, we rearranged some country songs for that setting as well. It’s not the most obvious fit and that’s what I like about it. I like unusual mixtures.
Do you envision bringing Ramble Dove into the studio at some point?
I don’t know about that. I am tempted to, but, on the other hand, I just want to start writing and putting a solo band together. I am afraid to do anything that pushes that further away [laughs].
At this point in your career, do you feel comfortable as a band leader?
I almost see Brett as more of the band leader, or maybe both of us. But, Brett is the guy who knows the repertoire. He has 2,000 country albums on vinyl and he has completely internalized them. Regardless of Ramble Dove, he will get people together in his apartment studio and pull some of them out to play with.
Besides fine-tuning Ramble Dove, your other major project has been your website. It definitely seems like a labor of love.
It’s been a year-and-a-half of design. At one point, Julia from the Phish office and I were up until 4 AM, working on that site every night. I am kind of an archivist by nature, so Julia and I took a whole weekend and we combed through all my old filing cabinets. We looked through all these old photos and posters, listened to old demo tapes and weeded it down. We are going to continue to put some of that stuff on the page. I really like having some funny, weird, obscure things on there. The “un-used Phish” song was some song I had in a file which I never used.
What inspired your homepage’s owl theme?
I just have always had a good feeling about owls. They have been visiting me my entire life. I had a dream one time about an owl being sandwiched between these two glass doors and its eyes were so big that they filled-up these two, 8×4 foot doors. Then, when I was working on the Phish 20th anniversary video with Jared [Slomoff], this owl perched outside our window and I snapped a picture of it.
Being a vegetarian I kind of disagree with owls, but one day, I was running and had this vision of an owl on a conference table. It just resonated with me. I started running with the owl idea and I actually saw a couple of owls while I was working on the website, which was so surreal. At the bottom of my hill, where my driveway is, there is this old car with fins from the 1950s. There was this huge owl perched on its back right fin. It was so big, I thought it was fake and then it twisted its head. Then, when the site was almost done, I saw this owl about 25 or 30 feet outside my window, perched above this pond for a whole hour. So, I used those images as the basis for the webpage.
Do you still keep dream logs?
Since ’76, I’ve been keeping dream logs. Not every night, but whenever something strikes me. It’s pretty amazing how many dreams come true. Like, I had this recurring dream about hanging out with Bill Kreutzmann in a backstage area and now we are just really getting along. And, now, there is this thing with Mickey [Hart]. We played together a bunch of times during Green Apple and there is a chance we are going to try to do something together again.
“When we spoke last fall”:http://www.jambands.com/Features/content_2005_10_13.11.phtml, you said, “There is something about Vermont that resonates with my soul and something about New York that wears away at my soul.” Are you still happy that you relocated back to Vermont?
I loved it in Vermont for the entire 18 years I was here and it is likely that I will keep on liking it. I like the small town feel. I can go around town and know people. We pretty much designed the entire website in the Dobra Tea Room. It has incredible music and each tea is served in a separate utensil. It has platforms and beads around the tables—- you kind of feel like you are in this little cocoon in the middle of downtown Burlington. More than ever, I have been feeling like I am really part of the community here. I did the art show with my mom in the Firehouse Gallery, which is this incredible gallery right downtown. I’m playing every week at Radio Bean with local musicians and checking out local music. I’m meeting new people and, now, doing a benefit for [Vermont Congressman] Bernie Sanders. I don’t usually dabble much in politics, but I am so crazy about Bernie, what he might be able to do and what he has been able to do. If he could move from the House to the Senate, amazing things could happen. I am really happy to be immersed in the small town community. Fortunately, Vermont is cold enough that it scares away the faint of heart [laughs].
Have you started to prepare for you summer tour with Trey and the Duo?
We are actually starting rehearsals for that project about eight hours after Ramble Dove’s last set at Mountain Jam. The Duo are going to be at Mountain Jam as well, so I am going to get into their car and we are all going to drive straight to New York. I’m not even going home in between [laughs]. I am supposed to be learning some songs for my tour with Trey and the Duo, but I am trying to learn around 75 country songs for Ramble Dove’s tour next week. So, it’s pretty crazy how much new material I am working with. It’s a crazy era.
What type of material are you planning to play with Trey and the Duo?
We are still working that out right now. There is going to be different configurations throughout the summer. When we play with Trey, we are probably going to be doing a bunch of his material. We play on about four songs on his new album, but we actually recorded about an album’s worth of material, so we have a lot of possibilities to choose from. But, we’re probably going to draw from a bit of everything.
Tell us about your first experience with the Duo.
In about 2003, when I was putting together my solo band, Andy Hurwitz from Ropeadope introduced me to Joe Russo. We jammed a few times and then I saw the Duo at the Ropeadope New Music Seminar at the Bowery Ballroom. A year later, we played together at a [HeadCount] benefit. We actually didn’t rehearse at all, but it really felt special. Maybe it’s because they had seen Phish when they were younger, but they completely got the kind of improvisation that I was immersed in, but added their own unique talents. It just floored and spiraled from there with these mini-tours.
Where did your collaboration with Trey come about?
Well, I know he had never seen the three of us together and, as far as I know, he had never seen the two of them together. But, he had us record on his new album down in Brooklyn. So, I guess he just heard good things [laughs].
Does your tour with Trey spell the end of the G.R.a.B. Trio ?
That’s a good question. We really like playing together, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we tour together again as the Trio. I’m not even sure if it’s only going to be the four of us this summer. Trey’s talked about adding some horns and some backing vocals. So, it’s basically going to be a quartet with some enhancement at various points throughout.
Based on that Brooklyn recording session, do you feel G.R.A.B.’s style of improvisation recalls Phish?
There is always going to be something that comes back, in any context, between Trey and I because of our years and years of chemistry. Something magical happens when any of the Phish band members get into a room together. But, the Duo are an entity unto themselves and definitely add a different sound. Fishman actually jammed with me and the Duo at Higher Ground recently and, also, he jammed with Russo before I got there. He and Joe are really different drummers, but they liked each other both on and off stage. Trey and I are still completely enamored by the playing of Jon Fishman and Page McConnell. Nothing has gotten old about that.
So, with that in mind, maybe it’s a little strange for us to be going out with other people. But, on the other hand, Phish isn’t what we are doing now and Duo is just so much fun. Actually, Page sat in with them too. I would feel horrible if either Page or Fish felt left out of the tour this summerI actually just played on some tracks for Page’s album this summer and Fish is going to play with Ramble Dove at the Bernie benefit. Everyone kind of sits in with each other and we have a pretty good vibe amongst all the parties involved now.
Another one of my favorite drummers is Bill Kreutzmann. I have kind of known him since ’93, but didn’t really get to play with him until Serialpod. Well, actually I came out on the scooter and played for a minute at a Dead show at SPAC [in 2003], but that’s it [laughs]. It’s amazing that his groove can be so fierce and playful at the same time.
But, probably, as life goes on, there will never be another drummer for me like Jon Fishman.
Did you ever meet Jerry Garcia?
I never did. I really wanted to, but so did everyone else [laughs]. I remember reading all these interviews and thinking, “oh my g-d, he thinks just like me!” [laughs]. Unfortunately, the closest I got was being backstage at a Dead show and having a security guard say, “excuse me, will you please step to the right.”
_Mike Greenhaus is the staff writer for Relix Magazine and a contributing editor at Jambands.com. He stores his favorite thoughts at www.greenhauseffect.com and his favorite songs at www.relixradio.com