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Published: 2008/08/22
by Dean Budnick

Mike Gordon: The Reader Interview

Mike Gordon is swamped. He is currently performing twice a day in support of his new solo release, The Green Sparrow However, despite an onslaught of commitments, Gordon carved out some extended time to address what still amounted to but a fraction of the questions submitted to the site for our latest reader interview.

At one point during the interview, Gordon paused to share his appreciation for the lines of inquiry. He explained, “This week every day we have two performances, one during the day and one at night and I’m in the middle of 21 gigs in 17 days but with all the interviews there’s usually only two questions. The two questions are: “Would you mind regurgitating the bio?” and “How do you feel about Trey’s left nut comment?” So then I’m kind of pushed into a position where I’m regurgitating the bio and I don’t have anything more to say about Phish because everyone knows we’ll probably get together and there’s nothing more to say. But then to get a whole bunch of people who have heard the album and are more in the know, that’s much more fun for me, it’s definitely cool.”

So feel free to pat yourself on the back as you enjoy this conversation with Mike. Stay tuned as we likely will take this up again, down the road…

*_The Green Sparrow_ presents a different series of players than your touring band, although I’ve read that you hope to develop a body of work with your current group.
Did you ever think about creating the band first and then bringing it to the studio to interpret your music? Marc V.*

There’s thought to do that in the future but with this one I had the opposite thought. What I wanted to do was face my solitude and spend a year alone in the studio, which I never had done before. So pretty much I had the opposite thought, although now that there is a new band there is a thought to do that at some point, to record with this band.

“Andelmans’ Yard” is the one song on The Green Sparrow where you play every instrument. Can you talk about why you decided to record it that way. Was this your intention from the outset and if not how did it develop? Steve R.

Actually I did the same thing on “Another Door,” except we replaced the drums with real drums. I played all the other instruments. For nine months I played all the instruments on all the songs and came up with six songs of which we used five and rerecorded one. So there’s really four that I played most of the instruments on, it was part of that year of solitude.

When I started writing these songs and I was working alone for nine months, I thought they might be demos. But then I ended up spending so much time making them just how I wanted them. “Andelmans’ Yard” took two straight months of working every day all day on weekdays and it came together in a really organic way. A lot of the parts were got at by jamming on a given instrument and then picking out my favorite parts and writing them in. So even though I was a perfectionist for two months, it had an organic sound and in the end the combination just sounded right to me. I realized there’s no way I would rerecord it because it wouldn’t sound as good. We tried as we did on “Another Door” to add real drums, instead of the synthetic drums of which there is more than one track. The real drummers did a great job but we ended up liking the fake drums more. I played it for people, everyone really liked it and I fell in love with the way it was, so there was no reason to redo it. Whereas the stuff I did in October, one song a day, those ones ended up requiring more overdubbing and/or redoing.

Between the two processes, developing “Andelmans’ Yard” versus the song-a-day approach, was there one that felt more natural to you that you’ll utilize more often moving forward?

There’s probably more than two processes because for a few months I worked on just lyrics and later did some strumming and whatnot. I have ten songs that I recorded just strumming and singing, the more standard songwriting method, whereas “Andelmans’ Yard” and “Another Door” were done on Pro Tools by layering.

Then October was devoted to collaborating with Jared Slomoff and doing one song a day. November was the quick method but just with me. And January at the beginning of 07 was just rolling drum loops and jamming the pace. I wrote a really cool song with all these interesting bass lines swimming through and I had Jon Fishman replace the loop drums. It was one of my favorite ones and it was going to be on the album. I actually thought it would be the main song on the album, even though it’s kind of ballady and the main song of the tour, like the theme song of the whole year. But we cut that song out along with a few others I was in love with.

The point being there’s more than two processes, there’s a kind of a handful and in terms of what comes naturally, maybe what come leasts naturally to me is just sitting in a room with a guitar, strumming and singing. And having a bunch of gadgets around and Pro Tools and layering, that’s more natural. Maybe collaborating is a little more natural but when I was working on films, I would spend 14 hours a day alone and it was kind of nice to use that method for music.

So I don’t know. One thing I probably won’t do is spend another year on it. But I’ll probably dabble more in all those processes unless I really figure out what works for me. I guess what I’ve figured out is it all works for me. But I still have to figure out what I should be spending most of my time doing with the songwriting process.

The song you mentioned as a potential centerpiece, was it cut because it just wouldn’t fit with the ten other songs on The Green Sparrow in terms of tone or theme. Or was there some other reason?

I wanted to have less because there seemed to be a certain length that felt good. But other than that, the song was a little bit contemplative and dreamy. I didn’t want as much with the dreamy on this album, I wanted it to be an awake sort of album and more rocking. I don’t know if ballad is the right exact word for it but it’s just a little dreamy and there are four songs that got cut that I actually put through the mixing phase. They’re all mixed and I still intend to use them but there just wasn’t room.

I had 42 new songs last year along with 20 from previous years, so 62 songs to consider putting on the album and 10 made a lot more sense than 14. We had recorded 17, mixed 14 and used 10. The ones I kept were the ones that stuck in my mind as being the catchiest and the ones that felt like I couldn’t live without. Two of the ones I cut from the 14 that we mixed were ones that I was absolutely sure that I wouldn’t be able to part with and then I did anyway. But that’s life, I guess.

The songs on The Green Sparrow seem to be much more direct and emotional than many of your earlier compositions. Has this been a goal of yours for some time and one that you’ve finally achieved or did you make a conscious decision to change things up? Eddie J.

Both, I guess. I don’t know what allowed me to find a more heartfelt outlet in my songwriting last year but somehow it happened and I knew that I probably wanted it to happen sooner. Maybe it was just that thing of being able to take all this time. And within this time to ask myself what has essence for me and what doesn’t and try to answer that question honestly.

When the year started, I thought it would be mostly instrumental music and that’s where the essence would be. But as soon as I had a couple lyrics and that song that got cut, I realized that lyrics and singing were very important to me and probably a focal point. After that I spent a few months only working on lyrics. The point being that I was really trying to see what was resonating and trying to check myself if things were more surface level. So I guess what probably allowed that to happen, was the extra patience.

When you write a song, do every clause and every phrase mean something to you or sometimes do you just like the sounds of words juxtaposed? For instance when I try to unpack the lyrics to “Jaded,” at times it seems like an exercise in alliteration. Anna G.

Well I don’t know if alliteration was specifically the exercise but it is true that I really like sounds as much as meanings. I like meanings too but I think of a song like “Come Together” as great combination of phonemes. I would even go so far as to say that trying to have a direct kind of meaning in a song falls a little flat for me. There has to be some subtext or different levels of interpretation if a song is going to be meaningful. It’s almost a direct route to the soul in a certain sense, to have a bunch of meanings, so I wanted to have more of that.

My songs in the past have been rooted and they still are to an extent in stories and chronological order and things unfolding. I really wanted to get away from that and to go much more in the direction of sounds and abstractions.

So that’s probably a good observation about “Jaded,” it’s sort of an exercise in that. But at the same time the overall effect is someone who is jaded might be rattling off all these words and I like the image, the emotion, of someone saying, “I’m jaded” and the snottiness built into that. I like some of the meaningss of the words too but they’re definitely abstract enough so that it can be seen either way. It can be seen as pure sound or as little vignettes.

There is a sports radio host in Massachusetts named Eddie Andelman. Was it his yard you describe in the song? Joe T.

It’s funny you mentioned that. It’s a different Andelman but I think it’s his cousin because my mom just asked me to send a CD to Eddie Andelman.

I grew up in Sudbury, Mass and my neighbors were the Andelmans. Before that I was in Waltham in an apartment building where Steve Andelman was my best friend, he was zero and I was one. And then when I was three, both families moved to Sudbury and the houses were built next door. So the whole time I was growing up, Steve Andelman was my neighbor.

There were a couple other houses involved too, where I imagined these tunnels. It was a reoccurring dream I have had over many years where I’m back in the home neighborhood. The Andelmans were kind of in the middle between the other houses which is why they might have been a central spot for the tunnels to run underneath.

So it would not be Eddie Andelman but David Andelman and Estelle were the parents. Steve and Jim, Stevie and Jimmie at the time, were my friend and my brother’s friend and the cat was Cinnamon. We had Smokey and they had Cinnamon. So no Eddie but I think I know who Eddie is.

In “Radar Blip” you describe running in each new city you visit. How rigidly do you plan your route? Have you ever found yourself lost and your energies waning in the precious hours prior to a gig? Steve Z.

Well I actually I think I gain energy rather than lose it. But I do try to run every day and I like to not have a route. If the hotel says, “Oh there’s a running path at such and such a place,” I usually avoid it. I like to be in the middle of people and the middle of random places. Or sometimes not people but in some broken down ghetto where there’s run down decommissioned factories. That’s what the song’s pretty much about.

There’s always the feeling that if I could take some weird left turns on my run, not even planning a block in advance, just getting to a place and seeing a little pathway that leads away from the neighborhood and taking the pathway, then when I’m in the middle of some musical jam, I’d also be willing to take those chances and say, There’s a pathway here, let’s take it.’ Maybe it’ll lead to the “Andelmans’ Yard” or something.

Scott Murawski is a steady presence in your touring bands. Can you explain what draws you to him? Not that I don’t enjoy his contributions but since you’ve changed up so many of the other players in your bands, I just wonder what you see or hear in his playing? Ken C.

I liked Max Creek early on, I saw them first in ’83. Probably in seeing them and then starting to jam with them, I guess I like a whole bunch of things. I like the way that he listens and plays along. It’s very rhythmic. He’s a drummer, too, so he weaves in and out of the rhythm in a way that elevates the rhythm and makes everyone else sound better. And it’s almost a little bit random, not necessarily pattern-based sometimes, a little like Bob Weir in that sense. It’s also a bit like the New Orleans funk think where there’s some syncopated staccato guitar playing.

And then if it he’s playing lead-type stuff, he outlines the chords in ways that other guitar players don’t, using all the parts of the neck and being melodic but hitting the chord changes. As opposed to say Trey, and of course I love Trey’s guitar playing but he’s more against the chord progression, sort of swelling against the rhythm, against the chords. Whereas Scott is more about playing within the structure and not only that but allowing you to hear what’s nice about the structure, despite the fact that he’s freeform improvising in his leads.

And on top of that, the leads and the rhythms sometimes bleed together where it all becomes one thing whether it’s smaller chords, just a couple notes from a chord or leads that have chords within them. So it all kind of blends together.

There are a few other things too. He has big ears in terms of really listening hard and playing off someone that he’s jamming with. He also has a joyous sensibility. He smiles and he’s passionate and joyous about what he does. Plus, he’s disciplined. He’ll show up and he’ll have learned all the songs. He’s also very smart, he invented a computer program that creates setlists based on a whole bunch of parameters.

He’s just a bright guy and to mix that kind of passion and joy and discipline and talent and rhythm all in the same person, that’s why it becomes a no brainer.

Plus, I like long-term relationships and now that we’ve had a whole handful of bands and projects together, it just grows over time. The last thing we did together before this was the Costa Rica gig with Bill Kreutzmann and even the rehearsals for that with just Scott and I were becoming telepathic. I was just thinking, “Wow, these years of playing and singing together are adding up.”

And to top it off we have a certain rapport that’s really nice where we can brainstorm ideas together. That it makes it really fun to be creative.

So there’s a few reasons.

Mike, has it been your idea or Scott’s for him to play a Languedoc guitar during your live shows? Tom

It was his idea. I always liked the sound that he got out of his Ibanez that he played for so many years but I also think that the Languedoc is good for him because the hollow body sound makes it a little bit more organic for someone playing staccato. That’s another thing that makes him opposite from Trey, Trey will play a lot of long swelling notes sustaining from one to the next, legato. And Scott will rely a bit more on staccato and to have that kind of sound, it’s almost nice to have the more organic open sounds to compensate, it meshes with his style nicely. So it was his choice.

I don’t know the combination of reasons that led him to that but I really like his guitar. Obviously it’s like Trey’s but it’s got some differences. I like the purple color and the maroon. I was the one who introduced him to Paul and brought him over to the shop and they talked about putting it together and doing some modifications. I definitely was not looking for another Trey, there’s only one Trey out there. But I guess I’m guilty of the same thing if being inspired by someone’s instrument is guilt-worthy because I have a Modulus bass that Phil used and Oteil had used them and a few other people. But no matter what instrument Scott picks up, he always sounds instantly like Scott.

As a band leader what role, if any, do you take in gear decisions?

That’s very interesting because as a band leader I don’t want to be a dictator. When I see bands and I get the impression that someone is being a dictator, I don’t like the band as much, I feel like people aren’t shining as much. However, I am opinioned and I will express my opinions and let people do what they want with them. With Scott, I had suggested using a tube amp because with his sort of tone it would give it some grit. In Costa Rica there was a tube amp and then he heard the tapes and thought, “I never sound clean, I couldn’t get the grit out.” Now he’s back to using a Jazz Chorus amp and getting the distortion from some pedals. That way he has control and now that I hear it, I see that he’s right. He’s back in his element and really people just want to be in their element.

With the other instruments, well Craig [Myers] is an interesting example because his main instrument is djembe. He plays some bells and wood blocks but the Latin stuff wasn’t his thing as much as the African stuff. The difference is and he was the one that explained this pretty well to me, that congas are designed to be connected to the earth and have a sound that’s sunken into the music. Whereas djembe for a similarly shaped instrument is designed to reach up into the heavens and be really loud and staccato and stick out rather than blend in. So even though it’s predictable in rock and roll, I wanted to have some conga. He had played conga but he plays in several bands doing the djembe thing with African dance groups. So he kind of brushed up a bit on the congas and now he’s really sounding great and I think it’s good to have that color in his toy box, that texture, because it does give that sunken in kind of sound and when he switches to the djembe it sticks out more. I actually like using djembe in some kinds of songs where typically you would hear conga and mixing it up that way. I’m not a purist about anything.

On the keyboard, Tom [Cleary] actually has been borrowing my Motif, which has a million sounds and then he has a Hammond. I’ve been suggesting using a B-3 but we’re trying to trying to travel light and the Hammond which isn’t the B-3 sounds really good. Todd Stoops offered us to borrow his Leslie, since neither Tom nor I have one right now and we might have room to bring one. I’ve been thinking of a vintage organ sound, although he’s so good anyway and that’s what matters.

So I guess I do have suggestions but generally it’s a compromise. I’ll put them out there and then let people do their own thing.

Have you contemplated covering any Joey Arkenstat material with your current group? Jill C.

That would be a good idea. No, but now that you mention it, I will. I guess maybe it did occur to me. I have contemplated covering Fonzworth Bentley because I’ve just been doing some collaborating with him. He’s almost more known as a dancer and he has his own MTV show but he’s got his own music. He was P Diddy’s assistant originally but he’s got his own career going and his own album and he actually came to Vermont. He’s somebody maybe not as obscure but obscure in the jambands world because I like drawing from all sorts of unexpected sources.

On this tour you have been playing "Meat," from the Story of the Ghost album. Is there any chance you’ll consider busting out with "Fikus," which appears on the same album? Shayne and Doug

Yeah, people have asked for that. Well maybe, I really wanted to jump into this tour with the idea of whether or not people know the songs, it’ll be danceable. So I’m looking less for the ones that are quirky and soft, I’m looking for the quirky and loud. But there’s possibilities for “Fikus,” that’s a good point, that’s a good reminder.

You just started touring with your new band and I would imagine that musical chemistry takes some time to develop. However, has there been a particular show or song at a show everything just fell together and really became something magical?Kev B.

Yeah, oh definitely. And particular show is probably the right answer more than particular songs because for me if the acoustics and the vibe and everything are dialed right then everything sounds good and if things aren’t dialed in as well then everything sounds more mediocre.

So for me and I know the percussionist Craig, agrees, the one that blew my mind in terms of how magical a feeling it was, was the Music Farm in Charleston, South Carolina. We veered from the setlist from the get go and everything connected. It was one of those things where the music was playing the band. We’ve had some conscious mantras before the set, we get into a little huddle, and the idea for that gig was to let things unfold at their own pace, to let things happen. And so things evolved at a very natural pace from jam to jam.

There were these parts of jams where my favorite stuff happened, where I’m playing rhythms and melodies and chord progressions that I don’t understand even though I’m playing them. That’s a way I guess of ensuring that the music is playing the musician. I wouldn’t be able to play this because I don’t even know what it is. It just kind of fell into place. It might be that the band is playing in 4 and I’m playing in 5 but it’s not so technical. It’s something that’s just arrived at and not for technical reasons but for emotional reasons. And that’s what that gig was, a magical feeling. For me, it was better than some Phish gigs. Of course there were a lot of great Phish gigs over the years that were very magical.

The drummer had a harder time because his monitor wasn’t working right or he was getting a lot of low end, so something made it hard for him to hear but I was just really blown away. I was having so much fun, doing silly things and a lot of times mixing up the arrangements, putting in parts of songs or entire songs that hadn’t been planned out. At the very end there was a djembe solo that wasn’t planned and he had a tray of percussion gizmos. First I picked up this little bell that he has, actually I gave it to him as a gift, it was a little Indian bell. Then it was one of those frogs but a tiny version, where you rub the back of the frog. The last thing was vice grips and I kept opening and closing them into the microphone and we had this vice grip and djembe jam.

There were other ones too. The outdoor one in Atlanta was really fun because we could be so relaxed and they have decibel limit, so it was softer and we could hear. Denver was really fun for me, the Mile High Festival. There was just a special flow. I like the sets where there’s a unique flow.

If you were to close your eyes now and look back at Phish, what performance resonates in a similar way?

It might be obvious but the first one that I tend to go to is the midnight jam at Big Cypress. There are others but that was sort of a culmination because as big and long as it was, it still felt like really deep jamming, the best of all worlds. Not that big always makes the best world but sometimes long does because it gives you time to unfold something.

When I got to do the Mike releases Live Phish 17-20, I grabbed a couple that fans liked, like the Rhode Island one with the long David Bowie [ Live Phish 20,12/29/94] and then a couple I picked out that fans hadn’t particularly chosen.

There are some that stick in my mind if I look back over time. There’s like ten over the whole course of the band that stick in my mind. There were a couple of early frat gigs, one at Dartmouth. The flatbed jam at the Clifford Ball was very special. But probably the biggest two were near the beginning and near the end, which would be my big Goddard 85 experience and the Big Cypress one. At the first there were fewer people than during our whole career because there were 2 and the last there were than more than during our whole career because there were 80,000.

Is there any specific reason why you started the hotline? Is it the evolution of Mike’s Corner in some way? How has it changed your view of your fans? What have you learned, if anything? John F

The hotline started as a promotional tool for the Inside In album. Andy Hurwitz from Ropeadope suggested getting a voice mail service. And then I learned to really like it and I just kept it going. There was one six month period when it was dormant and at that point people were calling and saying, “You can’t stop this, I call you more than my own mother and I depend on this.” It was threatening to take too much of my time because I was getting absorbed in it. When I get in the car I tend to listen to messages.

I don’t think it’s a continuation of Mike’s Corner though, the vibe is sort of different. Mike’s Corner was sort of sitting alone somewhere and coming up with an image and then writing a story that plays with that image. The thing about the hotline is it’s much more interactive, where there’s this little back and forth that happens. Little quizzes and games and sometimes the quizzes and games are suggested by the hotline callers themselves. So it feels a little more like being a talk show host, a call in show. But I really like the interactive quality.

In terms of what I learn, I do learn some things, although I don’t know if people are just showing me one side of themselves. I learn how many people are only calling because they care about Phish and they don’t care what I’m doing. Those are usually the ones that get the quick delete button. Like, “So I’ve got to get you guys back together..”

I’ve asked people some questions like, “What’s your age? What part of the country are you from? What do you dream about?” All kinds of different questions. And then I’ll put some that people say back on, I’m trying to make it be a back and forth thing as much as possible.

I do get some good feedback where people will make a suggestion about the music or maybe even something other than the music. I have to take everything with a grain of salt, though, for instance if someone likes the sound of one bass better than another. That’s a good example of a pretty specific thing. Somebody said, “When you switched to the newer Modulus a few years ago you stopped sounding as clear.” And sure enough, the newer Modulus has humbucking pickups instead of single coil which would make it a little bit fatter but not quite as clear. So at that point after the hotliner said that, I went and listened to some tapes and sure enough, I could find that it went either way and there was something good about both sounds.

It’s amazing you give credence to your callers, it is a dialogue of sorts.

Yeah, I’d like it to be that way. I’d like to open it up so that it’s not just me. Sometimes people ask a lot of questions, I guess that’s the biggest mode that it turns into. It’s just tons of questions and then I start to feel, it’s a little too much. Who should really care about what I had for breakfast? I’d rather have it be a little more about the people calling in themselves, turning it back on themselves.

So that’s why there have been a lot of little games and recently we’ve had hotline personals, hotliners connecting with hotliners or people encouraged to call and sing or do poetry. There’s been some interesting ones. I made a song from each person singing a bass note. You could make up any note but it had to be a certain syllable. The hotline maxes out at thirty message so once I had thirty, I made a song from the bass line.

What are your plans for touring and recording after you wrap up this tour in September? Is there anything you have planned with Leo Kottke or do you plan on touring more with this quintet? Jocelyn, Brett and Hank

Leo and I have talked about doing some stuff but my main goal right now is to do more with this band for decades. I’ve been known to do some projects and then go on to the next thing. I feel like I want to go on with some next things simultaneously but I’m done with only having projects that are short-lived. I want this to be the kind of thing where I learn from the way it’s unfolding and keep working at it and having it evolve.

So probably the next tour I do after September and after my baby for which I’ve carved out some time, is going to be with this band. Maybe a little run, I’m not sure exactly when yet.

And I want to do another film.

And then there is a good chance there will be some Phish stuff.

The problem is that even just with my current recording and playing with band, that alone is more than a full time schedule. I have songs for a couple more albums that are already pretty much recorded. I have about eight ideas for ways of recording albums that I’d like to try, including the idea of using this band. And there isn’t going to be the time to do all that and to figure out stuff that will make the live show as special as possible. Just that alone is more than full time, never mind thinking about Phish and Leo and a bunch of other people I’d like to play with and the movie screenplay. So it’s going to be a difficult task of prioritizing but for me priority number one is this band and keeping it going as long as possible. And probably figuring out a band name too at some point.

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