Mike Gordon: Sculpting the Big Blob (Ten Years On)
Back in October 2002, Jeff Waful interviewed Mike Gordon regarding his work on the film Rising Low, which explores the making of Gov’t Mule’s Deep End albums, his work with Leo Kottke and a bit more.
Phish bassist Mike Gordon is no stranger to the readers of Jambands.com. During the band’s hiatus, Gordon has been quite busy working on Rising Low, a film which documents the making of Gov’t Mule’s Deep End albums. He has also been collaborating with one of his musical heroes, guitarist Leo Kottke. The duo will tour next month in support of its new album Clone. Mike spoke to Jambands.com about all of his current projects.
JW: You first came in contact with Leo Kottke when you gave him a tape of his song “The Driving of the Year Nail” after adding your own bass line to it. That’s sort of a weird concept since he’s such a solo artist in the true sense of the term.
MG: Yeah. I just got inspired. I never thought that he needed any accompaniment when I saw him play. I just had this sudden feeling so I added a part that was kind of a duet part more than a bass line and he ended up liking it.
JW: He then eventually called you and you got together at Trey’s barn and started jamming. What was that first day playing together like?
MG: Well I could tell that we were thinking in similar ways, just the way that the lines on the guitar and the bass were moving. I was trying to go with it, but for a while it didn’t really click. It was like a non-clicking jam, I thought for a couple hours. We had these different ideas, either chord progressions or he would ask me to play along with this song or that song, but the complicated aspects of our playing were not gelling yet. And then we had dinner and we played again. After dinner, this little pattern kind of emerged. We honed it down to this one little rhythmic pattern, which became the song, “June.” We just played that for a long time, which just was a really good feeling. So it was kind of that feeling, playing that one little rhythmic pattern, with the bass sort of juxtaposing with the guitar a little bit that made us feel like oh shit, we gotta do this more a lot’ because it was such a good feeling. So it kind of stemmed from that. There is a lesson to be learned there probably, that after the first couple hours of jamming if nothing is happening, don’t necessary give up on the relationship or the situation.
JW: Just have dinner.
MG: Just have dinner, yeah exactly.
JW: Then you went and wrote fifty or so songs. It seems like you were quite inspired.
MG: Yeah, it was just where I was at in my life. After making Rising Low, which is a movie about music, I wanted to just make music rather than talking about it for a while. The schedule worked out right so that I had some time and I was in Manhattan and I got an office in the Woolworth building, which is a pretty spectacular building; a cheap, tiny little office. I went every day and tried to write a song a day. Sometimes they were just little pieces of songs, but there was enough stuff so that a few things came out that were usable.
JW: Now was this the first time in a while that you had written that much material?
MG: Ever. It was definitely the first time I wrote music on a regular basis. I’ve done it from time to time, but never like that.
JW: It seems that every artist has a different creative process. What’s your method?
MG: I’d have to say I’m still figuring it out. I did write some material for my Outside Out film, which is what I’m going down to mix tonight and for the next 10 days. That album is going to be called Inside In. I’m real happy with that. I’ve had a couple different processes. In this case, I had a drum machine and I just wanted to be using my bass and not other instruments. So I had the drum machine, the bass and a microphone. I had some piles of lyrics from my friend Joe and some of my own sort of ideas. Or I’d be walking down the street and something would just come to me and I’d say, Oh, today it’ll be a song about this.’
Originally I was going to the office for two hours a day and by the end it was one hour at the most. Really I wanted to get regular about it, rather than trying to do it in long hours to see what would come out. I was using a little hard disc recorder that has little drum pads built in so you can make your own drum beats. The same little machine will burn discs, so I was using that.
But I’ve had some different processes. Like when I was writing the song “Mound” years ago and it had intricate sections. That was sitting with a keyboard figuring out passages in an intricate kind of way with music paper. When I did the stuff for the Inside In album, I had a bunch of different instruments and I had a band and actually a lot of stuff was written from bass and drum jams where me and a drummer would just play and later I would write a song to that. So I edited the jams into songs. I guess my answer is that I’m trying different methods. Warren [Haynes] actually has a book. You should tell him I want that book. It’s about different writers and how they write and it’s supposed be to an interesting book.
JW: So with this wealth of songs, I know only a handful wound up on Clone, what’s going on with the rest of the material?
MG: There’s a couple that the band’s been toying around with.
MG: Yeah. There is a couple from that batch and a couple from Inside In that Phish is toying with too. I don’t know. We might not play any of them as far as I know. We’re just experimenting.
JW: So you brought the tapes to the band and they went through them?
MG: Actually we didn’t even have time to go through all of them. I just sort of weeded down to a few that I thought might be appropriate. Some are just idea fragments. In terms of whole songs, there’re a couple that nothing’s being done with right now. Who knows? I don’t know what will happen; they’ll just be there in case I need a song. It’s kind of nice to have a little well to draw upon. I’d like to do it again. I think now that I’ve done the bass thing with a tape recorder this year, I want to have a guitar and a keyboard around and not necessarily do all the writing on the bass.
JW: Most people would agree that thinking is a bad thing in improvisation. Was it hard for you to define your role when you first started collaborating with Leo? I mean his last album was called One Guitar, No Vocals.
MG: [laughs] It should have been called One Guitar, No Bass Player.
JW: [laughs] Right. Was there any sort of self-conscious, I’m not worthy’ type of feeling?
MG: Yeah, sometimes. When he’s sitting around the house and he picks up a guitar, you suddenly realize, Oh yeah, a master world-class guitar player is sitting here’ so it can be a little intimidating. But, we sort of gel. We just think alike. It’s just apparent.