Mike Gordon: Sculpting the Big Blob (Ten Years On)
JW: And it sort of goes back to the underlying theme of Outside Out, where you want to take all of this in, but then when you’re playing not think about any of it. It’s a weird dichotomy.
MG: Yeah, it was interesting with Outside Out because these ideas were being talked about in the movie that are almost cliched almost interesting and sort of cool to think about, but the questions being raised weren’t being answered so clearly. We had some test screenings for Outside Out and people said, I know what you’re getting at, but what do you conclude from this?’ You have to sort of interpret for yourself I guess. For example, in Outside Out, it’s about playing out and in Rising Low it’s about having a unique voice on the instrument, but in either of those cases, you wouldn’t want to be weird for the sake of being weird; just to show how weird you can be if that’s not really true to yourself.
Even in making the soundtrack to Outside Out, [Col.] Bruce [Hampton] and I both had this gut feeling that it shouldn’t be that far out, but it should be pretty rooted sounding. So yeah, I guess it’s this balancing act that keeps going. Even at band practice with Phish, there’s the question of Should I be playing a bass line that’s what anyone else would play to this song, but sounds best or should I try to make it unique to what I do? Or how do I get at what’s unique to the situation and true to the moment?’ It’s a pretty difficult question and someone just last week at band practice was quoting Carlos Santana who said It takes a long time to play like yourself.’
JW: You said you concluded in Rising Low that a lot of these bassists played sparsely and didn’t play a lot of unneeded notes. Is that something that you think you were guilty of at times?
MG: Yeah. Well, when we were getting ready to play at Big Cypress, when we were already down there, someone had an old Phish tape or two. Maybe it was because there were archival tapes for the radio station floating around. So we listened to them and it was really interesting to hear because it was pretty old, like ’86 or something, and we were playing a lot of notes then. We all were playing a lot of notes, and that wasn’t just ’86 that was probably for years after that and it was only in the last few years that we learned how to play less notes. But it wasn’t a bad thing, it was a good thing. Then we ended up playing a set or two at Big Cypress, sort of inspired by hearing that old tape. I wasn’t worried about always playing fewer notes.
JW: Do you remember what set specifically?
MG: No, but there were certain songs though on that tape that we hadn’t played in like fifteen years. I can’t remember now.
JW: “Light Up or Leave Me Alone”? [Last played on 7/25/88]
MG: Yeah, that’s a good example. On the tape we’re just playing all these notes. On the commentary track to the Rising Low DVD, I talk about thinking about bass playing as a sculpture. When you start out, you just have a big blob. You play all of the things that you know: all the scales and the riffs and you just kind of pile it in there. Over the years, you learn what to take away and to leave only what’s really deepor at least you get better at it. It doesn’t always mean playing a few notes. It could mean sometimes having a whole flurry of notes or whatever, but really carving it down to the true essence and taking away the fluff. Then what you get is more of a sculpture rather than a big blob of clay or whatever. I always thought about Jimmy Herring with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. When he played with ARU, he would play tons of notes and in some ways he was the first guitar player that I saw do that it where it didn’t bother me. I don’t know who I would compare it to, like Al Di Meola or someone.
JW: With Jimmy Herring it’s almost like a Monet painting. There’re a million notes, but they create an overall flow.
MG: Yeah, exactly. What was interesting was when I first saw him playing with Phil & Friends, I hadn’t seen him for a while and then I went to see him play. It was amazing how he had stripped that down and I sort of missed the old Jimmy where there was just sort of this reckless abandon. Actually, there’s a scene in Outside Out I’m blending all my projects together in one paragraph right at the end, he’s going back to the admissions office and there’s this guitar playing. That’s Jimmy Herring and it’s sort of this wild flurry of notes. So he can do that. It almost seems like he does it for the right reasons. It’s not to show off or as a technical exercise, but it’s cause there’re just storms coming out of him. I would just assume have him continue to have that storm coming and not strip it down to the same few blues notes that another guitar player would play. So I don’t know. It’s a little tricky. The carving of the sculpture theory doesn’t always work in terms of quantity of notes, but maybe as I was saying, in terms of figuring out where the essence is.
JW: That’s interesting to hear you say that because in [the Phish DVD] Bittersweet Motel you’re kind of ribbing Trey about playing too many notes, so I guess it’s all in the context of the overall sound.
MG: Oh yeah. I guess it just depends, but it is a lesson to learn along the way, to be able to play fewer notes, especially in big rooms where it’s echo-y and each note takes a second and a half to bounce back. Sparseness can be a pretty powerful tool.
JW: Well, let’s talk about something that wasn’t exactly sparse, but what were your thoughts on taking part in the dual stage jam at the Jammys?
MG: I thought that was pretty cool actually. I kind of liked it. I had never done that before. I asked Bob Weir if he had and he said, Oh yeah, at the old Acid Tests they had a band at the other end of the room that often was mixed pretty loud.’ It was pretty cool because it was so loud, but it was all coming out of the front-of-house speakers so it was kind of like being just another person in the audience, but happening to have a bass amp and a bass and getting to jam along. So that’s pretty wild. I liked it.
JW: Almost like a lucid dream.
MG: Yeah, it was kind of like that in a way.
JW: Looking over and seeing the people you’re playing with across the room
MG: It was somewhat similar to looking over at Leo and doing my second gig ever with him and knowing that he’s been my guitar hero. It was like having a particularly good audience seat, which happens to be next to him with a bass strapped on.