Mike Gordon: Sculpting the Big Blob (Ten Years On)
JW: It seems like you have very compatible personalities.
MG: Yeah, that’s what it stems from. We’re figuring it out now more than before. There were times when he would play something and I wouldn’t knowIt’s tricky because a standard bass line tends to make his stuff sound a little bit clichIt defines it too much. On the other hand, I can’t really get too complicated and I’m not going to be quite as complicated as he is. So to figure out what to do is hard, but there’s where the not thinking’ comes in because as soon as I not think’ we just kind of get into this flow of notes and scales. He doesn’t even use musical vocabulary to talk about it. Like, you couldn’t ask him to play an augmented chord or the third note of the scale or a certain time signature. He just does it.
JW: Does he not really have that technical knowledge?
MG: Well he does, but he just can’t express it in words. He has it inherently.
JW: Like Hendrix.
JW: Leo said he was blown away by the power of improvisation after playing with you. You have obviously been influenced by him over the years, but it seems like he was really turned on to the art of improvisation through you.
MG: Yeah. Well it’s interesting. In getting ready to go on tour, we’ve been talking about extending the songs and whatnot. So I started to explain to him how [with Phish] we just go on stage and don’t know what we’re going to do and hope that we’ll go on a journey with it. He really liked that concept, but he was curious about it. He called me up from [his solo] tour and he said, You know, I tried that improvising thing’ and he improvises anyway, he’s being a little modest about it because he’s got a really playful attitude with his instrument. But still, he tried it even more, taking a song that he would normally play and it would be a certain way and just really extending it for a while. I can’t remember what song it was, but he said he tried that and the crowd really reacted well. So he called me back and said, What happens if you just fall on your face?’ And I said, Oh, well good question, but that’s all just part of taking the risk and jam band fans are very appreciative of people going out on a limb and they realize that sometimes it’s not gonna sound good and other times it is. That’s why they go on tour because they know that it’s going to be different from night to night and that there’s going to be risk-taking and that’s where the beauty is.’ So Leo said, Oh! Now I’m starting to get it.’ So, it’s kind of cool to expose him to a different world, where clearly he’s exposing me to some intense musicality.
JW: What was the actual recording process like? I mean, this is your first time collaborating with someone outside of Phish. Did you learn different things about yourself? Did you have a new role in the studio?
MG: Yeah, well I had more of a leadership role. With Phish, Trey is a clear leader. Although it feels pretty democratic a lot of the time, where we’re all sort of contributing in different ways. But, when there’re four people there’s a lot of extra creative energy to go around. With two people, both people have toYou know it’s kind like when Jeff Holdsworth left Phish fifteen years ago and there were five people in the band for a year and then there were only four. There was a huge difference in jamming where there suddenly is another 20% of the sound to fill out. I felt I had to play more notes as a bass player at the time. It’s kind of like that with the recording process too. When there’s two people, both people have to do a lot and that’s kind of nice and we have mutual respect for each other so we both contribute to the ideas of what should be done, what we should work on or whose music we should start with. It’s pretty split. It’s almost half and half in terms of who brought the songs to the situation. So yeah, it gave me a chance to be very active, very pro-active in the situation.
JW: Looking ahead to the tour, you guys have obviously been talking about doing some more improvisation.
MG: Yeah I really like the idea. We jam well together I think. It’s pretty impressive considering the fact that he says that he hasn’t really done a lot of jamming. He’s real good at it. We just blend together nicely. So yeah, I really like the idea that stuff would kind of get extended out. I tend to like things well maybe anyone on this website would but when it’s not exactly like the album, except sometimes it’s ok. But generally, I like it when stuff takes a new form on the stage.
JW: Do you think you’ll play other material that isn’t on the album, like for example “The Driving of the Year Nail”?
MG: Actually, I’m glad you reminded me. I should make sure that’s still on the list because that would be cool. That sounds good. [Leo] got a little sick of it because it’s old. There are a whole bunch of his songs that I learned or know well enough even without having to learn from seeing him play so many times and maybe a couple of mine and then a bunch of covers. So we’re gonna draw from all differentWe have one more three day session before we actually go on tour. Actually, a three days session of practicing and then another couple days right before the tour. We’re just gonna work up these covers and some of them are really good. I mean, he’s got such a unique way of playing these songs. Even if it’s some cover that he’s never played before, it always comes out sounding immediately like him and not like the original version.
JW: Isn’t he working on a version of “Weigh”?
MG: Yeah, we started working on it and I forgot how many different sections there were, so I don’t know if we’ll have time to actually nail it down if we want to do it with all its sections, but that would fit.
JW: Let’s talk about Rising Low. You tackled three themes in there and one of them was trying to define the role of a bass player. Did you come to any conclusions or is it an ongoing quest?
MG: [long silence] Well, it is an ongoing quest. In terms of the role of the bass player, there was one thing that I learned that I already might have known, but it really got driven home by watching all of my bass heroes in the studio. It’s amazing how much restraint they used to serve the song and not overplay; not to show everything they could do at every minute or ever in the song, just to do what’s necessary for the song and thus have the experience be deeper. So that was something that I learned that I didn’t really express in the film so much.
But in the film, I was talking about the essence of bass and what attracts people to it and how it works and how it moves people. I think what I was trying to ask was a question that would transcend bass itself. As an artist in any field, what does it take to really get great at what you do? The reason I thought I could ask that question is because I had so many great, top notch players in the field. There were some noticeable absentees, but there was a really great cross-section of the most well-respected bass players. So I asked them that question and I tried notice what they were doing and that’s where I came up with sort of a three-way theory. The three levels I came up with are: 1) that the first step of greatness is being inspired by a lot of what’s already been there or what’s out in the world, a wide variety of influences; 2) to transcend those influences and develop your own voice and express your own voice through your craft and your instrument and 3) to forget your own voice, transcend that and kind of go back to the universal, but letting it flow in a more deeper, almost spiritual way; just to tap into the moment and whatever is already. So those were the three levels that I was sort of seeing these great bass players float between or show indications of. I guess I’m thinking in threes right now. The film itself does have three themes and one of them is the life of Allen Woody, one of them is the making of this album with all these bass players and the third is my quest.