Mike Gordon’s Tiny Little World
Photo by Rene Huemer
Mike Gordon has always loved lists. From archiving his favorite jams to choosing the names of potential Phish festivals, the bassist has consistently been hyper-organized when it comes to documenting his creative process. So it is no surprise that each of Gordon’s solo albums has honed in on a very specific style and technique. His latest effort Overstep centers on Gordon’s longtime working relationship with Max Creek guitarist Scott Scott Murawski. The album is the culmination of, in Gordon’s words, an over three-decade “bromance.”
Max Creek were one of the first bands to expose Gordon to the New England jamband scene and Murawski had a profound influence on the young musician’s style and technique. (Gordon famously tricked Phish into playing Max Creek’s “Back Porch Boogie Blues” in the 1980s by telling the rest of the band it was his song.) After a series of sit-ins and jam sessions in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Gordon brought Murawski on the road in 2003 in support of Inside In, the companion piece to the film Outside Out. Murawski was Gordon’s first call when he put together a solo band in 2008 and has remained a steady member of his group ever since.
For Overstep, Gordon and Murawski spent several years co-writing a new batch of songs and then, laid those tracks down with the help of former Pearl Jam drummer Matthew Chamberlain and noted alt-rock producer Paul Q. Kolderie. A true collaborative effort, all of the songs on Overstep were co-written, and Murawski actually sings lead vocals on a few tunes. Gordon finished work on Overstep in 2013, shortly before Phish returned to the studio in Nashville, TN with producer Bob Erzin to work on the songs they debuted on Halloween as part of Wingsuit (two of those songs stemmed from the same songwriting sessions as Overstep ). Below, Gordon walks us through his creative process and his recent studio sessions.
Each of your solo albums have centered around a very specific and very different creative process. Overstep, in particular, seems based around your writing and working relationship with Max Creek guitarist Scott Murawski, who is also a longtime member of your solo band. Did you originally set out to write a full album of songs with Scott?
It kind of started with the feeling of just enjoying Scott’s company. I had this little epiphany when I was having one of my artist’s dates for The Artist’s Way [art collective] in St. Albans, Vermont where I never go otherwise. It’s an interesting town pretty far from here—about 45 minutes outside Burlington, Vt. It’s just a little bit north of us, and it’s an old military base with statues and this large green space. I was walking around there, and I just pictured Scott and I somewhere in New England in some little, empty cabin with no fridge and just a desk and some guitars. It would be very spare in the middle of nowhere, and we can just concentrate on jamming and coming up with just fun things.
Some people have such a hard time with songwriting, and I’ve certainly gone through dry phases like anyone else. There’s a Jerry Garcia quote where he says he’d rather be reading the VCR manual or feeding the cat than working on a song. And I’ve felt that before but this ended up being the exact opposite. I had this feeling like, “I don’t even care what we end up with, I just like hanging out with this guy,” as bromance-y as it sounds. It was more about imagining us hunkering down with no pressure and just having fun and seeing what happens. And the vision was multipart, too. I think I was imagining having a stage filled with mirrors for our band to play in front of [Laughter.] So that was kind of the vision and then, we started having these writing sessions. They were really fun but they were also hard. But whenever I was driving to work with Scott I had this feeling like I’m the king of the world because I’m doing something I want to do.
I remember the first time I drove down to Sunapee, New Hampshire to meet Scott. It was snowing and for the first time in a long time I didn’t listen to any music, and I didn’t make any phone calls on my drive. I usually listen to my hotline messages but this time I did nothing. I just drove down and kept thinking—it was like a meditation and I was just so excited. It was like taking a jet pack down to Sunapee, which eventually was going to be the album title, Jet Pack.
Do you think you will end up incorporating mirrors in your live show?
That was originally going to be part of the idea when we took it to the road. There would be mirrors everywhere. We have great stuff [for the live show] but I don’t think we have mirrors.
How close to your original vision did your songwriting sessions end up being?
When we first got there we didn’t know what the hell to do. We didn’t know how to put our ideas together, and every time I felt the same thing happening. We would get together, and it would seem so fun and then, we would be there and we would be going a little crazy figuring out how to get our ideas organized. Then, when I left and I had this feeling like we hadn’t done too much and when we drove away and listened to the demos we made, and I realized we had done just as much as we set out to do. It’s just a funny cycle like that. I would actually say it was kind of an epiphany that I need to get together and write with this guy mainly because it would be fun.
You ended up writing more songs than can fit on a single album but at what point in the writing process over the past few years did you feel like you had enough material for a unified album?
We took our time because we didn’t want to rush it and there were different phases. Sometimes we weren’t working so much and other times when I was off from Phish tour we were working every afternoon. At a certain point we realized we had eight good songs, and we went in one five day stretch to North Adams, Massachusetts and came up with eight more which we hadn’t expected. And of those eight more I only thought there were three good ones but they all ended up being great and pretty much are all on the album. Not all of them but most of them. There’s some extra tracks too that we haven’t decided what to do with.
Eventually you brought in Paul Q. Kolderie, who has worked with Radiohead, Uncle Tupelo, Pixies and Portugal. The Man, but was something of a wild-card choice for you. How did you land on him as your producer and what were his initial impressions of all these songs you had stockpiled with Scott?
We went through some interesting phases. The first phase was that someone recommended we work with David Fridmann, who does all The Flaming Lips records. It’s a very distinctive, peculiar, interesting lo-fi recording style and it was really tweaking my brain. I was driving around listening to everything David Fridmann had done because, in some ways, he was the perfect guy and, in other ways, he was not the perfect guy, and I had no idea whether he would work with us or even had time. But it just didn’t fit. The ideas didn’t fit regardless of whether he would have done it. Then we met a couple producers, and we talked through some long lists of questions. I tend to generate long lists of ideas and there were a lot of people that didn’t quite fit but that were great. I thought about Joe Henry who did Bonnie Raitt’s last album and a lot of other albums. He’s great, and he’s a songwriter but maybe kind of not quirky enough. He might not have understood the humor in it as much. It just might not have been the perfect fit.
Then there were two guys we met and both were great, but with Paul it just kind of felt like he was into what we already had done in terms of some of the things that were making it a little unpredictable sounding. He’s a real philosophical guy and we just kind of sat around and had these long conversations and it just felt good. He also does everything himself: he engineers, produces, assists, fixes your guitar amp and etcetera. And he had lived only a few miles from New England so that kind of felt like this was a whole New England conceived project. I really liked that he was able to dart through the hills and meet us here and meet us there. That just felt right, too. I like the idea of making something that is ‘of the region,’ the hills of New England. Even meeting Scott [years ago], I would sort of drive around and see Max Creek in some old barn in the middle of Western Massachusetts. Our whole friendship has been sort of New England based so to get Paul, who is from the same turf, felt sort of right too.