Mike Gordon’s Tiny Little World
You wrote most of the songs on your previous solo albums yourself but you also have a long history of songwriting collaborations, including two albums with Leo Kottke. I heard you even toyed with the idea of releasing Overstep under both your and Scott’s name. How did this project relate to your previous songwriting collaborations?
Well, each collaboration is different. You can look at the Rolling Stones as an example. Mick Jagger is known to be the guy who is always planning, and making lists and organizing and Keith Richards is kind of the guy who goes with the flow a lot. They sometimes clash over that. I feel a little bit like that with Scott. I’m just always over planning and he’s very disciplined but when he can he prefers to go with the flow. So we kind of make a good mix in that way. And I find that every album that I make tends to be in some way a reaction to the previous one. That’s even the case with Phish.
How would you say Overstep is a reaction to Moss ?
I love [2010’s] Moss. There’s something kind of dreamy about it for me. Moss is also sort of stepping in the direction of being a little bit about the song for me, paring down for me as compared with Green Sparrow. So in that sense it wasn’t only a reaction to the previous album but a continuation of simplifying the songs. They could breathe a little more and go in with less of an arrangement. But I think some of it doesn’t stem from the previous album but stems from the live show.
That’s the great thing about being in a band with Scott and then writing with him. We had written a little bit before. There’s this song “Short Circuit” that we wrote which ended up on my benefit album Steamroller Wheelies: A Restoration Convoy. The cool thing is that since we stand on stage together we know what we like to play and there are a lot of different kinds of moods, grooves and emotions that we tend to dabble in just because of the way our personalities are. So it’s really easy to ask ourselves, “Well, what do we want to be standing up on stage and have in the repertoire?” [Laughter.] And for me, I definitely wanted some stuff that’s kind of danceable. Actually, that’s one of my taboo words in talking about the album. But maybe it’s not even the richest word either.
But I wanted to be able to stand up there and be able to sing together with a lot of harmonies and have some really simple, really strong grooves that we can just sink our teeth into. Each of my albums also has sort of a different main instrument. On Green Sparrow, it was the guitar and on Moss it was pedal steel or the bass. A lot of the songs on Moss have interesting bass lines and that’s what they revolve around. But the problem with having bass lines that are so syncopated and intricate is that it is hard to then sing at the same time.
Now, I’ve just been really concentrating on singing, and I just always find that I enjoy having very simple bass lines to sing with. It doesn’t make the bass worse. I think it makes everything better. I think that one of the goals was to have music where the grooves are kind of simpler so we could kind of just rock them out but where it’s not dumb music either—where the arrangements have some sophistication even more than before. So maybe some of the bridge chords are us pushing our limits of moving around the chords and the harmonies and certain beats dropped where it just kind of flows, and it is allowed to be sophisticated but within the context of being much simpler. So that was one of the goals besides just writing and seeing that happens.
Given that you were designing these songs to go hand in hand with the live show, was there a reason you decided to hold off from playing these songs live with your solo band over the last two years besides the two ones you played with Phish this summer [“Yarmouth Road” and “Say Something”]?
Well, at first I had trouble deciding if I should bring any songs to Phish when they weren’t close to being released or done. But I’m glad I did because we had fun with them. The main reason is that I’ve just been busy working on all sorts of projects. I wish I could do things more simultaneously—like being on the road and writing songs, which I’ve done a little bit of recently or working on multiple things. I am a multi-tasker but it just ends up being better if I focus—I can spread myself thin. So by not wanting to play for awhile we were able to concentrate on building up some new material and just focusing on the songwriting. I think that’s kind of the reason for that.
But it is weird not to have played most of these songs before the album comes out. I mean, one definitely could make an argument for playing stuff before recording it, which of course Phish just did. But I like to craft albums like a painting, and I kind of like people to hear the album version first, if possible, and then let the stage version be completely different. I think maybe sometime we will do it the other way around. But I like saying, “Okay, well this is the version that can be crafted in the studio and now let’s see how we can take that and change it radically or let it evolve for the stage.” And that’s fun for me to kind of explore both. If it is the other way around, I kind of worry about it becoming too much arranged for the stage and then maybe I worry it would be kind of harder to do the studio version because I just enjoy them being different kinds of animals.