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Published: 2014/02/07

Mike Gordon’s Tiny Little World

Speaking of the Wingsuit seasons, two of the songs Phish debuted on Halloween, “Snow” and “555,” were collaborations with Scott. Did those stem form the same writing sessions as the Overstep songs?

Yeah. That’s a good question. “Snow” was one of the 16 songs that we ended up with after our writing sessions. We weren’t trying to have 16 [songs on Overstep ], and I knew that not all of them would…we loved all of them but not all of them would fit together as an overall piece. We just always loved “Snow,” but we just thought that [it didn’t quite fit on the album]. The goal wasn’t about being as eclectic as possible especially when my favorite albums are ones that kind of keep a vibe going—not 100% because if every song is the same then maybe it’s boring—but within being in the same ballpark of a mood. I kind of like to listen to whole albums like that. So “Snow” is just an example of a song that didn’t quite fit the mood.

It is always so nice to hear the demos before we recorded with Paul. “Snow” was one of the first eight actually but then it just didn’t seem to fit the overall mood. So it was just one of those ones we didn’t know what we would do with but Phish just seemed to gravitate toward it and [ Wingsuit producer] Bob Ezrin did immediately. He went through…we had our many choices down to 25 songs and Ezrin told us which ones shouldn’t be and should be on the album and which were maybes out of all 25 songs. “Snow” was the first one that he thought should definitely go on the album, which I was surprised about. It’s got its own vibe but that’s been really nice and he took what he did and did more with it.

[For “555,”] when Scott and I went back to a different part of New Hampshire that is near Concord, New Hampshire we wrote some new songs and one of them became “555.” It stemmed from the same session in New Hampshire where my band had just jammed and come up with some material. There’s great stuff but we really haven’t had time to mine it.

Do you feel that in the last few years, as you’ve gotten older and made more and more albums, you have gravitated more toward this idea of the thematically-linked album rather than the idea of a collection of songs that happened to be recorded around the same time, with the same band or producer?

Yeah, I think so. I like things that fit together so I think it happens anyway subconsciously because if you take a certain method, a certain process, or a certain person to collaborate with over a certain time period then you end up with a distinctive body of work to some extent anyway. We will talk through our lyrical ideas or our music ideas but with the music sometimes Scott and I will just like we’ll have an idea that is an inking of an idea and we’ll just kind of close our eyes and imagine ourselves on stage—maybe not the typical gig maybe it’s like some weird gig in Bali or something.

We talk about what it feels like and what the song needs. So we’re kind of asking our subconscious, or our group subconscious—our paired subconscious—and then lyrically there’s going to be stuff in a given time period that we’re just kind of thinking about as individuals. Some songs are just about things we’re excited about and some songs were about reflecting or being contemplative about some moment or person in our lives. We would end talking through these moments like therapy a lot of the time just to make sure the lyrics are resonating on some level that’s meaningful. I think some of that happens on auto pilot. Maybe as we get older we get better at choosing what’s cohesive for an album and keeping it within a theme even if it’s not a concept album, per say, although that can be fun, too.

Were there any specific lyrical themes that you kind of felt kept coming up during your recent songwriting sessions?

There are these themes having to do with alienation or a delusion—imagining yourself in a situation or relationship that doesn’t necessarily exist or exist in the way that you think it does. For example, in “Yarmouth Road” he’s building this house with someone and then realizes he forgot to check with the person to see whether or not they want to be building it or moving into it and anything you do and you think the other person is on board and they’re not. Or “Tiny Little World” he’s just kind of watching someone in the coffee shop and imagining the next step and then they’re at this dance club and then they’re forming a life together and then oops he has another life and he’s leading a double life and then it all goes sour and then it’s like oh no forget it just let it be a fantasy. It’s kind of like being displaced, being one-stepped removed from these relationships. I think that’s kind of the theme.

Maybe that’s a little fuzzy and a little vague. Even though I’m not allowed to talk about it, probably the idea of dancing and bopping around is a theme partly just because I was inspired by these grooves I would take to our songwriting sessions. Not all the time but some of the times, I hear something on the radio and I didn’t like the song at all but wanted to take some groove and work with it because it just felt good. If we’re at soundcheck and we start playing or even just at a gig and make up a jam there’s going to be some grooves that just feel good for the band and those are things in a way that should be songs because they just feel good. So I thought, “Well, a groove itself is not a song and it’s probably the furthest thing from a song. A melody is closer and a lyric or phrase are definitely closer, but still a groove is a feeling with its spaciousness and its propulsion and everything that a groove has and energy and sweat and that should feel good.” So it was this idea of feeling good and if we feel good hanging out and writing together then we might as well also feel good with a kind of tempo and groove and syncopation that we’re using as the pulse. So that’s kind of like an indirect theme I guess.

When you hear something at a show or soundcheck that you think would be an interesting part of a song, do you still immediately write it in your journal after the show?

Well, I’m such an organization freak that I tend to keep playlists of ideas. If I think of some guitar lick that I think should be worked into a song, I record it onto my iPhone and then when I’m going through my voicemail I email it to myself. I download it to the desktop but then I bring it in to a folder I call riffs for songs. When Scott and I get together it’s a lot more human than that so it’s pretty rare that we are using those actual files.

I remember the first time I played him the whole folder which is called Riffs for Songs. And that’s only one thing because I have an equivalent place for lyrical ideas and then, I’ve got another place for some of these grooves I’m inspired by and then, I’ve got another place for some of the jam sessions we’ve had. [As I said before], my band went to New Hampshire a couple of years and for three days we just jammed.

I read that Bob Dylan does the same thing and most people just kind of keep a stockpile of musical and lyrical ideas and then they kind of revisit them the notebooks or whatever. But when Scott and I are together almost all of that is almost negligible—it’s just a tiny inkling to kind of get our ideas flowing and then when Scott and I were in North Adams we were using artwork and all these paintings around the town and those were just as, my riffs for songs and those paintings… it almost doesn’t matter where the idea starts from, it matters where it goes and whether we can sort of nurture it a place because we’re feeling it based on the feeling. Otherwise it’s just like firewood for the fire.

Given that these songs were created in such a songwriting environment, how’s it I guess, what’s the process been like so far to kind of bring these songs to life on the stage?

Well, we’ve been having rehearsals since last October on and off. I think it’s really just a matter of matching the situation or letting the situation dictate what it wants. In the case of my band you know when it really happened is the last rehearsal. It was really intense. It was a week-long rehearsal and we were in three different locations and we were trying some new technology for the stage and then we went to a log home. We borrowed or rented a log home and we went in with practically no gear—just small stuff by a fireplace in the living room, looking up and there was like views out the back door, back windows And so by paring it down, almost back to the same exact vibe that we were in when we were writing the songs and we were working on our old repertoire and rearranging some stuff and some new cover songs too.

It wasn’t all the album material but it was focused on the album. What was really just an awesome feeling was that the band started to sound like itself more than ever before just its own combination of attributes. [Percussionist] Craig Myers might have been playing his N’goni. It is not that we’re the only band that has a N’goni because Toubab Krewe uses one but we’re the only band with this pile of attributes and a couple new instruments that I have and then a couple new ideas that we’ve had for jamming.

We were in a room together without much stuff sort of boiling down with the fireplace and everything—it just felt it was playing itself. And so I thought the most important thing would be to have some great new songs to play and we’ve worked on that. Then the other thing is to say, “Well, it doesn’t matter what song we’re playing we just want to allow ourselves to sound like ourselves like I was saying in terms of playing a groove we would naturally play at a soundcheck or in between songs because it just happens to feel good or not playing but making it up maybe.”

It’s the same kind of thing with letting people play, just fall into their instruments whatever they are and doing the kinds of stuff on them. I mean I’m speaking the obvious but it was really kind of enlightening to be in that room and just realize, “Oh we’ve really let ourselves sound like ourselves.” You know, we’ve tried to cultivate that where of course we’re going to sound somewhat like Phish or any of the other bands that the band members came from or any influences that we’ve had. But trying to say, “Well okay we know where we all come from, we’re not always going to follow that path, we’re just going to see what this sounds like.”

I was just really excited that was happening. I love the live Egg release that we did and just feeling like, “Wow, in only a few years we got this band to really kind of have a chemistry” because I like the way that release sounds and then to add a new repertoire, I’ve kind of felt like, well this is just great. We’re kind of trying to put it all together and just having an incredible time is the goal.

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