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Published: 2016/01/25
by Mike Greenhaus

Mike Gordon: Golden Years

Mike Gordon has entered his golden age. With Phish in the middle of a creative resurgence following an inspired summer tour and whispers of a new studio album, the bassist has shifted his attention back to his evolving solo band. Gordon formed his most permanent solo project during Phish’s break in 2008—after devoting himself most entirely to writing and recording for a full year—and has used his group as an outfit to showcase both his songwriting abilities and his varied sonic palettes.

After recording 2008’s The Green Sparrow with a variety of friends and musical associates, Gordon put together a touring group and his first call was to Max Creek guitarist Scott Murawski, a childhood hero and frequent collaborator since 1997. The original version of the group also featured then-Rubblebucket percussionist Craig Myers, keyboardist Tom Cleary and drummer Todd Isler, all of whom were relatively unknown players outside Vermont. Gordon carved out pockets to tour with his quintet each year from 2008-2012 and in 2014, and has released two well-received studio albums along the way: 2010’s Moss, which was largely build from a series of grooves, and 2014’s Overstep. The latter album was a true collaboration with Murawski, written during a series of weekend trips throughout New England. (Those sessions produced the album’s signature song “Yarmouth Road” as well as the Phish tunes “555” and “Snow.”)

Gordon and Murawski have continued to write during the past three years, discussing song ideas during weekly Wednesday Skype sessions and meeting up periodically to hash out ideas in person. Their live band also underwent its biggest change yet last year when Gordon brought Greyboy Allstars’ Robert Walter and twenty-something John Morgan Kimock—Steve’s son—on as his new keyboardist and drummer, respectively. The new quintet quickly latched onto a new, psychedelic sound that moves a little away from the traditional jamband sound to something akin to a thrashy indie band. Gordon, who recently turned 50, has also continued his spiritual quest and appears healthier and more fit than ever thanks to his new interest in TM and P90X extreme fitness (you can read more about this over on Relix.com ).

Just a few days after returning home from Mexico with Phish, Gordon and his solo outfit hit the road for a lightning quick West Coast tour. He also is working on a new batch of songs that will continue to inch away from his roots in funk, jazz and the Grateful Dead. Below, Gordon talks about his new solo band, growth as a lead singer and new priorities at 50.

Let’s start by talking about the new version of your Mike Gordon Band. How did John Morgan Kimock and Robert Walters enter the fold and what are some of the sounds you were looking for when you rebooted the project?

For improvising and rock-type stuff, there is just a certain intuition that you need to experience—it takes a certain mind to know a certain drum beat that you have heard a lot of times before but is fresh each time and it can bounce. If you’re trying to figure that out, then you might be less inclined to experiment in new ways that are pretty far from those genres. I guess I’m talking in hyperbole, but that’s general idea.

Also, when it came to Johnny, not to make a stereotype, but it’s cool to go with someone younger from the management perspective rather than some of the seasoned types on my list because he has some new influences. That ended up being so true: he brings some new experimental stuff that I had never heard or tried. As soon as we met him, even though he is an incredible musician who used to hang out in Jerry Garcia’s living room, he brought in all kinds of new music, from neo-classical to indie experimental stuff. He also has an intuition of thinking in that experimental artistic kind of way, and on top of that his grooving and assimilating into a groove felt so good. So it was kind of like all of the ducks were aligned.

I think I just had too many options. There are hundreds of different drummers [who I could have chosen from], like Keith Carlock who is Steely Dan’s drummer and one of the top drummers of all time. He has been very friendly, but much too busy and probably expensive, so this just worked out perfectly.

In terms of Robert, he played on Overstep and we first talked about [him joining the band] when he came in for Phish Halloween one of the nights in Vegas, and he said he’d like to try and do that gig. I said, “First of all, you don’t sing. Second of all, you live on the West Coast.” He recommended some other great guys on the East Coast, including Marco Benevento—we actually had a handful of people that we have played with and they are all tremendous, incredible people. Robert just had an extra bit of something that hit the group.

We listened back to the tapes and we had a feeling that these two people were just fitting in a certain way that you can only figure out when you put a bunch of people in a room. Then at the end of the rehearsals and our first tour, the inclination sort of shifted around and the results were so satisfying for me. I even said to Joe Russo when he came to a Phish show, “You know, Robert is so great. He’s a rootsy guy, and one of my goals was to step a little away from my earlier influences in a natural way and just see happens,” and Joe said, “Robert is already good at stepping out [of his comfort zone] with some demos that he has been recording and with his soundtrack music.”

I listened back to some tapes from the tour. I am always critical [of my playing]. I used to not listen at all, but now I am going to find things that I am critical of. The fact of the matter is that every step of the way that you’re making something, you’ll change it and get inspired. I don’t know some of the other bands we come from or listen to a lot but that’s not terrible because we are doing a good job at standard funk grooves. What was really inspiring to me was to hear some stuff that was completely different to me. That was the key to the future and the next step. There are a handful of those melodic jams that Scott and I have already been writing from and turning into and it’s so terrific. When we were all together after we played Grace Potter’s festival [in September] we worked on some stuff which was great.

We wanted to just experiment and create a base that could be used for writing, but even before the gig and our rehearsals we had a meeting where I said that everyone had to express their thoughts. My thoughts were that anything that sounds unique to us—whatever that might be, any five people are going to be very unique—lets try all these ideas out and not just the jams. My opinion would be to play less, have less notes and to repeat more. I wanted us to listen to each other more and to do even more than what we are already great at. If we can do those things—be more unique, have more listening, less notes and more repetition—then we will really have the most incredible practice that day and it will be the entire repertoire from old to new have been transformed.

Then we did the deed and the deed is fun, but I almost feel like it’s two steps forward and one step back. We sink back to old habits, and not necessarily in a bad way. It’s always like that for me. I’ll say I want to be more experimental and less glitzy and then we work on it with that inclination. We’ll listen to a lot of experimental bands for a few months that we would never listen to and we’ll do some writing with different sounds. I’ve been listening to some experimental music and these Krautrock and psychedelic-rock playlists on Spotify that one of my managers, Julia Mordaunt, made for me.

Robert is constantly surprising the hell out of me. Everyone is—Scott and Craig are trying out interesting sounds and Robert has a bank with thousands of sounds that are mixed together in unusual ways. I’ll hear these weird drum beats on the tape and think it’s Craig because he has a cool set-up with all of these analog effect pedals, and they’ll say “Nope, that’s Robert.” He never ceases to amaze me.

After that gig with Grace, we saw The Flaming Lips at the festival and then, we had two days in the studio. Scott and I already had so many new songs from almost a year ago that we hadn’t done anything with yet, but we wanted to keep going. We had one day of freeform experimentation with the band in the studio, and then we had another day where we just did some more specific experiments with some of us and it was so fruitful. Scott and I have been having the most fun writing new stuff. We are just trying not to get bogged down with a certain process or even a certain group of songs. If we want to try something out, we try to be pretty spirited about it knowing that it’s always months or even years before the material can assimilate into repertoires and albums. But that’s okay; it’s quicker than it used to be.

The picture that I’m painting here is that it’s pretty exciting to have a group of people that are gelling in a certain way that allows for us to get outside of our comfort zones. I think that’s kind of the feel of the era.

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