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Published: 2016/11/20
by Dean Budnick

"Everything Is Too Much": A Conversation with Mike Gordon

Photo by Dean Budnick

In June of 2015, Mike Gordon debuted a new quintet. Joining the Phish bassist in this incarnation of his solo group were drummer John Morgan Kimock and keyboard player Robert Walter, as well as stalwarts Scott Murawaski (guitar) and Craig Myers (drums). The band has just embarked on a late fall tour, which will include stops in Chicago, Nashville and Atlanta, concluding with a three night stand at the Sinclair in Cambridge, MA on December 9-11. In the following conversation, which took place just days before opening night in St. Louis, Gordon reflects on the current state of the group and his songwriting, as well as his tour announcement videos, the “Jeannie blink” and the special ceramic elephant that he and his daughter Tessa, made for Barbara Eden.

On your Facebook page you’ve been asking your band members to name the favorite tune that they’ve been brushing up on for this tour. How would you answer the question?

There’s one new song called “Check Your Pepper”—that’s the working title. It’s almost like a vamp and a hook, rather than a song but it’s got sections and lyrics. I’m looking forward to it because it’s uncharted territory. It could become one thing, it could become another. We could play it for a whole set or we could play it for 30 seconds in between other songs. I like the open-endedness of that.

We worked on it a bit but then we left it, kind of like someone making a recipe or a painting who doesn’t do the finishing touches because they know they have to figure it out later. Sometimes the finishing touches can change the body of the project, the whole creation.

Scott and I have been doing a bunch of writing. I often hesitate to play the new stuff before recording it because I like to save some of the special figuring out for the studio, where the special spark comes with the first tries. I think maybe in the future I might change that up. Right now we’re in the process of saving a lot of stuff that we like, rather than playing it but with every tour we sprinkle in a little more.

Independent of whatever rehearsal you do with your band, I’m curious what you do to prepare for a tour.

There are so many inspirations that trickle down. Whether it’s something I hear on the radio, or some of these incredible playlists that my band members turn me onto, or experiences from Phish tour or art galleries, there’s a lot of inspiration that comes my way. Then it feels like tour is a place where anything goes and we can redefine the sound of the band. I like being in the role as the conduit for the energy aesthetically, spiritually and rhythmically.

What songs specifically surprised you or revealed themselves in a different way to you this time, as you came in with a different headspace?

I philosophize about this stuff so much and I talk to the band members when we’re in practice and through email and phone calls. Robert came to three of the Vegas shows and we just keep philosophizing because it’s more than chasing the groove, it’s chasing the path to nirvana. I listen to a lot of pop music with my daughter, and appreciate stuff that is very repetitive and catchy where you can’t get it out of your head, in a good way.

There were a couple days where I was reminded of the power of simplicity. For example, there was a moment the second night in Vegas, which was one of toughest ones for me because I felt tired. I still liked the second night because in the second set there were ferocious jams that had a heavy, massive and dark feeling. It came out of this intense amount of simplicity. It was one five-note bass pattern played over and over again for a long time. This isn’t a thing where I’m trying to be clever, or artsy. It’s not like I’m trying to be cool by using restraint. It’s the thing that’s leading to the power that music can provide. Stumbling onto this new way of using simplicity is a big theme for me.

When we did our first tour with this lineup, we started what I was calling the “non-varying exercise” because in different parts of my life I was getting inspiration to not vary. When this lineup first came together we tried everything but everything is too much, so we learned how to work with less. The non-varying exercise was interesting because it always led to some kind of peak experience or an idea for a song. Each person finds a little lick, and for five or ten minutes they stay on it. That doesn’t always apply to doing the gig but if you go in the opposite direction with so many jams, scales, licks, chords and rhythms all being used at once then there’s nothing to anchor it or hold it together.

That’s just one example. My role is to take whatever influences there are in the world that inspire me and funnel those. That’s the same with the rest of the band with their influences. We have to funnel it, even if we don’t understand how, into a band experience where we can get on stage in places we haven’t been to in a while, knowing that anything goes, but knowing that energy is fused into our systems. We try to harness that energy and refine it so we can communicate in discernible packets of rhythm and melody as simple as nursery rhyme.

On a metaphysical level, that’s my job. Taking all this information and influence and without analyzing it or planning it, trying to funnel it into what will become this tour.

Is there a particular era of your songwriting that you think is best suited to this band?

A lot of people call my hotline and say they miss Inside In.
Back at that time, I knew I wanted to mix the country and spacey stuff. I don’t want to throw that away, however I also like to keep moving forward. Although there might be some things I appreciate about an era or album that I might want to revisit, typically the aspects of the era represent a certain thing that I’ve moved past.

When I look back at Inside In, I understand that people might miss those songs and I do want to play those songs but not necessarily as much as some newer ones. In a way, I can look at every album in every era and pick out what I don’t like about that material. I can be a picky person.

For instance, I have so much love and appreciation for The Beatles, their incredible body of work and what went into forming it but I’ve heard the songs too much. I needed to give it a break. But then I went to the Beatles Cirque du Soleil in Vegas with my family, and I loved it. It’s just the perfect way to get that music back into my heart. It’s been rethought, there are visuals, but sometimes there are parts where you only hear the singing or the instrumentation, so it’s freshened right up for me. I’m totally into it again.

I need to go through that process of reinventing and rediscovering songs as I play the old ones from the old albums and eras. I’d almost rather keep evolving and keeping my eye on the ball and moving forward rather than thinking too much about the past. Yet I also want to keep the repertoire alive and get into the old songs in new ways.

When we practice we look for these secret weapons, these magic bullets. One of them and this is probably true of every band I’ve played with is just slowing things down. We’ll get on stage and there’s a live energy and a certain tempo of a song that feels natural, so we play it and it matches the live energy perfectly. Then when we hear it back, it’s too fast, you can’t enjoy the internal rhythm between the beat and the bars because they’re glossed over and it’s not heavy and it’s not moving. The only way it’s going to be those things is to slow it down more than we would like to, slow it down to an uncomfortable level and let nature speed it up at the gig.

It’s often less about each individual song than the sound of the band as a whole where we might say, “Let’s play everything slower” and it feels like a dream come true, like winning the lottery. But one song like that where it really just wasn’t really happening and then we changed it was “Tiny Little World.” That’s an example where it was a natural feeling but too fast and then we said, “We’re going to slow it down a certain percentage.”

So with “Tiny Little World” we said, “Let’s slow it down to the edge of where it feels uncomfortable” and suddenly it became the best song of the tour. It had a metamorphosis. It’s not that the slowing it down itself was the essence of the song at all, it was the key to open the door.

It’s all about finding a fine line on these various spectrums and that’s the spectrum of tempo. The one I was talking about before is the spectrum of how many ideas and influences and inspirations you can work into each few bars of music and how many you should and how many you shouldn’t and when do you experiment and when do you rein it in and non-vary.

All of this stuff is part of what I find fun, from the inspiration and philosophizing, kind of like putting it through this big ice cream maker and seeing what flavor ice cream comes out, which is the tour.

Why do we go through all this philosophizing? I think we do it because we love our jobs and we love going on tour with a band that is discovering itself and doesn’t know how it’s going to sound. Is it going to be a funk band? Is it going to be an ambient band? On the last tour Johnny and I went to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor. We’re not going to be that but there’s another influence—someone who can just use ambience most of the time and have it be beautiful. These are all influences and we’re figuring this out.

I think it’s less about each individual song. When I listen back to tapes from our tours I can hear us becoming a band. It has these influences but it doesn’t sound like anything else. For instance, it might sound like Arcade Fire for a moment but that’s part of the process while it’s all evolving.

My tendency would be to bring new 10 originals and 10 covers to every tour. But while we do bring new stuff to every tour, that would be too much. We want to really get to know the material by playing it a lot. I have found through trial and error that if we can do it that way, we can go deeper.

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