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Mike Gordon’s Mad Scientists’ Club

Photo by Zack Blum

Mike Gordon’s solo career is vast and varied. Set aside from the monolithic Phish legacy, his output has fluctuated from album to album, an approach which continues with his new psych-rock effort, OGOGO (out September 15 via Megaplum/ATO Records).

As Gordon explained in a recent phone call, he enlisted friends both old and new for OGOGO, calling in longtime songwriting partner Scott Murawski and acclaimed producer/engineer Shawn Everett to create a comprehensive, layered record that refuses to lean on Gordon’s jamband origins. The songs are clear and concise, yet they have a deep, synth-laden sound that is unlike Gordon’s earlier releases.

“The songs are kind of short for someone in an improvisational world,” Gordon explained. “I like to get onstage and stretch some things out, but the way I see it is some of these songs are written from jams. We’ve taken away the ten minutes of searching, or noodling, and just used the part that the jam led into.”

Recorded in Boston, the album features the newest iteration of Gordon’s touring band including Murawski on guitar, Robert Walter on keys, John Kimock on drums, and Craig Myers on additional percussion. In a wide-spanning interview, Gordon discussed the creation of OGOGO, his songwriting process and the dynamic between improvisation and composition.

During the album’s listening session at Electric Lady in New York, you said you didn’t want it to sound like Phish, you didn’t want it to sound like the Dead or the Meters. So, going into this project, what were your goals and inspirations, stylistically?

Well, sometimes it’s hard to put into words. As artists we just veer ourselves around the corners until it seems right. But there were some goals. Those bands that I mentioned are bands that I love, and I hope that the inspiration stayed in there somewhere. Scott and I wrote all the songs and recorded Overstep and we also did this one together. We thought that Overstep, in retrospect, was…We just wanted to rock. We wanted to be kind of rootsy. And this time, we said, “OK, we don’t want to be rootsy this time.” The music that we’re listening to is a little more current or recent and experimental in some cases.

One thing I wanted was more space between the notes. More air. And not that Overstep is bad. Often, I think we make albums that are reactions to our previous albums. So OGOGO is a little bit less rootsy. A little bit more air between the notes. There was a real inclination to be sparse. For example, with the basslines, I just had really been enjoying basslines that are simpler. To sing over, I think it’s more powerful when there’s less notes. Even in the middle of big jams, I end up finding these little patterns that are really simple. So I thought, “Well this is how we should be writing, if this is what feels good.”

I was just feeling like I’ve heard a million electric basses and electric guitars and pianos, but sometimes I hear the more interesting treatment, where an instrument doesn’t sound so familiar, and it’s not necessarily being weird for the sake of being weird, it’s just allowing itself to match the song. That’s where Scott and I had made a lot of demos and done a lot of writing and so we had more songs than usual to choose between. When we hooked up with Shawn Everett, it was like all those different goals coming together at an apex, because everything he does is interesting. It’s recorded in a really experimental way. When we were recording the album, every single vocal and instrument was recorded in a way I’d never seen before, and I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve seen people be a bit experimental here and there, but to do it across the board, and then also to have it be a fat groove and bass that requires space between the notes and some sparseness. It’s pretty amazing, with Shawn, that he actually does layer up a lot of sounds, more than I would have thought to. Every instrument, every vocal, is layered with a lot of experiments, where something might be the same part but higher, or with a different effect on it, or more distorted, or more something else. And they’re mixed together, and I don’t always think to mix like that. And then when all the mixing is done, there’s still room for the low ends of the groove to come through, and more importantly than anything, for the song to come through.

And whatever was emotional to us as songwriters, sort of to pop through without it being drowned in too many sounds or too many ideas. I guess that would kind of be the list: wanting to simplify, wanting to follow our inspirations. We’ve been listening to a lot of indie stuff, and some electronic stuff, and my daughter plays a lot of pop songs in the car so that was sort of seeping into my system indirectly, et cetera.

How did you come to work with Shawn Everett, who won a Grammy for that Alabama Shakes record, Sound and Colour?

MG: Well, I usually end up putting out the feelers and people give me ideas and people give me lists and then this name comes up. But what I’ve been trying to do this time is use my brain less with every aspect of the process, searching and decision making, and kind of use my gut and intuition. And all the signs just started pointing to Shawn. Someone would give me a list of people or a list of albums, and if I liked them I could see who the producer was. And then lo and behold Shawn was involved with it. And it just kept happening like that. Where I looked around the corner to something I liked and there’s Shawn. And actually, at one point I said, “Okay, this name keeps coming up, not just in my lists, but in my heart. There’s something that’s resonating here.”

So Scott and I sat down with Bob Ezrin who did the last two Phish albums because Ezrin had worked with Shawn twice, and we said, “What do you think about this guy?” and he said, “Well, he’s the most sonically innovative producer that I know of. He’s not going to be the person to tell you that you need a second chorus.” Which is something that we were thinking about; we wouldn’t mind having input from people getting involved on the songwriting end. And then, at a certain point we said, “Well we don’t really need that. We’re confident enough.” We spent a lot of time writing and rewriting and sort of getting things so they felt right.

Then, we got in with Shawn and on the very first day we were working on the songs and he said, “You know, you’re gonna need a second chorus here.” Another person had told me the same thing, that he wasn’t going to be the person to do that, and he was the person to do that. So you never know. Ezrin also said, “Shawn will be the person that you’ll be grabbing your notebook to write down what he says because he speaks in a poetic language.” He likes to mix and think about a photograph he saw in a museum or a building or a painting. He’s very visual and very abstract and emotional in his ways. And I thought, “Okay, I like to think in terms of dreams anyway, and if someone can speak the dream speak then why should I want anything more than that?” I don’t want someone who’s more of a traditional nuts-and-bolts about putting an album together. I want somebody to say what Shawn said after a keyboard pass and he said, “Robert, that sounded like 2 a.m. blue kitchen light as refracted through a prism.” Or something like that.

It ended up being one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It was just so fun, just deeply fun. And Shawn was one part, but the band having gelled, and the band trying to forge whatever our sound is, and be away from all the other influences, experiences, a little bit to find out what was unique about this band. And that was happening. And then to have this producer, and then to have this studio in Boston, Q Division, it was just really joyous. There were skylights and colorful gizmos everywhere and couches for our family to hang out. Then there’s like a hundred vintage keyboards that are hiding in closets and coming out one at a time every half hour, and Robert’s trying these sounds. Robert is so deeply amazing at adapting his talents to every situation. When a new keyboard comes out—there’s one that was made by Radio Shack in the 80s, and it had the most incredible sound ever as soon as Robert and Shawn started experimenting…

So it was like being on a playground. I had done a lot of homework, a lot of preparation to get the songs ready, and also some tracks that were recorded that we were using to stem from, and that helped, because it went quickly. But it was just a chemistry. I’m just really thankful that I got to have that experience and now there’s this thing, this album that I can share from it.

Robert Walter and John Kimock are the two newer guys in your band. Was their addition a conscious effort to change your sound and switch things up, or was it just a natural evolution that turned out really well?

Yeah, it’s probably a lot of little things rather than an overarching thing. Not like, “OK, now we’re going to change our sound.” The other two guys we had were really incredible musicians, very deep cats. And just various thoughts led Scott and I to want to change things up and then we just started meeting people. But I would say that was kind of like the beginning of this era of following our gut more than our mind.

There’d be these ideas and lists of people and someone just says a comment and something tweaks inside and there’s a resonance and there’s a “Oh yeah!” and then there’s an audition. It doesn’t take much when you’re willing to follow your gut. It’s tricky because maybe I’m just saying that a lot because I’m a list person. I have hundreds of lists. And I used to only live my life inside those lists. There’s different programs on my computer and on my phone and file cabinets. I would be very business-like about it. And at a certain point, I just realized that wasn’t serving me, that I would get lost in the quagmire of information.

So now if there’s an idea, whether it’s as a musician or anything, I don’t really put it down on a list. I try to be like the other people that just let it sit in their head and their body. So we did a few auditions, but there’s just a clicking that happened. Actually, some of the other people who auditioned were really amazing, too. We weren’t going to be considering, and not to harp on this moment from three years ago, of course we would consider talented people. But at the end of the day, it’s all about chemistry, I guess. Certainly in the world that I come from, after 34 years of chemistry with the Phish guys, there has to be a certain chemistry.

You’ve described OGOGO as your “band” record. So what was that like, sharing the creative energy back and forth with these guys?

It’s really cool because there’s just this full circle. There’s this trajectory that you feel, that you’re on this ride together, where, like I said, some of the musical ideas came from moments in live shows, and the rest of them came from moments in the studio. But the ones in the studio involve experimenting together. And then there’s a lot that Scott and I do together. We have weekly stuff and we’ll go for a year and rewrite lyrics. We like to take our time and have fun with it. But it really stems from the stuff that’s from the five of us. Then to be in the studio together, and to be in rehearsals together, and then to be on stage, there’s just something really cool about that. With Phish, we’ve done it sometimes. But other times, the individual band members will bring their stuff. And we’ve done some writing from jamming.

One of my favorite books when I was in 4th grade, it’s not the best written book in the world but it resonates, was called The Mad Scientists’ Club. It was just these four or five boys that got together in this clubhouse and made up these inventions they were going to build or adventures they were going to go on. And I just really liked it. They were a little bit off the grid. In a remote, tucked away in a cabin, on this sort of mission together. And so that’s what happened in this case. We had these rehearsals, and normally a couple people might record and then share the files, and John had made some recordings and he just called them “OGOGO Rehearsals.” Now of course that makes sense, but in the past it would have been called “Fall Tour Rehearsals.” But that just shows that the album has created this journey together.

It’s hard to describe what that’s like, to be running around the rooms of the studio, and there Johnny is sitting on a couch with this new drum machine that he’s discovered, and it’s got all these weird purple lights coming out of it, and I’m like, “Cool, I’ve gotta get one of those!” And then I keep walking around another corner and Scott is experimenting with, I don’t know, mic-ing his guitar with the binaural head, an electric guitar with an acoustical mic. And we’re all just in it together. There’s just a feeling of teamwork that I really like, that reminds me of that book. And then to be able to think about going on tour and then to listen to the album together. I like sharing it. Honestly, just to say, when we were making Overstep, at first there was thoughts about not calling it “Mike Gordon” but calling it “Mike and Scott.” And then everyone, including Scott, thought it was a perfect idea to call it Mike Gordon. But we had written all the songs together and this time we did too. I mean, sometimes I have more time than Scott to follow through with some of the writing, but it’s always us coming together that makes the songs come to fruition.

We had some really cool experiences, just the two of us, getting the music ready before recording, doing the writing. There was one session we did in Boston at the Liberty Prison Hotel- it was a prison turned into a hotel. The bar downstairs are prison cells and the whole thing was really vibey, and the mood was kind of thick.

One of the other goals was to make sure that we’re being honest about what we want to sing about and what we care about. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and reading about in this Leonard Cohen book I’m reading. Leonard Cohen, if there was even a tiny inkling of a lie in a song, he wouldn’t even sing it. He’d just ditch it.

But we were at the Liberty Prison and I was thinking about what was going on in our lives and being honest about it and letting it come through. So even the first song, just as an example. I hope that songs can be interpreted by different people in whatever way, there’s no set meaning, but for “Equilibrium,” for me, it’s a really almost scary feeling that I get, and I imagine other people get. You’re in some kind of relationship with someone and something goes wrong in terms of there being a misunderstanding and there’s a conflict and there has to be a resolution, and because of the conflict, things just feel out of balance, and we keep singing “out of balance” over and over again. It’s not just the relationship, but the whole world feels out of balance, and you find a way to make it click. The equilibrium part becomes so fragile. It’s just a little spot in the middle where if it were to tip left or right then you’d be back out of balance.

I think that that analogy if sort of true of the music, too. There’s all these balancing acts, where, like I was saying, it could be too weird, and it could be too dense, and it could be just filled with sounds that are interesting but there’s just no song. Or it could be all about the song and it could be boring for me because there’s no attempt to let the sounds become what they want to be, and something interesting and new and fresh.

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