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Mike Gordon’s Mad Scientists’ Club

I want to explore your relationship with Scott a little bit more. You two have been together for a while. How would you characterize the intricacies of your relationship and what it’s like writing with him.

We’ve been putting little bands and projects together since maybe ’92. So I guess that’s 25 years. My relationship with Scott started with seeing Max Creek and liking his stage presence and musicality and a lot of things about what he believes in and stands for musically—including a certain kind of rhythmic play and a certain kind of handling of melodies and chords. It’s about the fabric of the music, and he does something that just feels good. And then, we started to get to know each other, and that felt good too. We’re very different kinds of people, which I think is good for our relationship. I’ve always said he’s a little more “go with the flow,” and I’m a little more “make lists,” and it’s kind of like Mick and Keith. Mick is known for making all the lists and Keith is known for doing all the drugs. I’m not saying that that’s what Scott does, I’m saying he tends to go with the flow. On the other hand, he also does computer programming and can he be very meticulous. He always shows up to practice knowing everything down. He’s very disciplined. So I wouldn’t paint the picture of just a carefree guy. He’s very thoughtful. I just enjoy shooting the shit with him.

You know he’s up on a lot of the interesting articles and links and things going on. Sometimes I live in a bubble and it’s people like him that sort of fill me in. But it’s also just fun. We’ll have these Skype sessions when we’re not together, and we’ll just be going through our song ideas, or if we’re working on something that germinated and has come halfway to fruition, we can see it online on a shared document, and it’s like a puzzle. We’re working with all the aspects of music and we’re strumming guitars too and rhythm and rhyme and all these things and trying to figure out what works. It stems from something almost mathematical, but it just has to strum your heartstrings if it’s going to work as a line in a song. Usually, we’ll be on for hours, and by the end we’re just laughing all the time. We just laugh a lot, and it’s just a good friendship that would lead to someone being able to plan these musical adventures and then laugh a lot.

I just really enjoy our friendship. It just feels good. It’s fun to hang out. If we’re gonna go to a restaurant, that’s gonna be fun too. But it’s not always fun and games, and sometimes we’ve got a song that we love, and it’s not working. And with any artist, there’s always struggles, and that feeling might last for four days. But often what happens is we’ll tweak it, and try to make it different, and try to figure out what could push it over the edge to where now it’s not blocked in some way. And then, it feels like we didn’t get there, like we failed, like “Well, this song is gonna be thrown out and that’s fine, because we have plenty.” And then, we drive away, and pop the tape in or something, either on the way home or the next day listen to it, and it’s like, “Oh my god, we did make it work!” We just didn’t realize it because we were so up to our neck in it, pulling our hair out, trying to figure out what’ll make it work.

The good thing is we have all these ideas. I don’t feel like there’s been writer’s block in my life for a long time, and I feel like I’m just approaching things in a different way. But sometimes, if we’re together, we’ll just get stuck, and it’ll be hours and hours, and we’ll just not know what to do. We tried going out, we tried coming back…but then making it through that kind of struggle just deepens the collaboration, the friendship.

It sound like your relationship allows you to have the time to let ideas germinate and let them come to you rather than forcing anything.

Yeah, it’s a funny thing, because music is such a strange phenomenon, as we all know. At any given point in time it doesn’t exist, it requires the passing of time. And it moves us so much when it’s working, and yet what I like to do, is I like to make a 9-5 job out of it. A lot of my favorite songwriters do that, like Paul Simon, for example. If he’s in a writing phase, then it’s maybe 5 hours a day, maybe 10am-3pm, and he’s got certain people involved, and certain gear involved, and it’s very regular and regimented.

I need that formalized schedule from month to month and day to day and goals and all that stuff. I come from a family where the dad is a successful businessman and the mom is a successful artist. Successful in that they set out to do a lot of stuff and they did it. And I like being the businessman a lot of the time. I love desks and files and lists and things like that. And at the end of the day, an album is only a certain length, and it’s a certain number of tracks, and it’s kind of like a document in a way. And yet we all know music can be nirvana or an endless dream or ecstasy of different kinds, and how do I take this businesslike process and end up with this thing that’s kind of a product. And make it not really a product, but a gateway to the unknown. I think that’s been the answer for me: to step away from the lists a little bit, like I was saying, and allow the gut feelings. If you’re allowing gut feelings it’s easier to throw out, because there’s a lot when you’re making something that you have to throw out, whether it’s a movie, or a book, or an album. And that can be hard, but if it just makes sense to, then it’s not really hard.

You decided to include “Let’s Go” on the album. I know that was originally considered for Phish’s Big Boat record. What made you want to revisit that and give it the Mike Gordon solo treatment?

I’ll avoid the long answer because the song has like a lifespan, and each era is different. Even working on it leading up to when I brought it to Phish, it changed a lot. And then with Phish, it changed several times. When we put it on the album, Ezrin and some other people in management just thought that it didn’t really hit the nail on the head in terms of getting the sound right. There’s something about the original demo that was really—it was like this trashy hip-hop groove with a drum machine and there were some tablas that were from a real tabla, and then there was some distorted guitars from a synthesizer. It was just really like a mashup. It had a chant in it, which had come from a live moment, from some random moment in Boston. And when Trey first heard it, he was like, “Oh, we loved having the ‘Fuego’ chant and there’s a chant, and we need that.” And then, “Oh, that little drum beat, sounds kind of modern, and we need that too.” We kept toying with it and in the end I think we didn’t really figure it out, but what I wanted to do was return to the demo a bit. I was kind of glad that it didn’t work out the first time because I think it needed more time to be figured out. It wasn’t the fault of Ezrin or the Phish guys or me or anyone. It just needed time and everyone who’s a songwriter has things like that happen. Trey has that all the time, where there’s a song and ten years later we pick it up again, and it’s the best thing ever. But it needed the time to incubate.

So with then Shawn, it was crazy. He took the vibe from the demo, with the really spare drum machine. In fact we started from a drum machine, but we didn’t use the drum machine in the end, we turned it off. It was an 808 or something. But then he had us layering, track over track of churning, like gurgling-churning, on five different tracks of bass. And then he’d go up and octave and do five more, and then do it on the Dobrato, which is a resophonic guitar with a whammy bar. And do five tracks on that! And then do it on the electric guitar! On the choruses! And the keyboards! At a certain point, I was like, “Woah, what are you doing here?” There were maybe 50, 100 tracks, doubling the same thing, and you could never hear any of them individually because it’s a mush, but it creates this kind of…I don’t know what to call it…I’ve heard it sometimes in indie pop, I guess you would call it this thunderous distorted churning. I think that’s what happens with the choruses, and the verses are more funky, but still with this totally overdone-Shawn Everett-ism.

I actually like redoing things. And sometimes we’ll stop playing an old song because maybe it’s too happy or maybe it’s too busy. And then some other year we’ll pick it up again and say, “Well, it’s a good song but maybe we can make it less busy or less happy,” and then we do it. I like doing facelifts of things. It makes it more interesting for me, anyway, where something can morph over time.

You’re coming off of this awesome summer with Phish, doing some amazing improv at the Baker’s Dozen. I was kind of curious-at what level does improv fit into the Mike Gordon solo equation? Are you trying to rein in the jamming? Are you trying to control it?

I’ve been thinking so much about that, more than you could believe. The true answer to that would take like six more hours. When I have these great jams with Phish, and then some that aren’t great, but when I get inspirations, I call Scott immediately. I share them. I write emails to my other band members and there’s a lot of inspiration that goes back and forth for me, between the two bands. But it’s really, really interesting to me, how improvisation works so that it becomes a religious experience. And I think it’s a lot of letting go, and that’s really hard to come by, to teach yourself, and what it takes to let go. And then whether I really want all that. Sometimes I feel like, “Well, I already have a jamband, do I need another one?” And ultimately, I think the answer is yes, because these peak experiences and these religious experiences are so deep that I just always want to have them when possible. So, like if you go back to “Peel” from Atlanta that we released with my band [from 12/3/16], it sounds utterly unique. No other band will play “Peel” like that at all. I mean there’s influences thrown in, and some are some African musicians and some are from Phish and our other bands, but it’s completely unique.

It’s actually getting to those magical moments that inspired this album, I think. Because we thought, “Oh, we’re getting to these places through improvisation and long jamming where it doesn’t sound like Phish, it’s influenced by Phish, but it’s influenced by a lot of other things too. Some of these indie bands that we’re listening to. And it sounds unique, because we’re trying to cultivate that and get to it.”

So then we’re at the point where we’re like, “Okay, we need to make an album.” But the album might not be the 10-minute jam, it might just be that moment that we got to. Which is kind of how I think of Radiohead sometimes. My favorite Radiohead show was at the Hollywood Bowl, and every song was three minutes, but it was so dreamy. It might’ve taken twenty minutes to get to those three minutes, but we didn’t need the twenty minutes. I really like things to go long sometimes, honestly. If I’m on a musical ride, I want to stay there. And other times, I don’t. So it’s really, really tricky. Knowing when to stretch and when not to has been hours and hours and hours of conversation with my band. I’m bringing my influences and inspirations and so are they. I wouldn’t say that I’m the leader, I’m just bringing suggestions. But figuring it out is just fascinating for me. That’s probably the best I can answer.

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