Searching For the Space Between Fantasy and Reality.
Mike Gordon is best known as the bassist for Phish and is currently on a solo headlining club tour in support of his latest solo album, Moss.
Following five highly acclaimed tours in ’08, ’09 and ’10, Mike returns with the same five-piece lineup, including longtime collaborator Scott Murawski on guitar, Vermonters Craig Myers on percussion and Tom Cleary on keyboards and Brooklyn drummer Todd Isler.
Yesterday Bands That Jam had a chance to chat with Mike on topics included his his creative process, lucid dreaming, and his state of mind while jamming.
McClain Johnson: How does your creative process work when making songs? Do you follow a certain process?
Mike Gordon: Well, you know it is constantly evolving, because of the way I keep changing the way I want the results to be. So, for example, I go through eras, phases. My current phase is wanting songs to be simpler. If there’s a lot of intricate stuff going on, it’s not as easy to sink myself deeply into singing. That’s been my trend as of recently is to want to really simplify. Meanwhile, I have some half-finished songs and projects, that I love, that are still more of the intricate type. It takes awhile for the era to change.
I’m changing every aspect of the way I work, from where I do it, to how I do it. I used to use computers a lot, and I’m trying not to anymore right now. And then how I want it to sound and who I’m doing it with. I’ve actually been doing a lot of collaboration with Scott Murawski, our guitar player. So, yeah, I have a few methods that seem to work, but then I change them.
McClain: The thing that I love about your work is that you combine so many different styles even over the span of a song. It’ll be funky and then it’ll have jazz elements. Your so at ease with combining styles.
Mike Gordon: Thanks. Yeah, for me, sometimes people are too eclectic and are trying to shove too many influences in there and it sounds disjointed. I guess one thing about maturing as an artist is being able to synthesize those into a single voice, a single intention. The influences they get blended in more and more as I get older, hopefully.
McClain: You do seem to be drawing from a ton of different styles and influences. I remember one time in New Orleans, at a Funky Meters show, a few years back, you jumped onstage to do “People Say.” Are you a big fan of the NOLA sound?
Mike Gordon: Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve been digging that for a long time.
McClain: What do you love about that sound, about that style?
Mike Gordon: First of all, it represents the whole New Orleans attitude. People are growing up playing music as kids in streets and bars. They just, kind of, breathe it from an early age. The city is so festive. There’s music going on all night, almost every night. The resulting sound, it’s joyous I think, in a unique way. That way includes an interesting take on rhythms that are syncopated in a certain way. You get a certain lilt from the New Orleans funkiness that you don’t get anywhere else. I guess it just resonates.
McClain: You play a ton of different things: bass, banjo, drums. What was the first thing you learned how to play?
Mike Gordon: When I was little, it was piano. I was seven and my grandmother bought me a piano. We had a baby grand and I started banging away at it. It was probably a few years before I ended up taking lessons, which I think was a good thing, because it gave me a chance to sort of find my way around on it before the outside influence came in. And then guitar, and then bass after that, and then banjo and things like that. Not too many more things. Harmonica a little bit.
McClain: It’s got to be fun to have learned so many different ways to express yourself out there on a variety of things.
Mike Gordon: Yeah. Well, it’s always a give and take. As with different styles, I think with different instruments; it’s great to switch around because you learn new possibilities as a result of the mechanics of the situation. But on the other hand, if you spread yourself too thin, if I’m practicing banjo a lot, then I’m not going to be practicing bass as much. I have a lot of different goals, I wish I could really work on piano still, and guitar, banjo, and maybe some percussion stuff. Even one extra instrument seems to take away my focus too much. It’s tricky. But in high school, I was just sort of hearing stuff and learning it. I would hear some guitar licks are just learn them from the record. Piano stuff, I did a lot of that, where I would just sit at the piano and just figure, “Well, I can learn this because my ear will allow for it. So I will learn it because it would be cool to be able to sit here and play it on the piano.” In the last couple of weeks, I just started picking up the banjo again. It had been a year or two of really not picking it up too much. It feels good, but then what happens is I realize, “Oh, I could really work at this and really be good at it.” But then I realize that I only have so much time.
McClain: You want to be varied in what you know in order to have a certain skill level. Like you were saying, you don’t want to be spreading yourself too thin.
Mike Gordon: Yeah, it’s tricky. You know in that Malcolm Gladwell book (The Tipping Point), they talk about the 10,000 hour rule.
Mike Gordon: One thing I’ve wondered is whether that rule applies both to narrow pursuits and broad. So for example, I could do 10,000 hours on the bass, which I probably am getting close to, or I could do 10, hours playing music. That could be different instruments, that could include songwriting. I wonder if it counts as much when you’re kind of broad like that. Then my other question about that, I don’t think the idea started with Malcolm Gladwell, I think he sort of popularized it. Other people had come up with it before him. What I would ask them also is, what if you spread the 10,000 hours over 40 years instead of 15 years?
McClain: If you spaced it out, would your skill still be as proficient?
Mike Gordon: I wonder, because as someone with a lot of different interests, that’s the kind of thing I ask myself. At what point do I need to just sort of focus and at what point do the different pursuits sort of fuse into each other?
McClain: I love the way that in his writing, he is able to tie everything together. He’s such a master of tying all his points together. You do a lot of writing yourself. On your website, you’ve written about your dreams in the past. Does anything in your dreams, do they ever influence you musically, lyrically?
Mike Gordon: Yeah there’s a bunch of times. Usually it’ll be a lyric, sometimes it might just be a feeling or even a lick. Yeah, I would say that every album that I’ve worked on has had something that’s come from a dream. There was a song called “The Party,” that I wrote, that Phish learned and was going to put on Round Room, but it was an outtake because we had so many songs. It was a lucid dream, it was a long dream that was just exactly described verbatim in the song. Usually, it’s more just a scene in the dream or a concept that is sort of represented. I’m trying to think of if on my new album, if on Moss, there is anything like that. There probably is. A lot of the songs sort of imply dreams even though they might not be influenced directly.
McClain: Your music does have that sort of dreamy quality. Lyrically, it’s got that fuzzed out kind of feeling to it.
Mike Gordon: Yeah, I’ve always really liked the adventurous aspect of dreams. Music is a bridge to that subconscious, so I’ve wanted to sort of tap into it. Sometimes, rather than being sort of fuzzy, when you’re in a lucid dream, you become crystal clear. When you realize you’re dreaming your brainwaves become heightened. The electrical state of your brain is heightened beyond any other living state, including being awake. It’s actually the opposite of fuzzy in that case. Your state of reality is fuzzy because you are teeter-tottering between dreaming and realizing that you’re lying in bed dreaming. I do like it when reality becomes questionable like that. I like movies where you are, kind of, halfway between fantasy and reality. Not one or the other. I like songs to be like that too.
McClain: When you’re onstage playing, what state of mind are you in, as you are jamming?
Mike Gordon: Well, there’s a lot of different states of mind. When you are in a situation like that, summoning the muse to take over the music. It takes a cultivating of a mindfulness. I can’t say that I’m always in the state of mind that I’d like to be in, which is, probably a combination of being mindful and being mindless at the same time, or ego-less. Ideally, I’m standing up there and I’m just kind of a conduit. I’ve forgotten to swallow, forgotten everything, forgotten to try to take control of the music because it has taken control. So, that’s the best mind state. Sometimes there are some levels of awareness, on the positive side I might be thinking, “Oh this is a great jam I want to just really enjoy it and remember what was nice about it for later.” On the negative side, I might be thinking, “Why can’t this be something different?” If I haven’t accepted it. “Why can’t it be a little faster?” or “Why aren’t we gelling?” I’ve had arguments with people about whether having that kind of awareness, extra awareness other than following the notes and the words, is helpful and is a good thing or not. I would say there are those levels of consciousness, and those levels of self-consciousness, going on. It’s sort of a balancing act to try to calm the mind and just let it flow.
McClain: What advice would you give to bassists just starting out?
Mike Gordon: I would say, allow it to be a religion. That doesn’t mean you can’t have another kind of religion too. If you treat it as not just an instrument, but sort of a gateway to an incredible world of rhythm and dreams and music and all that. Even just a few notes on that bass can be an incredible tool. Allow it to be huge, that would be my advice.
For full list of Mike Gordon tour dates head over to the official http://mike-gordon.com website.