Before Mike Gordon's Reddit AMA today, the Phish bassist answers a few of our questions
After a few years of songwriting collaboration with Max Creek's Scott Murawski, Mike Gordon's latest effort is finally ready for consumption with the release of his new album, Overstep. Over the years, the man also known as the bassist of Phish has released numerous albums with his own band, each building just a little off the theme that came before. Overstep is chock-full of offbeat melodies, tricky rhythms and some of Gordon's best vocals.
See also: The twenty best jams of Phish 3.0
Gordon and Murawski are set to embark on a tour in support of the album this week, including a show in Boulder on Friday, March 14. In advance of the tour and his Reddit this afternoon, we spoke with Gordon about his songwriting process, finding a mix between raw energy and sophistication, and where he buys his wonderful scarves.
Westword: Well, the new album is coming out Tuesday, and I really like it. I'm a big fan of unconventional pop, and it just feels right. What was the overall feeling that you were trying to get out of this album?
Mike Gordon: It went through some different phases. There was a certain point where I wrote everything with Scott [Murawski], and we kind of looked at what we had, and there was kind of quirky stuff, but in general, it was really rocking. A lot of the tunes had a kind of heavy sound. It's all a little bit rootsy in different ways, the funk and reggae and etc., but with a sort of heaviness that we didn't expect.
We looked at the material and went, "Oh, this is stuff that some people might want to crank at some barbecue in a field," and even though there's, like, some passages where some beats drop, or there are some strange chords, we wanted to allow those moments that are kind of interesting for us to breathe and to be there, not at the expense of something that you would just have a lot of fun cranking up. We wanted to go for that raw energy, and figured a little sophistication could go in there. So if there was a goal, that was probably it.
It's got an upbeat, light feeling to it, but with the rhythms that are created, it's very danceable and almost kind of tribal and weird at times. It will be very interesting to hear all this live.
Yeah, you know, actually, there is a good example of that on "Jumping," one that Scott sings lead on. Basically, it was 2 a.m. on a tour bus after the band played, and Scott and I were the only ones up -- everyone else was asleep -- and we were humming stuff randomly, just having fun on the tour bus. This pattern came up, and it was sort of a rocking pattern, but it had these beats dropped. And it was just sort of fun, and we were laughing a lot.
We were like, "Let's just try it this and that way," and I don't know how it happened, but we thought, "This would be a cool song to jump up and down to since it has this weird rhythm." You know, you jump and land on the floor, and it's in between beats, and then you jump and land and it's on the beat, and even though the tour bus was going fast down the highway, we were jumping up and down, trying out all these different moves and beats.
And there were these little recordings we had made on the Dictaphone, and we were kind of like, "Okay, we have 38 different rhythms and a song that's a lot of raw energy, so how do you reconcile that? Do we pick one of them, or two or three? What do we do?" So what happens in the end is what I am trying to say -- there's all this raw energy and you're just throwing caution to the wind, and going for it, and at the same time, there's something a little sophisticated going on.
We did this mathematical thing at the end, where it's a 9, then you make the next bar 8 ½ beats, and then 8 beats and then 7 ½, all the way down to half a beat. If you're in math class that's really easy, but when you're playing an instrument, that's really hard. You've recorded the album, and now to play it for a show you have to do it again and again, but on the album you didn't want it to sound like math; we wanted it to sound like flying through the air, and since the song has this "Jetpack" reference, we had Scott do this guitar solo.
At first, he was counting, and I said, "Don't even count it -- just stop thinking and go for it," and then we put on the ride cymbals, and the net result was a feeling of flying and doesn't sound like counting. When [drummer Matt] Chamberlain came in -- he's a top session drummer who has played on about 800 albums -- he had to count the hell out of it to be able to figure it out.
And we had written the song and had to count it out, too. So it's kind of like, "Okay, on some level, if you look at it closely with a microscope, there is something tricky going on," but really it's just something you're supposed to jump up and down to. So, yeah, it's really the juxtaposition of being sophisticated and kind of unhinged at the same time.
When you are writing melodies, do they just pop up in your head? Are you tinkering around on the bass, or how do they come to you?
That's a very good question, because of all the elements of music, the melody is really the pinnacle, but I think all different ways, I don't think there is an easy -- maybe I'm missing the trick of what's going on, but usually there will be a lick or chord progression going on, and someone will just start humming.
That's pretty common. In fact, if I had to guess for all rock and pop songwriters -- if I had to guess, and from what I've read -- that's probably the most common thing. That there is a phrase, but it doesn't have words yet, and there are plenty of other ways that things germinate, but that's a common one. There's a groove going, and someone starts humming. Sometimes it will be the other way, where there will be a concept or a phrase of words that needs a melody, but usually it's the other way around.
Actually, walking around, driving, I'm always recording little bits, often a lyric idea more than a melody, but it's more often that we have the instruments strapped on for the melody to come out. Very good question, though. The real answer is, it's hard to know. It's kind of like the muse doing her work, and it's hard to even trace.
I'm actually involved in a project now where we are trying to trace a song to see all the permutations it went through. But that's a very good question. When does the melody come? It's almost like you need a Ph.D. in music to hear and understand the intricacies. That shows in the music -- there's a lot going on there.
You do things as artists that you can't explain sometimes, and it's a different skill to be a teacher, or even an analyst. In some ways, it would be presumptuous for me to say that we even know how the hell we put these songs together. Even though it's been experimental, all I can do is say the ways we have experimented.
When I went back to look at some of the work that went into a couple of the songs, I didn't realize how many times the songs had evolved before taking on their final form. And there are aspects of the final form that in a certain juncture become pretty set, where they are 90 percent set, but I had forgotten some of the roads we went down in order to make the discoveries we did.
When I first heard "Yarmouth Road," from Overstep, I absolutely loved the use of the Banshee for the initial few notes that Trey plays on guitar with Phish. I've been singing that part as part of the lyrics since I first heard Phish perform it [sings woo-wee-ooo-weee].
Haha! I'm glad you did!
BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS
Did you hear it in your head with the talkbox all along?
Actually, the truth of the matter is the demo didn't have that melody yet. There were versions of that song that had different titles, different lyrics, different sentiments, and different grooves. So that's when it really changed. I'm an analyzer by nature, and now I am asking these questions to myself, too -- how did things get to this point? But I know there was a point when the song had become a reggae sort of feel, and I knew that I didn't want it to be -- well, I knew I wanted it to have some different dimensions, other than the obvious that was already there.
And there are some songs on the radio where the hook was not part of the lyrics, and maybe that's the case most of the time -- I don't know; I haven't analyzed that one yet. But one song that was on the radio today had me thinking about that....oh I know what I was thinking about, the song "Heaven" by Los Lonely Boys, when they go [sings the "I-i-i-i-i-I" descending note melody line of Los Lonely Boys "Heaven"], see that's part of the hook, I think, but it is sort of the lyrics, because he is singing a word in there. But there are other songs where they aren't part of the lyrics...
Anyway, so I was thinking, well, that was one thing I thought the song should have, and it wasn't clear at first whether it should be one of the instruments already playing, or if there is some organ, which Robert Randolph from Greyboy Allstars was playing with us, and we said, "We want there to be a little hook that isn't in the lyrics, and can we try a bunch of things?" And he tried some stuff, and it's always so simple. It's like a nursery rhyme; there are three notes.
So we kept simplifying and simplifying, and actually, the little hook that we came up with him on the organ is still in there in the background, but it's not that main thing. And that main thing -- there were more complicated ones -- and I remember lying in bed, and trying a whole bunch of them and then thinking, "Wow, this wants to be a very simple thing, just the two notes." And, so, it kind of just grew like that, as this little thing.
I have the Banshee in my studio -- I also have the traditional version of the talkbox -- but the Banshee has some great, nifty little things. And then once Scott had put that in, we decided, "Well, let's try it on that," and we gave him the whole track, several passages of just jamming out on it. So we used little pieces of that, and kind of wove them through.
Anyway, that was the intention of that, and we hoped maybe that's what people will remember, maybe that's what they will sing along with, that little melody. So I'm glad you did. It's just an experiment, but I love experimenting.
Well the experiment worked. That's one of the catchiest little bit of music I've heard.
That's awesome. Thank you!
When you talk about keeping things simple, one thing I noticed the last time you played in Boulder, was that people went nuts when you turned on the little green laser box -- you would have thought you just turned on Kuroda's whole rig. Do you notice, and are you conscious, that less is more, both musically and through set design, particularly in smaller venues?
Yep! And funny you should ask! The lighting designer, Jason Liggett -- I really like having a crew from my hometown; there's something nice about that -- we can all get together for meetings. Actually, we've gotten together for crew meetings at restaurants, just to sort of see what we can do. And he's one of those people that have gone out on some big tours -- he's been out with Wilco; he's a great guy, and he's really into experimenting.
And so we've done some less is more stuff both in music and on stage. And now we are starting to get into the "more is more" idea. There has been a lot of experimenting and trying to come up with new looks and stuff. I can't give away any of those. They aren't secrets exactly; we just want people to discover them first hand.
Sometimes it's a matter of "it's not an arena, but what can we cram onto this stage and make it fun?" I still think you are right that less is more. Sometimes bands will have a lot of things on stage, both musically and visually, just a lot going on, and I'm more into minimalism. I like a lot of something, but a lot of the same thing, over and over again.
I was really inspired by the documentary Pina, about the famous choreographer. I saw it fourteen times in the theatre, and the last time I brought eighteen friends. On stage, she does these very evocative dances, but the steps are very minimal, made out of organic elements. I just love it when that happens on stage where the world is vast, but based on something repeating.
Okay, I know time is running out, so I'll wrap things up. I can't help but check out your outfits the second you come on stage. How much effort and thought do you put into the appearance you project, and where do you buy those beautiful scarves?
Some people in the music industry don't think about what they are wearing at all. Not that I'm self-conscious, but you only live once -- live it up! I really like John Varvatos. The management team helps with accessories, but yeah, I love John Varvatos scarves. I like to evolve. For so long, I had the exact same haircut and same pair of Pumas. It's okay to feel all glammed out.
BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.