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November 06, 2013

An Interview with Phish's Mike Gordon


Photo courtesy Julia Mordaunt, copyright Phish

As we reported in this week’s cover story about Phish’s 30th anniversary, we had the opportunity to speak with bassist Mike Gordon. It was early October, and he and the band were finishing up rehearsals in Vermont before embarking on their 12-date fall tour.

We know now that the band was practicing a batch of new songs, 12 of which they performed at their Halloween show in Atlantic City. Many of those are likely to appear on Phish’s forthcoming studio album, Wingsuit, which they were scheduled to begin recording this week. But at the time, Gordon and the rest of the band were being tight-lipped about what they were up to. 

Gordon did share his thoughts about Phish turning 30, living in Vermont, working on his own side projects and how the band has matured over the years. He also shared his four secrets to success.

SEVEN DAYS: So how does it feel to be 30?

MIKE GORDON: To have our 30th anniversary?

Yes, yes.

It does feel pretty monumental. I mean, if I could flash back to my college days, I don’t think I could’ve predicted that 30 years later I’d be playing with the same three people and having this much success at it with such strange music and funny ideas. So I’m surprised, I guess, that things are going so well.

How do you explain that? What’s kept things moving forward and going so well 30 years in?

I think people only can guess why they’re successful. It would be presumptuous to be able to say the secrets of success or longevity with a project — not that it’s a project, but anyway. But I could make my guesses. For starters, the band members continue to have a healthy relationship. Any relationship is going to have ups and downs over the years, but in general it’s been a benchmark relationship in my life to compare other ones to, because we communicate openly, we find compromises when people have different goals, we’re respectful of each other and encouraging of each other, so that each person feels like their individuality doesn’t get lost when summing up the parts. It’s a nurturing, it’s a healthy relationship.

With some bands, or maybe other artistic groups, it gets to a point where someone wants to do something else, or people could say, ‘Well I’ve done this for long enough.’ And I think there’s always an opportunity — you can say that with a marriage, too — there’s always an opportunity to look at the other side, which is that you’re rewarded for continuing commitment and the deeper commitment that comes by sticking together for a longer and longer and longer period of time, because in a relationship you build all of these foundations. You build and build and build and so it keeps getting deeper in some ways. That’s what I honestly think.

The music feels more mature, and not that there aren’t certain moments back in the career where we had a good thing going, a good sound, or approach that’s different from now. Sometimes the fans look back and say, "You know, what about the way you jammed in ’94 and this and that." I never do that. I always feel like we keep progressing, personally. It might be in subtler ways, like just that the grooves are more even — but that’s a deep thing from my perspective.

Well, it seems like from most fans’ perspective, most people were pretty ecstatic about this last tour — that it was one of the best. I’m curious what your thoughts were from the summer.

My honest thoughts are that in some ways we’re playing better than ever, but I wish there had been a higher percentage of ones that I loved. There were a few that I did love. That’s my honest — I’m always critical. And when I don’t like a show or a set or something, it can be hard to figure out why. After 2000 gigs or whatever it is, I don’t get too hung up on it. But I won't be happy, either. But I did love some of them.

Which ones stood out for you and which ones did you think didn’t go quite so well?

Favorites? It’s easier to remember probably the second half than the first. I liked, let’s see, at the Gorge, I think I liked night, ugh, I can’t remember now. I think I liked night two at the Gorge, even though fans sometimes liked night one. I think it was night two that I liked. That Tahoe thing that everyone likes — the Tahoe “Tweezer.” Was it “Tweezer?” Whatever the hell it was. I really liked that night, too. At Bill Graham, I’m testing my memory, but I think it was the first night I that I liked. And I actually liked the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a great venue. The time that we were there the first time it didn’t feel so smooth, and this time it did. And, yeah, I don’t know if I looked back earlier in the tour. I don’t know. There’s millions of standouts. One of the Gorges, one of the Tahoes, one of the Bill Grahams.

Do you want to name any of the ones that weren’t so hot, or do you want to focus on the positive?

I can’t remember. But it’s just sort of — I’m an analytical person, so I try to analyze what’s working and what isn’t. When it’s not working for me, I feel like, I don’t know, the band members — no one in particular, it could be myself — aren’t surrendering to it as much. People might be playing more notes or might be kind of like push things in a certain direction. A lot of it is subconscious. A lot of trying, rather than— When it feels good, we’re kind of gliding with it. And I don’t know why after 2000 gigs we couldn’t learn to make just about all of them like that, but I guess that’s just the nature of improvisation. Which is that you’re throwing caution to the wind and there’s some factors you can’t predict everyone’s moods and the stars, etc.

What is it like these days to just practice with the band? Also, I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the songwriting process. I understand it’s been more collaborative, more just the four of you guys hanging out together?

We’re feeling great about being creative together, because I think— in eras when we were younger, at different times, band members were working out personal things. Not personal life things, but personal creativity things. Now that Page and I — this is just an example — have been doing a lot of songwriting on our own, I think when we come into the group, we still accept that Trey has been more prolific over the years and he’s a great leader, so we’re going to want his guidance in some ways, but bringing those kinds of experiences to the table, it means that we’re going to be more confident than before. It feels more like collaborating than ever before.

There were definitely times when I felt like I’m given a song— I was always encouraged to bring my own songs, to make my own bass lines, but because of my own insecurities in previous eras, it might’ve felt like I was being given an assignment, and that’s not what it feels like now. Now it feels like, it feels a little bit like my favorite book growing up, not that it was great writing, but it was a great concept, the Mad Scientists’ Club. I probably got it in 4th grade or something. It would’ve been, let’s see, 1974. It’s just these four kids who have a little clubhouse. They make a dragon or something — an electronic dragon.

I don’t really know what they make, but I imagine its kind of like stomping out in the middle of traffic and interrupting cars or something. I always just thought that was the coolest thing: outside of the institutions of school and church and temple and family and all that, just to have these kids that can do mischief. Maybe there was a leader of that group, too, and leaders are good to have, but it feels like we’re in it together. 

And you know, honestly, we’ve been busy now — and I’m not allowed to talk about what we’re working on — but generally speaking, 96 percent of my time outside of Phish touring is working on my solo career. I’m just finishing the touches of an album I’ve been working on a long time, and I’m so excited about it. So in the grand scheme, Phish is a minor part of my day-to-day life, except right now.

Tell me about that. Obviously you’ve been doing a lot of work on your band and you’ve put out a bunch of albums in the last few years and toured a lot. What have you brought back from that to Phish, would you say?

I’m sort of stretching the limits of my personality. In the past, I wasn’t as much of a songwriter or singer. And even being a bandleader doesn’t mean I’m going to come to Phish and be the bandleader, but it means I’m more comfortable expressing my ideas. I think probably the biggest thing is confidence.

But, yeah, I mean, with my band, I actually encouraged the other band members to bring material and to sing, so it doesn’t end up being a boring one-man show. But I know that a lot of the material I’m creating, I’m arranging, I absolutely need that in my life because I enjoy it so much and I enjoy the creative process. With Phish, I’m always encouraged, but in the end there’s a lead singer and a band leader and I won’t really get a ton of time to follow through, from writing a song to seeing how it comes across and how it feels, how it moves me. And because there’s only so much room to do that with Phish — whereas with my band, it’s just packed with that. It needs so much of my input every day. So I really enjoy that and need that.

And fortunately with Phish, now that we’re older than we were, we’ve left plenty of room in our lives for our families and our other careers and everything else we try to do, so there’s plenty of time for both. Although, right now it doesn’t seem like it because now there isn’t even time to go to the bathroom. Everything’s happening at once with me, but that’s OK.

I’d like to turn back to the early days a little bit if I could. I’m curious how you think living and working in Vermont, especially in the early days, influenced the band’s direction.

Well, we’ve always thought that it’s a very nurturing artistic community. It’s just the right size. If it was so tiny that if it was way out in the middle of nowhere, there might not be any culture, but if it were a city like New York or Boston, we might’ve been lost in the fray a little bit. So it just seems like a perfect little Mecca. You know, we could get inspirations from the local great musicians and other bands and the art scene, as well as from just the surroundings in one of the country’s most livable cities, according to the New York Times. It just feels like a fertile place.

I was in New York for a few years. Trey’s still in New York now. And I enjoyed being there, but my personality — I just feel a little lost. There’s so many millions of things going on and to live in a place where I can drive into town and run into some people I know. It feels more like a fable, like I’m living in a fairy tale, which I think is important for an artist, because you want to feel that what you’re doing potentially has magic to it.

When I was looking at college with my dad — we looked at 12 of them — what really grabbed me about coming to UVM was the lake. And then, secondly, the town around the lake. And, thirdly, some things about the school. But it was sort of like a magic that seemed to be in the air, you know just this lake town and something clicked. Then within three weeks of being a freshman I answered the sign: “bass player needed.” And that’s been the same band ever since that day, 30 years ago.

I was going to ask you if there was a particular place in Vermont that inspires your music. Would it be the lake?

I wouldn’t say there’s a particular place. It changes for me. I mean, there was a period of time when I was working on songwriting and I would go down to the single-lane covered bridge in Charlotte at the rock beach, bringing my guitar to the rock beach and sitting on it and watching. It’s cool because beaches slope down and this one doesn’t. It’s just flat when you sit on the rocks. Imagining that the waves are like people in the audience and singing these lines and thinking, ‘Does this resonate with me?’ while singing to these waves and rocks. But you know that’s just an example.

I like coming into town actually, even though I don’t live in town. For years I was going to Dobra every day, hours every day, and then now Maglianero. Of course, if I’m strumming and singing and doing that kind of thing, I’m less likely to want to be around other people, but so much of the creative work is — I like being around other people. I think it’s the modern paradigm, since so many people are working alone, but they want to be around people, so they go to the coffee shop.

Now corporations are starting to build coffee shops into their buildings to try to recreate that. So I like having the finger on the pulse of the town even though I probably don’t. I like going to [Radio Bean’s] Honky Tonk. That’s been a big hit— you know, for eight years. I have to not go because I like it too much. When other people come into town, I bring them, you know, these notable musicians or whoever, I bring them to Honky Tonk.

To turn the question around a little bit, how do you think Phish has influenced Vermont and Burlington? I mean, you guys are this funny part of the Vermont brand like Ben & Jerry’s. You’re sort of in the same sentence when people—

Yeah, it’s hard for me to assess. I mean, the biggest compliment is when someone’s inspired. And if there’s a younger fan or musician that feels like, ‘Well, Phish had some success outside of Vermont, so we can too.’ Sometimes I hear about bands that are more specifically influenced, kind of, some things about the music. But it's probably less that and more that you can try to do your own thing and come from this area and have success at it. I don’t know. I’m not really the expert, I guess, to know. It’s pretty cool what Grace Potter’s doing, too.

What do you make of the fan base these days? When I go to shows now, I see people in their forties and fifties looking clean-cut. They probably wear suits to work. And then you see the old tour kids as well, and even some high school kids. I’m curious what you make of that.

Yeah, it seems to be more mixed up. I don’t know. There was probably an era where there were more people with dreadlocks. Yeah, I mean, how do you even assess that without going on some other tours? Maybe Dave Matthews has a higher percentage of females and more Justin Bieber.

Although Bieber’s coming to your shows now, too, I hear.

Yeah, a couple of them. I feel like whatever stereotypes there were in the past, the fan base is kind of more broad. Like normal people. Not that I think anyone should aspire to be normal.

This might be another unfair question, but what do you think Phish’s biggest contribution to the music scene has been — and how you hope to be remembered years from now?

It’s tricky to take credit for things when we’ve been, of course, inspired by bands before us. But what I get from talking to other musicians in the business is that — One answer could be that when we were playing just around town in dorms and in clubs downtown, the music seemed weird. On the one hand it seemed too weird to ever really go anywhere broadly accessible. And, on the other hand, I think we had a sense of vision early on.

I could make guesses at the reasons for success and I put, like, four or five things into that list when I have to guess. One of them is just having a certain vision: playing at Nectar's, but kind of seeing the wall as a vast ocean — not an arena, because we never really needed to play in bigger places — but seeing it as bigger than the room and having this vision. So there was that.

But I guess my point is, we tried to be unique. That’s the second reason for success, because a lot of people forget that: to be yourself. It’s really hard to be yourself as an artist. That’s probably the hardest thing. As a band there are four different selves, but then there’s also a band mentality. So there might’ve been a point when bands get bigger and they would sort of make the music a little more normal, a little more poppy. I mean, our lyrics have gotten simpler and more heartfelt as we’ve gotten older, but that’s not because we’re trying to find bigger success. It’s because that’s what resonates in our souls. 

But you know, there’s all these inclinations to try to sell out or whatever. There’s my third reason for success: just saying no to lots of opportunities along the way that bring you off your path of integrity, and we did a ton of that. Meeting with a manager and saying we have an opportunity to do this. Let’s not, because it’s not what we want to do musically. It’s not what we want to do career-wise.

But the point that I was originally making is: Musicians come up to me and say, ‘You guys are so weird and the fact that you can do that in arenas, do that weird music in weird ways or whatever. Mixing compositions in odd time signatures and, you know, repeating a phrase of lyrics over and over. I don’t know what they’re referring to, but generally they say, "The fact that you can do that and bring it to an arena level so joyously and have success at it is sort of like artistic license for all the rest of us."

Ultimately, that would be the idealistic way to phrase it: If there were any inspiration, it would be inspiration for people to try to be themselves, rather than follow the formulas. I mean, we’ve probably got all kinds of formulas we don’t realize we’re following, but there’s certainly an inclination to be unique and to be ourselves. Being willing to improvise and change each set with a different set list, which of course the Grateful Dead did, and not too many people do that. I think that was kind of the main thing. There’s my secret — untested other than with the band — list of recipes for success.

You better trademark that.

Yeah, well, I’m just a list maker. It’s a first-born thing. So, be yourself. Practice a lot. Be committed. Say no to things that pull you off your path of integrity. Communicate openly among band members. Those four would be a good start.

How do you stay weird? I mean, it seems like it would probably be pretty easy to get into a rhythm, into a formula.

OK, I’m going to tell you one other theory. I keep noticing this. Regardless of Phish, I notice this about myself and my own aspirations. I think this applies to all artists, but I could be wrong. You carve your artistic abilities, your sensibilities, like a stone sculpture, where early on you’re trying everything and you’re willing to be crazy and be yourself. What happens as you mature is that you find that sticking closer to preexisting genres — I don’t know if I’m finding the right language — closer towards the fundamental simplicity and only varying and only being cutting-edge, only pushing slightly past that normal mode, ends up being much more groundbreaking and unique.

Like a band might have a first album or a director might have a first movie and it’s way out there, avant-garde, crazy, and it’s not as groundbreaking as when they later make an album that’s, let's say, a rock album, and it’s got rock chords, or country or whatever. Or a director makes a western movie, you know, sticking to the genre, and then just tweaking it a little bit. That slight tweak ends up being so much more unique and true to the personality of the artist than the thing way back, which was just crazy out there.

In other words, maybe back in the day it was more important for us to play in odd time signatures — to play in 13 and have lyrics about strange monsters from other galaxies or whatever, and have epic songs that segue from one to the next. For me, I really enjoy a simple — I wouldn’t say pop song because pop, I don’t know what pop means now, but I guess that term works from over the decades. You know, just that really simple rock song or pop song with really simple chords and simple lyrics. And if that can be made fresh and unique and true to my personality, then it’s going to be more Mike than the crazy stuff. So anyway, that’s what I think. 

And I don’t think it’s following formulas. It’s sort of an ironic twist. It’s a Catch-22, where you move along and you can more see yourself in the context of everything around and how you fit in and so you more accept the traditions while more pushing the limits past the traditions. That’s what I think, anyway. That’s what I seem to notice.

I don’t want to keep you for too much longer, but is there anything we can look forward to and expect from the fall tour?

[Laughs] Well, just that we’re all looking forward to it. I never have an answer for that question because I never know what to expect myself. And if there’s anything that we’re planning, then it’s secret anyway. So it’s halfway between "I don’t know" and "I can’t tell." But it feels good. It’s not too — well, none of our tours is too long. It’s in our region, not too far from home, northeast-ish. The leaves are all changing and we’re feeling great about being creative together, so spirits are very high.

Surely you want to tell me what you’re going to be covering on Halloween, don’t you?

That would be the Go Gos album, but it’s unreleased, so we get to cover it before they did. They will be joining us and singing it.

One other question: Do you have any plans that you can talk about right now as far as the 30th anniversary? So far it seems pretty low key.

Yeah, we are kind of keeping it low key. Yeah, either I can’t say or I don’t know. More like I don’t know. There’ve been a lot of ideas over time, but I think we’re just kind of enjoying the simple, relishing in the simple fact that we’ve managed to stick together — minus the breakup and the hiatus, I guess, but still. My band mate and songwriter that I’ve been making my own album with for a while now that I’m ever so excited about, Scott Murawski — his band’s been together for 42 years. I got to play with the Chieftains and I don’t know what that is. Fifty years or something?

So not to boast about the 30, but it still feels pretty — I think the average length for a club band is four years or something, so I think it’s pretty monumental. You know, it’s a commitment. And sometimes I feel like, ‘Well, I’m going to be 50 years old. Do I still want to be doing what I did when I was 18 when I’ve got so many things I want to do?’ But then I think, ‘Well it’s still rewarding in a few different ways. It’s still musically inspiring.’

You were asking what my own career takes to Phish, but what Phish gives me to take along to my own career is pretty big, too, which is all kinds of musical inspiration about how to play together and have that sense of vision with music. So I’m very thankful that I can have — As Trey was saying when we were putting the band back together, you know, we can have everything. We don’t have to just have one part of our lives.

You know, you can get divorced. You can find someone else, but you’re rewarded for commitment. You’re rewarded for taking risks and you’re rewarded for commitment, sticking to it — and commitment and love. And that’s what we feel. It’s sort of corny sounding, but there’s a lot of love between the band members right now. The fact that we’ve straightened out our lives — our personal lives and our creative lives — and that we feel so confident as individuals means that when we come together we have more to put on the table and to bounce off each other.

I think probably more than anything, that’s what people get from our shows: a certain love that kind of has inspired the songs and the jamming and the everything. It’s the sort of commitment that — I sound like a self-help book or something — but that’s what people should look forward to on the fall tour. That there’s a lot of good thoughts in this relationship that are allowing us to relish in this 30-year-anniversary feeling.

Do you think we can expect another 30 years?

I don’t know. We don’t even look even one year. If it ended this year, I would be fine, because I have so many other things I love doing. But if it continues, I’ll be really happy because I enjoy it. So I can’t really lose. I can’t lose.

Well, I’ll cross my fingers for sticking with it for at least another 20.


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