Phish bass player Mike Gordon finds balance with solo band
BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — The differences between Mike Gordon’s solo group and his main band, Phish, are subtle, yet notable.
Phish has four members; Gordon’s solo band, five. Two members of Phish live in the Burlington area (Gordon, the bass player, and keyboard man Page McConnell), while he and two members of his solo band (drummer John Kimock and multi-instrumentalist Craig Myers) are based in the area.
Similarly, his solo band resembles, yet strays, from Phish, the jam-rock group that began 35 years ago at the University of Vermont and grew into one of the most-popular touring bands in the nation. The differences between the two might come out most strongly on Gordon’s fifth solo album, “Ogogo.”
“I’m especially impressed by how relaxed the Phish jams are when they get floating, otherworldly. Even though this (solo) band is only 10 years old, some telepathic stuff happens. But I think what I keep coming back to is that there’s no point in having two Phishes or having two of any of our influences,” Gordon told the Burlington Free Press in a conversation Monday in Burlington.
“Of course (Phish) is going to be my biggest influence, and we don’t want to throw that out, but to make some sounds that are new and sometimes electronic or whatever is fresh to the situation is what inspires me the most.”
Gordon and his solo band will bring those new sounds to Higher Ground for two shows next week. “Ogogo,” which came out in September, leans more heavily on electronic sounds than does Phish’s guitar-led music.
Songs on “Ogogo” such as “Steps” and “Pendulum” have a danceable pop quality not unlike the music of Talking Heads in the 1980s that employed repeating hypnotic beats. “Whirlwind” and “Marissa” have that loose, swaying quality of a mid-tempo Phish tune but coalesce in sharply focused choruses.
Gordon and longtime collaborator Scott Murawski, the Massachusetts guitarist from the band Max Creek, set out to create songs for “Ogogo” that veered from roots-rock toward something unexpected.
“Fans still talk about my ‘Inside In’ album, and I think what they like about that is there were no rules,” he said, noting that he banged on washing machines to create sound effects for his debut solo album. “It has this sort of ‘I’m willing to experiment’ sound to it, so I wanted to get back at that.”
He wanted to take risks but also craft good songs. “Our biggest goal with ‘Ogogo’ was to make something that would be more catchy and simple and accessible on the one end of the spectrum and kind of more radical and experimental and unhinged on the other side of the spectrum,” Gordon said. “It’s almost like the two ends of that same spectrum where you’re willing to kind of get back to basics and make it so people can sing along, dance and all that, and at the same time make it a bit warped. This was already happening on stage.”
The producer of “Ogogo,” Shawn Everett, has worked with rootsy bands such as Alabama Shakes as well as indie-rockers Broken Social Scene and Grizzly Bear. He incorporated some of those warped sounds by routing music through various electronic filters, which pose challenges in bringing the songs to the stage.
“On the one hand I didn’t want it to revert to sound like Jam Band 101 or something horrible like that, but on the other hand to mimic everything from the studio wouldn’t be doing justice to the fact that the stage is a different context,” Gordon said. “At least three of the band members have a collection of samples like that that they can pull up at certain moments, but I thought that they should more be thinking in the way we were thinking while we were in the studio and re-experiment fresh.”
Gordon also lives on opposite ends of the spectrum when considering how different his solo work should be from Phish. “Sometimes I wake up and I think, ‘Do we really need another jam band when I already have one?’ and we’ve played 2,000 shows (as Phish) and we’re still going strong, and do I need to improvise at all (solo)?” he said. “Sometimes I think I just appreciate that someone can make a great pop song or something, a radio song. It’s such an incredible craft.”
Yet there are times when he answers “Yes” to the question of whether he needs another jam band, referring to those “peak experiences” he gets from Phish’s more-extraordinary moments of improvisation.
“I get reminded that, ‘Oh, yeah, if it can feel like this quintet is an object that’s flying and floating over the trees and the rhythm and the sounds have created that feeling in me, then why would I not want that?’” Gordon said. “Now it’s happening in new ways (in the solo band). It’s getting telepathic despite the less amount of time that we’ve had together.”
Gordon mostly notices how Phish influences his solo work, but he does take lessons from his own band to Phish. “To be in that role of making a lot of decisions, I think it carries over when I go back to Phish and I’m just more confident in my feeling on stage and my playing, my singing, my songwriting. I think I’m just bringing more to the table because I’m developing myself more.”
He said Myers, leader of the Burlington-based world-music group Barika, has evolved in his years in the solo band. “He keeps his personality intact but he reinvents himself over and over,” Gordon said, noting that Myers has taken on more electronic experimentation in addition to his work on percussion and the ngoni, an African string instrument. “It’s just really cool to see someone reinvent themselves, and even with his own band, just going to see Barika and getting pretty inspired about what he does there.”
Gordon said he is continually “inspired by everything Burlington has” creatively. That helps fuel him as he continues to work on expressing his creativity in Phish and in unique ways on his own.
“I bet all artists go through this, which is, ‘Where do you stretch away into what you’re doing in the present moment and where do you allow the influences and the traditions to seep in?’” Gordon said. “I think that it’s probably a balancing act that people often teeter-totter on. But it’s fun for me.”
Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com