Interview: Mike Gordon’s Balancing Act

This archival interview marked the first time I ever got a chance to interview a member of Phish. I’ve since interviewed Mike Gordon a couple other times and it’s always a pleasure. You really don’t have to do much when it comes to interviewing Mike. He goes deep on anything and everything, so the trick isn’t as much about getting comfortable speaking with one another as much as it is trying to stay on track and hit the topics you want to discuss.

By Ryan Dembinsky (Ryan Demler)

When considering what the Mike Gordon Band sets out to be, it’s critical to note that this is not just Mike Gordon and a backing group of session musicians or hired guns. It’s meant to be a cohesive, equitable group – a proper band if you will. For somebody who has played in a band like Phish, where the collaboration makes the magic happen, you know there’s going to be an emphasis on the other musicians playing important roles, but it’s all about finding the balance between bandleader and collaborator, player versus coach.

“There are all kinds of balancing acts in being a bandleader,” Gordon articulates. “I definitely wanted a ‘real band’ sense, not just a bunch of sidemen. For me, it’s a deeper experience. Sometimes, I see some musician play with a bunch of backup people who aren’t supposed to express themselves, and I don’t like those concerts much. In my case, the question becomes, ‘How many songs should other people sing, or other people write besides me, or maybe we write together?’ There really are all these balancing acts, but I’m feeling really good about it. The biggest challenge for any bandleader is to bring out the talents of the people they are leading, and I think that’s definitely happening.

On Moss

Coming from a band that is not particularly well-known for its prolific studio output in Phish, Mike Gordon’s new album, Moss, truly succeeds as a standalone work, despite being tagged with the quasi-derogatory “side project” label.

The album brims with an aura of experimentation on tunes like Spiral and The Void, while capturing some of the most vibrant, danceable singles in material like Can’t Stand Still, Fire From a Stick and Idea. It’s easy to hear the flexing of creative muscles on this project, where old tidbits become songs; found instruments play as much a role as the traditional; and ultimately, the members do what Phish often struggles so mightily to do on their own albums, jam.

“If you surrender to the muse, then she will take over,” Mike quips. “I keep relearning that lesson over and over again. So, we tried to just let the album sort of become what it wanted and let it fall into place. It’s really rewarding to do that.”

Another notable element on Moss comes in the quality of Mike Gordon’s lead vocals. This should come as no surprise though, as Mike has been working hard with vocal coach Shyla Nelson, an opera singer and founder of the Good Earth Singers.

“I enjoy dabbling in different instruments and seeing what the potential is, and since the voice is the instrument that’s always there, whether you’re climbing a tree or driving down the road, why not work on that instrument? And Shyla is pretty cool, because she’s an opera singer, but she’s also very spiritual,” Mike remarks. “Actually, what she’s doing now is working with Pete Seeger and a couple other people in this group she calls the Good Earth Singers, and they are trying to get 15 million people to sing at the same time on that day the world is supposed to end. There’s a chant she’s working on with tons of choirs and choruses lined up all around the world.”

Continuing on the subject of vocal training, Mike explains how Shyla has helped him develop a more holistic approach to singing that follows a similar philosophy to Pilates.

“She is very into combining the human experience and different elements of it,” he says. “So, she’s metaphysical in mixing the body and spirit all through the human voice, which is pretty cool for me. It’s a very meditative and cathartic experience in the rolling hills of Vermont with the views of the lake. It’s centered on her philosophy of singing, which is all about core muscles. The idea is that the top part of your body relaxes, because the core is engaged with constantly renewed energy. In the experience of singing, the note actually resonates. In other words, it kind of vibrates on the top of your head and then resonates several feet away from you, so it’s this whole arc starting from your core and through your relaxed body, and through the forehead and beyond. Everyone has a different way of thinking about it. That’s just one way.”

Interestingly, Mike discussed how for a long time he focused his vocal training around two things: bluegrass harmonies and female vocals. When he moved to New York City several years back, he went through a big bluegrass phase and worked on “intense, high-pitched” harmonies. Then, during another more recent period, he focused his singing on female vocalists like Joni Mitchell and Maria Muldaur, but the game changed with the Little Feat album.

“After learning the Little Feat album, now I really want to explore my masculine side. I got to sing four of the Little Feat songs. So, you know, getting into the Lowell George vocals has been so great. I’ve always loved his singing. And now, I’ve been checking out people like J.J. Grey, who also have a more masculine approach. Maybe that’s why I’m sort of growing a beard, but not really,” he laughs.

On Choosing His Covers

If you’ve been following along with the Mike Gordon Band tour at all, you’ve surely noticed the diverse array of cover selections. The band has unleashed everything from Alanis Morissette, to Tower of Power, to C&C Music Factory, to the Lemonheads. Clearly, Mike is having fun with this band and they not afraid to take a lighthearted approach, poking a little fun at themselves along the way.

“It has to be something that at some point resonated with me,” Mike points out. “Sometimes, I’ve had a favorite song growing up, and I’ve never wanted to learn that song, because dissecting it and knowing all the parts and doing it over and over, would probably make it no longer a favorite song. There are very few songs I can listen to hundreds of times but still like: maybe Here Comes the Sun, but that’s about it.”

So how do these quirky choices make it from idea mode to the stage?

The Lemonheads – The Outdoor Type

“With the Lemonheads’ song, I was talking to somebody who was real outdoorsy, and I was thinking about how I’m not. I mean, I love going into the woods, and living near the woods, but in terms of mountain biking and the whole thing, it’s just not me. So, I was reminded of the song.”

“And then,” Mike explains in a state of surprise, “Somebody told me that Evan Dando had died! But, it was just a rumor. We all used to hang out with Evan Dando back in 1995, when we were recording in Woodstock. We would all hang out every night at 3 am when we were done recording and then go back in to the studio at 5 am and finish the night. So anyway, I Googled it and got thinking about it more.”

Alanis Morissette – One Hand in my Pocket

“With Alanis, I heard the song and I was thinking something about the groove and the sentiment. I like the song and something resonated, but I was also kind of making fun of it. I make fun of my own songs a lot too. Anyway, I mentioned it to Scott [Murawski] and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve covered that song before. Maybe we should do it sometime.’”

“With that one, we started doing our own thing with it immediately,” he continues. “It’s a very simple rhythm, so it’s a ‘more is less’ kind of song. A lot of our music is kind of funky and syncopated, so to play some songs that have straighter rhythms has been a real joy. That allows us to find ourselves in it more because it’s less prescribed.”

C&C Music Factory – Things that Make You Go Hmmm

“With C&C Music Factory, what resonated with that one was Phish was in Barcelona having lunch on the beach at a bar once when it came on the radio,” Mike remembers. “I was really digging the bass line, and then, when we played the song You Enjoy Myself in the funky part once it got to the guitar solo and the jam, I would always play that bass line from the song. Then I thought, ‘well, I’m never going to play anything like YEM with this band, but why not take the bass line and the original song?’”

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Swamp Music

“We’ve done this a few times where we’ll essentially just take something and use it. In Phish, when we were learning the song Possum, which is a Jeff Holdsworth song, we wanted to give it sort of a bluesy, peppy groove and we ended up basically copying the groove from Swamp Music by Lynyrd Skynyrd. So, I thought ‘I get to do Possum enough with Phish, but why not do the original Lynyrd Skynyrd song?’”

“In general, it’s almost post-modern in that I’m drawing on some inspirations, but it’s usually also just making fun of myself.”

On the Potential for Other Projects

Never one to stand still for long, you can generally assume something is brewing in that noggin of Mike’s. As a longtime fan of creative writing and of film-making, he touched on the possibility of projects coming down the pike outside of music.

“I do want to write a screenplay,” he explains. “My other films didn’t actually have one; so I would think having one would unleash my film-making in certain ways where I’d actually be freer by having one. I don’t want to make anymore documentary films, but I’d like to make a narrative film. I’ve sort of been waiting for the right time, because there’s certainly enough to do within music – having two bands – to keep me busy for the rest of my life, especially since my solo career and band are in its first stages. But, now that they are starting to grow roots, I’m starting to think about it a little bit. Not quite yet, but maybe soon.”

Interestingly, while on the topic, Mike cites Leo Kottke as an inspiration for maintaining focus and not getting too swept up in too many different directions.

“Some people seem to do a good job in dabbling in many things and some people excel by really sticking to one thing,” he adds. “Like Leo Kottke – who I just got to hang out with a lot in Minneapolis – I always admire him, because he really has two things: reading and playing guitar. With playing guitar, he does it hours and hours every day, which is why he’s the best acoustic guitar player there is because he’s done away with all the distractions. He could have had a book writing career or perhaps have worked on some other instruments like pedal steel, which he dabbled in, but he realized that those things would have been distractions from this one main thing. So for me, I’m trying to find the line to draw. To some extent, different creative pursuits inform each other, but you just have to figure out the balance.” He jokes, “even decorating your home can be a full-time job if you get caught up in it.”

On Finding this Balance

With such a demanding schedule, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and staying sane can prove no easy feat. It takes a conscious effort to stay rested, well-fed and generally happy. While on the road, Mike carves out time everyday to go running outdoors and let his mind clear. He maintains a vegetarian diet and tries to eat nutritious meals, mostly low-carb if possible, and he’s dabbled in meditation and the morning pages exercises from the book, The Artist’s Way.

“Having some downtime is really important. I guess my thing is really going to a café with my laptop. Scott Murawski or Julia from the Phish office will usually go with me. So that’s my thing: I go running; I try to sleep enough; eat light; sit in cafes; regroup.”

Mike also makes a point to soak up the culture of each city he visits for shows. It’s easy on the road to get that, “What town are we in today” feeling, but Mike generally tries to drop by local cafes with local artwork on the walls, and guide his runs through colorful parts of town to get a flavor for the community.

“I really just like checking out these American cities. I’d probably like doing more in Europe too if it wasn’t so expensive to go over there. So, hopefully, I’ll get to do that too, but really I just like going from one random American town to the next and soaking up the vibe. All that keeps me sane… I think.”

By keeping his days open, allowing himself to eat well and get exercise on the road, not stretching himself too thin between projects, and of course, making time for family; after almost 30 years playing live music, Mike Gordon has found his balance in perpetual motion. Hence, it’s a good thing he Can’t Stand Still.

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