An Interview with Phish's Mike Gordon | Live Culture

An Interview with Phish's Mike Gordon



Photo courtesy Julia Mordaunt, copyright Phish

As we reported in thisweek’s cover story about Phish’s 30th anniversary, we had theopportunity to speak with bassist Mike Gordon. It was early October, and he andthe band were finishing up rehearsals in Vermont before embarking on their12-date fall tour.

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

Gordon did share histhoughts about Phish turning 30, living in Vermont, working on his own sideprojects and how the band has matured over the years. He also shared his foursecrets to success.

SEVEN DAYS: So howdoes it feel to be 30?

MIKE GORDON: To have our 30th anniversary?

Yes, yes.

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

How do youexplain 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 bepresumptuous to be able to say the secrets of success or longevity with aproject — not that it’s a project, but anyway. But I could make my guesses. Forstarters, the band members continue to have a healthy relationship. Any relationshipis going to have ups and downs over the years, but in general it’s been abenchmark relationship in my life to compare other ones to, because wecommunicate openly, we find compromises when people have different goals, we’rerespectful of each other and encouraging of each other, so that each personfeels like their individuality doesn’t get lost when summing up the parts. It’sa nurturing, it’s a healthy relationship.

With some bands, or maybe other artistic groups, it gets toa point where someone wants to do something else, or people could say, ‘WellI’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 tolook at the other side, which is that you’re rewarded for continuing commitmentand the deeper commitment that comes by sticking together for a longer andlonger and longer period of time, because in a relationship you build all ofthese foundations. You build and build and build and so it keeps getting deeperin some ways. That’s what I honestly think.

The music feels more mature, and not that there aren’tcertain moments back in the career where we had a good thing going, a goodsound, or approach that’s different from now. Sometimes the fans look back andsay, "You know, what about the way you jammed in ’94 and this and that." Inever do that. I always feel like we keep progressing, personally. It might bein subtler ways, like just that the grooves are more even — but that’s adeep thing from my perspective.

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

My honest thoughts are that in some ways we’re playingbetter than ever, but I wish there had been a higher percentage of ones that Iloved. 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 figureout why. After 2000 gigs or whatever it is, I don’t get too hung up on it. ButI won't be happy, either. But I did love some of them.

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

Favorites? It’s easier to remember probably the secondhalf 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 thoughfans sometimes liked night one. I think it was night two that I liked. ThatTahoe 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’mtesting my memory, but I think it was the first night I that I liked. And Iactually liked the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a great venue. The time that we werethere 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’smillions of standouts. One of the Gorges, one of the Tahoes, one of the Bill Grahams.

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

I can’t remember. But it’s just sort of — I’m an analyticalperson, so I try to analyze what’s working and what isn’t. When it’s notworking 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 playingmore notes or might be kind of like push things in a certain direction. A lotof it is subconscious. A lot of trying, rather than— When it feels good, we’rekind of gliding with it. And I don’t know why after 2000 gigs we couldn’t learnto make just about all of them like that, but I guess that’s just the nature ofimprovisation. Which is that you’re throwing caution to the wind and there’ssome factors you can’t predict everyone’s moods and the stars, etc.

What is it likethese days to just practice with the band? Also, I’m wondering if you couldtell me a little bit about the songwriting process. I understand it’s been morecollaborative, 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 memberswere working out personal things. Not personal life things, but personalcreativity things. Now that Page and I — this is just an example — havebeen doing a lot of songwriting on our own, I think when we come into thegroup, we still accept that Trey has been more prolific over the years and he’sa great leader, so we’re going to want his guidance in some ways, but bringingthose kinds of experiences to the table, it means that we’re going to be moreconfident than before. It feels more like collaborating than ever before.

There were definitely times when I felt like I’m given asong— 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 Iwas being given an assignment, and that’s not what it feels like now. Now itfeels like, it feels a little bit like my favorite book growing up, not that itwas great writing, but it was a great concept, the Mad Scientists’ Club. I probably got it in 4th grade orsomething. It would’ve been, let’s see, 1974. It’s just these four kids whohave a little clubhouse. They make a dragon or something — an electronicdragon.

I don’t really know what they make, but I imagine its kind of like stompingout in the middle of traffic and interrupting cars or something. I always just thoughtthat was the coolest thing: outside of the institutions of school and churchand 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, butit feels like we’re in it together. 

And you know, honestly, we’ve been busy now — and I’m notallowed to talk about what we’re working on — but generally speaking, 96 percentof my time outside of Phish touring is working on my solo career. I’m justfinishing the touches of an album I’ve been working on a long time, and I’m soexcited about it. So in the grand scheme, Phish is a minor part of my day-to-daylife, except right now.

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

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

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

And fortunately with Phish, now that we’re older than wewere, we’ve left plenty of room in our lives for our families and our other careersand 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 tothe bathroom. Everything’s happening at once with me, but that’s OK.

I’d like to turnback to the early days a little bit if I could. I’m curious how you thinkliving and working in Vermont, especially in the early days, influenced theband’s direction.

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

I was in New York for a few years. Trey’s still in New Yorknow. 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 candrive 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, becauseyou want to feel that what you’re doing potentially has magic to it.

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

I was going toask 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 changesfor me. I mean, there was a period of time when I was working on songwritingand I would go down to the single-lane covered bridge in Charlotte at the rockbeach, 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 whenyou sit on the rocks. Imagining that the waves are like people in the audienceand singing these lines and thinking, ‘Does this resonate with me?’ while singingto these waves and rocks. But you know that’s just an example.

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

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

To turn thequestion around a little bit, how do you think Phish has influenced Vermont andBurlington? 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 complimentis when someone’s inspired. And if there’s a younger fan or musician that feelslike, ‘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 cantry to do your own thing and come from this area and have success at it. Idon’t know. I’m not really the expert, I guess, to know. It’s pretty cool what GracePotter’s doing, too.

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

Yeah, it seems to be more mixed up. I don’t know. Therewas 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 DaveMatthews has a higher percentage of females and more Justin Bieber.

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

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

This might beanother unfair question, but what do you think Phish’s biggest contribution tothe 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 othermusicians in the business is that — One answer could be that when we wereplaying just around town in dorms and in clubs downtown, the music seemedweird. 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 isjust having a certain vision: playing at Nectar's, but kind of seeing the wallas a vast ocean — not an arena, because we never really needed to play in biggerplaces — but seeing it as bigger than the room and having this vision. Sothere was that.

But I guess my point is, we tried to be unique. That’s thesecond 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 hardestthing. As a band there are four different selves, but then there’s also a bandmentality. So there might’ve been a point when bands get bigger and they wouldsort of make the music a little more normal, a little more poppy. I mean, ourlyrics have gotten simpler and more heartfelt as we’ve gotten older, but that’snot because we’re trying to find bigger success. It’s because that’s whatresonates in our souls. 

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

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

Ultimately, that would be the idealistic way to phrase it: Ifthere were any inspiration, it would be inspiration for people to try to bethemselves, rather than follow the formulas. I mean, we’ve probably got allkinds of formulas we don’t realize we’re following, but there’s certainly aninclination to be unique and to be ourselves. Being willing to improvise andchange each set with a different set list, which of course the Grateful Deaddid, 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 forsuccess.

You bettertrademark that.

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

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

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

Like a band might have a first album or a director mighthave a first movie and it’s way out there, avant-garde, crazy, and it’s not asgroundbreaking 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 westernmovie, 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 personalityof the artist than the thing way back, which was just crazy out there.

In other words, maybe back in the day it was more importantfor us to play in odd time signatures — to play in 13 and have lyrics aboutstrange monsters from other galaxies or whatever, and have epic songs that seguefrom one to the next. For me, I really enjoy a simple — I wouldn’t say popsong because pop, I don’t know what pop means now, but I guess that term worksfrom over the decades. You know, just that really simple rock song or pop songwith really simple chords and simple lyrics. And if that can be made fresh and unique and true to my personality, thenit’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 anironic twist. It’s a Catch-22, where you move along and you can more seeyourself in the context of everything around and how you fit in and so you moreaccept the traditions while more pushing the limits past the traditions. That’swhat I think, anyway. That’s what I seem to notice.

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

[Laughs] Well, just that we’re all looking forward toit. I never have an answer for that question because I never know what toexpect myself. And if there’s anything that we’re planning, then it’s secretanyway. So it’s halfway between "I don’t know" and "I can’t tell." But it feelsgood. 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’refeeling great about being creative together, so spirits are very high.

Surely you wantto 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, sowe get to cover it before they did. They will be joining us and singing it.

One otherquestion: Do you have any plans that you can talk about right now as far as the30th anniversary? So far it seems pretty low key.

Yeah, we are kind of keeping it low key. Yeah, either I can’tsay or I don’t know. More like I don’t know. There’ve been a lot of ideas overtime, but I think we’re just kind of enjoying the simple, relishing in thesimple fact that we’ve managed to stick together — minus the breakup and thehiatus, I guess, but still. My band mate and songwriter that I’ve been makingmy 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, soI think it’s pretty monumental. You know, it’s a commitment. And sometimes Ifeel like, ‘Well, I’m going to be 50 years old. Do I still want to be doingwhat I did when I was 18 when I’ve got so many things I want to do?’ But then Ithink, ‘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 Phishgives me to take along to my own career is pretty big, too, which is all kindsof musical inspiration about how to play together and have that sense of visionwith music. So I’m very thankful that I can have — As Trey was saying when wewere putting the band back together, you know, we can have everything. We don’thave 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’rerewarded for commitment, sticking to it — and commitment and love. And that’swhat we feel. It’s sort of corny sounding, but there’s a lot of love betweenthe 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 individualsmeans that when we come together we have more to put on the table and to bounceoff each other.

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

Do you think wecan expect another 30 years?

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

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


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