While he is certainly a household name as the bass player for Phish, Mike Gordon's interests and passions range far beyond just playing the four string with one of the worldís most revered touring acts. Along with film projects, art installations and various musical endeavors in some current state of motion, Gordon has recently released his first solo album, Inside In. And though it may appear to be more work than time would allow, after spending over 5,000 hours on his debut full-length feature film Outside Out, he certainly knows the patience required to properly cultivate the creative process. A process he his later to quickly dissect constructive criticism upon.
Inside In is an ambitious effort that plays through like an audio movie, unfolding as a series of intertwined aural dreamscapes. Where the album is a thematic continuation of singular strength, Outside Out served as a creative launching pad for an effort that included: Russ Lawton, James Harvey, Gordon Stone, Bela Fleck, Col. Bruce Hampton, Jon Fishman, Future Man, Jeff Coffin, and Vassar Clements. And now, having confidentially stepped into the role of an ambitious leader, a side of himself previously undisclosed, and successfully orchestrating such a diverse ensemble, he confesses, "when I'm a leader, this whole part of my personality just comes to life."
On the heels of a freshly announced tour, with an original, yet still unnamed band that he will captain, we had the opportunity to speak with Gordon. Delighted about the positive response to Inside In, he speaks with endearment, but with a critical eye when analyzing his own eclectic projects. Subtly, he refers to his artistic complexities as "cool," and "interesting," yet remains intently focused on the importance of the cultivation, as Gordon proves there are many facets to the artist better known as "Cactus."
Your debut solo release, Inside In, has been released for close to two weeks now. How has the general reaction been to an album that, for a lack of a better term is intellectually complex?
Iíve been really excited about the response actually. I have the hotline which is fun, and people leave me messages. And thereís been a bunch of online reviews. I donít know if there has been that many in print yet. In fact, I think the Seven Days one is the only one that had any negativity at all, that I can see, but otherwise everything has just been really nice, Iím so pleased. They seem to talk about how it has a lot of variety, and how that doesnít take away from the cohesiveness...so thatís cool.
I think a lot of the positive reception comes from fans seeing a side of you they have been waiting to see revealed for quite awhile now.
Yeah, itís been really exciting. And working for Ropeadope, the record company, has been really great too, because theyíre small and theyíre just fun. They have all these ideas that are adventurous, and so Iíve never had so much fun with a release, because there has been all this stuff going on around it.
Well especially with this release because you know the people at Ropeadope have given it a fair amount of listens, and the time needed to really "get it."
Oh definitely. Actually, just after I signed with Ropeadope, I was in the airport, coming back from New Orleans, and I ran into Andy [Hurwitz] from Ropeadope, itís his record label, and he had it in his iPod. He was listening to it when I bumped into him, and then I bumped into him forty minutes later in the cab line and he was still listening to it. If that was released on Elektra, I wouldnít run into [a rep] listening to it (laughs). Donít get me wrong, Elektra has been really good for [Phish] in many ways, but Iíve just had a real believing experience so far.
The album has a feel, or reflection of flowing in and out of consciousness. Do listeners have to be in a transcendental state of mind to fully adhere to it?
Well, that might help with any music I think, well not any, maybe some music might be better for working out...but I like transcendental states in general. I donít know if they would have to be necessarily, but I do believe it helps like late at night with headphones on, or at night while driving in a car. Those things work really well because there is some stereo panning left to right, and when you are close to the speakers and theyíre really panned, itís pronounced. The mood is dreamy, and to have music be dreamy is really important to me. So it makes sense that it will somehow come out that way, and to be half awake and to be listening to it would probably feel right...well like I said, that probably goes for lots of music.
Have you tried falling asleep to it yet?
Just that one time when I was trying to figure out the order of the songs, and I was in Vermont. I donít know if I was actually falling asleep, but I was in an alpha state anyway, and I was lying in bed in the dark with the headphones on, and I really liked it that time.
And when the album was first released, you rented a Mercedes, drove around Manhattan and cranked the album?
Well that was before it was released, right after the sound mix and the night before the mastering. We drove around and I had a couple songs that I wasnít sure what mix I was going to use, but we just wanted to get a feel for it before we did the mastering...some final tweaking. And that was really fun. It was the four of us and we had this cool car that we rented and we were going fast and cranking up this good sound system, so that was ideal.
Were you thinking other people should do the same?
Probably...it tends to be a sports car with a big engine, otherwise you arenít going to get the effect. Although it was a German car and I actually wonít buy German cars, but Iíll rent them.
Itís been written that the album has an overall flow that represents you, "warts and all." Where would you say the warts are?
Well, I think when it first comes on, I like all of the songs, including the first one, but sometimes my voice is kind of amateurish sounding in my opinion. Iíve been taking weekly singing lessons, really intensively, from this woman that the band went to before the NBA game, and she works with Steven Tyler and John Popper, and that is pretty intense. The band had some vocal coaches awhile ago, we had this woman Jody who worked in the Burlington area...but I would say that is a wart. We did some technical tweaking too, so that itís not completely as it came in. We did some pitching and stuff, which is more common than you would know, I would say probably every album that is made these days. Itís so tempting, because itís so natural sounding. I mean, not that we did a lot, but we did some. So the voice, it comes and goes for me. When the first song is coming on I get the feeling ó "ah semi-professional singer," but I really like the way the rhythm sounds and the guitar solos and all that and how it all comes together.
I guess when you say "warts and all," and you can mean sometimes maybe getting asynchronies, which arenít necessarily bad, because having a voice that is distinctive is good even if itís not Aretha Franklin or whatever. Iíd rather sound like me and be a little off, than sound like the average person and be right on. So, itís not necessarily bad, but idiosyncratic maybe. So another example on the album is the song "The Teacher." That was recorded through a click track, which makes music stiff sometimes so I actually changed it a lot. We took away the hi-hat and we had a drummer (Russ Lawton) come in and do some brush work, and that became more prominent and gave it much more of a natural feel. So, it improved, but itís intentional and has this hokiness, as itís supposed to be a hokey sounding song...and that was one of the songs from the movie. When I did it for the movie, I spent seven full days singing that and lip-synching. And not just lip-synching, but trying to get the tone of my voice to be neutral enough so that it doesnít sound too Mike-ish. And then I didnít use that version, I just started from scratch for the album version, because I didnít want to be tied to phrasing that was lip-synched. Anyway, it was the only song that has anywhere in it, a digital synthesizer. Thereís a Moog synthesizer in a few of them, but in terms of a sampling type sound, that is the only one. Towards the end there are two sounds - there is whatís called the batman strings on the last verse, and on the last chorus there are chimes. And those two sounds are fake and that is the only place, but itís supposed to be hokey, so itís idiosyncratic in that way.
Itís interesting in "Soulfood Man," how you overlap two different tracks of your voice, both high and low.
That was an interesting experiment for me too. I always learn so much from these projects, but what I wanted that to be was me just being in a loud belting voice and it just didnít work. So I was trying to decide between the low voice and the high voice and I didnít like either of them alone, and it ended up being really cool. It ended up being one of my favorite things on the album actually, because itís panned left and right, and especially if youíre in a car, you feel kind of immersed in voice because of that. "Soulfood" is cool too, because thereís an experiment that is in there. I took the drums and the clavinet and I made a version at half speed and thatís in there in the background. You hear it more in the choruses at the end of the song, where it fades down. So, itís half speed and I had to line it up measure by measure to make sure it would still match the existing rhythm, but itís kind of cool because youíre hearing the same thing in normal speed and half speed simultaneously.
You seem to have gone through a lot of album covers before making a decision?
Oh yeah, shit, Iím like that. Iím the worldís worst decision maker, but we had fun with them and I got to put them up on the website.
How did you ultimately decide on that cover in particular, with your face in a helmet?
Well, hereís a little story about the album cover. Iím horrible about decisions...I can easily pick a million decisions and get them down to two, and then I get stuck permanently. So I was down to that cover, and the abstract image that was used on the front of the booklet, except the type was different. But those two images have more of a violet purple and now it is kind of a more orange purple. So I had those two images mocked up on an album cover, and I went to downtown Burlington on my Segway, down on Church Street, and I had them in my pocket and asked like a hundred people what they liked better and why. And then in case that wasnít enough, I parked my Segway and went into Borders and I put them onto two different shelves near each other in a display case and I just hovered and waited to see if one of them would attract people. So, it was a tough decision, and in the end I just really ended up liking...at first I thought it was too silly...the music is kind of dark and serious, but itís not entirely serious, a little tongue-in-cheek. But this one, I really got happy with it and there are a couple things I like about it actually. One is that itís so hard to get a CD with a singular image thatís big, and from far away you can see it. Actually, the [Clone] cover I like, and in retrospect I feel a little that way about it, that thereís not anything big except the palm trees. And this one has one big image and it kind of matches my sense of humor. I like the egg beaters, which were my idea, because they kind of beat from within each other and there is a little bit of trees and itís kind of surreal, so it kind of matches my face pretty well.
One thing that hasnít been discussed a lot is that you play all six string and acoustic guitars on the record.
Yeah, the guy that works with me, Jared Slomoff, who helped out a lot on this album, he had one guitar part that he had recorded and I said, "well, itís good, but we canít use it, because this would be the only one and I wouldnít be able to say all guitars and basses. I really wanted to say that. I donít know, I play the acoustic guitars and electric guitars and electric piano too, but anyway, Iíve been playing guitar a little bit longer than bass and I donít practice it very much, and I enjoy it.
Well you surprised a lot of people when you toured with Bruce Hampton a few years back and played lead guitar.
Yeah, I actually played with him a few times outside of that tour. One time after we played in Atlanta, I went out late and played with Bruce. I donít know, this has happened before, where on the spot I thought it was incredible, and on tape it wasnít, but I canít find a tape of the damn thing. But I thought it was the best electric guitar playing I have ever done, and it was. And I had never really done it on stage, except for ("Walfredo") with Phish occasionally where we rotate instruments, but Iíve never done it much. But that one time I just thought I was raging. Guitarists can say that...bass players donít have the personalities to say "I was raging," but once you are a guitar player, that is part of the shtick.
When you tour with your new band in support of Inside In, do you expect to play both bass and guitar?
Iíve been sort of leaking who is going to be in the band, but weíre not going to make an announcement yet...although, Scott Murawski from Max Creek is definitely going to be in the band.
Ed. note: Along with Murawski, the line-up will be comprised of longtime Phish collaborators James Harvey on keyboards and Gordon Stone on pedal steel and banjo, as well as trombonist Josh Roseman (Dave Holland, Charlie Hunter), tap dancer and vocalist Jeannie Hill, vocalist and flutist Julee Avallone and drummer Doug Belote (Anders Osborne, Tony Furtado)
Youíve sat in with Max Creek enough times to play bass on a number of his tunes if need be.
Yeah, but I have this idea, of having us each get double neck guitars and we can switch off bass to guitar, because he plays bass too. And we can switch off every few bars if we wanted. Probably wonít do that, but it was a funny idea.
Well you certainly have a special relationship with Scott going back over the years. Iíve always considered him to be one of the most underrated guitar players around.
Yeah, me too. I told him he should have been on that top 100 guitarist list that came out recently by Rolling Stone.
Are you surprised Leo Kottke didnít make it?
Hmm...well, you know what, John Fahey was in it, whose Leoís mentor. Ry Cooder was number seven or something, and I have to congratulate Warren [Haynes] who was like number twenty seven, but yeah itís interesting.
A lot of the Phish audience has embraced Leo since your collaboration with him. Do you feel many of his classical audience have warmed up to Phish, and your music in particular, having maybe originally perceived it as "hippie music?"
I wonder, Iím not sure. I mean, maybe someone would be more hidden in a group of Phish fans than they would be in a group of Leo Kottke fans, but I wonder. I certainly didnít meet any people on the Mike and Leo tour that had never heard of Phish and liked the kind of stuff we were doing as a duo, but yeah, Iím not really sure.
In regards to your bass playing, you recently sat in with Sound Tribe Sector 9 at Bonnaroo, who are known for their trance-groove. That sound is reflective of a lot of your repetitive line playing right before the Phish hiatus in songs like "Sand" and "First Tube."
Even years and years ago, some of my peak experiences involved playing two notes over and over again for a long time and then adding a third note sort of thing. Sort of limiting...really, really limiting and not trying to be artsy with my bass lines, but rather just try to create motion that goes on and on. Those songs were played by Tony (Markelis) first, so in the case of "Sand" and "First Tube," that was just clearly trying to do what Tony had done, thatís really what that was. But learning from it all and learning a sense of restraint. Restraint goes a long way in music, but I actually believe in excess too. There is a place for excess and a place for restraint.
So did you find that repetition cathartic in a way, but still longing for the more complex lines that came back when Round Room came out?
I think in general we like the idea of trying to mix what would be hopefully more maturity. By maturity I mean, being willing to open up parts of the heart, and express true emotion, and to mix that with some of the more complexities we had in the earlier days, and trying to have the best of both worlds. Thatís what it was feeling like when Trey [Anastasio] brought "Walls of the Cave," and some other songs like that to band practice.
With the sophistication of digital video, non-linear-editing, and the big explosion of new media, do you hope to incorporate more multi-media elements into your music?
Well, my mother and I are thinking about doing, and this is more arts than music I guess, but weíre thinking of doing a collaboration that weíve been doing for years and years, but weíre relating it to the Inside In album, which is an art gallery thing probably starting in New York, where there is a hundred, kind of like an o-box where you would put album slip covers, but bigger and mounted on the wall, so you can keep your album there, but on the outside of it is a Minkin painting...she used to do our backdrops and all that, and she paints on plastic...So Minkin paintings with little holes where parts of the album might shine through and transparencies. Each of them has a sound from Inside In looping and a proximity detector, so when you are in the room, and you get closer to one or a couple of them, you are going to hear those. Essentially, by walking around the room, you are playing the environment, and creating a whole new Inside In based on the same sounds that were on Inside In, but now looping and coming back in different ways. We were thinking about doing that in New York, but we just want to figure out which gallery to use. Thereís one thatís right across the street from my place in New York, uptown...Iím living in New York and Vermont now. So we donít have a gallery yet, but weíre both very excited about it, and Iím learning more about my momís craft than ever before, and thatís kind of cool...so thatís multi-media. Another idea is for dancers to come in and dance to the room. I just keeping having lots of ideas.
Also, on the Outside Tour, we had some experiments where we had keyboards that the audience can walk up to and play. Iíd like to keep that sort of thing going with my solo band, when appropriate. I mean, sometimes with Phish we feel that the stage antics take away from the music and we try to do less than we used to in terms of non-musical gimmicks, but other times, it can be really cool, itís just a matter of knowing when to do what.
I thought one of the most creative uses of stage was Phish playing on top of the traffic control tower at the recent IT festival.
Oh yeah, that was pretty wild, I canít wait to see it. There was high definition footage, there were a lot of cameras smushed up there with us. And then to see the outside footage, because I didnít see it from the outside, but I think there is an online clip someone had. And it was just a really cool feeling, because itís a real bonding thing for the band. Weíre kind of up there...the flat bed truck was like that too actually, a few years back...but weíre up there, and itís just kind of only us and some of our closest crew members, and there is no pressure to play songs. Itís very surreal and serene at the same time.
In the same way you can look at your albums as a snapshot into your creative timeline, now that time has passed, how do you view the three previous films you directed: the "Down With Disease" video, Tracking, and Outside Out?
Actually, I feel like itís a shame that for the movies, I couldnít do what Woody Allen does. I learn things from each movie, and I learned things from Outiside Out that I wouldnít be able to use until my next narrative movie, and hopefully itís going to be a number of years between them and I wonít have forgotten the stuff that I learned and wanted to try out ó itís hard having two careers. And Tracking, itís really interesting because some fans hated it, like The Pharmers Almanac said "this really sucks," but in retrospect people sort of say that was cool. What I was trying to do with that was have the band emoting, like laughing in the studio, but the fans said "I wish there was more talking and informative stuff and what youíre thinking about." But it was only a half-hour long and I just wanted to have the motion and not the talking. And itís certainly low grade, but I actually spent a lot of time editing. So, I havenít watched it in awhile, but I think it did what I wanted it to do within the limited means of production.
Any thoughts of re-releasing it on DVD?
Iíd like to put together a compilation, and Jared may help with this too, where maybe there is that and maybe a whole bunch of other stuff...a couple student films I did, old band films....glad you reminded me about that, we have the 20th anniversary coming up, you never know whatís going to be needed.
Now, for the "Down With Disease" video, I feel like that failed in certain ways, and maybe succeeded in some. Overall, the band didnít really like it. They thought it had moments, but what I like is the first section and the end section. The first section in the living room, and we all jump into a fish tank is kind of cool, and then we are floating around for awhile and thatís the section where I feel it didnít really go anywhere. And then we jump into the clam, which becomes the New Years Eve thing, and that live footage is really cool looking. So, I think the concept was cool, where you jump into a fish tank, and weíre swimming around and then we got on the clam and bang, we combined some footage from stage.
What most people thought was it didnít have enough of the Mike stamp on it...there were thirty people involved. There was a record company saying you have to have lip-synching, and this and that. I mean, they were nice people from the record company getting involved, the woman in charge was really cool, but there were so many people, and there were producers and art directors that I felt it was out of my hands. And then there was the band telling me what to do too, looking at stuff and eventually I think they might have been right that I was sort of spoiled a bit. I didnít think in the future that I should do works for hire in that way. Not that it was for hire, as it was my band and I wanted to do it, but Rising Low was a work for hire too, and I felt like I did a better job of internalizing what I would want a movie to be like and expressing that. Or certainly with Outside Out which I spent 5000 hours on and it was a real labor of love.
For Outside Out I can comment what I donít like about it is the writing and the directing...and some of the acting. Everything that has to do with a story part I feel is limited by my lack of experience. But what I really do like about it, is the music that has now become Inside In. And some of the editing, and the mood, and the fact that I created this strange little world that the characters live in.
Do you see a parallel with these films, and your work with Phish-primarily the earlier music that was recorded while you were in college. Do you look back and say "that was from a time and place?"
I do feel like that, but I mean, the only difference is I would feel more like that if I had made ten films, rather than five, because itís so important to be prolific if you want to learn. With the band, weíve had the benefit of making ten or so studio albums and we keep learning, and so the last three we did I like better than the earlier ones. I know other people might disagree, but thatís my opinion. It started with Story of the Ghost I guess, and I started liking them...the last four even. I started being less critical about those after they came out, less tearing them apart in my mind. So I kind of feel the same way. But for Outside Out, I wish I had more experience working with stories, and writing and all that. I feel like their can be more elements of the story that would be more compelling. Just for the principle characters, for it to be clearer what they want, to have more challenges to overcome. There are some things about the editing and the way that it was shot too. Oh, and the big thing I learned from Ouside Out is that it would be good to have a script...Iíve never had one yet.
I always thought your Mikeís Corner stories had the potential for some type of script. Did you ever consider putting those characters in film?
Not specifically, but I like the idea of taking that whacked out vibe and supplying it. The thing with me and movies, I feel a lot of people get the real world everyday, and the movie might as well have some fantasy elements, so I like the surreal. If itís completely fantasy, I get lost. I like there to be a mixture, the half-way, and thatís why I like Woody Allen who has these sorts of visual tricks or story tricks, but is rooted in real people and thatís kind of the direction I see myself going. David Lynch does that a lot too, and those are two of my favorite contemporary directors. So, I do look back and feel like this is sort of sophomoric in a way, but itís also...I really like that I made it and I get that special feeling. One thing that I think I have always done, or tried to do and succeeded often is just that, mood is very important to me. A project that I have immersed myself deeply enough, so that I can let the mood dictate itself, where as somewhat writing or creating itself would mean somewhat getting out of the way, and that is something that I have learned from my music ó the importance of getting out of the way.
Have you seen any movies, read any books, or seen any concerts that have inspired you lately?
Ok, well concerts, going backwards...I saw Daniel Lanois, who is a big influence on me and probably a big influence on this album in a way too. He was playing with Brian Blade, just the two of them and I really liked that. I really like the Dead again. I know some people are skeptical about the non-Jerry Garcia, and I love Jerry as much as some other people might ó playing and personality. I really like the role Jimmy Herring has fallen into, especially the Bonnaroo show, and the stuff they played down there. And Sound Tribe...and I loved playing with Dr. John (at Bonnaroo Superjam) which was kind of like being at a concert, except I got to be on stage.
For movies, two films that I just saw were American Splendor, which was interesting, and I had never seen Bowling For Columbine, which I had just rented. I liked Adaptation when that came out and I saw A Mighty Wind and I was sort of medium on it. Oh, and Spellbound, the documentary on the spelling bee, that was good. I also saw Winged Migration, and they actually have cameras flying next to birds. And what I really liked is an Imax movie called Pulse. Itís hosted by Stomp, and they are in it and go all over the world and they find all their influences in many different countries. Like different parts of Africa, Spain, and Brazil and itís just amazing. Itís just dance and percussion and itís really wild, and I saw it twice. You have to see it at Imax.
For books, you know the problem with me is I have all these books that I would really love to read and I have about fifty stacked up and I never read. Iím not really well read, and Iíd be that much more of a worldly person if I read. So, thatís the problem there. But Trey gave me this book called War Talk, by Arundahti Roy. The first part is about India, and the second part is about the Bush administration. Sheís really into Noam Chomsky, who I like also. Itís only hundred pages and itís really interesting. I also have Bass Guitar for Dummies, I know the guy that put that out.
Oh, you mean one of those yellow books?
Yeah, I think soon Iíll write a book called dummy book writing for dummies (laughs).
Photos courtesy of David Barron, Jeremy Wanamaker and www.insidein.com