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Postcard from Vermont: Mike Gordon (Throwback Thursday)

by Mike Greenhaus on August 14, 2014

Part of Gordon’s creative process was simply figuring out what direction he’d like his solo album to take. “I didn’t want this album to sound like Phish with my voice turned up in the mix,” he says, sitting behind the mixing console at The Barn after lunch. Though Gordon is finishing his album in The Barn, most of The Green Sparrow was actually recorded in his home studio. “I always felt like The Barn was Trey’s, so I hired the same guy to build a studio on my attic level,” he says, after remembering one particularly crazy party he hosted here for Jim Carrey and his film crew. “My studio has all these different materials, surfaces and shapes. It almost feels like a tree house or wizard’s castle.”

“During my year of no gigs, I read five books on creativity, including The Artist’s Way that Trey recommended, which was pretty life-changing,” he continues, itching his graying ‘fro. “The basis is that you have to recover your childlike sense of wonder and joy. As you get older, and your parents and teachers inadvertently tell you that you suck, when you sit down and write a song, some part of you is already telling you that you suck. There is a censor built in and this workbook is about trying to make the creative process fun and joyous again.”

Oddly enough, even before he knew his fiancé was pregnant, Gordon wanted to write a song that included the word “baby.” “Trey talked about it a lot about it ten years ago when he was first having kids. In order to move from the known to the unknown, you have to have three things in place: energy, a sense of possibility and a feeling of safety,” he finally says. “Your first example of all those things is your mother and then you move into all these other spheres. And when I was growing up, creativity was the word my mother used to describe the highest human ideal.”

So it is no wonder much of The Green Sparrow deals with themes of running, flying and digging, only filtered through Gordon’s quirky sensibilities and equally unique rhythms. “I wanted to have two drummers because I really like when two different drum beats or sounds are juxtaposed,” he says latter that day, relaxing in the Cupola, a lighthouse-like loft built out of wire that is located at the top of The Barn (accessible only by a forklift elevator). “Kind of like the jam at the end of ‘Split Open and Melt.’ I really like the number five, so I wanted to have a five-piece band. I didn’t want it to be four because of the Phish thing, but I didn’t want to have eight like I had in ’03.”

In addition to his frequent collaborator Murawski, Gordon’s band features keyboardist Tom Cleary, a jazz instructor at the University of Vermont, Rubblebucket Orchestra percussionist Craig Myers and drummer Todd Isler, who Gordon stumbled upon by chance through Chris Thile collaborator Michael Davis. “Todd didn’t know anyone I knew, but I think jamband fans are going to be in heaven. His playing is funky and danceable and mesmerizing, but very creative at the same time. He’s like this secret treasure.”

As he talks, Gordon causally references his former bandmates, usually more as friends than collaborators. “I had a weight bet with Jon Fishman which he won, and now I have one with my brother,” Gordon says with a smile. “We are both trying to get to the same weight and then both lose five pounds.” But, when the conversation shifts to Phish and a reunion fans deem inevitable, Gordon is hesitant to say anything definitive, not so much because he doesn’t want to play with his former bandmates, but because he also wants to play with just about everyone else. While in New Orleans in May, he laid down some tracks for drummer Russell Baptiste’s new solo album. He’s been tossing around ideas with singer/songwriter Brett Dennen. And there’s always the possibility that he will sit in with the trio he assembled for Kreutzmann. ( “We joked about calling it The Mike Gordon Band, even though I’m not in it,” he says with a hint of Phish prankster-like pride).

He’s also already thinking about another solo album, which may include The Green Sparrow songs left on the cutting-room floor, mostly for stylistic reasons. “Fishman recorded a track we ultimately didn’t use because it was kind of ballady,” he says. “It’s hard to find a drummer that is so tasteful and relaxed – he floats over the groove. I was texting Trey the whole time saying, ‘I know you love Fish, but in case you forgot how good he is, I want to go on Jon Fishman tour.’”

While much of his future is still unsure, one thing Gordon is certain about is that, despite becoming a father, he’s excited to take his new band on the road: “I don’t think it slowed down my Phish bandmates to have kids,” he says with a laugh. “When Phish was touring, I was always the one who liked being on the road and in hotels. I don’t always like to travel, but when I’m on a mission like that, I never got sick of it, even when other people got sick of it. So, even with having a kid, I look forward to more touring. I’d like to play with my new band for years. I’m hungry for that feeling of longevity and hungry for that growth. It could happen with Phish again – that’s a possibility – but I like the idea of germinating something new and seeing it through over time.”

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