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Track By Track: Mike Gordon Overstep

by Dean Budnick on February 27, 2014

It is tempting to call Mike Gordon’s latest studio album, Overstep, a departure but, then again, the Phish bassist’s solo career has been defined by its amorphous definition. Gordon has come by his eclecticism naturally, pursuing the music and the method that feel vital to him in the moment. For Overstep, this means that Gordon wrote all 11 tracks with longtime friend and collaborator Scott Murawski over a few years and that Murawski even takes a few lead vocal turns on the record. In addition, rather than utilizing the complete current incarnation of the Mike Gordon Band, Overstep features Gordon and Murawski as the lone representatives of that group, along with drummer Matt Chamberlain (Critters Buggin, Bill Frisell, Marco Benevento).

Producer Paul Kolderie, who has helmed records for Uncle Tupelo, Radiohead and Portugal. The Man, provided another new face. As the bassist explains, “It was not an obvious fit but I want to be ripped away a little bit from my comfort zone and, at the same time, I wanted to work with someone that would believe in us—and be easygoing and accepting of the weirdest of ideas if someone thought we should try them. Paul was that mix where he had been around the block, we knew we could trust him and he does everything: He could be the guy who fixes the guitar, the producer and the engineer. That’s nice to have. When we played him the first demos, he really liked what was a little bit unexpected, and we were warmed by that and it didn’t take long to figure out that it would be a good equation. I also appreciated that he liked to philosophize and then, we were talking to him and lo and behold, he went to Yale and he was an art history major and so, of course, he is going to be able to sit around and philosophize about art.”

Visual art was deeply entwined with the process of developing Overstep, as the impetus for much of the material on the record took place while visiting Gordon’s mother, the abstract painter Marjorie Minkin, and strolling through the galleries of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). Yet, that’s only part of the story—or make that the stories on Overstep—and in speaking with Gordon, it becomes clear that each song is a distillation of multiple concepts and constructs, only some of which can be encapsulated in this issue’s installment of Track By Track.

Ether

There were so many demos and versions of this song. For every musical and lyrical idea, my personality is that I’ll want to try every permutation of everything. I’ll take all my hard drives—all my ideas, all my lists, everything I can think of and I’ll try everything, which sometimes is great and other times it’s like, “I don’t know how anybody deals with me.” [Laughter.] Whereas Scott is a go-with-the-flow type of person, which makes us perfectly matched. Time and time again it’s: “Thank God that Scott’s here because I would have been trying 1,800 more permutations without him being able to say, ‘Oh, try an E chord here’ and it’s like, ‘Yes, that feels good.’” He’ll say the thing that punches it, that just makes the whole thing listenable, whether it’s a lyric or musical thing.

The hardest thing to do as an artist is to let go of an idea. I’ve never been too good at it, but I’m getting better at it and saying, “Well, that was that version and this version is great because the grooves just flow.” A song doesn’t need to have every experimental element floating in the background. It can still be a floaty song about floating without having a million voices and kazoos, although on “Ether,” there is still one kazoo in there. My desire, as I get older, is to tear things down, to do more with less, to try to have less ideas, less basic concepts, and flesh them out in more ways.

Tiny Little World

In its earlier permutations, “Tiny Little World” was all music and humming, but I really liked the rawness about it and it was almost punkish. Not real punk, but as far toward that as I would ever end up going and I thought, “This will be the trashy song.” But then in talking to Paul, he said, “You could get an R&B drummer for this one.” This was before we decided to have one drummer throughout, but it just took a turn where the whole vibe of the song became more dancey and funky. I loved having a track with that synth bass sound because I use it in shows but I’ve never recorded it.

I like the concept of the song where a guy is sitting in a coffee shop having this fantasy and the fantasy itself just goes awry and sours and it’s like, “Oh, if I really follow this fantasy all the way through then I’m going to fuck up my whole life. So, uh, never mind.” [Laughter.]

Jumping

The original impetus for the song was Scott and I were on a tour bus, and we started doing these writing sessions. Usually, I don’t do a lot of writing on tour, but I hope to do more because sometimes I’m revved up with ideas.

So we were on a tour bus and everyone was asleep, and we were coming up with this rhythmic pattern where it starts at nine beats and then half a beat is taken away so the next part is eight-and-a-half beats and then eight and then seven and a half and then, seven and that rhythmic pattern is kept intact. It’s just the end is lobbed off, lobbed off, lobbed off, and it just goes from six and a half to six and then, to five and a half and on down to half a beat. Then once it gets to half a beat, which is an eighth note, it adds back up but it doesn’t keep the same pattern when it adds back—it just very quickly adds back and stops at six. Scott and I were on the tour bus, which was going pretty fast down the highway, and we were jumping up and down strumming this pattern and trying to drop beats and add beats. It was so much fun.

Then, the first time that we met Matt Chamberlain, he came in for a rehearsal date and we said, “Well, we might as well start with the hardest thing first. We’ve got this outro that starts with nine beats goes to eight and half, goes to eight, goes to seven and a half…” And he’s like, “OK…” It was not easy and he’s a top drummer. In the middle of it I said, “Well, the moral of the story is don’t ever take a session from a guy that plays in the band Phish…” [Laughter.]

Yarmouth Road

We spent a lot of time in North Adams, Mass., where my mom has an artist’s loft in this building with tons of artists, and we spent some time at the Mass MoCA museum. We ended up writing a lot of poetry, which changed into lyrics via a few steps, and worked with some grooves and lyrics that stemmed from artwork. Then, flash forward to later when we’re doing our final songwriting, and we decided to walk from Boston to South Boston where my uncle has a building full of artists, and we were going to walk out on the roof of this woman who has the biggest loft and just finish all our lyrics and anything that was still pending.

We had spent the whole walk to South Boston working on this song called “Styrofoam Men” about a robot living in a geodesic dome or something like that. It was way out there. [Laughter.] But then this woman—we didn’t end up using her rooftop but she did have this honeycomb-shaped sculpture covering several ceilings made from the material you would use to cut shirt materials. It might not even be a hex pattern but it is yellowish and it looked like a honeycomb. So while we walked back from South Boston and across Boston Common, down Newbury Street and into this Indian restaurant, I was kind of latching onto the bees and the honeycomb and, suddenly, it was all coalescing—the song was writing itself. I was thinking, “Wait a minute, this is somehow giving the song essence and I don’t know why.” I love things that I don’t understand and I went back to my hotel room and the whole thing wrote itself.

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