Track By Track: Mike Gordon Overstep
A lot of times when Scott and I were in North Adams and we wrote the lyrics to artwork, what happened is that the artwork was just like an opening of the door. It’s kind of what led us to do some creative writing, and some freeform writing, that brought out stuff that we were thinking about individually and that we could combine to get each other’s take.
It was in some of that freeform writing where I recalled this experience where there was this girl that I had a crush on in high school. And this one time, she was at her locker and no one else was around so I thought, “OK, I’m finally going to say something to her,” and I walked up to her and she’s at her locker and I’m 10 feet away and, right at that second, some punkish kid kicked open an outside door across the hall. He had tapped the fire hydrant and he had a fire hose and he sprayed thousands of gallons of water against the lockers right next to hers, right between me and her, right at that minute. And then, suddenly, it stopped and the guy’s gone and there’s water everywhere and it’s like, “Huh, what clever thing can I say about this to this girl?” And there wasn’t anything that came to mind so I turned around and walked away. [Laughter.]
So there’s that bridge: “Just when you get a little impulse to almost start vibration in the inside of your throat, someone has to make an interruption, they tap into a hydrant and spray us with a hose...” That’s just straight out of real life and it’s funny how a lot of these songs are straight out of real life, but the idea is not to tell our own story but to make a tapestry of words and music that resonates. It has to start from something personal, I think, if it’s going to resonate—in this case, being like the shy little kid always wanting to say something and then wanting the other person to say something and kind of getting caught up in that.
A really fun challenge for that song was to make the lyrics be a list. It was so tempting to put a verb in because it would have been so much easier to say what we wanted in a line or a verse if we could use subject, verb, object. But we just kept saying, “No, no, no, art exists within limitations.” It was better when the list was the something and the something and the something, and to be hovering on the chord in the beginning, and then moving from this chord and then to this chord and then to this chord. It’s like in a musical where someone gets more and more into the line they’re singing and it’s taking off and it moves from chord to chord, and then more happens in the lyric and then more and then more and then we’re back at the first chord. I really like going through those permutations both in terms of the list and in terms of the chords.
We were around all these paintings—a thousand amazing paintings—and, some- how, I came to the idea that someone in the painting wants to join the real world. It really appealed to me: “Get me off this canvas, I just want to hang out with you, I’m tired of this two-dimensional thing here.” But then I kind of like the irony of how he jumps into the real world but discovers that it isn’t so great: “The painter is the only person I know and she is kind depressing. She doesn’t even like her own paintings and—wait a minute—I am of her own paintings and she doesn’t even like me enough to have fun with me. I’m going back to the canvas.”
I was going out for my run one morning, and I walked out into this clearing that must have been like a hundred acres of charred debris from a cyclone that had happened 10 or 15 years earlier that no one had touched. It was really wild. I wanted to take Scott back out there but instead of taking him back out there, we just sat down and wrote a song. It begins: “Debris and branches all twisted flat” and then explores the idea of chasing a femme fatale.
“Peel” stemmed from Scott—both musically and lyrically. I really like how the chorus is kind of thrashy and more distant-sounding and the verses and all of the sound-effecting parts are very close. The way I imagined it is: There’s this huge empty warehouse and Scott and I are in the middle and we’re playing with no reverb so you’re right next to us, with no reverb and no drums at first. And then, you get this sense there’s a vast space where there are sounds that are way off in the distance. It’s a juxtaposition—this idea of being in a vast space and being right next to something. When I was little, I would get sick and lose my sense of balance and I’d be lying in bed with this feeling of being teeny-tiny and huge at the same time, that sort of feeling.
Long Black Line
In North Adams, we met this guy Rick Harlow. He makes these gigantic green psychedelic paintings and he goes to the Colombian rainforest and works with shamans and gets inspired for the art, but he’s also involved with a political movement. There’s a triangular ridge of mountains and these people called the Mamos Elders, who have been making sacrifices to the gods and believe that the whole health of the planet centers at the area connected by these ridges called the Long Black Line. This area is subject to deforestation and chemical dumping and all other kinds of problems.
Rick Harlow is involved with helping raise money to protect the native traditions and the native people and their land, and so we wrote a song about it. The original song was more about that and then we decided that while we love the image and the sentiment, we wanted to have it be more personal. So we just started imagining us as individuals walking up there, not as Mamos Elders but as Mike and Scott. What would we be thinking about? So it became more personal and it’s got a darkness to it.
Originally, we were writing this stuff together and there was no plan to make a Mike Gordon album—there was just a plan to work together. So at some point, we thought it was interesting the way it was unfolding, where I sing most of the songs but I don’t sing all the songs. There are demo versions of “Surface” and “Peel” where I sing. With “Surface,” the very first time we recorded it, I sang the lead part and then the next time we were working on it, I had laryngitis and so Scott did it. So I went back and I thought, “OK, let’s just do a test and see who fits the mood of the song better,” and I genuinely liked Scott better.