Phish, No Fear Of Flying: An Interview with Mike Gordon (Relix Revisited)
Here is part one of an extended conversation with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, conducted by former Relix editor Toni Brown for the October 1995 issue of the magazine.
You’ll have to forgive me—much of my reference is going to come from the Grateful Dead. But I see you as being the next progression, except that I can’t compare the music, which has transgressed to a more complex level. The Grateful Dead has always been a jamming band. A lot of the bands that have been influenced by the Grateful Dead jam. Other bands out of the ‘60s era jam. But you guys take it to another level.
Mike Gordon: Yeah, it’s different. I think it’s exactly what you say. It borrows on some of the same philosophies as well as philosophies from other groups. You know, there’s the Frank Zappa influence and groups not found in pop music, but in other styles. But it takes a certain philosophy of jamming, in allowing the music to be, allowing the group mind to develop and the music to take on its own thing where the individuals aren’t controlling it, which the Dead definitely believe in. It adds a consciousness where some of the jamming is on more of a conscious level, and we’re making decisions, as a band, to suddenly switch the jam in a different direction.
We actually practice jamming exercises, and I think it’s the sort of thing that the Dead have never believed in—to practice jamming. But, with us, we’ve found that it’s listening exercises because, if a gig is good, it’s always that we’re hooked up as a unit and we’re listening to each other and are very aware. If it’s ever a bad gig, it tends to be when different band members are in their own worlds and aren’t aware of each other. So we do exercises in our practice room at home to make sure that we can hook up and that each person can hear each band member and react to each other. As a result, if we’re jamming, it’s possible that we’ll suddenly change the tempo to three times the speed, switch keys, and go off on a different… someone once described it as a herd of buffaloes that were going fast through a field and suddenly took a left turn together. But there are other people who actually described it, this sort of new direction in improvised music that we’re taking, as being sort of the coming together of a Dionysian and Apollonian values where the ecstasy of the Dionysian ritual is combined with the consciousness and thoughtfulness of the Apollonian ethic and combined into a new art form. In terms of modern music, some people have said that’s what’s happening with us.
There’s an intense intellect, a complexity to your music.
Gordon: Yeah. There are sections of songs that are written out that are fugues. Trey, who writes a lot of our music, worked with a composer, his mentor, for six years. For one or two years, he worked on an atonal fugue. And then, when it was done, it was plopped in the middle of a song that we do, so one section would be memorized. Now that we have six albums out and a lot of songs that aren’t on albums, before we go out on a tour, not only do we practice jamming and get our mind sets in gear and write new songs, but we each have to take the six albums and relearn all the worked-out passages. So we try to stretch as many limits as we can. One limit is the limit of improvisation where it’s completely free form or into the other end of the range, where it’s completely memorized and not a single note improvised first.
So you basically start something and have the skeletal idea of what you want to do, and then you’ll just take it to whatever level is comfortable for that moment.
Gordon: There are different situations for each song and for different parts of songs. The idea of taking the skeleton and building on it would apply to most of the songs, but the situation would range from chord progression where there would be maybe a solo or us jamming on a chord progression, and we’ll see where that goes. That’s kind of in the middle where there’s structure with improvisation together. But there are situations where there are jams where we start them, knowing it or not, and even the building block itself is improvised. Someone will just start doing something, someone will play a riff, let’s say, as soon as a song’s over, maybe, or in the middle section of a [song], and we’ll realize that this doesn’t normally happen in this song and that the cosmos are pulling us toward complete spontaneity, towards something new. The other band members will go along with that, and it’s really tricky.
Not to get too philosophical all at once, but one question that came up recently is that, if we’re in a song and something’s gonna happen that’s never happened before in a radically different way, what is it that’s going on in my mind, and in our minds, that makes us decide to take that different route? In that situation, that sort of thing could happen where we’re gonna go on a tangent that’s completely unplanned. Like a song that’s normally five minutes is now gonna be half an hour or however long it wants to be, and it’s not gonna be that song anymore. It’s not just gonna be noodling where we’re throwing out notes meaninglessly to make a disconnected wall of sound, unless that’s the specific goal. Unless we want to have a big wash of sound, which is cool, but whatever it is, ideally it will be deliberate where we are together. That tangent, whatever it is and however demented or however pretty it is, is a group mind sort of thing.
“What puts us in a certain direction?” If I’m standing on-stage and I’ve forgotten to swallow for five minutes because I’m so absorbed in the music—sometimes I believe in this egoless thing of playing two bass notes for twenty minutes and not trying to make up a cool bass line, but just letting it be a meditation. But then, if I add a third bass note within the bass line after twenty minutes, where did that come from? I came up with a sort of spiritual theory of where that comes from. There’s this book called Stopping The Wild Pendulum that my mother gave me. Kind of a metaphysical book. This guy never went to school past kindergarten, but he became a practicing medical doctor and a real one of those wizard-type people, and he makes all these postulates in the book. Some were sort of disproved later because they’re so crazy and others still hold, as crazy as they were. He has this theory, which can be modeled with a pendulum, that everything is waves, and that’s not a very uncommon metaphysical thought. A lot of people think in that way. But to look at a pendulum, the pendulum’s going at its fastest velocity when it’s in the middle of its swing. Its kinetic energy is the most, and its potential energy is the least. When the pendulum gets to the end of its swing, there’s a split second in time where it’s sitting there and it’s stopped. It’s about to go back in the other direction. The theory is that when the pendulum is up in that split or infinitesimally small moment where it’s waiting to come back in the other direction, that the kinetic energy is zero and the potential energy is infinite. I guess that’s the way people would look at it. His theory was that right at that moment, all the energy of the universe comes to that pendulum ball or it sort of stretches out. With its kinetic energy being zero, its other form of energy stretches out to the edge of the universe and makes contact with all of the other wave forms in the universe that are experiencing that moment of pendulum, or whatever you would call it. And then it comes back and returns to its normal swing.
My theory is that ideally, if music is a meditation, and if everyone is accepting the moment and has faith in the moment and in the music as carrying us without letting the ego get involved too much, that there will be those moments when I’ll be standing there and another note will appear in the bass line, if it’s a pattern, and it will have come from somewhere else. Music will sort of metamorphosize, and the other people will hear it.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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