Phish, No Fear Of Flying: An Interview with Mike Gordon Part II (Relix Revisited)
I hate to keep going back to that but…
Gordon: Too many parallels. We’ll have to talk about the Sun Ra connection.
Sun Ra is an older, more abstract artist. You guys are relatively young so I’m a little surprised that he’s an influence.
Gordon: We probably listen to as much old jazz as new jazz. We did a bunch of Duke Ellington covers. The thing about Sun Ra, his band was 20 people that would jam and usually in such a big band setting—people don’t go off on such wild tangents. But he once played Boston for a few nights. Fish and I actually got to meet him and listen to him talk in his hotel room for four or five hours. It was pretty wild ‘cause he had a way of tying everything together.
Well, when you’re from another planet…
Gordon: Yeah, that makes it easy. (Laughter) Easy to put into perspective when you’re from Saturn. But he was, at the time, onto this thing called The Book of Information which supposedly was beamed in from outer space to Istanbul on certain radio frequencies. They had given him a copy of this sort of guide to the cosmos. He Xeroxed it for Fish, and he went on talking about it. And now, Trey and Fish have been playing with Michael Ray who was his trumpet player, Michael Ray and the Cosmic Crew.
Who are some of your bass influences?
Gordon: I didn’t really spend a lot of time listening to any single bass player. The first time I sat down to learn bass lines, I think it was Big Brother & The Holding Co. (Peter Albin), that Janis Joplin, sort of Motowny sound.
Actually, the first time I decided I wanted to play bass in a band was when I was around 14 and my family was in the Bahamas. There was a band called the Mustangs that played by the poolside at the hotel. They were great. My dad and I were standing inside the pool and listening, and the bass could just vibrate you, whereas the guitar could make pretty melodies, but the bass could actually vibrate your whole body. I really liked that physical thing, and I told my dad at that point that if I ever were in a band when I got older, that I would want to play bass.
You talk about playing with two notes and using textures on those notes.
Gordon: The bass, for me, is such a great thing ‘cause it looks like a piece of graph paper. It’s patterns. But those two notes, if they’re going back and forth…well, that’s sometimes the selflessness thing.
Some of my best jams…if the flow is going, if you feel like you’re flying, who would want to ruin that by trying to do something interesting? (Laughter) But it ends up being interesting anyway because those two notes have a certain emotion, a certain point, and if you’re on a really deep note, like where does that take you? Does it pull you down or does it launch you? You feel yourself being physically drawn in certain directions because of the way the patterns and the notes go. I think that’s one thing I really like about Phil Lesh’s playing. I would say that Phil Lesh and Bootsy Collins are probably my two favorite bass players. But with Phil, first of all, it seems like he makes it a meditation. Second of all, he’s got this way of making the ups and downs, the peaks and valleys of the bass line, be the only thing that matters. It’s like physically, you are being vibrated at your knees and in your chest. What does it feel like to just go up and come down? With other bass lines, with some of the Motown bass players that are so great, certain bass players, you’ll hear like a melodic use of the scale. But there won’t be so much attention to the ups and downs. Like, they’ll jump in a way, so it’s almost less important, the physical nature of it, of the high and the low notes. In the case of Phil, I think he’s a person that embraces just the pure kinetic physicality of the note. I really like the way that happens.
We went to see Bootsy Collins in New Orleans after we played, and it was just wild. It was the slowest, funkiest groove, and this club was packed with people just getting down. It’s also funny the way humor can enter into the equation with notes that sound funny, which is suppose is just another emotion in the sea of emotions. With Bootsy, there’s definitely a lot of humor that goes on.
Well, there’s a lot of humor with your band.
Gordon: Yeah, yeah I think so. We used to search for things that were deliberately funny, but I think now it’s more abstract. We make jokes all day on the tour bus. We like to try to twist people’s minds in our own special way if we can. (Laughter)
What are some of your favorite songs to perform?
Gordon: It varies. We just wrote nine new songs, which we’re playing since the mixing of the live album, and I like a bunch of them. I like one called “Theme From The Bottom,” which has a lot of underwater themes again. There are a couple of songs that we actually wrote as a group, just jamming and taking pieces and writing songs. That was one of them. There’s another new one called “Free,” which almost sounds like a Southern rocker. I really like playing that one, but the jam in the middle of “Free” is all textural. Trey just plays one note and jams on texture for the whole jam, making it sound different. We do some bluegrass. In the last tours, I’d play banjo, the keyboard player plays upright bass, we would have all acoustic instruments. Now we do this four guitar thing. I actually listen to mostly bluegrass myself.
The song “Ginseng Sullivan” by Norman Blake, we started doing again, which is a bluegrass song that we do with the electric instruments, and I’ve really been liking that one. It’s just a simple song. My favorite songs are probably the songs that end up being the most open-ended, where we can take it to the furthest places, but then it’s not the song that’s being appreciated. It’s the ability to get away from it, in a sense. My favorite songs are probably originals, but we were at Waterloo and we played “Waterloo,” an ABBA song, and we had John Popper from Blues Traveler come up and play with us, and I kind of liked that. Trey didn’t like it. He ended it in the middle.
Sometimes I like to say that music has four functions. If it were an art, it wouldn’t have any function except it would be art for art’s sake. Functionally speaking, I divide it into mind, body, heart, soul. With some of our songs where the lyrics were sort of strings of syllables, to me, there used to be a lacking in the heart department. Maybe in some of the jams there would be heart, it’s very emotional, but when you think about your favorite song, to me it’s what would make me feel a strong emotion. Songwriting can have that. Whereas it’s really the beat that makes you physically want to dance, and the spiritual connection would be the soul. And the technical aspects of the music would be the mind. But in terms of heart, “Ginseng Sullivan” sort of touches a part of the heart, an aorta or some ventricle. (Laughter) There’s actually the new song, “Strange Design” that we have, that’s sort of like that. It’s a song that Page sings. It has a lot of heart to it.
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