Maintaining Equilibrium: Mike Gordon Sets Off In A New Direction with OGOGO
by Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta on September 11, 2017
Photo by Rene Huemer
The first track on Mike Gordon’s new record OGOGO is the synth-laden, poppy “Equilibrium.” It’s a fitting way to open the album, considering Gordon’s career is its own kind of balancing act. There’s the equilibrium between his solo work and his role in Phish, the tension between his love for songwriting and his natural ability to improvise and the overarching balance between his work and his family.
As Gordon recently explained, “‘Equilibrium,’ for me, it’s a really almost scary feeling that I get, and I imagine other people get. You’re in some kind of relationship with someone and something goes wrong in terms of there being a misunderstanding and there’s a conflict and there has to be a resolution...The equilibrium part becomes so fragile. It’s just a little spot in the middle where if it were to tip left or right then you’d be back out of balance. I think that analogy is sort of true of the music, too.”
OGOGO (out September 15 via Megaplum/ATO Records) is Gordon’s most comprehensive, and cohesive solo record to date. With the help of longtime songwriting partner Scott Murawski and acclaimed producer/sound engineer Shawn Everett, the bassist explores genres like pop, psych-rock and new wave to create 13 toe-tapping tracks that don’t necessarily betray Gordon’s jamband roots, but definitely reframe his approach to writing and recording.
“We thought, ‘Oh, we’re getting to these places through improvisation and long jamming where it doesn’t sound like Phish, it’s influenced by Phish, but it’s influenced by a lot of other things too,’” he says. “So then we’re at the point where we’re like, ‘Okay, we need to make an album.’ But the album might not be the 10-minute jam, it might just be that moment that we got to.”
Gordon points to Everett as a key influence on OGOGO’s fresh, indie sound. In addition to winning a Grammy for engineering Alabama Shakes’ Sound and Colour, Everett recently contributed to the War On Drugs' A Deeper Understanding and Grizzly Bear’s Painted Ruins, among other lauded projects. “Someone would give me a list of people or a list of albums, and if I liked them I could see who the producer was. And then lo and behold Shawn was involved with it. And it just kept happening like that,” Gordon recalls. After a conference with famed producer Bob Ezrin, who called Everett “the most sonically innovative producer” he knew, Gordon and Everett got to work.
“When we were recording the album, every single vocal and instrument was recorded in a way I'd never seen before, and I’ve been doing it for a long time,” Gordon says. “It’s pretty amazing with Shawn that he layers up a lot of sounds. More than I would have thought to. Every instrument, every vocal, is layered with a lot of experiments.” And while Everett’s fingerprints are all over OGOGO, you hear him most on songs like “Whirlwind” and “Victim 3D,” dynamic tracks that coast along layers of synths and overdubs to create entire soundscapes. Combined with Gordon’s unique vocal tones, and consciously sparse bass lines (“I think it’s more powerful when there’s less notes"), OGOGO feels like a relevant and reinvigorated addition to the Mike Gordon discography.
It’s worth noting, however, that Gordon’s entire band contributed to the album in one way or another. Featuring Murawski on guitar, Robert Walter on keys, John Kimock on drums and Craig Myers on additional percussion, OGOGO, Gordon argues, is more of a “band” record than a solo project: “It’s hard to describe what that’s like, to be running around the rooms of the studio, and there Johnny is sitting on a couch with this new drum machine that he’s discovered, and it’s got all these weird purple lights coming out of it, and I’m like, ‘Cool, I’ve gotta get one of those!’ And I keep walking around and in another corner Scott is experimenting with, I don’t know, linking his guitar with the binaural head-electric guitar with an acoustical mic. And we’re all just in it together.” The band’s camaraderie clearly made the recording processes fun and playful, allowing for the creative juices to flow freely. “At the end of the day, it’s all about chemistry,” Gordon adds. “Certainly in the world that I come from, after 34 years of chemistry with the Phish guys, there has to be a certain chemistry.”
Obviously, OGOGO resides far away from the Phish multiverse, but there are some threads that still link it to Gordon’s primary band. For one, the track “Let’s Go” was originally demoed for Phish’s most recent album, the Ezrin-produced Big Boat. At first, Gordon recalls, the song’s sing-along chorus excited his Phish bandmates and reminded them of their track “Fuego.” Unfortunately, after trying countless times to rework the song, it didn’t quite fit the album. “I was kind of glad that it didn’t work out the first time because I think it needed more time to be figured out,” he says. “It wasn’t the fault of Ezrin or the Phish guys or me or anyone. It just needed time and everyone who’s a songwriter has things like that happen. Trey has that all the time, where there’s a song and ten years later we pick it up again, and it’s the best thing ever, but it needed the time to kind of incubate.”
Thinking deeper about OGOGO, Gordon returns over and over again to his newfound desire to follow his gut: “I have hundreds of lists. And I used to only live my life inside those lists,” he reflects. “And at a certain point, I just realized that wasn’t serving me, that I would get lost in the quagmire of information.” He continues later, “I come from a family where the dad is a successful businessman and the mom is a successful artist. And I like being the businessman a lot of the time. I love desks and files and lists and things like that....And yet we all know music can be nirvana or an endless dream or ecstasy of different kinds. So how do I take this businesslike process and end up with this thing that’s kind of a product? And make it not really a product, but a gateway to the unknown? I think that’s been the answer for me: to step away from the lists a little bit, and allow the gut feelings.”
It all comes back to equilibrium: balancing the head with the gut, the jams with the songs, the band with the solo project. And with OGOGO it seems like Gordon, along with his fleet of friends, bandmates and creative partners, struck the balance just right.
“It ended up being one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” he muses. “It was just so fun, just deeply fun.”
For an extended Q&A with Gordon, check out the new feature, " Mike Gordon’s Mad Scientists’ Club," on Jambands.com.