Mike Gordon: Mind Left Body
Mike Greenhaus | January 06, 2016
The Phish bassist offers a State of the Union on his revamped solo band and life at 50
50 TRIPS AROUND THE SUN
I recently turned 50, and my life is more focused and centered than ever before. Songwriting has become such an important outlet. Right now, I want to focus on that and recording, as well as enjoying life and getting in shape at this age—that whole package.
When Trey turned 50, I called him that day and he said, “You know what I realized? My first 50 years, I did a lot of worrying, and I realized that it didn’t really help anything. So the only thing I am going to do differently after 50 is I’m not going to worry about anything anymore.”
I always get a lot of inspiration from Trey, and I thought that was a nice way to go about this juncture. My daughter Tessa is 7 and such a great part of my life. It’s important for me to spend as much time as possible with her and my family.
MIND LEFT BODY
My other big goal was to get my body and mind in the best shape possible, so I started doing Transcendental Meditation. I’ve practiced mindfulness, which is the other popular kind of meditation, on and off for 25 years, but I really enjoy TM, especially because of the routine. David Lynch and Jerry Seinfeld talk about how powerful it is in all these interviews, and it’s true.
It’s 20 minutes, twice a day, and in one year, I have only missed about eight total. My thing is that I will wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. just anxious. I’ll think about how Scott Murawski and I could work for a long time and pour our hearts into these songs, and people might never hear them because nobody buys music anymore. I know that’s not something I should worry about—it’s the body and the mind spiraling into anxiety at 4 a.m. TM just takes the edge off and there are a lot of things that people do to center themselves, which I’m sure work as well. But, for me, a few hours later when I’m feeling more confident, it just allows me to say: “Not only am I going to be OK, but it’s all going to be fantastic because life is so fun right now. It’s more fun than ever.”
I feel like I am hitting the mind on one end and the body on the other. My other turning 50/New Year’s resolution has been listening to this P90X extreme fitness DVD. This guy around Vermont who is a genius of the body recommended that I try it to counter my bass playing. I went to the doctor and they took my blood pressure and it was lower than it’s been in 20 years, and that’s after going running every day for 20 years. I’ve started to think of my body as a temple, as they say. Your body should be treated with respect, just like the mind, soul and heart. It’s surrendering to and letting nature take over. In life, there is a little more watching your breath. There is a mantra….respecting the muse, respecting Mother Nature. That’s already in the body and in the soul doing its thing and it’s letting that be taught to come out and center me.
CABINET OF ADVISORS
[For the new version of my solo band] I wanted people who were a little more seasoned in the rock and funk worlds, and people who wanted to be experimental and forward-thinking with sound tonalities.
I consider the two guys we had, Tom Cleary and Todd Isler, to be truly amazing musicians with deep talents, but they were both a little more steeped in jazz traditions. One of my goals was to step a little bit away from my earlier influences—‘70s rock, funk, reggae and the Grateful Dead—in whatever way is natural and see what happens.
I have my own little cabinet of advisors, like Joe Russo, and I was talking to him about all these different ideas I had for drummers when he came to a Phish show recently. He said, “You have some great drummers on your list, but you have to play with John Morgan Kimock. He has everything you’re talking about and then some,” and he was exactly right. His dad [Steve Kimock] played with the members of the Grateful Dead, but John Morgan has also turned me on to all this different, melodic music like The Books.
Joe’s also played with Robert Walter, the other new member of the band who was also on my last album, Overstep, and said, “Robert is such a good B-3 player, but he just seems to be this guy that is ready to step out of certain comfort zones.”
I go back and forth on how much I listen to tapes of my music with Phish or my band, but I was listening back to our last tour, and it doesn’t sound like a jamband or ‘70s funk or the Grateful Dead. It doesn’t sound like Phish because it shouldn’t sound like another band that already exists—that would be stupid. We recently did some recording and, at times, it sounded like some thrashy indie band that’s getting a little more melodic. There are a handful of songs that Scott and I have been writing that have the same feel. Robert just had an extra bit of something—an X-factor—that sort of hit the group in a terrific way.
A TASTE OF POP
I’ve never listened to that much pop music, until now. Maybe it has to do with having a 7-year-old daughter, but I’ll hear something on the radio and it will become a guilty pleasure. All these other friends have also turned me on to this new pop music I’ve never heard. We’ve been covering Here We Go Magic’s “How Do I Know”—I love their album A Different Ship, which was produced by Nigel Godrich, who works with Radiohead—so we brought out Luke Temple when we were at Port Chester, N.Y.’s Capitol Theatre in June.
I’ve been listening to a lot of indie-pop, like tUnE-yArDs, and St. Vincent, who we all went to see on tour a year and a half ago and it was pretty inspiring. It took me half the set to get into it, but then, when I got into it, I was really into it.
On a family vacation about a year ago, I took Rolling Stone’s 50 best albums of the year list and I decided I would listen to all of them in order. There was a lot of eclectic stuff like Aphex Twin and the latest Bruce Springsteen album that was fresh for him, but what I liked the most was Mac DeMarco’s Salad Days. It is old school in one way, but really new and warped in another way. I could boil my favorite note on my favorite album on the list down to the E-flat on his song “Goodbye Weekend.”
It’s been a quest becoming a lead singer. I have always been intrigued with what you can do as an artist—or as a human—with little tools, which is why I always liked math and English better than science and social studies. There are so few words and numbers you can do so many things with, so the voice is an example of that. You carry it around wherever you go. It’s also linked to inner emotions. You can hear the tremor in someone’s voice if they’re agitated—it’s such a primal thing that vibrates right to your core. Yet it’s such a tricky thing to harness.
I remember my first girlfriend said, “Do you really enjoy singing?” And I said: “When it feels good, I love it.” I just think I hadn’t done much of it. With this band, I like everyone to get a chance to contribute to the singing and writing, but I get to do a lot of those things. I get to work on aspects of my singing and the experience of being onstage and connecting to that.
It’s interesting—I just like the whole process of learning, and I’ve had a bunch of vocal coaches. Trey and I went to one when we were just in our 20s; we went to another one with the other Phish guys. That was the beginning of the quest, but now there are three teachers that I’ve had for at least four years each, and all three of them are incredible teachers and people. I have learned so much and there are some things that a lot of vocal coaches have in common—they never want you to tighten the back of your throat because it creates a strain.
ALL WRITE LONG
I’ve started to dabble with a little bit of writing on my own, but I enjoy the collaboration with Scott. We have had these weekend songwriting sessions around New England, and almost every Wednesday we have these Skype sessions where we work on lyrics. Those working nights are just such fun—they’ve really demonstrated to me that whatever you are spending long hours on, if it is fun you are going to be committed to it. One indication of that with Scott is that if we work five or six hours and we get stuck on a line or an idea, then we start making up jokes and funny, bathroom-humor versions. I wish I archived it all. A couple of weeks ago, during one of those writing sessions, I laughed so hard that I cried. I was laughing for a whole hour, and I almost thought we were just going to have to stop for the night.
One of the main reasons I didn’t do the John Mayer/ Grateful Dead tour [Dead & Company] was because what I want to be doing with my time at 50 is writing and recording, and the Dead tour didn’t leave enough time for it. I hope I get to play with all of those guys again—and I hope they aren’t mad at me—because I have so much respect for them. But it seemed like the right decision because that’s what I have been doing.
I don’t always feel comfortable bringing up Phish songs that Trey sang with my group, but I like to take the songs that Phish has written together or that were my songs with Phish and rework them for my band. I remember I rehearsed “Theme from the Bottom” with Leo Kottke, though we never ended up playing it.
“Spock’s Brain” is just this funky song, and fans were throwing brains with ears onto the stage, so I decided to play it with my band. I’ve always thought that song was quirky, but in the quirkiness, [there are] lines that resonate. Phish practiced it a couple of years ago but never got around to playing it. I also watched every episode of the first generation of Star Trek in the ‘60s many times and I went to a Star Trek convention. I was sad to hear that Leonard Nimoy passed away, so all these random inspirations for cover songs come, and we try them.
For improvising and rock-type stuff, there is just a certain intuition that you need to experience—it takes a certain mind to know a certain drum beat that you have heard a lot of times before but is fresh each time and it can bounce. If you’re trying to figure that out, then you might be less inclined to experiment in new ways that are pretty far from those genres. I guess I’m talking in hyperbole, but that’s general idea.
Also, when it came to Johnny, not to make a stereotype, but it’s cool to go with someone younger from the management perspective rather than some of the seasoned types on my list because he has some new influences. That ended up being so true: he brings some some new experimental stuff that I had never heard or tried. As soon as we met him, even though he is an incredible musician who used to hang out in Jerry Garcia’s living room, he brought in all all kinds of new music, from neo-classical to indie experimental stuff. He also has an intuition of thinking in that experimental artistic kind of way, and on top of that his grooving and assimilating into a groove felt so good. So it was kind of like all of the ducks were aligned.
I think I just had too many options. There are hundreds of different drummers [who could have chose from], like Keith Carlock who is Steely Dan’s drummer and one of the top drummers of all time. He has been very friendly, but much too busy and probably expensive, so this just worked out perfectly.
In terms of Robert, he played on Overstep and we first talked about [him joining the band] when he came in for Phish Halloween one of the nights in Vegas, and he said he’d like to try and do that gig. I said, “First of all, you don’t sing. Second of all, you live on the West Coast.” He recommended some other great guys on the East Coast, including Marco Benevento—we actually had a handful of people that we have played with and they are all tremendous, incredible people. Robert just had an extra bit of something that hit the group.
We listened back to the tapes and we had a feeling that these two people were just fitting in a certain way that you can only figure out when you put a bunch of people in a room. Then at the end of the rehearsals and our first tour, the inclination sort of shifted around and the results were so satisfying for me. I even said to Joe Russo when he came to a Phish show, “You know, Robert is so great. He’s a rootsy guy, and one of my goals was to step a little away from my earlier influences in a natural way and just see happens,” and Joe said, “Robert is already good at stepping out [of his comfort zone] with some demos that he has been recording and with his soundtrack music.”
I listened back to some tapes from the tour. I am always critical [of my playing]. I used to not listen at all, but now I am going to find things that I am critical of. The fact of the matter is that every step of the way that you’re making something, you’ll change it and get inspired. I don’t know some of the other bands we come from or listen to a lot but that’s not terrible because we are doing a good job at standard funk grooves. What was really inspiring to me was to hear some stuff that was completely different to me. That was the key to the future and the next step. There are a handful of those melodic jams that Scott and I have already been writing from and turning into and it’s so terrific. When we were all together after we played Grace Potter’s festival [in September] we worked on some stuff which was great.
We wanted to just experiment and create a base that could be used for writing, but even before the gig and our rehearsals we had a meeting where I said that everyone had to express their thoughts. My thoughts were that anything that sounds unique to us—whatever that might be, any five people are going to be very unique—lets try all these ideas out and not just the jams. My opinion would be to play less, have less notes and to repeat more. I wanted us to listen to each other more and to do even more than what we are already great at. If we can do those things—be more unique, have more listening, less notes and more repetition—then we will really have the most incredible practice that day and it will be the entire repertoire from old to new have been transformed.
Then we did the deed and the deed is fun, but I almost feel like it’s two steps forward and one step back. We sink back to old habits, and not necessarily in a bad way. It’s always like that for me. I’ll say I want to be more experimental and less glitzy and then we work on it with that inclination. We’ll listen to a lot of experimental bands for a few months that we would never listen to and we’ll do some writing with different sounds. I’ve been listening to some experimental music and these Krautrock and psychedelic-rock playlists on Spotify that one of my managers, Julia Mordaunt, made for me.
Robert is constantly surprising the hell out of me. Everyone is—Scott and Craig are trying out interesting sounds and Robert has a bank with thousands of sounds that are mixed together in unusual ways. I’ll hear these weird drum beats on the tape and think it’s Craig because he has a cool set-up with all of these analog effect pedals, and they’ll say “Nope, that’s Robert.” He never ceases to amaze me.
After that gig with Grace, we saw The Flaming Lips at the festival and then, we had two days in the studio. Scott and I already had so many new songs from almost a year ago that we hadn’t done anything with yet, but we wanted to keep going. We had one day of freeform experimentation with the band in the studio, and then we had another day where we just did some more specific experiments with some of us and it was so fruitful. Scott and I have been having the most fun writing new stuff. We are just trying not to get bogged down with a certain process or even a certain group of songs. If we want to try something out, we try to be pretty spirited about it knowing that it’s always months or even years before the material can assimilate into repertoires and albums. But that’s okay; it’s quicker than it used to be.
The picture that I’m painting here is that it’s pretty exciting to have a group of people that are gelling in a certain way that allows for us to get outside of our comfort zones. I think that’s kind of the feel of the era.
I definitely want to make a new album. We have more than two albums worth of material now. I would just rather not rush it. I’m probably talking about it too much, these things are so small. I felt like working on some ideas [with the band] would be a next logical step and then the next album. I’ve been digging this new sound and I wanted to experiment with it, and Scott agreed and we just kept going, so I definitely want to make another album. I don’t see how we could possibly fit all of this material onto one album. One of the main reasons [we have so much material] is that I turned 50 and this is what I want to be doing with most of my time—writing and recording.
There is such a long list of influences. I love the album A Different Ship [by Here We Go Magic], which is actually produced by Nigel Godrich. They have another album that just came out and I like it how it mixes some acoustic sounds with some of those palpating synthetic sounds. I really like that juxtaposition and Luke’s voice.
Johnny turned me on to The Books. They’re a duo from southern Vermont. They have two spoons that they invented that cover and clap against holes in a box. You can hear songs made up of instruments that they invented like that, so that’s just one example. There is some really obscure stuff that I probably wouldn’t even remember the name of. There is just such a wide variety of stuff. That was maybe one of the more mainstream ways to get some recommendations. It was just coming in on all different directions—interesting rhythms and interesting sounds. I like stuff that is kind of bare, with not too much going on to get in the way of the vocals so that what is there sounds unique.
SHARING THE PROCESS
I really enjoy the collaboration with Scott. I’m not opposed to other collaborations someday. Scott and I had a week together working nights a couple of weeks ago. It’s just such fun for us. I think that whatever you are spending long hours on and whatever you feel is fun is what you are going to be committed to.
We are having so much fun together, just laughing. It doesn’t mean we are looking for silly ideas because usually we aren’t. It shows our personality and that we both have the same values. It’s a healthy relationship because we communicate well. We have differences but we’ll express them. We don’t always think in the same way—that would be boring. We are quicker because we know how we work together. Instead of taking two years to put together a bunch of songs it only took one year, and we wanted to keep going.
There are parts of songwriting that just work well when you’re alone. I’ll spend weekdays just going at it. When we’re at home in Massachusetts or Vermont, we’ll have those long Skype calls once a week and we get into that groove and I really enjoy it. There is something beneficial about Skype because you are both looking at each other or the same screen of lyrics and you’re focused. It’s not that I need to work with Scott, but I really want to. I like sharing the process. I like sharing the groove when we hit something that just feels good.
Sometimes I speak like that about artists in general because I don’t want to take credit for some incredible revelation on how to create art when I realize everyone is trying stuff. I think people make albums or whatever they are making to try to one-up themselves or at least to overcome challenges that were presented by the results of the previous one. I really love Overstep. It strikes me as being rootsy. I wanted it to rock. I’d like to experiment with writing and sounds and rhythm. I didn’t want to settle for something that sounds like we have heard it before. That is an exaggeration, because of course we have our influences and everything sounds like something else. What I mean is that there is always something really good in there. It’s us trying to be fresh and trying to interest our own ears with fresh sounds inside out and outside in.