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Mike Gordon: Mind Mischief

Rob Mitchum | January 06, 2018
Rene Huemer

Mike Gordon's soundcheck is running late. Three weeks into their tour, his band is about to play their fourth show in four nights in four different cities—not counting a session at The Onion’s offices earlier that day—and they’re going on just a few hours of sleep. Though the quintet’s warm-up is creeping into their dinner hour, singer/guitarist Scott Murawski insists they do one more thing: the “non-varying exercise.”

For the next 10 minutes, Gordon’s group—which also includes keyboardist Robert Walter, drummer John Morgan Kimock and percussionist Craig Myers—vibe around  a simple three-note melody and a loping rhythm. At one point, Gordon lays down on the stage, head on a speaker, to focus on the vibrato of Walter’s keyboards. After a brief tempo upshift and a goof on the theme song from The Munsters, Gordon’s band is in shape for that night’s performance at Chicago’s Metro.

Later, over a very large superfood-filled Caesar salad, Gordon explains the philosophy behind the exercise, which he adapted from his brief spell rehearsing with Dead & Company, and how it’s informing his playing with both his own band and Phish.

“It’s hard to explain how powerful it is,” Gordon says. “When the jamming isn’t good, when it feels like we’re noodling, it’s not powerful. It’s not playing itself—there’s a lot of over-thinking, over- playing, over-rhythm, over- melody, over-everything. When we do the non-varying exercise for 5 or 10 minutes, it forces us to accept the beauty of repetition; that’s the simple part. Then the next part is: You hear subtlety, the nuances between the notes and the rhythm, the internal rhythms.”

The emphasis on minimalism carries over to the tour’s aesthetic—a stark stage set of in-ear monitors, wireless guitars and gear hidden behind black screens gives the show a look of almost post-punk severity—at least, until the custom guitars light up neon as the jams peak.

It’s also easily detectable in Gordon’s newest album, OGOGO, a collection of tightly arranged and brief but subtly layered and thickly grooved songs. Despite being a member of the world’s most popular jamband, Gordon is finding new inspiration in an unlikely genre: indie-rock.

OGOGO was helmed by producer of the moment, Shawn Everett, who has also worked on recent albums by The War on Drugs, Grizzly Bear and Broken Social Scene. On this tour, Gordon’s band introduced a new cover of “Mind Mischief” by Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala, joining similarly new-vintage takes on material by Aerosmith, Here We Go Magic and The Flaming Lips. While Gordon once thought of indie rock as “an excuse to play a little bit out of tune,” lately, he’s been listening to acts such as LCD Soundsystem, tUnE-yArDs and Mac DeMarco.

“I was just ready for new sounds, especially in my own band, where it just feels like we’re not going to be as good as the bands we’ve been influenced by our whole lives— to start to hear new sounds both coming in my ears and coming in the band is just so refreshing,” he says, having recently stressed that he consciously avoided imitating Phish and his longtime heroes, the Grateful Dead and The Meters, on his new LP. “So that which used to seem, in some ways, a little distasteful to me, now just seems fun and experimental, like uncharted territory.”

With those influences in mind, Gordon came to the OGOGO session with the goal of creating “even more air and space between the notes, where it could be even funkier, and even sparser,” he explains, adding that “when you do hear the notes and the hits and everything, it’s more warped. So it’s trying to be more catchy and more experimental at the same time.”

Gordon found the perfect accomplice in Everett, who came at the recommendation of recent Phish producer Bob Ezrin. Impressed by Everett’s balance of groove, space and texture on Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color and Warpaint’s Heads Up, Gordon landed time with him at Q Division Studios in Somerville, Mass. There, the producer challenged Gordon and his touring band to use different instruments and effects to create a sound that varied from their live approach.

“Every single instrument and the vocals were recorded in ways I’d never seen before,” Gordon says. “Shawn is so experimental and so nice and, even in the digital world, he’s lightning-fast and wants to serve the song, so it’s kind of like a dream come true.”