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Postcard from Vermont: Mike Gordon (Throwback Thursday)

by Mike Greenhaus on August 14, 2014

Today we look back to our August 2008 issue and this feature on Phish bass player Mike Gordon.

It’s a dreary Vermont morning when I meet Mike Gordon at Sacred Ground, a quaint, coffee-stained café located somewhere between downtown Burlington and The Barn, Phish’s famed clubhouse and latter-day recording studio. Even before he orders, the woman behind the counter knows what he wants for lunch, and that he is a vegetarian who wants tea, not coffee. And that’s not so much because he spent 21 years in Vermont’s biggest band, but, because, in his own words, he “tries to only come to Sacred Ground two or three times a week ,” and has spent countless afternoons at the restaurant catching up with friends, working on his website and just “being Mike,” since returning to the Burlington-area after Phish disbanded in 2004.

Though Gordon has a reputation for being Phish’s oddball eccentric, he’s actually quite grounded, a man of routine that is a far cry from the rock stars he’s rubbed elbows with over the years. When not working on his new album or new studio, he spent most of the past year frequenting his favorite bars, taking his old Saab for drives and sitting in with enough musicians to earn the Burlington club Higher Ground’s esteemed Sit in Slut Award.

“When I was ten, I found a postcard from Vermont, and, since then, that’s where I wanted to be,” he says, staring at the mountains through one of the café’s windows. “There are less people, more trees, and I think it’s important to be part of a community. Whether people are friends or fans, there is a better chance I’ll get to know them here because I see them on a regular basis. Famous people tend to like New York, but I didn’t like the feeling of being one person among millions, not to mention that the Twin Towers fell down in my backyard.”

For years Gordon was the most visible member of the Phish family, known for his sit-ins with everyone from The Chieftains to STS9 and his pre-show parking lot jaunts. Unlike Trey Anastasio, who has fronted his own eponymous bands since 1999, or Page McConnell, who led both the trio Vida Blue and a solo group, most of Gordon’s recent projects have been collaborative: a pair of albums and accompanying tours with acoustic guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke, a short lap with the honky-tonk outfit Ramble Dove, a side gig in the Dead offshoot The Rhythm Devils and a sprinkling of runs with The Benevento-Russo Duo (which morphed into a short-lived band with Anastasio unofficially known as G.R.A.B.). In fact, the only time Gordon has toured under his own name was in the fall of 2003, when he put together a band to promote Inside In, a loose soundtrack to one of his experimental films. Besides the occasional guest spot, for most of 2007 and early 2008, Gordon has been relatively off the radar.

“Transitions seem to happen in groupings for me,” Gordon told me in 2005. “Phish ended and my 18-year-old cat died a week later. Then I lost my New York loft and moved back to Vermont. I’ve sort of accepted that it was just a huge transition period.”

Three years later, his life is again marked by a series of changes. In a five month period, Gordon will marry his longtime girlfriend, release his first proper solo album since 2003 and welcome his first child into the world. He’ll also roll out a new band and hit the road for the first time in well over a year.

“When Phish first broke up, I thought that maybe I wanted to go on the road as a sideman,” he says. “Trey said to me once, ‘If you had a good manager, he’d be getting you an audition with Metallica or something totally unexpected.’ And it’s good to have different experiences and play with different people, so I did The Rhythm Devils, Ramble Dove and the tour with Trey and The Duo.’ But after that I thought, ‘Well, if all these other people want to hire me, why don’t I just hire myself?’ I wanted to bring more writing to the table, and said, ‘I am going to do a year without any gigs and just write.’”

Gordon kept his word: Aside from the occasional sit in, he played only two shows last year – an inauguration party for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and an intimate jam in the Tropics with Bill Kreutzmann and Steve Kimock. “I went to visit Bill in Hawaii and told him, ‘no gigs,’ and he said, ‘Well, I have this gig on an organic farm’ and I was like, ‘I can’t turn down playing with the world’s most incredible drummer.’”

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