072208Mike_Gordon.jpgMulti-instrumentalist Mike Gordon – revered for his virtuoso bass playing and distinctive singing with the trailblazing jam band Phish – is releasing a new solo album on August 5th, right in the midst of feverish speculation about a Phish reunion; speculation that's been all but confirmed by the band members themselves. As Gordon tells us in this interview, the timing of all this increased Phish chatter is a bit "weird," mainly because he's so excited about touring with his new band in support of the upbeat new record, called The Green Sparrow.

But while a Phish reunion still lingers in the distant, murky future, on August 13th at precisely 9:00 p.m. local fans will have the chance to hear Gordon's new sounds live when he plays the Highline Ballroom with his new group. Fluffhead requests will (most likely) not be honored.

I really dig the new album. How long have you been working on it? Well, it’s been pretty much a year and a half if you count all aspects of it. What I did was take 2007 off and played no gigs and just wrote songs all year. And I wanted to write several albums worth, so when it came to picking which ones I would use for this album I wanted to pick the really upbeat ones and whatever was really resonating. So in the beginning of 2008 I started re-editing and overdubbing with some other people and recording a couple others from scratch. Most of the songs were assembled in 2007 during the demo-making process and then enhanced and added to later. But it feels like a year and a half, basically.

And during some of that time you wrote and recorded a song a day? Yeah, what happened was that I was spending so much time working on these songs up through September, sometimes working as much as two months – every weekday, all day – on one song. I really wanted to make it a shorter process so each song would stay in demo form and not become so precise that I would hesitate to mold it. I wanted to overdub it in the mixing and not get stuck on it. So I thought a good way to do that would be to just make a rule that the song would have to be done by the end of the day each day.

I had been working alone all year so by October I was ready to collaborate so Jared Slomoff, my engineer and sometime-partner, and he helped me every weekday in October with coming up with a demo. All the October stuff stemmed from either jams or ideas I had recorded over the last twenty years that all lived in one hard drive. Every morning in October we found one of those bits from the archive – a lot of them were bass and drum jams – and made some loops and put together a song and a melody. I would work on lyrics over lunch and then come back and finish it at night. In November I wanted to work alone again and did the same process but gave myself a couple days with each demo. December was review and final editing, and I added twenty songs to the list from previous years, so I actually had 62 songs I was working with. So of the ten I put on the album there are actually 52 left. Not that they’re all worthy of doing something with, but that was pretty much the schedule.

How many of those one-per-day songs ended up on the album? I think there’s four – I think that would include Voices, Morphing, Sound and Radar Blip.

One of my favorite songs is Andelmans’ Yard. It’s mixed so well; you play all the instruments on that? Yes. It was sounding pretty good the way I mixed it when I was working on it, so when it came time to do the final mix I actually asked the engineer to save it for last because I thought we might not need to mix it, because it was so carefully put together when I was editing all the tracks. But he said I should give him a crack at it because he might be able to make it better – I couldn’t imagine how he would improve it because the rough version was so good. But sure enough he did make it a bit better.

I was listening to it with headphones and there are some weird percussion sounds on that. Yeah, in a lot of the songs I was trying to mix different rhythms together. On Andelmans’ Yard I probably spent days trying to find a drum loop that would go with a guitar lick. In my keyboard there are probably about 1,000 drum loops, then there’s GarageBand, and drum programs, and then I have some drum loop CDs. I came up with a few that I liked but rather than pick one I decided to mix and match and have a couple going at once. There’s one main loop and then there’s something in the background that’s much softer. And by the way, on that one I brought in two different awesome drummers to try and replace the drum loop with real drums, and for that song in particular it sounded better for the song to just keep the synthetic drum loop.

But my thing with Andelmans’ Yard, even though there are two synthetic drum loops, I wanted it to sound like sitting around a campfire, where people are grabbing at tin cans and whatever sticks and stones they have. So in the background there’s all this stuff – besides the woodblock and cowbell from the keyboard. There’s this other thing I did when I was on the street in Burlington, Vermont, here. It was late at night and I started banging on a street lamp and I really liked the tone I was getting, so I taped it onto my phone. I ran with the idea and also did some banging on a mailbox and some banging a newspaper box. And then I emailed all of those sounds from my phone to my email, and then I found a wireless connection right there on the street and put my laptop on the hood of my car and downloaded the emails and imported those sounds into GarageBand and mixed them together so the three bangings are kind of in rhythm with each other. So after the first verse ends you hear all that. It’s kind of in the background but it’s enough so it makes it human again rather than loops.

With headphones it makes it sounds very mysterious. Oh, cool. There was one other thing like that where I saw a paint can drummer on the street after a Police concert. I taped him onto my phone and it sounded really good even with the fidelity. And so I think that’s way in the background there too.

And Morphing Again has the lyric with the title of the album. You seem drawn to birds because there’s an owl all over your website and now the green sparrow. Yeah, not only that but I did the artwork myself for the cover and the sparrow kind of looks like an owl. I don’t know if there’s time but I want to have the sparrow land on the head of the owl on my website. Then someone was pointing out that it’s a green sparrow and so maybe it's be related to environmental causes and it should land on the head of the owl and recycle a bottle or pump up on biodiesel. But yeah, maybe it’s the flying fetish that a lot of people have. A lot of the songs have lyrics about flying or digging or running. Movement is kind of the main theme.

Can you tell us about the song Traveled Too Far that Trey [Anastasio of Phish] plays on? Yeah. The putting together of the song and the sentiment of the song are probably two different things that gelled. But the song arose out of an experiment with Andelmans’ Yard first, where I started to think the original lyrics were too weird. I wrote four other versions to the same melody and phrasing and sent them to my three best friends – the original Adelman’s Yard lyrics and then four other choices – and I asked them to say their first and second choice. And everyone picked the original lyrics. And I was sure at that point that it was meant to be how it was written originally, with some minor changes.

So Traveled Too Far was one of the other experiments, and I changed the whole chord progression and melody. But the sentiment probably stems from these nights where I go downtown and I’m seeing music and all the bars close but I still want to hang out with friends and I stay out really late and try to push the limit of what’s too far. You know, the sun’s coming up, I know I’m going to ruin my next day, I’m still driving further away from home. So I wanted it to feel like a movie scene where everything’s happening left and right. It would be fun to see what people would make if someone was to make an animation or rock video of it. In my head that’s what I’m imagining – heading toward the city and going further and further until basically it feels like they’ve left the planet.

How have you felt about translating all this into a live show? Um, it’s been good. It has to happen one step at a time. It’s a little awkward to be playing songs before the album is out. I’d rather people hear the song once or twice on the album to get where I’m coming from because I like to do it differently on stage. I’d rather open up different sections to improvisation and even sections you wouldn’t expect. On the album I like it to be concise because that’s how I like to listen to albums. So it’s a little weird when people haven’t heard the album version first and meanwhile I have a new band which I’m very excited about.

I spent the whole first part of the year just contemplating who I wanted in the band so it’s very conscientiously put together. The guitar player and I have been playing together for about 14 years in different projects but the others were new for me. And we learned all of the album songs even though it would make more sense to learn just a few at first. Some of them are really intricate in the way the rhythms wind and change. I actually wrote myself a handful with some of these bass lines, especially the ones that came from bass and drum jams that are very syncopated and tricky. And I could play them with no problem but the problem is singing and playing at the same time. Bass players have always talked about that – especially if the bass line is syncopated and the vocal line is also syncopated and they're falling on different beats. So, it’s been a little tricky but we’ve done three gigs so far and we learned some covers and older songs of mine.

How was your Rothbury experience? It was great, actually. It was our third gig and I felt like we had started to dial in something and the energy of the crowd was great – they were happy my Phish band mates were there. But it also just felt like we had finally, after less than a week of playing, brought back some of the intimacy of the practice room to the stage. With improvised music it’s just so important to hear each other. And there are two things that get in the way of that. One is that technically when we get onstage at a festival we don’t even get a sound check. So I might not even have the keyboard in my monitors. But then there’s a mental thing which is even more important, where you get caught up in the energy of the moment and the crowd and you might forget to listen to the other band members. It’s a jam band and jamming is based on listening and if people aren’t listening then it’s going to sound like noodling and it’s going to be horrible and it’s going to sound like a mockery of itself. But at Rothbury I felt like it was very good energy and sound and communication. And then of course Trey sat in and [Jon] Fishman sat in. But even before they got on stage I felt the band was starting to gel. I just feel like there’s incredible potential with this band because the practices in my studio at home amazed me – even just playing with just a few of us there is some good new chemistry going. So I’m in it for the long haul, regardless of what Phish does or if I make another movie, I see this band and making more albums as being my main thing.

Yeah, do you see any sort of interesting or cosmic timing in how you’re beginning this new chapter you’re really exciting about at the exact same time this previous Phish chapter suddenly seems unfinished? It’s weird. I was talking about that today with Trey, actually. Timing determines so much, especially in the music business. The guy on the plane next to me was in crane manufacturing. Not that there wouldn’t be some unexpected changes in his business but we both talked about how the music business is so unpredictable in how things are going to unfold and relationships. So, it is funny timing. Because it feels like my year and a half of work is culminating now and I'd almost prefer it if people weren’t asking about Phish or talking about Phish at all.

On the other hand, when I get together with Trey and my other Phish band mates there is such a good energy that I feel very inspired for that as well. So I’ve come to terms with the fact that both things can co-exist in my life. Trey’s proved that over the years by having many different solo projects and collaborations while playing with Phish and writing most of Phish’s material. So it can be done. I’m just hoping that there’s room, and not just in the schedule, but artistic energy for all of these projects.

Have you guys talked about ways you would keep it fresh? We haven’t done a lot of talking yet. We’re just starting. But I think it will just unfold by itself because the band has put change and evolution on a pedestal the whole time. And if we just came back and did what we had done before and it was completely based on the past I’m sure it wouldn’t last more than a month, because of our desires. We get bored and like to be stimulated by new songs and new ways of playing. And when we’re happy by feeling fresh that makes the fans happy. So I think that will unfold like that anyway. When Phish band members get together we just start brainstorming; it’s always been like that. So it’s not going to be too tricky, it’s just going to happen.

Speaking of fan reaction, there was the famous phrase “Mike Says No” that became popular after the band broke up, and it has a dual meaning, one of which has to do with fan requests for Fluffhead at the IT festival, and Trey announcing that you vetoed the request during an onstage conference. That was wrong. He actually said 'Mike doesn’t want to do it' to take the blame off himself. What happened was, we all had trouble relearning it because we were just busy with other stuff. And that was the hardest song to relearn – it would take a couple days of rehearsing it. It’s not that the music is that sophisticated necessarily but that song has a lot of sections that don’t fall together in a predictable way. For us it was more than just a couple hours of sitting down and trying to learn it, it was like a day or two of learning it. And none of us wanted to do it at the time because it our hearts just weren't in it. And what happened was we tried to relearn it anyway for that tour, and we were maybe halfway toward relearning. So I think what happened was that Trey came up to me onstage and said, “So, should we try Fluffhead?” And I probably said, “I don’t know. I could go either way.” And then he probably went to the microphone and said, “Mike doesn’t want to play it.” [Laughs] So it was a little twisted.

One of my favorite songs is Andelmans’ Yard. It’s mixed so well; you play all the instruments on that? Yes. It was sounding pretty good the way I mixed it when I was working on it, so when it came time to do the final mix I actually asked the engineer to save it for last because I thought we might not need to mix it, because it was so carefully put together when I was editing all the tracks. But he said I should give him a crack at it because he might be able to make it better – I couldn’t imagine how he would improve it because the rough version was so good. But sure enough he did make it a bit better.

I was listening to it with headphones and there are some weird percussion sounds on that.
Yeah, in a lot of the songs I was trying to mix different rhythms together. On Andelmans’ Yard I probably spent days trying to find a drum loop that would go with a guitar lick. In my keyboard there are probably about 1,000 drum loops, then there’s GarageBand, and drum programs, and then I have some drum loop CDs. I came up with a few that I liked but rather than pick one I decided to mix and match and have a couple going at once. There’s one main loop and then there’s something in the background that’s much softer. And by the way, on that one I brought in two different awesome drummers to try and replace the drum loop with real drums, and for that song in particular it sounded better for the song to just keep the synthetic drum loop.

But my thing with Andelmans’ Yard, even though there are two synthetic drum loops, I wanted it to sound like sitting around a campfire, where people are grabbing at tin cans and whatever sticks and stones they have. So in the background there’s all this stuff – besides the woodblock and cowbell from the keyboard. There’s this other thing I did when I was on the street in Burlington, Vermont, here. It was late at night and I started banging on a street lamp and I really liked the tone I was getting, so I taped it onto my phone. I ran with the idea and also did some banging on a mailbox and some banging a newspaper box. And then I emailed all of those sounds from my phone to my email, and then I found a wireless connection right there on the street and put my laptop on the hood of my car and downloaded the emails and imported those sounds into GarageBand and mixed them together so the three bangings are kind of in rhythm with each other. So after the first verse ends you hear all that. It’s kind of in the background but it’s enough so it makes it human again rather than loops.

With headphones it makes it sounds very mysterious. Oh, cool. There was one other thing like that where I saw a paint can drummer on the street after a Police concert. I taped him onto my phone and it sounded really good even with the fidelity. And so I think that’s way in the background there too.

And Morphing Again has the lyric with the title of the album. You seem drawn to birds because there’s an owl all over your website and now the green sparrow. Yeah, not only that but I did the artwork myself for the cover and the sparrow kind of looks like an owl. I don’t know if there’s time but I want to have the sparrow land on the head of the owl on my website. Then someone was pointing out that it’s a green sparrow and so maybe it's be related to environmental causes and it should land on the head of the owl and recycle a bottle or pump up on biodiesel. But yeah, maybe it’s the flying fetish that a lot of people have. A lot of the songs have lyrics about flying or digging or running. Movement is kind of the main theme.

Can you tell us about the song Traveled Too Far that Trey [Anastasio of Phish] plays on? Yeah. The putting together of the song and the sentiment of the song are probably two different things that gelled. But the song arose out of an experiment with Andelmans’ Yard first, where I started to think the original lyrics were too weird. I wrote four other versions to the same melody and phrasing and sent them to my three best friends – the original Adelman’s Yard lyrics and then four other choices – and I asked them to say their first and second choice. And everyone picked the original lyrics. And I was sure at that point that it was meant to be how it was written originally, with some minor changes.

So Traveled Too Far was one of the other experiments, and I changed the whole chord progression and melody. But the sentiment probably stems from these nights where I go downtown and I’m seeing music and all the bars close but I still want to hang out with friends and I stay out really late and try to push the limit of what’s too far. You know, the sun’s coming up, I know I’m going to ruin my next day, I’m still driving further away from home. So I wanted it to feel like a movie scene where everything’s happening left and right. It would be fun to see what people would make if someone was to make an animation or rock video of it. In my head that’s what I’m imagining – heading toward the city and going further and further until basically it feels like they’ve left the planet.

How have you felt about translating all this into a live show?
Um, it’s been good. It has to happen one step at a time. It’s a little awkward to be playing songs before the album is out. I’d rather people hear the song once or twice on the album to get where I’m coming from because I like to do it differently on stage. I’d rather open up different sections to improvisation and even sections you wouldn’t expect. On the album I like it to be concise because that’s how I like to listen to albums. So it’s a little weird when people haven’t heard the album version first and meanwhile I have a new band which I’m very excited about.

I spent the whole first part of the year just contemplating who I wanted in the band so it’s very conscientiously put together. The guitar player and I have been playing together for about 14 years in different projects but the others were new for me. And we learned all of the album songs even though it would make more sense to learn just a few at first. Some of them are really intricate in the way the rhythms wind and change. I actually wrote myself a handful with some of these bass lines, especially the ones that came from bass and drum jams that are very syncopated and tricky. And I could play them with no problem but the problem is singing and playing at the same time. Bass players have always talked about that – especially if the bass line is syncopated and the vocal line is also syncopated and they're falling on different beats. So, it’s been a little tricky but we’ve done three gigs so far and we learned some covers and older songs of mine.

How was your Rothbury experience? It was great, actually. It was our third gig and I felt like we had started to dial in something and the energy of the crowd was great – they were happy my Phish band mates were there. But it also just felt like we had finally, after less than a week of playing, brought back some of the intimacy of the practice room to the stage. With improvised music it’s just so important to hear each other. And there are two things that get in the way of that. One is that technically when we get onstage at a festival we don’t even get a sound check. So I might not even have the keyboard in my monitors.

But then there’s a mental thing which is even more important, where you get caught up in the energy of the moment and the crowd and you might forget to listen to the other band members. It’s a jam band and jamming is based on listening and if people aren’t listening then it’s going to sound like noodling and it’s going to be horrible and it’s going to sound like a mockery of itself. But at Rothbury I felt like it was very good energy and sound and communication. And then of course Trey sat in and [Jon] Fishman sat in. But even before they got on stage I felt the band was starting to gel. I just feel like there’s incredible potential with this band because the practices in my studio at home amazed me – even just playing with just a few of us there is some good new chemistry going. So I’m in it for the long haul, regardless of what Phish does or if I make another movie, I see this band and making more albums as being my main thing.

Yeah, do you see any sort of interesting or cosmic timing in how you’re beginning this new chapter you’re really exciting about at the exact same time this previous Phish chapter suddenly seems unfinished? It’s weird. I was talking about that today with Trey, actually. Timing determines so much, especially in the music business. The guy on the plane next to me was in crane manufacturing. Not that there wouldn’t be some unexpected changes in his business but we both talked about how the music business is so unpredictable in how things are going to unfold and relationships. So, it is funny timing. Because it feels like my year and a half of work is culminating now and I'd almost prefer it if people weren’t asking about Phish or talking about Phish at all.

On the other hand, when I get together with Trey and my other Phish band mates there is such a good energy that I feel very inspired for that as well. So I’ve come to terms with the fact that both things can co-exist in my life. Trey’s proved that over the years by having many different solo projects and collaborations while playing with Phish and writing most of Phish’s material. So it can be done. I’m just hoping that there’s room, and not just in the schedule, but artistic energy for all of these projects.

Have you guys talked about ways you would keep it fresh? We haven’t done a lot of talking yet. We’re just starting. But I think it will just unfold by itself because the band has put change and evolution on a pedestal the whole time. And if we just came back and did what we had done before and it was completely based on the past I’m sure it wouldn’t last more than a month, because of our desires. We get bored and like to be stimulated by new songs and new ways of playing. And when we’re happy by feeling fresh that makes the fans happy. So I think that will unfold like that anyway. When Phish band members get together we just start brainstorming; it’s always been like that. So it’s not going to be too tricky, it’s just going to happen.

Speaking of fan reaction, there was the famous phrase “Mike Says No” that became popular after the band broke up, and it has a dual meaning, one of which has to do with fan requests for Fluffhead at the IT festival, and Trey announcing that you vetoed the request during an onstage conference. That was wrong. He actually said 'Mike doesn’t want to do it' to take the blame off himself. What happened was, we all had trouble relearning it because we were just busy with other stuff. And that was the hardest song to relearn – it would take a couple days of rehearsing it. It’s not that the music is that sophisticated necessarily but that song has a lot of sections that don’t fall together in a predictable way. For us it was more than just a couple hours of sitting down and trying to learn it, it was like a day or two of learning it. And none of us wanted to do it at the time because it our hearts just weren't in it. And what happened was we tried to relearn it anyway for that tour, and we were maybe halfway toward relearning. So I think what happened was that Trey came up to me onstage and said, “So, should we try Fluffhead?” And I probably said, “I don’t know. I could go either way.” And then he probably went to the microphone and said, “Mike doesn’t want to play it.” [Laughs] So it was a little twisted.