Hot on the heels of Phish's instantly legendary 13-night "Baker's Dozen" residency at Madison Square Garden, bassist Mike Gordon is out on the road again with his other (eponymous) band, in support of his upbeat new album OGOGO. Produced by Shawn Everett, the ingenious sound engineer who won a Grammy for his work on Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, Gordon's fifth solo album revels in a tightly coiled buoyancy that reverberates throughout a collection of dynamic, (mostly) dance-friendly grooves. We spoke with Gordon recently about what inspired the album, which he wrote with longtime collaborator Scott Murawski. The tour brings Gordon's quintet to The Metro in Chicago on Friday night.

I've been enjoying your new album with headphones. There are a lot of layers here. Yeah, I don’t know if it was conscious but I know what you mean. We were on a trajectory even before we met Shawn [Everett, producer] with some sonic experimentation in the demos, but then especially with Shawn, there’s a lot of swirling textures in the background, all these dreamy elements, and I think that sometimes that sort of thing blossoms in stereo. So I really like the headphone experience. It might be by accident, but if you think about a person wearing headphones, it’s climbing into a sonic ball. I’m kind of in the mode of thinking of songs as little dreams, so that might fit pretty well.

There is a buoyancy to this album that I appreciate right now, given all the other dark shit going on in this country. I don’t mean to say it feels escapist, but there is a real lightness to it. Is that something you were going for? I think so, but I like mixing different ends of the spectrum, where there’ll be a heaviness implied and then a lightness floating within it. I keep noticing with this album a handful of spectrums like that. So one of them would be trying to be spare but ending up being particularly dense in other ways or in other moments. And having some things be really kind of direct and present and right in front of you, and other things being way in the background. I haven’t counted them all, but there are all these spectrums I think Scott [Murawski, guitarist] and I were trying to stretch both ends of. So another one would be directness, with lyrics that are direct on some level but they’re even more sort of amorphous in another way.

What is a song that exemplifies that? I think they all could, depending on... let me think. I’m thinking through now. I’m just scrolling in my mind for a good example. "Victim," for example. The scene in my mind is really clear, and what’s being said in the chorus is somewhat direct. [Editor's note: The chorus is "You never were the victim, I'm sure you know."]

There have been times when I’ve been working on that song when Scott and I had to ask ourselves, wait a minute, what are we saying here? And ultimately, we weren’t sure we knew. And then at the same time, we knew exactly what we were saying, because we were trying to let these songs be based on resonances. The melody feels good, and even the lyric concept feels good without trying to define it. So we can easily sit back and look at "Victim" and talk, the two of us together, and say, this could mean ten different things. We just don’t know what the hell is being said here. And on the other hand, I can easily point to an example of a very specific thing that’s being said. So I don’t know if it’s obvious or not, but that’s just one example.

Another spectrum is trying to be direct, but trying to be accessible, and at the same time trying to be unique and weird. And how to do that without trying at all. Trying to allow—and accessible might mean something that repeats a lot, that you can sort of get into without thinking. But we were trying to allow for a lot of mystery in the words and maybe in the music. It goes both for the words and the music. Wanting both. Something could be stretching that spectrum all the way would be something that is a complete pop song on one hand, but on the other hand, it might as well be some strange German composer being weird. I don’t know. Not on this album. But the ideal is that when you stretch something one way, you end up pulling both ways.

A post shared by Mike Gordon (@mike_gordon) on

The themes of motion and dynamism seem to be very present in a lot of the songs. Yeah, definitely. It was really interesting. There [were] a lot of steps along the way and the journey with this album have been just following our gut and trying not to overthink as much each step. And we ended up with a lot of songs. It seemed like it would be impossible to figure out the ones to go in the album, because there were about three albums’ worth. But not only was it possible, it was almost instantaneous. It was like, oh, these are the songs.

So things just coalesced? I know I sat at times looking at the longer playlists and listening; dropping the needle and just sort thinking about what this stuff feels like [and] what it means. I pretty quickly put together an A list, a B list, and a C list. And when we went to meet Shawn for the first time, we had a powwow which was really cool. We played the A list, and we all just said, “Forget it. That’s the album."

But the typical Mike thing is to try every possibility. And that means if there are 1,800 possibilities for something, whether I’m buying an instrument or finding a new band member or finding a producer or finding a new drumbeat for a song. Let’s try the 1,800 that are in GarageBand. That’s just typical Mike. But that’s not been the way with this. This has been like, okay, we want to catch these vibes and write them. And when they’re there, we’re not going to question it. It’s about questioning less.

So there we were in LA in Shawn's super funky little home studio, and we played through the A list and it’s kind of like, ‘Well, these fit together.’ And then we said, ‘Well, we should listen to at least the B list,’ and he’s like, ‘Okay, play a couple.’ And we’re like, ‘No, that doesn’t fit.’ And then the second one is like, well, that’s a good song, but no, it doesn’t fit. And it’s just not the right; it’s just a different vibe.

And then we went out to dinner, and Shawn met with someone else. And we were gonna come back, but we said, you know what, let’s not question it. These songs are asking us to be together. And I think it was the thirteen songs at that point. And then we’re in the studio, and we’re looking at them, and we’re like, how could we be so stupid not to realize that two thirds of these songs are about going, and the other third are about teeter-tottering back and forth—or going back and forth—and literally and figuratively and everything, that’s what we’ve put together without even realizing it. So then we started to look for the title, thinking, well, it’s got to be something about going, but let’s not be so literal about it. So hence OGOGO, and the image of a green light, represented as this sort of mythical orb. We wanted it all to come together kind of as a dream, where the title isn’t so obvious, and the image isn’t so obvious, but it does relate.

It sounds like the process for this album was kind of easy, that there were some moments where it all just fell into place and seemed right. It’s a great thing. Yeah. It’s so exhausting to second-guess oneself; I think I’ve had a lifetime of it. And I think maybe getting a little bit older, a little bit more comfortable with what I’m doing, and maybe it's doing TM [Transcendental Meditation] for two years now. But just saying, [yup] this feels good. No need to keep looking, let’s just push forward with this.

So for two years, you’ve been doing Transcendental Meditation, and is that about the length of time you spent on this album? I would say the album took, when all is said and done, probably three years? Because right when we were done with Overstep we were already starting to write and experiment, at the beginning of 2014. But there’s other stuff, other parts of our bands, and things we’re doing. So it’s not a constant three years. Actually it’s about two and half years between starting to germinate musical and lyrical ideas and then being in the studio and finishing it up. But I guess I got onto that thing about the cluster of songs because we were talking about the themes and the "going." I’m not really sure why it all came together like that, although maybe—maybe—what I’m realizing is, okay, so those two themes, of teeter-tottering back and forth, maybe that’s what happens when you’re not going. Maybe that’s, symbolically, me trying to make all these decisions in putting together an album and writing songs. And maybe the going is like, forget it. Just go. Don’t worry so much. Don’t go back and forth so much. Maybe there’s a sort of teeter-tottering between themes, those two themes are the themes of the album.

When it comes to songwriting, one thing that's surprised me about Phish is how the lyrics and compositions have shifted somewhat from clever and complex to personal and earnest. Painfully personal.

Personal, and earnestness, from Phish, which I never saw coming. Thanks, yeah. We’ve talked about it over the years, and even before [producer] Bob Ezrin gave us a big challenge for the last album [Big Boat], there’s been a lot of talk about wanting to sing from the heart. It’s tough because when a band makes their first album, and they’re kind of cranked up Frank Zappa-influenced, it might be just crazy wacky satire, but there might a beauty in that. There might be a different kind of authenticity in that, where nothing’s being censored, and you’re not trying to be cool. So I wouldn’t discount that playful experimentation. Sometimes I hear singers that are so earnest, and the music’s gone way in the background to allow the yearning quality of the voice. I get bored because—I’m not saying those aren’t good qualities, if you can do it, it’s great, but maybe sometimes it feels one-dimensional. But over the years, Phish talked about it. Trey was doing most of the writing—Trey and Tom [Marshall, Phish lyricist]—and we were talking about it. I had another example, which I forget. Sometimes we would see it [with] friends that are in bands. They would write stuff that was exactly what they were living from day to day. We would think, ‘Oh, that’s really cool. We know them, and it’s true, and they’re singing it. So we could do that too.’

But for the last album, Bob Ezrin said, "You guys can do cleverness in your sleep, so why not try to have some real, direct, heartfelt stuff?" It’s another one of those spectrums for me, because Bob gave the example of ‘Wish You Were Here,’ and everyone in the audience has someone who they wish were here. And Trey wrote the song ‘Miss You,’ maybe about a sister who died. I think it’s a great song—but for me, it’s especially great because of the guitar lick—there’s this little chord melody. ‘Wish You Were Here’ was never my favorite Pink Floyd song. So I kind of regrouped a little and I went, well, I get his point, and I do want some of that. But for me, if there’s no mystery and sort of dreaminess and questioning what the real reality is... All my favorite movies are halfway between reality and fantasy and not on one side or the other. That’s my favorite mode. So without that, I don’t think that the pure directness does it for me. But I think I need there to be a lot more than there was back in the day.

I can hear that in the songs ‘So Far Gone’ in particular and in ’Marisa.’ They’re trying to be very direct. You know, ‘Marisa’ is a really interesting one, because some of the songs came from these grooves we were experimenting with in the studio, just changing it around. So we had a groove we really liked and a melody. And a lot starts from melodies, I think, in songwriting. It wasn’t really a love song at first. We were toying around with it, and I remember something clicked. Scott and I were doing writing sessions in Marlborough, Massachusetts at my friend’s house, and I was shopping for pianos for my new house, which was mostly looking and not buying. I was on my way to this piano store, and I might have been listening to the demo, which was just humming, and maybe one word. But something clicked, and I don’t know why it did, but suddenly, I realized, ‘Oh, this is a love song.’ And I think I actually started crying, because it was like a key turning. And I thought, ‘Oh, I can see this now, and I can see what this is making me feel. It’s a love sort of feeling, and it’s bittersweet, but it’s not bittersweet because the relationship has trouble, which might be the old go-to. It’s bittersweet because you love this person so much, and there’s someone sad or, and I thought, ‘Oh, I love this.’ And I sort of fell in love with the person Marisa, but she doesn’t exist.

Yeah, I was going to ask... When I was driving, coincidentally, I was driving near where my first girlfriend ever lived. But I don’t think I was even aware of that at the time. It was a summer camp—a traveling summer camp—and I was thirteen, and she was twelve, and this was just for a few weeks that we were going out, and it was nothing. Except, you know, something about, I guess, a first girlfriend. But it wasn’t even puppy love. There just was something that existed and then didn’t. But that’s where I was driving. I remember we were on the summer camp and traveled, and then realized we were only one town apart when we were home, so I used to ride my bike over.

But I spent my entire childhood having crushes from the age of five, I think. Having crushes and doing projects, or trying to. That’s my childhood in a nutshell. I could think of lots of examples of that feeling, but the difference is—well, I’m reaching far now—I think what happened was, I grew up, and then I had a band in high school, and then I had Phish as soon as I got to college. I started having these musical experiences, and those kind of soul-searching, or self-actualizing, or whatever you would call it—enlightening, transcendent experiences that you might have, you might feel when you’re having a crush, I started having in the music instead. There’s some old self-help books that talk about that. You’re looking outside yourself, but it’s not something outside yourself that you’re looking for. It’s in your soul.

I know we have to wrap this up, but I want to ask a couple of quick Baker’s Dozen questions. When and how did the commitment and idea to not repeat a song come about? Well, there were conversations, and I think it’s kind of assumed with us, there’s two choices. To repeat or not to repeat, and repeat is the whimpier choice, so [there’s] something kind of obvious about it. Originally, when we were talking about it, I remember someone saying—that someone being Trey—"You know, we can play the same song more than once. It’s no big deal." But then it was pretty quickly after that I realized, of course we’re not going to do that.

How did you feel at the end, after 13 performances at the Garden, when they raised your band's banner up into the rafters? Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Well, you know, there’s a sense of pride, maybe a sense that the idea of taking this picture from the stage, but with all the fans in the background—or at least the ones that could fit into the frame—seems like a togetherness thing. I guess I felt like part of something. That was a good feeling. Like we all kind of did this together. So that was a good thing.