Interview by Steve Bloom
Photo by Brian Jahn
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Phish’s bass player, Mike Gordon, is happy to be back on the road with his mates this summer, after a brief winter tour following a self-imposed two-year band hiatus. This will be Phish’s longest tour since 2000, culminating in another of their legendary festivals on August 2-3, this time dubbed simply "It" by Gordon.
Not content to just play bass for the greatest jam band in the land, Gordon has taken to dabbling in the film world. Rising Low, his ode to Allen Woody and a multitude of bassists who joined Gov’t Mule on The Deep End project, won the Stony for Best Music DVD, and his 1999 narrative film, Outside Out, starring Col. Bruce Hampton, is finally being released commercially as a DVD and video.
He’s also the author of a book of short stories, Mike’s Corner. HIGH TIMES caught up with Gordon between tours at his apartment in New York’s Tribeca , mere blocks from Ground Zero.
Congratulations on wining the Stony. How did Rising Low evolve as a movie project?
Warren [Haynes] called me and asked what kind of video camera I had, because he was going to get one to archive his projects [The Deep End]. Then he said, "While I’m calling you, how would you like to come and shoot it?" It was just for the archives. I said I would get involved, but I wanted it to turn it into something bigger if I was going to get involved. I didn’t want to be an archivist, I wanted to be a filmmaker. So it just grew as it went along. At first it was going to be a short thing—I was going to be involved for two to three weeks. Then I spent the whole year doing it.
The movie alluded to how Woody died, but doesn't really deal with it much. How did you decide to handle this?
We ignored it at first, because they had hired me and they really didn’t want to talk too much about it. They felt it was a private thing. They were concerned about his family members and his desire for privacy. In addition, the whole rock-star abuse story is so overdone on VH1. I wanted it to be more inspiring, and to delve into some of the essence-of-bass questions. But it got to a certain point where my editor, Sheri Bylander, said, "We can’t completely avoid this issue. We don’t need to delve into it, but we have to address it a tiny bit." Warren briefly talks about it, and Jack Casady says, "In the world of drugs, you never know what’s going to happen."
What was it like working with Colonel Bruce?
We just clicked early on, when we used to tour with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. We stayed in touch. We kind of formulated the idea together. It originally was going to be a mock instructional video called the "Outstructional Video." Then that just became the thing in the film. As I was making it, I wanted it to be more of a story. If it wasn’t for Bruce, it probably never would’ve been made. He has these strange words and philosophies that he throws out. I was thinking about all that and trying to incorporate it in. I just got together with him and had him do his thing, sort of—although there was some directing at times.
I noticed some stoner references—the 4:20 clock, for instance.
I’ll have to check that. That was unintentional. I know another one…
The G-13 reference?
Yeah. That was unintentional too. I didn’t know that it referred to anything. I was thinking of the chord G thirteenth.
Do you have any film-school experience?
Yeah. The University of Vermont doesn’t have a big department, but it has a one-man department. I was an electrical engineering major, and I switched in the middle to filmmaking and communications. I had a bunch of film classes, and I did a senior project that was a film. When I graduated, I ended up doing some little projects along the way, like that Phish MTV video and little, short films having mostly to do with the band.
Which direction were you planning to go—make films or become a musician?
Along with the engineering, those three interests all started at age seven for me—filmmaking, music, and electronics. In November of ’85, I decided that electrical engineering wasn’t for me. I also decided that between music and film, music is my deepest passion, and I still think that. In the meantime, I thought I should at least switch out of engineering and start taking some film classes. The reason over the years that I didn’t just stick to music is that, for some reason, I have a very easy time with film. With music I can easily get in the right-brain Zen mode—psychedelic, surrendering to the moment. I love writing music, but in terms of the daily developing-your-craft sort of thing, film came more easily. It’s almost like music was more of a right-brain thing for me, and I needed to use the left brain as well. Film allowed me to do that. I decided I needed both, but if I had a choice, I would play music and leave it at that.
These movies are great calling cards. Do you have plans for more movies?
Yeah. I would like to make another narrative film—maybe not this year. I’m trying to focus on music. I have so many interests that I get distracted and spread thin. This might not be the year for me to do my next film, but maybe next year would.
How do you divide up your schedule now that you’re back with Phish?
I’ve been feeling recently more of a need to concentrate on my main thing. I tend to, no matter what I’m doing, concentrate on the outside stuff—that why it’s called Outside Out. But to concentrate on my main thing and invest myself in it, since Phish now is my main thing again, I don’t want to be distracted like I was in the last few years of Phish, when I was working on mostly film. However, there is a lot of extra time now, because everyone has their solo projects that they’re going to continue. It’s pretty low-key right now, compared to how it used to be. It’s not a big-time commitment. We’re just getting our feet wet being a band again.
How does it feel to be back together?
It feels good.
Did you ever think you weren’t going to get back together?
We had to think it might not happen. We wouldn’t have been able to take the hiatus seriously if we didn’t think we might not get back together. So we really didn’t know. There were times in the middle when people were leaning in the direction of not getting back together.
In 2002, you guys separately had one of the most prolific years that a band could ever have. Every member put out a solo album, including Clone, your duets with Leo Kottke. And then came the new Phish album, Round Room.
For 18 straight years we had always been the guys from Phish. We needed to develop some of our own identities a little bit more for the first time, without Phish in the background.
When you decided on the hiatus, were you not getting along well as a group? Was there a need to take a break from each other?
We’ve always gotten along well, so I wouldn’t say that. There were lots of different reasons. With me, I had been working on my films a lot and had been drifting away from my commitment to Phish. Maybe I had something I needed to get out of my system. In reality, I probably could have gone either way—hiatus or no hiatus. The organization itself got too big for us. We wanted to be able to return to the days when we went to a college dorm to practice for no reason—not because a tour or an album was coming up, just music for music’s sake. We wanted to chop it down a little bit from the organization it had become.
You wrote the title song for Round Room as well as "The Mock Song." Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall wrote the rest of the album. Is Trey one of those lead singer/guitar player/songwriter/force-of-nature kind of guys?
Yeah. He’s very high-energy. He’s always been very prolific with songwriting. He’s also very focused and goal-oriented. I’ve always had a lot of admiration for the way he doesn’t get involved with things that will distract him from what his goals are. Like he doesn’t have e-mail or a computer, for example. He’s always encouraged the other band members too. One thing that makes for a good leader is someone who knows how to bring out the best of the other people around him. That’s a real strong leadership trait. He’s good at that. He’ll design projects that encourage other people to give input, to invest themselves in. All the band members are encouraging each other to put in as much as possible in any way that feels comfortable for them.
Is there the opportunity to contribute songs, or is it hard to get songs in there, because Trey writes so much?
I don’t really think that it’s because Trey writes so much. It’s more been because I haven’t done much writing. He’s constantly writing. If he has ten songs on an album, he’s written a hundred. Usually only ten percent of the songs get used anyway, so if I write ten songs, it’ll be one. Trey always says people should do what they feel like doing when they wake up in the morning—that should be their occupation. He definitely feels like songwriting. I’m very passionate about songwriting in certain situations. The reason I have two songs on Round Room and five songs on Clone is because for the first time ever I have an office in the Woolworth building—a tiny little space— and I decided to go in every day and write a song, even if it’s crappy. That was a good thing to go through. And now I’m starting to do it again.
How’s the reaction been to Round Room?
The fans were really split on Round Room at first. They wanted something more polished, actually, ironically enough. It was too raw-sounding. When we were making it, we wanted it to be raw-sounding. It was going to be demos at first. Whenever we got in there and fixed a harmony or something to make it more in tune, it ended up ruining the vibe. Every time we tried to switch something we switched it back, trying to keep that original, rough experience of recording.
In a lot of ways Phish is sort of absurd—so much of the lyrics, the vacuums, the trampolines. Stuff that’s fun but absurd. What is that about—the whole absurd notion behind Phish?
The one thing I can say is that as the years go on, we try to keep some of the strangeness and the lightheartedness, but at the same time, we added some more genuine emotions. Maybe do the trampolines and the vacuums a little bit less, and try to sing songs from the heart a little bit more. It’s part of maturing. The lyrics have gone in that direction too. Trey and Tom are writing more about issues that they can feel in their own hearts.
I hear a lot of ballads, lullabies and sweet songs written for a child or a kid.
That’s probably because Trey and Tom both have kids. That makes sense. About the absurd thing, I think we just have a strange sense of humor. I think it’s just our personalities coming together. I know when I’m alone, I like to be incessantly silly and not just in typical ways—making up strange words. Different groups, I suppose, develop their common sense of humor. That’s probably what it stems from. There’s a difference between absurd and abstract. I think there’s a desire to have some of the music be abstract in that there might be melodies or chord progressions that aren’t so obviously for a function, but for their own sake—to explore different textures.
Had anything changed for the band when you returned at New Year’s and the brief winter tour?
It was remarkably similar. One of the strangest parts of the experience is how similar it is to how it used to be—just getting up there on the big stage. I wasn’t doing it during the hiatus as much as the rest of the guys, playing in the rock-band setting, touring. I just did the two-week tour with Leo. It’s a little strange to think that we might not get back together, to go off and do my own thing, be my own person, and then get up on stage as the guy in Phish again. It’s a little bit like walking back into a dream that I had a few years ago. But I ended up liking it a lot. I think we were playing better than ever in certain ways. Maybe some of the different experiences culminated into a new Phish—or maybe we just had a desire for it, not having done it for awhile. Whatever it is, it felt very smooth and on. I felt very confident up there.
Where do the Dead fit into the whole continuum with Phish? It’s generally agreed that Phish grew out of the Dead scene.
That, as well as some other scenes too, like Zappa, There’s more influences than one, but the Grateful Dead were very influential. Now more than ever, we’re quick to want to thank them for inspiring us. There aren’t too many rock bands that go out there and just improvise. You see that more in jazz than in rock, having the music be the main thing rather than the costumes necessarily. And the way that they worked with their fans and the way that the crew and everyone involved were a big family. And changing songs from night to night, not repeating song lists. All those things encouraged people to travel around. I think we were inspired by that whole way of being a band that’s different from how other people conducted their careers. So yeah, it’s an undeniable influence.
Do you use set lists or change up during the set?
I don’t think we have set lists. We stopped about four years ago. We used to.
You don’t know what’s coming?
Never. I never do. Trey and sometimes Page [McConnell] and sometimes the rest of us, but mostly Trey and Page make up a list ahead of time of some songs not in order, but some songs that might be nice to play because we haven’t played them in a while. We get on stage and there is a list. It won’t be a full list and it won’t be in order, but we might play some of them.
How is it decided? Trey calls a song out?
Usually he’ll whisper in my ear. There are some songs that start on cue. Someone will start a cue and then we’ll know it. This last tour especially, Trey looked out, watched people and played to them the whole time. The moment kind of leads itself from one song to the next, with Trey just sort of helping it along.
What’s so special about a Phish festival, like the one at the Loring base in Limestone, Maine this summer called "It"?
We have artists and people who do installations. We try to make it unique and give it themes. We think about what kinds of things are a pain for people, like parking and having to walk far from the cars, or dealing with wristbands and security and being herded around like cattle. We try to avoid as many of those things as possible and make it comfortable.
What does the "It" name signify?
I’ve generally been the namer of the festivals [Clifford Ball, the Great Went. Lemonwheel]. The way I name them is I come up with long lists. I had two long lists. "It" was the second-to-last one on the second one. I think the last one was just one letter, but I can’t remember which letter. Maybe it was a punctuation mark. We batted "It" around. People like "It." We just start brainstorming.
Your fests strictly feature Phish. Why not other bands?
The event gets to be very focused. There might be some roaming musicians. There are all kinds of artists that come with little installations.
Is it true that you’ve never tripped?
Yeah. My intention has been to wait until I’m forty—I’m thirty-seven.
Is it something you’ve distinctly wanted to stay away from, for whatever reasons?
I can’t really figure out what my reasons are. Everyone says it would be my drug, because I like the trip-like experience even without having tripped. I’ve had some trippy experiences smoking a lot of pot and playing music. I’m very passionate about it, even though I don’t smoke a lot of pot and I’ve never dosed before.
Does the band have a stance on the marijuana issue, in terms of the environment, hemp, and medical use?
In public we’ve tried to steer clear of anything political. But we were on that Simpsons episode where marijuana for medical use is being endorsed by Homer and us. That’s pretty fitting. I’m probably less aware of political things going on than the rest of the band. But when you do look at all the uses of hemp and whatnot, I think I probably subscribe to the conspiracy theories myself.
What’s down the road for Phish?
It’s always hard for us to predict. We never try to predict the future. But we all are feeling very lucky that we’re still doing it and we’re back together. We have some challenges in terms of knowing how to evolve next. The vibe is just great, though. People are getting along well and looking forward to doing things together. We’ve never looked more than a year, maybe a year and half in advance.