Mike Gordon of Phish: Expect the Unexpected

There is an element of discovery in everything that Mike Gordon does. It might be a musical exercise with his solo band that evolves into a meditation, or he’ll become opened up to the world of musical theater through his daughter Tessa. But, either way, the Phish bassist is in search of new territory and new ideas all the time.

“Rather than just simply prove it to the world that we are who we are, we’re coming out to the world and wanting to learn from it,” said Gordon in a recent chat with AQ. “It’s just kind of cool to see what’s out there in the world and open up new inspirations.”

Gordon is kind, bright, and chatty—literally the type of musician you can talk to for hours without ever encountering a dull moment. The exceptional quintet which he plays with while not touring with Phish is coming to town this month for two shows—the first at Asbury Lanes on March 16, and the second at White Eagle Hall on March 17. During our conversation, we chat about the making of his most recent album, OGOGO, as well as the talented musicians he’s playing alongside, and how his hunger for learning is contagious within his band.

Mike, your latest solo release was 2017’s OGOGO. I have to say, it’s a really great record.

Oh, thank you!

No problem…. What can you tell us about the making of it?

Well, I’ve been doing most of my writing with (guitarist) Scott Murawski for about 10 years now, and we’ve become more prolific over time (laughs). We had a lot of songs ready to make an album, but I had this gut feeling that even though we had more than enough to make an album… we could take two steps forward as one… to go even further, [which] for me meant wanting to tap into something simpler, to pair things down a bit and get more guttural. So, we had 17 songs, and then we wrote another 17, using all kinds of methods of experimenting. It really helped to change the trajectory and process a bit, because most of the album is from the second batch.

That’s interesting… I thought the album had a heavy synth vibe, which was a bit of a departure from your other solo albums. Was that the key distinction between that first batch of songs and the second batch, and did that sound come organically, or did you intend to incorporate that?

Yes. It was a conscious decision; on one hand, we wanted to simplify it, and at the same time, we wanted some of the sounds and approaches to be a little more experimental for us. People have been using synths in music for decades, but for me, and for us, it was new just to be able to say ‘Well, these electronic elements can be mixed with these acoustic elements,’ and wanting to mix it up like that.

That was one of the things that really stood out about the record, just how well you were able to mix up those acoustic and electronic elements. It’s not an easy thing to do, and you were really successful with it.

Thank you. And (OGOGO producer) Shawn Everett is really good at that, too—mixing those elements, the traditional with the experimental.

You obviously contribute as a songwriter and vocalist within the context of Phish, but is there anything you can point to, any territory you get to explore, that really separates your solo work from what you do in Phish?

Honestly, there are things, but I don’t think I would be able to describe them as a sweeping category. I think it’s more the quantity, than anything (laughs)… knowing that I can write a lot of songs with Scott and have a chance to dabble in a lot of material and also a lot of ideas.

In terms of ideas, a few years ago it was about trying out a lot of new technology onstage—from lighting, to instruments, to stuff under the hood in terms of the live mix. I guess that’s what it is…. With Phish, they’ve always been encouraging and welcoming of my songs and my ideas. But because there’s already such creativity there, and it’s such a well-greased machine, I don’t have to bring as much to it. It’s a different vibe.

So, your solo band includes two very special musicians in keyboardist Robert Walter and drummer John Kimock. What can you share about those two guys?

Well, Robert Walter knows old-school funk more than anybody I know, because he’s studied it, you know? He’s buying vinyl every day and checking out these old, obscure recordings from the ‘70s, or whatever… and both him and John Kimock are right in the middle of that world… understanding old-school grooving, but then also wanting to really experiment. Robert has such an appreciation for human artistry, and he brings it to the table. Same with John Kimock. At one point, we had someone in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s in this band, and John was the young one. But that was one of the nice things about him, because he had come out of the Grateful Dead world where his dad (guitarist Steve Kimock) had played with all the Grateful Dead people, and yet the music John was listening to was, like, The Books—this duo that made all their own instruments—or these neo-classical, strange acapella groups… just turning us on to really interesting music. So again, another really forward-thinking musician, but yet, when you really need a meat-and-potatoes groove out of a drum set, he’s better at it than most people twice his age.

You definitely have a lot of exciting and innovative people around you to help support you with your songs and ideas.

Yeah, I really like being around people who want to open themselves up more and be inspired by the world around them and the music around them and learn more. So that’s been pretty cool, because I think we inspire each other, whether it’s playing stuff on the tour bus, or whatever it is…. We get to some town, and someone says ‘Oh, there’s this band,’ or ‘Oh, there’s this museum.’ There’s a hunger for learning which, for me, is one of my favorite attributes that people share in their own ways.

Cool, man…. So, you’ll be playing Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park on March 16, as well as the following evening at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City. Do you have any methodology for choosing your set list? Also, what can fans expect from your live show?

You know, I like what Sun Ra said: ‘Expect the unexpected.’ But, I enjoy putting the setlist together—I have an extra appreciation for what Trey (Anastasio, Phish guitarist) always goes through. You know, I want to not repeat so much from the previous night and have stuff that is ‘new’-feeling for the band…. A set has an arc to it, but it’s not always easy to predict how the arc is going to play out, you know? I think it’s why I’ve always wanted to have a band in addition to Phish, because I just learn more over time about what is going to work.