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For Phish bassist Mike Gordon, making music is about a process of 'letting go'

Dan Hyman, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Much in the way his best-known and monolithic band Phish has been known to get all dreamlike and downright mesmerizing in the midst of their notoriously epic jams, Mike Gordon takes a similarly Zen-like approach to his musical craft.

"Sometimes it's about surrendering," the bassist said of what serves as a principal inspiration to him after more than three decades in music. Phish fans say "'Surrender to the flow' and that's big," he said, "but there's a kind of a surrender to the emotion. To surrender your clasp on trying to always make it sound good and applying a gentleness towards letting go and trusting that the muse will take over if you humble yourself."

Lately, the 54-year old intellectual and heady conversationalist has been finding new ways to achieve this sort of nirvana. In addition to his Phish duties, which recently included a four-night residency at Madison Square Garden that culminated with an epic New Year's Eve performance, he's also the leader of his own five-piece band. "And I love the idea that we can still morph our sound, discover new overall textures to the music," he said of he and his four bandmates. Despite having played with his own band for 11 years now, "the stage becomes a playground where it's like, "OK, we tried new things, we tried old things, but now we're just going to have fun because this is what it's about."

"Anything can really go," the longtime Vermont resident added when calling one afternoon during a family vacation in Florida. "We can be really silly; we can be really serious and dark and see how it all feels and just meld it on the spot and let the moment and let the audience mold the experience as much as we are. It's just deep fun for me."

Whereas Phish has a more tried-and-true method of songwriting, wherein they'll typically retire to their rehearsal space in Burlington, Vt., and cook up a new batch of funky, jazzy and jammy tunes, when it comes to his solo work Gordon said he's become fascinated by the myriad other means of creative inspiration. To that end, he and his bandmates have what they've dubbed a "Groove" email chain, wherein they toss musical, lyrical or any other artistic inspirations of the moment back and forth.

"And it might be some inspirations from playing with Phish or seeing other bands or a new kind of songwriting or a new kind of gear or experimenting with electronics," he explained. "I really love that feeling of being a conduit not just in the middle of a long jam onstage where the music is playing itself, but also in the songwriting room or other creative pursuits where it's a slower process." Lately, as Gordon's been knee-deep in writing material for the follow-up album to 2017's proggy and delightful wacky "OGOGO," he's drawn inspiration from unexpected sources including David Lynch's autobiography, "Room To Dream" and "The Tao of Bill Murray."

"They bring all different kinds of inspiration," Gordon noted. "But there is a commonality: it's people not afraid to be themselves."

This is something Gordon has rarely had an issue accomplishing. Along with his Phish bandmates, the bassist has long indulged his musical eccentricities with an enviable fervor, and his solo career is no different. "I'm really just fascinated by how the universe sort of reforms its elements through people in new creative ways," he said. "That's the story of my life."

 

While his new batch of material is not yet in finished form, Gordon said he plans to debut some of it on his current winter tour of clubs and venues. While technically he's the leader of his band, this proposition isn't exactly an ideal one for him. "I'm kind of the leader," he said with a laugh. "I do enjoy it but I don't like being an authoritarian. As with any good leader bringing out the absolute best in others is the single most important trait. I'm not perfect at it but I like to feel like I'm pretty good at it. Whether encouraging the other guys to bring material, to bring ideas about cover songs, to bring whatever gear they wanna bring; just ideas about the set. Or honestly anything. I try to encourage that.

"I wish my name wasn't on the marquee, honestly," he continued. "I'm proud of the fact that it's up there but I've long fascinated about having a band name instead of using my own. It's just not felt right so far."

What he's found however is that by fading into the textures of the music, he's far more effective as both a leader and musician. "If I'm trying to impress other bass players or I don't know, impress myself, then that can get in the way," he offered. "You sort of take a step back and say, "I can just play one note for a while," and usually it ends up being rewarding. Because now I'm saying it's not about how cool I am, it's about an experience of flying through the air with music."

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