Interview: Mike Gordon’s Solo Story

HT: Let’s talk about the opening track Another Door. What’s the story behind that tune? Is it a post-breakup song?

MG: Well maybe. It is a post-breakup tune, but only because it happened after the breakup and my life is informed by what’s come before. But it was written a few years after the breakup and I had already done some different collaborations. And the breakup really only took me a few months of serious grieving, I think. So it had been a longtime since that grieving period.

But because I started making these decisions for myself about opening a certain door and then going through it rather than spending all the time pondering which door to go through. By opening the door and going through it, which in this case the biggest door being “ok, I’m gonna write my own music and put my own band together and stop doing anything else” what I found is that when you pick a door and go through it there’s a whole bunch of new possibilities that wouldn’t have been there if you had just pondered which door to go through the whole time. So, by saying no to all of the other choices and making a choice your life is enriched. Or at least mine has been in lots of different decisions I’ve made this way.

And then you go through the door and you realize “oh there’s a whole world of other things because of this commitment, challenge, decision/ whatever I made.” There’s a bunch of other doors to go through, but if you don’t go through the first door in the first place then you’re just stuck wondering which door you could’ve gone through. That’s probably the kinda thought I was having with that tune.

HT: In 2007 you spent a whole bunch of time writing songs. What happened to all of the tracks that didn’t fit onto this particular album?

MG: There was lot of pressure to use them as bonus tracks, and I did agree to a few bonus tracks for iTunes amazon etc., but those weren’t exactly the surefire tracks. I wanted to save those songs for future albums.

Back in October alone I wrote 21 songs of which I used four for this album. Of the others, I would say at least 10 of those I feel like I have to use. Now I have too many great songs and great ideas. But it feels good to have an abundance. There are some that I’m completely in love with, that I recorded and even mixed for the album, but they didn’t fit because the album was taking on its own vibe. I guess the answer is I’m going to use them on another album. But in the meantime I’m really happy with the songs that made it on.

HT: My favorite tune on the disc is Andelman’s Yard. I can’t get enough of that riff. Can you tell us about the process of writing and recording that song?

MG: Well, I had just had a year of experimenting. Earlier in the year just experimenting with some lyric ideas and trying to figure out what I wanted to say and how to say it. So, there were experiments along the way and I think the original goal was to come up with a song that doesn’t have choruses. But then within that I often turned to my deepest inspiration, Dreams. [The scene described in Andelman’s Yard] was a recurring dream I’ve had over the years. Not just in a small time period, but over the years there was one spot that I kept going back to in dreams, my old neighborhood, and then being underneath the ground and stuff. It’s always a magical feeling, sort of a peak experience dream, because I feel like I own the world when I’m back nessled at home because I’ve got all of these possibilities and can just see what’s lurking underneath.

It’s kinda the opposite of that David Lynch movie that starts in a neighborhood in somebody’s yard and then it zooms in and zooms in and you see that there are these ants, insects and ugly things in the dirt. With me it’s kinda the opposite. It’s kinda like you zoom in and zoom in and see “oh, there’s like a whole new cool world.” My soul is unwinding through these tunnels that can be checked out and I can find different crevices of my soul growing under there.

When I wrote the lyric I really liked it but I thought it was kinda weird. What I did was I made and sent five different versions of different lyrics to the same phrasing and melody to my three best friends and I asked them to pick their favorite and a runner up. They all picked the original Andelman’s Yard lyrics. They just like the image of me burrowing under there. The others will be used for something too. One of them became Traveled Too Far. I took some lines and wrote it to a whole different chord progression and melody, so it has nothing to do with the Andelman’s experiment except that’s where the idea germinated.

Then I figured out the guitar lick by fiddling on the guitar and came up with the chord progression. The next thing that happened was I spent almost a week working on drum beats. I was picking out drum beats from different locations and different sources choosing from thousands of them. I wound up playing the guitar lick over that and then picking a tempo and a key, so that my voice would be high enough to sound good and the guitar would be low enough not to sound weird. There was a lot of decision making.

Then [I started] working on the arrangement with different guitar licks and different passages. There’s one part that I call the ukulele section that was the result of playing ukulele and coming up with a lick. Later, towards the end of the song, the bass plays the ukulele lick.

I spent two months on [Andelman’s Yard] alone and I play all the instruments. For the rhythm stuff there’s a lot of banging on pots and pans way in the background and more than one drum loop. Eventually I tried two different incredible drummers to replace the synthetic drums with real drums. They did great jobs, but I ended up just liking the simplicity of synthetic drum loops better in the end so I went back to that. I wanted it to sound like people sitting around a campfire. So even though there’s a drum machine sound, there’s all this extra stuff way in the background that sounds like if you were sitting around a campfire playing it you’d be clanging on a bottle or something.

HT: You wound up playing everything yourself?

MG: I played everything by myself and I was also mixing it as I was going along. So when we finished the demo, it wasn’t just a demo, it was pretty much it. When John Siket wanted to mix it I was pretty reluctant. I said “I spent two months on this remixing along the way why do you want to remix it?” He said “don’t you trust me that I can do better?” and I said “ok, well give it a shot.” And sure enough it got better. So other than that one day of mixing I did everything, but it took months.

We’re working on a project that I haven’t told anybody about yet, for my website where we taped the different phases of writing Andelman’s Yard and it’s like an online scavenger hunt where you can find audio samples but you have to do a little quiz to get to the next one. That should be kinda fun. It was really fun to put together but it’s not ready yet.

HT: I look forward to checking out the feature on your website.

MG: It’s really cool the way it came together. There’s these little zen-like moments in time and that’s the kind of stuff no one would ever hear cause it’s not even really a demo. It’s just kinda a work in progress. So, I thought it’d be cool to provide that.

HT: Recently, you put a band together to tour and you played All Good. How did you like that festival?

MG: It was great. I liked it because the scenery was so nice and I liked a few of the bands that were playing. I liked a lot of things about it, actually. We did four festivals in July. We’ve been getting more and more comfortable as a new band, so yeah, I thought All Good was the first one where were really starting to stretch in the jamming where it starts to sound like other bands wouldn’t sound. We only get an hour set at some of these festivals but it’s enough time to kinda start stretching the limits of a new band.

I spent a long time thinking about who was going to be in this band, with Scott Murawski being the no-brainer ’cause we’ve been growing closer and closer musically after playing so many years together. There’s a chemistry between the five of us that feels good right out of the gate. Even the band practice week that we had yielded some magicial jams. I taped the whole thing on a flash drive recorder and I want to go back and listen. I just want this to be a long term project.

Yeah, All Good was really fun. We all had a good time.

HT: On this tour you’ve been covering The Beatles’ She Said, She Said, why did you choose that tune?

MG: That’s a good question. There was this band Ninja Custodian and the phish band members were really good friends with them back in the ’80s and we met our manager through them. They didn’t sound anything like us, they were sorta like a mixture between something thrashy and punkish with something ’60s-ish but not ’60s-ish in terms of the Dead and that kinda thing. Their favorite two bands were Love and Spirit and they played She Said. At the time I didn’t even know it was a Beatles song. I grew up with lots of Beatles albums but not that one. I really liked their version as it was really kinda thrashy. I always wanted to play it but never did until recently.

HT: I really like the tempo of your version.

MG: When we first learned it and we played it sorta like the album, I was saying to the band “I’d just assume not play things like the album.” And actually what I was more imagining and said [to the guys] was “let’s play The Who version.” Instantly [drummer] Todd [Isler] switched to the Keith Moon approach where he was all over the toms and stuff and that felt pretty good because it was high-energy. Now it’s finally becoming our version.

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HT: This past Saturday marked the tenth anniversary of the night Phish played Terrapin Station at Virginia Beach. How did you decide to play that song, and what was your experience that night?

MG: Well y’know playing Dead songs had been taboo for us for many years because of having too many comparisons with the Grateful Dead, especially early on. Eventually people realized “oh it’s a little bit of a different sound” but clearly they were a huge influence on us. Anyway, it wasn’t only taboo to play Dead songs but also to play certain rhythms that the Dead played a lot. Like the Not Fade Away one for starters. Even playing a country song with a shuffle beat was off-limits for Phish because the Dead did it so well.

It was such a magicial feeling. Playing Terrapin was probably Trey’s idea. I had never played it before, but of course had it in my ears from Dead tapes and Dead shows. So we learned it around dinner time. I feel like I didn’t really nail the way the bass handles the end jam, but I thought we did a great job with it.

Just standing there and hearing those opening strums of Terrapin Station was the most surreal thing because it had always been so taboo for us. It sounded pretty authentic to me. Not exactly like the Dead but a good rendition. It was just a really magicial moment. I was getting chills, not only because it was paying tribute in this way and having it sound good, but just the oddness of hearing our band strum those notes that I had seen at Dead shows. Here we were playing in the some of the same venues the Dead played in, not that the Dead were our only influence because there are a lot of influences, but we were clearly inspired by them. I heard a tape later and I liked the way the tape sounded.

HT: There’s been tons of speculation, rumors, quotes and stories hinting at a reunion. Is it true? Is the Tombstone Blues Band really getting back together?

MG: ::laughs:: I’m just glad that I’m gonna have time do [Phish] and still have my own band. I’m looking forward to starting a new project that’s gonna last a long time and making time for all of those other things too… including Tombstone Blues. In fact someone at my high school who was friends with us got murdered a little while back and they wanted to do a benefit concert with the Tombstone Blues. I don’t know that a reunion would happen in that way, but at some point I think it would be cool to do a Tombstone Blues concert. There were sorta two bands in high school: Tombstone Blues Band and The Edge with half the same members and half different members, so we’ll have to come up with a way to involve everyone.

Thanks so much to Mike for taking the time to speak with us. You can catch his new band this evening at the Highline Ballroom.

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29 Responses

  1. Mike, We had a fantastic time at your TLA Sunday Philly Show. Thanks for bringing the heat ! Especially that Takin it to the Streets Encore, what a pleasant suprise !!!!

    Love your new band, and Green Sparrow has been on regular rotation in my ride since the day it arrived.

    Great Interview Scotty !

  2. Just to see old Cactus do some “Head Whomppers” at the Outside Lands Music Festival is gonna be a treat!!!!

    Listen to his new shows on bt.etree.org…

    They rock, BIG TIME

    *Uncle Donnie*

  3. DaveO – you might want to take a comedy improv class if you’re going to try your hand at humour- instead of funny, you’re just lame.

  4. I’m with you–Andelman’s Yard is top shelf quality, as good as any Phish solo work out there. Mike seems to work Another Door into each show. He needs to do the same for Andelman’s.

  5. please don’t put [Phish] into your answer when asking about the TBB getting back together. Refer to phish.com for any truthful info. don’t fuck w/ true phishheads….. the Green Sparrow is rockin, and Mike rocks the world w/ his musicianship…forget self-interested journalists

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