HT Interview: The Story of Drummer/Percussionist Todd Isler

HT: Did you have any idea how many gigs you’d signed on for at first?

TI: We did our first gig up in North Hampton and ever since then, I’m always the one pushing for more gigs. He’s got guys in his band who have full-time jobs and it’s complicated. Mike has Phish and his family, his daughter, so he’s got a pretty full plate.

HT: Did you know the other members of the band?

TI: Mike got us all together in Massachusetts, we were rehearsing at Scott’s house. We met at this resaturant, and I walked in and these four total strangers were sitting at a table. We went around the table like kids introducing ourselves. That’s another talent that Mike has which you can’t buy, which is a real intangible. He has an ability to read people. He’s a real artist, he picks up a vibe about people. He somehow knew that these four people would be good together. It has worked out incredibly well.

HT: How much rehearsal went into those first shows?

TI: I’ve come to learn a lot about Phish and I’ve gone to a handful of shows. From what I heard, Phish would rehearse and practice incessantly. They had an insane rehearsal schedule and work ethic. It was almost the opposite with this band.

It’s not like we totally fucked around, but [Mike’s] so spontaneous and goes off on tangents so easily, that we almost wouldn’t get through a tune before he threw out a new idea. He’s very spontaneous and he likes it that way and I LOVE it that way. Being a jazz musician, that spontaneity has a lot in common with jazz, or at least the kind of jazz I like. It suits me, the way he runs the band.

HT: Can you tell me about some of your more memorable Mike Gordon shows?

TI: Jon Fishman played with us in Portland. He was only going to play one or two tunes, but he was having fun so he stuck around for basically the whole night. Once he sat down he didn’t get up. We played the longest set in the history of MGB, in something like 105 gigs – over three and a half years. We had a great time and it was drum-heavy but really great. We hooked up musically and I liked him a lot.

And then Burlington at the end of our last full tour. The very last of the tour was incredibly special. I never quite had a good time before that at Higher Ground, for no particular reason, but this was a fantastic show. Those two stand out in my mind.

Also, the first time we played outdoors in Buffalo in 2008 as part of Thursdays In The Square. There were thousands of people there and playing outdoors is my favorite thing in the world. Just being out in the air, I feel like that’s the way music was meant to be heard. Plus, MG has a very big bass sound which is clear and beautiful and when it’s outdoors it has room to breathe.

HT: What do you think the future holds for Mike Gordon (the band)?

TI: If it was up to me there would be full tours six months a year, but Mike knows that. I push for it but I dont want to be real obnoxious about it. One thing I know is that Mike loves doing this, that it feels good to him. He gets to be the man and he’s really good at it. There’s no doubt I want [more touring] to happen. Unfortunately, within months of us playing our first show, Phish got back together. That’s a huge mechanism which is in place.

This band has so much potential and so much life behind it, I want to see Mike keep it going. In the meantime, I have to survive as a musician in New York City which IS TOUGH. In order to be a musician exclusively, I teach, play, record, tour, anything I can to stay afloat.

HT: Speaking of which, can you tell us about TriBeCaStan?

TI: That’s an incredibly hip band, at most a 10-piece band with horns. Jeff Greene, who is sort of the curator of it, and the guy who writes most of the music, John Kruth, he’s an interesting author and musician. John’s played with the Violent Femmes, he plays mandocello and all these weird string instruments and guitar. Jeff collects instruments from all around the world and we incorporate these into the music. It’s so cool and fun, it’s got a sense of humor – a real world bent to it with an almost rock-jazz New York sensibility. It’s fun. All these great musicians are in it.

HT: So Friday’s concert is in honor of a new CD?

TI: Yeah, we’ve recorded two killer CDs in the past couple of years. The latest one is called New Deli – it’s always a play on words like that. Kruth comes up with these amazing titles.

HT: Which percussion instruments do you generally play at Tribecastan performances or do you play the kit?

TI: In TriBeCaStan, I’m very fortunate to have played most of the hand drums and all the drum set on the last two albums, 5 Star Cave and New Deli. Addition percussion was played by Boris Kinberg, a great percussionist and cool guy.

HT: Do you feel New Deli is a good representation of the band’s current sound?

TI: Yes, I feel this is a good representation of the band’s current sound. It’s generally a 10 piece band, a real party, and everyone gets to blow.

HT: How often does the band gig these days?

TI: My hat goes off to the two leaders of TriBeCaStan, Jeff Greene and John Kruth, who make this whole thing fly. Jeff is a student of world music and travels extensively, collecting and playing incredible instruments that make Tribecastan’s sound so uniquely appealing. John plays several stringed instruments and writes most of the music. He is also an accomplished author, having written books on Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Townes Van Zandt, and the upcoming biography of Roy Orbison.

HT: I was very impressed by what I heard of International Orange. Can you tell me how that band came together? How did you meet David Phelps and Gaku Takanashi?

TI: I met David Phelps while I was playing in a blues band called Midnight Mover in ’89 or ’90. We were playing at the old Dan Lynch’s on 2nd Ave and 13th St. The bass player in that band introduced me to him and I guess we hit it off. I then recommended him to a guy who called his band Mr. Thing and The Professional Human Beings. We did a tour in Germany in the early ’90s and became close friends. We’ve played together a lot since then.

David is completely unique. He’s not derivative at all. He’s from Texas and has elements of Duane Allman and other blues giants, as well as country music in his playing, and is one of THE baddest blues players you will ever hear. He’s also a well schooled Jazzer. He puts all of this together in a modern way.

We went through a couple of bass players in the early stages and for one reason or another, it wasn’t totally clicking. I had played with Gaku Takanashi in a cool band with some guys from India and I decided to see what he’d be like with me and Dave. Whatever that intangible quality is that makes good chemistry, Gaku has it.

HT: Are you still planning on the release of full-length album this year?

TI: All I can say is we are working on it.

HT: Who writes the material and what does the band’s live repertoire consist of currently? All originals? Any covers?

TI: Right now we do a mix of originals and some covers. Most of the originals are David’s. He has a vocal tune called I’m Sorry Your Dog Died, which needs to get into the hands of Willie Nelson, so it can become a major hit. We are rehearsing some more of my tunes and plan on debuting them an the 78 Below gig on the 15th.

Thanks to Todd for chatting with us. You can catch TriBeCaStan at DROM NYC on Friday night, while International Orange returns to the stage on June 15 at 78 Below on New York City’s Upper West Side. There are currently no dates scheduled for Mike Gordon’s band, but we hope that will change.

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7 thoughts on “HT Interview: The Story of Drummer/Percussionist Todd Isler

  1. kyle Reply

    Love this guy but he needs to know his audience. “Unfortunately phish got together” is not the best statement for him to make hahahah. he is so sick on those drums though. Love me MGB, TAB, Vida Blue, AND THE PHISH FROM VT!

    • Scott Bernstein Reply

      C’mon Kyle, he was referring to the timing, not bagging on Phish. In part of our conversation after I turned the tape recorder off he mentioned how many shows he’s gone to in the last few years and how much he enjoyed them.

  2. JW Reply

    Good article, seems like a great guy. Thanks I really knew nothing about him.

  3. larry Reply

    Thanks for the article-I had a blast at the couple MGB shows I caught and can feel the connection Todd Isler is talking about-These guys work great together!!

  4. Neil Reply

    great interview! been digging on MGB for a while now, ever since they gave that free download of the Minneapolis show – what a smoker! this band really hooks up. incredible psychedelic and funk-ay rock. love phish and love mgb, so as long as mikey’s doing one of those, I’ll be happy.

  5. Parker Reply

    What a great interview, thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Looking forward to more MGB shows this fall.

  6. Brooke Reply

    Great Article! I had the pleasure of meeting Todd in Denver, CO at a MGB show and he is really great- amazing musician and a wonderful person- very genuine- looking forward to more MGB and checking out all his other projects 😀

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