Phish bassist Mike Gordon in Aspen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – When he was growing up, Mike Gordon’s mother was a painter, which could explain how Gordon got the artistic impulse. Gordon has expressed that creative streak in a variety of ways – most prominently as the bassist for the jam band Phish, but also as a filmmaker, fiction writer, multi-instrumentalist, and participant in various musical side projects – but the trail from mother to son seems fairly simple: Creativity begets creativity.
What he got from his father can look a little more complex. Gordon’s father opened a single convenience store, Store 24, and grew it to a chain of some 100 stores, centered in Massachusetts. Gordon says he saw his father as being “creative as a businessman,” and as someone who developed multiple sides of his personality.
“I kind of inherited from my father the desire to be a leader – to organize groups of people, tasks, concepts, like my dad did. But also, in a sense, to be a team player,” the 45-year-old Gordon said while watching a snowstorm envelop his home near Burlington, Vt.
The aim of being able to adapt to the roles of both alpha dog and pack member is admirable. But it is not always practicable. And, as Gordon has learned, one of the places it is most difficult to apply is in the setting of a rock ‘n’ roll band. So Gordon has adjusted his vision, as least as being a member of a band goes, and accepted that Phish is not his band to lead.
“In one way, Phish is an endless tunnel of joy, an endless roomful of possibilities, I can go into Phish and have the most incredible time, feel like I’m self-actualizing, bonding with the people around me and the universal spirit,” he said. “In other ways, though, it’s not a creative outlet. If I’m working on songwriting – which has been my main pursuit for 10 years – I can come in with a bunch of songs and Phish will probably play one or two. It’s not that I feel Phish needs to play more of them. But to work on my songwriting, I need to record them, see how they work in a live environment.”
Fortunately, even a band like Phish – a band that tours in arenas, and has thrown some of the biggest, most ambitious concerts ever staged – allows room for extracurricular activities. Gordon has grabbed onto those opportunities. In 1997, he published a collection of short stories, “Mike’s Corner,” a spin-off of the writing he did in the Phish newsletter, Doniac Schvice. In 2001 came “Outside Out,” a seriously outre directed by and starring Gordon, about a young guitarist learning how to play on the artistic fringes. His filmmaking career continued with “Rising Low,” a documentary about the Allen Woody, the late bassist from Gov’t Mule; and some Phish promotional videos.
On the musical side, Gordon has formed numerous collaborations. Most of these have been firmly within the jam-band realm, but the most notable partnership has also been the most surprising. Gordon’s duo with acoustic guitar wiz Leo Kottke has produced a pair of distinctive, highly regarded albums: “Clone,” from 2002, and “Sixty Six Steps” from 2005.
And Gordon has emerged now and then under his own name. He released his solo debut, “The Green Sparrow,” in 2008, and is currently on tour behind last year’s follow-up album, “Moss.” The tour – with guitarist Scott Murawski, keyboardist Tom Cleary, drummer Todd Isler and percussionist Craig Myers – comes to Belly Up on Sunday, March 13, marking Gordon’s first Aspen appearance since the early ’90s, when Phish was still playing clubs and small theaters.
“Moss” opens with “Can’t Stand Still,” and as with many of his songs, the lyrics read like an earnest expression of things on Gordon’s mind. This one seems like a declaration of his need for avenues of expression. “No I can’t stand still/ Like a grounded yellow kite when the sun’s so bright,” he sings.
Some of Gordon’s work outside of Phish seems like a need to approach music in different ways. The albums with Kottke create a template – two guys playing short, tight songs – that isn’t very Phish-y. But Gordon’s own band tends to confirm just how much he enjoys Phish. Listen to recordings of shows from his current tour, and the similarities to Gordon’s regular band, in the vocal arrangements, the instrumental jams, can be striking.
“What it is is so vast and deep and enjoyable, an amazing job to have, an amazing adventure,” he said of Phish, which he co-founded in the mid-’80s at the University of Vermont. “I can’t complain. It’s not frustrating, not really. Because I’ve accepted what it is.”
Gordon doesn’t come out and say it, but he doesn’t exactly hide it either: What Phish is, is Trey Anastasio’s creative outlet. The band’s most recent studio album, 2009’s “Joy,” has 10 songs – eight by Anastasio (most of those written with his longtime lyricist, Tom Marshall), one by Gordon (“Sugar Shack”), and one by keyboardist Page McConnell. The previous studio album, “Undermind,” from 2004, had roughly the same mix. Anastasio’s wife refers to him as “the Relentless Communicator” for his prodigious musical output. Anastasio has had multiple side projects, and has composed classical music.
Gordon doesn’t take Anastasio’s dominance as a slight of his own work. “Everyone in Phish is open to my material,” he said. (“Idea,” the standout song that closes “Moss,” has worked its way into Phish’s repertoire.) “But Trey is a great songwriter, with a lot of experience being the lead decision maker, songwriter, soloist.”
The team-player aspect of Gordon’s personality was evident in the process of making “Joy.” There were two of Anastasio’s songs that Steve Lillywhite, the album’s producer, wanted to discard. But Gordon championed the two tunes and both made the album, possibly pushing Gordon-penned tunes off the album. (For Phish Phans who must know – the songs were “Kill Devil Falls” and “Ocelot,” and according to Gordon, Lillywhite thought they were “bar band songs”) He has no regrets.
“Getting attached like that can be good, because emotional attachment is good. It doesn’t have to be my songs,” he said. “I have a personality that, if there’s a lot of great creativity already there, I’ll back off.”
Which makes it all the more important to have projects that don’t involve an overwhelming presence like Anastasio. Gordon says he would like to make another movie, write more books, but sees these, for the moment, as fantasies. Towards the latter end of Phish’s last hiatus, Gordon threw himself into songwriting, and he has barely stopped. “These days, I’m really just thinking about songwriting, different ways of approaching it,” he said. “And actually doing it.”
As the frontman of his own band, Gordon is working on other aspects of being a leader.
“I’m definitely trying to cultivate that,” he said. “I’ve been touring a lot, developing my personality onstage, am able to talk more between songs. Not that talking is all that necessary. But when I get onstage, I feel like I can play on all the things I have – I can talk, I can play a song, different instruments. I feel my personality is developing, because it has room to do it in different ways.”