FOR 31 YEARS, MIKE GORDON HAS BEEN THE HEART AND SOUL OF A BAND legendary for performing marathon concerts with unpredictable set lists for some of the most loyal fans in the world. Phish has transcended the jam-band genre while breaking into the mainstream by bridging musical gaps of reggae, funk, and blues, and all while making the technically daunting elements of composition look easy. Known for playing multiple sets a night that range around the six-hour mark, Gordon juggles complex riffs, sings counter-harmonies, and navigates a serious pedalboard, all while remaining in what seems to be an unbending trance as he stands fixed next to drummer John Fishman. Gordon has never been known for being outspoken or overly emotive, or to break his modest demeanor.
But something has shifted in the 48-year-old in the last couple of years. Having cut off his long, curly locks and traded his usual stage attire of a plain T-shirt for stylish scarves and jackets, Gordon seems to have reinvented himself in every way possible. Take for example his live performances for his solo tour. Quite unexpectedly on this last run of shows, Gordon breaks out of his shell and steps into the spotlight while belting lead vocals and dancing all over the stage. He’s even swapped his usual Modulus bass in favor of a colorful LED-lit custom axe that is connected to a large keyboard at the front of the stage, where fans are able to play samples of his bass lines along with him.
His transformation becomes increasingly obvious on his fourth solo album, Overstep. Gordon takes on more of a singer/songwriter approach, mixing reggae and folk with elements of pop. Songs like “Ether” and “Yarmouth Road” center around his deep grooves, while the track “Jumping” exhibits his skill of navigating through odd time signatures while holding a constant melody. Joined by guitarist Scott Murawski and ace session drummer Matt Chamberlain, Overstep is Gordon’s most emotive and personal album yet.
And to top off an already banner year, Gordon and his Phish bandmates have completed their highly anticipated 12th studio album, Fuego, with producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Lou Reed) in Nashville. Mixing bluegrass, funk, and rock, Gordon weaves intricate bass lines with soulful licks to drive songs like “Fuego” and “555.” After more than three decades of high and lows, Phish sounds more connected and grounded than ever. Even if he has come out of his shell on the cusp of releasing two albums of his best work, Gordon still remains too humble to ever admit it.
What was the motivation behind Overstep?
A lot of times my writing stems from figuring out what I want to do differently from my previous record. My last album, Moss, featured a lot of songs that were based on intricate bass lines. Lately I’ve been singing more and enjoying listening to simpler bass lines, so I wanted to come from more of a songwriting standpoint. In the past I had been doing a lot of jam sessions with bass and drums and taking my favorite parts and turning them into songs, and I wanted to do a little less of that. Inevitably, I wanted the song to come first, and I wanted the bass line and everything else to fit into what the song beckoned.
What was the writing process like?
I was hearing a lot of songs on the radio that I didn’t necessarily like, but I liked the bass grooves and I wanted to draw inspiration from those. We had a room full of drum machines and we’d take some grooves—even some house music or older funk—and we’d be inspired by the rhythms, but we’d change them around. My bass lines came together that way. We would use a lot of methods to write, like closing our eyes and envisioning ourselves onstage and trying to imagine what we’d want to be playing. One cool thing we did was wrote a lot of music to artwork. We had a session at my mom’s art studio where we would check out paintings and sculpture and would write to them.
How did you go about selecting your gear for the studio?
I recorded everything in the studio on tiny Eden amps. It’s pretty weird because I use small amps in the studio and big amps live, but I never seem to use medium-size amps. For most of the album I used a Gibson Thunderbird reissue and a Washburn acoustic 5-string. Before I decided what to use, my bass tech and I got out all of the basses that I own and I recorded a bar or two with every single one of them. We compared at least 35 basses. Then we narrowed it down, but in the end, the Gibson Thunderbird just won everything.
There are a lot of odd time signatures going on in “Jumping.” Was that technically difficult to write?
We actually wrote that on the tour bus when we started playing with strumming patterns that we were putting into odd time signatures. By the time the demo was done, we decided to create an outro that goes from a bar of 9 to a bar of 8.5 to a bar of 8 to a bar of 7.5 all the way down to half a beat. It turned out really wild and it became a gymnastics challenge. That was such an intimidating thing for us all to play live. The moral of the story, at least for our drummer Matt [Chamberlain], is to never take a gig from a guy who plays in the band Phish, because we come from a place of such weird musical experimentation.
What’s the story behind the futuristic custom bass that you toured with?
The main visual theme of these last tours was moiré patterns, which are linear designs that create an optical illusion of a 3-D effect. I found a luthier named Ben Lewry who builds for Visionary Instruments in Oakland, and he jumped on the idea. It has a few layers of almost screen-door material, and then a diffusing layer, and then backlighting that extends up the neck. It has a few modes including one that changes colors depending on which notes I’m playing on the fretboard. It’s wireless, too, and it was a challenge to not have the pulsating LED lights cause a hum in the pickups. But in the end we did it, and the bass sounds amazing. Having a moiré LED bass won’t make your groove any better, but the visual element was really important to me.
What can we expect from your playing on the new Phish album?
There are some bass lines that are a bit more intricate than I’ve been playing nowadays, but they all flow really well and work within the songs. I use some arpeggiation where I use chords like babbling brooks. I didn’t really bring in just a bass line or any specific part. We made sure that everything served the song on this album.
Phish is one of the most followed live bands in music. Do you feel pressure in the studio to capture that magic?
It’s a fun challenge to find the essence of this band and try to condense it down into a song. We love albums where the songs are concise, though some of our best songs have extended for a full set. When you get into a musical motif and you follow it, it feels really impassioned, but that’s not necessarily the type of album I want to listen to. It’s a matter of accepting that they’re different mediums.
What’s going through your head during a Phish show?
If there were one piece of advice that I’d give to anyone in a band, or even myself for that matter, it’s that when you’re playing live, do not listen to yourself— only listen to everyone else. In fact, it’s best if you can just turn your brain off. If you turn off your brain when you’re playing, then you’re accepting that there’s a higher power, a muse, that will play the music, and there is nothing deeper than that. Music becomes a deep meditation when you’re 100 percent in the moment and your consciousness can go on multiple levels at the same time.
You use a lot of different techniques. Why is the pick your preferred method?
Playing with a pick always goes back to [the Grateful Dead’s] Phil Lesh, who is such an inspiration for me. His tone isn’t full of treble, but it does have the full body to it. It’s a matter of tone, but the muting element is important for me. Also, there’s the hand motion of going up and down, whereas your fingers go back and forth; I feel like I can lock in and dictate the groove more with a pick. As soon as any kind of rock band plays in a larger venue, it’s so easy for the bass to get lost, and that really annoys me. If the player uses a pick, there’s a much better chance they’ll be heard. It really helps to cut my tone.
What attracts you to 5-string basses?
Originally I thought I would like the notes lower than E on the B string, but what I really enjoy is playing E-string notes on the B string. There is a range of tone around the center of the neck that gets so round and maintains a big frequency. There are more notes under my hand that way and the tone stays consistent. I’ve always liked the lower tones rather than high ones. And I like having an odd number of strings. There’s something that I like about odd numbers; odd-numbered structures in nature seem to be sturdier, and the number 5 appeals to me.
How has your playing evolved over the year to this point?
People carve their artistry like a sculpture, so when I first started playing bass I would use everything that I knew and use every part of the scale at once and play as many licks as possible. Even going back and playing older Phish songs like “It’s Ice,” there’s tapping and harmonics and slapping and now it doesn’t seem like a very cohesive bass line. Some of the most incredible experiences I’ve had over the years come from just a few select notes in the right spots.
How does the bass guitar resonate with your personality?
The bass itself resonates with me because I’m a juxtaposition of traits. I’m also always at my best when I’m multitasking, and there’s a peak experience that comes from a single-mindedness. The idea of playing one note at a time focuses my personality in a way that it is hard to do otherwise. I’m a little subdued, but on my own tour I open up and I can be the opposite. And the fact that you can feel something and not just hear it makes the bass so amazing. I’ve always had a passion for being in the engine room of the groove and using my instrument to move bodies. It’s such a holistic experience to play the bass.
Mike Gordon, Overstep [ATO Records, 2014]
Bass Modulus TBX 5-string, California Visionary Custom Moiré 5-string, Gibson Thunderbird Reissue, Washburn 5-string acoustic bass guitar
Amps Eden WT 800 head, Meyers powered 2x18 & 2x15 cabinet
Pedals Source Audio Bass Envelope Filter Pro, Source Audio Bass Distortion Pro, Eventide Eclipse, Eventide Space, MXR graphic EQ, Boss graphic EQ, Electro-Harmonix Super Ego, Akai Deep Impact
Strings Ken Smith Slickround
Picks Dunlop 1.5mm