Mike Gordon is in the groove—and we don’t mean that just musically. For 35 years he’s been the rhythmic engine and foundational center of legendary jam band Phish, and given Phish’s set lengths (and even song durations, for that matter), he’s pretty much always in the groove. But the 52-year-old is also in the groove of life. His loving family and various musical outlets are continually making him happier and more edified than ever before. Even his proclivity for rigid routine, control, and everything being in its right place has loosened up, as he finds himself following signs and letting things happen naturally.
As Mike explains, “I definitely feel more free spirited than I did a decade or two ago. Something got unclogged. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but I started doing meditation regularly, I work out every day, and I’m taking care of myself on every level. Physically and mentally I’m in good shape because I want to be free to do whatever I want. A big part of that is not worrying all the time. I guess that free spirit has seeped into the flow and the sound of the music I’m making now.”
And the music he’s making now is good. Really good—upon first listening to his new solo album, OGOGO, I had to call my resident Phish friend just to excitedly talk about it with someone else. But you don’t have to be a Phish fan to get into OGOGO. Its modern indie-meets-dance-rock vibe mixes vocal hooks with bobbing grooves from start to finish. “Equilibrium,” “Steps,” “Crazy Sometimes,” and “Up and Down” are pop-friendly enough to top charts, while “Marissa” and “Stealing Jamaica” provide deep reggae cuts for mellower vibes. And thanks to his special “Moiré” basses, more than a few stacks of Ampeg cabinets, and the production skills of Shawn Everett (Weezer, Alabama Shakes, the Killers), Gordon’s bass tone sonically towers above anything else he’s done.
OGOGO isn’t the only mountainous undertaking he’s been focused on lately. Earlier this year, Phish completed a 13-night “Baker’s Dozen” residency at Madison Square Garden, where the band played a total of 26 sold-out sets of 237 songs that were never repeated once throughout the stay. As the members of Metallica recently stated while discussing the residency in rehearsal footage, remembering how to play all of those older songs, covers, and new material would be an absolute “nightmare”—but to Gordon and company, it was a challenge worth accepting and an overwhelming success. It was also yet another sign for Mike that if he keeps going with the flow, things will just keep going up.
OGOGO is a big departure stylistically from Overstep—upbeat and danceable. What inspired the change?
A few things were inspiring me. One was that Scott [Murawski, guitarist] and I have been listening to a lot of newer music, where in the past we’d focus on older music. Going into the project, we listened to a bunch of weird indie bands and newer rock groups. We used to talk only about Pink Floyd and Little Feat, and now we’ll talk about the Shins and bands that are currently relevant. It made me interested in people who have strong grooves, but have weird things going on in the song. It could be a hi-hat that’s put through a flanger or something, but I love it when something is tweaked.
How did the writing of this material go down?
The songs stemmed from a lot of different places. Some are from live jams, and a bunch of them are from an experiment where we take rhythms and patterns from other songs and change them around to make entirely different songs. Phish had done that with [producer] Steve Lillywhite awhile back, and Paul Simon used to do that with world-beat rhythms. We also had a day in the studio of freeform jamming where we didn’t say anything or set anything up—we just played and saw what came out of it. Other songs were written somewhat traditionally. Once we accumulated the ideas, we had 17 songs, but some of them lacked a certain directness and simplicity, so we wrote another 17. Phish actually ended up recording one of them, which is now called “Waking Up Dead.”
How exactly do you compose a song that started out as a jam?
Using “Equilibrium” as an example, I like to use long improvisations as a tool, and we do them in Phish, too. Within those long improvisations, there’s a lot of searching going on. At worst, it’s noodling, and at best, there are results. Sometimes after awhile it’ll stop sounding like noodling and will naturally take the form of a song. That’s what “Equilibrium” is: a live moment that we captured. I love that process, because it utilizes your subconscious. Trey [Anastasio, Phish guitarist] always says that the hardest test of a musician is to be themselves. When I’m playing on the same chord for a long time, and I’m forgetting to swallow and drool is hitting the ground—not literally—and I’m no longer telling my fingers what to do, that’s when these patterns come up. Something deeper happens, because that’s where my soul wanted to go, instead of my mind telling something where to go.
What were your goals for bass?
I wanted to have simpler lines for a few reasons. I wanted to make it easier to sing the songs, and also I wanted the bass to hit harder with fewer notes, but still be interesting. I play with the kick pretty religiously on this material, and then I go away for a few bars and take the bass out of certain parts to make it impactful when it returns.
So you were going for a mix of simplicity and variety?
I always admire bass players like Phil Lesh. He’s able to constantly vary what he’s playing yet also keep a super-strong propulsion going. It’s amazing to me when players can do both. I’ve found in some of these peak experiences that I might be playing five bass notes in a riff, so what if I took two of them away? Then I might find it’s way deeper and easier to lock in with the drummer, and it has a great feel.
For your previous album, you brought 35 basses to the studio. Did you bust those all out again?
I didn’t bring so many this time; it was a much smaller batch. I mainly used my California Visionary Custom Moiré 5-string. That bass sounds so amazing; it has a hollowness from having to separate the pickup electronics, on the inside of the body, from the electronics that light the whole thing up, which gives it a slightly acoustic resonance. I hear it back on tape and realize that it’s the exact tone that I want. It’s like the old saying: You have everything you already want right in front of you, if you can just see it.
Did you stick with your usual amp setup?
This time I tried something new. I’ve had amazing success with vintage Ampeg amps in various people’s studios, so this time I did a lot of research and I found, borrowed, and bought a few Ampeg 410 cabinets, including a couple of classic 410HEN cabinets. Those are just awesome. They’re so warm; I just gravitated right toward them. From there, I started testing out Ampeg heads, and I didn’t fall in love with any of them compared to my Eden WT800B. I love that amp so much, and they are so hard to find. The 800A or 800C series just aren’t the same; neither is in the league of the B. It’s night and day. That head, through the Ampeg 4x10s, was pretty much what I used for everything.
Did you try anything else new on this record?
It became a tonal motif for me to use an octave divider and play an octave up. Inadvertently, that came up because with my band we’re using in-ear monitors, and I have a rumble pad and my rig, so it just sounds better to do that. It thickens the sound and gives me headroom. It makes me happy, so I use it. It’s funny that after over 2,000 shows, now for some reason I’m playing with in-ears and an octave.
You get such a great vintage dub tone on “Marissa.”
I love the tone on that track so much. My bass didn’t have any effects on it or anything; it just came out like that the first time I played it. I immediately said that we had to keep the demo bass track and use it for the album. When I hit the nail on the head like that, I try to stick with it and not second-guess it.
Tell us about the Baker’s Dozen residency at Madison Square Garden.
That was probably the biggest undertaking we’ve ever done. We knew going in that not repeating songs would make each show unique. Each night had its own flavor—that’s a donut reference—so we were prepared for that. We had to bring in a lot of new music just to fill in the 13 nights without repeating. Each band member contributed original material, and there were a ton of new covers and a capellas and songs we hadn’t played in years. It was like three hours of practicing and three hours of playing each night. I started having shoulder problems from holding my bass and playing for so long. Trey had spent a month straight working on the set list for each night. We all put so much into the shows, and it was amazing to pull it off.
What was the most rewarding element of that experience?
For me, the most memorable parts are the musical explorations that lead to religious experiences in getting lost in the music. The third night’s second set was one of those experiences for me. I love how the Phish guys have a relaxed way to let a jam become a four-headed monster, where it’s not just four musicians noodling and going up and down the scales in their own worlds—we create something unified. It becomes something more.
Mike Gordon, OGOGO [2017, ATO]
Bass Modulus TBX 5-String, California Visionary Custom Moiré M1 & M2 5-string basses
Amps Eden WT800B head, Meyer Sound powered 800 & 500, Ampeg SVT-410HEN 4x10 cabs
Pedals Source Audio Nemesis Delay, Source Audio Orbital, Boss DD-500, Panda Audio Future Impact I, Akai Deep Impact, MXR M82 Envelope Filter, MXR M288 Octave Deluxe, Moog Slim Phatty, Moog Taurus, TC Electronic Ditto Looper, Fishman Bass Powerchord FX, Pigtronix Keymaster, Lexicon LXP-15, Alexander Pedals Oblivion Delay, Dawner Prince Boonar Delay, Chase Bliss Audio Tonal Recall, EHX Superego, Eventide Eclipse & H9
Strings Ken Smith Slickround
Picks Dunlop 1.5mm