The Perfect Stranger:
Unveiling the Green Sparrow with Mike Gordon
Words by Martin Halo — New York City
The Vermont Border — Reunion rumors, speculation, and anticipation have all collided together since the four members of Phish stood together, on the same stage, to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 Jammy Awards back in May. The tension in the air is so thick you could feel it resting against reality. We know now, through public comments made by Trey Anatasio, Page McConnell, and band insider/lyricist Tom Marshall that it is not a matter of “if”, but “when”. For the time being though, fans will have to wait.
Mike Gordon is in his tour van, traveling from Vermont to Boston for a series of warm-up dates that will kick off the national tour supporting his solo debut LP, The Green Sparrow. Released in August of 2008 on Rounder Records, the album is a glimpse into the mind of the bassist who has captivated a generation of hippies searching not just for a place out of time, but a voice of relevance in a world saturated by the contrived. Friendly, respectful, and more down to earth than probably 99.9% of the stage huggers on the scene, Mike Gordon sheds some light onto the conception of his recording as well as the ideology that drives the beast.
TheWaster.com: When Page McConnell released his solo recording last year, he told me when he got off the road with Phish he had nothing up his sleeve. Every note was fresh material. Was it the same for you and this solo recording?
Yea, pretty much. After Phish I had done a few collaboration type things and I felt like I had a lot more to offer creatively. I wanted to spend all of last year writing songs — everyday. That is what I did. I wanted to write more than just one album worth of material, I wanted to write several for a new band I wanted to put together. It came together through a bunch of fragments, basically bass and drums jam that I recorded with people prior to last year. Last year in October and November I used some of those fragments and turned them into songs. I did have some stuff up my sleeve so to say, but as far as the songs, it was a fresh writing session.
Being a bass player did the foundation of the tunes come from bass lines or did you write on a piano or guitar?
Both, I actually tried it every different way. I had so much free time to experiment. I wanted to have a lot of the ideas come through improvisation and from being in the zone. The first thing I did was laid the bass to a groove and recorded what I was thinking about. I then took bits of that and came up with some melodies and long instrumental passages.
I came up with this song that Jon Fishman ended up playing drums on, which actually didn’t end up making the album because the song has a dreamier vibe and we were looking for more of an ‘awake’ consciousness on this album. More often I was probably sitting there with a guitar. Melodies and little pieces came from keys but not a whole song. More so than any one instrument, I think this album came out of messing around with pro tools to be honest with you. I was able to instantly layer stuff up.
That is interesting. Were you laying it down on a personal four track before you went into the studio?
No, my studio, which I spent two years building, ended up being the catalyst for what you hear on the record. It was the full 64 tracks, which I wanted. I had pro tools HD, and it was pretty cool because it is a project studio with a little tiny room, there is a soundboard, desk, and amps. Basically everything I need is right there. Then if I needed help from Jared Slomoff, who I have been working with for years, he would come in and sit at the soundboard and we would both roll our chairs over the big screen and have at it. In addition, if we wanted to bring in other musicians, the studio has a larger round room where everyone would have room to convene.
It sounds like the recording was a collection of smaller sessions that came together in the end to produce an album. Would that be an accurate assessment?
Yea pretty much. It worked out in many different ways, there was a big variety of how it came together. The songs that I was recording I intended to be demos, that I would then go back and re-record. But what happened was, a song like ‘Andelman’s Yard’ was a song I found myself working on everyday for two months. I was very meticulous about every part of it and it ended up sounding complete during mixing. There was never a phase when it sounded like a demo.
This record quickly became a session where we skipped the demo phase. What is nice about that is when you make demos they have a charm, which can never be beat. The final version has something that makes you realize why you are choosing to use it, but deep down inside you miss the demo. By making something that will be the final project, you don’t loose that original charm.
Can you talk to me about the contributing musicians on the album and the ideological differences between Phish and the solo work?
I was just lucky. Lucky enough to get top-notch musicians like Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones), Trey Anastasio (Phish), and Bill Kreutzmann (Grateful Dead). With Phish we were all helping make decisions, but Trey was a very strong voice as the principal songwriter. He is amazing in the studio. He has always been somewhat of a producer on those records whether he is credited or not. His ideology of thought is, he likes to have a lot of sound hovering in the background that you don’t even consciously know you are hearing.
With me I like to have a lot of sounds but I want the listener to be able to hear everything very clearly. I like to clear away some of the background noise so you can concentrate on the primary audible focus more clearly. That would be a more simple sonic answer to that question. I wanted to go for an ‘in your face’ obviousness. We would record a Phish song and there would be 10 tracks of guitar, several organs, another 10 tracks of percussion. The result is cool in a sense but I wanted to do more a stripped down tone. I like for there to be holes where for a split second the track is blank, and silence reigns.
Sonically it is a different approach and I think it stems from the later generation of Phish’s songwriting. I sort of have my own sense of humor, which is the component. My own whimsical sense, and we joke a lot about it. I’m coming from a dry and ironic place. Usually we don’t label ourselves like that but if I had to, that would be me. I wanted to get away from the silly stuff; I wanted to be more heartfelt lyrically.