Q&A: How Mike Gordon Got His Groove Back

Former Phish bassist on his old band, his new album and what he learned from Sting

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Bassist Mike Gordon's solo album The Green Sparrow might not have come to fruition if it wasn't for some advice from Sting, Twyla Tharp's self-help book or Phish's 2004 split. With a possible Phish reunion and a tour with his new band on the horizon, Gordon spoke to Rolling Stone about breaking rules, his relationship with his old bandmates and why fans are so addicted to calling him on the phone.

What made you decide to do another solo album?
I was playing with all these different bands and people, collaborating, and wanting to have my own material. If they're gonna hire me, then I might as well just write my own stuff and hire myself as bass player. I'm so sought after that I want me too.

So you recorded most of The Green Sparrow in your own home studio?
The first thing I did was spend two years building the studio in Vermont. It's the same guy that had built my old studio, and Trey's barn. Trey and I used to talk about Stevie Wonder's work triangle, where you can spin around in your chair and have everything you need within reach. I worked alone for nine months, completely alone. I had read [choreographer] Twyla Tharp's creativity book. She was saying you should face your solitude, and I had never really worked alone much, at all. And then I read Julia Cameron's The Artists Way, which Trey recommended 10 years ago.

What does that book recommend?
It's 10 hours a week and there's exercises. There's two weekly rituals which I still do. People talk about the Morning Pages, that's one of them, where you write three pages every morning. There's all these unexpected reasons why it frees up your brain. You could be writing, "God damn it! The dog pissed on the floor again!" But you're venting that stuff and you're teaching your hand to keep writing despite the fact that your inner censor that you've developed since childhood is gonna say what you're writing is shit. It's been kind of life-changing.

Were you suffering from writer's block?
Sometimes I was. I mean I've been writing songs for 20 years, but never all day, every day, all week, for a year. And what it was unearthing, in terms of my fears and what I didn't know how to get in the flow of, was astounding. But the result was I came up with 50 songs, and by the end of September, I had recorded just six of them. In October, I changed it up, and [engineer] Jared Slomoff and I were writing the rules. I live my life by all these rules. You can't have the fun of breaking rules until you make rules.

What are some of the rules?
The rule for the year was no gigs allowed. But for October, the two main rules were one song a day, it had to be finished from beginning to end, demoed. And the other rule was, I had archived 20 years of jam sessions and little scratch pad ideas, so everything had to stem from something that had been archived. What would you say characterizes the 10 songs that made the album?
I wanted songs to be rock and not some of the genres I had been playing with earlier. I wanted the songs to be a little bit more sophisticated — more chord progressions, lyrics that said more stuff than I had done before.

What kind of music are you listening to, and did anything inspire the album?
I listen to a lot of world music, like King Sunny Adé and Toumani Diabaté. I saw the Police at Fenway and I got to meet Sting at this incredible party. And Sting said that one of his tricks to songwriting was not to listen to any music, like in the car, at all. And I had been listening to a lot of stuff, and I realized that it was really good advice. When you empty out your ears you find emptiness, and it can get filled.

So you stopped listening to music while you were writing these songs?
Yep. I have this hotline that fans call and I got addicted to doing the hotline in the car instead of listening to music. My rule is I have to listen to all 30 messages [that fill the inbox] to change the outgoing message. And sometimes it's games. One game we had was to infiltrate Madonna's hotline that she had going for her album Confessions on a Dance Floor. So her hotline was you were supposed to call in and confess. But she didn't listen to it herself, I don't think. Mine, I listen to everything. If I clear out the 30 messages, in an hour or two, it'll be full again. Some people get addicted to it. People have said, "I call you more than my own mother." They get out of bars, and they're going home alone, so they call the hotline.

What kind of Websites do you read every day?
I'll look at YouTube links that people give me because they're funny, if they're cat-oriented or something. Or like tiny little kids playing music better than jazz greats.

You've said your songs are often inspired by dreams.
When I wrote "Andelman's Yard" I had this reoccurring dream about burrowing tunnels in my neighborhood. Dreams are my guide posts in my career and if I'm onstage having an incredible jam, I kind of link to some dream I had the night before or one of these reoccurring dreams.

There's a lot of strange instruments on the album. What's a "clucky?"
Marco Benevento who I played with has this collection of children's toys that have been circuit bent — toys that make sounds, and then they go into the circuitry and screw around so that it doesn't sound normal anymore, so there'll be these little loops and static. Clucky is this little duck quacking thing but it has some pitch bending. I like to collect weird sounds to record with, but I also wanted to make it a rock album where there aren't banjos or pedal steels. You're going to be on tour at jam band-oriented shows. Does it feel weird to appeal to that audience again?
I appreciate the Phish audience, it was — is — a great audience, because they wanted us to improvise. They wanted us to find the unknown and to take risks. Usually audiences want to hear what they know, like the hit song or be brought back to a familiar place. I don't know what the jam band movement is and where it's at, where it's going and maybe it's over.

I was going to ask what you think of the scene now.
I love it when I hear a song that makes me cry or something. But, again, if I hear something that came out of nothing and it also makes me cry then I love it even more. So, I'm not gonna give up on the idea that improvised music can exist in a rock & roll setting because I think it's a great combination. There's a lot more to be done with it as far as I'm concerned. But, where it's at, I don't know. I went to New Orleans jazz fest with 12 people and we stayed up 'till the sunrise every night.

That's what I actually miss the most, going to band practice at Trey's barn and sitting around and talking. It's all this backstage stuff and hanging out with the band type stuff, where we just feel like we're all on a mission together. We had our separate dressing rooms in the end, but we really hung out a lot. We didn't go our own ways. We were a band with a capital "B," I think, or tried to be. For that to go away was just devastating. But then, what happened, a year or so later, I started to think, "I'm gonna push myself to do stuff that I wouldn't have pushed myself to do." Because if there's a Phish album or tour, even if we take six months off, if there's another one on the horizon, it's like, "OK, well I'll do my own little thing, but ultimately Phish is gonna …" But with that gone, suddenly, I think I was taking bigger bites out of my creative potential. And then, eventually to say, "OK. I'm gonna have my own band," and now, it's really magical, because it's new people. So to have that feeling is great, and then to come back to the Phish thing, to know that we can have that also and that there's no replacing the chemistry of 25 years, no matter what we do.

Can you tell me about how it feels to be thinking about a Phish reunion?
We're all healthy, so much healthier than before, and we've grown to this place because of whatever personal stuff we've gone through or we've come to over the last five years, or four years. And that we could potentially do it and that some people will have some excitement about it — that alone is a really inspiring thing. For a rock band, after twenty-five years, to be able to say we could do this again and we're pretty excited about it is awesome.

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