By the end of his last tour with Leo Kottke, in 2005, Mike Gordon was playing an acoustic bass guitar with no amp, relying on the bounce-back off Kottke’s guitar to properly hear himself. That’s a far cry from his 6,000-watt, multi-cabinet setup with Phish, but the tradeoff has been worth it, as his pairing with the master fingerpicker guitarist has given Gordon enough insight about his bass playing, composing, and producing to fill an arena.
The union began at the dawn of the new millennium, when Gordon — a longtime fan of Kottke’s — sent him a recording he’d made of his bass added to “The Driving of the Year Nail” [from Kottke’s 1971 Rhino release 6- and 12-String Guitar]. Kottke liked it, and the two got together in Trey Anastasio’s barn. For Gordon, playing with Kottke was similar to the challenge Lee Sklar faced when he began working with James Taylor, in that both guitarists had the bass notes covered within their fingerpicking styles. Explains Gordon, “If I played a standard type of bass line, it sounded too cliché, so I took an improvisational approach, and we developed a flow of notes and scales that led to my parts becoming more of a counterpoint to what he was doing. Not having drums or keyboards enabled me to fill more space, but at the same time take on the timekeeping duties when needed.”
The dialoguing duo released the critically acclaimed Clone [Private Music] in 2002 and the Caribbean-tinged Sixty Six Steps[RCA] in 2005, the latter featuring their oft-downloaded cover of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” Now the two have at last reconvened for Noon [ATO], a stellar collection of new and old originals, and covers of Prince’s “Alphabet Street” and the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” The 11-track effort retains the intimate, late-night vibe of its predecessors while mining some new terrain (cultivated by the long layoff), the addition of Jon Fishman’s drums on several songs, and a new bass approach. We spoke to Mike for his always-keen insight.
You guys sure took your time with album number three.
Right after the last album in 2005, we were talking about the next one, but because we went back to our other projects there wasn’t a sense of urgency. And I think there was a beauty that came out of not being rushed. We had ongoing conversations, like talking about using drums, and about different methods of recording, all with no pressure. In the meantime, ten years passed until we started working on the record in 2015 — which is a testament to the lack of pressure. It was almost like we were waiting for the album to tell us when to make it, rather than forcing it.
Was there a concept in place, or was it more, let’s see what we have in these songs?
I don’t think there was a concept, but there was a vibe. It wasn’t random; it was, let’s see what we’ve done together so far, and how we’ve covered other people’s music. It was becoming apparent that there were some darker emotions calling for us that would be nice to cultivate. We retained the same late-night, relaxed feel, but I think this record is more intricate, starting with me taking the time to create bass lines, as opposed to just jamming them — which I do on only a few songs. Somewhere between 2005 and 2015, I got it in my head that I didn’t want to improvise everything with Leo. I wanted to be thoughtful and think about each bar of music. We had dabbled in intricate material on the last tour, specifically a medley of two or three of Leo’s songs. Seeing how well that worked made it feel like another aspect we could go after on this record. It led me to believe there was something different I could do on bass than what I had done before on Leo’s songs — uncharted territory to explore — and that was part of the inspiration.
Then we have to jump right to the bass tour-de-force instrumental track, “Ants.”
That’s a perfect example of being in compose-the-bass-line mode, which is what I did, along with my engineer/producer, Jared Slomoff, on most of the tracks. With me on bass and Jared on Pro Tools, we would go a few measures at a time and decide, am I going to play in unison with Leo; make up a harmony line; make up a counterpoint; play like a normal bass player, with roots on the downbeats; lay out altogether; or improvise off the top of my head and see what happens? If we did too much of any of those things, it got boring, like a painter using too much of one color. It needed to bounce back and forth between all of those approaches. Having Jared as a second set of ears was a key to my parts, because he might say, “You’ve been dancing around with Leo for a while; it might be nice to play some low notes for a few bars, to ground everything.” Or he’d leave the record button on beyond a punch and we’d find some interesting stuff.
“Ants” is a Leo piece I’ve watched him play live, and I thought it would be unexpected for us to do it, with its different, almost sinister sound. Leo’s parts function like clockwork, and I wanted to enhance that churning quality he gets, to make it a bigger machine by the addition of my bass. I spent a year creating and recording the bass line; it’s my favorite part that I’ve ever played in my life. I was playing it in my car for everyone. The compose-through-different-approaches method was pure joy for me — taking my time to make it musical and make it feel right, while discovering new ideas.
The other instrumental track, “Flat Top,” is equally bass-centric.
Absolutely, and to be honest, that track was as hard or harder for me than “Ants,” even though it’s a much simpler, I–IV–V song. I recorded it using the same compose-piece-by-piece approach, but somehow I got lost in the music. I didn’t know where I was in the progression, or where onewas, or what exactly I was playing, and loved that feeling of being disoriented! To me it just sounded like a lovely babbling brook. I didn’t even realize until a few days ago, when I had to relearn the song for some videos we’re doing, that the whole first section is in 9, broken down as 4, 2, and 3. This all relates to what I find to be the true challenge of playing bass: to not be predictable. If the bass line has one approach, it can get stagnant. But if it leaves the role of making a nice bed of rhythmic support altogether, that doesn’t sound good, either. All of my favorite bassists, in every moment, do both. That’s why I love Phil Lesh; he plays in a massively anchoring way, and an utterly free, floating, melodic way at the same time.
“Sheets” has some nice bass counter-lines.
When Oteil Burbridge was in the Aquarium Rescue Unit, I always loved how he was able to dance all over the neck or play some cool, altered scale lick, while never getting in the way of Col. Bruce Hampton’s vocal. That was an inspiration for my part on “Sheets.” It has a simple, ’50s progression and Leo’s vocal, but I love moving up the neck and catching and countering his guitar runs, so that even if I’m not driving the truck, I’m at least in the passenger seat alongside him. Leo’s had a major influence on my bass playing, having listened to him my whole life. There’s something about his approach to rhythms and patterns that got into my system. Plus, he’s a master of muting and varying his note durations, and I try to do a lot of that, too; for me, muting is maybe the most important part of making a groove happen. Overall, I consider myself very fortunate that I get to play with such an amazing, unique guitarist and musician in Leo.
What gear did you use?
We tried a few basses at first: my old short-scale Gibson Les Paul Recording Bass, my Paul Langueduc bass, my David King A Series headless/bodyless short-scale bass, and my Washburn acoustic bass guitar, all of which sounded good. But in the end, the only bass I used was my Modulus Quantum 5. It’s the first Modulus I got, and unlike all of the others, it has a bolt-on neck, single-coil P and J pickups under the pickup covers, a cocobolo body with a glossy finish, and a 35" scale. It has very old Ken Smith Slick Rounds [.044, .062, .084, .106, .130], and I used a Dunlop Big Stubby 1.5mm nylon pick. I tried using my fingers, and Leo was intrigued, given that he’s played with some great upright bassists, but at this juncture fingers don’t put me in my element like the pick does, because I have my 10,000 hours in on the pick. Plus, when I dial in my sound I do a lot to counter the edginess one might expect from a pick by going for a full, punchy, round tone. It’s a good balance to Leo’s percussive sound, as we don’t want to sound too similar. For recording the bass, I went direct and we placed a mic on my SWR Workingman’s 10 combo [see sidebar below].
What led you to cover the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” and is that a low A at the end?
It is — for the last note I tuned my B string down to get a floppy sound. I’ve always loved Leo’s early-’70s version, even more than the Byrds original, and I thought it would work well on the record because it sounds like a jam vehicle. You can just stay on Am for a long time and use that as a launch pad, like we do in Phish. We got together to record it, and what Leo played was great, but I ended up erasing most of what I played. I went back and used my composed bass-line method, improvising over some longer stretches, and it retained its jammy sound.
Your cover of Prince’s “Alphabet Street,” with Jon Fishman on drums, is different from the one you do in your own bands.
Actually, Leo and I had jammed it and worked up a version for Sixty Six Steps. When we went to the Bahamas to make the record, it turned out the producer, David Z, had discovered Prince. He felt it was too close to home for him to work on it, so we left it out. But years later I heard a recording of us playing it in Costa Rica right before we got to the Bahamas, and I thought, Wow, we’re having fun; we should try this again. It has that swingy groove that Leo falls into very naturally, and I have fun playing variations of Prince’s main guitar lick on bass. And we brought in Fish, who Leo has always resonated with. He was honored and excited to come and play on the album, assuring us that even of we decided not to use any of his drum parts, that was fine. Fish is the unsung hero of the rock & roll world and one of the greatest drummers alive. Ultimately, for “Alphabet Street,” we wanted the drums to sound weird and different, in a phat, lo-fi kind of way. Jared and I had a blast editing Fish’s part and adding sound effects.
You do an interesting cover of your own song “Peel.”
Even though “Peel” has chord changes and different sections, in my band it has become an incredible jam vehicle. Some of the best jams of my life were because “Peel” sets up this mood where the middle part can go anywhere. I’ve written entire songs from “Peel” jams. We were going for a melancholy, haunting aspect on the record, so this song seemed to fit. Our first attempt was too long, and neither Leo nor I quite liked it. So Jared and I went into open-heart surgery, making it shorter and more lush by layering the vocals and adding cello textures. I sent it to Leo, and he loved it.
What’s next for you guys?
We’d like to tour once it’s safe to do so. In the meantime we’re going to do some video remote recordings of a bunch of old songs and some new songs from this record. It will be a great and massive challenge coming off Noon, where playing separately and thoughtfully over what the other person did became a very important part of the process. –BM
No Tone Left Unturned
Producer, engineer, and musician Jared Slomoff, who has been working with Mike Gordon since 2001 — and by association, with Phish and on Phish members’ side projects — delivers the lowdown on how Gordon’s bass was recorded for .
Over the course of Noon, Mike’s bass was recorded with three different DIs: a Music Valve Electronics Tube DI, an Avalon U5, and the Rupert Neve Designs RNDI. On his SWR Workingman’s 10, we used a Sennheiser 409, about an inch off the grill, while other times we used a vintage Neumann FET 47. On some songs we also added an AKG 414 about four feet back and about four feet high, tilted down. This far mic does some nice things to the bass sound if you get it in the right spot. For preamps we used either the Neve 1089 or API 3124.
In the mix, the bass sound is mostly the Workingman’s 10 with the 409 or FET 47, and we’d blend in some DI for a bit more clarity and some of the far mic to fill out the fundamental. The other key to note is that Mike and Leo were set up only about six feet from each other, with minimal baffling. So there’s certainly some bass bleed in Mike’s vocal microphone, Leo’s vocal and guitar microphones, and the room mics. Getting the phase right becomes even more important in this kind of setup, but we prioritized having a good vibe for playing music with easy communication over trying to get maniacal about separation. If anything, that bleed can be really helpful.
We spend a lot of time thinking about tone and diving deep into the minutiae, but the reality is that most of Mike's tone comes from his hands and his heart. Whether he’s playing a one-string washtub bass or his largest stage rig, it always sounds exactly like him. As Col. Bruce Hampton used to say, “To play music, you only need two things: time and tone.” Mike has both incredible time and outstanding tone.