Mike Gordon: Creative Experimentation

The Phish low ender coins a new phrase & approach on his latest solo album, Flying Games

Mike Gordon: Creative Experimentation

The Phish low ender coins a new phrase & approach on his latest solo album, Flying Games

Few bassists have married free-form jamming and technology as well as Mike Gordon. It’s a cornerstone of his role in Phish, the supergroup he has anchored since 1983, where so many songs are written from mining jam and soundcheck moments that Gordon has a button to activate a Tascam recording unit in his pedalboard. It’s a method he also brings to his own band, through five studio albums and numerous tours. On his sixth and latest effort, Flying Games [2023, ATO], the 58-year-old has upped the technology side a bit. He committing to eight months of studio time to experiment with the baker’s dozen worth of songs he wrote, aided by frequent co-writer Scott Murawski, longtime engineer Jared Slomoff, mix engineer Shawn Everett, and his band: Murawski on guitar, drummer John Kimock, keyboardist Robert Walter, and percussionist Craig Myers. The result is an upbeat, EDM-tinged, party-ready record full of danceable, bass-in-your-face grooves that will also have you turning your volume knob to the right to take in the layers of inscrutable sound collages and enigmatic, between-the-lines lyrics.       

Dubbed Flying Games — at least in part because ever since he was a child, his dreams have frequently included flying — Gordon has forged a connection between dreams, flight, and playing music as an adult. “It’s the way music makes me feel onstage, on the best of nights. When the bass line is happening and it’s perfectly intertwined with what everyone else is doing, it gives me the sense of levitating over the crowd. I wanted to pay tribute to that in the title.” We found Mike more than willing to discuss the album from his perspective inside the cockpit, on the eve of summer runs with his band and with Phish.

Photo by Rene Huemer

This record seems to be more of a studio-conceived effort than your usual band-jamming approach.

Yes — I’ve been wanting to do a project where I have the time to fully explore every aspect of creative experimentation, where I have more control over the music, including a lot of focus on the bass and drums. A number of the songs were created from live band recordings, but those were all reworked. Basically, I spent eight months working every weekday, usually with my longtime engineer, Jared Slomoff, in my farmhouse studio. As the songs took shape, I had the members of my band — including Scott Murawski, who co-wrote some of the songs with me — send in parts. From there, Jared and I would decide how to weave in what they created. Plus, we had invaluable input from my mix engineer, Shawn Everett. It’s so much fun when you have the time to try different things and spend as much time erasing as adding. I would try five or ten basses on a song before choosing. People are saying they hear a lot of sounds in the songs, and that’s because we had enough time to carefully tuck them in, so the tracks don’t sound cluttered. That’s another big plus of recording this way. There’s nothing like having a band in the room, but there’s also nothing like this. It’s very exciting to self-produce an album, and Jared and Shawn offered much producer-ly wisdom along the way.

Even though you have electronic elements, including programmed drums, the grooves sound organic.

Probably for a couple of reasons. One was that even though I was going to have programmed drums on a lot of the tracks, I found in every case I wanted to add what John [Kimock] had contributed. So his drums are on every track. John and I have been bonding for eight years now; we’ve done jams together where we play different instruments, and we have a great musical connection. The other reason is that a lot of the songs took their inspiration from jams I’ve done. So even when we built upon them in the studio, the core is something that came about naturally. My wheelhouse is having a lot of elements and trying different things and seeing what fits; that’s what I enjoy the most. My friend Jill Goldman, whom I’ve known since kindergarten, says this record sounds more like me than any other album I’ve done.

What was your bass concept?

In general, there are two aspects I need in my bass playing, whether live or in the studio: to be able to play repetitive, steady parts that feel fresh, and then the opposite — to be able to improvise and have fun changing up the parts. On this record I wanted the bass to have a lot of non-varying parts that provided propulsion. But at the same time, I wanted more carefree varying than on any of my previous albums, and I think I accomplished that, as well. There’s also the fact that some of the bass lines are from previous jams. In that realm, I find the best parts come when I’m not thinking about what I’m playing. The result is a combination of notes or a pattern I’ve never played before, and it’s usually not something that sounds groundbreaking or complicated. It’s something super-simple that came out of the blue because my sensibility and my fingers felt comfortable enough to fall into it.

The opener, “Tilting,” establishes the record’s electronic dance shadings and party vibe.

That song originated from two jams I had recordings of. The first was in Marco Benevento’s studio, with my band plus Marco on keyboards, which inspired the verse. The other was from a soundcheck with my band, which inspired the chorus. Segueing between the two sections was a little clunky, which is why I added the diminished lick leading into the chorus [see music, below]; it’s sort of a mini pre-chorus. I like to come up with grooves that are out of my comfort zone, and this one has a touch of EDM vibe. The key is the incessant bass line, which I played on my 33″-scale Chechen-wood Modulus Quantum 5. We also added in a bit of keyboard bass doubling my part.

Lyrically, a lot of the songs are about disorientation. “Tilting” is about being in a relationship where you’re not sure if it’s on solid ground, but then accepting that and realizing you enjoy the feeling of uncertainty. Increasingly, I’m interested in writing lyrics that don’t tell a linear story, that are more poetic — where a line or two can exist on their own. Here, I wanted the words to be a bunch of feelings painted together like a collage rather than a story.

Example 1 contains the verse groove of “Tilting,” at 0:24. Although the general vibe is C minor, Gordon bends harmonic rules, playing open B naturals in the first 14 bars and E naturals in bars 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 14 — but they work because they’re deeply pitched and go by quickly. Same with the F notes at the end of the first 14 measures, where the ear expects a G, for V–I resolution. Gordon also sings an A natural in bars 6 and 7, giving the section a C Dorian flavor. That goes out the window in the last two measures, when he plays a unison lick based on a B diminished chord, which nicely anticipates the coming G7 chord. He notes, “The part is slightly pushed, like dance music.”

“Connected” has a universal theme and an engaging dialogue between your vocal and your bass.

I like to write songs that are celebratory, that allow us to show gratitude for our lives and our possibilities. Here, Scott and I wanted to write about the connection we all have, even when we don’t think it’s there. We have a lot of loneliness and isolation in society right now, and people are divided in different ways. But there’s no reason to feel alone, because we’re all connected — through music and many other ways.

Musically, my original concept was to have the bass answer each of my verse vocal lines as it if were speaking words. But that got a little too clever. I remedied it by having the two overlap a little more, and I changed the lyrics a bit so they weren’t asking the bass for a literal answer. That way, the bass could be more vibey in response [see complete transcription, below]. I played my Thunderbird IV Reissue, which has a guitar-esque sound.

“Mull” also has call-and-answer vocal and bass, plus a crazy bass sound, and an angular, Beatles-esque hook.

Scott wanted me to write a hard-rockin’ song; the chorus melody comes from a guitar lick he played on a jam. Phish actually played this song long before the album came out, and it was nice to bring in a simple rocker. The studio version was a lot of fun, but it sounded too old-school to match the rest of the tracks — especially with the organ and guitars, which gave it a bar-band sound. Then I sent it to Shawn, and he completely revamped it in the mix. In order to get out of his own comfort zone, he wanted to model the song on a classic track, so I chose Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” [Innervisions, 1973, Motown], and he referenced its multi-track recording and mimicked the delays we heard on the drums. He also erased the organ and guitars in the verse, which is why the bass sounds like it’s answering the vocals. As for the bass tone, that’s also Shawn. I gave him a clean bass track played on my [Visionary Instruments] Moiré M2 5-string, and I have no idea what he did, but it’s very cool. It has both a “vocal” and synth sound, from different digital and analog effects. I also played some Fender Bass VI [six-string guitar tuned down an octave] on the track. Lyrically, this is a nod to the old Mike, because I used to be very indecisive. So it’s like, “I am so over you — but, okay, maybe we can still talk!” 

“Casual Enlightenment” pivots between 3/4 and 4/4, and has an interesting groove.

The initial groove came from a Phish jam in Milwaukee; that’s where I got the three-note intro bass line. Putting the natural 7th in there, emphasized on the beat, is something I knew I’d never done before. I played my Moiré M2. The groove is inspired by “Meet the Boys on the Battlefront” by Wild Tchoupitoulas [1976, Island], which sounds like New Orleans reggae. Lyrically, as someone who has studied meditation for decades, I wanted to toy with the absurd theme of casual enlightenment.

“Pure Energy” has a wall-of-basses sound and an African-music feel.

It’s another jam-derived tune that came from an improvisation with my band, and it’s probably my favorite jam that I’ve ever recorded. The body of the song has a churning rhythm that reminds of West African music, like King Sunny Adé, which I love. Bass-wise, I’m only playing one part on my Moiré M1 5-string, and I’m using an Eventide H9 Harmonizer to delay the notes by a quarter-note, so it sounds like I’m playing in counterpoint [see music, below]. For the latter part of the track, I kicked on my MXR Bass Octave pedal. Lyrically, I was inspired by a great day off I had on tour. I took a walk around Richmond, Virginia, and I felt connected to all the different people and different neighborhoods, and I jotted down some thoughts.  

Example 2 shows Gordon’s basic part in the transitions of “Pure Energy,” heard at 2:04 and 3:38. The variation shown in the second ending occurs at 4:17, after Gordon has kicked on his octaver (at 4:11) to play out the song. Consisting mostly of ascending D triad arpeggios and descending A7 arpeggios (even though the harmony remains on D), the line has a West African flavor, and should be pushed.  

“Undone” has a loping bass line with a cool, morphing bass sound at the end.

Two jams inspired this song. The first groove was from a Phish rehearsal moment, and then when the chord change occurs, that’s from a moment with my band [see music, below]. At first, that change in tonality [from B minor to Ab minor] sounded too out-of-the-blue for me, but people liked it. The outro bass sound is something I discovered the day we tracked bass. I was at home and I had a dream of a bass approach, and I was able to find it when I came into the studio, using my Moiré M2 with the neck pickup favored and two pedals. One is the Fishman Fission Bass Powerchord pedal. It synthesizes distorted notes and keeps the low end intact, because it’s only distorting the upper harmonics. The other is the Source Audio Soundblox Bass Envelope Filter, which is multi-band, so it filters more than one harmonic.   

Example 3 has the opening and verse groove (at 0:41) of “Undone.” With typical Gordon attention to detail and the pursuit of the not-expected note in his bass lines, he uses the 4th, E, as a landing note in beats two and four in the first three measures. Then he subtly changes the last beat of bar 4 with a more expected A and F# to mark the end of the four-bar phrase. Sit back in the pocket on this one.

“Moonlight” is an interesting, acoustic-driven, post-modern bossa.

The basis for the song is a cell phone recording from one of our band rehearsals. John [Kimock] and [percussionist] Craig [Myers] were playing this pattern that was two bars of six. I started playing a bass line to it on my Moiré M2. I captured the three instruments on my phone, and we looped it. All of the other instruments on the track are acoustic. I played the piano on a tiny Logic keyboard, we added a lot of additional tracks John gave us, and we even have a recording of [Phish drummer] Jon Fishman practicing, played at half speed to fit over what John and Craig are doing. The lyric is about disconnect. I’m having all of these elations in the song and my friend just isn’t getting it.

“Sughn Never Sets” and “Haywire” have electronica vibes and cool bass tones.

The title of the first tune comes from the slogan of the convenience-store chain my dad founded in the ’60s, Store 24: “Where the sughn never sets.” Sun was spelled with “gh,” borrowed from “night,” because they tried to stay open 24 hours a day in each town. He grew one store into 100, and eventually he sold the chain to the family of the incredible singer Susan Tedeschi. The song is about a guy who’s walking around, disconnected, and he goes into a music club, Radio Bean in Vermont, where I used to hang out. He has a few drinks, and life is good again. The verse came from a jam where we were playing Robert Palmer’s “Looking for Clues” [Clues, 1980, Island], and we loosely sprinkled in [Lipps Inc.’s] “Funkytown” [Mouth to Mouth, 1979, Casablanca]. The chorus is from one of Scott’s infectious, improvised melodies that he played in octaves. The bass sound is my Moiré M2 into an MXR Bass Octave and then an MXR Bass Envelope Filter.

I always loved Scott’s demo of “Haywire,” but the track didn’t exactly fit the album at first because it was too dark, jazzy, and moody. Jared and I went in and changed some of the harmonies from minor to major, and we added orchestral and mallet instruments via Omnisphere. I went back and played the bass live into Scott’s Ableton Live session using my Moiré M2, the Fishman Fission Bass Powerchord set a 5th above my note, and my old Ibanez FL9 Flanger from high school. Then Shawn played with it and added the vocal synth sounds, making it similar though not the same as my bass sound on “Mull.”

The closing track, “Tropical Rocket,” starts with strummed bass and is reminiscent of your work with Leo Kottke.

Scott and I wrote that inspired by a groove I heard on the radio, and we made a MIDI demo. It was one we started playing live, and at first I played acoustic guitar. The next time we toured, I started strumming the chords in the upper register on my Moiré M2, and then Robert [Walter] took over and played keyboard bass. Shawn liked the strummed bass, so we kept it, and Jared and I combined Robert’s bass part with the sound from the MIDI demo bass part. Then we added a Veillette Gryphon 12-string mandolin, a Dobrato Resophonic guitar with a whammy bar, and an Omnichord Autoharp. Those, plus the guitars and the island feel, are somewhat reminiscent of Sixty Six Steps [2005, RCA], my album with Leo. At the end, Scott and I harmonized the main lick from the intro and the choruses, so I return to my bass for that.

Photo by Mike Jared

How did you record your basses on the record?

All five basses — the Moiré M1 and M2, the Modulus 33″ and 35″, and the Thunderbird — went into an Eden World Traveler 800B head and an Ampeg Heritage SVT-410HLF cabinet, with two Sennheiser MD 421 mics two inches back from the top of the cabinet. For the direct signal we used Avalon, Neve, Grace Design, or Music Valve Electronics tube DI/preamps. The secret ingredient, however, was Jared utilizing the Sound Redix Auto-Align time-align plug-in on all of the bass tracks. Whenever he’d hit the button, it would align the mic and direct signals, and the bass would become ten times fuller! And, of course, there was whatever processing Jared and Shawn did in Pro Tools as we went along, and whatever analog gizmos they dabbled with while mixing.

What gear are you using on your solo tour?

It’s all new and scaled down. I’m now playing Serek basses exclusively, which sound amazing. My main bass is a Midwestern 2 32″-scale 5-string, with a glued-on mahogany neck, and my backup is a Lincoln 32″-scale 5-string with a bolt-on maple neck. Both basses are passive, with Nordstrand Zen Blade pickups, and I recently added a new Midwestern 2 with a preamp. In Phish, there are four songs where my part goes higher than the 21st fret, so Jake Serek made me an insert that you wedge between the pickup and the fingerboard for the G string only, that gives me three more frets. My new Midwestern holds the extra frets in place with a magnet, to be added or removed as needed. They don’t make the Ken Smith Slick Round strings I’ve been using in a 32″ scale, so I’ve switched to GHS Brite Flat Half Rounds in a medium scale, with a custom-wound B string [.049, .062, .084, .108, .129]. My picks are Dunlop Stubby 1.5 MM Tortex, and I use Vegan Straps and often Ray Raydecker cables.

Photo by Josh Skolnik

For my rig, I’m using a Bergantino Forte HP head — it’s a Class D amp, and it’s very present. My cabinets are one Eden 410 XLT and one 210 XLT, but they have new speakers made by the Italian company B&C, and they can handle 500 watts each. I got rid of my wireless system and my bass boost platforms, and I switched from JH Audio to Sensaphonics in-ears. I have my Ron Baldwin-programmed controller, and my pedals include an Eventide H90 Harmonizer, Fishman Fission Bass Powerchord, Source Audio C4 Synth Pedal, Akai Deep Impact, Panda Audio Future Impact v3 Bass Synth, MXR Bass Octave and Bass Envelope Filter, Boss SY-1 Synthesizer, Boss SL-2 Slicer, vintage Ibanez FL9 Flanger, Electro-Harmonix Freeze Sound Retainer and Pitch Fork, and TC Electronic Polytune 3 tuner. Then there’s a custom-made button to start recordings on a Tascam unit during jams, sample sounds added by the main controller, and a custom-made box that allows my daughter Tessa to message me onstage, while I’m playing.  

What’s coming up for you?

I’m hoping to continue my solo tour with West Coast dates sometime in the winter. We have plenty of Phish dates through the summer and fall. I’ve been building a studio up in Vermont, and I’m working on a screenplay. So there are plenty of adventures ahead and dreams to be had. –BM 




Chris Jisi   By: Chris Jisi

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