A founding member of superstar jam band Phish, Mike Gordon will hit the road this summer in support of his latest solo effort, 2014's Overstep. The month-long trek begins in Charleston, making it the first time since the band's 2010 concert at North Charleston Coliseum that Phish members have performed in the city. Gordon points toward that night five years ago as an example of the relationship he would like with his fans.
"I remember specifically that night in Charleston, choosing an audience member at random and having each member only play when that guy would give a specific cue, so that it was like he was conducting the band," Gordon says. "I've just always liked to feel like I was bringing down that wall between the stage and the audience. If there is just some other way to help you connect, other than just you buying the ticket and we stand in front of you playing music, is really intriguing to me."
For this part-time solo headliner, Gordon views his tour as a chance to really showcase his songwriting without having to fight for the setlist space.
"Phish has managed to maintain a good chemistry for 32 years now, and it still feels good to reinvent ourselves in little ways, but it's definitely not enough for me," the bassist explains. "Ever since I was three years old, the most important thing to me is to get up in the morning and create something. Phish always encourages me to bring my material, and it's all very encouraging, but at the end of the day there is already enough songwriting. They are all very inspired songwriters and decision makers, and one of my personality defects is that when there is already a lot of creativity involved in something, I don't really push myself. I really need a situation where I wake up and have to make a hundred decisions or the project won't get done. That is what I don't get out of Phish, and what I get out of doing my own material. I have to do it with my own band."
By fronting his own band, Gordon also brings to audiences something the world of rock music is slow to embrace: a bass-centric band. Of course there is Paul McCartney and Rush's Geddy Lee, and whatever band Les Claypool is performing in at any given moment, but the life of the average bass player is spent on the back of the stage, just in front of the drummer but well behind the singer and lead guitarist. Gordon doesn't protest this observation too hard, but he has strong opinions when it comes to the much-maligned instrument.
"I definitely like being in the spotlight, but I also like getting the group-mind going, letting everyone have their moment to shine. Personally, I get bored when I see a band perform where it's clearly built around showcasing one person, and everyone else just happens to be playing there on the side. I want everyone to be going for it onstage. I don't even know that I'd really call it bass-centric, although I guess it is. It is and it isn't," the singer says with a laugh.
"This may be the answer, although it also might not be," Gordon continues. "Bass players, I think as a breed, like to support the song. We like to hook up with the rhythm and just help the groove come along. That's what makes us tick. For me, its fun to do a solo, but I've had almost religious experiences while playing music, and a solo never brought me close to nirvana. It happens when you're working as part of the machine or being part of what brings everyone together."
Being part of the machine could be considered the antithesis of Gordon's solo career. Afterall, Overstep marked the first time he brought in an outside producer, Paul Q. Kolderie. The experience was a new one for Gordon, but not an altogether unpleasant one.
The singer says excitedly, "I started to feel like when people cut new albums, they should react to what came before and change, or at least try something different. After the last album (2010's Moss), I thought the one thing that I wanted to change was making all of the decisions. The one thing that I really love to do musically is experiment, trying to be creative in a lot of different ways, and I just felt like I was losing perspective. I knew that there were still a lot of things that I wanted to try, but I started to think that I was becoming the weak link in the chain, at least in terms of tying it all together into a cohesive album. I just thought as far as bringing another producer on, when it came to an outside perspective, would be a good thing."
Gordon continues, "Working with Paul was great, but I will say that he wasn't very aggressive when it came to song arrangements. He was just worried about making the songs sound good."
That's not to say Gordon wouldn't return to the studio with Kolderie. "I would work with Paul again, but I could see giving away more of the control," he says. "There is so much creativity to be done that giving some away can be very effective toward rounding out the equation. I would like to work with a producer who gets more involved with the songwriting.
"When Jimmy Page worked with producers on Led Zeppelin, you still knew Jimmy Page was in there helping with every decision," he continues. "But I don't think it hurts to get an outside perspective."