Phish’s Mike Gordon talks New Year’s Run, Allman Brothers Band, Tom Petty covers and more

The bassist plays solo at Saturday's Sunshine Music Festival in St. Petersburg.
Mike Gordon. Photo by Rene Huemer
Mike Gordon. Photo by Rene Huemer
Published Jan. 9, 2018|Updated Jan. 10, 2018

On a snow-swept day last week in Vermont, Mike Gordon was killing time with his out-of-school daughter, wondering if his guitarist would be able to make it into town for rehearsals that night. Beyond that, the fierce winter weather was no biggie.

"I've got new treaded snow tires, so I think it's just pretty," he said. During one childhood blizzard, "I could walk around the road and my parents wouldn't even see me, because there was maybe four feet of snow or something like that. Tomorrow it's going to be negative-10 with a wind chill factor of negative-25. But it's all good for me, because it's a chance for me to cozy up and do more projects."

As if Gordon needs more of those. The bassist is fresh off his annual New Year's run at Madison Square Garden with Phish, his iconic jam band of 35 years, and about to kick off a new tour with his solo band, starting at Saturday's Sunshine Music Festival in St. Petersburg.

It'll be a welcome visit. Phish hasn't played Tampa Bay since 1995, although every member except singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio has come at least once with solo projects. For Gordon, that means more than a half-dozen solo and collaborative albums, including a couple with guitarist Leo Kottke (and another in the works), and his latest groovy effort OGOGO.

"It's all just happening at once," Gordon said. "What a great part of the country to go to at a time like this, to jam a little bit, before getting back to holing up and writing."

To hear Gordon tell it, it sounds like Phish is in no hurry to get back to Florida anytime soon. But he's plenty excited to visit St. Pete alongside his friends in Tedeschi Trucks Band, as he said in a recent phone interview.

This is your first show since the New Year's Run. How'd it go this year?

It was really fun. The Phish thing just kind of works like clockwork, where I can jump into it and go for an incredible ride. Some of the fans said that I was doing some of my best playing, but I didn't feel that it was any different than normal.

It's interesting to have two bands, because as similar as they're going to be in some ways, I'm always surprised by how different they are. With Phish, I was surprised how long each jam goes on the same trajectory. And it's kind of a cool thing. It sets people's brains in the mode of, Communication is now going to be this, and not as much talking. And then 10 minutes later, we're still playing on this scale and this groove. My band, there's still a bunch of improvising; it's just a different kind of trajectory. It's almost a culture shock to go back and forth.

I'm not one of these guys who tracks everything that Phish has ever done live, but it seems everybody had really high praise for Night 3 on Dec. 30, which is typical. And you opened that show with Mike's Song. I ask because your name is right there in the title: Does opening a show with that song mean anything special to you?

Nope. (laughs) It's just a song. I mean, for me, what's special is harder to put into words. I have friends who are fans who are 3,000 miles away, and they look at the setlist and say, "The show looks good." But for me, it doesn't matter how it looks, because the same setlist can feel one way or another way. The sets tend to get tinged with a certain vibe and flow, and some are good, some are bad, some are medium. But the 30th tends to be good. We've gotten a couple under our belt, and maybe caught up on sleep, and it's not yet the big, hyped, extra stuff for New Year's, and so that all makes sense. But I don't know. (laughs)

How did you hook up with this show in Florida? Was it just standard festival-booking procedures, or do you know Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi?

Yeah, pretty standard. I had just played in Florida for another festival, Hulaween. And that was fun because we had two ladies in the band, and one less percussionist, so it was a chance to do something a little bit different. And someday we'll play with them again. But now we get to just be our normal quintet, which, I gotta say, I'm really excited. I listened to a bunch of our fall tour, and it used to be that I'd be all critical. Now I just get pumped. Driving around Vermont and these snowy hills, I'm just thinking, Oh my god, this band has gelled. The work that we do rehearsing and on soundchecks just pays off. I don't even think the band members realize it. So many moments that I want to notate and play for other people, about the mix or about the groove or about the bass and drums. We might release some stuff at some point. The way the bass sounds is probably illegal. It's too much bass. I don't think it's offensive, but I just can't believe what our sound man is doing, and what the bass and drums are doing. And that's just the foundation. I'm just giddy about it.

Leaving Phish aside for a second, how have you evolved as a musician through your solo works, from those early albums with Leo Kottke to OGOGO?

It's different trajectories. I keep using that word for some reason. With Leo, our albums, you'd just do stuff, and the stuff tells you what it wants to have done to it next. What's presented us a challenge is to make it a bit more haunting, maybe a bit less overdubbed and a little more natural and evocative and dark. I haven't really talked about this because it's just a work in progress, but I've been taking some of his more intense compositions and spending a long time composing basslines, rather than just getting in and learning the chord progression and getting in and jamming it. It's been years in the making. So we're working on it, and we're excited, but it's slow motion.

And then my stuff: With (2014's) Overstep, Scott (Murawski, guitars) and I had a blast, and we just kind of wanted to rock out. My previous album, (2010's) Moss, I loved that album, but it's a little more introspective and dreamy, and we wanted to rock, and we were doing it in an old-school way. So this time, the idea was to be more experimental. A lot of people talk about my Inside In album (from 2003), and I think what they like about it is just that there's no rules. It's just a lot of experimenting sonically, like banging on the washer-dryer, whatever, anything goes. I like that quality too, getting away from the rules of recording. So letting (OGOGO) be a little more experimental than Overstep was, and also wanting it to be catchier than ever. It sounds analytical, but I guess that's just how my brain works. It's stretching in two directions, saying, We can be more ourselves than ever — more unique and experimental, and more universal and more catchy than ever, and more poppy, which is the music my daughter plays in the car, but at the same time, stretch both sides of it. And I think we hit the nail on the head. And I think we can keep doing it more. I think we can continue on that path and stretch even more, make it even weirder, but also make it even catchier.

I don't know how much you ever did — or if you do — feel influenced by the Allman Brothers Band, but they're godfathers in the jam-band world, Phish has covered them, and you've played with Dickey Betts. What's the throughline between Phish and the Allmans?

Well, we all listened to Fillmore East and all those albums — Brothers and Sisters, Eat a Peach. We all listened to them growing up in high school. Maybe not as much recently. And we've gotten to be friends with most of them. Maybe it's the idea of mixing a rootsy sentiment with jamming. It hasn't been done too many times; no one probably did it like the Grateful Dead. But in the Allman Brothers, it's particularly soulful. You hear Gregg's voice, and so it just has to be inspiring.

After Tom Petty died, you decided your tribute cover would be Mary Jane's Last Dance. Why'd you pick that song?

It's always stuck with me. It's hard to say why something resonates. Just like people know where they were when Elvis died, I think I know where I was when I first heard that song. I think I was at the Pinecrest, an incredible David Lynch-style club in the middle of a suburban neighborhood in Woodstock, New York, where all the recording studios are. You go in there at 3 in the morning, and I think that's where the song came on. I don't what it is about that song. Can't really say. Just liked it.

Phish hasn't played Tampa in 20-something years, which is hard to believe.

(laughs) Oh, yeah.

Why is that? How is it that you've skipped a market like Tampa — and Orlando, for that matter — for so long?

Oh, people say that all over the country. The simple fact of the matter is, Phish just doesn't play as much. We play for more people and less time, and it's mostly major markets. We just can't go everywhere. People have their other lives, their other creative work and families. We're able to do Phish in less time and have as much fun with it. So we just don't hit a lot of places. But that gives me a chance to do it with my band and not be doing the same thing that Phish is doing. But otherwise, I don't know. I have nothing to do with the booking and the routing. I usually don't know until they take me.

— Jay Cridlin