Interview with Mike Gordon from "The Onion"
Bassist/vocalist Mike Gordon talks about his new album, his band's
notorious longwindedness and his most aggravating fans.
On Oct 15, Phish releases its first studio album since 1994's Hoist. And
while that doesn't mean a whole lot to most people, to Phish's many
borderline-obsessive fans, the very existence of the new Billy Breathes is
big news. The Onion recently spoke to Mike Gordon about the strange Phish
The Onion: You've got a new record coming out on Tuesday, and it's tighter,
shorter, and catchier than a lot of people would expect. Was that a
Mike Gordon: How our albums are going to turn out is never conscious for
us. But we do sort of go in with certain goals in mind, and whatever comes
out, comes out. And the goals this time were, first of all, to make a
shorter album than A Live One -- which was real long -- and try to make an
album that was vinyl length, the length of a record, because we thought
that sort of matches people's attention spans better. And then, another
goal was just to really experiment a lot without bringing in a lot of
influences -- not guest musicians, no record company people walking around
the studio. And just to really experiment. Aside from "Free," some of the
songs that might seem catchy are too long, or too weird, or something, even
on this album. We'll have to see if there's going to be a second single.
O: You mentioned that you wanted to make a shorter record for people with
shorter attention spans --
MG: Well, not for the people with shorter attention spans, but just for
people in general, and for ourselves -- none of us can listen to the whole
[three-hour] live album. But a lot of times our albums are reactions to
the previous album. And this was definitely the case, because we fit as
many minutes as was technically possible on A Live One, and that was a
double-disc. And we were just thinking about how people make CDs these
days: Often, they're just a little bit long-winded, even single CDs. We
did a lot of editing on this album, physically, with a razor blade -- just
cutting pieces of tape out. Every time we did it, the stuff sounded better,
because we can be long-winded.
O: But your fans have longer attention spans to begin with.
MG: Yeah. That's probably true because we jam a lot and we play for, you
know, long hours. But listening to a record is different from being at a
concert. If you're cleaning your house or driving in your car, even with
a longer attention span, there's just a certain amount of time that's kind
of nice. When we finished mastering this album, there was even one more
song that we had recorded. And we were listening, and just decided that the
next-to-last song sounded like a good place to end.
O: What was the song?
MG: It was "Strange Design."
O: Oh, a friend of mine was complaining about that song not being on there.
MG: Well, the thing is, we as a band have been talking about our
relationship with our fans. We had a long talk at band practice yesterday,
actually. We asked ourselves why we play these old songs -- sometimes
every night -- or why we break out old songs that people want to hear that
they haven't heard in a long time. Is it just to please them? And if that's
the case, are we really doing what we want to do, which is to stretch
limits and take risks? Or are we compromising ourselves? And the answer
was no, we just like to put on a good rock show when we can, and if that
involves playing some of the same stuff we've been playing and playing
some things just because people want to hear them... And so we had this
conversation about songs that we haven't played in five years that people
keep requesting, and with our audience that's sort of a popular thing. It
was with the Dead, too, like, making this big deal out of some song they
haven't played in a long time. And usually, if we've stopped playing a
song, it's for a good reason: It just didn't feel comfortable. People just
don't realize how sensitive we are to what we're playing, and how it feels,
and that if we can't relate to the lyrics that we're singing, that's a bad
feeling. People don't realize that. If the song represents a part of our
lives that was from 10 years ago, then if might feel wrong. Our fans are
very sensitive and aware of things that we're not even aware of: We're
probably playing songs that we've played a lot of times, not even realizing
how cool certain musical changes are, and they might be having musical
experiences that we're not even acknowledging that they're having. And so it
can go two ways, because music is so subjective. But the thing that people
often don't realize is that a lot of thought and feelings go into something
like taking a song off a record.
O: Do you ever get sort of disgusted with your fans?
MG: Well, I would say, pretty much, no. Because we're so lucky to have
a group of people who are wiling to encourage us to take risks and do
weird things and come up with new material. And that's a great thing,
because often bands tour abound and play to people who want to hear the
song from the radio, played the same way. And our fans just hate it
when we play anything the same like that. But then, the frustrating fans
are the ones like this one girl on-line, where we got into this chatroom
conversation, and it led to me saying, "I think bands feel good if they're
stretching." And she said, "Oh, Mike! Don't do that! Don't stretch!" And
pretty much the definition of Phish has been changing and stretching. And
so pretty much what she was saying was, "Don't be Phish." She wanted Phish
to be some carbon-copy of some moment in time when Phish was a certain
thing. And so I really started heating up and trying to talk to her.
O: Do you ever defend your fans against people who come up to you, like
"Oh, I love your music but your fans are a bunch of idiots?"
MG: [Laughs.] Well, yeah. Sure. I probably have been in that situation
before. I mean, our fan base is... There are certain types. There are
different groups. But there are enough of them that any generalizations
wouldn't be totally true. There is a mix of people.
O: There's certainly a chiched --
MG: Yeah, there is a certain... It's funny, all these things we were
talking about last night, instead of practicing. [Laughs.] But, there's
the group of, you know, Birkenstock-wearing, sometimes dreadlocked, ankle
bracelet... [Pause.] The thing is, if you took that group of people... I
just think it's sort of stupid to rag on another group of people. I have
a different lifestyle than they do, probably. But still, I have a lot of
respect for what they're doing. Often it's time before college or taking a
break from college, and spending some months or a year following a band --
I just think it would be a cool thing to do. I mean, at a certain point it
wouldn't be cool because you wouldn't be creative yourself. You wouldn't
be doing what you might be right for. But that whole scene seems like
something I could respect. [Laughs.] I mean, I haven't even taken many
O: You don't smoke the reefer?
MG: I smoke pot from time to time. Not regularly, though I really like to
play music after smoking pot. I don't do it very often; I save it as a
sort of ritual. It's pretty rare that I do. And I haven't tried any other
drugs. That's it for me. SO I can't really say; I mean, the concept of
hallucinogenics really appeals to me, and I like the idea that people want
to expand their mind, because I've had a lot of experiments where I've
discovered hidden depths of the mind and the soul. And I think if people
are trying to do that, then I have respect for them. That part of the scene
| -- I like that it exists. I mean, of course, there are people who become
drug addicts, and that's a different sort of thing. But not everyone who
experiments with drugs becomes a drug addict.
O: Since fans trade your bootlegs, why should they buy your records?
MG: I think they do, actually. Because the record is just like another
bootleg. [Laughs.] And they like to have a lot of bootlegs, so why
shouldn't they include the record? Plus, it has artwork and that sort of
thing. So I don't know that they would not get the record because they have
the bootlegs, although I'm sure there are those who might like the bootlegs
better, because typically we're better on stage than in the studio. But
I would say on average, they would be interested in having the album as
well. We're not sure to what extent those two things compete.
O: Is there an urge at this point to make a big pop single?
MG: Um, there's been more talk about avoiding it than seeking it. It's
a fine line, because on one hand, we wouldn't mind having a song that
does well and sells a lot of records. It would be stupid to say that we
would. For one thing, with the income from records, we could afford to
not tour as much and spend more time in the studio, and we like to spend
time in the studio. And by not touring as much, the time that we are
touring would be more pleasurable for all. If we do a really long tour,
by the end, we start to feel like our creative sources are a little big
drained. And why put the fans through that, let alone put ourselves through
that? Anyway, so, we wouldn't mind exposing the music to people who haven't
heard it before. By having songs on the radio and doing this and that, we
might achieve some wider exposure, and none of us are against that. But at
the same time, it's not our main goal. We'd rather "Free" did well on the
radio, but before we started making the album, we had these talks about
having a hit song. And our manager was worried about that, because he was
considering a hit song to be the curse of death. Because our career is
so good, why fuck with it by having this sudden change like that? We were
thinking about putting in swear words every couple of verses so it wouldn't
be radio-playable. And then, by the time we were done, we were working on
"Free" and deciding it would be a nice single, and let's make it as good as
we can not just for the radio but for the album.
O: You guys get a lot of the Grateful Dead thing.
MG: Not as much as we used to, but some, yeah.
O: Was there a part of you that was a little bit excited when Jerry Garcia
MG: Not at all. In fact, when all the different publications called to
interview us, I put together a press release with what I had to say about
it, and the last sentence was, "Every speck of me wishes he was still
alive." I just was really into the Dead. The other band members pretty
much weren't, except for years ago. But I still was, and I was flying off
to Dead shows maybe once in the middle of each of our tours. For me, Jerry
had all these values that I could really relate with. You know, mixing al
the traditional Americana stuff with wild, loose, free experimentation
and jamming. That mixture really appeals to me. And it's not often found,
especially in the rock and roll setting. So for me, I wasn't relieved at
all when Jerry died. I was saddened. And in terms of our career -- and in
terms of interview questions -- it just made it worse, just because all
of a sudden people thought all the Deadheads were going to come and see
Phish now. Which isn't exactly true: There's definitely some crossover
| -- we both appeal to somewhat of a hippie-ish audience, and we both
jam a lot, and this and that -- but the people who really like the Dead
probably don't lie us. Because the music is different enough, and the
rhythms are different, and the attitude and even the sense of humor is way
different. So the real Deadheads -- there's nothing that's going to replace
the Dead for them. And for the people who really like us aren't necessarily
the biggest Deadheads.
O: What's the most irritating thing a fan has ever done to you?
MG: Hmmm. That's a good questions. I don't think I've ever been asked that
before. Let's see... [Laughs.] Okay, I can five you a good example, but
this is so beyond that it was almost funny rather than irritating. At the
two-night concert we just played, we did this thing at three in the morning
the night in between, where we played on a flatbed truck, with no mikes
and just instruments, and the truck went across the campground, which is
two miles long. So it was three in the morning, completely unannounced,
and it was great, too. We were just jamming, and it was some of the best
playing we had done in public, because it was so sensitive. Everyone was
just walking silently alongside us, and there were torches on the track for
light, and mounted police sort of galloping beside us. When we first got on
and started playing, about one minute went by in this tranquil environment,
and this guy sort of ran up to the truck and started saying, really loud,
much louder than the music, "Trey! Hey Trey! You played at my father's
bar! Hey Trey!" And we were playing, and getting into this Zen state. And
Trey wasn't acknowledging him -- at one point he looked up and just said,
like, "Okay." But for the full 10 minutes he wouldn't stop. He was just
standing next to us, not realizing what a fool he was making of himself,
and just yelling as loud as he could. [Laughs.] It was so annoying.
O: And you don't have the kind of fans who would resort to violence, who
would just pummel him.
MG: Well, yeah. It wasn't even that annoying; hew was being so bad
it was almost funny. There's probably more things that were truly
annoying. Actually... okay: At one point we did this thing where we did a
two-night stand, and we had a weird ending on the first night. We had this
a year or so, and in the middle of the song we just sort of stopped playing
and adjusted the mike stands in weird ways. And we were lying on the
ground, Trey and I, way in front of the stage, with thee mike stands bent
over us, so we could sing upwards at moments of silence, before we'd start
playing again -- sort of another Zen attempt. SO there was this moment of
silence, where Trey usually comes in with a guitar part. And he didn't come
in. We were lying on the ground, and I thought he was creating a moment of
silence, but it went on for, like, for or six minutes. Finally, I realized
he probably thought I was supposed to come in, so I stood up and walked
over to where he was laying, and then walked back and laid down. So it was
weird. The next night, we came back to the same place and we stopped the
show in the middle and Page emceed the section where we interview people in
the room about what they were feeling while that was happening. And first
the asked the band members, and then the crew, and then we decided to bring
some people on stage to say what they were thinking. And this one girl came
up on stage and instead of answering the question, she quoted one of our
songs. She said, "I just have one question: Will we ever get out of this
maze?" And that just sounded like such a stupid thing for anyone to say,
that we thought that was one of the most annoying things a fan has ever
done. So that would fit in the category. I could probably go on.
O: I went to a couple of friends who are Phish fans and told them that if
they had any questions about the band, I'd ask them. Anything at all. And
so, this is the question I get written down: "Why did Phish break out
'Whippin' Post' at one show this summer, when they hadn't played it since
April 20, 1993?"
MG: Yeah, they're really into that sort of thing. Actually, we stopped
playing that song because we were playing at a lot of the venues the
Allman Brothers were playing, so it wasn't so much of a joke anymore. The
reason we played it that time is because we figured it would be cool, and
afterwards, for the next day, the band had all these thoughts of feeling
guilty that the Allman Brothers would find out about it. Because it was a
bad version, and they would find out and think we had mocked them. There
are all these conversations and analyzing that goes on that people just
don't even realize. They think we just pull something out of a hat, but
a lot of thought goes into it. Let me give you one more annoying-fan
story. This guy was known as The Timer in the parking lots, and he would
stand in the front row every night and time all the songs. And if a song
was, like, 10 seconds or a half minute shorter than it should have been,
he would stand there with his arms crossed and roll his eyes back. And
eventually, it got to the point where we got to know him because we were
playing in small venues and he was touring around, and Trey ended up
confronting him. We got him on the bus, and Trey just said, "I've never
said this to a fan before, but what you're doing is actually bothering me
while I'm playing. It's actually on my mind and entering my consciousness,
so if you're going to be timing and rolling your eyes back, could you do it
from the back row rather than the front row?" And he ended up respecting
O: If you and Blues Traveller fought, who would win?
MG: They would win. [Laughs.] They're much bigger. But we want to take them
on in football, or hockey. Trey's a good hockey player.
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