Sharing in the groove with Mike Gordon

Matthew Laurence
5 min readFeb 16, 2021

[NOTE: This is an article I wrote in early 1993 based on an interview with Mike Gordon, the bassist for Phish. It appeared in the Nov. 1993 edition of Bass Player Magazine, re-titled “Mike Gordon: Curling Nose Hairs With Phish.” Since it has been nearly impossible to find a transcript of this article, I am publishing it here for the sake of completion for the Phish community. Yeah, that’s me in the middle; don’t judge… it was the early 90s and I was a Phish freak.

Bass Player Magazine, Nov. 1993

Some of the source material for this article can be see in what I could salvage of my inteview video with Mike: https://vimeo.com/288613934]

Where rock and latin, funk and jazz, thrash, reggae, classical and bluegrass all meet lies a seldom-visited musical crossroads inhabited by Vermont’s first major-label band, Phish. While still far from being a household name, there’s no doubt that Phish is expanding exponentially. They are not your usual collection of songwriters and soloists one-upping each other in the quest for the golden single. Phish is a cohesive unit whose live jamming style is directly influenced by their relationships with each other and the audience — and from their significant talents as musicians. This mix makes every show a unique and unpredictable experience. Despite a zealous following, four albums on Elektra and a worldwide computer forum devoted to the discussion of Phish and their exploits, they have only just been noticed by the popular media. Churning the sonic depths for this genre-surfing crew is bassist Mike Gordon, filling much bigger shoes than your average bassist.

“I think about the issue of diversity a lot,” says Gordon, and to hear his peripatetic style, it’s clear that he does. “My real love is blues, rock and bluegrass, the sort of “down home” stuff. But I also love jazz and improvisation, music that just goes anywhere — the limitless aspect of it. Those two things, the down home and the limitless, they sort of define my playing. Then there’s all the composed stuff that Trey [Anastasio, guitarist] is into, something not many bands do these days. It’s really important to have all of it. It’s a discipline.”

It takes a disciplined musician indeed to elegantly glide the lines between accessible and outrageous. In Phish’s strange little world, seemingly incongruous elements merge and go far beyond the sums of their parts — much like the band members themselves. The fusion of complex, subtle and zany factors in the music makes for a repetoire that would do Frank Zappa proud, by way of Genesis, the Dead, and Little Feat. All this innovation and variation are just fringe benefits for Gordon, however. “My favorite aspect of music is when it comes down to a key component, like a single note. The style doesn’t matter, there’s just the vibration of that one note. It’s the lowest common denominator. Before high school, I used to just sit on a couch and not even fret the notes, but just let one or two of them ring for maybe forty-five minutes, hearing how each note vibrated and resonated. I thought that somehow this ritual would get the instrument into my soul. Eventually I’d get real tired and fall asleep, of course, but I felt like I was familiarizing myself with the instrument. If I had been practicing scales all that time I’d be a different sort of musician, I guess.”

Gordon’s playing goes beyond monster chops; there’s a level of familiarity with his instrument that borders on Zen, and for all his technical abilities, Gordon takes the basic role of the bass very seriously. “With [drummer Jon] Fishman and Trey, there’s this emphasis on originality and uniqueness. Every song has to be totally different. For me, I definitely want to create my own style as a bass player, but it’s not my ultimate goal. My main goal is just to be the bridge between the harmony and the rhythm. To create that motion, to keep the groove. When a bass player’s bad, the whole band is bad. If the guitarist sucks, the band can still get along — the guitarist is just bad. But everything is riding on the bass.”

It’s hard to pin down a single element that most contributes to the “Phishiness” of the music. These guys have been together a long time, and each player is highly sensitive to the directions of the others. “We sometimes practice for six hours a day. One thing we do is a listening exercise, where one of us will play a riff, and the others will have to follow it. Each player takes a turn leading while the others support what he’s playing. It sounds simple, but it’s made a huge difference in how we interact on stage.” The entire mood of a concert can change at the whim of any player, leading to surprising digressions from their loose setlist. They even surprise themselves, often performing utterly unplanned material simply because the moment is right. This interconnectedness allows them to take their show beyond what’s hip to a level where “art rock” and silliness become acceptable, admirable and even danceable. When they’re skirting the edge of that transcendental groove, you can feel your nose hairs curl from a hundred yards.

Gordon’s primary instrument is a custom koa 5-string designed and built by Phish’s soundman, Paul Languedoc. The one-of-a-kind Languedoc bass includes a five piece glued-on neck, customized bridge, action that can be adapted to his many playing styles, lush abalone inlays and dual Mørch active pickups that offer a befuddling array of preamp options. A Boss OC-2 octaver, Electro-Harmonix Dr. Q envelope filter and Ibanez Tube Screamer sit alongside the footswitch for his ADA MB-1 preamp. A 1500-watt Crest power amp, Yamaha crossover and a dbx compressor unit complete the setup.

Preamp and effects setups gather no moss in Gordon’s rack, since experimentation is a keystone of Phish’s sound. He’ll often alter his settings during songs just to see how they affect the overall mood of a piece. Pointing to the ten seperate controls on his bass he adds with a laugh, “I don’t even know what all this stuff does. And I’m just figuring out MIDI, and always playing with new techniques, so I’ve got a lot to learn. But that never ends — which is good, you know?”

Discography:
Junta (#61413–2)
Lawn Boy (#61275–2)
A Picture Of Nectar (#61274–2)
Rift (#61433–2)
all on Elektra

Phish is represented by:
Dionysian Productions
57 Harvard Street #2
Waltham, MA 02154
John Paluska is their manager, and you can reach him at Dionysian, (617) 647–9660.

If this can be worked into the article somewhere, the addresses to access the Phish Computer network are:
By UseNet, read this newsgroup: rec.music.phish
By InterNet e-mail, send mail to: phish@world.std.com or phish-request@fuggles.acc.virginia.edu

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Matthew Laurence

Principal UX designer and leader; compassionate manager; enterprise enthusiast; one-man video department. Oh, and post-professional bassist.