20 years ago today, I did an interview with Mike Gordon for rec.music.phish. Phish was in Ann Arbor for a two-day run at the Michigan Theater and we sat down in his hotel room before the 4/18 show to talk about a number of things. My favorite part was the discussion about his songwriting. He had with him his songwriting book that had pretty much everything he had written up to that point. This interview includes the first public peeks at Simple and Scent Of A Mule (before they were even songs), some unused lyrics from Mound, and even some never-recorded lyrics. We had a very fun discussion and it gives a rare peek into the songwriting mind of Mike Gordon. Click on the "read more" link to see the interview.
-Brian Feller 4/18/2013
April 18, 1993
Holiday Inn, Ann Arbor, MI
Brian Feller: Do you have a general way you go about song writing?
Mike Gordon: It's a hard thing for me, because I haven't written enough songs to be able to say that I have a system. I've only written a handful, and they've come out of all sorts of different situations. I've really wanted to let song writing be the kind of intellectual creative outlet that filmmaking was for me, and other things like that. And it was like that for Mound, but often it's just a struggle. I feel like I want to write some songs and I don't know how to go about doing it. Usually it's the lyrics that are a problem, and I think I am not really cut out to be a lyricist, although I still want to keep trying.
BF: I love the lyrics to Weigh...
MG: Thanks. I wrote that after watching the movie After Hours. It's a Martin Scorsese movie, it's a really funny movie, and it just put me in a funny mood. The guitar lick part, which was really the first part of Weigh, I wrote that for an exercise at the National Guitar Summer Workshop in a composing class. The guy said I would have to change it if would have any merit to it. He said there were notes in it that were too low to be part of the melody, I don't know, something like that.
BF: Do you have a personal favorite of the songs that you have written?
MG: (laughs) Well, I don't think I've really reached what I would like...Mound I guess...but even that there are things about it that...I'm not really satisfied with anything I have written to date. That's a funny question, actually I've never really thought about that, my favorite of my own songs...
BF: Contact is a great love song...
MG: Yeah, I like that one. The only thing that makes me really like a song...I guess there are two things that make me like songs generally, of ours, and that is if they groove well, or if they have a jam that can go somewhere. Mound doesn't really have a jam that can go somewhere; parts of it definitely have been grooving well.
BF: You wrote Mike's song, right?
MG: Yeah, except the I Am Hydrogen middle part, which was Trey. I wrote that when I was a sophomore, and I was sitting in my dorm room. I had an old reel to reel 4-track. I just heard the 4-track tape of it, it's kind of Motown, and I really like the way it sounds. I was thinking we should learn the bass and, actually, there were no drums. The bass line was kind of like a Motown bass line. Anyway, yeah, I like that. I've been liking it lately. Although, for a song, I don't think it's a song, it's just sort of a medley of different sections. I would like to write a good song sometime. I think Mound is sort of closer, but still it's a little hokey. Mound came about from...I was doing an experiment, and having the song write itself. Most things in it came from itself. It just started out from...actually the first thing in Mound was the guitar pattern that happens during the keyboard vamps, and during the beginning of the bass solo, which is this thing in five (sings rhythmic pattern), 5/8, and it's kind of against the beat. And then from there, I sort of put that on a tape with a little bit of the strumming part from the verse, and hummed to it on my 4-track. I hummed what I thought the lyrics should sound like if there were lyrics. Then I went back and actually transcribed the humming. Even though I wasn't saying words, I wrote down what it sounded like the words were out of my chanting, it was really like chanting. And then I wrote down lyrics from that, which were sort of nonsense, because I wasn't meaning to say anything. Then I changed those a little bit into a story. And then I took the same melody from the chanting and incorporated it into the bass solo and different sections. It was really fun to write. It was the first thing I really composed, that bass solo section. All the different parts to that were written out, including the drum part. Since it was my first, I learned a lot. The main thing I learned was not to try and put so many different ideas into one section, one thing. I definitely would like to do more.
BF: Do you guys write collectively? Is that something that could happen on this next studio work?
MG: Could be...some soundchecks Trey has already started to turn into songs, so that's sort of a collective thing, since it came from playing together. I don't think we've ever written lyrics together, Tweezer I suppose. Otherwise, we've never written lyrics collectively. A lot of the great songwriters in history have been collaborators, with a separate lyricist. I haven't found anyone I would want to collaborate with yet, and I would like to try to write some more songs on my own. I would definitely be better at the music side, I think. I like writing; essays, Mike's Corners, or stories, whatever. But, I haven't figured out the rhythm and...I've written some poetry, but...songs have to be more poetic, and I've really gotten to this non-poetic sort of writing.
BF: Mound is very poetic...
MG: Thanks. Yeah, I think that is sort of in that direction, I guess. The first lyric of Mound, the way the humming was that I transcribed, was 'Bananalana knows very well, go down around the snow bank...' You know, I have it here actually. (goes to get his lyric book) There are some funny things in here. Actually, I did these things called brain freeing exercises, some of them ended up over the mound...(flipping through the notebook) here's Destiny Unbound being worked on...Mike's Song...they are all in here. This is my lyric, my word....it says 'Words' on it. I've had this book for a long time. First it was one thing, then another. The WPRT log book. PRT was Puritan Lane, the road I grew up on. I had a little radio station. It only broadcast onto my driveway, and actually I think it went to the next door neighbors' house, too. The first page here is notes from a book on songwriting, then Mike's Song. Incidentally, the 'Me no are no nice guy' is something that the Mustangs played, who wrote Yamar. You should hear the original version. You see, they were this band that I just loved when I was in the Bahamas, that played by the poolside. These calypso beats they had, the electric calypso sound, were so good. They just sounded so good. My dad and I listened to them while swimming in the pool and stuff, every day. The lead guy was John Boy, he wore about 75 pounds of silver and gold on his chest, and had a huge afro. I wonder if they're still there? I would like to get in touch with them if I could. I bought two albums from them and none of the songs on the album sounded anything like they sounded, I hated the albums. They all these cheesy synthesizers, and they didn't have any keyboards live, they were just bass, drums, and guitar. Except Yamar. That was the only song on the albums that sounded like it had the same groove as their live stuff. So we started playing Yamar. You should hear the version on the album, because it has this incredible calypso beat to it. When we play it, it sounds more like a Latin beat than calypso, which I suppose is the same thing in a different way. It's a little bit different, the groove, and it's really good, all kinds of percussion. Anyway, they used to play Stir It Up, which I thought was an original, because I didn't know...I was little at the time. I had probably heard of Bob Marley, but I didn't know it was by him. Actually I hated the Bob Marley version when I heard it, because I liked their version. So, it always sounded like, in between verses of Stir It Up, the guy would say 'Me no are no nice guy,' and so that's how that thing came out, it was just another Mustangs thing.
(flipping through the book some more)
'Song Writing workshop' I wrote down some ideas. 'Build images for the listener, 'Deceptive cadences are cool,' 'Sing on offbeat,' 'Need something unique in the song,' (laughs) It's a good thing I saved this. 'Every chord progression doesn't have to be different,' 'We just need a hook in the song.' (more laughter from both of us) That's funny...some notes...not that I ever read these things. Poor Heart...excuse me for being so thorough with all this...Poor Heart was...when I graduated from UVM, I had been working on the soundtrack for my film 'TVF,' which was my senior project. It was hundreds of hours. That last week I had finished all my other tests and everything, and I was about to graduate from my last school for 16 years, and I was spending about 20 or 21 hours a day on this film, in one little room, finishing it. I had done the whole soundtrack myself, it was synch-sound and everything, which is really hard to do, especially with such cheap equipment. So I had 4-tracked the thing, and finally it was over. Actually I had one more exam I had to do over the weekend, I was hallucinating from not being able to...
BF: Sleep dep...
MG: Yeah. I had a jury I had to show it to, the last day of exams. One guy hated it, and he didn't even want to watch the whole thing. He just sat there and complained. Meanwhile I was hardly awake. After it was over I had said I would do sound, because I owned the band sound system, for Goddard Spring Fest. So I went down there...I had to do that, I had to do an exam... Finally I came back after the weekend was over, and everything was done, and my 4- track had been locked into this room, maximum security locks and everything. And it was stolen out the room, everything was stolen. In fact, my film teacher was in tears, because the school didn't want to give him any more money for equipment, and the synch-sound machine was gone, it had to be an inside job. Then I got some leads, I had heard that someone had just stolen a 4-track. So, after I graduated I spent two weeks...actually, this was worse than that, because...wait a second. If it's the same time I'm thinking of, right after I graduated, my girlfriend, who I had been going out with for five years, dumped me, and my grandmother died. So...but anyway, I came back up to Vermont and I tried to do some detective work to find the 4-track. So I wrote this song, 'You won't steal my 4-track again.' Actually, I ended up finding this guy, and I snuck into his apartment first and looked for it...well, there are other long, funny stories about that. I had my friend go to this other guy's house, in Massachusetts, and pretend he wanted to go to UVM, and that the admissions office had referred him to this guy, you know...and his mom was so proud of him because he was not a good student, and here he was getting in...and so he went, to look around for the 4-track. He said he was in the market for buying a 4- track. It didn't end up being mine, it was the wrong one. I went to this other guy, and accused him to his face finally, and it ended up that it really wasn't him, the whole thing was a disaster. But I wrote this song, the song came out of it, and eventually I just changed it to Poor Heart. That's why 'You won't steal my tape record' comes in there. (laughter from both) It's funny how that line is still in there. Oh, there is a third verse that goes something like, 'I got a truck with mag wheels and double-four-back pickup, I'm going to drive that thing to your house and we're going to have us a stick up, I'm going to steal it, steal it back,' and, I don't know, something like that.
(looking through the book)
Should I read you one that isn't a song probably never will be?
BF: Go right ahead.
MG: Silly Sam took a slice of soft cheese, dropped it on his motorcycle seat. Sat down, started up, bare feet. He said, 'I think this will be pretty cool, beats going to school.' Headed on down the railroad track, he said, 'What if I never ever done not come back? Is it gas that I would lack? I'd just paint the thing with shellac and sell it for $2.59...hundred...thousand...' He was deep in thought and pickin' snot when a train came down the line. Just in the nick of time the train veered off the track and headed directly up the mountain side, its metal wheel cutting against the brush, until it landed smack in the middle of mountain water. 83 some odd passengers forced their way out by smashing all the window panes. As they plunged in the water, flapping their arms gaily, one exclaimed, 'This is funner than what I was going to be doing.' The moral of the story is that if you look at a mirror that is facing another exactly, you won't really see infinity, because you're standing in the way. You won't see nothin', you won't see jack shit, except yourself and a baseball mitt, Looking fit to be kicked in the rump.
BF: That's great...
MG: Yeah...oh, here's '4-Track,' (laughs). You see, I would do these exercises to get my brain thinking. Like I said, some of those sentences ended up in the Mound. Here's the original one...'Bananalana knows very well. Go down around the snow bank, there's a mound. A mound a banana knows good. Look who raises his shoe oh, over this mound. Right over the world and another rewind.' There's another version...'The dragon man knows very well, footprints of canine in the ground should be followed through the wood. Look who raises his eyes to see the dog on the little mound, enlightened with the knowledge of everything profound.' (laughter from both) 'Open your freshmen eyes and stare at the mound. Boycott his bloody gun on the mound. Break the dirty pattern of mound'....here's one that hits home more...'A cabin man knows very well,' because I live in a log cabin, 'Yonder 'round the wood burning stove there's a phone. A phone that a cabin man knows good. Look who raises his finger to dial this phone, to a lost love in another land, to find she's not home. It's time to cut the sharp blade of an axe, through the line that carries messages from home, a home that can't be sweetened through the phone. It should be sweetened in another way.' Here's another one...'The dangling bearded crabman has hoofs coming out of his ass. They surround his turds like birds, coming out from other guys' asses.' (much laughter) Here's another one...'A grizzly bear with muzzle brown stood beneath a maple tree. This happened in another town, through forests far away from me. Suddenly a distant shot caused the bear to swallow snot. The mound is made of beans, and a crawfish stew thrown out. It's got worms in it. Some people started composting towards it.' (both laugh). Ah, all kinds of Mound shit. 'Through the pathless wild he traveled.'
Hmm..miscellaneous brainstorms...here's one more...'Kitty Malone sat on mule, was ridin' in style, when all of a sudden, like the sound of a buzzards breakin, Kitty felt laser beams being fired at her head. (with a country accent) Ah hate laser beams, I never asked for a UFO in Tomahawk County. Well she kicked the mule and it walked the path, the aliens fired from behind, until she stopped the mule and kicked the rump. Big 'ol mule took a big 'ol dump.' (big laughs from both) Maybe this one should be a song. I may have to use this one. 'Scent of a mule. You better watch out where you go. Take your laser beams away, or you're going to smell it, my mule.'...Oh, Weigh, here it is...(more page flipping)...oh, yeah, I have a new one that I'm working on, I don't know if it will end...it's already done. It's called 'Cymbop and Beebophone,' no actually, it's called 'Skybals and Saxscrapers,' which is a mixture of cymbals, saxophones, beebop and skyscrapers. That one is already written, I have a tape of it actually.
BF: Does that mean if you use it, you would bring extra people for the album, maybe a sax player?
MG: No, actually I like referring to the saxophone and having a guitar lick instead. Same with the cymbals; having the cymbals and not playing cymbals.
(at this point we have to leave for the theatre, so the conversation continues in the hotel lobby and the car)
MG: It's amazing, with all the interviews that are done about us in local town papers, how surface level they stay; and every once and awhile we do this kind of thing, where people who know about the band dig deeper. It's usually just three questions, 'So what about the tramps? So what about the vac? So what about the Dead?'
So, what I was going to say was that I personally don't think we were meant for each other, that we were a natural blend. It's a good thing because over the years we had to work to get ourselves to blend together. I kind of felt like there was this quality about the first couple of jams when I met those guys. Like, they were good players, and I thought that they were better than me at the time, but there was sort of this hyper-ness to it that was sort of hard to listen to. The way that we were jamming together, it wasn't very...there was just something jarring about it. Like a lot of extra energy being spent on something that didn't have a lot of emotion to it, or something like that. I think over the years we just learned to blend together really well. There were other playing situations I got into that were it sounded like we were meant to be together. Sometimes at a jam session, I guess...actually Fish and I had this side band that played a lot of Dead covers and stuff, called the Dangerous Grapes. Also Allmans, typical blues stuff. That was when Trey was absent for a semester. Every time we went to band practice, it was just this thing that clicked. It's not about being great musicians necessarily, just that people have chemistry, it happens with different groups of people. The guitarists, there were two guitarists, one of them only knew about two chords, and the other guy was sort of a good blues player, but not really thinking of the future. I'm sure that if we had stayed together...when Trey came back, I had a choice whether to play with Phish, or with the people from the Dangerous Grapes. I felt like I was clicking better with the Dangerous Grapes people, but it seemed like, in terms of being experimental and thinking of the future, that the Phish people were like that. And then Fish came up to me and he said, 'I am definitely playing with Trey, so you can play with us if you want, but i am definitely going to be playing with Trey.' So I had a talk with Trey, and Trey was asking me if I wanted to keep doing it, this was when I was a sophomore, the beginning of '84. So I said OK, as long as we can play covers, because he wanted to play all originals. I wanted to do some Little Feat tunes, and whatever. So, I did it. It's just an interesting thing about chemistry.
BF: Do you see yourself wanting to do anything outside of Phish?
MG: Oh yeah, I think I will. Maybe outside of music, too. I think at some point I wil do something, for variety sake. In fact, it would probably make us better in the band, to individually do as much we can outside of the band, to broaden ourselves. I really like the way that somehow I click with Greg DeGuglielmo, one of the old drummers for Max Creek. He's a really nice guy, and we have these jams now and then, so I was thinking maybe if we could find another instrument that was sort of atypical, and do some sort of project, like maybe have a pedal steel player. That way I would be the only person standing up. (laughs)