Billboard recently spoke with Gordon about the genesis of his new album, how his songwriting differs from Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, the status of the next Phish album and more.
Is the title "Overstep" indicative of what the album is about?
Hmmm. I asked myself that one when the title popped up and you know, I like to not analyze things sometimes. My favorite songs and movies are the ones I don't understand. And "Overstep" is kind of like that. What am I overstepping? Overstepping my bounds in some ways? I don't know the answer to that. One of the goals was to simplify and go for whatever's feeling the core passion in me and Scott when we were making the songs. Trim away the fluff. I guess it's ironic that there's a lot of different styles represented.
You recruited and worked with drummer Matt Chamberlain. How did you two meet?
We played on a track together on Marco Benevento's album [2012's "TigerFace"]. But we weren't in the same room. I kept hearing about him through the grapevine and then I started listening when we were looking for a drummer. And what blew me away was to have someone that's so solid. He's hammering on weird things around the studio and half the tracks were recorded on this toy drum set. Most of the songs have a real drum set and then they have this toy drum set being whacked in the background.
As you and Trey continue making music outside of Phish, what's the biggest differences these days in how you two write?
It's an interesting question, because of course, after 30 years, Trey is such a huge influence on me. I love the way he does songwriting and arranging. He's constantly an inspiration. We do come from some different background in that Trey likes music that's very layered. A more recent example is Beyonce, where there's many layers to the music and you only notice some of them subconsciously. Trey had this show "The Ambient Alarm Clock" on the college radio station WIUV at 5:00 am on Mondays. And he would do that: Just layer turn tables and tapes he had prepared. He was the most creative DJ they ever had. I've been interested in the opposite, where there's so much space between the notes, that everyone's playing and there's actually air in there. My fantasy is that everyone of my albums has less sound than the previous. Sometimes when I'm pairing things down, Trey is layering things up. That's a generalization. But I heard his single from the last album on the radio and I thought he had reached this perfect blend, where he had some layering going on but the groove was really funky. I called him up and this was a song Phish had tried to play . . . We don't always call each other, but sometimes we do. We have a very loving relationship in Phish. After 30 years, the fact that we're so deeply in love is crazy. But anyway, we're not always calling each other up and saying "hey, I love your single." But I had to do it. It had the space and the funk and that layering that's unique to Trey.
You both have different ways of storytelling, too.
As we've started to work on [Phish] songs, Trey has talked a lot about being very simple. I've been veering this other direction of trying to be ... not complicated, but very specific. Specific images. And I think that's one thing about making the Phish album that we're working on, or when we were working on writing [the album]. Bringing these different sensibilities together, where one guy thinks it's great to be incredibly simple and one guy thinks it's great to very specific and finding the middle ground can be cool. It's good to not always agree, actually. Sometimes it's the compromise.
When you finish a record are you able to let it go?
There's a certain point where I wonder am I ever going to be satisfied. But fortunately, there is a spot where I say "oh." It's been inspiring to work with Bob Ezrin. One little thing that I've taken from him is to leave space between the singing. I've been concentrating on singing a lot. I have this vocal coach Linda Balliro and really enjoying getting into the zen of where my voice can go. Steve Lillywhite, who did a lot of Phish albums, said "Mike, I'm going to leave you with advice. You don't know how good your voice can be, you don't know how bad your voice can be. Just write songs that are good for your voice." Regardless of the result, I really like doing vocal exercises with Linda and seeing what my voice can do to bring out the emotion of a song.
Speaking of the new Phish record, is it done?
Nope, it's a work in progress. But it's getting there. Everyone's working from their separate spots but it's sounding pretty fantastic. I was worried about having two records in my life and then to realize I love both of them, it's like something's gotta go wrong here. I'll probably get hit by a bus later this afternoon. At least two records will be done that I've put more of my heart into than ever before.
Do you think it'll come out this year?
I don't know exactly when, but yeah. I think so.
Phish played a lot of the new album at the Halloween show last fall. Was that always the plan or were there albums the band considered covering?
There's still records to cover and there's more than one record out there we'd love to get our hands on, if we keep doing that. It wasn't the plan all along, to do our own record. It kinda felt right in the middle of it. I think our heart is so much in this record and the timing was coinciding ... It's kinda like "let's do something we haven't done before and let's go out there and wear our hearts on our guitar strings." At a certain point, you shed your influences. And it was kind of the point to do that. Some of these other records that we were considering were awesome but we were so believing in our own thing. We were originally going to play that stuff all tour long but we just wanted to make that night special on Halloween. It's hard. We love the stuff, but usually there's a little bit of familiarity.
Thirty years into it, do you get nervous to unleash that amount of material all at once?
Oh yeah! Definitely there's nervousness. It's kinda cool to be nervous. I wasn't nervous enough for my Bar Mitzvah and probably because my heart wasn't in it. People always said if you're nervous, it just means you care.
Do you think more "Overstep" songs will seep into Phish sets?
I wonder. I'm not sure. I know a lot of them will seep into my [solo] sets. I think there's a good chance of that.