photo: Rene Huemer
“When I start a new album, I’ll have certain desires and goals based on what I’ve done previously. In this case, an important one was flow,” explains Mike Gordon, as he shares the process of creating his new record, Flying Games. “Sometimes I put so many changes into my songs that the changes take over and interrupt the flow. Then there are people where every song on their album is one chord—the rhythm doesn’t change and there are not too many starts and stops. I start to envy that a bit, but there’s a happy medium here, where there are verses and choruses, starts and stops, but the original intention does poke through.”
The record came together over eight months, including a span during the lockdown. As a result, Gordon worked out of his home studio with longtime collaborator Jared Slomoff, while his bandmates— drummer John Kimock, keyboardist Robert Walter, percussionist Craig Myers and guitarist Scott Murawski— mostly contributed individually from afar.
Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, Kacey Musgraves, The War on Drugs), who produced Gordon’s 2017 record, OGOGO, mixed Flying Games and also provided prompts after hearing the initial demos. For instance, with “Moonlight” Gordon remembers, “Shawn said, ‘At the end, I want it to be like you’re standing on this veranda in some old resort where people are having a cocktail party. I want your voice to be far away and the sound of the piano to be far away, like there’s some weird hotel band, but it’s also eerie like in a David Lynch movie.”
As the album title suggests, the concept of taking flight recurs in many of the songs. Gordon’s experiences during his lucid dreams, as well as his state of mind during live improvisation, are also intertwined.
“When I’m onstage in the middle of a big jam, sometimes the way the groove is floating feels like flying—that’s what’s in my brain,” the bassist says. “There’s a very acute sense of that from the propulsion and the feeling of the music. It’s similar to dreams where it’s been really significant and fun to get off the ground. That’s all also connected to my sense of a flow state.”
There’s a big theme of disorientation that applies to a bunch of these songs. That wasn’t by intention; it’s just what came together. It’s about being in one place and wanting to be in another place or being somewhere you didn’t think you were going to be and finding that to be home.
“Tilting” is embracing the whole concept of, “Let’s lose ourselves. It’s not so bad, it’s actually cool.” I’ve enjoyed going on drives, not knowing where I was going—just turning left, right, right, left. I like doing that and I like being lost in musical jams as well.
The jams that led to these songs were super funky and fun, so I also like how they represented musically—can we lose ourselves in these rhythms? I see the tilting as falling into that surrender. For me, it’s a celebration of letting go and being disoriented.
In a lot of these songs I’m walking around alone. I love being on tour in some random town and walking by myself, checking out the vibe and seeing what’s going on in the coffee shop or the gallery. I’m alone, but I’m not really alone because we’re all connected.
I also like to think about the conundrum with people in a marriage or a band. We’re in it together, but we also need to have our autonomy and do our own thing. If everyone is only spending their time and attention on the other people, then the relationship doesn’t work.
There’s another balancing act that happens in this song. I’m alone, I’m walking around town, then I stumble into the club where a band is playing. I don’t know anyone, and some people look a little weird. Then they want me to play, and I feel connected to the whole world. Oh, but then I’m alone again.
It was so joyous to work with Scott on this. We would get together on Wednesday nights and work on all the lines, and I enjoyed working on the verse after the first chorus where we envisioned this town. I’ve been in a bar, and I’m really connected, but then I’m alone in these alleys and cobblestone streets. Then I’m on a boardwalk and I start playing a piano. But I’m alone and I can’t think of anything to play because I’m so disconnected. However, the piano starts playing itself and then it’s dancing with the streetlights. So there are connections I didn’t even realize and I’m connected again.
Back in the Bubble
This studio version is from a live version we’d played. But we stripped it away and I replayed all the bass and even changed some of the chord progressions.
The concept of it is: “What does it mean to be in a bubble?” It could be a bad thing. It could be that you’re ignoring some aspects of your life by staying away from them.
But it could also be a great thing. The bubble could be a situation where you’re so present and in the moment that you don’t need to think about all the responsibilities of real life.
The line “Can’t go back to real life trouble” relates to the time of my biggest peak experience in 1985. I had so many responsibilities with electrical engineering tests every day, and then they were all gone. So I could experience getting away from responsibility.
Sometimes during these big Phish jams, I’m in the moment and I feel good. Meanwhile, all these thoughts are clawing at the brain to come back into consciousness—“Oh, my workout’s going to be an hour late tomorrow and I also need to make sure I get some more resistance bands because I broke one” or “I need to send that email.”
But for these experiences where I’m feeling the most elated, I want to be free from real-life trouble so “keep me in the bubble.”
I also live in a bubble of Vermont where I’m not always the one that knows all the new music and every nuance of what’s going on in politics. People sometimes have to fill me in, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I’m not as in tune as I could be, but we have limited time. So sometimes, in order to do what we’re doing, we have to be somewhat ignorant, although hopefully not apathetic.
With some of these things, if you started judging, then they could be good and they could be bad. But without the judging, I just like being in the bubble. [Laughs.]
With “Mull,” again I’m walking around a town and I’m feeling good, though there’s something I’ve been obsessing about. But I realize that I don’t need whatever it was.
Of course, so often when you don’t need something, that’s when you get it. You’ll think, “So now I get to do the gig? I don’t care.” But then it’s “Well, maybe I do care. Maybe I’ll do it.” Followed by all this mulling.
I’ve spent a lot of my life being indecisive. That was probably my biggest attribute, although I’ve gotten a lot better about it. I’m done making pro and con lists. I overdid that 20 years ago. So now I talk about mulling as a way of teasing myself.
The riff that became the melody of the chorus was straight out of Scott Murawski. We had a jam in some song out west and he played this melody that was incessant and angular and modern sounding, so I wrote the song around it. His idea for me, when I was working with Jared, was to write a real rock song.
So in the original version of the song there was a lot of Scott in there. It was straight rock, but then it didn’t seem to fit the album since there’s a lot of playing with sound and electronic stuff.
I tried all these experiments, but it didn’t fit the album until Shawn Everett tore it up and rebuilt it. He did this thing where he wanted me to pick a multi-track tape from a classic song that he had online. I had 200 choices and I picked “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder. Then he said, “OK, I’m going to organize and sonically mimic it a little bit,” even though this song has nothing to do with that one. Then, at some point in the middle of doing that, he flipped back and forth between “Mull” and “Higher Ground” and I could start to hear the similarities.
He turned off all the guitar and all the organ because he didn’t want something standard. He said, “I don’t even like electric guitar.” He was saying this with all these Grammys sitting on his soundboard, including Best Rock Album. But for him, it needs it to be different and weird-sounding if it’s going to be in there. So he turned off all the instruments and I started playing cellphone apps and theremins and things like that. Then we started to weave the instruments back in that Scott and Robert had played.
Enlightenment is the deepest goal in many forms of meditation and other practices, but can it be casual? Leonard Cohen talked about finding religion in daily life. Maybe nirvana is from that which is casual and doesn’t come from the cosmos. I loved toying with that concept.
Phish played this one a couple of times and it’s still being discovered. The original bass lick came from a Phish jam at a tech rehearsal. Often we’ll have these big Phish jams, and I’ll take what I did. That’s partially because it’s all I can hear with my recording method, which is nestled in the middle of the bass amp. In this instance, that context gave me the idea for a super simple bassline, which is the intro bassline.
Then, I went to Shawn and he said, “You’ve got the casual but you don’t have the enlightenment. I think you should have a drone that goes through the whole song.” I said, “That’s a cool idea but if you put a drone through the whole song, then all the nice space between the notes will go away. Let’s compromise and do it in the second half of the song.”
So we took these two notes that go all through all the chords and had them ramp up and stay. Jared works for Soundtoys, which makes plug-ins for recording and the Prime Time Digital Delay, which was used a lot by Daniel Lanois. There’s a great Tiny Desk series with Daniel Lanois, Brian Blade and a bass player [Jim Wilson], where Daniel Lanois only plays the Prime Time Digital Delay because it’s vibe-y sounding. So we employed that a bit and tried to go for a little bit of the casual and the enlightenment to see how they’d come together.
A couple of years ago, I was working with Jared, and we were writing a song a day. We had used up a number of ideas, but then I thought, “I’ve got a secret weapon.” It was my favorite recorded musical jam ever, which was in the middle of “Peel.” We’ve released it—I won’t say what year or town. It sounded a little bit West African—actually not only that one, but also another one which became the chorus.
I’ve always wanted to try and write a song from that music, but it was intimidating because I liked it too much. It was loaded, almost like I would be destined to fail because I couldn’t live up to it.
I had this lyric concept, though, which was a blurb from a day off when I was walking around Richmond, Va. I had a little caffeine in me and some endorphins from walking around trying to find coffee shops and other interesting things. Then, sort of like in “Mull,” there was this connection because even though I was walking around alone, I felt connected since I liked what everyone had created.
Whereas other people might think more about nature and God’s creations, I tend to think about human creation. I’ll bask in that and say, “Wow, people made these train tracks so they could get all around the country before there were planes.”
That day, I was thinking about how there are different kinds of people who not only live in the same town, but might actually be on the same block. So I had this very specific idea. I didn’t know if it was going to be a band or a movie or something else where people are forced to be together and one of them is goth, one of them is a rapper and one of them is a great bluegrass player. They look different and they sound different, but if they have this open attitude, then maybe they can all mesh. I got excited imagining all that and I wrote the blurb.
So it was a matter of trying to figure out how to put together this music that I found so joyous with the concept. At first, it came out a little bit too positive so we decided to put in these minor chords. Even at the mix, Jared and I were in the back room adding a handful of minor chords because life can’t just be all positive. The sad traces give the positive more positivity in context.
Revolution of the Mind
When Scott and I started this song, we were imitating some aggressive electronic music. Scott did all this programming with several tracks of synthesizers and drum machines, then that incessant bass. It was cool to get outside of our comfort zone.
The lyrics were from a dinner at a writing session where we made this poem about being on board.
I was talking earlier about flow in terms of having something stay the same. Well here, not only does the bassline stay the same—and most of it feels like it’s on one chord—but even when a handful of the other chords come in, the root note stays intact so the bassline can stay the same. The bassline never needs to change with the chords. So, in a way, it answered my need to have a one-chord song, even though there’s a bunch of other chords. It has change and flow.
What I probably love the most is that I don’t know what it means. I love thinking about “revolution of the mind,” but I haven’t analyzed it to the point that I know what it means. [Laughs.]
This one was super fun because the first guilty pleasure was the music. I’ve tried to avoid some of the really fun ‘70s funk stuff that I get into with my various colleagues that have funky claves and 1-4-5 chords.
This was our last day of writing one song a day. I said, “OK, I’ve got this idea and it’s a guilty pleasure.” It was a guilty pleasure because of all the old-school funk elements and the simple chords. Then I thought I would explore lyrics that would go with that. There was a time when I had this Encyclopedia of Tacky and I loved it. I used to think, “How many things from the Encyclopedia of Tacky can I work into my life and not feel guilty about it?”
It’s supposed to be playful, like “Binge watching I Dream of Jeannie.” I had to put that in there because my daughter and I watched all 139 episodes twice when she was five or six. Then we got to be friends with Barbara Eden—although that idea of a guilty pleasure ended up being a meaningful experience.
It’s interesting that “Undone” is right after “Guilty Pleasures” because it’s a similar concept about obsession. Obsession allows an artist to sit there for 14 hours and edit a movie like Outside Out or rehearse in a room for eight hours and still want to keep going. The chorus is: “I’m a bit high strung/ But I’m gettin’ my obsession done.” So you can take it too far.
I’m obsessive to some extent, but I don’t want to throw away the baby with the bath water. If I’ve been meditating and trying to be healthy, then maybe some obsessions are OK. [Laughs.] I don’t have any answers here. I’m just exploring.
I also love that the title is a word that’s not in the song at all. I think I thought it was, but I love that it isn’t.
I was bummed out one night and a bit stressed. Then I realized it was a full moon. So I said, “It’s a full moon, it’s midnight, there’s something magical about that.” I decided to get out of bed and sit in my music room where I could see the moon. Then I got excited and came up with these ideas for my movie script.
In the song, I’m trying to describe a scene in the movie to someone who doesn’t want to hear about it and hates moonbeams. So there’s this whole concept where one person’s elation, discovery and magical idea could mean nothing to someone else.
What I’m saying is that life is interesting because people aren’t always in the same mind space. Yet, eventually, they can find a way to come together. In the song, I suppose the way to come together is singing that long note at the end of each verse because then we’re harmonizing together.
The music came from a jam with John Kimock, Craig and me. It’s a cellphone recording and we actually used it. That alone was great and didn’t need anything else, but I decided to put in Jon Fishman at half-speed. I often make these recordings when he’s practicing, and I had saved one that I really liked. I slowed it down to half speed so it’s disintegrating—it’s slow and weird. Then I put it against their beat and made the rhythms match perfectly. So it’s all three drummers in my life together throughout the whole thing.
At that point, I thought it was perfect and certainly didn’t need any more drumming. But instead of giving up, I gave John Kimock the opportunity to do about 50 more tracks of overdubbing. Even though that could potentially bog it down to where there’s no groove left whatsoever, it was the opposite. It was even more exciting with an extra 50 tracks of John Kimock going crazy. So kudos to John.
Sughn Never Sets
My dad’s company—Store 24—had a slogan in the ‘70s, “The Sun Never Sets.” That’s because they tried to stay open 24 hours even when the zoning wasn’t set up for it. They were trying to provide something for the community, rejuvenating troubled neighborhoods. So there was a slogan on the radio with a little melody.
In this song, I’m walking around by myself once more. Then I’m in a club alone. Suddenly, there’s honky-tonk music, just like there was at Radio Bean, which is in the song—for 10 years, I went to Honky-Tonk Tuesdays with Brett Hughes. Then, whatever my worries might have been, a pedal steel is swelling its tone and the whole room lifts up toward the unknown. Now we’re flying again.
The original grooves were from two different jams with my band. I can’t remember where the first one started from, but we ended up doing a faster version of “Funkytown.” The little melody from the jam is by Scott Murawski. For someone who can play a million notes per minute, he’s great at slowing that down and playing a really catchy melody while improvising. My response typically is, “Oh, it’s like a new song, so better make it a new song.”
Haywire (formerly Acid Man)
There was a soundcheck where Scott had two new demos. We ended up playing them both, but I said, “This one represents our future— staying on one chord and just churning rhythms.” People do it in electronic and dance music, but I haven’t done it as much—this idea of staying on the same chord.
A lot of this started from Scott’s programming. We had live versions that were great, but I wanted to go back to his original programming and add to it.
Then, as with “Mull,” it didn’t fit the album. In this case, it was too moody and serious. So I worked with Jared to add some elements that would make it sound more whimsical. We added little harmonies and some fake instruments. At the very end, after this big, diminished chord run, when it hits the final note, there are like 30 Tuvan throat singers. That was from an app that gives you the real recording of Tuvan throat singers. At that point, what was already a good track suddenly fit the album perfectly.
I like to tell the story about how we were in Dallas at this little hipster lunch place, and this hipster waiter gave Scott his tropical rocket drink with the least enthusiasm of any waiter in the history of waitering. He rolled his eyes and said, “Here’s your tropical rocket, yay.” We thought that was the funniest thing. It was such a joyous sounding smoothie with such a dark delivery. So we had to work with that.
Then there’s this whole theme about flying that comes from my dreams. In these dreams, I’m not super high in the air. I’m low enough that I can wave to the people who are below me. I picture them waiting in line for a movie. It’s a nice little town where people are hanging out and chatting while the sun’s getting ready to set. I’m sort of showing off that I’m able to fly, but I’m also saying, “Hey, you could try this too!” Then I’m heading off to go check out another neighborhood.
So with “Tropical Rocket,” I’m going from the most unenthusiastic smoothie to the most elated dream. I don’t know how I bridged that gap, but it seemed like the way to cap off the album.