“When in doubt…go completely out.” Legendary musician and Zen master Col. Bruce Hampton Ret. uttered these words in Mike Gordon’s seminal feature film, Outside Out. Mike has always lived by this creed whether it be providing Phish with some of its weirder elements—speaking relatively of course—or integrating the “Philosophy of Out” into his ever evolving solo work. For Gordon, prepositions like “out” and “in” are not dichotomous, but rather, synonymous. In can be out and out can be in. This paradox was evident when Gordon released some of the songs featured with Outside Out on his first solo album, Inside In (2003). The first song on the album, “Take Me Out,” speaks to the difficult truth that looking within often times reveals things we would rather not see or even worse…nothing at all, and therefore we must search “out” in order to find peace with “in.” Most recently, Gordon has added a third dimension to his “in” and “out” paradox simply by finding a new preposition, “over.” The genius of Gordon’s new album, Overstep, is in its plurality as all the original compositions on the album were co-written with his longtime friend and collaborator Scott Murawski as well as being the first Gordon solo effort with an outside producer in Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, The Pixies). Intrigued? Maybe even a little confused? Confusing you and therefore forcing you to think may well be Gordon’s intention, but don’t worry, Listen Up Denver! went “out,” “in,” and “over” to get to the bottom of things.
Gordon’s unique way of looking at the world was no doubt influenced by his mother, abstract painter Marjorie Minkin. Hardcore Phish fans will remember hearing dubbed in radio excerpts of Minkin ads on the primordial White Tape, which also features another Gordon classic, “Fuck Your Face.” Minkin, who also holds a Master’s in philosophy, understands the intricate dance between individual perspective (subjectivity) and the concrete world around us (objectivity). In describing her work Minkin states: “As one’s physical position changes relative to the works, images appear as different aspects of the works become illuminated. The paintings are a metaphor for our interactivity with the world and our changing perceptions relative to our changing perspectives.” Marjorie is one cool lady, and her philosophies on aesthetics and perspective can be glimpsed in Mike’s own artistic sensibilities, most notably the “Philosophy of Out.”
The origins of the Philosophy of Out are murky at best but according to Phish.net. Col. Bruce Hampton Ret. (Aquarium Rescue Unit) released an album entitled Outside Looking Out sometime in the 70s or 80s with his earlier band The Late Bronze Age. As an ancestor figure for early nineties Jamband pioneers, Hampton was no stranger to Phish shows (in 1995 drummer Jon Fishman sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” to Hampton as he read the newspaper, this was not the only Hampton appearance on the Phish stage but perhaps the funniest). It appears that Mike’s own eccentricities found a home with The Colonel’s musical philosophies. Mike played Plato to Bruce’s Socrates, and like Plato, it was Mike who set out to record his teacher’s works.
Outside Out premiered in 2000 at the South By Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. It won an Audience Award in a category called “Midnight Film.” Outside Out is the experimental narrative of Rick (Jimi Stout), a teenager who wants nothing more than to be able to play the guitar. Rick’s parents, however, have different ideas and Rick’s father wants him to go to military school. Luckily, Rick comes under the tutelage of Col. Bruce Hampton (who plays himself of course). The Colonel teaches Rick how to “Go Out” and Rick’s whole perspective on life changes leading him to a meeting with his idol country star Matt Gizzard (Mike Gordon), who plays in a band called Ramble Dove (the same name Mike’s band would tour under in the mid 2000s). But how does one Go Out? Some of the more memorable Col. Bruce lines from Outside Out may help (or not) to explain: “You don’t have to vomit, just the threat of vomit. Make sure that all your tuning pegs are in a straight line. Never use your third finger.” Basically, “going out” is a technique that allows one to unlearn their conventional training in order to forge a deeper connection with their instrument. It is also an improvisational technique, a sort of stream of consciousness with musical notes instead of words. But it is how Gordon has integrated and innovated the “Philosophy of Out” in his more recent work that is really interesting.
If “going out” requires looking within, Gordon has found the yin to his yang in collaborator Scott Murawski. Just before Mike’s present band was put together six years ago, Gordon and Murawski would go on walks together down Newbury Street in Boston and brainstorm ideas. Whenever the duo was physically together they would have these brainstorming sessions and the walks became a regular thing. Amazingly there are still ideas coming to fruition that came from that very first walk such as some secret video and production work that are being implemented on Gordon’s current tour. “Some of the ideas that we are following through with now stem back from that first walk before we had put our band together. It’s a matter of brainstorming crazy ideas all of the time and then finding some of them, even though they’re crazy, that are worth following through with,” said Gordon during our recent interview with him. Mike and Scott are both busy men and when they were not physically in the same place they began to Skype with each other. Soon, these Skype sessions transcended songwriting and became a sort of introspective therapy for both parties. “We have a very comfortable relationship,” says Gordon. “We went through these therapy sessions, as we’re calling them, in order to see what the subject of a song was, what was going on in the song and even the feeling of the music. But we discovered how the song relates to us as two different individuals. We went through these personal quests and discussions, and being each other’s therapist, which is probably a strong term, but doing all that without the intention of sharing everything that we came up with because it is personal, but with the intention of seeing how the song is resonating in a deeper way that spans back in time and into our souls. So, even though it wasn’t therapy per se, it felt like it because we would take turns and go back and forth.” This deeply personal, introspective aspect of Overstep isn’t the only surprise for a Gordon album.
As always, Mike Gordon is full of surprises, but what makes Overstep different is not that it is unconventional but that it is actually more conventional than the three studio efforts Gordon has released so far. This is not to say the album is “normal,” but if you’re looking for extended jams you won’t find them on Overstep. For Mike, Overstep was a healthy balance between the quirky and the conventional and this was largely due to the fact that he worked with a producer in Paul Q. Kolderie for the first time on a solo project. “Before we had a producer there was more sophistication in terms of the chord progressions. [On Overstep] I wanted hints of sophistication and raw energy. So [we were] pushing both ends of that spectrum,” says Gordon. That raw energy is definitely abundant on Overstep, and it is probably Mike’s most rocking album when you consider that most of his solo material has been Country or Bluegrass. Having a producer afforded Mike with the chance to relinquish some control. “There’s a couple levels in working with a producer. There’s the day-to-day making a million decisions and it’s pretty cool for the musician to not have to make all of those. Because there’s still a million decisions even when the musician isn’t spearheading the producing. Then the other is the grand scheme, saying ‘what do we have here?’ And ‘how is this album shaping up? What fits with other stuff?’ So I loved having a producer and being able to default to his ideas. It was a very refreshing change to just trust that this guy who has had so much experience and could make the final call on everything,” Gordon says. The fact that some of the songs aren’t as sophisticated in terms of chord progressions and bells and whistles can be attributed to what Mike calls a “Bullshit Barometer.” Mike will be the first to admit that he is a bit obsessive when in the studio and having a producer has allowed him to see when tinkering more with a song isn’t the best idea. In this way, the songs on Overstep speak for themselves. Although the simpler, more raw tone of Overstep may seem like the antithesis of “out,” nothing could be further from the truth.
While it is difficult to define “out,” one way to look at it is a tapping into an unseen energy, and letting that energy guide the music making process. It is evident that Gordon has tapped into this energy but he has gone “out” in more than one way on Overstep. “Out” is not just a personal thing, but also a matter of interconnectivity and interactivity, to borrow a phrase from Marjorie Minkin. In his songwriting and therapy sessions with Murawski, Gordon has gone “out” by looking within, and not just within himself but also within others. By relinquishing some creative control to Kolderie, Gordon is letting go, which is a type of “going out.” So, with his newest album, Gordon is “overstepping out” if you will, and discovering new avenues for Col. Bruce Hampton’s philosophy. So, I will leave you with a Col. Bruce line from Outside Out. “There are thirteen things you should never do while playing music. I’ll give you a list of seventeen: Never have action, never have hope, never have precision. Don’t strive for impact. Never…reach a conclusion.”
Mike Gordon plays at The Boulder Theater on Friday, March 14th.
-Special thanks to Eli Weger for helping me “Out.”