Mike Gordon has long been known as the quiet, quirky engine of groove in Phish, authoring chunky bass lines and the occasional song but largely staying out of the spotlight, when on duty with the arena-cruising jam juggernaut from Vermont. But with his new solo album, he proves he’s just as comfortable taking center stage.
The record (“Overstep”) provides fresh fuel for Gordon’s touring quintet, which has emerged in its own right as one of the more exciting jam bands on the scene. (Gordon plays the House of Blues on Friday.)
Gordon’s left-of-center sense of humor and distinct musical personality filter their way into Phish’s repertoire in relatively smaller doses, but this solo venture offers an in-depth showcase.
“It’s not that I need to hog the spotlight for once,” Gordon says, on the phone from his tour bus as it heads toward Boulder, Colo., “it’s that I want to work on the craft of all these things that I do and continue to explore new territories. With Phish I get to do that and am encouraged to do that, but there’s only so much room.”
“Overstep” is the Sudbury native’s fourth solo effort, in addition to a 2002 collaboration with guitarist Leo Kottke. It ranges from emotionally earnest light reggae (“Yarmouth Road”) to straightforward earworm-rock (“Say Something”) and groove-huggers like “Face” and “Paint.” All 11 songs were co-written with guitarist Scott Murawski, who joined early-generation jam band Max Creek as a teenager more than 40 years ago. He’s played in different Gordon combos since 1997.
The extensive co-writing venture was a new experiment for both. They started composing the album four years ago during a retreat at New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee, and followed up with additional creative summits at different spots in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. During a weeklong visit to North Adams, Gordon and Murawski stalked the galleries of Mass
MoCA in search of inspiration.
They adjourned to a converted mill down the street from the museum, where Gordon’s mother, abstract painter Marjorie Minkin, is among dozens of artists who keep studios. In one of a series of exercises, each wrote a poem based on artwork found hanging in hallways of the building; portions later wriggled their way into song lyrics. (Gordon returns to town for a show at Mass MoCA on April 5, before closing the tour the next night in his adoptive hometown of Burlington, Vt.)
“It’s an inspiration for me to work with somebody who has that kind of work ethic and that kind of motivation,” Murawski says of the bassist. “We’re always having meetings where he says, ‘If there were no limitations, what would you want to do?’ That’s where everything starts.”
For his part, Gordon says a clash of personalities between the two makes for just the right fit. “He’s a smiley person and he kind of goes with the flow. I’m an uptight person,” he says, “so we complement each other very well. When I’m making everything uptight he’s making everything looser.”
For this tour, a chunk of Gordon’s multifaceted creative energy has gone toward a revamped concert presentation. The stage plot has been cleared of extraneous clutter, making for a cleaner look that emphasizes the effect created by three custom light boxes in the rear, emitting a swirl of psychedelic moiré patterns. Gordon and Murawski each play custom instruments outfitted with LED lights, controlled by the musicians and their lighting director.
In an interactive twist, a string of electronic panels in front of the stage lip lights up at different points in the show, giving audience members a chance to subtly alter the lighting cues or even play back instrumental samples captured live only moments earlier. In combination with the band’s penchant for improvisation, it’s all meant to create an immersive experience that engages multiple senses.
“I hope my technology projects don’t take away from the music,” Gordon says, “but I’ve always been interested in creating a world that’s multimedia, where people’s different senses are brought into a mood. So there’s the song and then there’s the visual [element], and it’s just on all these levels.”
Gordon’s current band has been together since 2008, finding its feet as an interpreter of its leader’s songs as well as a surprising range of other material; it’s covered Beck, Radiohead and (ahem) Alanis Morissette. (Murawski takes lead vocals for a version of “Hand in My Pocket” that sounds pretty free of irony.) A probing jam in Gillian Welch’s dark “The Way It Goes,” captured on a live album recorded at a 2011 Albany, N.Y., show, splits the difference between the rural and the interstellar, coated equally in dirt and stardust.
The new album is sonically dense, but its songs are relatively concise. “I like to just listen to the radio and hear songs that draw me in and I can sing along to, like the average American,” Gordon says.
But onstage, he’s in search of something more open — not merely in terms of song length, but a sense of astral projection.
“If someone gave you a jet pack that worked really well, and was incredibly safe,” he says, “and you could just fly over your neighborhood and stop over at friends’ houses on this journey, would you go watch TV instead? No, you’d just want to use the jetpack all afternoon. And that’s how I feel about it when music takes flight. I would just go for a long time.”