How Mike Gordon, band member, complements Mike Gordon, band leader
For roughly the first 15 years of Phish’s career, Sudbury native Mike Gordon was the unassuming glue-guy of the Vermont-spawned jam band: the steady, no-frills bassist who occasionally took the spotlight to sing one of his resolutely quirky songs (“Contact,” “Weigh,” “Mound”) and wrote an endearingly weird column for the band’s fan newsletter. In the late 1990s he assumed a more aggressive musical posture as Phish started exploring its self-described “cow funk” style. In Phish’s latest improvisations, Gordon is often the one pushing the sound into a freer place. He started a solo band in 2008 and has released five studio albums under his own name, plus two collaborations with fingerpicking virtuoso Leo Kottke. He recorded much of his latest album, “OGOGO,” at legendary Somerville studio Q Division. Gordon plays four nights at the Sinclair in Cambridge, beginning Thursday. He spoke with the Globe on the phone from his home near Burlington, Vt.
Q. You’ve said you wanted the new album to sound more poppy and more experimental at the same time. What do you mean?
A. If something is just one or the other, I tend not to like it — if someone’s trying to be really weird but there’s not something to grab onto, or if someone is trying to be really accessible and there isn’t anything challenging for my ears but also my soul. I’m picky. I need both.
Q. There’s a difference between catchy and cheesy, right? Something can be fascinating and engaging and also make you sing along.
A. It can be a fine line. I like when there’s some hook in the song that just goes incessantly, like some Beatles songs where the hook happens 1,800 times, but everything that’s happening around it is a warm bath of complexity and nuance.
With “OGOGO,” everything was a little bit twisted and we were getting a little bored of stuff that’s just standard. I told [producer Shawn Everett] that it would be cool if every song had one sound, even if it was just the hi-hat, that was twisted in some way. And because I’m a quirky person, even the most standard songs end up having some quirky elements to them, unintentionally. It’s fun to follow the muse. Sometimes I’m unclear where she’s leading.
Q. Is leading a band something that you get better at?
A. Oh, definitely. That was exactly the goal, just to have something that would be long-enough lasting that I could put love into it and sweat and work. I hear back some shows and it seems like it’s becoming something that’s its own. If it sounded like Phish or any of our other influences, there would be no point to it. But when I hear it starting to sound like itself, I find that it’s just so worth it.
Q. How do your solo band and Phish influence each other?
A. I see it going exactly evenly, in both directions. I must bring a sense of confidence [to Phish], having to make all these decisions and step up to the plate with my own band. Even though I’m not the one writing most of the songs or making most of the decisions, I still bring a big sense of confidence, whether it’s in my playing or whatever it is.
I enjoy when it goes in the other direction, where I’m e-mailing or thinking about or talking to [the solo band] about things I learn from week to week with [Phish]. Things about surrendering, what happens when you don’t try too hard. That’s the biggest lesson.
A. Yeah. Not trying to control each note and each jam, and realizing that it’s more beautiful when it plays itself. And that’s just a lesson that I keep learning over and over again with the Phish guys because there’s not much to prove, so we just have learned to let that happen more often.
Q. When you say there’s not much to prove, what’s the Phish narrative right now? What do you guys want to do? Where are you going?
A. I don’t think we’ve looked too far into the future. I think we more think about the present. There’s always brainstorms about things we could do and things we could take to new levels. But not like, “This is the main thing we’re going to do in the next couple years.” I don’t have a big answer for you.
When I think back about Boston, I have a similar story for maybe every city, but in Boston we really wanted to play at the Tam. And we sent tapes and promo packets and everything and they were like: No. Maybe someday but just stop bothering us. Eventually we played Molly’s, and then the Paradise was our biggest gig. Now we’re coming back for two nights at Fenway [in July]. So when you think about a career trajectory . . . [trails off]
Q. I’ve heard Phish has a “no-analyze” rule. What’s that?
A. At a certain point we realized we were analyzing the hell out of every little thing we were doing. And it was making people feel like their hands were tied. I wouldn’t want to take chances because I would get called out for it. And we developed the no-analyze rule where the only thing you can say after you finish playing is: That was good.
It was so liberating. All of a sudden I felt like I can do anything. That was really powerful. There may have been some analyzing internally, and maybe on rare occasions some glaring, but to make a rule out of it changed it night and day.
Q. Is that an evolution you made in this last run of 10 years or so?
A. That was in the late ’90s. And it’s pretty much lasted. It is helpful to learn from some things. With my band, sometimes we’ll get to a soundcheck and review some things from the night before — but not right after playing a show.
At the Sinclair, Cambridge, March 21-24. Tickets $32.50-$35, www.sinclaircambridge.com