Bassist Mike Gordon is an artist’s artist. He’s happy to talk about the songs he has written and recorded for his fourth solo album Overstep, and how the finished product compares to his previous releases (2003’s Inside In, 2008’s The Green Sparrow, and 2010’s Moss). But as a student of the creative process, he’d much rather talk about how those songs came to life, and about the winding road between the germ of an idea and a finished work.
Most artists have a fixed ritual or routine that they rely on to inspire their efforts from concept to fruition. Gordon tends to establish general goals, and then eschew routines for creative experiments. One of his goals for Overstep was to trust himself to relinquish control, which he accomplished by sharing songwriting duties with guitarist and longtime collaborator Scott Murawski (who also tackles lead vocals on three of the album’s eleven tracks), and by handing over the producing reins for the first time in his solo career to Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Uncle Tupelo, The Pixies). Gordon invited a few new players into his sandbox, including legendary drummer Matt Chamberlain (Jon Brion, Fiona Apple), who fleshed out previously-recorded drum machine parts on actual drums.
The result is a diverse but tightly knit family of sturdy rock numbers that manages to sound grounded but sophisticated at the same time, and raw but carefully considered. Overstep’s opening track “Ether,” which begins as distant industrial noise that’s gradually replaced by lush guitars and welcoming vocal harmonies, serves as an invitation to the listener to set aside current preoccupations and come along for a 49- minute “reality check.”
Along the way, Gordon draws inspiration from an astonishing variety of sources, from the natural world to the emotional world to his often persistent visions. The genesis of this project was a vision he had of making music with Murawski in a spare cabin in the woods with only a single window and a desk. So he picked up the phone and proposed a songwriting retreat at idyllic Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. Murawski accepted, and the old friends escaped together to summon the muse, unburdened as yet by the expectation that they would eventually record an album.
The experience of it wasn’t quite so effortless. “On the drive there, I felt like a kid going to an amusement park,” Gordon says. “Then when we got there it was harder than we thought.” Confronted with writer’s block, the friends rented a motorboat to putt around on the lake; they came back with the raw ingredients of their first song, “Surface” (the final track on Overstep). During a second retreat near Concord, New Hampshire, Gordon went for a run in the woods and stumbled upon a massive debris field that had been left behind 12 years earlier by a freak cyclone. This unexpected encounter inspired “Different World,” a hypnotic meditation on a temptress who “swirls like a cyclone” and leaves damage in her wake.
After a handful of subsequent sessions scattered around New England, Gordon and Murawski had recorded demo tracks for eight songs. They listened to these initial recordings separately, in darkened rooms, and both of them realized that
their commitment to process and their trust in one another was bearing fruit. “We were
going down into the emotional depths of our experience,” explains Murawski. “It was beyond writing; it was therapy.”
On the final retreat in Boston, Gordon and Murawski were refining a song called “Styrofoam Man” about a robot living in a geodesic dome, and sensed a deeper idea within the song that needed to be teased out. “There’s a certain point where the song tells you what it wants,” Gordon explains. “Then it needs to be cultivated.” It was an evening walk through an old oil distillery decorated with honeycomb-laced ceiling sculptures that finally revealed the song within: “Yarmouth Road,” an infectious, reggae-inspired number already familiar to Phish fans after its debut (along with “Say Something”) on the band’s Summer 2013 tour.
That night, “Yarmouth Road” was reborn as a lament about an emotional rift resulting from a well-intentioned deed that goes terribly awry. On paper, it might read like a bummer, but the Jamaican bounce and sing-along chorus lend the finished song a pleasant and perfectly-balanced bittersweetness. It’s a mature and earnest piece of work for Gordon, who has often stepped gingerly around matters of the heart.
After five retreats together and countless hours of long-distance collaboration, Gordon and Murawski had an album’s worth of core tracks in hand, and Gordon felt he ready to turn them over to someone who understood his vision and loved the material. He and Murawski interviewed several producers before committing to Kolderie, who had already worked with bass-centric bands like Morphine and fIREHOSE. There was little question that he would know what to do with the material, but it was his easy rapport and genuine enthusiasm for that material that carried the day. The morning after a marathon gab session on music and art (Kolderie has an art degree from Yale) Gordon and Murawski invited him aboard and never looked back.
Many of these songs promise huge payoffs in a live environment, most notably two plunging grooves that seem capable of bringing a house down. “Tiny Little World” opens with a polite reverie about a fetching woman in a coffee shop, but morphs quickly into pulsing boogie as the narrator is carried away by desire and bravado. Debauched exhortations to dance surface again in “Face,” which chugs along atop Chamberlain’s simple but undeniable pocket.
The songs on Overstep also speak to Gordon’s evolving ability to develop three- dimensional characters, and to speak more directly to the truth of their condition. He hasn’t lost his appetite for metaphor, and he still leaves plenty of room for interpretation, but listeners may find themselves recognizing the human portraits in songs like “Say Something” and “Paint” in a way they haven’t in Gordon’s previous albums. Still, happily, Gordon embraces absurdity as he always has – conceptually, lyrically, and musically. He describes “Jumping,” a rhythmic puzzle box, as “a series of thoughts that take place in the span of 1.5 seconds.”
Distilling the essence of Overstep is as challenging as distilling the essence of Mike Gordon. Like Gordon himself, the album is full of contradictions, juxtapositions, and surprises – which is exactly what his fans expect.