Throwing Rocks in the Air: A conversation with Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon

On August 28th, 2020, Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon released their third full-length album, Noon. Hard to believe, but it marks the duo’s first collaboration (and Kottke’s only studio recording) since 2005’s Sixty Six Steps.

The Fretboard Journal‘s Ryan Richter had the chance to sit down with the duo independently to talk about the record and the results were as sprawling as the album itself: guitars, basses, composition, parenting, happy accidents, a plastic surgeon-turned-luthier in North Dakota, the feeding pattern of an equatorial bird and the long march to finding the perfect part.

Mike Gordon

Fretboard Journal: I imagine that – between whatever cancellations Phish had to make, and you and Leo not being able to play shows to support this new record – this summer has been odd for you. It has been for everyone. Are you working anything new into your daily routine to make the time pass more smoothly?

Mike Gordon:Yeah, it’s been crazy for sure, but we’re hanging in there. Our Governor said that school is out until September 8th, so in addition to having fun with the rest of summer, my daughter and I have been working a lot on what we call “The Four S’s”.

FJ: What’s that?

MG: The first one is music theory, which I’m trying to teach a little bit, and so we call it scales. That’s at the piano. Second one is singing and we have 50 songs or so that we work on. She sings the lead and she harmonizes, usually. The third is strumming, and usually she plays the ukulele, but we’re migrating, on rare occasions, to guitar. And then the fourth we call Stewie, which is basically just us watching Family Guy, which isn’t necessarily age-appropriate for an 11-year-old, but the musical cues in it are incredible, so it counts!

FJ: Word around the Fretboard Journal water cooler is that you and luthier Adam Buchwald (Circle Strings, Iris Guitars) have an instrument in the works. A bass banjo? What can you tell us about that?

MG: That’s right! This is actually the second bass banjo, and it’s a continuation of the original idea that I worked on with Paul Languedoc years back. It’s taken a while to figure out what I wanted out of another, but with all that I’ve learned in the process of playing the first iteration, Adam and I are drilling down and he’s really helping me rethink it the whole thing, and I’m really excited about it. Adam’s such a great builder and player. He’s taken my banjos and my guitars, both old ones and new ones, and made them a thousand percent better. I’m in awe of Adam. He builds beautifully.

FJ: Whether it’s with a bass banjo or a traditional five-string, are you someone who practices by trying to tackle all the great songs in the bluegrass cannon, or are you just more letting whatever comes up be what it wants to be and follow it?

MG: I really have no specific goals with banjo, so I guess both approaches apply with me. My whole life is framed by these little epiphanies, or that’s how I like to think about it. I don’t know where they’re going to lead or whether they’re going to lead anywhere.

Ten years after the first bass banjo I made with Paul, I’m still inspired to keep trying with it. Thinking about it now, I’m hesitant to call what I’m doing with banjo “practice” because as much as I love to play the instrument, it’s difficult for me to focus on any one aspect of it, which I chalk up to being a Gemini in terms of the interests. Some people do a good job of managing their interests. For example, Steve Martin has a ton of different creative outlets and he excels at all of them. I strive for that, but it of course brings the other way of doing things into focus.

In Leo’s case, he’s completely on the other end of the spectrum. He could be a true renaissance man, he’s so gifted with so many different talents, but he’s chosen over the years to stay laser-focused on guitar because he loves it so much. And every day, all day, there he is, playing guitar. Both ways are obviously great, I’m just wired to follow my own funny path.

FJ: All this talk of banjos and I’m realizing that we haven’t talked at all about your bass playing on the new record. For me, it’s exciting because I’m listening as a fan of Phish and the other two records you’ve made with Leo, but also as a musician. I have to say that I’m really impressed with everything on it. I feel like there’s a noticeable growth and a new level to your playing, but also a new approach to the bass sounds and the choices you guys made while recording. Can you fill us in on what’s different this time around?

MG: Thank you for saying that. On the bass front, the tone of the bass and the approach in different situations is ongoing, which is something you know, because you talk to a lot of musicians. Because our last touring run was in 2005, a lot changed in terms of what Leo and I wanted out of our instruments and also in how we wanted them to come across live and in the studio.

In our early days, I was playing only acoustic guitar bass. It wasn’t plugged into an amp and I didn’t have any feed coming from monitors. We kept the sound system at a really low volume so the only way I could hear myself was what I’d hear of my bass bouncing back at me from the body of Leo’s guitar from basically two feet away, which was a really magical experience.

We actually started talking about making this record in 2015 and getting together, so we had memories and ideas of what we wanted, but not much more than that, because it’d been so long. What we’re finding is, though the acoustic guitar bass can work well, it often ends up sounding much too similar to Leo’s guitar, so we wanted to separate ourselves out a bit. It’s this fascinating quest on both of our ends to find a tone and a technology that’ll blend our sound in a pleasing way. Sometimes our experimenting puts us on equal or opposite ends of the spectrum, but it’s really interesting to me how this goes. Leo will be at home for years, recording just to compare the difference between a microphone and a transducer; I do the same on my end. It’s endless! [laughs]

In the end, what we’ve found is that, first of all, I should really be playing a solidbody bass in this project. So, in 2015, when we got back together we’d isolated a few options for solidbody basses, because it more lets me do what I’m used to. Recently there’s been some exceptions because we’re preparing for some videos we’re making, but both of us are still very much making good use of instruments we’ve had for years, with one exception and that’s that we both have instruments made by an incredible builder in North Dakota named Kevin Muiderman. He builds amazing instruments. Leo’s wild about his, I’m sure he’ll go into detail about his new guitar.

FJ: Hopefully this doesn’t come off as lazy, but I’m really hung up on the album opener, “Flat Top.” It’s so great because it’s basically a 1-4-5 highlife tune, but it evolves so much that it always sounds new every time the form comes back around. The tones are great, and it’s one of the songs that had me thinking it was a new era in your playing. Any insights on this song?

MG: Of course! I’ve got a lot of joyful feelings about “Flat Top,” so I’m happy to talk about it. When I first heard it, I just knew I really wanted to take time with it and really compose my bass parts, whatever that meant. What that turned into was my longtime collaborator Jared Slomoff and I spending a year kind of producing and editing the bass lines. Even though we used a variation of that approach for all the songs, I really wanted to go big with “Flat Top,” so we went into the weeds with it. Songs like “Ants” have so many sections and are definitely “harder” songs, but “Flat Top” presented a different kind of challenge in that I really wanted to find ways to keep it interesting in the context of what’s basically a three chord progression where the bass is every bit as liberated as the guitar.

Every time that Jared and I got to a couple bars of music, we kept challenging my approach to playing, going from mimicking his line, harmonizing it, doing counterpoint with it, going back to back to the role of traditional bass by playing some root notes on the one… It’s not just on “Flat Top,” we tried to use that approach with all the songs. Sometimes laying out for him, sometimes just holding a long note.

FJ: Wow, what a journey!

MG: Yeah, I know. It’s a little nuts, but it doesn’t stop there. When we brought Leo to Vermont, we’d go through what we had, and then the three of us would drill down and edit together. He’d say, “Oh, this is cool. Can you change these notes here and there?” And we’d say, “Sure, we can do anything. We’ll change those notes.” There wasn’t enough time for us to finish while Leo was in Vermont, so he went home. I said, “We’ll go through the punch list and then send you what we’ve got when we’re done.” When we were feeling good with what we had, we sent Leo the files through DropBox, but he couldn’t seem to get the files to download, to open, to work… so, what we ended up doing was burning him a CD of the sessions, putting it inside a boom box we had laying around complete with the AC adapter with Post-It note instructions that said “plug me in” and “press play.” We sent it all in a box with cheese and maple syrup from Vermont. We went about our way, and waited to hear back. Turns out, Leo ate the cheese and maple syrup, but never got around to listening to what we did!

When we called him to check in, he said, “You know, I appreciate what you guys are doing, but the way I work, I need to get in a room with you and play this stuff to know if the bass lines are working.” I’d thought that these were the best bass lines of my entire life by far, so I was feeling the attachment. I don’t know if you’d call it demo-itis, but I was committed to what we’d written. I said, “Okay, Leo, but I can’t exactly play these bass lines, you know? They were created on Pro Tools very thoughtfully, and I’m still improvising sections in order to come up with parts, but there’s definite flow here.” At that point, I felt like it could take me six months to be able to play these bass parts live in a take. With everyone’s schedules being crazy, I was seriously worried about the idea that once we’d get into a studio and try and play the song that Leo would end up not liking what I’d written, and then I’d have just wasted the six months or however long it was.

After a short break from the project, we talked and said, “You know what? We all love New Orleans. Let’s just go to New Orleans and see what we can do with this stuff?” Once that new plan was set in motion I realized that I only had two weeks, not six months, to learn what I needed to. So I transcribed everything I had, note for note. “Flat Top” and “Ants” were the hardest, but with other songs like “Cradle to the Grave,” it was less stringent and I’m putting in a different lick after every vocal line. You know, it’s not difficult stuff, but it’s just not what basically I would sit down to play naturally.

FJ: This is epic. I’m glad I asked about “Flat Top,” after all.

MG: Believe it or not, I have one more thing I want to say about the song, and that it’s really wild just how much I’ve learned from just the process of working on it. This might sound funny, but one thing that I learned about “Flat Top” that I never knew through years of working on those two minutes and twenty seconds, is that the whole first part is actually in nine. I texted Leo, and I said, “I just figured it out, that, that the first part is a nine, and then after that, that it isn’t. When you come back to the A section, it’s in four. And he said, “Oh, yeah.” He said, “I didn’t know that, but I knew that it got regular.” It’s funny to say it, but I’m thankful I didn’t realize that until I was as far along in the writing process as I was. I think if I’d internalized it, I know I would’ve been more prone to writing something that I wouldn’t like as much as what we ended up with.

It sounds crazy, but that’s a good little snapshot into how we work together, and also into how Leo’s writing and playing stays exciting for people who listen to it and try to play it. There you are, you’re listening, you think you’ve got it, and there’s always some sort of little anomaly in there that completely rocks you and makes you have to get your footing again.

Your brain thinks it knows the lay of the land, that it’s seeing the pattern… and then all of a sudden, a sharp left turn, but somehow it always works.

Leo Kottke

FJ: Hi there, Leo. How are you?

Leo Kottke: I’m a mess. Yourself?

FJ: All things considered, I’m doing alright. Can’t complain really. As my dad used to say, “at least we’re both vertical.”

LK: [Laughter] That’s a good point.

FJ: Well, I just got off the phone with Mike and we covered a lot of ground on a few aspects of the record. Before I ask you anything specific, I’m wondering if you’ve got anything you’d like to say. What comes to mind when you think about this record or the records you guys have made together so far?

LK: Well, I’d say that as a constant with most all records I’ve made, going into anything, it’s always a pig in a poke when you walk into the studio. This latest record with Mike really showed me that what has to be there from the start for me is some sense of a real friendship. There’s a difference between hiring ringers to come in who you may never have met and going in with a friend of yours, who you’ve known for quite a while, before you even pick up an instrument. For me, what drives all of it is just that Mike’s a good friend. We met a long time ago, we would bump into each other here-and-there for a while before we ever decided to try playing together.

And as he and I have both said before, when we finally did decide to give it a try, it was a total disaster. I mean, we, we absolutely sucked. And, by the end of the day, neither one of us wanted to say, “God, this sucks,” but the thing we’ve got going on in our friendship even, early on, allowed us to make sense out of that small little moment.

We got there, it wasn’t what we thought it was going to be, there was a little bit of an awkward confusion, but then we latched on to this one little thing that we played for only a couple minutes. Honestly, I’m talking about three bars of something or other, but that was it. That one little idea was enough. We packed up shortly after that because we had to go, but it was enough because we knew from that small moment that we had it and we could do this. That’s kind of a long way of saying it, but this record really made it plain just how important it is to have a natural understanding with who you’re working with. A real friendship is even better, if you can help it.

FJ: On a different note, in terms of having a reliable recipe going into recording, I’m wondering if any of the craziness of the recent past found its way into your songwriting, playing, or even practice? Do you think of yourself as someone who writes in response to the moment, or do your ideas come in regardless of any outside context?

LK: It’s truly the latter, very much so. The way I write and the way I play is almost entirely inductive. It’s not deductive. It’s divergent. It’s not convergent. The best example I have, is a beautiful piece of a film I saw of a bird somewhere, I think in the Southern Hemisphere. The bird lives off of eggs that wash up on the beach. I don’t know where the eggs come from, but they’re big eggs compared to the bird itself. Somehow along the way of the bird’s development, it learned to drop rocks on the eggs to break them open. Fortunately for the bird, it’s on a beach that’s entirely covered in rocks. The bird is kind of ungainly with only its beak, but there it is, on this beach covered in rocks. The film covers the bird for hours and hours, just throwing rocks in the air. It knows it will eat when the rock hits the egg in just the right way, but it hasn’t learned in, what, two million years?, to just drop the rocks on the egg. It just keeps throwing them in the air until eventually it hits the egg in just the right way. In watching that bit of film, I realized that that’s me. I’m that bird!

It’s a little humiliating to admit that to myself after so long of doing this, but it really is how I’ve been doing it for the longest time. That’s me all the way. I just play a lot. I never practiced much of anything. I gave that up when I left the trombone. I just play a lot and eventually I’ll stumble over something that feels good or grabs me in some way or another. I just keep playing that one thing and, eventually, something else comes up. That’s how it’s been forever.

The biggest change for me, because I’ve been playing for over 60 years now, is that now I’m realizing that it doesn’t really work that way anymore. Now, I get a whole tune in my head. “Ants” is an example of this. I’ll have the whole thing from the get go. I’ll have the whole tune, but I won’t know what it is.

It isn’t like I get the itch or say, “Oh, I feel a tune coming on.” It isn’t that. There’s nothing spacey or New Age-y about it. It’s just there, but I still don’t know what it is, if that makes sense. I don’t know the meter, the tempo, the key, the melody, the rhythm. I don’t know anything, but I know the tune. It’s sort of like the egg. I just keep playing and something will, somehow, be part of the tune. And then I have to remember what that is, because I don’t know where it fits. So you’re doing two things at once, at the least. So that’s the end of that. Or at least that’s the best answer I can come up with now. So your question was?

FJ: Ha! You more than answered it. I just asked out of general curiosity, not because I heard anything on the record that seemed too big of a departure in terms of the instrumentals, but there is a song that stands out to me as noticeably different in terms of the lyrical content that I want to ask you about.

LK: Oh yeah? Which one and what about it?

FJ: “Noon to Noon.” It really stood out to me, not only because it feels different in terms of what else is on the record, but also because I don’t really think there’s anything comparable on the two previous records you guys have made. To me, it seems that the songs you guys choose to include with lyrics always have a touch of humor, or at least there’s a levity to them, regardless of if they’re originals or covers. “Noon to Noon” is something else, and it really spoke to me.

LK: Ok. Would you mind telling me why? What about it got to you?

FJ: Well, this is a left turn in its own way – and apologies if I’m missing the mark here – but, here goes: It brought me back to a time in my life where my mother, who’d been fighting cancer for four years, finally decided to stop all treatments and transition into hospice care, which she did largely at home. I was the person in our family in charge of her palliative care, managing all her pain medications, and all the timing of all that. In spending so much time with her in that odd state, I heard her say so many things that could’ve very easily been discounted as incoherent or rambling, but the more time I spent with her there, I started to think that she was finally able to start tapping into the real dimensionality of life or reality, and that she was trying her best to explain to me what she was seeing. Does that make sense or am I way off here?

LK: Oh, man… you got it! That’s a song that’s relatively new for me. I’ve only played it live a handful of times because it can be so difficult for me to make it through, because even though I wrote it, it still hits the nerve. There’s a certain distance you have to keep onstage, out of respect for the music, for the audience, and for a sort of self-respect. It’s odd, because the things you feel on stage should ideally be pretty much spontaneous. You don’t get to fake what you’re doing. So if what you’re feeling is, let’s say your mother, and you’re remembering something specific, because you’re vulnerable onstage, it can get messy. With that one, I find that I almost have to take on a character of myself to get through it.

It’s getting easier, but that’s been my experience playing it live. What you described is exactly what I’m writing about in that tune. I didn’t want to do it for many, many years because it felt too personal, not public. In the end, even though I was the one writing it, the song and who I was writing it about didn’t totally reveal itself to me until it was finished. It’s hard to explain and it can’t totally be defined, but it has that same distance.

It’s sort of like the guy who covered the Hindenburg explosion. We all know this voice, him yelling, “Oh the humanity… the humanity.” He’s breaking up, he’s having a terrible time with it …

From what I understand, he regretted that for the rest of his life, because the bigger the story, the smaller the reporter. Meaning, the heavier the news, the less shtick you do. For loss like this, and all the pain that comes with it, you have to have that distance. To know that I did not write it on purpose guarantees the distance. It means it’s in the song, not in me, and by it being in the song, it becomes more tolerable. All we remember about the Hindenburg in the end is the guy saying, “Oh the humanity.” We know him, but the story really is the Hindenburg. I think that what I like about “Noon to Noon” is that the story is actually the essence of who I was writing about.

I really appreciate what you had to say about your mother and about the song and the connection, because that’s exactly where I am, and it hasn’t come up while Mike and I have been talking to people, so it’s good. Thank you.

FJ: Thank you so much for that. As we’re here talking on the Fretboard Journal‘s dime, I’ve got to make another sharp turn to get us back on-brand. The time has come to talk about guitars. What guitars did you use on the record? Mike told me to ask you about your new Muiderman guitar.

LK: Ha! Okay, I suppose you’re right. Let’s get back to business! So what’s on the record is some of the Taylor Kottke model that I’ve been playing for a long time, but also a lot of the guitar that Kevin Muiderman built for me. He’s a builder up in Grand Forks, right on the border between Minnesota and North Dakota. I really enjoy this guitar, not only because it’s a truly great instrument, but because this also really started out of my friendship with Kevin. We didn’t hit the mark straight away but over time we learned each other, you know? He came to know and eventually expect what I want and what I’d complain about. I have a long-running gripe about the A string. The first thing I listen to is whether the low E is alive, and the next thing I listen to is whether the bottom ends at the E or the A. If it ends at the A, I usually won’t bother with the guitar, and we’d go around and around about that.

What we ended up with, I really like. It’s got a fairly small lower bout. It’s about 14 and three quarters inches or something like that. I’ve forgotten. I didn’t specify the scale length, but I knew I wanted a certain size, and I specified the wood. That was where it started. This is the first one he built. It’s sinker mahogany and I think that might really make a difference because, for one thing, it’s just hard to get any Central American mahogany, but with the Sitka top, it turned out really well. It’s really great.

For a while, he was building tops that were a sandwich. Veneer over Kevlar, and those sounded good out front, but for me they weren’t as fun to play. Guitars with that kind of construction tend to be kind of unforgiving. You want your guitar to collapse a little when you push it, but not the sound. You’re playing with your whole body, you really are, and you learn over time that everything has to be balanced around that idea. I mean, the guitar is running things, or your body accommodates it. You really want it to sit in you if that makes sense.

It’s really a very loud guitar, which usually I don’t like because it can destroy some of the subtler aspects on the top, especially, but that’s not the case with this guitar. Everything just works, and it’s only getting better with age. It’s a good combo of traditional techniques with just the right amount of his space age stuff. It’s only about two years old at this point, so I know it’s just going to keep improving.

FJ: Well, it sounds great on the record.

LK: He’s a surgeon and it really translates into his building.

FJ: He’s an actual surgeon, or you’re just saying that he has a surgical approach to working on guitars?

LK: Both! I just realized, he’d probably prefer to talk about it himself, so I’ll leave it to him, but I can tell you that he’s a plastic surgeon and if ever you’ve fallen into the thresher, he’s the guy you’d want in the room. I figure, if he can put people together in that way, it’s no surprise that he can handle wood the way he does. When he makes a move, any kind of move, whether it’s with a fret, with a finish, a tool, a saw, a cut, a measurement, whatever it is, there’s no hesitation. I’ve never really seen anything like it. The start is instant, and so is the close. Somehow it doesn’t take any time, but it’s always a complete move. It’s really fun to watch him work.

FJ: Assuming the world comes back online in the near future, is touring and playing live something you’re looking forward to?

LK: Yeah, for sure. We’ve got plans and, hopefully, we get to go out before too long. We’ve done it twice before, actually two-and-a-half times. This time around I’m really excited about doing it, because I’m thinking about my sound a little differently.

Mike will be approaching his sound a little differently, too. There were some funny nights in the past, and I know we’re both still looking forward to ironing things out that have been a little odd for us. I remember one night at Red Rocks, one at the Jammy’s, and another one somewhere else that’s escaping me… it’s happened three times where we realized that we played a beat and a half apart, throughout. And we were in tune, we were tight, but we were dead wrong! Isn’t that amazing? We couldn’t figure it out but it worked somehow because the way we play together can be kind of contrary to the rules. I know that sounds like a disaster, but it’s just another aspect of us playing together that we really enjoy. It just always works, but we’re hoping to get the chance to iron out the kinks this time.

One of my favorite upright bass players of all time who died just this year was a friend of mine named Buell Neidlinger. He could really play, just an extraordinary musician. He always said you shouldn’t hear the bass. For the longest time I had a hard time using that idea in my own music, but then after a while I figured out what he meant. What’s funny about Mike and I is that we’re obviously doing the complete opposite. We talked about this long before we ever picked up an instrument. Mike and I both want both of us to be the front, and it can be really tricky.

I don’t know how many people would be willing to try that, let alone be able to do it, with the bass in front, right where the guitar is, especially because I’m a busy player. But it works with us and that’s largely because of Mike. There’s a quote I find myself using a lot when talking about our music, which basically is to say that it is like balancing a mattress and a bottle of wine. If you can make that work, it’s great.

FJ: I mentioned this to Mike in our conversation, but as someone who’s a fan of the two records you guys made prior, I really feel like this is your best yet. That’s not really much of a question, but I’m curious as to how you look at the records you’ve made together so far.

LK: We feel the same way and I think we both had that same thought as we were about three quarters of the way through. This record is made from sessions in Burbank, New Orleans, and Vermont. When you work like that, there’s always the fear of letting go of the trapeze because you don’t know if there’ll be another one to grab onto, but the record finally seemed to grab onto itself, if that makes sense.

We knew when it happened and it was in Vermont, actually. We were sifting through all the sessions from all over, and right when we started doing early mixes, we could see it. There it was! It was an amazing day. It took a long time for something to suddenly snap into place, but there was a day when that happened, we got there.

We see a real line from Clone to Sixty Six Steps to this record. If we’d planned it this way, it wouldn’t have worked out, but it’s really there and we can see it. It grew out of whatever we’re doing when we play together or apart. It has a lot to do with the 15 years that we’ve been doing this together. The things that have changed, and also the things that haven’t. It’s one of the great things about the privilege of having this job. It’s like, “How did this happen?,” but by virtue of doing this for a living we’re so lucky in that we end up having a real record of what imagination does, and where it all comes from. That’s what we all love about this stuff. You can get the same feeling from building a car’s motor. You can see this curve, the arc.

We both think it’s really neat that there are three records, I like to call them LPs, and that each one really seems to follow the one that came before it. It really feels that way to us. To be honest, I think there’s probably another one somewhere in there, but it feels like we got the one we’ve been going toward, and that’s a really good feeling.

Photos by Jared Slomoff

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