Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CoventryPhishBlog: "Umphrey's McGee...I Got It *Finally*"

There are 3 bands, in particular, that I remember listening to and wanting to like them, but at the beginning I didn't completely get it. These 3 bands today are my favorite bands but it took a little effort to get to know them.

Those bands are: Phish, Radiohead, and Wilco.

I didn't really fully *get* any of these bands at first. I will never forget the first 5 times I listened to A Live One, Ok Computer, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I will never forget it because in each instance I was driving around Central Texas thinking "WTF is this shit? I know ______ likes this, but this is just weird."

Somewhere after about 5 listens, there was a change. I remember the instant I finally got into the guitar riff in Paranoid Android and was yelling gibberish along with Thom. I remember finally appreciating the "nirvana" secion of YEM. I remember finally loving the delicate beauty and chaos in the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It took a few listens, but something finally *clicked* and I became a fan.

Up until now, I have never really cared much for the Chicago Prog-Rock-Metal-Jam-band Umphrey's McGee. They never seemed to *click* with me. There were other bands to see and like. Umphrey's didn't get me right away. I was surrounded by friends who thought they sucked so I never made an effort to get into them.

This has changed recently. Read more at CoventryPhishBlog 

From the Archives: Bassplayer.com - "Towing The Bottom Line" How Phish's Mike Gordon Balances The Basic With The Bizarre To Create The Ultimate Anchor (July 1st, 2009)

By: Jimmy Leslie 

Gordon has juggled multiple projects throughout this decade. His documentary film Rising Low honored founding Gov’t Mule bassist Allen Woody and covered that band’s Deep End tribute project, which featured a slew of bass legends including John Entwistle and Chris Squire. Gordon’s short stint in the Rhythm Devils paired him with Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. Significant Gordon studio recordings included two delightful duet CDs with acoustic guitar fingerstylist Leo Kottke, and Gordon’s solid, songoriented solo effort, The Green Sparrow

Soon after he got his own group together, Phish came calling again. The band rehearsed over the winter, and emerged to do a few shows during the first weekend of March at the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia. In conjunction with this year’s reunion and tour announcements, Phish released the Clifford Ball DVD set, which consists of concert footage from 1996. We connected with Gordon just after the Hampton shows, and just before Phish headed into the studio with producer Steve Lillywhite [U2, Peter Gabriel] to begin brewing a batch of fresh material.

How did it feel when you first got back in the fold with Phish?I’ve spent the past few years focusing on my solo career, so it was a major switch. I was a bit worried going in, but I got inspired as soon as we started playing together again. Interplay was the first factor; there’s just no substitute for 25 years of experience. We started with “Back on the Train.” It was weird how the rented bass rig started sounding so much better to my ears once everybody dialed into the subconscious chemistry, and began filling various holes in the groove. One of Trey’s new songs also motivated me; the only bizarre aspect was one extra beat in its repeating pattern. Sometimes a slight tweak is more groundbreaking than ten minutes of craziness. Of course, Phish does plenty of that as well. We wound up practicing for 36 days in order to work out new material—which we’re mainly saving for the record.

What was the biggest challenge about digging back into the catalog?Well, people who aren’t in the know about Phish don’t realize the role of the composed material. We call it the “woked,” because it’s worked out—our road manager accidentally dropped the “r” when he wrote down the list a long time ago. We played that material less and less over the years, but we assigned ourselves the task of learning the 20 most difficult songs for this tour. About half of them are written out on paper, and the other half are not. Songs such as “Foam” and “Split Open and Melt” are intense; I have to memorize each song like a story because there are no consistent time or key signatures. The rhythms are easier to remember than the melodies. The instrumental section of “Split Open and Melt” is a good example of how I have to bounce around. As soon as something appears to be regular—such as a whole-tone scale—there are some chromatic notes added in that make it irregular. I have to find places on the fingerboard where I can execute most easily. I utilize open strings in order to bounce between chromatic runs without switching positions.

Explain that a bit further—what’s your base position?It’s the 6th position. I play a 5-string bass, so my index finger is on the F of the lowest string. I walk up chromatically to G#, and that’s when it gets interesting. I skip to the open A, and then I hit A# at the 6th fret of the E string. Then I walk up chromatically to C# before jumping to the open D string, and so on. By maintaining my position at the 6th fret, I’m able to call up any of the 12 notes in strange combinations. I learned how to do that in order to accommodate Trey’s writing style back in the early years.

Do you still play the same way?I’ve been trying to use open strings less because they sound so different from fretted notes, and require different muting. On the other hand, I’m not going to go relearn “Split Open and Melt” because it’s so much work to recall it using the muscle memory I already have. That’s a little frustrating, because I think I could make the line groove better if I altered the fingering. Even if I put in the rehearsal time, I’m not sure which fingering would stick once I got onstage, so I pretty much have to revert.
“Fluffhead” was the most challenging song to relearn because there are so many sections—it’s just relentless. The intricate material can be a bear, but it can also be encouraging. It forces me to play differently, and acts as a launching pad for the improvised material. Believe me—after playing ten minutes of memorized music, you’re really ready to jam.

What goes though your mind when you’re in the middle of a great jam?When you really get into the Zen of it, magical experiences start to happen where the whole groove starts lifting off the ground like a flying saucer. I’m attached via my bass, and the interplay causes elevation. I focus on giving each note maximum space and depth. I don’t look at the fingerboard, but I imagine it while I’m playing. I don’t really plan what I’m going to do next. That happens subconsciously as I react to the other players. I might put one note a little behind the beat, or play the same wholenote five times in a row to raise an eyebrow. If I notice the guitar is accenting the “and” of two, I may jump on it as well. If I decide to grab a b6th with my pinkie, and someone else joins me—the ship rises even higher. Each moment presents its possibilities. If you stick to the album version of a song, or play what’s expected, then you rob the moment of the beautiful things that happen when the music plays itself. Frequency, groove, dynamics—all the elements of music—are tools you can use to stay on that flying saucer.

How did the Hampton shows go?We might have been trying to prove something on the first night. We started with “Fluffhead” and played a lot of other orchestrated material, so it was a little difficult to get the groove going. I was surprised at how much I loved the other two nights. They were the highest-energy concerts I have ever experienced—period.

You play a Languedoc bass on the Clifford Ball DVD. When did you switch to Modulus basses?I switched in the late ’90s because I liked the low-end clarity and the consistency of the graphite neck. My first one was a standard bolt-on Quantum 5 with single-coil EMG pickups. I eventually switched to DC- 40 humbuckers because they sound more even across the entire spectrum, and they have a punch that blends well with the kick drum. The story of how I wound up with my neck-through Q5TBX bass is pretty funny. I read a BASS PLAYER article on Phil Lesh that mentioned how Modulus had made him a custom bass, and that they were working on one for me. So I called them up and said, “Hey, where’s my bass?” They took another year or two because it’s so hard for them to construct a neck-through instrument. They have to glue the graphite onto the wood. It gets messy, and the oven has to be really hot. They eventually finished mine. The body is made of alder, and the top is figured walnut. The scale length is 34" inches rather than the typical 35". I’ve been using it ever since.

Do you use your David King bass in Phish?Not much, but I use it a lot for local honky tonk gigs and sit-ins. The Dave King is a short-scale, “headless/bodyless” 5- string with Mørch pickups. It’s super portable and has lots of handy features, including an Aguilar preamp, an RMC piezo bridge pickup, and a built-in tuner. I bring it along a lot, but I actually find the best sit-in strategy is to borrow gear from whoever is on the gig. He or she already has the bass and the rig dialed.

What is the advantage of the Meyer Sound gear that you use?The sound is clear, massive, and more consistent than a standard bass rig. Phish plays so many different kinds of venues that I find it worth the trouble to tote around and tweak. When you improvise as much as we do, you need a safety net. You can’t worry about your sound changing as the night progresses, and that happens with most rigs. The cabinet is tuned for the speaker’s resonant frequency, but that can rise as much as an octave as it heats up during a gig. The active Meyer speakers I use incorporate a “smart” system. It automatically switches crossover points when the speaker heats up, which allows it to cool back down. Since the speaker is always at peak efficiency, it never blows. Phil Lesh turned me onto Meyer gear. It’s expensive, but it works really well.

Lesh has influenced you in several ways. What do you dig most about his playing?I’m amazed that he can vary his playing so much, and somehow avoid playing root notes, downbeats, or regular patterns! It’s like hearing Leo Kottke play acoustic guitar: Afterwards, every other fingerpicker sounds boring. Phil doesn’t even play along with the band when they hit the signature lick such as the one at the end of “Scarlet Begonias” [see Transcription, April ’08], or when they play a simple groove such as the Bo Diddley beat. He weaves in and out. You’d think that would make for a really loose groove, but he’s able to make it sound even more secure because of his flow and sensibility. I purposely avoided learning any of his bass lines during my formative years because I wanted to find my own identity, but I finally decided to study Phil’s original parts when I did a benefit gig in 2007 with several other members of the Dead. I realized then just how irregular his bass playing is. Mine is standard by comparison.

What’s the root of your strategy?I’m not happy unless the bass and drums create a solid bed of rhythms, and that wasn’t the case in Phish for many years. Fishman was following the guitar, so the kick and the bass weren’t as aligned as they should have been. That switched at some point during the ’90s, and it was a really nice change. The rhythmic bed has to include some downbeats, of course, but I incorporate a lot of upbeats to propel the rhythm in a syncopated way. I’m constantly walking a fine line between mixing it up and keeping it steady. Playing bass is like playing chess in that there are only so many combinations, but there are also infinite possibilities. There’s no reason it should be stale.

Can you cite an example of a simple thing you might do to freshen up a line?Here’s a note-based example I recently used in a couple of solo tunes. It’s common to play from the b3rd to the 3rd, and then hit the root. You rarely hear that combination in the other direction—from the 3rd to the b3rd. The concept is so simple, but no one does it! I’m always looking for that kind of thing. Another idea is to throw a major 3rd into a minor song. The best way to be unique is to surrender to your muse. You’ll find unexpected things that keep music interesting.

You render some interesting sounds as well. How do you get the scraping, spacey tone at the beginning of “Down With Disease”?I use three effects on that tune—a Lovetone Meatball envelope filter, a Boss flanger, and a Lexicon LXP-15. I leave the flanger on throughout. The setting is very subtle—just enough to provide some color and even out the sound. It’s actually thickening the low end. I turn the envelope filter on and off during various parts of the song. The noise at the very beginning that sounds like metal scraping in a dungeon comes from a patch on the Lexicon. My friend Edwin Hurwitz programmed it for me. He’s a great bassist who taught me my slapping technique when our bands used to play together years ago.

Do you slap on that tune?No, although I do slap and pop on several tunes, such as “David Bowie” and “AC/DC Bag.” For those, I curl the pick between my last two fingers and my palm. That allows me to go back and forth between styles, but I play “Down With Disease” using a pick the whole time. I attack pretty hard, and I keep both palms ready to do a lot of muting. I like a very percussive sound. I don’t incorporate any fingers when I’m picking.

Do you ever play pure fingerstyle?I try not to, for the sake of consistency. The shift from picking to slapping is enough. My sound is dialed for those techniques, and I’m afraid playing fingerstyle might sound too dull. I don’t generally like the sound of a fingered bass in a rock band context when the venue is big. A muddy sound is a letdown. Nor do I like a pick tone with an aggressive amount of treble. I try to achieve a happy medium—a round sound with strong attack. I don’t know if I’ve found it yet. The acoustics of the venue often determine how well the gig goes for me.

The recorded version of “Down With Disease” is four minutes long, but the live Hampton version clocks in at nearly 23 minutes. Is there such a thing as overkill?Not for me. If the experience is good, I want it to last as long as possible. I would rather play one song for a whole set—or even the entire night—if it elevates me to a unique place. I don’t want to have to come down and go to the bathroom or something. On the other hand, I appreciate tight arrangements when it comes to recording. Phish’s recordings became more focused over the years, and I made a conscious effort to keep The Green Sparrow as concise as possible.

How is the new Phish material coming along?All of us are contributing songs to the new album, and I’m working on my next solo album at the same time. It’s essential for me to do both; I need to have my own creative outlet where I’m the bandleader. Trey is the principal songwriter and bandleader in Phish, so most songs will wind up going his direction. That’s fine. I embrace the challenge of making his material feel like my own, and I love to learn from great arrangers and producers. Phish is working with Steve Lillywhite again, and he’s definitely used to the pop format. He did Billy Breathes back in 1996 without ever seeing us live. We crafted that record by working in the studio for 12 hours a day with the lights off. He came to the Hampton shows, and that should make a big difference during the recording process. Now he understands how important it is for us to have strong compositions and incorporate a fair amount of improvised jams. We’re determined to get the best balance of both.

Jambands.com: U.S. Justice Department Approves Ticketmaster/Live Nation Merger

In a ruling that certainly will impact on the future of live entertainment, the Department of Justice has approved the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation. The DOJ had been examining the potential union of the two companies for a year and some observers had expected that the government would determine that the merger violates the country’s antitrust laws. As it now stands, the new entity brings together a soup to nuts approach by owning: many major music venues, the nation’s major ticketing company, the country’s largest event promoter and also Irving Azoff’s powerful Front Line Management group. While some had suspected that the government would require Ticketmaster to divest itself of its TicketsNow secondary ticketing site, the DOJ failed to make this a condition of the merger. It did however state that Ticketmaster must license its ticketing software to AEG Live and sell Paciolan, the company it owns which creates ticketing software for facilities. The DOJ also vows that, “Under the settlement, the merged firm will be forbidden from retaliating against any venue owner that chooses to use another company’s ticketing services or another company’s promotional services, including restrictions on anticompetitive bundling.” The new company will be called Live Nation Entertainment.The details of the ruling can be found at the Department of Justice website.

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