Leo Kottke And Mike Gordon Debut Two Songs From First Album In 15 Years

The first time they were scheduled to play together about 20 years ago, guitar legend Leo Kottke and Phish’s Mike Gordon couldn’t even get the state where they were supposed to meet right. “I flew to Burlington,” Kottke recalls. “I landed and went to the motel and called Mike and said, ‘I’m here.’ And he said, ‘Well, just get a cab and come.’ I said I needed an address and he said he was in New York. He went to New York to meet me there. I went to Burlington to meet him there. That’s how we started and that was a clue.”

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When they finally did settle down to play, theie first session was a mess. “It felt terrible for hours,” Gordon remembers. “We both were enjoying the day and each other, but musically it was wretched. Leo has played with other people and some of the best from time to time, but he’s so complete-sounding by himself, he sounds like three people. He certainly doesn’t need bass. So that was the challenge to jump into a situation where right off the bat you’re not needed from the very first note. For three hours, nothing felt good.”

Or as Kottke puts it even more bluntly, “It wasn’t even a struggle, it was defeat. It started like shit and got worse.”

Luckily, a few bars of music at the end of that fateful session seemed to break down the dam for both men. Now the pair are ready to release Noon, their third collaborative album. Kottke and Gordon spoke to American Songwriter about the new record and the two songs they’re debuting today, “I Am Random” and “Ants.”

Gordon wrote the effortlessly funky “I Am Random” with Scott Murawski and admits there’s more than a bit of autobiography in there. “I am Mr. Random all the time,” Gordon laughs. “I used to be Mr. Awkward. Now I’ve graduated to Mr. Random. I’m the one at the party who won’t say anything for a long time and then suddenly I’ll say something like, ‘Oh, well your swimming pool can’t get Xeroxed.” And everybody will say, ‘What? I don’t know what that guy is talking about.’ My family has learned that as well, that I’m the one to come up with a non-sequitur. I have about five of them that I like to use at home. I like to say, ‘The moral of the story is’ and I cap it off at that. I was just thinking about being this random person, who always is either the black sheep or the life of the party, but is never quite understood.”

Kottke composed the instrumental “Ants,” and he is far less sanguine than Gordon about his writing process. “This has been happening to me in the last ten years, that a tune will appear in my head but I know nothing about it,” Kottke explains. “Which leads me to think, ‘What the hell do I think I’m hearing if I call it a tune, but I don’t know the key, the tempo, the meter, the melody or the rhythm?’ That’s where it starts. As always, I just slap the guitar around every day and sometimes something happens. If it fits what’s in my head, all I know is it fits there, but I don’t know if I just found the beginning, the middle or the end. You go from there. And it’s torture.”

Noon is the first album of any kind by Kottke since his last collaboration with Gordon, 2005’s Sixty Six Steps. This is in part because he’s not a big fan of the studio, although Gordon’s presence helps. “I hate recording,” Kottke deadpans. “I hated it ever since I first heard myself come back at me. It’s more like embalming that anything else. What I like is to walk into a room and play. That’s really what we’re trying to do when we record.”

“Unless it’s entirely improvised, it’s really hard to make it work. This is our third record because we can improvise and we can make it work. It’s a very different experience and that’s why I’m more or less happy to go back in the studio if Mike is going to be there. The only thing I wish we could do is somehow record exactly what we do face to face, because we lock really well.”

Gordon says the laid-back nature of the process helped convince Kottke. “It was kind of like we didn’t need to make an album,” Gordon mentions. “We already made a couple. Our careers are both fine without each other. That was the vibe of the entire process. It was we’re doing this because it’s fun, not because anyone is pressuring us to do it.”

As is the case with their previous two albums, Gordon and Kottke compliment their originals on Noon, which was produced by Jared Slomoff, with some eclectic covers, including “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds and “Alphabet St.” by Prince. The latter song was an idea that took a while to realize.

“We dabbled in ‘Alphabet Street’ when we were figuring out material for our last album 15 years ago,” Gordon remembers. “We were in Costa Rica and stayed there for about a week getting our songs together and then we recorded in the Bahamas. When we were in Costa Rica, I said I know this Prince song that has this really great groove to it. Then we get to the Bahamas and our producer is David Z. The only caveat there is that David Z discovered Prince. So we thought that was a little close for comfort. When we were in Vermont making this album, and David Z wasn’t there anymore, we said we gotta try this song again.”

Along for the ride this time around was drummer Jon Fishman, Gordon’s Phish bandmate, who plays on several tracks. Kottke is also longtime friends with Fishman and pushed for his inclusion. “Leo was really intrigued to get us together,” Gordon says. “We have 2,000 concerts, etc., of telepathy. Fish is really a unique drummer. He has all these grooves that he’s working on constantly, that have all these patterns from all these different genres. I just said, ‘We want you to do your thing.’”

As for the originals, Kottke believes that the differences in their respective songwriting styles boost the records they make. “Mike likes to write a lot of stuff and then throw out the shit that doesn’t hold up the next day,” Kottke says. “He works that way. I can’t do that. I’m always just farting around and eventually stumbling over something. It rings your bell, you play it into the ground and that will make something else happen. We’re an odd couple. ‘Cause he’s a Pachinko machine and I’m paint drying. And it seems to meet somewhere in the middle.”

The two men decided to add a few more musical shadows on this album to contrast the mostly sunny vibes of their first two records together. “I wanted that to happen, and I think maybe we both did, maybe years before we even started working on it,” Gordon says. “I love our other albums and I loved the experience of working on them. I just started to feel that there was this potential to tap into these other emotions, like feeling melancholy in a song, having some darkness. Doing the bouncy, bubbly thing is second nature to both of us. But we were trying to find something that has some subtlety and even some sadness in it.”

Though Noon might be dark, the experience of making it was anything but. “It makes for a lot of laughs,” Kottke says of their process. “When something lands and it makes a nice splat, you love it. I think even Michelangelo would giggle a lot. When he put the big finger reaching out toward the other finger, he was probably laughing. That’s mainly what we do. We laugh a lot. You come out feeling better than you go in. You can’t go in with a cage full of butterflies and doilies and fizz, or you’ll come out wanting to cut your own throat. But if you go in with the usual, you’ll come out pretty well.”

Gordon finds that he still gets a thrill every time he has the opportunity to sink his teeth into Kottke’s compositions. “It’s not only hearing them, but because he’s such a one-man show extraordinaire, it’s a performance,” Gordon says. “We were on a rooftop when we first got together to hear material. Everything he plays, whether he’s playing something new or something that he’s been playing since 1969, it’s always a world-class, masterful performance. I was like a kid in a candy store. Because even back in high school, this was one of my guys that I like to listen to. I’m thoroughly entertained when he picks up the guitar and sings. I’m getting a concert on a rooftop. Not only to get that, but then to think, ‘We could record these songs, some of them. I could come up with bass lines.’”

For Kottke, he knows that his musical relationship with Gordon, on glorious display once again on Noon, is a rare find. “I am not built for playing with other people,” Kottke admits. “I’ve been playing solo, almost all my jobs, a lot of my records. I got started because of solo records. It’s a privilege to play with someone else, but when it actually works, it knocks your socks off.”

“The other thing is that this started as a friendship. Only friends could go to two different cities when they decide to play together. And that didn’t stop us. If anything, it was another indication that we should be doing this.”

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