Leo Kottke finds his elusive musical twin in Phish’s Mike Gordon

Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon (of Phish) are now a duo

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 30, 2002) – Guitarist Leo Kottke got his first glimpse of what he is about to experience on a daily basis for the next few weeks when Phish bassist Mike Gordon visited him recently at home in Minneapolis.

“The maintenance guy at the apartment house saw us walking out to the car and he grabbed me and asked if that was Mike Gordon,” said Kottke in a recent phone interview. “I realized then what it’s like for Mike, and wondered if I should even say yes. But then I realized that this guy wasn’t going to bother Mike – he was just amazed to see him. So I thought, I have to find out more about this.”

Over the last few months, Kottke has been hanging out with Gordon, playing and recording music with him. Last month the musicians released “Clone” (Private Music), a duet CD featuring mostly original music ranging in style from Kottke’s pretty straightforward roots-guitar music to Gordon’s quirky, surrealistic textures. A first for both Kottke and Gordon, the duet recording includes plenty of improvisational jamming, and boasts a freewheeling, musical sardonicism.

The duo kicks off a two-week tour on November 4 at Club Helsinki. The show is sold out -- in fact, the show was sold out before it was even publicly announced. As soon as word of the show began circulating among the underground network of Phish fans – a rabid, loyal cult who follow the doings of the individual members of the group, which has been on hiatus for several years, with fanatical devotion – the phone at Helsinki started ringing off the hook and tickets were gone in a matter of hours.

Until he met Gordon, Phish was just the name of a band for Kottke, a band with which he was “utterly unfamiliar” and about which he was “completely ignorant.” There was nothing particularly unusual about that. Kottke says he is typically clueless about everything musical going on around him.

“I tend to read far, far more than I listen,” said Kottke. “I have some kind of problem with listening to recorded music. I actually avoid it even if I’m intending to listen to something.

“For example, I played on Rickie Lee Jones’s record called ‘Traffic From Paradise.’ It was a tremendous experience for me, I really enjoyed it, I had a ball, but I’ve never listened to the record.

“I was there and I know what happened and how it felt and that seems to be more how I relate. Maybe the first Phish I’ll be able to hear will be this New Year’s eve in New York.”

Kottke and Gordon first met when the latter, a founding member of the Vermont-based jam band, came to a show by Kottke in Burlington. “He gave me a copy of his book, ‘Mike’s Corner,’ and I found the word ‘eleemosynary’ in there, and thought I have to talk to this guy. I thought I was the only English-speaking person other than John Fowles who knew that word.

“So we started playing and toying around and it started to click with the tune, ‘June.’ We found we could go to a place where we could think in tandem, a genuine duet experience absolutely not like anything else, where you automatically assume your role. In fact there is no role, no front and back. It’s very mutual.”

Kottke has been performing as a solo guitarist and singer for over 30 years, establishing a reputation for his uniquely propulsive, progressive-folk fingerpicking and his resonant baritone. He has never done anything like this before – a full-fledged collaboration with another musician -- but it has long been something he has dreamed of.

“I always knew that this was possible, the kind of experience that I get to have playing with Mike,” he said. “I began to wonder if I was only thinking of my own ideal, if it was some kind of grail or fantasy of how it works. To see that it can actually happen is just staggering.

“There’s a huge surprise for me in the way we don’t step on each other’s toes. The other day Mike said he just has nothing but room when he plays with me. And that shouldn’t be, because we both play a lot, we really take up a lot of room. I’m very much a hog. I’m used to having it all to myself and having to fill all the parts that are usually subdivided in a band. But somehow we break a lot of rules and it works.”

Kottke has several theories why duetting with Gordon should work so effortlessly and naturally. “We share a similar sense of humor, there’s that -- what makes us laugh. But maybe even more so is what makes us want to run screaming out of the room seems to me to be the same. There just hasn’t been any of that teeth-grinding that happens when you play with people.

“I don’t think there’s any difference between my stuff or Phish stuff or what Mike does. It’s all the same thing. I don’t mean that to sound as glib as it does sound -- there are obviously some differences, but they really are all part of the same geography, the same map and the same ground.

“Nobody knows exactly what that is. There’s that famous line from Duke Ellington that there’s two kinds of music, good and bad, and I really believe that.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 2, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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