Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon - The Biology of a 'Clone'

Its title notwithstanding, CLONE is a wholly original collaboration between acoustic guitar legend Leo Kottke and bassist Mike Gordon of Phish. For Kottke, it is the 25th album (excluding compilations) in a career that dates back to 1968. From the beginning, the Minneapolis-based guitarist has dazzled fans and fellow musicians with his uniquely propulsive fingerpicking and deep, resonant voice. Since 1983, Gordon has established himself as a virtuoso in his own right as bass guitarist and founding member of Phish, the quintessential jam band from Burlington, Vermont.

This recording marks a departure for both musicians. CLONE is the first "band" album Kottke has ever made, in the sense of being a true, fully credited collaboration with another musician. It is also Gordon's first musical project outside of Phish. Shot through with skewed, surreal humor and casually brilliant interplay, Clone is a captivating collaboration between two master musicians.

And to think it all began with the word "eleemosynary."

Eleemosynary is essentially a highfalutin synonym for "charitable." Mike Gordon dropped the word into an essay from his book Mike's Corner, a collection of whimsical short pieces he'd written for Phish's newsletter. Leo Kottke, after being given a copy by longtime fan Gordon, made note of eleemosynary's appearance. The only other time he'd seen it used was in John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman. At that moment, before they'd ever played a note together, guitarist Kottke realized that bassist Gordon - who possesses the same sort of disarmingly playful intellect - might make a fruitful collaborator.

"That's what really got my attention," chuckles Kottke. "That and the fact he's easy to talk to. He's one of those people, unlike me, who can walk up and say hello to anybody on earth and be perfectly at ease with it. So I got curious about what he was doing."

Gordon already knew plenty about Kottke, having seen him in concert as far back as 1983. Mike and bandmate Trey Anastasio considered him their favorite acoustic guitarist. So when Kottke came to play Burlington, Vermont, in 1999, Gordon was ready. He had taken one of Kottke's earliest solo instrumentals, "The Driving of the Year Nail," and overdubbed an original bass line. Backstage, he presented Kottke with a tape of the revamped song, as well as a copy of his book and Phish's latest release, The Story of the Ghost.

"I had always been a fan," Gordon recalls, "and it just dawned on me like a flash that I would click with him, both personality-wise and musically."

Some months later, Kottke contacted Gordon to say he liked the bass part Mike had added to "Year Nail." Eager to explore the potential chemistry, they got together a few times to jam. At the end of a daylong session at Trey's Barn studio in Burlington, they improvised a pattern that got them excited. Just as "eleemosynary" had broken the ice, this one riff - which can be heard at the beginning of "June" - cemented their union. "It made us think we should try to write music together," says Gordon.

"I've had the experience of playing with people where things fit really well, you have a lot of fun and pretty much get what you want," says Kottke. "But I've never had the experience of locking in before the notes are happening and finding out that you can do things literally in unison. It really was a shock to me.

"We only had a lick," Kottke continues, "but based on that we committed ourselves to do a record. We jumped in over our heads without a second thought. It could've been disastrous, but it really worked. We found out we could write together, which is really what happened."

Another session, this one in Kottke's hometown of Minneapolis, found them finding a groove on the Kottke-composed "Disco." "I started playing along, and he described it as 'having foot,'" Gordon says with a chuckle. "He said that one would be good for us, 'cause people could stomp their feet to it." At that point, Clone began taking shape.

Between January and June 2002, Kottke and Gordon convened three times at the Burbank, California, garage studio of producer Paul DuGré. A freewheeling spirit of "anything goes" pervaded the sessions, as they challenged each other in ways that were novel for both of them. "Playing with him was pushing my style to a new limit," acknowledges Gordon, "and he claimed it was doing the same thing for him. So it just felt great, and it had foot."

They drew upon a choice set of uniquely slanted songs, among them "Car Carrier Blues," whose narrator worries about driving behind those car-carrying trucks for fear that the rear automobile will fall off, and "From Pizza Towers to Defeat," a surrealistic ditty (written by cult hero Bob "Frizz" Fuller) that makes lyrical references to a train robbery and Richard Nixon in drag.

Of course, Kottke played guitar and Gordon played bass, and both sang. But they also delved into a whole other realm of "found" noises and instruments to spice up the mix. Mike played a "resophonic bass" - a custom-made instrument with the body of a dobro and the neck of a bass - on "Arko" and "With." Kottke played "the Condor," a prototype guitar synthesizer made decades ago. It was so bad, it was good - especially on the bizarrely humorous title track.

"The strings were really rusty and it was dangerous to play," laughs Kottke. "It had this controller with these huge vanilla, barstool-red and turquoise panel buttons on it that said things like 'choo choo train' and 'surf.' It was awful! Half of it didn't work and it made all this noise, but it had something, so the Condor is all over 'Clone.'"

Kottke and Gordon also played percussion on pots and pans from DuGré's kitchen and flew in noises from something called a "lollipop vibrator." In "The Collins Missile," Gordon plays "skull flute" - a plaintive, high-pitched sound made by cupping one's hands and blowing through the thumbs.

"Laughter was important," says Gordon of the sessions, which even had their own mascot: a neighborhood cat.

"Ralph was her name," says Kottke. "This cat was really peculiar. It would run across the street whenever we showed up. And when we brought it in the studio, it played everything: walked on the guitar, on the bass, on the piano, on Paul's control board."

This feline spirit of daring carried over to Kottke and Gordon, who happily followed their collective muse wherever it led them. "There was no strain," says Kottke. "It was the easiest record I've ever made. It was completely unstructured and spontaneous. There wasn't any idea we were trying to express some message or anything. We were just looking for that click."

- Article originally appeared on PhreshWater.com in October 2002