Lotus Explains How Computers Are Changing The Jam Band Game.
A strange buzz filtered through the air last September when five-piece jam band Lotus released their self-titled album. No, not because it was their first. It wasn't.
In fact, Lotus had previously released four studio albums alongside five live CDs. But something was innately different and, at the same time, reassuring about this new, self-titled release.
Lotus bassist and synth-master Jesse Miller felt it too. Granted, the sea-change was somewhat was intentional. The band decided to incorporate more electronic elements into their sound on the disc, while still retaining their familiar organic appeal through analog recording methods.
It's a tricky balance, especially in the organic-obsessed jam band world. But Lotus seems to be striking it well, both on record and in live settings — or so we hear. Tonight, we'll see for sure,something that will be on display tonight as Lotus performs at Trees with support from The Nadis Warriors and w i Z a r d.
In anticipation of this performance, we caught up with Miller to talk about this new direction for his band.
Your latest album is distinctly more electronic than your previous releases. What was your motive behind this?
The previous album, Hammerstrike, was definitely more guitar-driven. After the reaction to that, we started writing more for the synth as the lead voice and getting in to some stuff with more layered beats. To me, in some ways, it is more electronic in terms of dance beats and tempos. But, as far as the basis for the songs, a lot of the stuff is still organic instruments and analog synthesizers. We're recording strings and horns. It's not the type of computer-produced electronic album most people think of when they think “electronic.”
How did your role in the production and the creative process differ on Lotus than previous releases — y'know, since you run the sampler and most of the electronics?
It wasn't too different, especially compared to the Hammerstirke album. I would actually say our earlier albums were produced in more electronic way where we're doing more of a cut-and-paste approach. This was more recording live with bass, drums and guitar then myself and Luke [Miller] working on some of the synthesizers and layering some of the drums, electronics and effects after that was done. It as a pretty traditional approach. We record the tape, and then fill that space and do some overdub to get it where it needs to be.
I love that you guys still use analog tapes to do your recording! Why do you do that?
One reason is it sounds better. It's hard to describe sounds, but when you go to tape there's something more a little gritty and a little more worn about it. Another thing is that it is limiting and you're limited on the number of tracks you can record. The way we were recording for that album was to decide after a reel filled up, do we want to record over one of these takes or do we want to transfer these other things in? It makes you make a decision, which in this day and age when everything is possible and track count can be limitless, it's good to be able to set limits for yourself or the music can get out of control.
Yeah totally, there can be as many or as few filters as you want. I did find it interesting, however, that you guys made your ninth album a self-titled one. Most bands do that with their debut record. Why did you simply call this album Lotus?
Something just felt right about this one being self-titled album. To me it's the best album we've made, the most cohesive album we've made. I think it does a good job of encapsulating the band in that moment. It just seemed simple and appropriate for that release.
So you guys we're waiting for “the one,” so to speak?
Yeah, I think so.
Tell me a little bit about how y'all vary between the studio environment and the live setting.
Obviously, the improvisation is the main thing. In the studio, the improvisation is much more limited and we write really focused stuff. That we save for the live stage. But when it reaches the point in composition when we're going in to these group improvisations, we have a little bit of idea where it will end up. But in between Point A and Point B, we don't know what's going to happen. The crowd doesn't know what's going to happen. That's the part that becomes most exciting at a show.
I was listening to a live track you guys did that reminded me of my first Lotus experience at Bonnaroo 2010 — where you guys started “Crazy Train” and the 10 minutes later came back to it. I remember, at the time, I had totally forgotten you guys started down that path.
Yeah, that's the thing about a live show, the scale of time really changes. You can be recalling parts of songs that you played previously or sometimes we'll play one song in the middle of a song. We like to mix it up and keep the fans guessing and make it interesting and a challenge for ourselves.
How else do you guys try to bring that live energy to a recorded album?
Just by recording live. We were just in St. Louis and had a couple days off and booked some time in a studio. Instead of doing the digging method, where a lot of people have moved in the last few years — doing a piece and then adding another piece and this other in this sort of patchwork method — we just track live similar to how we play on stage and often without a click track. It gives it a more live feel of the tempo is pushing a little bit, then pulling a little bit. There's a more dynamic range. That's one way we try to bring the live energy into the recorded music.
It sounds not less structured, but like the process has much more wiggle room for variation.
What I often hear when in studio recordings is this sense that something that sounds sterile, too controlled and too boxed in. Everything sounds on the grid and super compressed. We like to let things go a little wild and add that human element. I think that's why all this music has developed around sampling '70s recordings where they used to record like that. Now people are doing all these computer-based things wondering, “Why can't I get that groove?” They go back to recordings of those live musicians. So we're approaching it in a more natural way.