Lotus' Wavering Relationship with the Term "Jam Band"
Something about a jam band's free-form nature lures its members into the world of electronica. Maybe it's the improvisational aspect and turns the music makes as DJs adapt to the audience at hand? Maybe it is simply the like-mindedness that a solid dance groove trumps all others?
Whatever the reasons, the connection between the two genres is strong, quite notably in Lotus. Lotus entered the musical landscape strictly as a jam band back in 1999, riding heavy prog riffs and sharp tempo changes among noodle-y guitar lines and funky bottom end grooves. This was way before EDM, but concurred with the techno movement's crossover-to-accessibility period, elements of which seeped in the band's collective consciousness. In time, those driving beats and purposeful grooves began to overshadow the jammy aspects of the core sound. Wisely, however, Lotus put the brakes on before succumbing to EDM's hallucinogenic temptations and alienating their loyal audience.
Yet, Lotus hasn't quit cold turkey either, merging the two styles into one progressive sound. Gilded Age, the band's latest, is a 50-50 split, touching on the band's jam roots, as well as their electronic future, with plenty of overlap. The constant: It's all about getting a groove on.
Up on the Sun tracked down guitarist/keyboardist Luke Miller in the murkiness of cyberspace for an enlightening one on one about Lotus' ascension into the electronic music world, the risks of alienating fans (though making new ones), and the reissuing of Nomad, the band's first album in 2004.
Up on the Sun: I remember when Lotus first started out and the music seemed to be more jam band oriented, a prog-influenced jam band maybe. Could, or should Lotus be considered a jam band at all?
Luke Miller: I always say we're a jam band because we do group improv with peaks and valleys and that's an integral part of the live show. That being said, we've always aspired to be something beyond labels. To some extent that has hurt us because it's hard to market something that doesn't have an easy tagline or genre. And you can't even just throw on an album of ours and say, "This is Lotus." You have to come to a show to really know what Lotus is. I would say that our newest material from the past couple years does not sound like what I would classify as "jamband." But I'd like to take back the term from its punch line status in mainstream culture to something that describes bands that put on amazing live shows that are always different, walk a certain tightrope in as far as taking risks on the stage, and the relationship they have with their respective fan bases. In those regards, I think "jambands" can be some of the most dynamic experiences in a time of instant downloads, ubiquitous selfies and social media.
Compared to those early days, today's sound is much more dance-oriented in an electronic way. How gradual was that transition, and was it an easy one to make?
When we started, one of our goals was to be an electronic-sounding jam/funk band. Our inspirations were groups like The Orb, Underworld, St. Germain, LTJ Bukem, Aphex Twin, plus Phish, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Medeski Martin & Wood. But we didn't have keyboards, we didn't have samplers, we didn't have in-ear monitors, etc. As we got that gear and learned how to integrate it, things started to sound more electronic. So it was fairly gradual at first just using them in improvisatory sections. Then we started writing some hard-hitting shorter pieces to balance out the longer jam pieces. I think having more concise songs makes the longer jams more powerful and vice-versa. As does having minor-key songs and major-key songs, dance songs and ballads, guitar-based songs and electronic-based songs. All of it is bricks in the building of putting on the kind of concert we want to present every night.
It seems that you haven't abandoned your roots though, and Gilded Age is an example of this. The tracks are a split between rock songs and more electronic songs. Where do these two styles meet in Lotus?
On Gilded Age, we were trying to capture a certain feeling. So with the rock songs and electronic songs as well as the remixes on that album it was just different paths to the same goal. It is a little vague, but the feeling was one of nostalgia. Sometimes those nostalgic feelings make the memory better than it was, more triumphant, and sometimes it enhances the floaty feeling of not knowing where things were headed.
Is it hard having a split personality? Not just for the band, but fans trying to decide where they fit in the Lotus world?
I don't see it as a split personality. From a writing perspective, I see it as always wanting to try something new. And while there might be some fans that only like Lotus' post-rock sounding songs and some that only like our more electronic material, my impression is that most fans typically like Lotus because it is Lotus.
You just reissued Nomad. Why go to all the trouble of repackaging and releasing something you did 10 years ago given the growth and changes in the band?
Nomad was our first studio album. At that point, we didn't have the money to afford good mastering. Doing a run of vinyl records wasn't something that was done in 2004. So we wanted to do both of those things and celebrate where we had come from. The songs on Nomad are still cornerstones of our live show. And now you can listen to Nomad on a high-quality white vinyl... I think that's awesome.
I can see where the live setting lays out perfectly for open-ended jams. How important is improvisation for Lotus, or do you stick more to the script?
Improv is very important to our live show. We try to build in spaces for completely open improvisation into every set and balance that with tight, more concise pieces. We are constantly trying to get better at improvising, which usually means playing less, leaving more space, listening more intensely, and reacting faster to what the other guys are playing.
Gilded Age remains fresh, yet your press releases note you're already working on the next album. Can you give us a hint what direction it's taking?
We took the fall off from touring and spent a lot of time in the studio. We recorded 19 songs. And the album that we are putting together from those songs is very close to finished. At this point, I do not want to give any hints about the direction of the album. But I will say as those that are familiar with Lotus, every album has its own sound and this one is no different. Expect us to evolve and grow and try new arenas as we always have. And if you expect us to repeat ourselves and cookie-cutter out music, you will be disappointed.
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