The Disco Biscuits, STS9, and Lotus. What do these three bands have in common? Well, they’re commonly regarded as the most influential jamtronica bands of our time. For decades these three groups of musicians have pushed the boundaries of what’s possible with a live show by experimenting within the intersection of electronic music and the tested craft of live improvisation. We here at Sound Fix are avid fans of this futuristic genre, which is why it gives me great joy to present our first interview with this celebrated triumvirate of futurists.
Back in 1999 at a small liberal arts school in Indiana called Goshen College, Jesse Miller (bass / sampler), Luke Miller (guitar / keys), Mike Rempel (guitar) and Lotus’s original drummer Steve Clemens got together to perform and create music they described as “jamtronica.” A few years later in 2001 they recruited percussionist Chuck Morris to the band, and then finally Mike Greenfield stepped up to fill in Steve’s role on the drums in 2009 to complete the lineup they’ve maintained to this day. Almost 20 years later and Lotus has performed countless shows, released 13 studio/live albums, and even founded their own festival called Summerdance which takes place each year at the picturesque Nelson Ledges Quarry in Garretsville, OH (tickets).
In addition to Summerdance, Lotus is also a repeat headliner at Camp Bisco, a magnetic electronic/jamtronica festival operated each summer by their friends at The Disco Biscuits. This summer marks no exception to Lotus’s near-residency at Camp Bisco, as the Indiana pioneers are slated to headline the event with yet another main stage, prime-time performance. Last year Lotus simply dazzled us with their highly mechanical, futuristic jamtronica set, so we were nothing short of ecstatic to see them on the lineup once again this year. Ahead of the main event I had the opportunity to catch up with Jesse to discuss their history with Camp Bisco, plans for the upcoming event, new music, and Summer Dance, amongst other things. Tickets for Camp Bisco can still be purchased at this link – see you on the mountain!
Sound Fix: Hey guys, thanks for taking some time to catch up with us amidst the impending summer mayhem. To kick things off here, fill us in on your year so far. If you had to pinpoint one show or even one moment from 2017 that stands out as the best memory of the year, what would that be?|
Jesse Miller: We did a full national tour between January and February, but the first two shows at 9:30 Club in DC was definitely a highlight for me. That room sounds great and has an intimate feel without being too small. I think the energy from the crowd there pushed us to play at a high level, and it resulted in a lot of standout improvisational music moments even though it was the first weekend of the tour.
SF: Looking ahead, there’s a lot of buzz and excitement about Camp Bisco 2017, a festival Lotus is headlining for its second consecutive year. What can you tell us about your past experiences at Camp, and what can we expect from your upcoming performance on Montage Mountain?
JM: We’ve played Camp Bisco numerous times over the past 11 years – when it was at Hunter Mountain, Indian Lookout and now at Montage Mountain. As we moved from small daytime sets to time slots that put us in front of massive crowds, it helped cement Lotus’s place in this scene that is the intersection of electronic and live improvisational music. As with any festival, I think we try to bring an energetic set that showcases Lotus’s unique style and keeps people dancing.
**below is a video of Mike Greenfield filming Lotus performing “Wax” onstage at Camp Bisco 2012 with pivothead video sunglasses**
SF: Another festival our readership always looks forward to is Summer Dance, which to the relief of many was officially announced about a week ago for September 1st – 3rd at Nelson Ledges Quarry. What are a few characteristics of Summer Dance that separates this particular festival from the pack?
JM: Summer Dance (tickets) is unique in that it’s built around Lotus. And this year, for the first time Lotus is playing all 3 days, 6 sets of music. It has the feel of a giant family reunion with its own traditions that have been built over the years. There’s a strong community of people there who have come together through music and Summer Dance has become the annual party to reunite with those friends. Since most of the crowd is very familiar with Lotus’s music, it pushes us to go deep into our catalog or try new things in order to surprise the fans.
SF: Your most recent studio album, Eat the Light, was released last summer just around the time of Camp Bisco. The new record features vocals on each track, which marks a new direction and sound for Lotus which has traditionally been an instrumental outfit. What inspired the band to veer into this new territory, and is this a direction Lotus intends to keep exploring with future material?
JM: We’ve done a number of tracks with vocals before, but yes this is the first album that has vocals on every track. We are always trying to do something different on each album and want to keep pushing ourselves musically. Writing songs and lyrics was one way to do that. We were focused on writing very catchy melodies and hooks for Eat the Light and nothing gets stuck in your head better than a well-crafted chorus. Currently we’re writing more instrumental music, but I’m sure we’ll write for vocals again.
SF: Our website covered and attended your debut performance at the timeless Capitol Theatre in Port Chester on April 8th (Sound Fix show review). What was it like taking control of such a historic venue? Are there any other landmark concert halls in the US or even across the globe the band would like to make its debut at?
JM: That was a really fun show. Honestly I’m not as enamored by the history of theaters as others. The Cap sounded great and looked amazing – I’d rather put an emphasis on that than focus on the other artists who’ve played there in the past.
SF: Lotus is highly regarded as one of the premier live music experiences currently performing shows. With this in mind, how does the band go about selecting and crafting each set list? Is there a particular process or tradition behind the scenes?
JM: Luke is the mastermind behind our set lists. He is looking at what we played the last time we were in the same market and what we played the night before. We try to have a variety of new material and older material and cover different tempos and styles. Then, taking all that in mind, craft a set that has an arc – placing special covers or rarities, using tempo changes and major or minor scales to shift the mood, using more extended improvisational sections balanced with composition oriented pieces. You get a feel for songs that work that well as set openers or closers.
SF: In a similar vein, how does Lotus produce new material? Do certain band members shoulder certain responsibilities or roles in the creation process?
JM: Luke and I write the music. We each work in our home studio setups recording demos. Then we send these back and forth taking input from each other. We both work in ProTools so we can trade sessions if we need to and bring those same sessions into full studios. After we both think a demo is done we send it around to the other guys in the band to learn the parts. Then when we get together to rehearse we make adjustments to the sounds and arrangements. I’ve been working with a lot of analog and modular synths to inspire ideas and write, but I’m also keeping in mind how we are going to play something live and write to that instrumentation.
SF: That question segues nicely into one of the most common questions of all: what can you share with us about new music in the works?
JM: We have a decent amount of new demos that I’m excited about. Some of it continues from pieces of music we wrote for the “Space Disco” Halloween set in 2016 – music inspired by Scandinavian synth artists and Italo disco. There is a strong funk/groove approach to many of the new demos as well.
SF: Our final question isn’t really a question at all, but we like to cap off all our interviews with an open forum. Anything else you’d like to share that we haven’t covered here?
JM: If you want to check out some of the latest Lotus, we recently released a collection of live recordings from the 2017. It’s called 86 Revolutions – https://lotusvibes.bandcamp.com/album/86-revolutions
SF: Cool, thanks Jesse – we’re all looking forward to your headlining set at Bisco!