Lotus with The Werks at House of Blues, Boston [1.24.14] – Interview, Review & Photos

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Lotus kept themselves busy in 2013. In addition to their normal relentless touring, they managed to put out two studio albums that introduced new styles and elements to their sound, and also brought back their festival Summerdance from a year off on hiatus. Build introduced the usage of electronic samples, drops, and transitions that stem from the ever booming and genre crossing EDM scene. While doing what they can to keep up with the evolving times, Lotus still manages to maintain all of the elements that give them their unique funk-jazz jamtronica style. Learning how to re-invent yourself while maintaining your identity is an essential capability for any artist, and Lotus have been able to do so beautifully. With Monks they took a big leap into uncharted territory, collaborating with various lyrical artists such as The Gift of Gab (Blackalicious), Lyrics Born, Mr. Lif, and more, to create a unique blend of hip-hop, funk, and various styles of electronica from loungy downtempo to dubstep. The album is a bold move, and I respect them for being experimental and following their artistic muse wherever it takes them.

With so many topics to cover I was pretty excited to be given the opportunity to pick the brain of Lotus’ bass player Jesse Miller

DSC_0146[LiS] How has the live music community in this country changed since Lotus got its start back in 1999?

[Jesse] So much has changed. When we started playing, sharing music online was in its infancy with Napster. People were still taping shows and sending CD’s and cassette tapes through the mail to check out new bands. There was next to no integration of the DJ/dance/rave/electronic worlds and the jam band festival circuit.

Where do you see your musical style going from here?

I don’t see our musical evolutions as a line, but more like an expanding balloon – styles aren’t necessarily left behind, they are just added to what is already there. We have been finishing up a studio project that is more rock oriented, writing some more dance, disco, and chill-wave oriented songs, and I have some ideas for a project based on some of the tenets of classical minimalism. I think there is still a lot more air that can go into our metaphoric balloon.

How do you feel the crowd/your fans have been reacting to the material off both Monks and Build?

I think the reaction has been good. Monks is obviously quite the departure from a normal Lotus album. If fans aren’t into any hip-hop, it is probably going to be tough for them to get into Monks. But, hopefully they don’t ignore it – the instrumental pieces on the album contain some of the most experimental music we have recorded.

Where did the idea/inspiration for the Monks album come from? How did the collaborations come about?

The seed that grew into the album Monks was the track “Different Dream” that we did with Mr. Lif. After that, we started contacting more MC’s and working on tracks. At some point, we realized we had enough material to create an entire album so we re-recorded some pieces that became the instrumental interludes. It all happened over the course of about 2-3 years while we had other studio projects going on as well. For the MC collaborations, we reached out to MC’s that we thought would fit with the style in terms of flow and lyrics. We ended up working with most of the artists we contacted – a few didn’t work out due to time constraints, but that just leaves the door open for future tracks.

What determines the length of a jam? Do you take into account the crowd’s reaction or are you are you concentrated more exclusively on the musical conversation?

The crowd is a factor, where the music goes, where we are in the set and other elements. I feel that improvisation, especially more extended group improvisation, needs to extend from a composition in a natural way. In other words, the composition determines what the improvisation will be like. It sets the tone, meter, feel, key, tempo, phrasing, and instrumentation. Some compositions are written to set up more extended improvisation and some compositions become unbalanced with anything extra, making any improvisation seem tacked on.

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What sort of communication tools and improv techniques do you use on stage? i.e. talk back mic’s, hand signals, musical cues.

Luke and I have microphones, but they are mostly used to start songs, make changes to the set list, and get monitor adjustments. Listening for musical cues is the biggest thing, combined with the occasional quick look to make sure everyone is anticipating the next change.

During the improv sections does someone usually take the lead or is it usually a group effort?

Again, it depends on the composition. Some pieces feature one musician, some are less dictated with the role of leader being passed around or not even one primary lead voice.

DSC_0148I did a poll of about 30 hard core lotus fans, the #1 question everyone asked was: Where have the extended drum ‘n’ bass jams gone? Will they ever make a comeback?

I feel like we play at least one song every show that has a drum ‘n’ bass beat. “Plant Your Root,” “It’s All Clear to Me Now,” “Did Fatt” all come to mind. Drum ‘n’ bass can be fun to play, but sometimes it feels a bit dated to me.

From your perspective in the scene, are there any up-and-coming musical acts you think we should check out?

Moon Hooch opened for us last year, and they are very unique – 2 saxophonists and a drummer. I tend to go see more indie-rock and electronic shows so I don’t feel that I have all that much knowledge of newer bands in the jam/festival scene.

Will we be seeing any more appearances or development of the band’s side projects in 2014?

Most likely. For myself, I haven’t booked any Beard-o-Bees shows yet so I can spend more time writing music for Lotus, but I have been delving further into the world of analog modular synths and hope to bring that to the stage with Beard-o-Bees in some capacity.

You’ve played alongside STS9 for years, what do you think Murph leaving means for the bands future?

I’m not privy to the situation so it would only be speculation on my part. They have been very successful professional musicians for a long time so I imagine they’ll continue being a popular and creative band. We’ve seen almost every band in this scene go through line-up changes, ourselves included, so it is certainly not without precedent.

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The evening got started with a high energy opening set from The Werks. The four piece band hailing from Ohio played a blend of funk, blues, soul, and electronica all heavily based on long improvised sections. Everyone in the band contributed to the singing, and at one point or another in the show each member got their chance to shine either with a solo or just having a song based around their instrument. That being said, I felt their improv was strongly guitar oriented, and featured more extended soloing than group efforts. They had a powerful stage presence and rocked out while inspiring the crowd to do the same. During an electronic disco jam everyone but the drummer jumped up and down together in unison, reminding me of the trampoline stunt that Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish do sometimes. Later during an extended drum solo, keyboard player Dan Shaw started juggling! Definitely not something you typically see on stage. Between their silly shenanigans and a sweet cover of “Hush” by Deep Purple, the set that The Werks delivered not only got the crowd warmed up but also left a memorable positive impression that will inspire people to come see them again next time they are in town.

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Boston Lotus fans got treated to a show of epic proportions. Seemingly high off a successful and creative year, 2014 kicked off with two sets of pure Lotus bliss. Most artists in the jam band scene have developed tools to make shows stand out as unique, and keep the crowd engaged at all times. For example: Splitting songs in two to create anticipation for when the second half will come around; playing surprise covers that unite the crowd in knowing they are experiencing a unique, perhaps one time occurrence; playing old songs that are rarely played, giving a head nod to the older fans who have been so supportive over the years; and every band has their well known improv vehicles that always inevitably bring out the most exploratory jams. Most shows will feature one or maybe two of these techniques but on this frigid winter night, Lotus brought the heat, pulling out every trick in the book.

The first set opened with purpose. Whether Lotus consciously intended for this to happen or not, the first three songs of the set seemed to make a point of bridging the old and the new. Introducing some new material while giving it context and showing old Lotus fans that their distinguishing sound will always be maintained. “Wax” is a classic Lotus tune, cultivating all the elements that create their unique sound. The main riff is smooth and playful, coaxing you to join them in their musical domain. Not wasting any time, the first improv section of the night was elaborate, exploratory, and very high energy. The jam was initiated by the Miller brothers, Jesse and Luke, on bass and synth, with Mike Rempel plucking minimally in the background. Slowly and patiently it grew into a full band groove. The jam is very dancey and has an almost trancey vibe created by the Luke’s synths, but as always is the case with Lotus, a strong element of funk is maintained.

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The next song “Break Build Burn” is the title track from their recent album, which as previously mentioned incorporates some new sounds and styles. The intro has horns and violins that give a sense of grandeur, contrasting against later sections in the song that have more EDM like breakdowns with heavy, wompy bass lines. “Middle Road” is also a new track off the album Build but while it may feature a few untzy sounds and transitions, at its core it is a very funky song that could probably be slipped into a show from years ago and go unnoticed. During the improv Luke really shines by adding an element of soul with a big bright organ sound, followed by a face melting guitar solo from Rempel. There is something spiritual about watching him play his instrument – his expression varies from a zen like stillness to powerful ecstasy with his face muscles contouring every which way.

Personally as a musician the most interesting jams, the ones that I find myself actually revisiting and re-listening to over the years, are those when you can hear and feel the musical conversation on stage. I love to let loose and dance as much as anyone, but the music is most entertaining when it plays with not only the body but the mind as well. For this reason, “Lead Pipe” was the highlight of the first set for me. Bass heavy and anthemic, this song finds the guitar and synth joining forces, doubling up on the same descending riff that contrasts against the wobbly bass line for a dramatic effect that breathes epicness. The rehearsed part of the song is fairly short, ending with a huge climax with everyone cutting out all but Jesse and Mike Greenfield on bass and drums. As with any good jam, the rest of the band take their time joining in, letting things cook slowly. Rempel and Luke come in and at first participate in creating the rhythm and groove of the jam, but quickly lock in and start bouncing riffs off each other. The communication between all band members is so apparent; just listening back to the audio, without any visual context, you can hear the way each member is listening and responding to each other. After Rempel and Luke unlatch from their hooked riffs, Jesse drops out the bass, initiating a transition. Slowly and patiently the energy builds until a drum roll from Greenfield cues the release of tension as everyone shifts into overdrive. The song reaches a dancey, synth heavy climax, followed by a slow and gentle transition into one of Lotus’ most played songs (and for good reason), “Tip of The Tongue.”

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“Tip of The Tongue” is one of Lotus’ jam vehicles. Whenever it is played, the crowd will be anticipating a long and exploratory improv section. This time, however, fans were in for a surprise as the extended jam was replaced with the Zelda theme song. This unifies the crowd, everyone doing their own version of some sort of marching dance and pretending to play with swords. After coming back and finishing the second half of “Tip of The Tongue,” the crowd erupted with joy – screaming, clapping, hugging, smiling – a crowd united after sharing a musical experience is a truly beautiful thing to see. As people were still collecting themselves, Lotus jumped into “Hammerstrike,” a rock n’ roll tune lead by a captivating and celebratory guitar riff that was all but too appropriate as a set closer.

The second set opened with “Bush Pilot” off Lotus’ 2011 self titled album. This was an interesting choice, as it usually features little to no improv, and while it is a great song, it isn’t exactly what I would call a strong crowd pleaser, which are typically used to open sets. That being said, the song opens with a powerful horn section, almost serving as a announcement of their arrival on stage, much like there might be for a King about to sit at his throne. Next, they get right down to it with “Juggernaut,” an older song with a progressive electro house feel to it. The vibe it cultivates brings me back to the days of The New Deal, especially from the synth sounds that Luke uses.

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Next is where things started getting really exciting. “Arupa” is a old and extremely rare song. Heavily played when it was first introduced in 2004, but then took a hiatus from 2008-2012. From that point on it has only been played a few times a year, leaving many Lotus fans on a hunt for their first bust out. Being that it is mostly based around a drum ‘n’ bass beat, I wonder if my interview question on the subject had anything to do with their decision to play it in Boston. The beauty of “Arupa” is in how it slowly builds and progresses throughout the song. It starts out with simple jazzy piano phrases accompanied by minimal guitar and some xylophone sounds from percussionist Chuck Morris. After a slightly menacing funky transition, the middle of the song loses the chill jazzy vibe and morphs into a very subtle but steadily momentum building feel. Like a fractalized flower, the song keeps building and blooming over and over again, each measure slightly more elevated in energy than the measure before it. Extended buildups can easily be done wrong and leave the listener anxiously awaiting for the climax to come, but the way Lotus pull it off, I felt nothing but therapeutic release by letting go and submitting to the flow.

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As if we weren’t soaring high enough already, Lotus took the crowd from one cloud to the next, segueing seamlessly from “Arupa” into “Sunrain.” Driven by Rempel’s guitar riff, this is a glorious happy song filled with positive vibrations. The improv showed a very laid back and relaxed side of Lotus. Without ever building into any sort of solidified riff, dancing around each other with simple looping harmonized melodies. I distinctly remember looking out at the crowd and noticing that no one was really dancing, focusing with too much intent on the music to spare any energy to move their bodies.

Without missing a beat, Lotus flip the switch and change the vibe completely. Huge Daft Punk-esque synths and erie siren noises wake the crowd up from the relaxed state from the previous two songs. Luke starts singing like a robot through his talk box, and if I closed my eyes I could easily picture myself in a scene from the original Tron movie. I know Lotus’ repertoire pretty well and I find myself scratching my head wondering what song this might be… I look around and see the crowd split into two groups, those who have figured it out and those who have no idea what is going on. I run around and find someone with one of those “I know something you don’t know” grins on their face and find out that the song is a cover of “The Robots” by Kraftwerk, who were pioneering electronic music in Germany back in the 70’s. Paying respect to the elders who have paved the way, Lotus first nail the cover before adding their own flare in the improv that ensued.

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From retro disco we switch gears again with “Syd” which is nothing but funk from start to finish. Luke and Rempel bounce off each other with riffs drenched in wah pedal sauce, while Jesse and Greenfield nail every hit with spot on spontaneity. Fun but short lived, the jam out of “Syd” climaxes and jumps right into the well known signature riff of “Flower Sermon.” This was a great song to end the set, filled with many of the elements that create Lotus’ identifying sound: fun xylophone sections contrasted against electro-disco synths and funk jazz fusion guitar riffs.

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It is said that first and last impressions are the most memorable, and so picking how to start and end a show must be a carefully planned art. In the same manner they opened the show, Lotus closed the night with a unique and purposeful encore. “Umbilical Moonrise” is not just an old Lotus song, it is actually the first song they wrote together as a band. Rempel said that “This song wrote itself. It was the first song we created as a band; not even a month after our first jam sessions. It’s hard to say how it was written; it just came to be in an inspired moment. […] It was a magical experience. The structure and melodies just fell into space and it’s been a fan favorite ever since” (Originally found here). The emotion this song evokes is that of love and gratitude. A musical Namaste where the band and crowd are united in appreciation. Appreciation in the relationship that is formed between a band and its fans, for one can surely not exist without the other, and appreciation for having co-created this magical night together. Truth be told, one of my good friends had mentioned to me earlier on in the night that she doesn’t care what they play tonight as long as she finally gets an “Umbilical Moonrise.” When the first notes of the song started to ring I turned to find her with tears streaming down her face and the biggest most warm ear to ear smile across her face. There are simply no words that can describe the look on her face, never mind the feelings boiling inside her, but every person that has ever followed a band knows exactly what I am talking about. It is exactly beautiful victorious moments like these that unite fans and always keep them coming back for more.

Lotus’ Setlist:
Set I: Wax, Break Build Burn, Middle Road, Lead Pipe > Tip of the Tongue > Zelda Theme > Tip of The Tongue, Hammerstrike
Set II: Bush Pilot, Juggernaut, Arupa > Sunrain, The Robots, Sid > Flower Sermon
Encore: Umbilical Moonrise

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