Combining elements of jam bands and electronic dance rock, Lotus was formed by brothers Jesse Miller (bass/sampler) and Luke Miller (guitar/keyboards), Steve Clemens (drums), Chuck Morris (percussion), and Mike Rempel (guitar) while they were attending Goshen College in Indiana in 1999. after a few years of playing what they describe as “jamtronica”, they shifted their focus to instrumental music, taking inspiration from electronic musicians such as The Orb. In addition to touring, Lotus has headlined the intimate Summer Dance Music Festival at Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Garrettsville, OH for six out of the festival’s seven years. The festival has been held since 2008, and Lotus has headlined every year with the exception of 2012. Expanding upon a wide range of styles and sounds, Lotus is a multi-genre band. The group incorporates elements of rock, electronica, jazz, jam, hip-hop, funk and other influences. We recently caught up with bass player Jesse Miller to see what was going on.
2019 is kind of a monumental year for Lotus. This marks your 20th anniversary, a great accomplishment for a band.
Yeah, it’s crazy. It doesn’t really seem that long in some ways, but I guess part of that is in our early years we were in college and out of the road all the time; although we did play a decent amount of shows back then.
How did you guys come about the style of music you played? I’m guessing you guys played in other bands before coming together.
Yeah, in high school, but really started after we got into college. Even though we played before, we were really green and figuring out how to play with other people. I think it was one of the first groups where everybody for me and most of the guys that put emphasis on improvisation early on. We had this room that was underneath our college like a snack shop, basically they let us use as a practice room. We would cram a bunch of gear down there and jam out almost every day – a few covers here and there kind of developing our own style as we went. Even early on, groove was an important part and that followed through. No matter how Lotus changes, trying different stylistic things, I like the groove and getting people moving.
Your music seems to have a little more of an electronic edge to it. Many refer to you as “jamtronica”, which to me makes me think of paying homage to blues, jazz and disco, but it seems you have more of a cutting edge modern sound going on.
Yeah, it’s all those things. I think early on people just caught on to that idea because we were definitely taking cues from electronic music for the types of beats we’re doing – the synthesizers and sampling kind of stuff. That’s definitely a small part of our sound. I think of the band as an instrumental rock band. Maybe since we’ve been doing it so long we’re a little ahead of the curve. But now country acts out have systems using the same kind of stuff drum machine heads and synthesizers that we would be doing.
What I’m trying to say is it doesn’t sound dated in my opinion.
That’s good. I’d say a lot of our influences are electronic but a lot of times our production and sounds we’re looking ore towards late ‘70s, early ‘80s and trying – at least for the records, trying to get things that vibe with that sort of studio sound.
When you’re writing a song, seeing you guys are strictly instrumental where does the inspiration come? When listing to songs with vocals you can interpret from the lyrics what they are talking about. How do you do that strictly instrumentally?
I would guess the same way. Inspiration doesn’t necessarily come in one thing. A lot of songs are pretty narrative. They begin and end some way. This happened to me and I learned this, or like there’s this twist or whatever. In writing instrumental music it somewhat exists. To me it’s more like this collection of either getting a vibe on something or some kind of feeling or telling some kind of story that unfolds. But I think of it in terms of film, like it’s according to form like an interview with Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch where there’s not necessarily this grand arc of things but there’s definitely a heavy vibe that’s created by how everything’s put together, so I think that’s important for us. Even though we’re not using lyrics very often, a melody is something that shapes how people react to in a song. I think a melody is a very important thing for us to write and make sure that’s working in that song. It’s one of the big pieces. Everything works together, but if you can get a really good melody you’ll have stuck in their mind, that’s going to affect that and react to it the way they want.
Your current album, Frames Per Second was filmed documentary style with cameras set up in the studio during the recording process. How self-conscious were you guys being in the pristine setting performing compared to a live audience where you have an audience to feed off?
To me it didn’t feel very self-conscious. We did four days in the studio; two days without cameras and two days at the end with the cameras rolling. We kind of already worked out most of the kinks, going back through things. Also we had already done two long days and little bit worn out, so it didn’t feel like we were performing for the camera, it was like let’s just nail these few songs in the best recording possible. The filming of it was like that. It was definitely a different experience from being on stage. It was more like harnessing the energy between us and the audience – using that as a feedback loop. We were really into that insular type of thing; trying to make sure the sounds were as good as they can be with everyone playing at the same time and really get the compositions right.
Did you guys find out anything about yourself watching the film being in that setting?
I don’t know. I did all the editing on it, so I definitely watched a lot of it. Maybe it’s because I played with these guys for so long, it didn’t seem like reviewing something I didn’t see before.
The music you play has a very improvisational feel but there also has to be some kind of structure to it as well. How do you balance the two?
So that’s where the setlist comes into play. Luke, who is my brother and also writes the music with me writes the setlist. I think he does a good job of working in spaces in the songs. There are certain songs that have a built in guitar solo or something that’s pretty predetermined like that and others are much more open-ended or with these segues between songs where they don’t really know how we’re going to get to the next one and that kind of opens it up to more improvisation. It’s about structuring that setlist so those fall in the right places and gives the set a nice arc to it.
You guys tour a good deal. Do you see yourself more as a live band or studio band? How are you able balance the two?
We’re both. In the “jam band world” there’s so much emphasis on the live show that I think that has been to the detriment of studio focus. We’ve found a pretty good balance. We don’t touring near as much as a lot of bands I’ve seen and try to spend our time off the road working on composing, mixing and all the stuff that goes into putting together an album. We approach it like work when we’re on the road. It’s like putting your eight hours or 12 hours you can do working on that stuff because that adds up in the end. If you come in with this idea that I’m going to sit around until inspiration strikes you never really get anything done. You grind something out and the best stuff rises to the top.
I have a lot of friends in band and one of the running jokes with some of them is “they’re big in Japan”. (both laugh) You guys have actually toured Japan a number of times. What’s it like performing there to a crowd here like Red Rocks?
At club shows I would say a lot of times it’s like this much slower build. Sometimes the audience is much more quiet – very focused on what’s going on. But then usually at the end of the show everyone’s going crazy. I remember multiple times at shows and festivals where it seemed like it would start out with polite clapping to at the end of the show these giant circles of people like hugging and jumping up and down and kind of losing themselves in it. In the U.S. people are more likely to put more energy in right away for better, for worse. I think on the worse side maybe missing some things – the attention not always there. It’s really easy for the crowd to lose themselves in the music and completely throw themselves into it.
One of the cool things I’ve read about you guys is on special occasions do a themed show such as the “Live Fast Die Young: the 27 Conspiracy” where each of you guys dressed up as a musician who died at 27 or the robot themed show back in 2008. What inspires those kinds of shows?
There are certain shows over the course of the year where we try to play on something a little bit different and throw the crowd a curveball. I would say maybe about once a year we do something as involved as that. Yeah, it’s definitely tough to come up with ideas. It’s also the same challenge when we are trying to introduce a cover. What’s the point of the cover? Is it that we were really inspired by an no one really knows, or is it something a lot of people know that we can give a different take on? Especially for instrumental music if you’re trying to take on something that has lyrics. Is the melody going to work as an instrumental song? All this kind of stuff comes into consideration. Sometimes my tendency is to do something that’s a little too obscure and not enough people know it to make it translate well. I think a lot of times we pitch a lot of ideas that we end up not doing until we come up with something that can work.
Your brother is in the band with you. What’s it like being around your brother that much? You guys still have a lot of fun after all these years?
I live in Philadelphia and he lives in Denver, so when we’re off the road I’m not seeing him that much. It’s not much different than the rest of the guys we tour with. Writing together, I would say the one benefit is if we don’t like something that’s going on we don’t hold back on it. We don’t tip toe around on anything. It’s hard to describe because Luke has been in the band with me and someone I’ve always been around. It’s a cool thing.
You guys are one of the pioneers of your genre of music. How long did it take to get dialed in to where you were comfortable with what you were doing?
I would say maybe five or six years in – maybe a little bit longer than that. Early on Luke would play mostly guitar and start introducing a little bit of synthesizer for those sounds we didn’t think we could get off the guitar. These days we plays 85 percent keyboard; just trying to figure out that kind of balance; figuring out like you said, a balance between improvisation and composition. I think when I go back and listen to early recordings, like the first five or six years I think there was too much improvisation. We would have these songs – essentially just guitar riffs and there would be 15 minutes of jamming. And another song it was basically the same thing. To me I think we’ve gotten a much better balance of having things that are more composed with having more extending improvisation. In terms of incorporating the electronics stuff, that’s just been a journey over time. I’ve definitely been interested in studio stuff, mixing and engineering and developing that side. I think that’s come a long way as well. I don’t know if there was cutting point, but a process.. There is a process.
– Dave Weinthal
Lotus will be performing at The Caverns in Pelham, TN (located at the base on Monteagle Mountain).