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Published: 2000/11/15
by Brian Gearing

The Deviant, Subverted Artistry of Lake Trout

As far as the jamband scene goes, Baltimore, MD has always been a bit of an ugly stepchild. Stuck between North and South, the music scene is more likely to produce a band like Fugazi (who actually hail from Washington, DC, Baltimore’s brother to the south) than the all-get-together-now type of outfit that seems to flourish so well in the jam community. So it’s no surprise that Lake Trout, Baltimore’s future favorite son once Cal Ripken, Jr. retires, though embraced by many in the tight, at times snobbish jamband fraternity, has never quite felt at home among that group.

In fact, talking with them, one gets the sense that they’d rather be nowhere but Baltimore, the city in which each of the five members grew up, both musically and otherwise. And just as they have settled into a relatively solid regional identity, Lake Trout has found their own distinct musical voice, which, as they would prefer, I believe, places them just outside any category currently subscribed to by the musical establishment, jamfans included. At times raucous and rowdy, prone to play one “for the townie in all of us,” they are also capable of dreamy magic carpet rides and sinister psychotic mindfucks.

After talking with them, however, it is clear that the five members of this group are, each in his own right, serious students of all forms of music. And despite their possibly self-imposed alienation from the jamband scene, they have an immense respect for all forms of music, leading them to go so far as to skirt around the dreaded word, “noodling,” when interviewing for an online publication dedicated to bands who, so very often, are accused of the dreaded practice.

I, myself, am a disciple of the jam doctrine, which proclaims, among other things, that it’s always better live. In the following interview, Matt Pierce (Rhodes, flute, sax) and Woody Ranere (vocals, guitar) make it clear that the live experience is what it’s all about. And though they approach their performances from a different, more minimalist perspective, their live shows never fail to evoke incredible emotion ranging from pure, flowery bliss to outright fear for one’s sanity. What impresses one most about Lake Trout, however, can only be expressed through their own words: their musical knowledge is incredibly far-reaching and their musical philosophy is, as are their performances, definite, concise, fresh and most of all, compelling.

JAMBANDS.COM: The last time I interviewed you guys was August of ’99 and you seemed to be in the midst of a transformation, which seems to be complete.

MP: We weren’t really in the midst of a transformation; it was more of a refining.

WR: During the last year, we were in a serious transition, and I do think we’ve arrived, and now it’s just finesse.

JAMBANDS.COM: And now you’re just searching around this little area that you’ve found for yourselves.

WR: Yeah, yeah. We’re in a place where we can do a whole lot more sounds, but it’s still going to be from the same palette —

MP: For a while, we were a little more restricted just by the kind of places we were playing; we didn’t know if we could do the harder, more aggressive stuff. Now we’ve gotten more where our shows are our shows now and we feel more comfortable doing what we want.

JAMBANDS.COM: Did you guys find there was anywhere where you tried to bring out the harder, darker edge and it just didn’t go over well at all?

WR: It seems to be going over well. Sometimes I think it would [not go over well at] the “hippie” kind of festivals, but whenever we played hard shit, people loved it. People would really get into it. We slowly introduced it and started building it up , and now I think our audience is getting more into hard stuff, jungle or rock, you know, Pink Floyd or whatever — which is cool. A lot of people tell us, “This is the hardest shit I’ve ever heard.” But I can’t think of any venues, especially now, where we can’t do that.

JAMBANDS.COM: When you guys were going through that transition, was it a conscious decision that you were making? Were you consciously trying to move away from the things that you were doing before that or was it just sort of your tastes were changing and. . . ?

MP: I think it was more what we were all into originally being able to come out. We’ve all loved, rock and darker, harder things from the beginning; it just never came out fully that way. Even on Volume For the Rest of It, a song like “Bad Tattoo,” where the idea of it is very dark and harder, but we didn’t feel as free to go in that direction. We’ve always had that kind of melancholy thing, but for a while, we just had to ease our way into it.

JAMBANDS.COM: Yeah, compared to the stuff y’all are doing now, “Bad Tattoo” is still on the jazzier side.

MP: Right. But just the idea of it being dark, we’ve always appreciated that kind of thing.

WR: We’ve gotten to the point where we can play so much better together. Obviously, we don’t do as much soloing; that was good for us, [but] we found a way to do it more as a group. We can get the same kind of intensity through improvisation but it doesn’t have to be based around a solo. We might, of course, all do our own little tangents and explore. But I think now that we’ve tried to improvise [as a group], we can do that dark stuff, because, normally, Matt would be playing a solo on the saxophone, and we’d take his guide and follow that. This way, it’s even harder to know what line to follow, we all just know. . . there’s no sort of light that we’re following, so it’s gotta be subconscious; we know in 10 seconds we’re all gonna hit this or hit that. It’s less obvious.

JAMBANDS.COM: So you’re playing more as a group.

MP: Yeah, definitely.

JAMBANDS.COM: If you could step outside and listen to yourselves as members of the audience, do you think that people still hear the jazz influence?

WR: I think so, but in very different ways. We used to actually play a line or a harmony that might be really jazzy and embellish it. Now we want to have a line that you might hear in a jazz song, but we’re gonna stick to that and if you keep playing the same thing over and over, it almost makes it harder. They’re more in the mix and they’re just a different part of the whole sound that we do, rather than straight-out jazz.

MP: It’s more in the structure of what we do. Some people may draw a connection to jazz just by putting a chunk in a guitar solo. But actually the structure [of] what we’re playing is not very close to jazz. Like Woody said, if you hear this sax line and you like this one little spot, I mimic whatever the idea is in that one little thing and throw it into the mix of whatever we’re playing. I guess when [people] hear the sax line, they may think there’s still a jazz element, and I guess there is, but only as much as anything else.

JAMBANDS.COM: So you’ve taken that jazz and just put it in a mixing bowl with all the other stuff, whereas before you were wrapping everything else around the jazz — that’s the way it seems to me. Especially way back in ’97, which was the first time I heard you, that’s the first thing I thought of when I first heard your CD. And now you’ve just thrown it in the mix with everything else.

WR: You get the saxophone line and that might be the jazz-oriented thing and then you get the distorted bass which would be like hardcore punk, and then you’ve got Mike’s [Lowry, drums] huge, big beats which take off like a late-‘60s, straight-up rock, Led Zeppelin album. . . and then I just wanna draw the colors from all these different sounds. What you were saying about somebody soloing and how that used to kind of guide us, now it’s really more about the songs and the tones.

MP: It’s not so much that jazz is where we’re coming from, but just the simple fact that we appreciate it. So people would probably draw the conclusion that, “OK, these guys aren’t coming from that world, but they obviously listened to it at some point and they appreciate it.”

JAMBANDS.COM: You all seem pretty comfortable with what you’re doing right now. Do you see another major transformation anytime in the future? Do you think you guys will ever get bored with what you’re doing now?

WR: I don’t see a big transition like what we went through in the last year or so, but I think we’re definitely gonna borrow and go in and out of styles. But it’s always going to sound like we sound. In the studio, some of the drum tones or Rhodes or guitar or bass sounds, may go more hard-core or in this vein. We want to do more, different tones, but in terms of the songs and what we do on stage, it’s going to stay in this realm. But then, really, it’s hard to say. I think we’re open to whatever keeps us happy. What we’ve always done is play what we wanna play. That’s why sometimes we don’t end up playing songs that we played 5 months ago: we’re not feelin’ it. We just play what we wanna play and that’s the most honest we can be on stage.

On the last live album, there’s one vocal song and the rest of it is harder and improvised. Right now, we’re planning on going into the studio and there’s going to be a lot more vocal elements in the songs. They’re not gonna be totally, straight-up “verse, chorus, verse, chorus,” that type of stuff, but they’re going to have more of that element. Those kinds of songs you have to craft a little bit more. We’re incorporating the voice as just another instrument rather than everything supporting the voice. It can be just another color in the whole view.

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