Lotus: Strength of Weak Ties
Entering 2007 with high spirits and an upcoming tour, Lotus will be trekking through the South and ultimately heading back up to the Northeast. Still riding the release of their well-received second studio album, Strength of Weak Ties, the group, which features Steve Clemens, Jesse Miller, Luke Miller, Chuck Morris and Mike Rempel, remains at the top of the livetronica scene’s current class. After a rugged four day journey through three time zones during Lotus’s 2006 New Year’s run, bassist Jesse Miller sat down with Jambands.com. There’s no doubt that enduring a Colorado blizzard and van crash on the way to a New Year’s Eve performance, missing equipment, and sleep deprivation ultimately takes its toll. However, bassist Miller managed to reflect on 2006, the origins of Lotus, songcraft, and brotherly love (and we’re not talking about Philadelphia).
JH- Lotus just came off an extensive tour hitting a lot of the West Coast in October and culminating with a night at SCI’s Sea of Dreams and your own New Year’s show across the country in PA. You played a ballsy four night, three time zone run to ring in the New Year. Can you talk about that experience?
LM- This was crazy. We went in early to set up and it had just started snowing but the worst of it hadn’t hit [editor’s note: on the 28th and 29th the band was in Denver before traveling to SF for the 30th and back east for the 31st] . We got there and by the time it was show time it had snowed at least a foot and a half and this was on top of the foot and half to two feet of snow that had hit the previous week. They shut down everything and nothing was open. We were like, “Who the hell is gonna come out?” Well I guess it turns out they’re either hardcore enough or stupid enough. I would say 80% or 90% of the bar was underage. It was all college kids. Over 200 people the first night and well over 300 people the second night. It was mostly people from Denver, and people from Ft. Collins or Boulder couldn’t make it out. Our guitarist got caught in the blizzard. What would normally be an hour and half drive took seven hours to get there. We didn’t really get to soundcheck . But people spent a lot of energy to get there and everyone was ready to kick ass.
JH- How was it to play San Fran for Sea of Dreams? How would you relate it to other festivals?
LM- Definitely a West Coast vibeOne of the only West Coast festivals we play is High Sierra and it’s fairly small. But it [Sea of Dreams] was great. It was a big crowd on the West Coast. We came on stage and we were the very first act to play. There was maybe 15 or 20 people standing beside the stage and about two minutes in we had over 2,000 people there who had never heard Lotus before.
JH- How did New Year’s in Pittsburgh go?
LM- Well, part of the difficulty was we had to leave from all the shows and go right to the airport for two nights. So we weren’t operating on much sleep. Unfortunately moving from the west coast to the east coast you lose three hours in time zone changes. So we didn’t actually end up getting to Pittsburgh until about an hour and half before the doors opened. We didn’t have any of our backline gear (laughs). It was kind of a little difficult, a little stressful.
JH- How did Lotus first come together?
LM- We got started somewhere in the summer of 1999 when Luke, Mike and Steve were playing together in school. They started the band there. Then they came out to Colorado for the summer and I started playing with them then. Then I transferred to the same school the following year and that’s when we really started gigging and playing small shows around Indiana and Michigan.
JH- When was percussionist Chuck Morris added to the band?
LM- Chuck was added in 2001. We had played with a couple percussionists prior to that. He had played with a couple local bands, actually, on the drum kit. He sat in with us and we always felt like percussion really rounded out our sound. And that’s when we started to move more to the direction that we do now. Before that time we were a pretty traditional jamband. We had vocals and we were doing a lot of other stuff in the vain of Phish. 2001 is when we went all instrumental and started to take more influence from the electronic producers and that kind of setup. We started working with a lot of the things that we do now.
JH- I know that if I was on the road with my brother all year long one of us would be dead right now. Would you say that bond enhances your chemistry? Does the brotherly conflict ever emerge?
LM- In addition to that we were taking out one of our younger brothers for some of the dates doing sound for us! I think we benefit from both sides. One thing is we feel really comfortable telling each other, “What the hell are you thinking?” We don’t think twice about telling each other about anything. At the same time we can also take it. It’s like when you spend that much time with anybody it gets to be a little hard. But we haven’t killed each other yet.
JH- When did you first start playing bass? Who and what are you thinking about when you construct your bass lines?
LM- I first started playing in high school. Me and Luke actually started a ska band (laughs). We needed a bass player so I went out and got a bass. I was self taught. I guess at the beginning I was listening to a lot of punk and a lot of funk at the time. Some other stuff , like Paul Jackson who worked with the Headhunters. I’ve never really been one toI don’t really follow bass players. It’s like playing under the same guitar chords, and I can make that chord become something else. I always try to maintain good melodic structure with something that can lock into the groove and really provide an energy and set the feel the composition is working for. That’s what’s really controlled by the bass.
JH- You’re self-taught?
LM- For the most part. I never took any lessons. Before playing electric bass I studied some upright bass in college.
JH- I want to talk about the Strength of Weak Ties and how it might have changed the way you approach music in a live setting. Have you found yourself incorporating those studio elements into the live setting?
LM- This is only our second studio album. The major difference was that the songs for Strength of Weak Ties were almost entirely written for the studio and the songs for Nomad were played out live and then we brought them into the studio setting. You think about composing a lot differently when you’re not thinking, “Well how are we gonna play this or how is this gonna happen live?” So it really opened up a lot of new ideas for me as far as producing. And after we completed the songs, then we said, “Well how are we gonna pull this off live?” And then figuring out using all the different samples between me triggering them, Luke triggering them, or Chuck triggering things. Or should it be on the drum pad?
Now that I’m writing specifically for live performance I can say, “Well here’s where we can use this little loop or sample here,” and make it all work. We’re using a lot more vocal samples and samples in general. Part of it is getting better and being able to trigger the stuff but also being able to monitor it. If we’re playing with a little bit that adds a kind of riff or implication then we need to be playing exactly with it.
JH- Where is your favorite location to play?
LM- My favorite club to play is the Fox in Boulder. The sound in there is incredible. Wakarusa is always a good festival. I’m sure that will be another fun one this coming year. But you know, High Sierra was really fun too.
JH- More keyboards are being added between yourself and Luke. Do you feel it takes away from your core/roots?
LM- Even before that album Luke was playing a lot more keyboards. We were able to diversify our sound a lot more. Lately I have been going back to just writing for two guitars. I really like that sound. I don’t think that’s anything we’re going away from. I think having the keyboards just gives us more opportunities to try different stuff. A popular new song that we’ve been playing, “Hammerstrike,” uses a keyboard for the bass parts and that’s gone over really well. We’re just not trying to limit ourselves. If we have the option and can write a composition that works for me and Luke playing keyboards or just strictly guitar or whatever kind of combination of those things, we will try it out.
JH- Normally it takes electronic/jazz/jambands a little more time to move up in venue size but you guys are doing it rather rapidly. To what do you attribute this growth?
LM- From the outside it seems like it’s going a lot faster. It’s sort of like you’re living with a child and you don’t see the growth. But if you leave for a month or two and come back. you see your kid has gotten a lot bigger. You’re like, “What the hell happened?!” We’ve been working our asses off for this for the past six years and we’ve been touring for the past four years and it has always been our goal to get into these theaters and have this following that starts to pick up all around the country. It’s the next step.
JH- Now how does your songwriting process work? Who writes most of the songs?
LM- Luke and myself write all the songs. We work in different ways. He does a lot of stuff where he starts on his keyboard. We changed it a little bit. Our drummer moved to Pittsburgh around six months ago so we don’t have as much practice time as we used to. So, I think it actually enables us to write a little more intricately because we have been writing very detailed like down to the fill. Then everyone learns their parts, then we get together and refine the whole thing and make it work.
JH- What is guitarist Mike Rempel’s role in coming up with the melodies?
LM- We write pretty much all the main melodies but of course there is a lot of improvisation. We write the compositions but Mike just has a natural ear for melodies it’s his strongest suit. So when we’re improvising you hear a lot of melodies that almost sound composed but aren’t. He’s all self taught.
JH- What would you say are your main influences?
LM- All kinds of stuff! Lately I’ve been trying to bring both our rock sound and our really electronic influences into the same composition. From both sides of that there’s everything from Boards of Canada, Air and Underworld on the electronic side to MMJ and any other of the modern rock bands. And there are other bands that are doing similar stuff like TV on the Radio and bringing in electronic things into what are very much rock sounds. And then there’s of course Tortoise, they have always been a huge influence.
I think our sound takes from both sides. People come to our shows and say, “This isn’t quite a rock show and not strictly a dance or electronic show.” It’s somewhere in between. I think when you put two guitars and a drum kit on the stage there’s always going to be some element of rock.
JH- You have a big southern tour coming up. Any big plans for it? How do you approach a tour?
LM- We usually try to debut new songs every tour. I’m sure we will break out a couple new songs that we’ve finished off in the past couple months. I think it changes show to show, but we always have different things that we are trying to work on or different aspects of our sound that we are trying to develop.
JH- What makes a good show for you guys?
LM- It’s pretty much all energy. All those things play a part. If something is off, if it sounds weird, if the venues lacking equipment it makes it harder. But sometimes you come into a show at some small crappy venue and the audience and energy is unreal. So those shows are even more fun than a great venue where for some reason the energy isn’t happening.
JH- As musicians, where do you see Lotus in five years?
LM- You know there’s a lot of sounds we have been developing with a new batch of compositions that we did over the past six months and I have a lot of ideas and how I want to take those sounds and develop them in a studio recording. It’s kind of a vision to continue this idea that we set up with Strength of Weak Ties with putting rock and electronic music in a kind of symbiotic relationship. I think with every composition we’re finding new ways to do it. I’m kind of trying to hone that down and look at the next album as the place to really complete that.