Lotus: Brothers at (Sargasso) Sea
Jesse Miller realizes that the time for Lotus is now. After nine years of slowly building a fanbase through the usual mix of touring, stellar shows, word of mouth, album releases, taper sections and internet downloads.
Over the past year, the Philadelphia quintet, which includes Miller’s twin Luke, Steve Clemens and Chuck Morris and Mike Rempel, has released five albums. A mix and match of its last three releases — the studio effort, The Strength of Weak Ties, the live Escaping Sargasso Sea and the remix project Copy/Paste/Repeat — display the full spectrum of sound that is Lotus.
I catch Jesse shortly after he’s returned home after playing Amsterdam’s Jam in the Dam and right before he leaves for the band’s Spring Tour. Following that the group has settled on nine summer festivals including Wakarusa, Mountain Jam IV, Rothbury, Summer Camp, Camp Bisco VII and Hookahville for the next round of maximum exposure.
JPG: I wanted to wait to talk to you about the Jam In The Dam. How was it? Was it your first time to Amsterdam and that particular festival?
JM: Yeah, first time at that festival. First time in Amsterdam and my first time to Europe as well. So, it was a really cool event. The music is really only one aspect of it. It seems to be a great idea for people to go over and hang out in a great city over in Europe.
JPG: Now, since jambands are constantly touring North America, how do such acts go over to a European audience? Are there a number of American fans who show up because they live overseas or make the trip?
JM: It’s definitely majority American, but there were some Europeans there, which was great because there’s really, and I still don’t know exactly why this is and trying to figure out why, there’s really very little awareness of any of the American jambands in Europe. The Europeans that were there loved it.
The other thing is, it’s such a weird thing, jamband isn’t a genre of music. It’s hard to describe it to people. They would come in and most people were saying, This is nothing like I expected it to sound,’ like after they saw a Lotus set. People really have no idea of what it is. If all you know about jambands is the Grateful Dead or Phish, it gives you pretty much zero perspective on what it’s going to sound like.
JPG: Absolutely. The festival itself, your tour itinerary has you listed as being there for three days. Did you play all three nights?
JM: It went on for five nights. Just Dark Star Orchestra played the first night. We played the following three nights. The very last night, I think it was just Umphrey’s and Disco Biscuits.
JPG: As for the lineup itself, what I see listed are U.S. bands. Were European acts added as well?
JM: It was all U.S. bands. It was Umphrey’s McGee, Dark Star Orchestra, Disco Biscuits, Tea Leaf Green, Perpetual Groove and Lotus. That’s another aspect of it. If you were trying to appeal to a more European audience it would be cool to have some European acts involved or at least one. It’s kind of interesting because we’re starting this tour next week and we have a band from Holland, C-Mon & Kypski, opening up the next two weeks so at least we get to do a little bit of that over here.
JPG: What are they like and how did you discover them?
JM: I’m not super familiar with their music, but what I’ve heard it seems like a cross between DJ Shadow turntable type stuff but mixed with pop music. Some of it, there were like Beach Boy harmonies. It’ll be really interesting to see what they do live.
JPG: The reason I asked about the lineup is you never know what a promoter may do for a festival or what would seem odd here seems perfectly fine there. Maybe he could have added a Death Metal act on one day or…
JM: Like C-Mon & Kypski. I’m sure there’s other acts from around the area that would fit in with the music just fine. When you’re talking about the amount of musical difference from say Dark Star Orchestra and Lotus or even Tea Leaf Green and Lotus, there’s a lot of room to put in other types of acts. People are generally open to hearing lots of different things.
JPG: Now, the coffee shops. (NOTE: for those not up to their Amsterdam lore, coffee shops also serve a variety of marijuana). Is that the first thing you get asked when you talk to friends and family when you get home? Did you go to a coffee shop?
JM: Oh, yeah. The coffee shop. Yeah, it’s definitely a unique thing about that city. I don’t know if that exists like that anywhere else. The stereotype of Amsterdam, at least for me, was like this big party city, so I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be like. You’re in this area where they’re a lot of tourists and bars and coffee shops and then literally just turn the corner and it’s just someone’s apartment and totally quiet and there’s a boat going down the canal or something and that’s it. It seems a lot different than places in the States that are really tourist heavy. It can be tough to really get out of ‘em.
JPG: Kind of like Fisherman’s Wharf area versus the real San Francisco.
JM: Right, right. It was really easy to get away from those touristy spots and go to more local bars and things like that.
JPG: So, I take it things went well. Do you plan on returning to Europe to play?
JM: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s something we’d like to do. You see any small indie band over here that’s playing Europe is just the same, just another market like in the States. I think part of it has to do with record distribution and since jambands have typically put slightly more emphasis on the live show than the album I don’t think they’re picked up as often or looked at as closely if people don’t get the amount of exposure on that side. We’d definitely like to get over there and be involved with other festivals or our own touring. We’re trying to figure out how we can do that.
JPG: You have shows on Livedownloads.com. Do you see the internet offering the type of international exposure that helps bands like Lotus?
JM: I don’t know if I’d really seen that yet, but I think that could definitely happen. One thing I was trying to explain in an interview I was doing for a radio station from Slovenia is that a lot of what makes a jamband a jamband has nothing to do with the music. It’s more about this idea of bringing fans in, through how the shows are changing night to night. It’s something that’s more appealing if you’re following it more closely. If you just go download one show and listen to it and enjoy it, that’s one thing, but if you’re part of a community discussing it and saying, “Oh, this is how they changed it from this night.” or “This is how they’re doing things a little bit differently,” I think that’s where a lot of the community is built. That seems maybe easier in the States just because…I don’t know, the willingness of people to drive around to multiple shows over the course of a year.
JPG: You’re playing a number of festivals in America this summer. What is it that promoters are seeing in Lotus, that the band brings to these places?
JM: Well, I think it’s two things. Obviously, you want to book acts that are gonna draw people. Lotus has a fan base that’s willing to go to a festival because Lotus is playing. So, that adds to the draw.
On the other side, I think that promoters have just recognized that Lotus delivers festival sets that are great and add a lot to the festival. It’s awesome to come away from festivals and, everyone has their favorite set, but I see a lot of people chatting up, “This is the highlight of the festival. This is a great set.” And also, I think we mix it up. We can fit in a lot of different contexts so we’ve played some festivals where it’s all electronic. We’re the rock side of it. The other side, it could be something more heavily oriented to roots rock music and Lotus is the dance side of it.
JPG: When you play at a “roots rock” festival, do you look at it and map it out your set to do something in relation to the line up or do something completely opposite?
JM: I usually like to go the other way. Let’s sound as different as possible from every other act. That’s pretty much how I’ve always wanted to do it if we’re doing opening sets or festival sets. If we play after Keller Williams at All Good, we’re going to do something that’s complete opposite of that.
JPG: Speaking of the band’s sound, I was first introduced to you when you opened up for Ozric Tentacles at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland (March 25, 2005). My only frame of reference at that time was pretty much Sound Tribe Sector 9. It reminded me of them but I could see where you were trying to take it. Was I on the right track or…?
JM: No. I don’t think so, at least back then. Lotus and Sound Tribe had fairly similar influences, especially from some of the more atmospheric and dancey drum and bass stuff. Since then, I think our influences have gone in complete opposite directions. We recently played with Sound Tribe. I think people still like to compare it. It’s somewhat easy. Here’s a five person instrumental band. Here’s two of them. We have the exact same instrumentation. So it’s really easy to compare them that way. We played with them recently and Lotus sounds nothing like Sound Tribe Sector 9. I think we’re always going to get that, to some degree.
JPG: True, because both acts have a spacey and dancey elements to them. Focus is on instrumentals. You do use vocal samples, more so at the beginning.
JM: Yeah, up until maybe 2001, just for a couple years when we were forming.
JPG: What was the basis for the change?
JM: We had always done a lot of instrumental stuff. We just decided to focus on that and thought it brought more to the table.
JPG: Do you leave it open to the point that there may be vocals ever again?
JM: I don’t know. I still like doing stuff with vocals and songwriting. More often than not, just the way we perform or the way like to build it is to write the song and bring in another singer or do it some way in the studio that can’t be done live, like myself singing in five part harmony or something that’s more effected and then just using that with sample live.
JPG: In your bio there’s a quote from Luke where he says, "Lotus has always tiptoed the tightrope that is drawing on multiple genres- slip one way and it’s a haphazard melting pot, fall to the other and you get a diluted derivative. But hang on and you can find something new." Is that just seat of the pants decision making or when the two of you are writing you can judge whether or not a song’s going to fall off the cliff or whether you’re going to dance along the edge?
JM: We throw away more things that we write than we perform. We spend lots of time refining the stuff that we are writing. Ultimately, it has to work for us and has to work onstage for it to be viable. That’s the ultimate judge. How we get to that point is not necessarily always the same.
JPG: Are there still moments now that with your growing success that you’ll find out the hard way during a performance that something that you thought was refined needs further refinement?
JM: Oh yeah, definitely, or we might record something and rehearse it for awhile and sound check it for a week or something and then just say, “I don’t think this is really going to work.” And just never perform it. That stuff definitely happens. Or we’ll try out a song and if we don’t still like it we might do it just a couple times and then stop playing it. Sometimes it’s hard to know, but a lot of times we feel like we’ve done enough that we have a sense of even if we’re changing something quite a bit from what we normally do, if it’s going to work well or not.
JPG: I see. It’s like anything else. From years of experience you can register what will work and not work, just at a much quicker pace.
JM: Yeah. It’s also interesting as an artist and dealing with fans that follow your music really closely when you want to take an artistic leap. I’ve talked about this with other artists out on the road, where you think you are artistically a good year or year and a half ahead of the fans. You’re working on songs and recording songs in a particular style or you’re trying out new methods of composing and it’s stuff that the fans are not going to hear for a while. And for all that to sink in is even going to take longer time. So, what the fans know of you is what you’re currently playing or what they know from past shows, what they’ve seen. They’re always far behind. But to try and bring those things together and deliver a show that’s going to be a good show and that people are going to enjoy while still being able to push yourself musically is important.
Jamband fans are great like that. We go on the road, pretty much every tour, we’re debuting new songs. You don’t just have someone booing saying, “Play my favorite song from five years ago.” They’ll enjoy the new stuff as much as the old stuff, which is great.
JPG: There’s always that openness for something new or willingness to accept something new whereas where everyone listening usually enjoys hearing a “hit” or its equivalent it’s not like a bands like Aerosmith that has to play “Angel” ‘til the day they stop playing.
JM: Yeah. If you don’t hear it this way you’re gonna be kind of disappointed.
JPG: There’s always that working in your favor. Now, about how many days a year are you on the road?
JM: Last year I think we did about 85 shows. This year we’ll do about the same maybe a little bit more. Somewhere in that range.
JPG: Okay, so 80 to 100, somewhere in there. I was trying to split up your time to see how you were able to put out within a two-year period a studio album, the live album and then the remix album.
JM: In the summers we’re pretty much exclusively playing festivals on the weekends or Thursday through Sunday. A lot of times it’s just fly out to the festival. Fly back. It’s a day or two in, but it’s not a huge time commitment. So, there’s always time to work on this other stuff. It’s great with technology now where we come home and I fire up my Pro Tools rig and we’re going. You don’t have to have studio time booked to continue working on that stuff.
JPG: You’ve done a lot of work with Mr. Small’s Funhouse in Pittsburgh. Interesting, since you’re based in Philadelphia.
JM: Our management is based out of Pittsburgh and they work out of Smalls, so that’s why we’ve played a lot of shows there and some studio work there. But now we’re working in a studio in Philadelphia. The other side of it is we do a lot of our recording and rehearsing in Philly, but we have one band member who lives in Pittsburgh, two that live in Denver. So, we’re spread out in a lot of places.
JPG: How is it getting together? Are you shipping off discs to each other or emailing musical ideas?
JM: We can just send demos to each other. We come into rehearse and everybody knows their part. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.
JPG: You talked about debuting new songs. Obviously, it’s been a pretty busy release schedule already. But, are you working on a new studio album?
JM: Actually, we were looking at probably releasing another studio album in the fall of this year. We already have 11 tracks recorded. We’re going into the studio in between a few of our dates and lay down some more. Ever since The Strength of Weak Ties (2006) was done, we’ve been writing, just this whole body of work, with the intention of looking towards the next studio album. We’re putting down a lot of stuff and, hopefully, should have it pretty well hashed out near the beginning of the summer what the album is going to sound like.
JPG: Where does Escaping Sargasso Sea fit in? Was it a matter of wanting to get an official live set out rather than just going the live download route?
JM: Part of it. People have always taped and recorded and never really liked how they came out sounding, just because the kind of different electronics we were using; how that sounds coming through a pair of mikes or however people are recording. I don’t think it really captures nuances most of the time. So, it was just something we wanted to do. Something that was above and beyond what type of thing that gets released on Livedownload as far as audio quality. Something that visits some of the fan favorites, that we didn’t think worked well in the studio but thought worked well live. That was the impetus for that.
JPG: As far as the Livedownloads.com releases, are they soundboard recordings, microphone set up or…?
JM: We do it with a mix with soundboard outputs and room mikes as well.
JPG: And it’s under your control, the band and your soundman put it together.
JM: Yeah, and if we feel like we want to release it. And if we don’t, we don’t. We don’t release every single show.
JPG: I was reading the write up in the CD artwork 2004’s Nomad “The Nomad has no home, but is at home everywhere. It is the present location, not the unforeseeable future, nor the lingering past, where the mind of the Nomad resides. The journey is everything.” It’s what you could be viewed as the life of a touring musician and the live situation where musicians live in the state of the present, rather than the past and the future?
JM: Oh yeah, that’s part of the whole idea. That and making any place you are your home, like maybe the stage is your home and going on there and making the most of it and being in the moment.
JPG: Where did you get that?
JM: I’m pretty sure Luke wrote it.
JPG: Oh, really? I thought it was some sort of writing from some sort of Zen type book.
JPG: I just reviewed the new Black Crowes album, so this type of thing is on my mind. And just read a Ray Davies article where the usual Dave hates Ray thing pops up. So, where on the scale of brotherly love are you and Luke?
JM: I think we’re able to get along. Probably with brothers you have this interesting thing, you have a lot of the same experiences so you have similar backgrounds or approach to things. You still think of things pretty differently some time but just having that shared experience is something that I think will keep people together. I think that’s why you see a lot of siblings playing music together, having that shared experience. But maybe rivalries and one-upmanship comes into play at some point. I think we try to stay out of it working together, but we’re not the best of friends. We don’t spend tons of time together, even if we’re around each other a lot.
JPG: It’s not like it’s tense for the rest of your band mates unless you’re onstage. Jesse isn’t talking to Luke. Luke’s not talking to Jesse. Put one in the front seat of the van, put one way in the back.
JM:(slight laugh) Oh, it’s nothing like that. You’re talking about a band that’s been together as long as we have. We’ve outlasted most marriages already. When you’re on tour and you’re spending almost every waking moment with these people, there’s obviously tons of issues. You get sick of each other all of the time. That’s just one of the things you’ve got to find ways to deal with.
JPG: In a previous Jambands interview (01/23/2007) that you discussed the future sound of Lotus and where you wanted to go, having a “symbiotic relationship” between rock and electronic music and finding new ways to do that. Are you satisfied with the new directions?
JM: Luke and I are looking at it a little bit differently right now. Some recent compositions have been leaning more towards…actually almost everything I’ve written recently features two guitars. And that lends things a little bit more of a rock sound. Going a little bit more in that direction and using electronic stuff less in the way of dance music and more from just tweaky synths or they’re might be some kind of crazy effected sound that goes on. So, I don’t know. It’s definitely still new ways of combining electronic and rock, but I’m just leaning it a little more in one direction.
JPG: That’s interesting because you worked on the Copy/Paste/Repeat album of Lotus remixes and yet you’re talking up guitars here.
JM: Oh yeah. I don’t know. I still love doing that stuff. When we’re off the road, I’ve been doing some other remix projects as well. I still love that sound. For some reason, maybe because Luke’s writing so much stuff that’s keyboard oriented, but I’ve just been really digging having the two guitar thing lately.
JPG: In regards to Copy/Paste/Repeat, how and why did that come about?
JM: We always wanted to do it and even some of those remixes date back to after Nomad came out. We had a couple of the remixes done and I did a few as I was learning my Pro Tools rig. I’ll remix some of our stuff to learn how the stuff works and got into that and after The Strength Of Weak Ties we just said, “Yeah, let’s get an album of this stuff.”
So, we went out and commissioned a bunch and I did another one. It was a cool way for us to work with other artists we might not normally have had any interaction with like Skytree who I thought produced a really amazing remix, and get some artists that we had toured with and affected like The Frequency and DJ Harry and Telepath. It was a fun project. It was really cool for me because I can pop that in and listen to it whereas the albums, where I’ve gone over everything a million times. Once it comes out, I normally don’t want to listen to it ever again.
JPG: Is that because in this situation you’re kind of removed from it because it’s your music but it’s put in someone else’s hands?
JM: Oh yeah! Definitely. And everyone brings so much of their own voice to their productions that it takes on a whole new life.