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New Groove

Published: 2004/09/30
by Chris Clark


For Philadelphia's Lotus what began as twin brothers and a high school friend playing acoustic guitars at a Colorado mountain camp has developed into one of the most promising, up-and-coming touring acts around. In less than five years, Lotus-Steve Clemens on acoustic and electronic drums, Jesse Miller on bass and sampler, Luke Miller on guitar and keyboards, Chuck Morris on acoustic and electronic percussion and Mike Rempel on guitar-have sold out acclaimed rooms from San Francisco to Madison. The quintet has issued two successful live albums, VIBES and Germination. Moreover, the band recently released their debut studio effort Nomad, a fresh and ambitious collection of new and reworked older tunes released earlier this month on Harmonized Records.

"It began when Mike, Luke and I all met at a camp in Colorado when we were in high school," said Lotus bassist Jesse Miller. "We shared an appreciation for jazz, funk, Phish and improvising."

Soon thereafter, the three met Steve Clemens at the same camp, who'd been attending Goshen College in Indiana. After graduating from high school, Rempel and Luke Miller traveled to Goshen where brother Jesse would soon transfer. Completing the formation would be the addition of percussionist Chuck Morris in the fall of 2001.

"Lotus started as a funk-jamband, playing some Grateful Dead and Phish covers, but we really funked them out, and yes, we sang," he admitted. "In the summer of 2001 we took a break from playing and when we returned, we completely changed our style. We dropped all vocals, stopped playing covers, and started drawing more and more influence from atmospheric drum n' bass and funky house."

Moving further away from the generic jazz-funk-fusion label that became so prominent with the arrival of Phish's first hiatus, Lotus instead vied to venture into more electronic realms. The influence of groups like the Orb, Underworld and Thievery Corporation, which had tremendous impact on the band musically at the time, helped sculpt their sound and steer it in new directions. While Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Phish and the Red Hot Chili Peppers helped shape the original Lotus sound, it is more so drum & bass and house textures that have brought them sonically to where they are now.

"It took a while to develop the sound and build-up the equipment necessary to achieve the layers and timbres we were looking for," explained Miller. "Now our sound is very much a hybrid of many styles. Jazz, funk, rock, house, drum & bass, dub and world beats all play a role."

In June of 2002, Lotus relocated to Philadelphia, a move that would initiate Lotus' arrival on the national touring scene. Being home to such live-electronic acts as The Disco Biscuits, The Ally and Brothers Past, Philly was already established as an epicenter of the electronic-jam movement and it seemed the proper locale for more extensive national touring. Not only were there a plethora of talented, young bands, but also a lively and growing fan-base.

"We had heard the names of Brothers Past and The Ally, but we didn't know there was this large collected mass of live-electronic bands and fans," said guitarist and keyboardist Luke Miller. "But it seemed an added bonus."

Now comfortably situated, Lotus tours coast to coast, performing over 100 shows a year, drawing considerable and sometimes sold-out crowds in several major markets. As a result, a dedicated and loyal fan base has developed. What began as a young band gaining regional steam by word-of-mouth between like-minded, live-electronic music fans swiftly became a full production spanning the country. In little time, Lotus put together a sizeable street team to assist in laying the foundation to reach broader markets, on a much larger scale. Dance-happy concert goers are getting on the Internet, posting reviews, burning shows and going on multiple show runs.

"Live shows have gained in significance because of the easy access of recorded music via the web," alleged Jesse Miller. "No one sells the number of CD's they used to because of CD burning and downloads, and this makes the live show all that more important. Still, you can't download the experience"

The live setting is where Lotus truly prospers. Like STS9, the New Deal and Particle, they thrive on the reciprocal energy from the crowd. Not just a concert, the Lotus experience is becoming a full production, with glaring lights, bursting sound and an array of futuristic technological gadgets. It's part European dancehall, with colors and sounds coming from all directions, shining on sweaty, dance-crazed kids; part jamband show, with smooth guitar licks and pulsating percussion and bass.

"It's a little of both," explained Jesse Miller. "There's a lot of group improvised music-which is completely foreign to most electronic genres. At the same time, we don't do many things I associate with jam music, as in goofy fun lyrics, eclectic styles and lots of cover songs. Ultimately, I think we are a rock band because you'll see Lotus play in clubs and theatres, but not at dancehalls."

Given its traditional rock instrumentation of bass, keys, guitar and drums, with the addition of Morris on percussion, Lotus is able to appeal to the more jam crowd. There are times when they will situate deep in the pocket and flow fluidly into the depths of 70's-style porno funk. Other times, the band's Latin, Indian and African influences will shine, as the tight-knit percussive core of Clemens, Morris and Jesse Miller hold down the rhythm for Rempel to apply layers of crafty guitar interplay. Luke Miller, who splits time between wah-wah driven guitar chops and funked-out keys, further completes a sound capable of shifting from jaw-dropping, Meters-esque funk to explosive electronica exploration in an instant.

"We've gotten better at mixing electronic elements into the sound smoothly," said Luke Miller. "It allows for deeper textures, vocal samples, atmospheric noises, synth timbres and different drum sounds. I think we've created a sound that appeals to many different people. It can sound very electronic at times, but maintains a natural sound and has familiar guitar-drums-bass elements that people are used to as well."

In September, Lotus released their debut studio album, Nomad on Harmonized Records. Recorded in ten, intensive 12-hour days in Pittsburgh, the album showcases a more refined, stripped-down side of Lotus. "Listening to a CD is such a different experience from listening to a live show that we altered our compositions and sounds to fit this experience," explained Jesse Miller. "The improvised element is gone. In the studio, every note is carefully picked and crafted, whereas live we are often doing reverse engineering."

"We approached the songs like we were doing a remix of them," said Luke Miller. "This was done by taking songs apart, rearranging them, shortening sections, adding new sections. We wanted it to be a totally different side of Lotus. All of our live shows are available from tapers, so we didn't want this to be just another version of that, but instead a studio geared project. The result came out great. I think it's an album that has a lot of subtleties and will reveal itself slowly to people."

Currently in the midst of a 25-plus show national tour supporting the release of Nomad, Lotus will make several stops in Oregon and California, highlighted by a two-night run at San Francisco's Boom Boom Room October 14 and 15. They will also take two trips through Colorado, and after a stint in the Midwest, they will return home to Pennsylvania to celebrate Halloween in style at the River Street Jazz Caf
"When we are on stage and everything is clicking, it is amazing." Jesse Miller concluded. It's when we hit that pocket and all it takes is one note or a little drag or push on a groove to take it in a new direction; that moment is indescribable, it is somewhere near bliss,"

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