Behind the Scenes with Jesse Miller of Lotus
Hey all! This is Alexandria from Sensible Reason bringing you our latest installment on the road to Camp Bisco. You’ve probably already listened to the “Eats the Light“ track of the day, and today it is my pleasure to bring you my interview with Jesse Miller, bassist of the band that created this track, Lotus. These guys specialize in jamtronica and are appearing on lineups across the country. The band also has a new album, Eat the Light, which is set to be released July 15th. I am so honored to explore more behind the scenes.
Sensible Reason: I saw you guys play your newest single, “Eats the Light,” at Summer Camp Music Festival. It’s definitely a crowd pleaser. What made the band decide to use vocals on every track of your new album?
Jesse Miller: Adding vocals was a natural progression from wanting to write concise and catchy songs. There is something about a good vocal hook that can really stick with people. We did two Talking Heads sets in 2014 and seeing these huge crowds singing along felt amazing.
Some fans expressed wariness of the idea of vocals since they primarily know Lotus as an instrumental band. But, we played ‘Eats the Light’ live on tour and the crowd was going wild for it every night.
SR: Lotus is scheduled for seven more music festivals this year. What is it about outdoor music festivals that makes the listening experience so special and magical?
JM: At a festival everyone is enjoying (or dealing with) the same weather. People have driven many hours and spent a lot of money to be there. Often the location is somewhat remote. All of these things add to the sense that it is a unique time and place, and that gives the music even more power. Strong memories are being forged, new friends made, and it is all centered around music, so we always want to deliver a strong set that people won’t forget.
SR: Nomad is my all-time favorite album. The decision to remaster and record a live rendition 10 years after its original release must have been such a milestone for the band. How did it feel to revisit Nomad? What was the energy like on June 8th, 2013?
JM: I actually hadn’t listened to Nomad in a long time, so it was interesting to go back through it. It was our first studio album. There are a lot of things, both compositionally and sonically, that I would do different now. But, there can be something magic in naïveté, you are operating on curiosity and pure instinct. It also just brought me back to that era – the Pre-Ableton time – when blending an electronic dance sound with a jam band was very new. We purposely made edits and used effects that sounded digital to go for a more electronic sound. It is strange to me that Nomad is often thought of as our “organic” album because it is most digital sounding in my mind.
I knew we could do better on the mastering, so I’m glad we were able to track down the original mixes to rework. The new version has more clarity and fullness. And it was a good opportunity to press to vinyl, as a lot of people wanted to add that album to their record collections.
The live version from June 2013 was a long, hot set. Many of the Nomad tracks were written to be vehicles for group improv, so they’ve developed into big jams that we often use for set closers. So packing several of those into one set made it somewhat intense. Releasing the live show along with the album really shows how different the live and studio versions of these songs are.
SR: What was it like to transition from being signed to a record label like Harmonized and SCI Fidelity then self-releasing through Lotus Vibes Music?
JM: We never had big budgets for any of our releases, so it wasn’t all that different. Everyone is adapting to the changing ways that music is sold. When our first album came out downloading music was a brand new thing, most people bought CDs. It just goes to show how fast things have changed in that area.
SR: Obviously you can’t answer this from a fans perspective but what do you think the difference is of seeing Lotus live from listening to a studio album or even a live recording?
JM: The live show is designed to be immersive. The dynamics are much greater – a stage can go from complete darkness to blindingly bright light and the sound can be quiet or huge. On a recording, even a live recording, the dynamics are much smaller. It changes how people focus on the music, so we bring out different elements of the music based on those considerations. The sense of time is different as well. It is easier to extend music in a live setting because there are more things to focus on – what each musician is playing, how an improvisation is developing, what the lights are doing. For studio releases we try to be more concise. You can always re-listen to a song at home.
SR: Lotus has become known as experts in jamtronica. What do you think has been the bands biggest contribution to the genre.
JM: We have been able go beyond the idea of bringing electronic dance sounds and beats to the context of a live band to writing music that uses these elements as another tool. I think we were the “electronic-jamband” that made it okay to write a rock song, with no electronic influences and have it fit seamlessly into our set.
SR: You guys have released many remixes of your original tracks. Tell us a little about the process. Does Lotus approach the artist or is it the other way around? Is their creative input from both ends or do you just give them the track and are in the dark about it until it comes back to you a finished product?
JM: It is usually us commissioning a remix, but sometimes artists are coming to us. Most of the time we are letting the remixer do their thing, but sometimes we offer input on the arrangements and sounds. It is different artist to artist, some remixers are looking for feedback, others would rather have all the choices be their own.
SR: Songs transport the listener into another world. What type of space/environment do you imagine your music illustrates?
JM: Every composition is different. But, there are a few scenes that evoke certain moods for me that I often return to when I’m writing. One feels like Saturdays as a kid – it is sunny, carefree, blue and green colors. Another is driving on an open road in the West in my 20s – competing feelings of being a tiny speck in an immense landscape while also seeing all the possibilities ahead, the scene is oranges, reds, purples. They aren’t specific moments, more like abstractions that I’m using to make musical choices while writing.
SR: What instrument got you into the music scene? And how does that specific instrument effect the way you write, compose and play music today?
JM: The bass. I took piano lessons when I was young, but when my friends and I wanted to start a band in high school with a bassist. So I bought a bass and taught myself to play. That led me to composition. Bass is equally important to rhythm, harmony and melody so it can be a good gateway into composing. You need to think about how all the elements of the music are working together.
SR: What is the greatest collaborative change that Lotus has experienced over the past 15 years? How have the personnel changes to the lineup effected the sound and direction of the band as a whole?
JM: Our original drummer, Steve Clemens, left in 2009 when he had his first child. Mike Greenfield was our first choice to replace him. We had met Greenfield when we were getting Lotus started in college. His band, The Ally, was on a short tour through the Midwest and we set up a show with them in our little college town Goshen, Indiana. The transition was about as smooth as it could be, we didn’t hold auditions or reach out to multiple people. We had a pretty big catalog of music that we were drawing from, so the biggest challenge was just learning all that material. Greenfield understood the styles of improvisation we were using, so it wasn’t re-inventing the wheel, but the group improvisation did get better after playing together longer and longer. Over time, you start to anticipate where a player is going by certain cues in their playing and develop reactions that can seem pre-planned despite being completely improvised.
SR: Besides having vocals on every track, what sets Eat the Light apart from previous Lotus albums?
JM: It is the most dance-focused album we’ve ever made.
SR: Eat the Light is said to capture the “Magic Hour.” Can you expand upon this notion? Also, what is the effect of this atmosphere on the listener?
JM: The theme of light wasn’t intentional, but it emerged in all these songs. I was thinking cinematically when writing – imagining scenes and how the light would look and drawing a certain mood from that image.
The magic hour can be either at dusk or dawn, so by definition light is being either lost or gained. Many of these songs reference a moment where the light is just about to change – sunrise, a TV screen going black, walking under a street light. It goes back to the idea I mentioned earlier of using an abstracted set of memories to compose. The anticipation of the change can be more powerful than the change itself, so for me the magic hour is the moment of anticipation.
In the same way the brain creates the motion between frames of film, the listener is, hopefully, connecting to their own memories (and not our’s) when they hear these songs. We weren’t writing narrative stories with the lyrics, they are purposefully abstracted to allow the listener build their own scenes.
SR: Where is the best location to listen to Lotus’ new album? Can you make any recommendations to our readers? Why?
JM: I don’t know if there is a best place, but hopefully the album is heard through a great sound system. I think sonically the album is very interesting and the richness is diminished with compressed MP3s and cheap earbuds or bad speakers. But, that said, I stand by the songs, so if all you have is an overblown bluetooth jambox, just crank it up and have a dance party, wherever you are.
SR: Does Eat the Light in its entirety sound like a complete narrative or rather an exploration of the magic hour’s various segments?
JM: No, it isn’t a concept album, but, it is an album. I think the songs can stand on their own, but as Aristotle said the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Lotus will be playing at Camp Bisco at Montage Mountain in Scranton, Pennsylvania on July 14-16. Other headliners include The Disco Biscuits, Odesza, Big Grizmatik, RL Grime, STS9, Zeds Dead, and many more. Purchase your tickets here and we’ll see you on the mountain.