EOTO’s Jason Hann Talks Laser Mapping, “Live” Trap, The Realities of The Music Industry and More [INTERVIEW]
Michael Travis and Jason Hann of EOTO (and The String Cheese Incident) bring an improvisational dimension to electronic music, an endeavor that has earned them recognition as one of the most original and daring live musical acts on the festival circuit. As the duo further masters the hardware and software that facilitate their musical performance, the visual aspect of their show has somehow kept up, bringing concert and festival-goers a one-of-a-kind experience. At midnight, after an intimate F.A.R.M. Fest set, Jason Hann was kind enough to sit down with Sensible Reason to discuss laser innovation, the intricacies behind designing certain sounds, his thoughts on the reality of the music industry today, and more.
SR: EOTO has undergone an incredible evolution. Are you guys fully dialed in now? Will you continue to push the bar?
Jason: We’ll definitely continue to push the bar. We sort of can’t help but do it. If we feel ourselves repeating something, we want to move beyond… Acknowledge it and enjoy being in the moment, but then somehow try to move beyond it. When we play a night like tonight, we make that evolution quite a bit faster because everything’s so fresh. Once you feel comfortable and dialed in, you’re just looking for that feeling of a challenge: What’s that next thing that you can’t do that you want to be able to do?
SR: Great attitude. The new laser set up is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Did you help conceptualize it?
Jason: We have a laser guy, Hunter. He goes on tour with us when he can. Lasers are very expensive; they can be up to the $80,000 range for each laser. So when Hunter can come out with us, and when we can get him to come out with us, we make it happen. We are just so happy when it can come together because, when we have our projected visuals and the lasers going, it’s a really strong show from a production standpoint.
Something that we came up with on the last spring tour – we were all just messing around at sound check, and I was hanging with Hunter. I was like “see that object that we normally put projection mapping on? Point your laser over there, can you outline that object with your laser? He’s got the software to do it, and he started doing something like laser mapping. Usually laser mapping will be used for movies, you laser map a room and then you CG it and turn it into an imaginary room. But, and I know I’m talking about it too much already, for laser mapping you find all these objects and use the same way you would project onto an object and you do it with a laser, and when you do it with a laser, if your laser is strong enough and fast enough, it’s a whole other texture of being able to bring these colors out and make things more vibrant. When we have time to set it up at a venue, it’s a little easier than when we just bring it to a festival.
SR: Are you still working with Zebbler for the video projection mapping?
Jason: We do but in a different way. Devon is our main video guy now, but he and Devon are partners in the whole video-mapping thing. Devon goes on the road with Zebbler most of the time. And when we had our lotus stage, Devon would set up the lotus stage and help Zebbler with the mapping. So they are definitely in the whole video-mapping endeavor together.
SR: That one effect where you have distorted projections of yourself on stage – did you help come up with that idea?
Jason: Yeah, the thing that limits us on that is that sometimes the communication between the cameras and the computer at that distance. Sometimes they just mess up because of the software programming. It’s another one of those times where we feel like we are always pushing the visuals, like how we came up with laser mapping, having all these cameras interact so it really can enhance showing what we are doing live, and then we can use software to manipulate those images even more. I think we only had two cameras up there today, but when we go beyond that there are so many random factors, like do they work together? Do they diffuse the signal that’s coming back to the computer?
SR: Interesting. There’s so much that goes into it.
Jason: Yeah, exactly.
SR: Have you guys ever thought about some kind of live DVD?
Jason: We’ve thought about it quite a few times. We’ve had a few film crews catch us at certain moments, when we had the Lotus especially. We haven’t done as much for this in particular. But when we go out for fall tour, that’s when it’s going to feel like, “Woah, this package is together and consistent.” That’s one of the reasons we gave it a name “The Prism;” we want to do something different. We’ve had the Lotus stage for two years, and we want to keep it fresh for ourselves.
SR: Have you incorporated any new musical technology into your production? I know you are always building onto your spaceship.
Jason: Yeah, the latest thing that we’ve done, we’ve probably been doing it for about a year now…. And this is kind of nerdy, but for us to play things that sound like trap is fun; you know, trap has those low long bass notes, and it’s usually triggered off the kick drum (like we are hearing right now). Going into Ablteon, I figured out a way to use a gate compressor… so Travis will play something on his keyboards, but no one can hear what he’s playing. He’s making a line that’s being recorded as a midi file. That’s playing in the background with no sound, and the only time it’s activated is when I hit my kick drum. When I hit my kick drum, all of a sudden a signal goes out and tells that to open up, to open up that fader on that, or just the sound on it. And so when I hit the kick drum, it opens up the sound and it’s set for a certain release; it only lasts for a certain amount of time. So if you play different notes, we can play with that. No other band does it live like that; that’s how we can still make it feel like improv, because we aren’t stuck to a certain thing. We can play around with it; it’s really fun. Travis sets it up, and it’s one of our little tricks.
SR: Have you seen any other artists who are influenced by your style or have started doing something you could say is similar?
Jason: Well, I wouldn’t say similar. There are some guys out in Minnesota who are putting together all improv electronic bands, a little bit with the computer and some looping. But I don’t know. When you dive into what we are doing, it’s pretty far down the road. You know, we probably make it look easy. But if you know the software, then you know how complicated it is. But we don’t feel like giving a lecture from the stage like, “Hey you kids – what we’re doing is really complicated” [laughs]. We just play our music.
Who did I run into recently…? Oh yeah, there was a band (Vibe & Direct) out at Nelson Ledges, where it was like a drummer, a guitar player, a lead singer, and a bass player. The guitar player pretty much had the looping set up for himself. He was doing some really cool things with it. When I talked to him afterwards and told him he was doing some really nice stuff, he was like, “Oh man, I look up to you so much. I watched your tutorials online a bunch.” They gave me their CD and said, “Yeah, we’ve been watching you guys for a long time, and now we’re doing it.” Not necessarily the whole looping thing, but just the inspiration to dive in and try to do some things live that are really different. Most DJs and producers, their version of doing something live is putting an effect on or turning it off, but when you’re actually making the music on stage, that’s just a whole other level. Not that it’s better; not that it’s worse. It’s just different.
SR: I personally think EOTO is an example of music’s shifting business model. Do you ever think you are part of a larger evolution of the music industry as a whole?
Jason: We could be, but there are a couple different realities. One thing is, as a band that just improvises, we feel so lucky that we are able to just make up music. When you hear a lot of “real” improvised music, like in jazz you have charts you can go off and a road map you can follow, or if there’s some improvised music at a college or at a museum, it’s usually very avant-garde and atonal. But when we get out there, we really put ourselves on the line where, really, there are no tunes, and to have the crowd get down like they were tonight… and for a younger generation, a lot of people are just hearing it as songs going by and don’t even know that it’s improvised. I think that we’ve had an incredible amount of success like that.
On the other side of it, we’re not exactly putting out any hits or playing anything that other DJs are playing. So there’s that aspect, so you know, with us there’s not all of a sudden going to be a song that catches on that everyone’s going to love. So we are just doing this slow run, and all we can put out there is the thing that makes us different, which is what we do, improvising. So we hope that’s the thing that really turns people onto it. We notice an entirely different reaction from the crowd when they know that we are [improvising]. They know as much about the music as we do in the moment, and they’re on that journey with us. We can feel it from the stage. If we play an EDM festival where it’s all DJs and it doesn’t necessarily feel like our crowd out there. They might still be with us, but they’re not, like, in it, and they’re not on the edge of the cliff with us. It still goes over good, just a different level of appreciation.
SR: So we’re here at Farm Fest, a “transformational” music festival. What do you like about these smaller festivals? And how would you say they’re different from the really big festivals you play?
Jason: Well, the intimacy is off the charts. I’ve been remarking how it’s great to see that a festival with this kind of lineup has made its way out to the east coast. This is a lot of people we know from Sonic Bloom and other west coast festivals, Phutureprimitive, Andreillien (Heyoka). We walk around the site and feel this more tribal setting. Whereas sometimes when you come out on the east coast, it’s a little more of a rave setting. This feels like it has a certain hominess factor and a creativeness factor that are a little bit different than when we come out east.
SR: In the last Sensible Reason interview you did, you said many String Cheese Incident fans were turned off by this new electronic direction. Would you say you’ve turned around any of the hardcore SCI fans, or is EOTO’s fan base totally unique and different?
Jason: For EOTO, we definitely have a different fan base, and it seems like the younger generation is more open to hear whirs and clicks and bleeps and blurs, and consider that music.
There’s a whole world (which is great about String Cheese and their fans) of diversity where we’re playing bluegrass and funk and rock and all these other genres. Yeah, it’s a stretch; for years to be in this groovy, super organic world, and then to switch over to a world that can be angular, with dudes randomly grinding up on you sometimes [laughs] and stuff like that. It’s not like this environment where it’s like, “Yeah, I want to be part of that.” I get that part. But at the same time, there are a lot of people who are just growing up and all their friends are into this music, and they just get both worlds and feel comfortable in both. That’s one of the cool things about Electric Forest; you can really dive in as hard as you want into both worlds. There are definitely a ton of people who are EOTO fans who will be like, “Oh my god. I’m going to see String Cheese for the first time; I didn’t even know you were in that band.” There’s a lot of that too, which we’re happy about. In String Cheese we’re never necessarily trying to do EOTO moments. Even if we do tap into the electronic world, we’re just trying to make this thing that’s still comfortable for us to play as a band. So again, it’s that diversity. iIt’s the same thing as when String Cheese went from just being a bluegrass and Travis only played percussion (he didn’t play drums), and then all of a sudden Michael Kang plugged in his mandolin, Travis got behind drums, they hired Kyle to play keyboards and they started doing jazz, there were a whole lot of fans that were like, “What are you guys doing?! Where’s my bluegrass band?”. So there are these levels of that going into the electronic world too. As String Cheese we enjoy that we can go anywhere with anything, and sometimes we’ll do things just to do it, like, “Yeah, we can put bluegrass and electronic music together. There you go!”. And you just see what comes out, always aim for the positive and do the best that you can.
SR: Awesome. Words of wisdom. What would you say is your biggest concern about this scene and culture?
Jason: I would just say that kids should look out for each other and be safe. All of this is about getting together and having fun and forgetting about what’s going on during the week. But I don’t know that you always have to be heroic about it. I don’t know if you should always be in competition with yourself to do more drugs or more alcohol than you did the last time. I don’t think that it ever has to get sloppy. I’ve definitely been there, but you shouldn’t always feel like you have to push the limits of what your body can actually handle. Listen to your body, and take care of each other and be safe. I know how it is when you’re growing up and you want to either prove yourself, or you already know you’re the shit. But you know what, it’s cool. Whatever you do, you’re going to have a good time if you’re with your friends and you support each other, help each other get by, and, above all, be safe. There are people who might just be out there to make money off their drugs, and they want you to have all of it so you come back for more; they’re not around when you get sick so they don’t care as much. So just take care of each other, and you’ll be good.
SR: What would be your dream superjam with any musician, living or dead?
Jason: Living or dead? Why’d you do that? [laughs]. That’s a rough one; I’ve kind of had that question before. And I don’t know if it would necessarily work [with EOTO], but there are all these people that I love. There’s a bass player called Richard Bona who’s amazing, a keyboard d player named Joe Zawinul, a jazz player who has all these world music sounds and reinvented the keyboard per se. And you know, Beethoven, Mozart… I mean, come on, let;s get them on something. Or Bach – bring that harpsichord baby! Plug that harpsichord in, and let’s do stuff! There’s also Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, and there’s jams that we’ve had with String Cheese, having Bill Frisell on stage. I’d love to get this guy; there’s a drummer/percussionist named Trilok Gurtu. I’d love to get him with a jazz guitarist named Pat Metheny. There are just so many I can think of.
SR: And one last question: an EOTO show has the ultimate element of surprise, but do you guys ever surprise yourselves on stage?
Jason: Oh yeah, all the time. There’s a certain flow we get into, but once in a while, we’ll hit these moments where we look at each other and are like, “Wow… We are really doing this.” We still have those moments, which are great. That’s kind of the whole point; we want to push each other, and you hope it comes out good. All you’re doing is trying your best. When it comes out beyond what you expected, you’re like, “Yes, this is why we are doing it.” And when you make mistakes, like at Electric Forest, the PA went out on us. It wasn’t our fault, but I was playing drums and maybe only the first two rows of people could hear, and I just started leading the crowd in a song, “Oh baby you, you got what I need,” and then we came back and were like, ”Woah, that happened.” So there’s a surprise there. It was fully out of a mistake, but you always try to make those things better in the moment as opposed to freaking out and stopping until it gets fixed. Fuck it – make some wine out of that. Bad analogy, but you know what I mean.
EOTO has officially announced their “Outer Orbit” fall tour with “The Prism” laser production. Check out the dates below and download their sets at Live Downloads.
Photo Credit: Phil Sunkel and Nick Sonsini of Hype Music Festivals.