Lotus: Band can express one energy, but isn’t content to be just one thing
Since forming in 1999, the instrumental act Lotus has slowly gravitated toward more ambient and electronic music while building a fan base through relentlessly playing the festival circuit. Recorded to analog tape in Philadelphia and St. Louis, its forthcoming album, Build, which is due out in February, begins with the jazzy “Break Build Burn” and then moves through various genres, mixing techno and rock. Bassist Jesse Miller recently phoned us to talk about the album.
Were you in college when the band formed?
Yeah and in the first couple of years we had a few different formations but in 1999, the core of the band, which is me and my brother Luke and our guitarist Mike Rempel, started playing together. For the first three years, Luke and I were finishing up in school. After that, we moved to Philadelphia and then started touring more and getting all the gigs we could and traveling around.
What were your musical interests then?
We went to high school in the mid- to late-’90s and were definitely in that alternative rock scene. When we formed the band, we found mutual interests and started delving further into music. We liked ’70s funk fusion stuff. Early on we had this interest in rhythm music and that started with funk music. We were listening to Phish and went and saw a couple of Phish shows and then later on, started to get turned on to other music. Electronic music was part of the underground and associated with raves. It’s not like what we think of in the past few years where there’s been this huge explosion. I didn’t come at it from that culture. I was going to punk rock shows and whenever I heard electronic music, it was way more poppy or way too heavy; I never got into it. But then we got exposed to bands that were more ambient, especially The Orb and Underworld, and to these tracks that created a vibe and were really trancey. That became appealing to us, even though we weren’t producing electronic music. We didn’t even have synths. But we heard that stuff and thought, “How can we using our guitars create a vibe similar to this?” That was what we wanted to do even though we have now progressed to the point where we are using samplers and those kinds of things to achieve that kind of sound.
It seemed like there was a wave of that happening at the time. Did you feel connected to that?
When I was in college, there were bands like The New Deal and Sound Tribe Sector 9 that were already touring quite a bit. We saw those bands play occasionally. They were coming at it from different angles. I thought Lotus brought something unique to that. Unlike The New Deal, we never set out to be this band that sounds electronic. We thought of it as a portion of the palette that’s Lotus, but it’s one portion and not everything. We can still do things that are more rock or just straight guitar. Our sound is an amalgam of many different things. Since we came a little after those groups, we were compared to those groups. That never really rang true with us.
What was one of the best theme shows you ever put on?
I think one of the most fun ones was the Bowie one. Unfortunately, the venue didn’t sound that great. But learning all the Bowie songs was really great. When you delve into a band you learn their process. I never appreciated how good it was. The person who did our costumes went all out. It takes a lot of work to put together. We’ve been focusing our energy on writing the new stuff. Not to say it’s not something that won’t happen again. One of the hardest things is actually coming up with a concept of what we’re going to do and getting everyone to agree. Combining that with the fact that we’re an instrumental band makes it a tricky thing. These are the things we are going to think about it. If it were just up to me, I would suggest covering Kraftwerk or Television, but maybe our fans wouldn’t like that. It’s tricky to come up with that good concept.
In the past, we’ve gone for a more eclectic approach. This is really concise. There’s one energy that goes through the entire album.
Talk about the new album and how it differs from previous efforts.
We record a lot of different tracks and narrow it down for a particular album. This time, we did that even more. We spent the last two years going in and out of the studio and writing and recording different stuff. This was going to be a very specific batch of songs. In the past, we’ve gone for a more eclectic approach. This is really concise. There’s one energy that goes through the entire album. I think it’s something people will want to listen to straight through. It’s really tight. Sonically, we mixed with an engineer we’ve been working with out of Philadelphia and we have a great overall sound. I think it’s the best sounding record we’ve ever made.
So many bands have come and gone — especially in the jam scene — in the course of the time you’ve been together. What keeps Lotus going?
We have the drive to do it. I see some of the other bands in the jam scene either getting stale or not progressing. They’re still doing the same thing they did ten years ago. For us, it’s not that [our drive] helped us grow bigger or faster, but it keeps us pushing forward creatively and it keeps it interesting. A band is a ton of work.
You’ve maintained a fan base at a time when fans aren’t loyal and don’t tend to buy records.
In this world that Lotus exists in, we’ve always had the business model that the vast majority of our revenue will come from live shows. If we can make money from recordings, that’s great. That kind of thing is a reality for all groups now when it wasn’t maybe ten years ago. There is still a downside. We put on really good live shows but we do great work in the studio. It’s hard to get people to check it out. There’s been so many lazy jam band albums over the years. That’s why I tell people that in many ways we are not a jam band. One of the things that comes along with that musical genre is that it means you play long shows and your albums are terrible. It means your fans go to festivals. That’s why I stay away from that term.
It almost applies to the culture more than the music.
Yeah. Sometimes we will make what I think is an incredible album but no one is listening to it. I blame Phish for making all these not-great albums over the years so people have this idea of what it’s going to be like even before they check it out.
March 1 & 2
Boston, MA- House of Blues
New York, NY- Best Buy Theater
Brooklyn, NY- Knitting Factory * w/o Moon Hooch
Syracuse, NY- The Westcott Theater
Cleveland, OH- Beachland Ballroom
Royal Oak, MI- Royal Oak Theatre
Columbus, OH- Newport Music Hall * co-bill w/ Keller Williams
Grand Rapids, MI- The Intersection
Bloomington, IN- Jake’s
Milwaukee, WI- Turner Hall Ballroom
Madison, WI- Barrymore Theatre
Minneapolis, MN- Mill City Nights
Lincoln, NE- Bourbon Theatre
Fayetteville, AR- George’s Majestic Lounge
Oklahoma City, OK- Diamond Ballroom
Dallas, TX- Trees
Austin, TX- Stubb’s BBQ
Tallahassee, FL- The Moon
Tampa, FL- The Ritz Ybor
Orlando, FL- Beacham Theater
Ft. Lauderdale, FL- Culture Room
Jacksonville, FL- Freebird Live
Wilmington, NC- Brooklyn Performing Arts Center
Carrboro, NC- Cat’s Cradle
Asheville, NC- Orange Peel
Atlanta, GA- Terminal West