As alchemists of a traditional human band and electronica automation, Lotus have been riding a building wave of success with their dance-friendly live shows and uplifting sounds since calling Philadelphia home in 2002 and releasing Germination in 2003. With the 2004 release of Nomad, the band has found more doors, or ears, opening up to larger audiences-- the summer festival circuit for one. In the midst of a busy tour through the midwest, I caught up with bassist Jesse Miller after the band had finished dinner and were getting ready to perform before a recent show.
By Matt SchwenkeWhat were your influences growing up?
Lotus: When I first started playing in high school, me and Luke actually had a ska band. And, we got started there. I listened to a lot of punk rock and ska, and that led me into all kinds of different other stuff like jazz, reggae.... all kinds of different genres.
Is there anything new that has caught your ear lately?
Lotus: Yeah, maybe the last year or so I've been listening to a lot more roots rock and alt-country. I've been getting a lot more in to that side of things.
I wanna go back to the old Thai Joe's shows, before the place was closed down, you guys were still in school then, right?
Lotus: I don't think so. Well, we graduated a few years ago. We may have played there once while we were still in school.
Do you guys all have degrees now?
Lotus: Three of us.
What are they in?
Lotus: I have a music degree, and Luke has a music and a peace and justice double major. Steve was music and sociology.
So it kind of fit in with school, at least somewhat, or was it hard to balance the two?
Lotus: No, I don't think it was that tough to do. But when we were in school, we did put a lot of time into it the band. We would play on the weekends a lot and practice whenever we had the time.
Have you ever had to sell an instrument to pay rent or bills?
Lotus: No, not yet. But I don't like to have extra instruments sitting around that aren't going to use. My theory is it's not really an instrument if it's not being played. If it's something I have and I'm not using it, I'll get rid of it.
With the release of Nomad, that's the second on Harmonized Records?
Lotus: Yeah, we released Germination on their label as well.
What attracted you to that label?
Lotus: We just sent them some music pretty early on, and they get hundreds of CD's a week,... but Brian Asplin, the president, it just caught his ear. He was really excited about it because he said he heard so much that he didn't like and to get something he liked was great. So we stayed in touch and talked with them for a while, and it worked out well to put out Germination through their label. We were initially going to do a limited distribution or small run, but we cut the album from live stuff we had recorded and just rolled with it. And now it continues to sell pretty well. I'm glad we pushed a little further on that.
Something I've always liked from early on with this band is all the artwork. Is that from someone in the band?
Lotus: A lot of the design comes from a buddy of ours that went to school with us and now lives in Philadelphia as well, Carl Bender. He did the artwork for Germination and Nomad, and he also works as part of a T-shirt company now that does some of our logo designs. We usually call on him to do the design work because we really like what he does.
What's the creative process like in the band for new material?
Lotus: Myself and Luke write almost everything that we play. Usually we'll bring an idea pretty well worked out to the group. but there will be some parts left out or it needs some more rearrangement. When we bring the piece to the group we iron out all the details and make the arrangement work.
What inspires you personally? Do you have a muse in music?
Lotus: A lot of times, we take a decent amount of inspiration, or at least we used to... its still true on some compositions, from looking toward what electronic producers are doing and saying 'how can we take these certain styles or approaches and apply them to a live band.' I think that really led to some good stuff for us. It's taking a certain kind of groove or style of composition and filtering it through a new process to come out with something different. I think that's led to some pretty creative things. Beyond that, I think it's just beats. Hearing different beats and how they work together in grooves is really what always gets me started on a composition.
In live shows, how much improv or variation from the usual song structure is there?
Lotus: On most of the songs we have quite a bit of improvisation worked into the structure. There will usually be a main part of the song and then a more free-form part near the end, or several different sections of that. I'd say 50 to 60 percent of the show is improvised.
When you're playing improvisationaly, what's the balance in feel and theory?
Lotus: All those things come together. You try not to think about it too much, but if we're playing in a certain scale and I hear Luke hit a chord that implies something else I'll try to use those notes. Or, if we're starting to get more outside the scale or weird... Being able to hear those things and know to some degree, from playing with Lotus or from a theoretical point of view, what's going to work or not all comes together.
So a 50-50 kind of thing?
Lotus: Yeah, it's almost like you learn the theory so you can forget about it. You don't have to think about it. You know how it works and it's a tool like any other. You don't have to think about putting your finger down to play the string, and ultimately, theory's like that too. You can just use it as you need it.
What has been the hardest part about life on the road?
Lotus: You stay really busy. Long drives can be a real killer. I think one of the hardest parts is when there is a show or two in a row that aren't very good. Either the crowds not very good or we weren't playing very good-- that always gets us down. Lately we've had great crowds so that happens less and less. But when there's good shows in a row, that keeps everything rolling. I almost wish we had more time to devote to studio work. It always feels like we'll start working on something and then we have to go out and do a run because that's what pays the bills. At this point, it's necessary for us to be on the road quite a bit.
You recently did a stint in Japan?
Lotus: Yeah, about a month ago.
What was it like playing your music in another nation?
Lotus: It was great. Seeing the music accepted over there showed the universal power of music. The crowds weren't all that much different. People would dance and get down over there too, and have a great time. We had a great time when the crowd was gettin' down as well.
What has been the strangest encounter you've had on the road?
Lotus: Oh man..., on a tour about a year and a half ago or so, we were up in Northern California and we randomly met this guy named Sage who was (Laughs) really out there. He told us all about the people he knew who traveled in time and told us about the future. He was growing a bunch of marijuana in his room, and he lived right on the beach but he apparently never left the house. This guy was really weird.
In traveling around, do you notice any differences in crowds or venues from coast to coast?
Lotus: It's more of a market or venue thing.
What's the smallest audience you've played for?
Lotus: Some really small ones back in the day. I remember this one show... we had just moved to Philly and some band cancelled last minute. So we hadn't done any advertisement and literally nobody came. We just set up our stuff and played to the bartenders. We practiced a couple songs, took our money and left.
Paying your dues. The largest?
Lotus: All good festival, 3-5,000. Some of the others like Wakarusah were pretty big, about 2,000 people.
Are the festivals more fun? Do you get to see other groups?
Lotus: They can be a lot of fun, it depends on the scheduling. It was kind of an ongoing joke between the bands this summer that we kept seeing each other at the different festivals. Some times we have to roll in, play and roll out. At High Sierra we got to go and hang out, and it was like actually attending a festival. At Wakarusah I was really pumped to see Wilco, but we had to leave for another show.
For someone who's never heard you before, in as few words as possible, how would you describe your music?
Lotus: Uhm..., yeah..., that gets tough. (laughs) I guess the easiest way is to play to different people, like how old they are or what kind of music they're familiar with. Usually, I describe it as a fusion of electronic music and funk or rock and dance.
So, electronic and insert whatever depending on who you're talking to?
Lotus: Exactly. Some people know the difference between house and drum'n'bass, but others, you say techno and that only means one thing to them.
What's on the horizon for Lotus fans?
Lotus: We're working on a new album which should be out in the spring or late winter. I'm really excited about that. I think it's something everyone can look forward to, and I think it will be a really big step in some new musical directions. There will definitely be a lot of touring in the winter and spring to support that.
Concert review - Milwaukee, WI Oct. 22, 2005