Lotus performs tonight, April 26 at Summit Music Hall and tomorrow, April 27, at Red Rocks. The five-piece has been playing the jam band/livetronica circuit since near the turn of the century. But its compositions and sets transcend clichés and have more in common with the early 70s experimental jazz and Krautrock that informs its sound and song structures. Its imaginative use of tone and texture and incorporation of the methods and aesthetics of electronic music production has pushed the band out of being stuck in a creative rut resulting in a fairly consistent run of fascinating records and live shows.
Formed in 1999 at Goshen College in Indiana, Lotus didn’t have much in the way of an outlet nearby to perform or like-minded peers. Certainly the jam band and improvisational music world existed and groups of no small artistic merit like Widespread Panic and Gov’t Mule had already established themselves. But groups that had the electronic element were not yet so, pardon the reference, widespread. Two years prior Umphrey’s McGee had formed at the University of Notre Dame. And there was a bit of a circuit Lotus cultivated, recalls bassist Jesse Miller, a circuit playing in college towns like Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, Michigan. In Goshen, “[there] was terrible hard rock and rap rock,” says Miller. “At the school it was more people doing folk music.”
“The local place we played was this really dumpy bar called Courthouse Pub,” says Miller. “It’s crazy to think about how people just smoked everywhere back then and that that would never change. Instead of ventilation it would be fans blowing cigarette smoke back down at you.”
Miller’s description of Courthouse Pub could apply to many dive bars and other small clubs across America regardless of the style of music you played in the late 90s through about the middle of the 2000s. But Lotus had some options for relocating to where it could easily tour the east coast and cultivate a regular audience and Philadelphia seemed like a place where they group could get some momentum going. Disco Biscuits had established itself and played bigger places. Brothers Past was active during that early 2000s period. The Ally, with whom Lotus drummer Mike Greenfield once played was also based in the Philadelphia area. Lotus went from a place with few like-minded artists to a place that seemed to have a genuine scene where it could develop and expand its fanbase. And, of course, Lotus has has since built itself into one of the most innovative and popular acts in all of the realm of livetronica.
Miller and his brother Luke, the guitarist and keyboardist in Lotus, had grown up in Lakewood, Colorado where they had a high school ska band called Put That Down, Chris that in the late 90s played events like People’s Fair, shows in the park, gigs at church community spaces. But it was nothing too serious, just friends playing and having fun, and Miller’s own interest in composition was something he pursued when he went to college. Miller garnered a healthy appreciation for jazz, particularly the late 60s and early 70s era including the spiritual jazz of Alice Cooper, the fusion era of Miles Davis (especially Bitches Brew from 1970) and Joe Henderson. Miller particularly enjoys “the textural stuff they were doing with percussion but also the groove, and trance-like nature of that.”
However, unlike, say, the Dap Kings, Lotus has never been the band to try to recreate a faithful rendering of a studio sound or era. There is a fluidity and well crafted layers of sound and dynamics that is almost its own kind of fusion—that of the aforementioned era of jazz but one that includes not just jazz, rock and funk but also more modern electronic sounds and hip-hop production. Its 2018 album Frames Per Second is a fine example of the way Lotus integrates its musical interests with its unique alchemy of ideas.
From early on in the band, Miller’s imagination was impacted by music that doesn’t seem to fit in with the image of a jam band and yet The Orb, the legendary UK production duo, exerted a strong and early influence.
“The stuff we were hearing from the Orb were so different from a rock band but we heard a lot of similarities in how they would extend things and the idea of minimalism and using sounds as part of the composition process,” says Miller.
On the new record one can hear a scintillating collage of sounds and textures that are reminiscent of the likes of Flying Lotus’ wide rangingly ethereal sounds and Daft Punk’s smooth yet renegade beats. “When I think of Daft Punk compositionally they’re very into this idea of looping, really short loops, sometimes one bar or two beats,” says Miller. “When I was writing ‘Cold Facts,” it was based around this simple bass line that’s one bar long but the way it’s set up rhythmically you can almost be fooled as to where the downbeat is. Those kinds of loops can go on for so long because what’s interesting about it is already built into the loop and it doesn’t ever need to change. That simple bass line and very simple beat frees up the space for the more complex harmonies that are happening with the keyboards and the guitar.”
As a bassist Miller is bit unorthodox in he becomes a bit of a lead player while also holding down the rhythm. Rooted in funk, Miller and his band mates approach the writing process more like Krautrock.
“[We keep] this propulsive thing going and [break] off from that and [come] back,” says Miller. “Sometimes I think of it as a sequence that’s running and I’m manipulating the synth. I’ll keep a pattern going and I’ll make subtle changes to the effects or how I’m articulating the line. Give it the idea of filtering in and out.”
In building in that ability to go off the map yet maintain a dynamic center, Lotus’ songs can sprawl where they will without losing coherence. The hallmark of a great jam band of any kind. And Miller doesn’t mind being put under that umbrella.
“I’m fine with being slotted in with that,” says Miller. “There are advantages and disadvantages to that. I think to have a unique voice you need to look for influences outside of that stuff. Honestly I can’t really stand listening to jam bands even though we are one. Once you’re inside of that you’re really exposed to the excesses and flaws that style can be and hopefully avoid them. The downside is that people have this idea that they know what you sound like without actually listening to you. That’s frustrating for any artist.”