I recently bought my ticket to Outside Lands, the premier Northern-California music event which is hosted in Berkeley’s enchanting People’s Park…wait…I meant to say San Francisco’s gorgeous Golden Gate Park. The festival is cheaper than Coachella, the weather’s going to be nicer, and even though Kanye West isn’t performing it’s well worth it. To get myself, those Metrojolt fans who are also going, and those still thinking about getting a ticket super stoked about this special experience, I’m starting an exploration into the artists performing at the festival. I’ll be choosing big names, unknowns, and in-betweens to expose naked (in the musical, non-figurative sense) for our readers.
If you like instrumental jam sessions laid over with electronic sounds, you’re going to dig Lotus. The band has all the typical instruments associated with a rock group, but the addition of a sampler throws Lotus into the realm of a multi-genre band. Their sound started with simple sampled sequences in 2004, but since then the sampler has become an essential presence in each of the group’s tracks. Their upcoming release, self-titled LP Lotus, is by far the most electronic-influenced of their albums. Pre-recorded horns, vocals, and synths are all channeled into this newest compilation.
Their live performances are perhaps what the group is best known for. They are some experienced cats when it comes to festivals, having played every major one on the West Coast. They tour almost year round, performing between 90-110 shows a year. That’s a lot of jamming, and their high level of experience shows in the quality of their improvisation. They are playing this Friday at Outside Lands Music Festival in Golden Gate Park on the Twin Peaks stage. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse, the band’s bassist, master sampler and an aficionado of fine quality beers.
Jesse: I was out in San Francisco visiting friends and arranged for a number of friends from different periods of my life to meet at Monk’s Kettle in the Mission. I love craft beer and especially California hoppy ales, of which Monk’s Kettle has a great selection. It was just a simple evening of great beer and conversation with old friends, that is perhaps what made it ideal. Two friends, who met for the first time that night, ended up dating and are still together.
Your group functions as a band, with each person holding down an instrument. But there are also electronic effects weaved into many of your song. You control these. When did you start working with the sampler and other electronic effects?
Jesse: I started using a sampler in 2004 I believe – an antiquated zip disk based machine called the Roland SP-808 (try finding 100mb zip disk drives on the road when something goes wrong!) triggered from a foot pedal. At first it was very simple, adding a few sound effects here and there. Eventually we started writing integral parts for the sampler into the compositions. After numerous disk drive errors I moved on to a computer based system to host my samples,but I still use it in the same manner. A laptop is on stage, but remains closed – I don’t need to be staring at a glowing screen. It gives us the ability to bring in sounds we can’t perform on traditional instruments and a way to trigger these in a way that is dynamic and live.
Another question on the samples– where are you pulling them from?
Jesse: Calling it a sampler can be misleading. The vast majority of sounds I’m triggering are things Luke (keyboards/guitar) or I have recorded or created in our home studios – not sounds that are sampled from other records. They are parts we aren’t able to perform live another way such as string arrangements, horns, guest vocals, electronic collages and sound effects.
For your new album, to be released September 13th, is there a thread throughout which ties the individual tracks together?
Jesse: There wasn’t a specific theme going into the recording. We recorded a large number of tracks, at least 2 full albums worth, and narrowed it down from those to put the album together. The tracks that ended up on the album seemed to present themselves as a collection that worked well together. The synthesizer, especially a Moog Voyager, plays a large role. And the mixing style gives the album a very cohesive sound in my mind even with the contrast between traditional rock instrumentation, electronic elements and the string orchestrations. For me, this is the Lotus album that seems most like a live show. There is no improvisation on it, but the energy on the album seems like a live concert as it builds in the tracks themselves and throughout the entire sequencing.
Jesse: None of us are very strong singers, so we don’t sing live and are primarily considered an instrumental band. When we do use vocals I don’t think there is a drastic change to the overall feel. In my mind vocals are just another possible sound – not much different than recording a string arrangement for a composition. When we write vocal parts they tend to serve a very melodic purpose and the lyrics tend to be somewhat abstract. We aren’t pursuing storytelling, but using lyrics to set a mood. The Surf (written by Luke and on the new album) is a great example of this. The summer feel of the music is accompanied by an image of the tide leveling a beach day in and out. It is a halcyon scene, but the image of the endless repetition of the surf washing onto the beach adds a melancholic element. That feeling is mirrored in the final chord progression that starts and ends on a minor chord, but otherwise is a straight major progression – it is that constant tension between joy and sadness that is the heart of all nostalgia.
Improvisation is a big part of your live performances. While it’s spontaneous, what kind of mentality do you need to improvise well as a group?
Jesse: It is usually very obvious when you see a group that has improvised together for a long time, they seem to know where they are going even if it is surprising for both the performers and the audience – it feels natural. When everything is working well we can all stop on a dime together or make big dynamic changes without any visual signals. I think there is a subtle art to finding a balance between getting so lost in group improvisation that it becomes self-indulgent and trying to orchestrate it so much that it becomes constricting and forced. Watching great group improvisation should be like watching a tight-rope walker that seems ready to fall at any second, but manages to stay upright. We try to capture that spirit of being in the moment and close to disaster. That makes it exciting for us and hopefully for the audience.
This year’s Outside Lands is going to be where gourmet eaters and seasoned wine drinkers go to heaven. What’s your perfect meal, and if you drink wine, what would you pair it with?
Jesse: Well, I’m much more of a craft beer drinker than a wine connoisseur. I’d pair vegan sushi with a Pliney the Elder from Russian River – wasabi spice meets complex hop tones.