By Ray Chelstowski
For the last 20 years Lotus have been pushing the boundaries of the jam scene with an instrumental sound that fuses electronic beats with elements of dance. They came together in college, like so many bands, and across their time together they have had personal changes that have only made their sound more interesting and dynamic. Recently they added guitarist Tim Palmieri to their lineup and his experience with bands like Kung Fu and The Breakfast have helped add subtle new textures to their well-established sound.
An incredibly prolific band (they’ve released 17 albums in 20 years) they now introduce their latest offering, Bloom & Recede. It’s a slight departure from the sound they are known for and leans heavily on a modular synth system that they constructed. Goldmine caught up with the Miller brothers (Jesse and Luke) and talked about how this record came to be, what the addition of Palmieri is contributing to their sound, and what bands they are spinning these days that warrant reader listens.
Goldmine: So many jam bands formed in college and have enjoyed amazing longevity. It’s rare in rock. Why is it more common in “jam”?
Jesse Miller: I don’t know if that’s always the case. There are a lot of bands that started when we did and have since broken up. I think the question is really “what makes a jam band?” It’s less about the music and more about the community and the bands that surround it. I think that helps bands stay together because it becomes part of a much larger thing.
Luke Miller: I think that getting away from that pop-cycle of release an album, tour for two years, disappear for a year or two versus hosting different shows every night and constantly touring allows bands to keep things going forward and develop a regularity instead of plopping something big in the market then disappearing.
GM: With this record you took a different approach.
JM: It was part of a concept we had used previously. We’re both really into dance music and synth stuff so this became a kind of “proof of concept” exercise where we asked ourselves if we could take these ideas and increase that side of Lotus and still make if feel like “Lotus.”
LM: Yeah, there were just some technological hurdles like setting up how we would play it live with modular synths. By doing that it set in motion the idea of doing a whole record with this as a focal point.
GM: How do you begin the process of recording a new record?
JM: There are a couple of different methods that we use. Me and Luke work a little differently in the way that we write. Sometimes if we are working on a record and we sense that there’s a hole it can push a starting point. But I would say that the groove is what really starts things off. That could be programming a drum beat or getting some kind of drum loop to work off of. That foundation is what starts things for me. Other times it’s starting with something weird and working your way back. Even just writing on a Wurlitzer feels different than writing on a guitar. I just like to take different approaches and see where things land.
GM: When you arrive at the studio how “baked” are the general ideas you have for the record?
LM: We usually have demos that are pretty fleshed out. For this record, with the pandemic, we weren’t able to have all five of us in the studio at the same time. This was piece by piece, people recording separately.
JM: We have kind of always worked that way. Luke and I live in different cities so when we are putting together a demo we are sending files back and forth all of the time. That allows us to work things out before we bring everyone into the studio. It seems like this is becoming the more modern way of working.
GM: The album cover art is real striking. Who created it and how did this come together?
JM: It’s by a painter named Jonathan Cowan. I first encountered his work in Harper’s magazine. He has this whole series called “Radiant Void” which is usually like a flower or mushroom with geometric patterns. They are very striking. So we reached out and were able to come to an agreement with him. It just really felt good for the record. The painting is such a combination of “natural” and “fantastic,” the “natural” and the “geometric”. It just felt like it represented what we had going on with the synth elements and the live band elements.
GM: The instructional videos you both created for breaking down the synth stack and song structures were very entertaining. Any chance we’ll see more of that in the future?
JM: I think that we’ll definitely do more. I sometimes wonder if we are getting too technical too quickly. So I try to keep it somewhat approachable. People definitely like to “nerd out” on that stuff but when I start talking about voltage I can sometimes lose them. As long as we can find a good balance between what’s approachable and what’s interesting we will make more.
GM: This is the first album with Tim Palmieri. What did he bring to the process?
LM: He was pretty much thrown into this at a point where we had all of the songs written already. It was only like a week after his first show that he jumped into the studio and started recording. He has a really deep knowledge of music theory so we were just trying to guide that toward a melodic place and have it slot into the record.
GM: Do you test drive material on the road before a record release?
LM: Actually, we don’t do that. We like to have people hear the recorded version first. For the last four records we have saved everything until its out then played it live. It can be frustrating, writing these songs and then having to wait a long time to go through the process of printing the vinyl. Then by the time it comes out it’s been like six years, and you’re already writing a ton of new stuff. That lag can be hard.
GM: You are a band committed to LPs in a world that’s moving more toward EPs and singles. How do you pick singles?
JM: It’s definitely tough. With an album I think that leading with something that has high energy is always good. We work on albums as a whole as opposed to singles so everything is put together in a certain way. Hearing some songs without hearing what leads in to them or what comes out can be a little weird. This is where we have arrived with Spotify. It’s so singles driven. We have to kind of play that game. It probably makes sense from a marketing perspective. For me artistically “the album” is the way I like to experience music. It’s more of a statement. But people are now getting used to listening to these algorithmically generated playlists where things just jump around.
LM: I’ve never seen someone publish their list of “greatest EPs.” EPs may be a great way to get songs out but I think that albums make a complete artistic statement.
GM: As an instrumental band how do you approach song sequencing on your records?
JM: We think about the vinyl song sequencing all of the time, as in what are you going to hear before you flip over the record. Maybe that is important to a small percentage of people who listen to us but I think it helps structure how an album goes together.
GM: Who are you both listening to right now that you think others should be paying attention to?
JM: We’ve been digging this Australian band called Mild Life that sort of a late 1970s sort of sound with a dance sensibility. They’re really good.
LM: Floating Points has been putting out a lot of really cool stuff that I’ve been digging; especially his last two songs.