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Back to the Future: An Oral History of Livetronica

by Benjy Eisen & Mike Greenhaus on April 17, 2014

After the death of Jerry Garcia and the rise of Phish and Widespread Panic, the next generation of jambands emerged. Though firmly rooted in the Grateful Dead’s commitment to improvisation, many of these groups looked past American roots music to such sources as jazz, funk and even hard rock. While musically worlds apart from the early electronic movement that was simultaneously blossoming, the two scenes had a number of similarities. Both audiences liked to dabble in drugs like acid and ecstasy and dance for hours on end.

A few enterprising young jambands saw the crossover appeal and began to incorporate electronic sounds and beats into their live, improvisational-based jam-rock. Enter the Disco Biscuits from Philadelphia, Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) from Atlanta, Lake Trout from Baltimore and The New Deal from Toronto. And a scene and a genre were born.

Marc Brownstein (Disco Biscuits/Conspirator): We all rallied around the whole Grateful Dead and Phish scene when we got to college. But at the same time, we discovered Hallucinogen and ultimately Shpongle and the whole Twisted Record scene through a friend at Penn. We also discovered The Orb, and all that other stuff that was the first wave of rave that had come out in the early to mid-‘90s.

Mike Greenfield (Lotus): In 1998, I caught Jojo Mayer’s weekly residency in New York City. Although Jojo came from the jazz world as opposed to the jam scene, he was the first person I saw that combined improvisational music with electronica. The first band I saw specifically from the jam scene that merged the two idioms was the Disco Biscuits. I have found that instrumentalists like Jojo generally shy away from group rehearsals and composition. The New Deal also came from this instrumentalist school of thought and proudly proclaimed that they never rehearsed or wrote a song offstage. The Biscuits wrote multifaceted compositions that weren’t entirely electronic in nature but used the jam sections to explore electronic genres. They focused more on the summation of music produced by the band as a cohesive unit. The big three are the Disco Biscuits, STS9 and The New Deal. Most jamtronica bands today usually derive their musical concepts from one—or a combination—of these bands.

Jeffree Lerner (STS9): I was Leftover Salmon’s monitor engineer and stage tech for a while and played with Jeff Sipe every time I could. It’s part of our evolution. But we have always been interested in electronic music—DJ Logic and Brian Eno. As the technology became more familiar to us, we were able to incorporate that into our set.

Alex Botwin (Paper Diamond): My dad used to take me to Phish shows when I was super, super young, so I came from a background of seeing live instrumentation—whether it was jazz, jambands or punk bands. The first time I saw computers and bands integrated was Sound Tribe or the Disco Biscuits. After a while, I was going to a lot of their shows, though there weren’t too many of us going on tour with Sound Tribe at that time.

Jamie Shields (The New Deal): My background was a healthy combination of jazz and jambands. I saw about 35 Phish shows between 1991 and 1993, and played in a seven-piece jazz/funk band [One Step Beyond] that opened for a bunch of bands at Wetlands [in New York] as early as 1995.

Tom Hamilton (Brothers Past): The first time I became aware of electronic music coming into live rock ‘n’ roll was a song called “Parsec” by Stereolab—it was produced by John McEntire, the drummer for Tortoise. There were these great elements—very groovy elements. At the time I was into Phish and the Grateful Dead, but, as a kid, I always was into the idea of “the song.” Stereolab brought those two things together. [Brothers Past keyboardist] Tom McKee played me the Disco Biscuits’ Uncivilized Area for the first time.

Dominic Lalli (Big Gigantic): I was into the jam scene and living in New York before Colorado. My friends were in the Bomb Squad with Jen Durkin. But then I got into Bjork, which got me into electronic stuff. I was playing a lot of funk and listening to a lot of Radiohead. That was my first bit of everything coming together. I loved it all. I was like, “Aww, what is all this new shit?” When I first joined The Motet, we played Harmonic Convergence. One of those guys pointed out Sound Tribe. That was the first time I saw [electronic music] enter the whole jam world.

Marc Brownstein: We stumbled on jamtronica in 1997. We started to toy around with the beat in our jams. We were playing songs like “Shem Ra Boo” and “Run Like Hell” and the beat was the first thing that went over. In the mid ‘90s, we were listening to a lot of house music and trance music. Our drummer, Sam Altman spontaneously decided to take those DJ influences and bring them into our jams. My earliest memory of it was at Penn State University. We were playing a fraternity party. We were playing a “Run Like Hell” jam and I remember thinking to myself: “This is it. This is new!”

Steve Molitz (Particle): We were all listening to a lot of early house and breakbeat at the time, so those styles just naturally worked their way into our music. I was also playing a lot of vintage analog synths during our early songwriting period, so those electronic textures were a big part of our sound right from the start. I’ve always been a huge hip-hop/breakbeat lover, and I played in various live bands that had DJs. If I had to pinpoint a time when DJs and live bands really merged in the jam scene, I’d probably have to point to DJ Logic’s breakthrough work with MMW on their album Combustication and their subsequent tours together. I’d also have to tip my hat to Cut Chemist’s mind-blowing work during the early days of Ozomatli.

Aron Magner (Disco Biscuits/Conspirator): It probably wasn’t until 1998 that we started hearing these whispers of this band out of Atlanta called Sector 9 that were kind of doing something similar to us, and then maybe a year or two after that, we started hearing whispers of this band called The New Deal based out of Toronto that were really doing incredible house music.

Jamie Shields: We were just so tired of playing “regular” band music, as it were, that we just decided to play some stuff that we hoped would make people dance, and in order to keep us interested, we pretty much left the arena wide open for us to take it wherever we wanted it to go.

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