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Back to the Future: An Oral History of Livetronica

by Benjy Eisen & Mike Greenhaus on April 17, 2014

When Phish went on hiatus in 2000, there was a void in the live music scene and there wasn’t a single band who came along to carry the torch. Instead, the flame was spread out, with jambands ranging from The String Cheese Incident to moe. all seeing spikes in their concert attendance. During the next few years, jamband-based festivals solidified as a national movement consisting of the next wave of live jambands. But there was still little distinction among fans that strayed more toward the electronic, bluegrass, funk, jazz or rock corners of the jam scene.

Steve Molitz: When Particle formed in 2000, there wasn’t really a huge LA jam scene. There were plenty of great bands and plenty of jam lovers, but they hadn’t all come together to form a unified scene like they did in places like New York or Colorado at that time.

Michael Travis (EOTO/The String Cheese Incident): Berkfest ‘00 was the first really big “aha” moment. I saw The New Deal, and I was just stunned. They were the ones who really opened my mind. At the same period, I began to see Sector 9 and then, it all came into focus. [STS9 drummer] Zach Velmer was very fundamental and a revelatory drummer for me.

Steve Molitz: As the livetronica scene really blossomed nationally, I first discovered bands like STS9, The New Deal and the Disco Biscuits. Keep in mind that this was before YouTube and Facebook, so unless you had a friend from another city who sent you a tape of a new band, you often only got exposed to the bands that were touring heavily in the region where you lived.

Jamie Shields: In the early days, we’d go out with DJ Spooky, DJ Logic, Mad Professor, Mocean Worker, Dimitri From Paris and countless others. As time went on, the festivals noticed that they could save themselves a hell of a lot of production costs if they just hired the bigger-name DJs, and it would sound better, to boot, if they eliminated having to mic a million instruments, set monitors, etc. At first, it was probably a 50-50 mix but as time went on, the number of live bands on the bill decreased—except for the headliners—and the number of DJs increased, if only for economic purposes.

Mike Greenfield: I had a couple of live drum ‘n’ bass groups that I played with in early ‘99 but the first band that took off was The Ally [which also featured future members of Yeasayer]. We played from 1999-2003. I have been a part of so many projects in my life, but there was something so incredible about being in that band. Philly was an electrifying place to be during those years. It was home to the Disco Biscuits, Brothers Past, Lotus and The Ally and we frequently would form impromptu groups using different members from these bands.

Tom Hamilton: The first thing I saw when I was “in the scene” was Lake Trout. I went to Wetlands to see Lake Trout and The New Deal to flier for our first show there. They blew my mind. Somebody recently gave me a Lake Trout CD, and it’s still fucking amazing. It has these unrelenting, punishing things—Mike Lowry, with those dreads and green eyes piercing out from behind them, looking all kinds of pissed off.

Mike Greenfield: I loved watching Mike Lowry drum. He was very phrase-oriented, and sometimes he would play the exact same pattern without deviation for several minutes. Then, when he finally added one different variation of that phrase, it became the most powerful fill imaginable.

Mike Lowry (Lake Trout): We never really felt [like] a part of that scene. We were kind of just taking gigs when we were offered them—we weren’t going after that scene aggressively. At the time, the scope of what was being offered to us was very limited, hence the jamband affiliation. I guess our name doesn’t really help either.

Steve Molitz: Our approach to jamming was really just a new take on the very old idea of using meditative music to lose your- self in the moment. For instance, we have a song called “Ed + Molly” that has a very tribal, driving, psychedelic feel to it, and it usually clocks in over 20 minutes live.

Tom Hamilton: One of the funnier things The New Deal did that’s still around is that [keyboardist] Jamie Shields had hand signals that he would give throughout the show. The New Deal’s shows were completely improvised.

Steve Molitz: When we played that epic six-hour set at the first Bonnaroo, there weren’t many “late night sets” officially booked at the festival. We just set up a generator and a PA on the grass in the middle of the fest, and jammed until the sun came up. The livetronica scene was still very young, and I think those late nights and after shows in the early 2000s were a major impetus that helped accelerate the growth of the scene as a whole.

Mike Lowry: It was a time of intense touring and I remember thinking that we weren’t going to get anything done if we were always out on the road. After that period, we were all like, “OK, we aren’t going to tour unless we put a record out.” That led us to write more, and we all went and got jobs. Touring so much during that period kind of burned us out.

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