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Back to the Future: An Oral History of Livetronica

by Benjy Eisen & Mike Greenhaus on April 17, 2014
As the jamband scene started to wane in popularity, electronic music returned to the forefront of popular music in the American consciousness. Many music fans in their 20s and 30s who used to see underground jambands started seeking out the newest electronic music in clubs and dance halls around the country. At the same time, booking companies with ties to the jam scene, like Madison House and AM Only, started putting electronic acts in rock clubs as if they were live bands. And then festivals caught on, too.

Michael Travis: We broke Lorin Ashton (Bassnectar) into the scene. He was the Burning Man darling at that point. I went to Burning Man in 2001 for the first time and [Michael] Kang went in 2002. We were very impressed by what he was doing. He was much more downtempo at that point too. We had some experiences at Burning Man where we were like, “This is God.” Kang decided to draw him in and try to create a project with him. I remember during Zilla’s first gig in 2003: We played to 350 people upstairs, and we were just a sucky jamband. And Kang and Lorin played to 70 people downstairs.

Alex Botwin: People who loved hip-hop are now into electronic music—it’s like the bridge to jazz music. As I started to tour less with Pnuma, I still had this desire to make dance music, to make music that I could play shows with, not just have downtempo music that isn’t really suited for the live aspect. That drove me to start Paper Diamond.

Dominic Lalli: We were going to house parties where Derek [Vincent Smith] was playing [under the name Pretty Lights]. He was playing Motet after parties. I definitely got into that and STS9. I was also into the Pnuma Trio, when they were happening, and just the funk-jam thing in general.

Michael Travis: The next huge “aha” moment was in 2008 at Shambala, when Jason and I saw [dubstep pioneer] Skream for the first time at different parts of the same venue. Then we started playing dubstep.

Mike Greenfield: EOTO is very unique in their approach to combining live improv and electronica. There are a lot of younger bands like Papadosio and Dopapod that are also carrying the torch nicely. Conspirator has recently begun to incorporate more improvisational sections in their sets, which is refreshing since they are all such incredible musicians.

Michael Travis: When I first saw Phish in ‘89, it turned my whole musical life on its head. I feel like this modern bass music did that for this generation. Dubstep was so profoundly expressive. It explored all these traumas, densities and difficulties that it takes to be a human right now. There is so much intensity and darkness on the planet. It’s quite obviously collapsing in so many different dimensions. There’s war, pestilence and radiation. Dubstep really expresses all the darkness and beauty. It’s the bell that’s ringing for so many kids right now. Phish was the Clinton-era sound—blow jobs and saxophones, everything was great—the absurdist lyrics and the playfulness. String Cheese was born out of all that. Phish and Leftover Salmon were so fun and happy— we’re supposed to name our band after food also! Comedy names are great. Everyone’s name is so serious now. People go see a guy named Excision.

Alex Botwin: [Jamtronica has] been moving in a bunch of different directions. Having the ability to play instruments— piano and guitar and bass and drums—is crucial and should still be a heavy influence in electronic music now. It’s certainly going to go that way for some people, and for some people, it’s going to go the opposite direction, but it’s definitely imperative that people still use instruments to create and make their sound.

Tom Hamilton: Improvisation is making a comeback. Brownstein and I actually came to the conclusion at the same time and sort of laughed, “Why would we stop doing that?” We made our career by fucking improvising and being really good at it.

Electronic dance vanguards Daft Punk released an album in 2013 that made a point of showcasing live instrumentation on all the tracks. It won several 2014 Grammy Awards including Record of the Year (“Get Lucky”) and Best Dance/Electronica Album (Random Access Memories). Meanwhile, the surviving jambands that initially embraced electronic music are now placing a renewed emphasis on improvising live.

Mike Greenfield: The jamtronica scene is changing. The Disco Biscuits and Brothers Past don’t really tour anymore and The New Deal broke up. STS9 stopped utilizing large improv sections in their sets. Lotus is the only band established in the late-‘90s/ early-‘00s that continues to incorporate electronic-inspired improv in the scene. One may initially conclude that this means that the jamtronica scene is dying, but none of these bands stopped touring because of poor attendance. Instead, it was for personal reasons. Lotus’ attendance is still increasing every year and I feel there are new fans being turned on by the genre.

Tom Hamilton: I saw Lotus on Jam Cruise. [Lotus members Jesse and Luke Miller] are great composers. They’re a great band and their audience is expanding because they’re working. There is a demand for that music.

Michael Travis: I was trying to produce dubstep two or three years ago. The other day, I made a tune with a ukulele and a hand drum and voices. It sounded like a Hawaiian folk ditty. You can see a rise in the mellow people coming back. Shpongle continues to be really popular and they’ve never been that edgy. The fact that Emancipator and Bonobo are doing such big numbers is heartening to people wanting to hear special modalities again.

Dominic Lalli: Gramatik has a guitar player. Conceptually, it’s a lot of the same thing [as Big Gigantic]—filling in the holes with a little bit of jamming space and funky stuff. GRiZ is also playing sax and playing some funk and electronic stuff. Those guys are in that same world that I am in terms of adding the live element to the mix.

Michael Travis: Each generation has their own set of constraints, joys, triggers and languages. Eventually, a new paradigm will emerge in a subculture of a generation. And then, it will wait for the sonic expression that hits the nail on the head for everybody. I think Trey’s guitar was obviously that for a while— for the “hippie subculture.” It was for me.

Alex Botwin: I’ve been working in this new realm with different singers and rappers and vocalists and musicians and producers. If there’s a singer that needs a song, I can determine what they want and then just write it. At some point, I would love to have a full band again. I think that improvisation certainly will come back into it. My live shows are still improvised. It’s not like playing an instrument, but it is certainly on the fly and highly entertaining.

Tom Hamilton: It’s a shame that there is a whole generation of kids who have never heard of The New Deal and certainly never heard of Lake Trout. Those guys were the realest deal of any of us. We were riding their coattails and everybody who told you differently is lying.

Michael Travis: The wave has come and crashed on the shores for dubstep, but it will always have a place as an expression for dissenting young people. I think a lot of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s were just feeling this whole thing a few years ago. Dubstep was everywhere for a while and that was the ultimate expression of the time. That’s passed and it will flower out into the Garden of Eden. The prettier stuff will come back in—you’re already seeing a lot more instruments. EOTO never plays dubstep anymore. We are getting into super-soft modality and very spacious and African overtones.

Dominic Lalli: I’m grateful because I get to watch from the sidelines to see what happens. I’m not in the nosebleeds. I don’t know if shit will get even crazier or harder or some type of live-music renaissance will take place. Major movements in music happen when something jolts the whole thing.

Aron Magner: A year ago, Conspirator was trying to be strictly an electronic band. Now, you’re seeing all of these DJs maybe getting a little bored and trying to fuse musicians into the tracks and then bringing that into a live set. You started seeing it with Shpongle, doing the live band. You started seeing with Bonobo. You’re seeing it all over. I mean, you’re seeing it with Pretty Lights bringing his live band in.

Jamie Shields: Personally speaking, there are a number of electronic musical styles that are, in my mind, completely tired and played out, and I’m starting to see a return to the style of electronic music (beat-oriented, harmonically rich) that The New Deal was associated with.

Mike Greenfield: Most music genres start out using very simple concepts and gradually become more complex until they eventually collapse on themselves. If you look at IDM music from the mid-‘90s and follow its progression to the EDM of today, you will notice that it is completely opposite. It would be synonymous to the evolution of jazz starting with Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and ending with Cab Calloway’s “Minnie The Moocher.” The scene has mostly gone from full bands to laptop-based producers that utilize a live instrument or two and I expect this trend to continue. This new band model materialized for two reasons in my opinion. First, advances in technology (Ableton) allowed it to physically happen. Second, following the collapse of the music industry, musicians now make the majority of their money from touring. A musician can obviously make a lot more money when it is split between two members as opposed to five.

Marc Brownstein: What you’re seeing now in the electronic world and the jam world is a convergence. We all came from the same place; we all listened to the same music growing up, and we ended up creating similar music while still having our own voices. But at the end of the day, it’s converging into some sort of computerized and live music mix. Technology and talent are melding together in one scene.

Benjy Eisen has written for since the site was founded in 1998 and has written for Relix since 2002. Editor-in-Chief Mike Greenhaus started writing for in 2002 and joined Relix’s staff in 2003. They co-hosted Relix’s podcast Cold Turkey from 2005-2009.

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