The Core: Lotus’ Jesse Miller
by Mike Greenhaus on January 13, 2017
After years of pop flirtation, the livetronica quintet turns in a set of vocal tracks equally suited for the dance floor and the festival circuit.
DANCE YRSELF CLEAN
[My brother, Lotus guitarist] Luke and I started writing Eat the Light around 2013. We had some initial demos going for what eventually became “Fearless.” That set the mold for this record, and we wrote around that template—going into textures that were pretty dancey with more pop arrangements, some disco influences and vocals on every track. In a lot of ways, this album is much less electronic. Even the analog synths we use have more of a ‘70s feel. We always want to go down so many paths, but we try to create a cohesive style on each of our albums that helps us guide our writing process and production approach. For this one, we wanted something upbeat and fun because it was a little bit of a contrast from what we’d done on our past couple of albums. We had never done a full album of pop song structures.
EVALUATING AND EVOLVING
We’re never strictly writing an album or on tour—we’re always jumping between the two. Sometimes the tracks get drawn out over a couple of years. We’ll do different versions or continually rerecord them. This time we didn’t play anything live because we wanted the solid studio version to be the first thing people heard. We spent more time on the compositional end, working songs up over the course of a few years rather than whipping something out really quickly and trying to insert it into our show. Luke and I were constantly evaluating and evolving the tracks, and what we would always come back to was, “Is it hooky enough? Is it gonna be stuck in your head after two listens?” We’ve started to take these songs out and improvise more live, but the hooks and choruses still give us that foundation to move away from and then come back to.
NEW VOICES, CLASSIC IDEAS
We have our demos pretty worked out when we go into the studio so it doesn’t become this game of writing and patching a bunch of random parts together. We try to do most of the experimentation, as far as the composition, beforehand. Most of our sessions took place at Miner Street Recordings in Philly. Their aesthetic approach works well for us. They’ve got a tape machine and a lot of old gear, but they can also use Pro Tools and create that hybrid. We tracked the album as a band in Philly—we’d do the drums, bass and guitar all at once, and then the keys and percussion later on. For the vocalists, we’d either bring them in for a session or I would do a session in my own studio. With Oriel Poole on “Anti-Gravity,” we had a producer friend of ours record him in LA. In pretty much every case, we were writing songs and demoing the vocals before we had the singers. In some cases, we did go through a couple of people before landing on the final singers.
STOP MAKING SENSE
We did two “Talking Heads Deconstructed” shows [in 2014], and that played a part in the way this album sounds. Gathering of the Vibes approached us about doing something different than a normal Lotus set. My original idea was much more obscure, but we landed on this idea of remixing Talking Heads songs in different styles—mixing them in with Lotus hooks and riffs so we had these mash-ups throughout the set. It went over really well at the festival, so we decided to do another set when we played Red Rocks later that year. Talking Heads has been a big influence for us since the beginning. If you look at their transformation from this really minimal, quirky, new wave/punk band into this 10-piece, you can see a lot of similarities to the way Lotus’ sound has progressed. We’ve looked to them to find these musical ideas and interesting grooves that aren’t too proggy and are rooted in this naïve approach to music—switching up instruments and having that be the guiding principle. Even though I have a degree in music, I think getting back into that really simplistic approach often yields better results. We had so much fun doing those shows with [vocalist Gabe Otto] and being able to hit these choruses that people could sing along with, and we brought that to the songs we were writing. I hear Talking Heads the most in some of the album’s guitar patterns, where there’s really thinned-out, rhythm-guitar parts, and the driving nature of some of the beats we use. It was also great to get Gabe on “Eats the Light.”
What’s changed [in live music] is the ability to use computers onstage. Even acoustic bands have playback tracks. When I was young, you’d sometimes hear bands whose studio albums were super powerful and their live show wasn’t quite there. The two sides that Lotus has always tried to approach are: How do we make this sound as good as possible while maintaining the ability to deconstruct things and give stuff a live feel? I really love Tame Impala’s studio records, and we’ve been playing “Elephant,” but their live show hasn’t been very engaging to me because they’re adhering to their studio records too closely.
STATE OF THE UNION
I go to a lot of small shows— off-the-radar stuff—but I’m really into the last Neon Indian album. I also really like a lot of classic indie guitar rock—like Spoon and Built to Spill—that came out of that minimalist, Krautrock tradition. And I’ve been going back into my record collection and getting more into my jazz stuff from the ‘60s, and funk and jazz from the ‘70s. We played with [original drummer] Steve Clemens in August when Mike Greenfield’s wife was having a baby and we needed a few subs. He was a little nervous at the rehearsals, but then onstage, he got back to those grooves pretty quickly—there are certain feels to these songs that just came very naturally to him. We also had Jeff Peterson out and he did a fantastic job of filling in. It’s interesting to hear a drummer’s slightly different takes on a song because we have played this music for so long—“Umbilical Moonrise” was around before I was even in the band. It influences how you approach it.