Back to the Future: An Oral History of Livetronica
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.
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.
As the jamband scene grew and evolved, various fan-fractions started to splinter off and the jamtronica community developed into its own micro-genre. STS9 and the Disco Biscuits, in particular, grew in popularity and would often host festivals and multi- night runs with late-night shows of their own in major cities. Not only would these events feature rock bands playing electronic music, but they would also feature DJs and live/ studio hybrid projects playing around with increased technology. Several musicians pointed to Camp Bisco 2006 and STS9’s multi-night run at the Boulder Theatre in 2007 as turning points.
Aron Magner: East Coast festivals had a formula at the time—a reggae band, a bluegrass band, a rock band, a jazz band and a somewhere-in-the-middle fusion band. Camp Bisco was designed to bring together DJs and famous electronic artists with bands like us.
Steve Molitz: Phil Lesh loves electronic music, and he traces the genre all the way back to its roots with the early avant-garde and musique concrète composers. And Mickey [Hart] has also always been very adventurous when it comes to mixing different musical styles to create new sounds, so playing livetronica was a very natural fit for him. When we toured in our band Hydra, he did a lot of really innovative and creative work with effects processing, MIDI and sampling.
Jeffree Lerner: We’d started moving toward being producers as well as musicians. We didn’t know if it would necessarily be in Sector 9 or turn into a different entity itself. It’s a different type of expression.
Dominic Lalli: I was writing everything on piano, but started messing around with Ableton Live. When I tied those two things together—my writing and Ableton Live (being a whole new instrument in itself to learn)—I realized this is the easiest way to write songs. It’s a whole other world and I could do it myself with the saxophone. That was the intriguing thing for me.
Jeffree Lerner: [STS9 guitarist] Hunter Brown was the first of us to use computers. He was bringing in different sequences and produced sounds that couldn’t be recreated in a live setting. So everyone has an electronic element to balance their traditional instrument.
Tom Hamilton: I certainly wasn’t listening to house or trance in the ‘90s, but I was listening to Goldie and Squarepusher by the end of the decade. I was hanging out with people that were heavily into drugs and underground music. Then Stereolab and Radiohead’s Kid A—the most game-changing record in pop music since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—and things like that started happening. I heard them and I was like, “Oh, fuck—that’s it!!” You can take the elements of this underground music and bring it together with the idea of a song.
Michael Travis: In 2002, I was skiing in Lake Tahoe, and I came down to get a coffee. This lounge compilation, High Fidelity Lounge: Volume 2, was on and I was just so impressed by how immaculately produced, folky and smooth it was. It was so perfect. The results were so disciplined. And then, I realized it was one guy building it all. I was really intoxicated with this idea of this perfect band discipline. Soon after, I was sitting at a friend’s computer—I wasn’t computer savvy at that point.
Alex Botwin: At the time [when we formed Pnuma Trio], as far as [listening to] live electronic stuff, it would probably be Sound Tribe. And then, we heard of Lotus. We basically started at the very beginning of the scene, and there weren’t too many people using Ableton Live like we were to play shows. I was 19.
Michael Travis: I loved the electronic vibe and I really wanted to play tonal instruments live. When Jason Hann joined String Cheese in 2005, he would stay over at my house. We started jamming on a seven string bass and drum kit. He told me if I wanted to get serious, Ableton is the best thing to loop with ever. We were trying to play loungy, downtempo stuff because that’s where my heart really was.
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 Jambands.com since the site was founded in 1998 and has written for Relix since 2002. Editor-in-Chief Mike Greenhaus started writing for Jambands.com in 2002 and joined Relix’s staff in 2003. They co-hosted Relix’s podcast Cold Turkey from 2005-2009.