The Core: Lotus
Jesse and Luke Miller dig into the cosmic origins of their band’s new surprise LP, Frames Per Second, their decision to track live in front of a documentary crew and why building a songbook is a lot like tending a bonsai tree.
JESSE MILLER: We were already writing new material to play live after we finished our previous studio album, [2016’s] Eat the Light, so songs like “Cold Facts” have been in rotation for a while. Our 2016 Halloween show was one of the big events that drove what ended up on Frames Per Second. We did a special disco set, so I brought out my analog synths and modular setup. Initially, I thought we might end up improvising more around that, but I started writing some new material and we decided to pursue a bunch of those ideas with tracks like “Giffard’s Airship” and “Fortune Favors.” “Cosmosis” also came from taking that Scandinavian space-disco influence and bringing it into the context of Lotus.
I had already been getting into that style of music—we’d been playing Todd Terje’s “Inspector Norse”—and even though I wouldn’t describe all these songs as “space disco,” they stemmed from using these fast synth arpeggios and having changes that are a little bit more chromatic.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2017 and we had this big batch of songs. We started to tighten up the arrangements and, in December 2017, we spent four days tracking in the studio. We had cameras rolling two of those days and, even at the end of that, we weren’t sure exactly what it was going to be. But we eventually decided to take a break from our traditional album format and just blow it out and release all 19 songs and the video documentary at once.
LUKE MILLER: A lot of the songs I worked on came out of a different process. I was trying to write in these various styles of funk, seeing where that challenge led. It was just a way to start writing. Our sounds really came together when we decided that we wanted to do this album live in the studio, so these songs ended up falling on more of the groovy, instrumental end of the spectrum rather than the rock or electronic side of things.
We always like to zig-zag from what we did previously, and Eat the Light had a bunch of overdubs and collaborations so we wanted to try to capture something a bit rawer. With instrumental music, it’s harder to make a song that stands out but, for us, there’s a comfort in that. We’ve tried having lyrics in the past, and there is just something about making an instrumental song that can stand on its own—figuring out those melodies and those grooves—without having a lyrical hook.
This Is Where It Starts
LM: We started thinking about filming the sessions while we were still writing, and we decided to focus on the material that would be easy to film. The tracks that were a little more extended on the record and have these natural jams are the ones we had already played live, like “Bug Love” and “Cold Facts.” Anytime you give yourself this hard deadline of, “We’re going to do a special show and it is going to have theme,” it sets off a load of work that can become something else. I doubt we would have been able to crank out 45 minutes of new music otherwise.
Luke and I do all the writing for the band. We tend to have our own tracks that we see through from beginning to end. We will take input and go back and forth, but if it’s a track that I’ve been working on, then I’ll be the lead producer and editor on it and Luke will do the same for his tracks. This time, Luke did have some writing assistance from Nick Gerlach on a few tunes, but that was the only other writing credit on this record.
LM: All these songs were very sketched out but, within those structures, we left space for improvisation. We spent only four days in the studio, and just two of those days were filmed. So, if we hadn’t prepared in advance, then we wouldn’t have been able to bang this out. I’m also glad we played some of these songs live before we recorded them because it gave us time to work them into our live shows.
We’re not a pop band who is going out to promote a new album and focus on songs off that album. With the jamband schedule where people come out to multiple shows, it’s too disorienting to just drop in a bunch of new songs at the same time—unless, of course, you’re Phish on Halloween and you just go for it.
JM: I know some people don’t put albums out anymore, but I’ve always been a huge fan of that format. At first, I was a little concerned that there was too much material, and that it would be hard for people to absorb it all. But then I realized that the way people consume media now is in these big chunks—they’ll listen to three-hour-long podcasts in one sitting or binge watch three hours of a TV show. So, really, a 90-minute album isn’t out of the question, and a lot of people ended up listening to the whole thing, instead of just a couple of tracks on a playlist. The way we sequenced the album was for the vinyl, where you can have about 20 minutes per side. That’s like a TV episode.
LM: Jesse had the idea to drop the album out of the blue. Frames Per Second had already been done for a few months and we were just trying to think of a good time to bring it out—right before our New Year’s run felt like a good time. We’ve also already been working on new songs. We’re not totally dialed in on where it’s all going to coalesce but, usually, we write as much as we can and then see where the strongest material is. Right now, I’ve been working on some funk songs and I’ve been working on some more housey stuff.
JM: Summer Dance tends to be the gathering of the most hardcore Lotus fans every year. We play six sets over the weekend and try to give them something special. Last year, we did a really interesting set that we called the “Blended Set,” where we broke down our song sections and built them back up, and we spelled out the festival’s name with our setlist. I wasn’t sure if people were going to put it together, but the minute we walked offstage for the first set, someone was like, “Summer D…” For me, the payoff is when we get to look out and see their faces as they figure it all out.
Tending the Bonsai Tree
LM: Lotus started right when I got to college [at Goshen] in September 1998, and we played our first show that fall. Back then, we had a different lineup, though there is some continuity. [Lotus originally consisted of Luke, guitarist Mike Rempel, drummer Steve Clemens, bassist Joel Jimenez and percussionist Andy Parad; the band staged their “second first show” with the more long-term lineup of the Luke, Jesse, Rempel and Clemens at a city festival in June 1999. Percussionist Chuck Morris joined in 2001 and drummer Mike Greenfield replaced Clemens in 1999.] When we started, it was mostly covers of Phish, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Allman Brothers and that jamband fare. But now, we try to be more outside the box with our cover choices. The non-vocal limitations drive a lot of it, but we also ask ourselves, “What are we adding to the conversation? If a million people have covered some Pink Floyd song, then are we really adding something if we cover it again?” We want to feel like we’re pushing the ball forward instead of just bouncing it back and forth. A live repertoire takes a lot of maintenance—it’s like tending a bonsai tree. You have to keep at it daily to have the proper amount of songs ready to go.
This article originally appears in the March 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.