High Sierra Music: Lotus’ Jesse Miller talks minimalism
Lotus craves minimalism in its production and songwriting. The band is comprised of two brothers, a pair of Mikes and Chuck Morris on percussion. Most of the band’s summer weekends are spent on plane rides to music festivals. Last weekend, they visited High Sierra in Quincy, California.
Bassist and frontman Jesse Miller credits Lotus’ fan-base and ability to sustain success to festivals.
“People are coming out because they want to see music,” Miller said. “Even if everyone isn’t familiar with your band, people are prime to take it in. ”
The toughest part is traveling and hectic schedules. They often fly across the country, keep weird hours and then have to be ready for a 90-minute set. But once they’re on stage, the stress washes away.
Lotus’ music works well at fests because it isn’t genre specific. They can cross into many territories.
“You can have no interest in electronic music and be drawn to our rock side. You can love electronic music and pick up that,” Miller said. “As long as people aren’t coming from a place where they won’t listen to a group if they have a guitar onstage, or if there’s not a mandolin and upright bass they won’t listen to it, we have a shot.”
When they started Lotus, there weren’t any jam bands taking on electronic styles. They were influenced by hard-hitting dance music, the ’90s rave scene and the pursuit of sonic textures. It took them a while to find the best way to approach it with a typical rock lineup.
Jesse and his brother Luke Miller do all the songwriting. They usually work separately, then both act as producers. They discovered writing together to be inefficient. They might start with a general idea on the instrumentation or tempo, but then it’s a lot of personal fine tuning. They go back and forth trying to whittle things down to a core idea.
“It’s easy to write too much and get attached to things,” Jesse Miller said. “That’s when another producer comes in and tells you which sections to scrap and which to focus on.”
He said curation and deletion are crucial parts of creation. The true art is the editing process itself.
“If you think everything you’ve made is amazing, it would weaken the whole batch,” Miller said. “You can create and create, but when you’re really making something, you’re editing it down to its best parts.”
Jesse Miller has a wide range of influences, including Herbie Hancock, ’70s fusion, Talking Heads, Kraftwerk and The Clash and Television on the rock side. One of his contemporary favorites is Spoon from Austin, Texas, which he has seen live twice in the past year.
Though he considers Lotus a jam band, Miller doesn’t listen to the genre on his free time, but he’s inspired by technical funk groups such as Lettuce, another band on High Sierra’s lineup this year.
“I think some people in jam-band culture miss related elements,” he said. “Like electronic music with more trance vibes. Or Orb, on the more ambient side. Even psychedelic rock stuff. I feel like if King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard came up here to play a set, it’d kill.”
Lotus found its niche by providing a dance element.
“Even when we play festivals like High Sierra, with large swathes of music from jam bands to straight laptop producers, I think we bring a dance energy that not many groups in this scene are doing,” Miller said.
Lotus isn’t afraid of repetition. It focuses on the way grooves fit together and not on musical virtuosity. The compositional minimalism of Spoon is something Jesse always comes back to.
“For us ideally, it’s not about cramming in a ton of notes,” Miller said. “It’s about playing the right note at the right time. I feel it captures an audience in a different way than just drooling over some guy’s virtuosic solo.”
This comes across instantly in the band’s live set. As I walked over to the Big Meadow stage, I could hear guitarist Mike Rempel letting his melodies breathe from a football field away. Jesse Miller has the low-end in his hands and the embellishments at his feet. He plays prominent bass and explores the instrument without showing off. There’s no singing. No chatting with the crowd. Just tonal emotions and dancing. The only voices you hear are from the screaming audience or the samples triggered by Miller’s pedals.
[pullquote]I want to balance things that sound beautiful with things giving the music some grit. Otherwise it becomes fleeting elevator music.”[/pullquote]Jesse Miller is the focal point of the band’s live setup. He plays bass and triggers modular and analog synthesizer samples he made previously in-studio with foot pedals. To him, it’s not super complicated, but there are tight windows for samples to land and some clips are long and incorporate themselves in different parts of songs and transitions.
“If you miss it, it’s a lot worse than missing a note,” he said.
Miller mixes most of their live recordings. They recently finished an album which incorporates a video component. They recorded it live in-studio while video cameras documented the session.
Lotus’ focus is on melody. They use simple chord changes, and yields a certain appeal and contentedness in their music.
“We always want to have things get stuck in people’s heads,” Miller said. “We want it to be easy for people to follow.”
He finds himself fighting against something sounding too smooth. With an instrumental band, it’s easy to veer into smooth jazz territory.
“I want to balance things that sound beautiful with things giving the music some grit,” Miller said. “Otherwise it becomes fleeting elevator music.”
If Lotus’ music was used in elevators, I wouldn’t mind getting stuck in one.
— Tony Contini
ABOUT Tony Contini
Photographer and journalist Tony Contini graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in art photography. He loves working with bands and telling stories. Photography portfolio: https://www.TonyContini.com
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