Jesse Miller of Lotus talks about branching out into hip-hop on Monks, the act's latest album
Having been characterized as a "jam band" for so many years, Lotus took a different approach with its latest album and delved into the world of hip-hop. Calling on a specific group of MCs and styles, the band dropped a great collaborative album that showed the instrumental talents that have built them up to be one of the greatest touring jam bands today. Keep reading for a clip of the outfit playing "Wax" at Red Rocks last year, and for our latest chat with frontman Jesse Miller about how being in a jam band allows vocalists to fill the voids where instruments once sat.
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Westword:Last time we spoke, you said, "At the cost of evolution, we are always going to try a new thing." Monks is a straight hip-hop album, which is totally a new thing. How did that come together?
Jesse Miller: The evolution of that project was that when we were working on Lotus, we were working on a couple tracks -- there were a lot of things on that album that were hip-hop beats -- but we were working on a couple tracks with Mr. Lif, and had given him a couple things to work. We eventually got some tracks back and thought they were great, but they didn't fit on that album.
We took those tracks, along with some old Lotus tracks, and remixed them, sent them out to different MCs, and sent out things in that realm to other MCs. At first we thought maybe it would be five or six tracks, but it added up to quite a bit more, and we thought we could make an album. We then went back to some of our hard drives and dug out these instrumentals that we had worked on to reshape them to be the segue tracks.
Around a release, it can be nerve-racking wondering about reception. How do think it fits in your discography now?
I think it's obviously something that is very different. We perform some of those live, but not more than one at a show. Sometimes we have an MC as a guest, or we use samples, and it's a nice change of pace for a show. If we did a whole show of that, it would be a little weird. I don't want to say it's novelty, but I see it as this pet project where we branched out and did something different.
We released it for free, pay what you want, and also did a vinyl pressing. I didn't expect everyone to love it, and you need to appreciate some hip-hop to enjoy it, even if you are a Lotus fan. The response has been great. A lot of people were surprised. If someone came to me and said "a "jam" band is making a hip-hop album," that would be a tough sell for me. But I think we came out at the end of it with a solid album. I hope that doesn't dissuade anyone from checking it out.
Was it fun as a band coming together and trying something new? How did that work with all the members input?
It was fun, and it was more of a studio project. A lot of the basis of the tracks were remixes of stuff we'd already done, so a lot of it was Luke and I doing studio work. The whole idea of really stripping the beats down to work with an MC was really fun. A lot of times with Lotus it's making these layers and using these instruments where a voice might function in a song -- taking that away and making those parts compliment the MC.
How did you choose Gift of Gab, Lyrics Born and Doodlebug? Those MCs have been around for a long time.
We were looking for MCs that would have a flow and style and lyrics that would fit in with Lotus. Partly because of that, we were going toward an older class of MCs. Maybe it's just what we were raised on. I think a lot of modern hip-hop is mostly pop-production, and we were going for that boom-bap, classic '90s breaks sort of sound. We just picked up the phone and sent out emails, explained what we were doing, and luckily almost everyone we got in touch with was on board.
How did you connect with Mane Rok and Xencs L Wing?
That was part of the idea. Luke did that track with them, and he was in Denver. We are always looking to collaborate with locals, whether it's him in Denver, or me in Philly. He asked around, and someone said to get in touch with them, and that's just another thing of placing calls and getting things together.
With the hip-hop under the belt, what direction are you heading in now?
We have a couple things. We are just finishing up mastering an album, or maybe a mini-album, and it's all rock focused. I would compare it to My Morning Jacket, or Radiohead, or something more indie rock and guitar focused. I'm not sure when that is coming out, but the music is done. We have been collaborating with some singers, and writing more stuff. We are always working on a lot of projects at one time.
Have you been teasing the new songs in recent sets?
There are a couple tracks from the rock album that we've played, but at least half of it has never been played out. Some of the ones that have been played, we haven't really played recently because we went back to the studio and reworked them.
Is there anything special planned for the Denver run? I remember last year's Red Rocks shows were delayed.
We got cancelled because of the flooding, and then when we came back, it snowed on our sound set. This time, we are bringing out some special guests. I think we have a horn line for some songs, and I think we might break out a few things that we don't play often. Especially over the course of two nights and four sets, there will be a variety of things played.
How do you mentally prepare for that stretch? I know you tour a lot, but what is happening in your mind when gearing up for that sort of run?
I've found that a weekend is not as bad as a tour. When we go out on tour and do five or six nights per week -- last year we did 47 shows over eleven weeks -- it is taxing. There is a lot of concentration that goes in, and it's a lot of physical activity. The concentration aspect of improvising weighs heavy, too. When I get off the plane coming back from these things, I need a day or two to sleep. I can't even read because I don't have the mental energy. We want to put it all into the shows, so we lay it all on the line and recover later.
What do you do to recover?
When I'm off the road, definitely cooking is something I enjoy. There are a lot of similarities to music, but for me there is no pressure because I am cooking for myself. I just like listening to music and reading.
Being on tour so much I imagine you are forced to eat out all the time. What consistent things stay on your rider?
Just healthy food. I'm a vegetarian, and vegan when I'm off the road, so just veggies and fruits.
I've heard all kinds of crazy things being on riders, like 37 cases of local microbrews...
That definitely sounds like us. I'm a big beer fan, so we try to track down the best regional beers, or something local that we've never had before. That's the joy of traveling: being able to delve into the variety of the American beer scene. It's funny about the things that people get excited for when on tour. Our sound guy likes certain PAs, and our tour manager gets really excited about a nice production office.
Are there venues or locations that have stood out as having the best beer?
Colorado is pretty high up for beers. Michigan and California are also the hot spots.