EOTO (due this Saturday, December 7, at Fillmore Auditorium) started as a String Cheese Incident side project between Michael Travis and Jason Hann, a studio musician who also played with Dr. Dre and was a member of Isaac Hayes's band. Out of the practicality of the living situations of both musicians, EOTO began as more of an electronic project that initially made forays into downtempo-oriented music. But when the duo saw DJ Skream's set at Shambhala in Canada in 2008, they were so inspired by the sheer impact of that aggressive dubstep sound that they immediately changed the trajectory of their own songwriting.
See also: Jason Hann on the early days of EOTO
EOTO has also since maintained its roots in live improv with no backing tracks, and the band has never been content with playing just one style of music. Both Travis and Hann have diverse musical backgrounds, and as such, their sets tend to be cross-genre affairs rather than focusing on one style for a show. We recently spoke with Hann about playing drums on Dr. Dre's 2001, performing in Isaac Hayes's band for ten years, and how EOTO's crowd and String Cheese's fans are as eclectic as the music.
Westword: You've performed several different styles of music over the course of your career. What did you try to do with EOTO and what inspired that?
Jason Hann: Well, we didn't necessarily set out to do a project without rehearsing with String Cheese Incident. I live in Los Angeles, and I come out here to rehearse and stay at [Michael] Travis's place, mainly because he didn't have kids. Every night, we would go to his place and set up instruments and play around.
He's been playing guitar, bass and keyboards for a really long time, so he wanted to play some drums without an audience, so it was a reason to goof around. We'd play from ten at night until four or five in the morning and have little breaks where we'd listen just to downtempo, chill music.
Whenever we jumped back to playing, we tended to go toward electronic beats. That was easier to try and do as a duo rather than try to do jazz or rock and roll between the two of us. He started using a looping pedal to make it more fun, and as we kept having more sounds, I suggested we use a computer, and at that time, Ableton was available, and we kept making those sessions more fun for ourselves.
At some point Jamie Janover was putting the first Sonic Bloom together, and he asked us if we wanted to do it, so we agreed. It didn't start out as a thing, but it became a thing, and we had to step up our game to make it happen. It just gravitated toward the electronic stuff because we had set up loops and played over static type of things, and we felt it lent itself to what we were doing more than anything else.
There were some producers I was listening to and I liked taking their albums and putting live musicians to it, like some Euro DJs were doing at that time. I just love that energy of hearing something in the normally pristine production and in the live space putting grooves and feels to it.
Who did you like at that time?
There's a band, I'm not sure how to pronounce it, or spell it, exactly, but it's like Duzak and Canyon, but they were known as sort of like a Thievery Corporation, and I think a little more Middle Eastern-influenced in the beats. They did a great double live record where they had all live percussionists and a live string section and did their DJ-record. It sounded so good.
There was another band from the U.K. called the Bays. They were an all improv group, but all their credentials, in terms of who they played with, were, like, Massive Attack and other high end, electronic powerhouses. They would do all improv shows, and they wouldn't even record their shows. The only way you could hear it was if you went to see it live. I thought that was a cool, sort of mantle that they held. Even if they played big electronic festivals, they would headline their own stage, and it was a special thing to have these guys improvising electronic music.
I don't think they're together anymore, but one of the last things they did was that they somehow worked it to do an all improvised set with the London Philharmonic using touch screen tabs. I think they got some kind of big grant, and the London Philharmonic wanted to work with them, and they had that reputation, and why not since they were so good at it. So there's several things, and Travis was in the band Zilla, which was an all improv, mostly downtempo type of thing. We had lots of things around us for wanting to keep it all improvised and all live.
How did you come to play on Dr. Dre's 2001, and what was the nature of that collaboration?
It was funny because I went down there because he's got a guy he uses on all his records, but he was out of town. And they were trying to get a hold of Sheila E., but she wasn't available. And a guy that's played on his records before, this guy Tommy Coster Jr -- who went on to head up Interscope Japan or something like that, but was just one of the keyboard players at the time -- and I had played in some circles together, mostly just jazz together.
I was fairly new in Los Angeles, and he was the one that recommended me for the session they were having in two days. I was definitely game for it, and it was one of my first big sessions in Los Angeles. It must have been '99, and it seemed like the record took a long time to come out after I did my parts. So they called me down to Larrabee Studios, and I put as much of my set into my SUV as I could.
It was one day of recording, ten hours in the studio with him, and Scott Storch, who became a pretty big producer, and one of the keyboard players from the Roots, was also in there. I sat up in the main tracking booth. It was all mic'd up, so I could go to anything at a moment's notice.
That was an amazing day of recording, with different rappers just stopping by. I distinctively remember hearing Snoop's voice, and Eminem was still new at the time, but I remember hearing his voice going by. I have quite a few good memories, and it felt like something pretty special was going on.
What was it like working with Dr. Dre?
When I first started in the studio, there were these two really big body guards, armed and stuff who said, "You don't belong here." I said, "No, really, for real, I got called in to do this session." They confirmed it with the guy that had hired me, and after that, they were really cool, and helped me load in my gear.
When I got in the studio with the three of us and Dr. Dre, he was so pro in the studio. Tracks would go by, and we'd all play along, and if at any point if he felt he heard a hook, he would rewind it and tell everyone listen to that guy, and we would do that and make those kind of rounds all afternoon and into the evening.
One thing that I'd never been asked to do before involved a four foot bong in there, or something like that. "I really want to open this track with someone doing the bong. You're the percussionist." I said, "I don't really smoke, and that would destroy me." So I think Scott Storch might have gone in there and done that overdub. If that had been me, I might have still been laid out. But that was kind of a Spinal Tap moment. He got a lot of high fives for that. But he did that at the end of the session, too, because he was not useful after that.
Being in Los Angeles obviously led to that gig with Dr. Dre, but you've done sessions with many prominent musicians like Sam Moore, Youssou N'Dour and Rickie Lee Jones. Did being out there help you get into those opportunities?
Oh yeah, that's the only reason those went down. I moved from San Diego to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles was a big monster compared to San Diego. But the opportunity came up where it was the perfect time to move up. Not because I had any work, but because some things were finishing up in San Diego, and I had to go back to San Diego three times a week, even living in Los Angeles.
But I was able to play at a moment's notice. That's how a lot of those things would go down. Like that Dr. Dre session -- if I hadn't have been in town, or wasn't available on such short notice, I would have missed that session. That's happened quite a bit, sort of being in the right place but also being ready for the opportunity to do the gig.
I've had some sessions where it's like, "Can you play tympani?" "Yes." Then I'd go read about how to tune a tympani because I've never taken an orchestral class. But I just sought out somebody that could show me around it, and then play a really hard symphony gig, and play a couple of notes on a pop gig. But if I didn't do that one little piece, they probably would have gotten somebody else to do it. So it's a mix of things. I played in Isaac Hayes' band for ten years.
Oh yeah, it should be on the list somewhere. He was somewhat of a mentor, too. He had two other guys in his band that had played on the original recordings from the '60s, and there was nothing but stories like about Jimi Hendrix. Before Jimi Hendrix went to England, he was on the chitlin' circuit with these guys, so it was great to hear about those early days of rock and roll and soul.
What was it like working with Isaac Hayes?
It was just amazing. He had his hand in a lot of different things. He had really three personas. He was Black Moses, and he was also like a king in Africa, and a pretty high-ranked Scientologist. You wouldn't think those things would mix very well, but he just pulled it off.
I remember a couple of times doing some shows like when we were in Chicago and I'm on the phone with my sister and someone taps me on the shoulder and asks, "Hey, do you know where I can find Isaac?" I say, "Hang on one second." I turn around, and it's Jesse Jackson. "Oh, okay. Here, let me walk you over there."
So senators and, I think, even Louis Farrakhan came backstage, and it could have been an awkward moment, but that guy ended up being really cool. He's like, "You're in Isaac's band? Everything's okay." He always wanted to have dinner with the band because he was still a musician before all the other stuff.
He was Chef on South Park, right?
Yeah! And then there's that. When I joined the band, that "Chocolate Salty Balls" song was one of the reasons for his resurgence because it went number one in England and Australia, and he was touring behind that. Or at least that got him some visibility. So that would be weird, too, because we would do some shows where the older crowd would be dressed to the nines and out on the town high clubbin' it, and people would be holding up Chef dolls at the same time.
Obviously you played that song live.
Oh yeah. We wouldn't play it every night, but usually at a festival we would. It helped him get him back on his feet. When he got killed off of South Park, that was right in the middle of when he had the stroke and everything. That was more like Scientology talking for him because he couldn't talk at the time. So it seems like they misrepresented him, at least afterwards. He never would have said those things because he really liked being on the show. That was a solid gig for a bunch of years, and I went all over Europe with him and the States.
You demonstrate how you make your music at Apple stores. Why do you do that and why there?
We just feel like what we're doing is pushing boundaries of the technical aspects of the line between playing dance music and using controllers and wireless controllers as instruments, basically. And using a computer almost as an electric guitar was in the 1950s -- you know, where a kid has access to play an instrument in the basement and plug it in and be as loud as any big band just by themselves.
One of the first things we faced when we started bringing a computer on stage is a lot of [our perception as being a jam band]. That's the first immediate turn-off because it's pretty sacrilege for any kind of jam band to have a computer on stage. We just treat is as another instrument and an extension of our world with my drums, an iPad and another MIDI controller that controls my computer.
Travis has a bass guitar and some MIDI controllers that control his computer. So it's just using the computer more as another instrument rather than pressing play where there are all these tracks on it. There's certain techniques that we can pull off, and we pride ourselves on creating those different stutter or glitch techniques but with a live sound.
What was it about seeing DJ Skream that made a major impression on you guys?
Oh, wow, boy that's a great question. I think it was part of the whole thing of any kind of aggressive dubstep that seemed like a new form of music that happened right in that moment that almost nobody in the place had heard before. That was in a place called Shambhala in Canada, which is one of the best festivals in the world.
At that time, we were pretty into Tipper and Bassnectar, but Bassnectar was doing more breakbeat music, not the progressive dubstep. It was very different. Any dubstep I had heard, had been more super mellow. Dubstep used to be couches and lava lamps, barely hanging on. I remember Skream was doing a set with breakbeat stuff, and all of a sudden, he did this one build, and he did this one drop, and instead of it being a soothing bass drop, it was this really hard, angular drop, and the whole crowd just flipped out.
Me and Travis weren't even the same part of the venue, but we were there for the same moment, and we talked about it later. "Did you see that? Did you see what happened?" This is still two years or two and a half years before any aggressive dubstep artists or even DJs started playing the States. So the newness of it all and the power of it all was really fresh. It was very impactful. So right away we were like, "Let's do that."
We tried it on our next gig in Whitefish, Montana after that festival. We didn't have as much success. But we felt like we did that. The reaction was not the same as, like, something out of a movie scene, but everyone was asking, "What did you just do?" That became a little bit of a turning point, and it was something we wanted to get good at, and there was a distinction to our sound, instead of us kind of sounding like Tipper or Bassnectar or Lotus or Sound Tribe.
We felt like we were so ahead of the curve and we wanted to get really good at it because no one else was able to do that right then. We got addicted to it ourselves, but our sound, probably in the last year and a half, we've wanted to really get back to a variety of music, as opposed to playing house music and downtemp and glitch hop and some electro and tribal stuff. It's more important for us now to go through a whole variety of genres, instead of hitting this one hard moment of one genre for a whole show.
How would you say the vibe is different between your EOTO shows and your String Cheese Incident shows? Or how are they similar?
That's another good question. It's nice to make the distinction between the normal EDM crowd first, I think, because the way that the underground gigs have gotten so popular now, a lot of it is considered rave music. You don't necessarily think about Tiesto or Paul Oakenfold in the States so much, but it has blurred the lines in terms of popularity.
Skrillex will be on the same stage as Tiesto now or something. Skrillex is insanely popular, and any time with popular music like that, no matter where it comes from, you're going to have a lot of really bad music to go along with it and a lot of generic music. So it's a little harder to find the sounds where there's a lot of freshness going on.
But refocusing on the question: So let's say in that Ultra music crowd there's a lot of fist pumping and kind of Jersey Shore-like things going on. In some of the hip-hop world, when you go to a show, so much of going to the show is how you're wearing a hat and what clothes you're wearing and all that. That's cool. Even for a burning man type show, it's how much feather and leather you have on.
For going to one of our shows, it feels all-encompassing. We just played a show in Los Angeles, which can be a pretty fickle crowd of hipsters. And everyone that went to that show, and it was pretty packed, had an awesome vibe, so different from any other Los Angeles show, which felt like a really big compliment. People were looking at each other and smiling and getting down, as opposed to feeling like they had to wear this attitude throughout the show.
In that sense, I think String Cheese does the same for the jam crowd. Even if you go to a lot of Phish shows or Widespread Panic shows, there's definitely a certain attitude that can be inclusive or can be exclusive, as well. Whereas String Cheese is: Be exactly who you are, or who you want to be. It's an all-encompassing type of feeling. Yeah, bring your granddad, and bring your little brother, and everyone can hang out at the same time. I think that's what's in common between the EOTO and the String Cheese crowd.
Although that might not mix. When we were first doing EOTO with the computers on stage, we got rejected by the old String Cheese crowd, at first. It took us not even saying we were part of String Cheese to develop our own fanbase. It's only pretty recently where it's come around, where a lot of people that go to String Cheese shows that are curious what EOTO sounds like.