Arpetrio's Livetronica Pushes the Boundaries of Jam Music

Arpetrio's progression from jam band to something more started even before the band got together three years ago. Guitarist/synth player Alex Mindermann has been balancing his interest in both classic rock and electronic dance music since he was in middle school in Nashville.

"My first concert was the Rolling Stones when I was in fourth grade," says Mindermann, who is now a senior at the University of Tennessee. "About sixth or seventh grade I started getting into computers. I built my own computer and started to figure out what electronic music was. In high school I started getting into Jimi Hendrix and Phish and then I started seeing what was called jamtronica—Sound Tribe Sector 9, Pnuma Trio. I didn't think you could play electronic music live. I'd never seen it done without someone just pressing play. Once I saw that and slowly figured out how to do it, I realized how much fun it is to play. It's like playing a video game in front of 100 people."

There are various names for the kind of music Arpetrio plays: livetronica, jamtronica, trancefusion. None of those names are particularly satisfying or flattering, but they do give some hint of the way that samples, loops, and synthesizers are combined with traditional guitar, bass, and drums for a head-swirling mix of the Grateful Dead and Daft Punk. The exact configuration differs, ranging from Colorado producer Pretty Lights' rock-inspired dance music to STS9's mostly live replication of electronic music; what's important is the free-wheeling, psychedelic mashup of the rock concert and the dance floor. It's been the most prominent development in the college-circuit jam-band scene since Phish broke up in 2004, and Arpetrio—Mindermann, drummer Wes Taylor, and bassist Trent Little—are its most successful local practitioners, having opened for national acts like EOTO, Prefuse 73, and Perpetual Groove.

"We're all originally from Nashville, but we met in Knoxville while we were in school," Mindermann says. "We started out doing cover songs, jam-band cover songs, and eventually started writing our own stuff. Back then, I'd just started picking up on synthesizer. I've always played guitar, but I started getting into electronic music a lot more when I got to college."

Like traditional 1990s jam bands—Widespread Panic, moe., Blues Traveler—these new electronic-inspired bands center around live performances more than recordings. Arpetrio has an EP, Encrypted Layers, available as a free download, but Mindermann maintains it's a pale reflection of the group's current live incarnation.

"As a band it was much harder for us to figure out how to record this music," Mindermann says. "It took us a while to get these five songs done, and it still wasn't what we really want. You can see that with a lot of the bands that play this kind of music, like Disco Biscuits and Sound Tribe, they don't have a lot of studio albums at all. Even the ones they do have, it doesn't compare to their live shows. We almost want to explain that this isn't exactly what we're doing live. It can give you some idea of what we're doing live, but the concert experience is completely different."

Most of an Arpetrio concert is live, with just a few pre-recorded synthesizer loops. "I try to make it stuff that would be very difficult to do live, because otherwise it seems kind of lazy," Mindermann says. "We really do like the aspect of a DJ's performance—people are sitting back for months working on these songs and then drop it on the audience. People really get down to it. But as a musician it's pretty boring—I feel kind of robbed when I pay $25 to see somebody stand behind a computer. Sometimes. But at the same time I really like the production side of it."

Mindermann says he and his bandmates plan to make Arpetrio a full-time occupation after graduation. They'll continue to work on the technological side of their sound, but Mindermann says they'll never sacrifice their jam-band roots.

"We love improv," he says. "That's how we started playing as a band, jamming together and figuring out how we wanted to play and what we wanted to play. At this point we're taking our jamming to a new level—my computer's synced up through Ableton, which is basically a home studio at my fingertips, running to my drummer's computer, which runs to my bassist's computer, and it's all synced up so we can jam off the same bpm, the same tempo, like we've got metronomes in our ears. We can totally jam off an electronic format, which is a big step for us. Down the road it's going to pay off for us a lot."