Hard-Touring Lotus Blurs the Line Between Jam Bands and Dance Music

There was a time when jam bands were one thing, and DJs another. Fans of rock and dance music were mortal enemies.

Most of the kids who go see Lotus next week at the Valarium don't remember those days. The line between rock music and dance music has become blurred in a way it hasn't been since the rave scene of the early 1990s, with acts from all over the pop-culture spectrum working hard to erase whatever distinctions are left.

"It used to be that those two scenes were almost bitter rivals, and people wanted to keep the scenes very hermetic," says Lotus bassist Jesse Miller. "Now, especially with the younger generation, people don't see the difference the way they did maybe when I was growing up, when there was a very distinct dichotomy between the two."

Taking a cue from dance-rock elder statesmen Daft Punk, Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay of the French dance duo Justice position themselves like rock stars during their live sets; Pretty Lights and Girl Talk dissect classic rock and R&B and stitch it back together as dance music; James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem spent the better part of a decade working from the opposite direction, injecting a club sensibility into New York's indie rock scene; and jam bands are now adding synths, samples, and electronic beats to the psychedelic experience. (Just look at the lineup for this week's AC Entertainment-produced Moogfest in Asheville, N.C., where Flying Lotus, Mayer Hawthorne, Umphrey's McGee, Austra, Battles, and Tim Hecker are all grouped together in some kind of ill-defined but intuitive category that nevertheless works.)

Much of the resulting hybrid music exists outside the critical establishment, ignored by major newspapers and traditional rock journalism websites like Pitchfork and PopMatters but embraced, like jam bands and hotshit DJs always have been, through the live experience.

"We've been doing this for a long time, and we've seen a lot of what I would call fads come and go," Miller says. "But it's definitely exciting to see this kind of rebirth and appreciation of electronic music, which everyone saw as dying when the rave culture went away. It's really interesting to see how it has emerged as something completely different now."

Miller and the rest of Lotus—Luke Miller (guitar/keyboards), Michael Rempel (guitar), and Michael Greenfield (drums)—have been riding this wave for more than a decade. The band formed in 1999 in Indiana, when all four were in college together. Now based in Philadelphia and Colorado, their funky jam-band roots have broadened over the course of eight albums and 12 years of touring; the band's new self-titled album, released in September, incorporates horns, samples, and warm, analog synthesizers in addition to the standard guitar/bass/drums format. That reflects their gradual shift away from noodly rock instrumentals toward something more fit for a dance club, from the hip-hop and funk of sample-loaded Lotus opener "Golden Ghost" to the Balearic bliss-out of closing track "Orchids." At the same time, the new disc is the band's sharpest statement yet, with only one song over six minutes and the grooves honed to a precision edge.

"In the past, we would sometimes stretch things out a little more in the studio," Miller says. "Here, we tried to cut out as much fat as we could and have it be really streamlined. Live, we might stretch some of those out, but we tried to get everything down to its essential core.... It just really felt like some sort of milestone. Primarily in the composing side and how everything came together with the mix, it felt like something we'd been striving for throughout our career. I feel like every album is a learning process, but something felt like a culmination with this. It just felt right to self-title it, to say, look, this is Lotus right now."

Miller says the band already has most of the material for a follow-up album, and he expects it to match Lotus in sound and scope. But he recognizes that the landscape around them is always changing, and nobody knows what's going to happen next.

Who knows where it will go? I don't think anyone would have predicted the explosion of things like brostep that are happening now, and this mutation of heavy British bass music into popular culture. I think it's really hard to say where these things will go. But as long as people keep doing something creative with it, I think it's definitely going to keep pushing the boundaries."