Photo credit: Ben Wong
If you’re overwhelmed by the magnitude of Lotus’ surprise album, Frames Per Second, that’s okay. As bassist Jesse Miller explains, it’s a natural reaction to the 19-track LP. “It’s a lot to absorb,” he chuckles, less than 24 hours before dropping the record onto the unsuspecting public. “It’s basically a feature-length film and two albums all at once. People don’t need to take in the entire thing in one sitting. It’s kind of designed to be split up into smaller sessions.”
With a companion film documenting every note on the album, Lotus invites their listeners into the studio setting, giving them an unprecedented look into how the band works. The quintet tracked the entire album live, stripping down their usual studio set up in favor of ‘70s era synthesizers and a decidedly analog approach. The result is a wide-spanning, instrumental funk exploration.
For more information on Frames Per Second click here.
Below Jesse Miller and his brother, guitarist-keyboardist Luke Miller discuss their new album and the joy of releasing music on the fly.
What inspired you to release this new music in such a unique, spontaneous way?
Jesse Miller: We’ve done different things with different albums where singles are rolled out over a period of time, but I feel like in this day and age, when there’s so much information coming at you, we wanted to skip all that and just put out the album and video all at once and let everybody have access to it at the same time. It wasn’t some crazy master plan other than that. I just wanted to get that music out into the world.
From the album’s conception to release, how long was that timeline?
Luke Miller: We’re always working on demos. In the summer of 2017, we had a bunch of new demos, so we got together to rehearse those and see what was working and what wasn’t. Then we got the bulk of that together. In December of 2017, we went into the studio. Sticking with the ethos of how we wanted to record it, we had just a couple days in the studio and did all 19 songs really fast.
There is a certain energy to this type of release, setting up and letting the music flow through you. Is that something you guys were set on capturing?
JM: Definitely. We’ve done recordings all kinds of different ways, building up the parts more slowly or playing together. But this is the first time we wanted to keep the instrumentation really simple, so we wrote toward that and in such a way that there wouldn’t be a lot of overdubs or anything like that. What we were playing in the studio at the time was going to be the record. It definitely feels different than a show, but it does capture some of that live, interactive feel when you do it like that.
LM: One thing that’s important for projects is to put parameters and limits on them. Lotus is a group that can encompass a lot of different musical styles. If we can limit something, in this case the time and musical palette, it can focus the project—it’s a little overwhelming when it’s this open area of canvas where anything can go on it. So this was a way to focus that down.
Do you see Frames Per Second as a studio record or a live record?
LM: I guess I see it as a studio record, because we’re in the studio. For decades, that’s how everyone recorded in the studio. You couldn’t do the digital thing. So this may be a studio record, but using a playbook that’s a little bit older.
JM: It’s also a little different because a lot of our other studio albums had concepts that were more stylistic. The overall theme that shaped this music was that we were gonna do it quick and live and film it.
LM: The major difference between a live album and a studio album is the audience. Being by ourselves in the studio, there is a different energy as opposed to being in a theater with an audience.
That track list contains 19 songs. Were you excited about the challenge of that?
JM: I definitely think of it more as a show, where the crowd is standing in the middle. I don’t know how many people are going to have the vinyl over the digital, probably a limited number of people, but I feel like each side of the five album sides is like an episode of this longer project. As far as the 19-song thing, when we started rehearsing, it might have been more like 23 or 24 songs. Really, when Lotus tours, it’s like, “We might play any of these 120 songs.” It’s always a little daunting, but you pick the task at hand and get it done for that project.
Can you point to any moments or songs that you felt were spontaneous or improvised?
LM: The track “Aquamarine,” that’s kind of a four-to-the-floor, nu disco track. It falls into what I would call our main wheelhouse during a lot of our live shows, where we’re in that dance tempo. When we were improvising on that, it was a little more focused on the group improv: Some person interjects a little melody, then there’s a drum fill that ends that and someone pops in—you can almost visualize a kind of whack-a-mole thing where each different instrument is popping up in different spots. And that’s what I think of as a unique Lotus improvising style.
JM: One that I always point to is on “MacGuffin.” Mike Rempel played a really cool guitar solo for that. That’s a song where when we started rehearsing it, I wasn’t sure exactly where it was gonna go, but then we hit it in the studio I thought it was really popping.
How did you strike a balance between the ‘70s funk influence and the more futuristic sounds on this album?
JM: A lot of the time, limiting the instrumentation comes down to what keyboards we use. For this one it was primarily clavinet, which people would recognize from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” The synths we chose were mostly ‘70s synths: the Octave Cat synth, which I use a lot, and the Juno-106 and the Wurlitzer were used. That sets the palette for the keyboards, but in terms of how we like to mix and what sounds we like, it always leans more towards that analog sound, as opposed to something that’s really digital. That’s always been a big part of what we want the band to sound like in the studio.
Why was it important for you to incorporate the visual aspect of the documentary?
LM: We’re bringing so many years of live playing to the songs. You put in all this time practicing and there’s so much music nowadays where someone’s hitting the spacebar on a laptop, just someone jumping up and down—we kind of wanted to be the flipside of that where there are actually people there producing this stuff with their fingers and hands and it’s more of a tangible product.
JM: I ran into the guy who owns the studio we worked out of a lot in Philly, and I was telling him about the project, and he’s like, “Yeah, definitely you should do a video to prove that you did it, even though you guys go out and do this all the time.” Like what Luke was saying, in this day and age, everybody assumes it’s some kind of trick and we just wanted to give people an inside look and show that we’re actually playing it.
Do you see that ability to play live as a badge of honor?
LM: I can’t really throw many stones from my glass house because I DJ [laughs]. I think they’re different things. You can compose music on a computer, you can perform music on a computer, but for this thing, we’re using instruments. It’s like the difference between getting a hand-made table and one of those plastic, printed chairs; they have different feels to them.
Are you excited to see the reaction from fans?
JM: Yeah, you never quite know how fans are gonna react because, even though we play these songs live, an album is different than a show. I think a lot of times in the jamband world, albums get overlooked, and I’ve always pushed people to look at our albums as just as big or bigger than the shows. We certainly put as much time into working on the records as we do putting together shows. So check it out and take it seriously and, hopefully, get down on it.
LM: I don’t know if excitement is the right word. It’s a culmination; it’s such a long process of starting to write the demos to finally putting it out, it’s nice to have that final nail in and let people hear the music. Even after then, there’s the process of integrating the songs into the live show and really making them staples. That’s the final piece of the process.