Over the years, Lotus has become a beloved staple of the jamtronica scene. Since lead guitarist Mike Rempel and guitarist/keyboardist Luke Miller met in camp in Colorado in 1998, the group’s co-founders, plus Luke’s twin’s brother, Jesse Miller (bass/sampler), have continued to push the band into the future, and the band has reaped the rewards, cultivating a dedicated following in its two decades of existence. To many fans, the Lotus from the turn of the century is markedly different than the Lotus of now. Never ones to shy away from experimentation and new sounds, Lotus has continued to evolve over the years, bringing in tastes of hip-hop, electro-pop, and indie rock to compliment the band’s initial jazz-funk-electronica leanings.
On Saturday, June 9th, Lotus will headline the fan-favorite music festival, Disc Jam. Following performances by Ghost Light, the new project headed by Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling, and Beats Antique, the theatrical electronic-world music fusion outfit, Lotus is expected to lay out one of their characteristic blissed-out performances for the Stephentown, New York crowd, ahead of a set from Electron, a supergroup side project featuring one of Lotus’ own, drummer Mike Greenfield, in addition to The Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner and Tom Hamilton of Ghost Light, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, and American Babies. (For more information about Disc Jam or to purchase tickets, head to the festival’s website here.)
Live For Live Music had the chance to meet up with Lotus’ Mike Rempel, and talk to the lead guitarist about Lotus’ past, present, and future. In the in-depth conversation, Rempel speaks on a whole slew of topics, including the band’s upcoming album, the group’s musical evolution over time, and their upcoming performance at Disc Jam. Furthermore, Rempel dives deeps, offering up thoughts on his love of Phish, his favorite songs to play live, his side projects, musical and otherwise, and more. Read on below!
Ming Lee Newcomb: You met the Millers in the late ’90s. That means you’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of Lotus in its babiest form. That’s almost half of your life that you’ve devoted to this project, with hopefully with 20 more on the way. Do you have any reflections on that?
Mike Rempel: It’s hard to believe. It’s beautiful and humbling—it kind of freaks me out that I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. Sometimes I certainly wonder, “Is this what I want to keep doing?” I do have a lot of curiosity around other possibilities for my life, perhaps a lifestyle that doesn’t involve so much traveling. In my adult life, I’ve never had the experience of what it means to really settle into a particular community and integrate.
But when I look at the way my life has unfolded, I mostly just feel gratitude. With all these years under our belt, we’ve been able to cultivate a musical intelligence or intuitive capacity that wasn’t possible in the early years. When we are accessing it, it’s very powerful. That capacity for intuitive musical communication is a result of all those years, and it’s amazing and beautiful and fun.
MLN: Can you elaborate a little bit more on these other paths you’re interested in taking? Would they be musically inclined?
MR: I have some personal musical projects that have been in the works for a while and am moving towards getting them completed. There’s a longing in me to get them out into the world. Over the past several years, I’ve kind of gotten in my own way, but lately, that pattern is transforming. I’m also curious about taking my music to different kinds of environments. I often feel like we’re playing at these big parties where drugs and alcohol are pervasive, but I’d like to bring my music into spaces that are more intentional—like playing music for yoga classes or ecstatic dance events. I’ve been working on a DJ mix for an ecstatic dance that I’m planning to co-host with a friend of mine here in Colorado this Summer. It’s an experiment for me and will likely be a really intimate event.
I’m also interested in exploring this question of how can I contribute to the evolution of a healthy and sustainable culture, or, what I might call the “growing up” of our species. At this particular time in the history, I believe we all have a unique part to play in ushering humanity towards a more harmonious relationship with our planet and with each other. So, I’m just exploring these big questions, and getting really curious about what kind of action is needed on my part.
MLN: You’ve always seemed like a fairly introverted individual. With the inherent party atmosphere at Lotus shows plus touring, where you’re on the road in tight quarters with the same people, playing these high-energy shows with thousands of fans, how do you reconcile or cope with that?
MR: I suppose there has sometimes been a little… maybe friction? Though I’m not sure that’s the best word. At times, I think I’ve closed myself off from the community because I’m not interested in drinking and partying, so I’ve totally walked away or dissociated from it, but in many ways that behavior on my part has limited the opportunity for meaningful connections along the way. One of my ideals at this point in my life is to not put up boundaries that might limit the potential for growth and authentic connection with others. Also, for many years now, I have consistently prioritized a yoga practice on show days, which has helped me maintain a sense of equanimity through all the craziness.
MLN: If you look at Lotus’ music from the turn into the 2000s through to the Lotus that we hear today, you can see distinct shifts in your guys’ sound. Eat The Light was Lotus’ first album with vocals on each track and was definitely more electro-pop. How would you say that Lotus’ sound has evolved over the years?
MR: One aspect of Lotus’ evolution simply has to do with the songwriting, and that is the department of the Miller brothers. They seem to lean towards pushing boundaries and exploring new styles—pushing our edges in that way. At times, I have been resistant to some of the directions we’ve gone. I haven’t liked everything that we’ve tried, but at the end of the day, I feel like the explorations have served us and that we’re a richer band for having explored what we’ve explored.
Beyond the compositional element, I feel there’s been an evolution within our improvisational capacity—in our way of listening to each other. That capacity continues to evolve—our improvisational voice is becoming sharper and more focused over time. But this is something that has ebbed and flowed over the years, and I think that we’ve gone through periods of time where we weren’t really connecting in a powerful way. We weren’t really allowing it to happen—maybe things were being forced and pushed in ways that didn’t allow for a natural voice. I don’t know what the rhyme or reason is, but when it’s flowing, it always feels good, that’s for sure. I feel like we’re more capable now of pushing boundaries in our improvisations that we weren’t capable of doing in the early 2000s. That said, I do often miss the more ambient and meandering style of our improvisations from those early years.
MLN: When you mentioned being resistant to the direction Lotus’ music has taken at times, even if you’re not necessarily receptive to certain songs initially, do you find that your perspective on them has changed?
Mike Rempel: Yes, that definitely happens. It doesn’t always happen, but there have certainly been some songs I didn’t really like at first, but over time they really grew on me. My most candid opinion is that I don’t actually like having sampled vocals as a part of our show. We’re an instrumental band. We don’t have a live singer. It doesn’t make sense to me, and I don’t necessarily feel like it serves our show that well to have a disembodied lead vocal coming through the PA system. I think a lot of the songs are catchy and fun, and there may be a lot of people that dig them. Sometimes I see people singing along, and that’s fun, but as an instrumental band, it makes more sense to me to just do what we do with our instruments.
MLN: During Lotus shows, there are these certain moments that evoke bliss and sublimity, and you tend to lead into the peaks of jams that create this organic, communal feeling within the audience. When you’re performing, do you also similarly feel that sort of sensation, or can you tell when the audience is there with you?
MR: Yes, absolutely, but that depends on if I’m actually there with the audience, which, sometimes, is a big “if.” Sometimes I get in my own way and get caught up in my thinking mind, analyzing what’s happening. I think that there have been longer periods of time where I’m not actually showing up, and at times, I have had a limited capacity to embrace the present moment and allow my creativity to unfold. But that self-awareness and capacity for present centeredness is something that’s continually expanding and growing.
I’ve noticed recently, as I become more available and more embodied, I’m feeling the whole situation in a way that I never have before. It’s really powerful—it’s an experience of deep connection. And yeah, as far as I’m concerned, those moments of unity between everyone in the room is what it’s all about. Those moments are the reason we keep exploring this thing called live music. It gives us an experience of unity that we deeply long for—it transcends what we normally experience in daily life in this culture.
“Umbilical Moonrise” – Jam Cruise 14
[Video: Jam Cruise]
MLN: You guys are currently working on a new album. Where are you guys in the process?
Mike Rempel: Yes. We recently finished mixing. I don’t even remember how many songs there are exactly—there are at least 15, maybe 20 songs, that we’re sitting on that we’ve mixed that are all instrumental. A lot of them are really fun and have a funky, soulful vibe that I dig, but there’s definitely a range—there are the funky ones, but there are also some chill ones and more electronic ones. As a whole, I’m not sure which of those are going to make the cut for the next album, and I’m not quite sure what the timeline is.
MLN: Since these new tracks are all instrumental, following Eat The Light, which was more sample heavy and poppy, does this mean that you guys are revisiting a more old-school Lotus sound?
MR: I wouldn’t call it “old school.” I mean, in some ways, it is because the approach was more raw. We tracked most of the songs live, playing together in the studio. Often in the past, we’ve tracked instruments separately while in the studio, but most of these tunes were recorded live, so I guess in that sense you could use the term “old school”, but stylistically, there’s certainly an evolution.
MLN: Once the Millers write a song, what is the process from their songwriting to all of you guys getting into the studio?
MR: It all starts with the demos they create—they’re crafting full songs including guitar parts, including drum programming, everything. They send us the demos, and we’ll all learn our parts. If I want to change anything, I can suggest that, but their songwriting is great; they dial the songs in really well before the rest of us ever hear them. Then, everyone has to work up their parts, and we’ll get together and work them out live as a band, figuring out what’s working and what’s not working, and we make any changes accordingly.
MLN: With The Millers as the chief songwriters of Lotus, how do you respect their visions for songs while also organically expressing yourself?
MR: I feel like my own musical voice is highly expressed during performances, especially since I tend to take more of a lead role melodically. I feel that my voice comes through strongly when we improvise, even though I’m not crafting the compositional foundation of the songs. I suppose there’s a way of breathing my style of playing into the parts they write, but for me, the essence of my creativity comes through when we jam, and I feel quite fulfilled and expressed in that context.
MLN: When Lotus came together, you shared a love of Phish. Initially, you guys covered Santana, The Allman Brothers—these more classic rock bands. Though your musical tastes have continued to evolve, do you still maintain interest in those early influences?
MR: Not really… I mean, I will always love Phish. They were such a huge influence for me in our earliest years as a band—I loved Trey [Anastasio’s] playing and the way Phish improvised together. I don’t think I’d have this musical career if it wasn’t for them. I mean, that band changed everything for me and how I experienced music. I’d love to go see them live again—it’s been over 15 years since I was actively following them.
MLN: What are your favorite songs to play live?
MR: I have a few. I love “Livingston Storm”. I love playing “Colorado”. I love “Cirrus”, which is a short sort-of ballad that we don’t play too often. I love “Blue Giant” and “Shimmer And Out”. That’s just a handful, but there are others I love too.
“Cirrus” – Quixote’s – Denver, CO – 12/29/2006
[Video: OnSight Media]
MLN: What is it about those songs?
Mike Rempel: I guess it’s mainly the mood and the feelings they evoke in me. I mean, there are different reasons for different songs. When I think of “Shimmer”, it’s just so simple yet bouncy and exuberant. It’s fun to play because I don’t really have to concentrate too hard on what I’m doing and can just sit back and enjoy the feeling of the song and the impact it has for the audience. For “Blue Giant”, I’ve always loved the melodies in that tune—something about the mood of it feels like freedom to me. With “Livingston”, I find pleasure in exploring melodic ideas over that particular chord change. I feel expressed when I play that tune; it just feels good.
“Livingston Storm” – Beacham – Orlando, FL – 3/5/2012
MLN: You guys are headlining Disc Jam Music Festival in a couple weeks. Does playing a more intimate festival like Disc Jam end up changing your set versus a big brand-name festival?
Mike Rempel: Yes. I would say an intimate crowd at a more intimate festival makes a big difference. I also think there’s likely a different energy we bring when we are headlining a festival versus playing a support set—it may not be a conscious thing, but I imagine that it has an impact on how we show up.
MLN: Disc Jam has an awesome lineup that’s really dialed into our scene. Are there any people on the lineup that you could see Lotus collaborating with? During Disc Jam, are there any acts that you’re hoping to catch?
MR: I love a lot of these bands. I’m a fan of Beats Antique, Galactic, The Motet. We toured with Moon Hooch and they became friends of ours—they are some of the sweetest human beings I’ve met. The horn players, Mike [Wilbur] and Wenzl [McGowen], have sat in with us a few times. Maybe we’ll get them up with us at Disc Jam while we’re there, but I’m not sure.
As for catching other bands’ sets, when we go to festivals, we’re often just in and out really quick, but I definitely would like to check out some music while I’m there. There are a bunch of artists that I’m not familiar with. At festivals, there is always the possibility of stumbling upon an artist you’ve never heard of and getting your mind blown. Perhaps this will be one of those weekends.
Lotus with Moon Hooch – “Basin To Benin” – Summerdance 2015
MLN: With the electronic project that you’re gearing up to release, what can we expect? Do you have a timeline?
Mike Rempel: That’s an excellent question… I do not have timelines, but the project is with John LaBoone, who produces music under the name of Soulacybin. Our collaborative project is called Circle and Arc, and I would say we’re like 80%, maybe 90% done with the music. It’s close; it’s just a matter of taking the final steps.
MLN: How did you end up connecting with him?
MR: He was a Lotus fan, actually. He used to tour with us and come to dance at shows. He was just a sweet gu,y and we connected and became friends. Later, he started producing music and moved to Colorado from Kentucky. Then, one day, we had a conversation, like, “Hey, we should try making some music together.” So we started exploring some ideas, and it just felt like we were complimenting each other in some really cool ways. It’s a unique sound. It’s been fun.
MLN: What other things have you been doing to fill your time?
MR: This is quite personal, but about two years ago, I made some big shifts in how I was approaching my life. For several years, I was in a really-stuck place in a romantic partnership, and I found myself in a cyclical pattern with my partner that kept repeating itself—we weren’t moving forward. I was attached to our relationship because it was safe and comfortable, but my creative energy wasn’t flowing. Even though it was painful at the time, it was the catalyst into a path of growth and transformation.
I got really curious about what it means to grow and evolve as a human being. A mentor of mine suggested I join a men’s group. This is a small group of men who sit together consistently over time with the objective of getting really real about what’s happening in our lives and on our planet and to support each other through personal challenges and to cultivate our strengths. I’ve been sitting with nine other men once a week for almost two years now, and it’s been totally life-changing. It’s primarily a container for exploring “masculine vulnerability”, which is something that is nearly non-existent in our modern mainstream culture. We explore questions like what does it mean to be a man at this time in history, what is “healthy masculinity”? We examine and challenge the beliefs we hold that might be limiting us. It’s about empowerment and transformation and letting go of our social masks and holding each other accountable. It’s been an incredible journey.
Last year, I started exploring group facilitation myself. It was part of a challenge that I made to my men’s group—and they held me accountable to meet that goal. So on our winter tour, 2017, I committed to facilitating a couple circles that were focused on exploring vulnerability. I was talking to fans and bringing in people that I was meeting during the tour into these groups. I just did it as an experiment, testing my capacity for leadership. In the groups, we do these practices called “dyads” where we pair up and share with each other, with the intention of letting our guard down, withholding all judgments, and bringing a beginner’s mind to the whole experience. It was really transformative and powerful and exciting.
That was the beginning of something, and since then, I’ve facilitated 13 of these circles. It’s something I really want to keep doing, and I’m exploring different possibilities for how I might present these group experiences to a wider audience—they can be really powerful and transformative for people. I’m just really into transformational work because our planet is nearing a threshold. And if we go beyond that threshold, our species may not survive. The way I see it, there is a radical need for transformation in our world at the level of the individual person. It is possible to wake up from the cultural trance. So that’s kind of what it’s about for me—creating spaces where we can move beyond our cultural conditioning and step into a place of profound empowerment and action around how we engage in the world in order to meet the challenges we’re facing today.
MLN: If there are fans interested, how could they get involved?
MR: I would have them check out my website, MikeRempel.com. They can send me a message or sign up for my mailing list there. The website is still pretty minimal, but as these projects unfold I will surely be sharing them with the world.
The eighth-annual edition of Disc Jam Music Festival will return to Gardner’s Farm in Stephentown, New York, on June 7th through 10th. The beloved music festival boasts over 80 artists, along with disc golf tournaments, Flow Tribe dancers, craft vending, yoga workshops and much more. One of the few remaining major independent music festivals, Disc Jam has brought together a truly stellar collection of artists for 2018, including Lotus, Beats Antique, Galactic, The Motet, Electron (feat. members of Lotus and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead), Disco Biscuits guitarist Jon ‘The Barber’ Gutwillig (solo acoustic set), DJ Logic and Friends (feat. members of The Disco Biscuits, Dopapod and Turkuaz), Gubbulidis (Twiddle side project), Kung Fu, Moon Hooch, Aqueous, Ghost Note (Snarky Puppy side project) Tom Marshall’s Amfibian All-Stars, Ghost Light (Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling project), and many more. Head to Disc Jam’s website for more information and ticketing, and peep the event’s stacked lineup below.