Live for Live Music writer Edward Byrne had a chance to chat with Lotus drummer Mike Greenfield and discuss a number of topics, from the art of drumming, being in one of the hottest bands in the scene today, playing in a plethora of side projects from Electron to the Stratosphere Allstars (who will be playing Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday, March 26th – GET TIX), balancing life on the road with life at home, and more. Here is what Greenfield had to say:
L4LM: Lotus has a unique take on the livetronica sound. Since joining the band, the group’s style has evolved and begun paving an independent path of it’s own. This is being extremely well received and the steadily growing fan-bases blossoming around the country serves as a testament to that. Can you tell me about the trajectory you’ve taken with the group since joining and the direction you see for the group in the future?
MG: When I joined Lotus in 2009 the Millers were actually already starting to go in a more electronic direction. Jesse soon started using Ableton at shows, which opened up a new world of sounds for the band to implement. Lotus experimented with electronic influences over the next few years but came back to a guitar/live band sound with the nostalgic themed album Gilded Age. Our forthcoming album is in a completely new direction as well.
Even though the style of songs has changed dramatically over the years, there is still a common thread to the material that contributes to a cohesive sound. I always enjoyed that in any given night we perform songs that stretch over a multitude of genres that span Lotus’ 15+ years of songwriting. It keeps the shows from being one-dimensional.
L4LM: Lotus: Talking Heads Deconstructed debuted at Gathering of The Vibes last year. You guys have kept some of the covers in your rotation and the blending of genres seems a perfect fit. Aside from The Talking Heads and the band’s affinity for them, who influences you personally, both in your passion for drumming and as a member of multiple live electronic acts?
MG: Lately I have been inspired from sources that are not musical in nature. Although this seems paradoxical, it reminds me of a quote by Tom Robbins that says “[If you take] one thing, however trivial and mundane, to such extremes…you will illuminate its relationship to all other things.”
There are three books that have changed the way I approach drums that were not specifically written for musicians. The first two books were actually written for authors; “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield and “On writing” by Stephen King.
The third book is the “Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin, who is a chess prodigy featured in the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” I have also been influenced lately by podcasts, including those by Joe Rogan and Tim Ferriss. Ferriss’ podcast specifically focuses on examining world-class performers from different fields.
L4LM: This year, you’ll be making appearances at Peach Fest, All Good, Electric Forest, and Wakarusa. At Jam on The River in Philadelphia, you’ll be playing with both Lotus AND Electron. With no signs of slowing down, it seems to be shaping up to be one of your busiest years yet. Is this period of right now of relentlessly touring extremely demanding on you or is this all old-hat? How does it stack up against years past?
MG: Presently Lotus is in the last week of a seven-week national tour. I get home March 9th and I have only been home for about 8 days since our New Years run in December (because of side-projects and traveling.) Although I have become somewhat acclimated to being on the road, it will be incredibly awesome to finally see my family, sleep in my own bed, and to finally use my dresser instead of a suitcase!
L4LM: How will those two weeks leading up to Brooklyn Bowl be divided? Will they mostly be spent with the Stratosphere guys preparing or will the show be more of a free form tribute with music you are already fairly familiar and comfortable with?
MG: Since we all live in different cities we will not be able to rehearse. We have been in contact a lot via email and are planning on several covers etc for the night. All of the musicians involved are incredibly talented and it will be exciting to see how it unfolds.
L4LM: With shows such as the Stratosphere Allstars one, where individuals from various bands combine and don’t necessarily have much time to spend in a rehearsal studio, how are you able to pull it off? Obviously communication prior to the show is important, but is the element of improvisation the “X-Factor” that makes a show like this succeed?
MG: Right, so far we have spent a lot of time going back and forth via email to plan set-lists and general concepts. Everyone involved in this project has experience with group improvisation, which is very different than just being able to improvise on your instrument. The obvious benefit to playing with a group like this is that we will likely surprise each other with ideas on stage and the audience gets to share in this real time.
L4LM: Some of the artists that will be covered are listed as LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk, the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock, the Talking Heads….that is some serious genre-spanning. From a technical standpoint, who is the most difficult of these artists to cover?
MG: There are many different elements that can make a song “difficult” to play. First, there are the notes are actually played. For example, if we decided to cover “Black Page” by Zappa the notes would be challenging. None of these artists are very challenging when talking about notes specifically. However, when I consider “HOW” the notes are played, then all of the songs are equally challenging. The feel for all of the artists you mentioned are very different. Even though the drumming for Talking Heads and Daft Punk may be identical the feel and approach can be very different. I try to convey the original feel that the songwriter intended while simultaneously putting my signature on it.
MG: I don’t really have a favorite track at this time, all of these groups have greatly influenced me in many ways.
L4LM: Outside of those artists, will there be some on-the-spot, free-form jamming coming from this collaboration?
MG: Absolutely! Like I mentioned before, all of the musicians involved are incredible improvisers and I’m looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.
L4LM: There’s a growing buzz among the music forums about what is happening right now on The Gilded Age Tour as Lotus crisscrosses the country. The Tabernacle show in Atlanta and the South Side Music Hall show in Dallas stand out for me as absolute fire. The rooms and crowds you’re playing are growing larger. Can you touch on your reaction to the nation’s response and the tour so far? Some hot spots you love playing?
MG: This has been a great tour, the band has been playing very well and the shows have been extremely consistent. We have played over 100 songs this run and the turnout has been stellar. As a musician you can’t really ask for more.
Obviously it’s an incredible feeling to play well-known venues like the Tabernacle, Stage AE, Terminal 5, etc. But when touring across the country we play venues of all sizes, and when we play on a Tuesday in a small city the vibe is completely different than a sold out Terminal 5 show. Honestly, I love this contrast because the small and large shows each have different advantages to them. The larger shows stand out to me because of the energy of the crowd, the “wow” factor, and the large production that goes along with it. I enjoy the smaller shows for the intimacy and the comfort level it affords the band. I think we experiment more in front of the smaller crowds and some of our best shows are in front of a few hundred people that seem to be inches from my kit.
L4LM: You have a dedicated grassroots fan-base traveling to see multiple shows consecutively. Apart from Lotus, Electron, and The Stratosphere All-Stars, what other current or possibly dormant projects may we expect to see you with in 2015?
MG: There really isn’t too much else on the horizon, but Brownstein did mention about possibly putting together a few shows with Jamie Shields again, who is one of my favorite musicians to play with.
L4LM: Regardless of any officially announced Late-Nights for the “Fare Thee Well” shows, will you be attending or making an effort to get out to Chicago? Can we expect to see you there?
MG: Lotus has some other commitments that Sat/Sun so I’m not sure if I can make it out. There are some talks about playing with a side project on Friday but I honestly haven’t heard anything yet.
L4LM: I have heard that while home from touring, you still find time to give drum lessons. Is this true? And if so, what levels do you teach and how many students do you take on?
MG: I taught approximately 20-30 students a week throughout my 20’s. I learned a great deal from the experience and it helped me become a better drummer. Presently, my approach to teaching is very different because I don’t teach beginners and I don’t have to rely on it for income. It is now comprised of introducing broader advanced concepts (such as Moeller technique) that can take students weeks or even months to fully integrate into their playing. So basically after one or two lessons I’ll send them off and we will get in touch after a few months to do some tweaking. I get a lot of satisfaction when I see the improvements when they finally return or if I see them perform.
L4LM: What are some of your favorite bands to listen to right now? Are there any groups that some may be surprised to read that you are really into?
MG: I have been bouncing back and forth between eclectic singer-songwriters and select electronica. For singer-songwriters, I love listening to Andrew Bird, Eddie Vedder, Cloud Cult, Thom Yorke, Kishi Bashi, and Sufjan Stevens. For electronica I like Siriusmo, Modeselektor, Aphex Twin, and genres such as minimal techno (especially Format B), instrumental hip-hop (such as Elaquent and Flying Lotus), and old school 2-step/UK Garage mixes such as Four Tet’s Fabriclive59.
L4LM: “The Zen Electronica Fest II” at the old Exit II Nightclub in 2005 was a really special night with an amazing lineup that older fans still appreciate and talk about despite the lack of recorded and circulated sets. I know Suckerpunch played at the first “Zen Fest” at Webster Hall in 2003. Do any highlights of these evening stick out for you? If you are able to recall, what were you thinking when Zach Velmer of STS9 came out during Suckerpunch’s set and started doing handstand push-ups?
MG: That show still stands out for me as well, and I absolutely remember when Zach came out doing handstands! I was incredibly impressed by his energy on the kit and his uncanny resemblance to Tom Cruise (and both don’t seem to be aging by the way).
If memory serves correct I actually played 3 shows that night with the Ally, Suckerpunch, and the BreakBeatles. I was honored to play with some of my favorite musicians on that historic night.
L4LM: Do you believe that regiment and time management are the key to success, and if applicable, what are some of the rituals you do daily, both while on the road and off to keep the structure?
MG: This is something I struggle with and recently made a resolution to improve. Keeping a regiment was actually much easier when I had a day job because my schedule was always the same. Now every day is different. I have touring vs non-touring schedules, both of which have an incredible amount of variables in them.
When I tour there are some core rituals that I try to complete no matter what else is going on. I do yoga at least every other day and often alternate it with jogging. On a good day I’ll do both, and on a great day I’ll also be able to also meditate for 15 minutes. I used to lift weights but I found that it is too difficult to maintain while on the road. I am absolutely convinced that there is nothing better than a morning of meditation, yoga, and a good jog.
For drumming chops, I go through a warm-up that was developed by a drummer named Tommy Igoe. I also will practice foot technique for about 20 minutes after sound check.
L4LM: And finally….What is the definition of success for you?
MG: To balance living for today with planning for tomorrow, to improve yourself and those around you, to have meaningful relationships, and of course to have fun.
– Edward Byrne