Our favorite Philadelphia-based jamtronica act, Lotus, kicked off their “Gilded Age” tour last week in State College, PA! It was an incredible treat–seeing the guys in such a personal setting is always an excellent experience. Dedicated “family” and curious newcomers packed Levels Nightclub for the extra special sold-out show, and all left with a great impression of what to expect this tour.
Drummer, Mike Greenfield took some time out of his night to sit down with us and talk. This was a special interview that we had been trying to land for over a year, so we were especially grateful to have the opportunity to converse with such an awesome person in the scene! We talked not only about all things Lotus, but tapped into the other project he is a part of, also a Philadelphia-based jamtronica group, Electron (feat. Marc Brownstein, Aaron Magner, and Tom Hamilton). We talked about his year off back in 2006 and traveling around the world, his goals realized and goals to be realized, as well as what to expect from the new album, expected to come out shortly after this tour ends. We hope you enjoy reading this conversation as much as we enjoyed having it!
What have you been up to gearing up for tour?
Well, I haven’t been that smart ‘cause when I gear up for tour, I should be relaxing, and I’ve been playing a lot of shows. We had the Lotus New Years run, which was five shows. After that, I went and did two shows with Electron in Miami, and my parents live right in Naples, so I went and stayed a week with them. Then I was home for another two days, and went right out to Colorado and played another four shows with Electron. Flew back, had like, two hours off, then had three days of Lotus rehearsal, and now I’m here. So, no rest for the wicked, for me.
Even with the holidays, do you get a lot of time to spend with the family?
Yeah I do! So it’s kind of a feast or famine sort of deal. I am away probably, at least a third of the year, but when I’m home, I’m there 24/7. For example, Lotus had most of the fall off, so I was able to spend a lot of time—I have a wife, but no kids yet, so we were able to spend a lot of time together and went on some vacations.
So, by the way, saw you guys at Red Rocks on that fall tour, which was so sick, but how was Miami?
Miami’s cool! I’ve played there twice before and I didn’t really get to check out the city that much—I was just in and out. So, being that we had two shows in a row, I was able to sight see a little bit, so that was fun. The shows were both really cool. They were both post-Phish shows. I got to check out one Phish show.
Yeah, that was great! They’re playing really well. It was just a really good time.
So, Electron, what’s goin’ down with the future of that?
Yeah, we have a lot of shows coming up. We just picked up some new management. We’re working now with CID Entertainment, which before did a lot of VIP packages. Right now they’re doing [Luke Bryan’s] Crash My Playa, but they’re starting to expand, and they’re taking on bands also. So, right now, as far as I know, they only have us and American Babies.
Oh! That’s such a good group of people.
Yeah, yeah! It’s really cool. Right now we’re talking about some festivals that are coming up in the summer, so trying to organize all of that and get everyones schedules aligned.
So, Lotus-wise, you guys have been working on an album lately. How’s that going?
It’s great! It’s almost done. A lot of songs to pick from. They’re mostly done. We’re gonna go back next week and just do some retouching, some more mixing. Yeah, it should be ready to come out right after this run.
Are you going to be playing any of the new material?
No, I think we’re gonna hold off until after it comes out.
That’s even more exciting! Just completely fresh material.
Yeah, and it’s very different from anything we’ve done before. The Millers really like to experiment with the studio albums and try something new every time. This is no different.
What was the idea going into this one?
Again, they wrote all the music, so I can’t take credit for it, but it’s much more straight-ahead this time. It’s a little more nu-disco era, sort of, vibe. A lot more vocals—actually all vocals.
Really? From them?
No, no. They wrote the lyrics, and we hired different singers to come in for all the songs.
Oh, that will be fun to see played out! What have you, yourself been working on, outside of Lotus and Electron?
I’ve been playing piano a lot lately. I’ve been trying to get into that. It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do, and although it’s slow-going, it’s steadily progressing, and that’s really fun. Also, I’ve been playing around a lot with this program called Ableton, which is a production software, and honestly, especially in the last few months between doing that and just all these side projects, it’s been keeping me pretty busy.
Do you have any advice for musicians trying to learn a new, different instrument—especially going from something like drums to piano?
Right, yeah! It’s an interesting learning process for me because I’ve been playing drums for so long that it’s just second nature now. Now, when I play piano, it’s just like being reborn. You know, learning all the basics and going through that. I think the biggest thing that happens with people that maybe in a situation similar to me is that they get frustrated easily because they’re so used to being competent in one instrument, and then going to something else and like, “Oh, this sounds horrible, I’m just gonna stop,” but I think you just have to really stick to it and be diligent, and things come in time.
Are there any newer drummers that pique your interest?
There’s a few. There is a drummer named Mark Guiliana in New York City who is much more avant-jazz than I am. He’s great—he’s incredible to watch. I like him. There’s a drummer from Germany named Benny Greb, who I enjoy a lot. He really has a very good mixture of having chops and feel at the same time, which you don’t see a lot in drummers. Usually it’s one or the other. Even though he’s not new to me, Jojo Mayer, who’s from New York also—he’s just always pushing the boundaries and coming up with new drumming concepts and ideas. I’ve been watching him for years, so even though he’s not new to me, he’s always progressing. Those three are pretty much my main inspirations right now.
Then, also, drummers in the jam scene that I’m in, that I get to hang out with. Sometimes I forget they’re influences because I’m friends with them also, but guys like Joe Russo and Adam Deitch, Torch—a lot of these guys I see all the time, and I’m always blown away by them.
As for the Ableton stuff you’ve been messing with, what have you been channeling through that?
That’s been a little slow-going for me because I’m not too sure which direction I wanna take it in. Lately I’ve been messing around with an older style called UK Garage or Two Step, that I’ve been playing with a lot, but then I’ll get bored and wanna try something else. The problem with Ableton for me is that there’s so many music styles that you can get into, so many possibilities—sonic possiblities—and sometimes it’s hard for me to narrow it down to one. So, I think for 2015, maybe that’s something I have to focus on, is to pick one direction and just go with it.
Right, ‘cause you can do literally anything. Every instrument that exists, and then every weird sound you could think of, and then more.
Right, it’s a lot. Sometimes, you think that would help you, but I think sometimes it can be overwhelming and maybe a little bit of an obstacle to have too many choices. Sometimes you just have to narrow it down, but it’s cool, it’s a completely different animal. I’ve never been a songwriter. I’ve never been great at melodic or harmonic theory, so it’s just a lot of new information that I’m taking in.
So, whenever you learned how to play an instrument, did you learn music theory first?
Well, with drums, I took private lessons from about nine until I was sixteen. So with that, my drum teachers were very adamant about teaching me how to read music. You know, coming from a very technical approach, but still, that didn’t include melodic or harmonic theory, so my knowledge of music is very deep but very narrow, where it’s focused a lot on rhythmic theory. So, that’s what I’ve been working on expanding the last few years. It’s coming along slowly but surely.
So your music has taken you crazy places already, but what are your newer goals for the future—some places it hasn’t yet taken you?
It’s interesting because, as far as the goals that I had when I was younger, I’ve kind of accomplished a lot of them, and it’s a weird feeling, you know? I remember when I was ten years old, I was like, “I wanna be in a tour bus and I wanna ride around in a band and tour the country,” and now it’s here, and I’m doing it. I’m doing it right now, and that’s pretty amazing. Lotus has toured internationally before, but we’ve never toured Europe. I think that would be an incredible thing to do as a musician. It’s hard to do. Even musicians who do great here—even DJ’s, if you look at Bassnectar, who will do 10,000 people anywhere in the country, if he goes to Europe, now he’s playing in front of a few hundred. So, for us, it would be even harder for that. I don’t know if our management is really ready to take that step. Hopefully, one day they would.
It’s a lot of work on everyones’ part.
Yeah, it’s a lot of work, so that may be difficult. Before I joined Lotus, one of my biggest passions was traveling. Now, not so much because I travel—it’s funny, when I’m off the road now, I just wanna stay home. I don’t even go out anymore, I just wanna stay home and hang out, so my priorities have shifted a little bit. I think with Lotus, what’s nice, we’re just on a very steady incline of increasing our fan base, of playing better venues. This tour, we’re playing a few venues that I’ve always wanted to play, such as The Tabernacle in Atlanta. I’ve always wanted to go there, and never have played there before. There are only a few venues left in the country that I really wanna play that we haven’t yet, so hopefully that’ll happen.
So, whenever you were just traveling, where was your favorite place?
Well in 2006 and 7, I took an entire year off and did an around-the-world trip. I spent most of my time in New Zealand, but I went to Australia, and Asia for three months, and Europe for three months. So, it was incredible. I have a few favorites for different things. I mean, the beaches in Thailand were incredible. The culture-shock in China and India were unreal. New Zealand probably has the most natural beauty. Bali—I would live in Bali in a heartbeat. There’s a lot, I really enjoy it.
You’re just listing off all the places I’ve really wanted to go. I’m at a point where I can do anything, so it’s like, “Where should i go?”
I think Southeast Asia is a great place, especially for young people. Also ‘cause it’s cheap, you know. You can live very well in Southeast Asia for ten to twenty dollars a day—very, very well. You can’t really do that too many other places. For young people, I think it’s very important for them to travel, and that’s one place where it’s economically feasible for them to do that. You just grow so much—you see so many incredible things, and heartbreaking things, and that’s part of it.
It’s all about the duality of it. You can’t respect or appreciate one without having the other.
Yeah, true, and some countries illustrate that more than others. India is probably the biggest divide in wealth that I’ve witnessed. I saw some incredible things while I was over there.
So, speaking of the world, what is something going on the world that you think about often—whether it bothers you or it fascinates you.
Yeah, a lot. Everything that’s been going on with the United States—and I’m going to preface this by saying I’m not an incredibly politically-minded person, but of course—everything that’s been going on with America’s involvement in all the wars really bothers me a lot. Especially because I don’t think it’s done with intentions that are put forth by our government—you know, I don’t think we’re going over there to liberate people or to help people. I think we’re going over there to make money. So, that bothers me a lot. The ramifications are what we’re seeing right now. You can’t just go and bomb countries and expect nothing bad to happen afterwards.
Aspects like that definitely bother me, but there’s a lot of incredible things going on in the world also that we’re looking at. What’s going on in Europe especially, how everyone’s starting to do better financially. With China, with India, things are getting better slowly. There’s still a lot. If you do make it to Southeast Asia and you do make it to China, the pollution there is absolutely horrendous. That’s a concern of mine. There’s a lot, but I try to look at the good and the bad and not get too depressed over it.
Right, it’s hard sometimes. So what’s something you’re looking forward to on tour with Lotus?
What’s great with tour—and we haven’t been out on a tour this large in about a year—is, we’re doing I think about seven weeks this run, and every week the band gets tighter and tighter. Even though we’re playing in different venues and the cities change, there’s almost a “Groundhog’s Day” element, you know the movie, to it, where every day you’re just trying to improve this one little thing that you may have missed out on the day before. I really enjoy that. It’s nice that we have a large catalog to pull from, and that every show’s gonna be different, but there’s still that element of, “What did I do the last show, the last five shows, that I didn’t like, that we can improve on?” So, there’s a conscious element, and there’s an unconscious element, just when you have five guys playing together every single night, it’s gonna get better every single night—until we start getting burnt out maybe by the seventh week, but it’s really nice to see that progression and see that unfold.
Back to the Red Rocks show, do you think the Talking Heads Deconstructed set is something you’ll bring back?
I don’t know if we’d do entire shows again. I do know that the singer, Gabe Otto, his band Pan Astral’s, going to be opening for us for a few shows on this tour, so I imagine he’s going to sit in for a few songs, but I don’t make that call. I just think if we played too many Talking Heads sets, I think it would get old pretty quick. They were great, especially the Vibes set, I think for me was really awesome. I enjoyed that a lot.
So, as for Electron, what’s in the future for them?
Yeah, that’s going full steam ahead. Marc is taking a few months off and he is gonna spend a lot of time writing. So, we’re bringing in more songs, we’re bringing in more of Tommy’s songs, and right now we’re working out dates in the spring. We’re talking about—at least on the table right now—five or six different festivals that we’re playing. So, it’s great. I really enjoy playing with those guys. Every band that you play with has pro’s and con’s to it. It’s almost like Lotus is my wife, and Electron is like, if you’re dating someone new. There’s new excitement going on, and there are elements there that you’re exactly sure of, so there are things that will surprise you, things you need to pay attention to a little bit more. So, it’s a cool experience. I really like doing both, jumping back and forth between the two.
Do you think it’s harder work to do one over the other?
Maybe it’s a little more difficult with Lotus just because we have such a large catalog that we’re pulling from. Over a hundred songs, you know, each tour, that we’re running through. I have to stay on top of my game to memorize all the songs, where Electron just has twenty-five, but at the same time, you know, playing with someone like Tommy, who’s just an incredible guitar player—I’ve been playing with him for about fifteen years—he’s amazing, and he just gets better all the time, and so, he’s always throwing out riffs or just phrases that challenge me. I’m like, “Wow, what is he doing? How can i accent what’s going on with that?” That’s really cool. With Rempel, who’s also equally great, but I’ve been playing with him for five, six years now, so many times, over the years, that I know a lot of his phrases, and I know exactly what’s going to work with him. So, maybe the show may sound better, but with Electron I really have to stay on my toes.
What’s one of your favorite songs from the Lotus catalog?
I really like playing a song called “In an Outline.” For drums it has a lot of interesting cross-rhythmic and poly-rhythmic textures to it, but it’s, you know, I definitely have some that I like playing over others, but I just try to think about the strengths of each song and go with that, but “In an Outline,” I’m always psyched to see on a set list.