String Cheese Incident percussionists Michael Travis and Jason Hann have been pushing the envelope of what electronic-oriented dance music can be with EOTO by mixing live sampling with organic instrumentation.
It was a Saturday night in Austin, where a weekend night always enhances the vibe for an electronic dance music party. But this was no ordinary electronic music show because it wasn't just a DJ spinning and sampling. String Cheese Incident percussionists Michael Travis and Jason Hann have been pushing the envelope of what electronic-oriented dance music can be with EOTO by mixing live sampling with organic instrumentation. It's an increasingly popular flavor, as attested to by the fact that the band had moved up to the much larger La Zona Rosa after having played the smaller Parish Room on their last couple of visits to town.
Hann is the percussionist in SCI, but mans a fully tricked-out drum kit in EOTO (End of Time Observatory) while SCI drummer Travis moves over to dabble in bass, guitar, keys, percussion and all manner of electronic flavor. When you watch the duo in action, it's sometimes hard to figure out how they're creating all the sounds in their wide sonic arsenal. But it's ever-intriguing, as no pre-recorded samples are used and they create everything onstage. In an interview after the smoking show that went until nearly 2 am, Hann revealed some of the duo's tricks.
“It's really a live recording session... you're seeing us play and sing every part. You're seeing us create them on the spot. And Ableton allows us to do that,” Hann said regarding the increasingly trendy music software that's all the rage in the electronic music scene these days.
He noted that unlike some other software, Ableton allows the user to record multiple tracks live and switch between them on the fly. This gives the duo plenty of options in blending various electronic genres such as dubstep, breakbeat, trip-hop, house and electro. When queried on how he differentiates those genres, Hann cited the beats per minutes as a key factor, with dubstep hanging out at about 140 bpm.
“Dubstep is also all about that wobble bass,” Hann said, mimicking the electro-bass sound that the band uses with such groovy skill. “Dubstep used to be all really ambient... but once there started to be a defined sound like that bass wobble, people started to get more aggro on it. It's just one of those things...once you dig in, you find there's certain textures of bass that get used, and certain styles within that that get these certain feelings going.”
EOTO had a dazzling variety of groovy feelings going on from start to finish in the two-set show. An early reggae-tinged groove had everyone feeling irie. Shortly thereafter, Hann threw down a straight-up rock beat that picked up the energy, while Travis enhanced the groove by looping live bass and guitar lines and then mixing in further electronic sounds. Hann has also started adding in some vocalizing to the duo's sound, which here included a “California Love” tease in tribute to the late, great Tupac Shakur. It seems to be an ever-popular tune with the jam crowd, regardless of what state it's played in. There's just something about conjuring that West Coast party flavor.
“It started off kinda by accident, where we forgot my drum pad for my drum sound, so I was like, 'Oh I'll just use my voice for drum sounds'. Then I started doing a little more, and now this is the first tour we've started using an auto-tuner like T-Pain,” Hann said.
The “Stop Wars” in Star Wars logo font shirt that Hann was wearing also enhanced the vibe of using music to create peace and harmony. Hann has come full circle there, having served in the Navy for four years after he got out of high school. He said he actually liked the boot camp and discipline aspect at the time because the soldiers at least knew what was expected. But then he got into politics and found out that some of the shooting ranges the soldiers practiced on were radiation test zones.
“So every moment that you're in there, you're kind of getting experimented on,” Hann said, which left him eager to leave the military in his rearview mirror.
Another tune in the second set, although the term tune is used loosely since EOTO doesn't have defined “songs” per se, features some Eastern melodic flavors that boost the groovy vibe in an appealing mystical direction. In the second set, the duo opened with another stellar jam to kick the party back into overdrive, as Travis showed again what a creative bassist and guitarist he can be. Later, another jam dipped into classic P-Funk territory, as the duo grooved out a bit on “Mothership Connection”. It was a most appropriate tune to hit, since EOTO's futuristic sounding space funk often feels like it has an otherworldly vibe.
It all sort of stems from how SCI started evolving from a bluegrass-oriented rock sound to bringing in more electronic flavor due to the increasing interests of several band members in the genre. This became noticeable on SCI's 2003 album Untying the Knot, which featured British producer Youth behind the boards. This sonic quest was also a big part of what brought Hann into SCI in 2004, as the band was looking for a percussionist who also had electronic skills.
“When I was coming into the band, that was one of the things that Travis had asked me, if I had worked with electronics, as well as percussion. And that was definitely a sort of selling point on me getting into the band, that I could do the organic and go Afro, Afro-Cuban or Brazilian or play different types of African music, but then I could also dial in some programming,” Hann said.
After SCI broke up in 2007, Hann and Travis decided to ramp up with EOTO, hitting the road to become one of the most frequently touring acts in music. Now with SCI back together to play some limited shows, the duo have the best of both worlds; total improv in EOTO and jamming in a more song-oriented structure with SCI.
Hann said EOTO always receives a lively reception in Texas, which is a big reason why they keep returning so frequently. “You can just feel the energy, it's really strong. You could see it tonight. Sometimes I can't even look at the audience. It's fun to watch, but it also psyches me out [sometimes] too,” Hann said of the duality in feeding off the crowd energy. This dichotomy only figures to grow stronger, as EOTO's audience keeps growing larger.