Interview with Jason Hann of EOTO
Jam bands and electronic music don’t always mesh well, but when they do it’s a truly beautiful thing. Perhaps that’s why EOTO–the side project of String Cheese Incident’s Jason Hann and Michael Travis–has gained so much popularity over the last few years. Originally a hobby for the two musicians to partake in during downtime on the road, the electronic act now tours regularly throughout the year, pulling in a fan base completely separate from that of SCI.
Known for their fully-improvised live performances, as well as their cutting edge onstage visuals, EOTO blends computer effects and traditional dubstep sounds with live instruments to create a truly unique and symbiotic experience with the crowd.
We recently had the chance to chat with drummer Jason Hann before the band set off on their Outer Orbit tour, where we discussed musical inspiration, early days of EOTO, and the current state of music festivals.
Tell me about the Outer Orbit tour. What can we expect in terms of visuals?
Outer Orbit tour is a continuation of what we started after the summer last year. We used to have an all-projection map set up on the stage, and we just decided to combine some mediums with different structures to build a map on the stage, and also use lasers in a really creative way that people haven’t used them before. So we worked with our laser guy to develop all these images that really enhance the projection mapping, and we try to treat the whole room as if you’re being transformed to another planet.
Can you talk a little more about how you come up with your visual concepts?
When we started the whole projection thing we were really hands-on with the ideas and the content that we wanted to see up there. But we have such a good relationship with our animation leader and our projectionist, that he just gets the vibe. He sees from his perspective what he enjoys adding when we’re playing, so we just let him go work with the animators to go even deeper into what he’s feeling, that goes along with images that we’ve already talked about. A lot of things having to do with feeling like you’re shape-shifting all the time, as far as what kinds of emotional content is in there. Is it dark? Is it light? Is it astral? Is it metaphysical? We’ve been doing it for a long enough time now where we can just trust him.
Going back a little— how did you come up with the concept of EOTO? When did you realize you could make noises like that onstage?
When we first started, we didn’t do it to create a project. We did it just merely because we were hanging out so much, and we just created this little setup to entertain ourselves. You’d have these nights where you’re hanging out from 10 at night to 4 or 5 in the morning, and in between take breaks and listen to mostly downtempo internet streaming sites. After we’d listen for a while, we’re like “oh, let’s throw in a beat like that,” “let’s do a vibe like that,” and we kept trying to figure out ways where we could create it between the two of us, and use the computer as a metaphysical instrument instead of using a computer just to play that track.
We know how to stay out of each others way, and we know what the other person is going for. We used to have a lot of hand signals to say “alright this is where we’re going to break things down or build things up,” but in the last four years we’ve really felt that out where we barely have to look at each other onstage, and it kind of flows and just comes out. Which is a really amazing feeling to be able to do that in the club while making people dance for two and a half, three hours a night.
Do you ever start a show and maybe aren’t feeling super inspired, and just have no idea what you want to play?
That’s every show! Well, I wouldn’t say uninspired, but I became known for a while for taking these power naps before the show. I would be asleep for an hour and I’d wake up five minutes before we go on stage, and it was kind of grown accustomed to that, “yeah, Jason can wake up in five minutes and hit the stage and we’re good go to,” with neither of us being nervous if the person can come up with ideas or not. At this point we’ve done it so long that there’s just a confidence there. Sometimes we’ll read the crowd and say, “let’s start out with something that’s more of a house beat,” or “let’s start out with something that’s more dubstep.”
The crowd plays such an important role at your shows, with the fans feeding off the energy of the band and vice versa. Have you ever had a crowd that was kind of sucky? How do you deal with that?
We can definitely get into a rut for ourselves at a show, but it’s never to a point where it feels like, “wow we just lost the crowd what the hell happened?” If anything, we’ll notice we’ve done or stayed on something a little too long and we’ll see it on people’s faces. But then we react pretty instantly and that’s kind of the best part. It’s harder for a band, I think, once a band launches into a song you have to play that whole song all the way until the end. For us, we can just do all these sound effects things and really get people’s attention and launch into something else.
That must be a nice break from playing with a band like String Cheese to having a lot more freedom with EOTO where you can just go wherever you want whenever you want.
Oh yeah. That’s a thing that’s good about both bands, actually. One thing is a self-contained duo, which is EOTO, and we get to live in this world of electronic music and play all these types of things that we don’t get to do with String Cheese. And by the end of an EOTO tour when we switch back into String Cheese mode, we’re like, “oh, wow all of these other toys!” I think they really compliment each other well because they’re so different.
The last two years it’s been great to see both String Cheese people that haven’t been to an EOTO show, and EOTO fans that haven’t been to a String Cheese show. There’s quite a bit of that out there–even if they know about the other project, there’s a lot of people I run into that are like, “I’m going to my first String Cheese show!”
I saw you at Vibes last year, and you had some technical difficulties at the beginning of your set. Is that something you deal with often? How do you bounce back from that?
We’ve definitely had our problems with the gear and electronics. It’s realizing that, holy crap this is a bigger problem than normal, and then being like, “what is the minimum thing we need to get working to pull off the set and play music while the techs are working on it?” Last Halloween and Suwannee Hulaween festival, we probably had our toughest situation with the computer and getting things going. I could go down the list of things that were potentially wrong that I had to deal with, including that I had a new computer onstage. It just was in a zone for at least a half hour where it was like, “we cannot play music right now.” We were at such a bare minimum for what we do in terms of making music, and it’s so funny how some people came up after to us and said: “That was the best set of music I’ve seen you guys play!”
It’s funny what that does, because sometimes when it’s all stripped away, that’s when you’re digging into other areas to make it happen. Or just being really relaxed with a really simple setup, and there’s still a lot of magic in that. Especially with electronic music.
Be it with EOTO or SCI you are constantly performing at festivals. What do you make of how trendy festivals have become? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
I think it’s more of a tricky thing. It does get to a point where festivals start looking alike and becoming really similar. It’s kind of creating a desire for more unique, intimate festivals. It’s really hard for me to get with Coachella and the Electric Daisy Carnivals. They’re so giant, it’s hard to see if people are there for the music or just there to be seen. It has a different air about it. But when you get festivals that are really trying to be aesthetically unique–like Suwannee Festival is really coming into its own the way Electric Forest has come into its own, or the way something like Lockn’ festival has come into its own. It has its own thing that’s special about it, and people are really enjoying the uniqueness.
What do you make of the whole Grateful Dead: Fare Thee Well event?
Oh God, that’s become its own force of nature. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out. I know a lot of people that are going, and a lot of young people that are going. I think the music is going to be pretty solid, but it’s not going to be the exact thing everyone wants it to be… how could it be? But at least there’s not going to be a hologram Jerry onstage.
Your last studio album was 2009’s Fire the Lazers!!!, and you just released your best-of 2014 live album, K-Turns & U-Turns Volume 7. Do you see any more studio albums in your future?
I think at this point it’s all about the live music. There’s stuff that we’ve talked about where if we’re going to do another studio record, we finally have computers that can handle us playing live and doing everything we do live and be able to record our individual tracks, all of our stems, while we’re playing live. In the past, we haven’t really been able to make that happen. So I think this tour we’re going to do a bunch of collecting stems every night that we play, and maybe somehow start something where we get our producer friends to do a bunch of remixes of our stuff that we came up with live. Just something different. We know what we sound like, our fans know what we sound like. We’re really proud of the three studio projects that we did, but if we’re going to take the time to put out something it should be something different. Because people can go to our archive and stream so many live shows and hear what we do.
You guys sometimes cover fun songs onstage. Anything up your sleeve for this tour? If you wanted to play Taylor Swift in Boston I wouldn’t be mad about that.
[Laughs] “Haters gonna’ hate hate hate hate hate…” Well, we’ll see, I’m definitely making note of it. That all happens in the moment, but there’s stuff that I definitely like to listen to when we’re not on the road and sometimes I love corny stuff and I love party stuff. I can still get down with a good Phil Collins song, and ya’ know just kind of treat it our own way. Whether it’s a square peg in a round hole, or just the perfect thing to add to a song, it’s just another thing that we go for.
Find out when EOTO’s Outer Orbit tour is coming to a city near you!
3/11/15 – Middle East Downstairs – Boston, MA
3/12/15 – Toad’s Place – New Haven, CT
3/13/15 – Higher Ground – Burlington, VT
3/14/15 – Town Ballroom – Buffalo, NY
3/19/15 – Serenity Gathering – Pauma Valley, CA
3/20/15 – TLA – Philadelphia, PA
3/21/15 – 9:30 Club – Washington D.C.
3/26/15 & 3/27/15 – Hoopla in the Hills – Pataskala, OH
3/28/15 – The National – Richmond, VA
4/1/15 – Georgia Theatre – Athens, GA
4/2/15 – TEMPT Murfreesboro – Murfreesboro, TN
4/3/15 – The International – Knoxville – Knoxville, TN