ASPEN - By the mid-2000s, the innovative thing that String Cheese Incident was doing - mixing bluegrass with funk and rock in a jam-band mentality - was not quite so new any longer. Jason Hann, who had joined the Colorado-based String Cheese as a second percussionist in 2004, was hearing something that struck him as the next cutting edge. Hann had tuned into a sound coming out of Burning Man, the radical underground arts gathering held each year in the Nevada desert. Mostly he focused on Bassnectar, a solo artist who used electronic devices to make a style known as dubstep, but Hann also had his ears tickled by Tipper and Soteg, acts that also specialized in electronic sounds.
"What they were doing with sound design, it seemed like what the future of music was," the 43-year-old Hann said from Iowa City. "You knew there was something changing the culture out there. The music from Burning Man, it wasn't something you'd hear on the radio. But you knew right when you heard it, it was something very significant."
Hann had heard electronic music; in addition to studying at a performing-arts high school in his native Florida, touring with Isaac Hayes and playing in String Cheese, he had played at San Diego-area raves, adding a live percussion element to DJ sets. But what he was hearing around 2006 was the emergence of a new energy in the electronic realm.
"It was a defiance against the current electronic music," he said. "So much of what came before emphasized a kick-drum sound that was very consistent - four on the floor. The new music was original; it had its own voice. It was powerfully unique."
With those creative doors opened, it didn't take long for Hann to rush in. He and Michael Travis, the other drummer in String Cheese, began lingering in the rehearsal studio together, experimenting with this new wave of electronic music. In 2006, they launched the side project EOTO, a title they swiped from their own debut album, "Elephants Only Talk Occasionally." When String Cheese went on break for all of 2007, the two drummers put EOTO into high gear.
The timing was ideal. With acts like Bassnectar and Colorado-based Pretty Lights leading the way, electronic dance music, or EDM, was starting to become an underground force, showing up in nightclubs and at major festivals. Hann and Travis didn't just ride the wave but added their own artistic twist to EDM. EOTO's shows were entirely improvised, and all the sounds were created in the moment, on stage, using drum kits and electronic drums, synthesizers, voices and guitars.
Hann finds profound differences between making electronic music and more organic forms.
"I grew up in a world of studio musicians. There was a level of doing that first take in the studio because you're so good at your instrument," he said.
Electronic music requires bigger-picture thinking
"When you go into the mode of being a producer, seeing all that software, what it take to do sound design, it's the nerdiest of nerdy sciences," he said. "It's creating sounds, layering sounds, this whole other exploration."
But Hann also finds significant parallels between the approaches.
"There are reasons certain songs make you feel so much. This bass line can move a subwoofer a certain way, and that makes you feel a certain way," he said.
EOTO is not quite on a par of popularity with String Cheese, but it's gaining ground. In December, the duo drew a crowd of 3,400 to the Fillmore in Denver, and this summer they will co-headline at Red Rocks with Beats Antique, an electronic trio that features a belly dancer and is influenced by various music styles from around the globe.
EOTO, which plays Thursday at Belly Up Aspen, is part of an overall rise in EDM.
"Bassnectar, then Pretty Lights, had this fast growth. Then Skrillex" - a hardcore musician turned electronic producer who earned five Grammy nominations last year - "blew up even faster," Hann said. "You see these names appear at the top of these electronic festivals, and you think, 'Wow, how much bigger is this going to get?'
"There's something of a music revolution. It feels like the new rock 'n' roll."