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EOTO brings its livetronica to Aspen stage

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoEOTO, formed by String Cheese drummers Michael Travis and Jason Hann, performs Thursday at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – In the mid-’00s, after the Colorado jam band String Cheese Incident would finish its rehearsals, the band’s two drummers, Michael Travis and Jason Hann, would routinely linger in the studio to carry on the music-making. Rather than just be two percussionists banging on things, the two added a heavy electronic element to the proceedings.

For inspiration, they looked to DJs, and to bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Lotus, who played live instruments but used computer effects for an electronic feel. Looping sounds, discovering and experimenting with new gadgets, spontaneously creating grooves and tunes, the two could keep themselves happily engaged through the small hours.

“After that, it was just wondering whether other people would like it too,” Hann said.

As it turns out, the timing could not have been better. Just as String Cheese Incident was about to take a break – they would not tour for all of 2007 – a new wave of electronic dance music was in its earliest stages. Travis and Hann had launched their side project – EOTO, an afterthought named for their debut album, “Elephants Only Talk Occasionally” – in 2006, and when String Cheese went on hiatus, the drummers were free to take it full-time. Yes, people liked it – the idea of making music with computers, sounds that were more electronic than organic, and an emphasis on beats and noises rather than songs and voices, was in vogue among young people. And Travis and Hann brought something of their own to the electronic scene: Having come from the jam-band world, where live instruments reigned, the two were able to meshed in-the-moment jamming with electronic sounds.

“The electrified live playing groups were all getting established fast,” Hann said. “It seemed like diving into that style was going to be relevant to what was going on in music at the time.”

To keep their music truly fresh, EOTO also laid down a rule: all improvisation, all the time. Each gig would not only have no set list; there would be nothing composed in advance. Travis was already doing this in another side project of his, Zilla, and as Travis and Hann lived far from one another – Travis in Colorado, Hann in Southern California – making up music on the spot when they hit the stage was more logistically feasible than getting together for writing sessions. “That was great – we didn’t have to practice. “But also, with no pre-recorded music, no songs, no set list, that’s the thing that lets us grow and turn on a dime. We can say, OK, what we did last night – we’re not going to do that tonight. That winds up being a really fun journey. Nobody knows what you’re going to do next.”

EOTO’s summer will be spent on big stages: the Wanee festival in Florida, the Wakarusa in Arkansas, the Mountain Jam in upstate New York. To warm up, they have the Bass Invaders tour, which hits such spots as the Georgia Theatre in Athens and the Electric Factory in Philadelphia. The tour opens Thursday at Aspen’s Belly Up – but without the Lotus Sculpture, a 17-foot flower that the duo plays inside of, while video projections are cast on the outside. But EOTO will have their visual artist, Zebbler, with them in Aspen to add a visual component to the show.

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Hann, who is 42, grew up in Miami with piano lessons and membership in a boys choir. As he got older, he spent more time with his father: Harry Hann, or Captain Harry – “something of a Jimmy Buffett-type character,” according to Hann. “And his drummers were some of the best in the country. I’d see that night after night, so I learned really quickly.”

Hann went to a performing arts school in South Florida for his final two years of high school, and got a first-rate education; the instructors were from Miami’s thriving Latin-pop scene. After a stint in the Navy, beginning in 1987, Hann became immersed in the music world, touring with Isaac Hayes, recording with Youssou N’Dour, performing at raves around San Diego, adding the accompaniment of live drums to DJ sets. In 1994, he made the acquaintance of Michael Travis; a full decade later, Travis asked Hann to sit in on a String Cheese Incident date in L.A.

“I said, ‘What should I bring?’ He said, ‘Bring everything.’ He hinted String Cheese might be looking for another person,” Hann recalled. After sitting in for half the show, Hann found himself doing a few String Cheese shows in Las Vegas, then a full tour, then as a full member of the group.

In 2006, Hann and Travis formed EOTO; the following year, prompted by String Cheese’s hiatus, they put together their first tour. From the outset, they knew the side project would be nothing like String Cheese’s jammy mix of bluegrass and groove.

“We’re not the main songwriters in the band. We’re not going to put together another String Cheese-like group,” said Hann, who plays live and electronic drums, and sings in EOTO, while Travis plays synthesizers, bass, guitar and a bit of percussion during the nightly drums section. “We’d have to put something else together, play our butts off and see what the audience response would be.”

Hann had an inkling that electronic music was due for its latest resurgence. In the mid-’00s, electronica – mainly the breakbeat style – had a small but passionate following. “An underground identity like punk used to be. It was the kids from a new generation,” Hann said.

He likens the current electronica swell to punk. But Hann, who was trained in jazz, brings up Miles Davis as a parallel to the way EOTO has peeked into the future of music.

“I’ve always been a big fan of that: What’s the next evolution of music going to be?” he said. “Like Miles – he’d always look to music being done in the street, by the kids. Then he’d hire a whole bunch of guys like that, like Herbie Hancock, and they’d be the new Miles Davis band. And it would use the energy of these new young guys. They’re coming up with stuff that people their age want to hear.”

Playing for a young audience has meant being flexible with the music, as trends change seemingly by the month. EOTO began playing breakbeat, with some drum ‘n’ bass thrown in. But in 2008, they heard a new sound, called dubstep, which has become the rage in the electronic realm. They incorporated the style – centered around a distinctive rhythmic feel, and what is called a “wobble,” a bass line that makes a distinctive “wuh-wuh” sound – into their music, becoming, said Hann, the first live band to play dubstep in the U.S.

Hann says EOTO is part of a movement on par with the introduction of the electric guitar and the resulting style of rock ‘n’ roll (which has prevailed for over half a century). “This is the first generation when all the music they’re hearing is programmed,” he said. “They’re not making a distinction between live music and programmed. They just want to hear good music and get down with it pretty hard.”

Hann points to acts like Bassnectar and Pretty Lights and says that, while they are massively popular, they are still on the fringe in a way. “It’s not pop music. It’s underground and it hits harder,” he said. “There hasn’t been a movement like that, that unifies a bunch of people around a style, in a long time. Even 23-, 24-year-olds don’t get it. They say, Why are you listening to that? That’s just noise.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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