Lake Trout Gives the Mechanical Sample a Human Pulse
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For better or for worse, the sampled loop defines this musical era. From electronic music to hip-hop, the computer-generated phrase is both a blessing and a curse. The very thing that makes it so attractive--its precise power and its ability to be perfectly and endlessly duplicated--makes it hard to work with. How do you turn something so mechanical into a form of personal expression? How do you introduce variation into something so inflexible?
One of the most promising solutions to those questions is being cooked up right here in Baltimore. Lake Trout, which has just released its fourth album, Another One Lost (SNS), solves the problem by flip-flopping the original assumption. Instead of using loops to imitate real instruments, the quintet has spent the past few years perfecting the use of real instruments to imitate loops.
It's an ingenious approach. Lake Trout relies on the standard rock instrumentation of guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards, but the players have trained themselves to mimic the hypnotic, solid-state precision of loops. And because they can execute repeating phrases so exactly each time, they can achieve the hypnotic power of sample-based music. But they can also introduce subtle variations in a way that actual loops never can.
At the band's June 8 CD-release party at the 8 x 10 Club, bassist James Griffith introduced the new album's second track, "Say Something," with a throbbing, repeating line. Mike Lowry added a simple high-hat phrase. Guitarist Ed Harris picked out the same prickly arpeggio again and again. Matt Pierce triggered eerie sci-fi samples. And singer/guitarist Woody Ranere sang, "Say something so I know that you are real," in his high, aching tenor.
The tension between the stabbing, brutish rhythm figures and the extended, yearning vocal and keyboard phrases built until it threatened to become boring. This is a perennial problem in computer music--the mesmerizing becoming monotonous. At the 8 x 10, Lake Trout avoided this problem with Lowry's crashing drum combination breaking the first tension and introduced a new one with a booming tom-tom pattern. This happened over and over throughout the song. Parts were added and subtracted--a tinkling piano figure, a new guitar arpeggio, seething synth sounds, a drum shuffle--with an intuitive feel for improvised arrangements that's only possible when you're playing live instruments.
"It's all about when things occur in the time line of the song," Harris says, sitting with his band mates in his Charles Village apartment a few days before the 8 x 10 show. "If something comes in too late or too early, it can mess things up. If something goes on too long, it can become boring. That's where the songwriting comes in--not in the traditional sense of writing verse-chorus-bridge, but in the sense of planning when parts are added or subtracted from a song."
"James Brown would have his band play the same organ riff or guitar riff over and over again," Pierce adds. "But everything would change when something dropped in or dropped out. We're still learning how to harness that."
What a long, strange trip it's been for Lake Trout. The quintet coalesced in 1995 after Harris, Lowry, and Pierce met in a jazz course at Towson University. Wanting to combine improvisation with rock, the group found itself on the jam-band circuit, even though the musicians weren't Grateful Dead/Phish fans, preferring acts such as Nirvana, Fishbone, and the Pixies. But the bubbly momentum and fleet-fingered solos of their debut disc, 1997's Lake Trout, made them popular on the Deadhead scene.
So they stopped playing solos. "We decided we didn't want to [solo] anymore," Pierce says. "It bored us. If I'm going to hear a solo, I want to hear Elvin Jones or Wayne Shorter, and we weren't that good."
Having forsaken solos for group improvisation and longing to break out of the jam-band ghetto, Lake Trout went looking for a new way of making music. They found it in DJ culture, thanks to Ranere's roommate at the time, drum 'n' bass DJ and producer Shawn Wills. Rather than giving up their instruments to master samplers and drum machines, the members of Lake Trout relearned their own instruments to create samplelike sounds. Harris and Ranere learned to play fragmentary guitar phrases over and over with spellbinding regularity. Griffith learned to play the fat-toned, deep bass lines that anchor this music. And Lowry became legendary for his ability to play the brisk, perfect breakbeats of drum machines on his kit.
The band's second studio album, 1998's Volume for the Rest of It, captured the transition from conventional rock songwriting to improvised, DJ-influenced grooves. That latter sound reached its peak on the almost entirely instrumental, almost entirely improvised live album Alone at Last, released in 2000.
But just as the band had tired of solo-filled rock songs, it eventually tired of rave music. Yes, it's true that there's nothing quite like the peak achieved by improvised grooves reaching an unexpected climax. But such peaks can be quite elusive on certain nights, and when you're waiting for them to show up you start missing rock 'n' roll, where the chorus hooks come around every time, as reliable as a train schedule. So the members of Lake Trout returned to their record collections and dug out Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, the Pixies, even the Beatles and Rolling Stones. They fell in love with rock all over again. (For a full account of the band's history, see "Fresh Fish," July 25, 2001, www.citypaper.com/2001-07-25/feature.html.)
Another One Lost is the first recorded attempt at exploring how they could integrate the lessons of DJ music with rock songwriting. The vocals are back. Many of the repeating guitar motifs are engagingly melodic, and certain passages reappear several times in a song. But the speedy breakbeats and instruments being added and subtracted are still there too. The struggle of the vocals and melodies to break free of the sample-esque grooves mirrors the struggle of modern life and gives this disc a real resonance.
The guitar intro to "Holding," for example, is a pretty arpeggio that sets up Ranere's melancholy crooning, "Run as fast as you can, so I can't catch you again." The unending, inconclusive nature of that pursuit is brought home when a squealing guitar and rumbling drums make a crashing entrance more than a minute into the song. The relentless, off-kilter rhythm is at odds with the arching, ever fainter vocals, suggesting that the chase is ultimately futile.
Lake Trout hasn't forsaken improvisation, but the band is more likely to use it as a means to an end these days rather than as an end in itself. The group still improvises at length, but when it hits an unexpected peak, the musicians are more likely to tape it, learn it, and repeat it until it dictates the architecture of a song. That way they can combine the unexpected discovery of free-form music and the preserved moments of pre-formed music.
"It's like Radiohead and us are passing in opposite directions," Lowry says. "We're on our way in to more structure, and Radiohead is on the way out. We found that with improvising, it's hard to make a moment happen again, and sometimes you want that moment to happen again. An improvised moment is fleeting, but a song lasts forever."