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Fresh Fish

Never Mind the Labels--Lake Trout Keeps Swimming in Search of New Sounds

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Fish and Chops: Lake Trout onstage at Oregon Ridge last year

By Lee Gardner | Posted 7/25/2001

You know all about Lake Trout. Sure you do. It's one of those noodle-y jam bands, and the guys in the group are way into that whole scene. Of course, you saw them once a couple of years ago and they were doing this sort of electronica-type thing too, and that's cool. And now they're, like, this totally successful band, having fun playing all these shows with all their jam-band buddies. Right?

Not quite. Bring up the words "jam band" as the members of the Baltimore-based quintet sit around keyboardist/reeds player Matt Pierce's Mount Vernon apartment and all five squirm, grimace, or groan. "After a while it's like getting a tooth drilled," drummer Michael Lowry says of the term and the associations and preconceptions that come with it. "It's just this constant annoyance."

Check out this ostensible jam band live these days--say, at the Recher Theatre on a recent Friday night--and you won't hear any endless, aimless solos or twirl-friendly boogies. But you also won't hear much of the electronic-music-influenced keyboard textures and effects-laden flute smears that once dominated Lake Trout's sound, or the furious live drum 'n' bass breakbeats Lowry used to machine-gun all night long. Ed Harris and Woody Ranere's guitars sound louder and more aggressive of late. James Griffith's bass playing is crunchier and a little less syncopated. Pierce sticks mostly to distorted stabs at his Rhodes piano. After years of barely opening his mouth onstage, frontman Ranere is back doing steady duty at the mic, crooning lyrics. While the group still engages in the streamlined, groove-based collective improvisation that has defined its sound in recent times, Lake Trout now plays plenty of numbers with beginnings, middles, and ends. They sound suspiciously like rock songs.

The band's recent career progress is impressive: more and better gigs up and down the East Coast; its first extended swing out West, opening for Primus bassist Les Claypool as part of the Sno-Core tour; a new manager and a powerful new booking agent; meetings with record-label executives. But Lake Trout still faces certain hurdles--chief among them its fraught relationship with the jam-band scene and the jam-band tag, which sticks to the group like an unwanted odor of patchouli and clove cigarettes.

Jam-band fans have embraced and supported Lake Trout for many years, even as the group's musical explorations and developing tastes led it further and further away from that scene. Now the band is poised to try to make it to the fabled next level. Griffith, Harris, Lowry, Pierce, and Ranere must find a way to get the word to potential new fans outside the jam-band circuit that they still play, that they don't like that noodle-y stuff either, and that their restless, eclectic, ever-changing music has a lot more to offer than flashy chops and a choogling good time. To do that they must battle the jam-band stigma, in hopes that open-minded people who have no idea what they actually sound like these days won't automatically assume the band has nothing worthy to offer.

But you wouldn't do that, because you know all about Lake Trout. Right?

In 1994, Goucher College music student Pierce decided to take a few jazz courses at Towson University, where he met TU music students Harris and Lowry. The three of them started playing together. Lowry, a big fan of Fishbone, took inspiration from the omnipresent signs advertising Baltimore's favorite soul-food treat and suggested Lake Trout as a name for the band.

Pierce's friend and fellow Goucher student Ranere would soon come aboard on guitar. New Hampshire-born Griffith joined on bass, and the fivesome soon worked up to practicing and writing music eight hours a day. Guitar adept and budding jazz nut Harris learned to cooperate musically with hardcore-band vet Lowry and hip-hop and hard-rock fan Griffith; Pierce looked for ways to integrate his saxophone playing into the mix. As for the singing chores, Ranere recalls, "I feel like when we were deciding who was going to do vocals, everybody stepped back and I was left standing there."

In the summer of '95, things began to gel into a compote of poppy vocal numbers, take-off soloing, and funky rhythmic interplay. "All of a sudden," Ranere recalls, "in one weekend, we rented a house together [in Charles Village], bought a van, got a booking agent, and started playing four or five times a week."

A lot of those early bookings were at college bars and fraternity parties, and many of those fans followed Lake Trout when it started getting gigs at downtown clubs such as the 8 x 10 and Profusions. Word of mouth spread beyond the Beltway as the band took to the road, playing around the mid-Atlantic. A self-titled 1997 CD captured the obvious reasons for Lake Trout's early popularity: Ranere's reedy soul-boy vocals, a brace of bouncy tunes, and yes, lots of upbeat funky jamming. It's easy to hear why fans loved that music. But it's also easy to hear why the musicians themselves soon grew bored with it, despite selling out shows.

To hear Pierce tell it, Lake Trout has always been hard to pin down and open to new things, thus the labels just come along and attach themselves. When the band first started out, he says, his saxophone playing and the music's danceable rhythms led to Lake Trout getting lumped in with the then-hot "acid jazz" school. Before long, regional music promoter Tim Walther, of Walther Productions, started inviting Lake Trout to play at some of the one- and two-day, jam-centric music festivals he throws in the warmer months.

"I had never heard of Phish. I had never heard the Grateful Dead," Pierce recalls. "We were just playing these festivals, just doing what we did. We started to play those more because [the audiences] liked us and we wanted to play in front of people, still working out amongst ourselves what we wanted to do. And we started to get labeled. We never thought of it as a stigma at that point, because we didn't come from that [scene]."

In the meantime, Pierce and the rest of the band had gotten their first taste of DJ culture when they became friendly with local spinners such as Willie Hicks, Shawn Willis, Leon Kemp, and Chip Watkins, aka DJ Who. Soon they were soaking up new sounds--from the cut-and-paste meta-hip-hop instrumentals of DJ Shadow to the electronic abstractions of Aphex Twin. They spent many an hour in their tour van listening to tapes of LTJ Bukem's fleet, shimmering drum 'n' bass tracks. Back at home in Baltimore, Lowry practiced along with drum 'n' bass tapes until reproducing on his kit the electronically sped-up rattle of d 'n' b breakbeats was second nature. Beginning in 1997, just as it was reaching peak popularity on the local club circuit, Lake Trout began to strip away its solos and peppy pop songs in favor of streamlined, plugged-in groove workouts peppered with Lowry's unnerving snare rattle. The band lost the part of its following that just wanted the hits, but it gained a whole new one.

"Chip [Watkins] wanted us to play at the [Mo'Jazz party at the] Spot, and we were like, 'Cool,'" Pierce says. "All of a sudden he's playing [turntables] with us and the drum 'n' bass kids were coming, and all of a sudden we were playing raves. We played so many shows where we were the one live band with tons of DJs. And then people said, 'Oh, you're an electronica band.' But we were still just trying to work out what we were all about with our instrumentation."

In 1998 Lake Trout began recording its second CD, Volume for the Rest of It, released on the Watkins-run SNS Records the next year. The album displays the band's sound in full mutation mode. "Sounds From Below" and "Knew You When" still boasted Ranere's vocals and elliptical lyrics among the dance-floor-influenced beats and moody, stripped-down sound, but cuts such as the hypnotic, tuneful, drum 'n' bass-flavored instrumental "Little Things in Different Places" found Lake Trout re-creating the sound of sample-based DJ styles with pared-down grace and uncanny perfection.

In 2000, the Alone at Last album, recorded live in concert in Charlottesville, Va., captured the most extreme reaches of the group's onstage mode of collective improvisation. Over the course of the largely improvised disc, the musicians segue from misty ambient passages to thumping beat-science collages and back, with only occasional snatches of familiar tunes to mark the path. Ranere barely sings at all. If what Lake Trout was doing musically at that point could be construed as "jamming," it was a new form of the genre far removed from anything emanating from the stage at one of Walther's festivals.

The only label the band members admit to embracing, if only briefly, is "organica," a term condensing "organic" and "electronica" that Watkins coined to help market Volume for the Rest of It. They seem a bit sheepish about it now, but it was apt.

When the five members of Lake Trout arrive at Matt Pierce's apartment one by one on a humid Monday evening, they barely exchange greetings, as if they'd just been together somewhere else and didn't need to acknowledge each other. In a way, they have. Just that morning, they had returned from a Southern swing: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday playing club dates in the Carolinas before traveling to Portsmouth, Va., for a jam-band show Sunday evening. It's the kind of schedule they have kept every week for years, spending most of their time from Wednesday on through the weekend together, much of it cooped up in a late-model metallic-green Ford passenger van.

Still, they seem entirely agreeable with each other. (They have stopped cohabitating in a band house, however.) They don't even seem to mind when they have to climb back into the van to travel across town for a quick photo shoot before sitting down for a long chat. The photos and an interview all have to be crammed into one night because they leave early the next morning for a week in Rome, where they look forward to zipping down the Via Del Corso on rented scooters and, in their spare time, playing the Italian capital's Jazz and Image Festival for the second year.

Jazz and Image is more Lake Trout's idea of a good festival--a summer-long event showcasing all sorts of music, from internationally known jazz pianist Matthew Shipp to blues legend B.B. King to Brazilian singer/guitarist Joyce, in a lush garden setting in Villa Celimontana. Such experiences are much savored, but rare. Most of the festivals the band plays are more like the Portsmouth show.

"We hate playing those shows," Pierce says. "The people are fine--we love people to hear our music. It's more the other bands we have to sit through--we don't come from that area at all. But we've made a living off of it, so it's hard to knock it."

It seems increasingly difficult for them not to knock it, however. Especially since the electronically augmented, dance-floor-influenced sound they developed has become increasingly trendy with their fellow musicians. "They tell us to our faces, 'We cop your shit all the time,'" Ranere notes. "Bands go out and buy a Roland JP-8000 keyboard and put it on top of whatever music they've been playing and they're a 'techno jam band.'"

The sound is definitely catching on in the jam-band scene, says John O'Marra, editorial director for Terrapin Presents, a Connecticut company that promotes the annual Gathering of the Vibes Festival in Bridgeport, at which Lake Trout has performed.

"If you listen to anything too much, it gets a little stale," O'Marra says. "The Grateful Dead, Phish, and the Allman Brothers are all wonderful, but in the last couple of years there's been this fresh infusion of energy coming from a different direction--DJ music, dance music, electronic music. Bands like DJ Logic and Project Logic, the Disco Biscuits, and Lake Trout are exploring a different area, they're bringing different sounds and textures and rhythms to the plate. These kids who love jam bands have big ears and love improvisational music and are eating it up because it's something they haven't heard before."

The taste for new electronic flavors has meant even more bookings on the old scene. "The more we've gone away from it [musically]," Griffith says of the jam world, "the more we've gotten bigger in that scene." When Lake Trout plays jam fests now, Lowry adds, the musicians' attitude is, "OK, we're gonna set ourselves apart. We're going to make a statement. And then all the guys [in the other bands] are like, 'We love what you're doing!' The bigger bands are starting to ask us to play their own personal festivals."

And Lake Trout plays them. Therein lies the band's biggest conundrum. As much as the members grumble about the jam-band stigma and the jam-band scene, Pierce acknowledges, "We put ourselves in this position because we play those festivals--and I'm glad we did." The events pay well and have bequeathed the band an army of loyal fans who'll drive hours to see it. "We have so many people who come up and say, 'I've been following you guys for five years. I love what you've been doing,'" Ranere says. "We've changed so dramatically, but they've been with us all this time and they're totally in the jam-band scene."

Recently, however, Lake Trout has increasingly sought gigs outside its usual circuit, and has come up with some pretty good ones. The famed New York avant-garde club the Knitting Factory gave Lake Trout a tryout a couple of years ago. This led to the band's first Jazz and Images Festival invite (the Knit had a stage at the Rome event) and to a series of high-profile Knitting Factory gigs, during which Lake Trout has shared the venue's main stage with the likes of avant trumpeter Cuong Vu and jazzy drum 'n' bass/down- tempo DJ/producer Amon Tobin.

"They worship Tobin--that gives you an idea of the scope of their interests," says Matt McDonald, the Knitting Factory's programming director. "Among the younger bands right now, they're one of the few that I'd say anytime I can check them out I will, because every show is always different and they always put on a great show."

McDonald last checked out Lake Trout in late June at New York's Bowery Ballroom, where the band shared a bill on two consecutive nights with Washington-based quartet the Dismemberment Plan. Like Lake Trout, the Dismemberment Plan struggles with an ill-fitting genre label--in its case, indie rock. Like Lake Trout, the Plan flaunts the musical conventions of its supposed scene, throwing samples and danceable rhythms into the mix along with the orthodox guitar, bass, and drums. The two bands played together at the Dismemberment Plan's request, and the Plan has already lifted part of Lake Trout's "Little Things in Different Places" for a new tune called "The Other Side," which will be on its forthcoming album. "Like a million musicians have done before, I watched them play ["Little Things"] and thought, Man, I want one of thosetoo!" Plan singer/guitarist Travis Morrison says.

The bands hooked up for the shows after members of Dismemberment Plan caught a Lake Trout show at the D.C. club State of the Union and came away converted. "We sound nothing alike, but I don't think either one of us sounds like any single band, which is rare these days," Plan bassist Eric Axelson says. "Plus, it's good for bands to play on diverse bills. Some of our fans didn't like them, and some of their fans didn't like us, but at least it wasn't the same show you've seen a thousand times."

The members of Lake Trout are still smarting somewhat from a Village Voice blurb previewing the shows that described the bill pairing the "tourniquet-tight" so-called punk band with the "floppy" so-called jam band as "deeply weird." "I really could not believe the issues the New York press had with the show," Morrison says. "Anyone who went to the show could see that we're a garage band in the way we play--the tempos go up and down, guitars get knocked out of tune, and so on--whereas Lake Trout are spectacularly meticulous and rhythmically precise. They're about as floppy as a 2-by-4. I could tell that all these critics were exasperated and weirded out by being forced to reckon with Lake Trout."

A few days later, on June 28, the members of Lake Trout further flummoxed expectations when they took the stage at New York's Roseland Ballroom to play a set at the second annual Jammys, the jam-band world's version of the Grammys. After one song, Lowry handed over his drum stool to Marky Ramone, Misfits bassist Jerry Only took over the mic, and the punk-infused version of Lake Trout ripped through the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "I Wanna Be Sedated." "We literally said, 'We are not going to play the Jammys unless you find us some crazy punk or metal icon to play with, because we want to show people we're coming from a whole different place,'" Harris says.

Such gigs have come a bit easier in the last year, since Lake Trout secured the services of San Francisco-based manager David Lefkowitz and, more recently, high-powered booking agency Artist Direct. The band is slated to tour the country with Beastie Boys associate and keyboard whiz Money Mark this fall. Shows and tours such as these are ideal, Lowry says, "because then we're not stuck in this little thing. We're sort of out in the [larger] arena of music, and people can take us seriously and not be like, 'Oh, aren't they like a noodle-y band?'"

What do you think of this record?" Pierce asks, plucking the latest Weezer CD from the dashboard and holding it up over his shoulder as he wheels the Lake Trout van down Reisterstown Road. Much debate ensues. Over the course of an evening, the band members and their interrogator spend a lot of time talking about music, most of it having little overtly in common with Lake Trout. Nirvana, Tortoise, the Dismemberment Plan, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and Radiohead all pop up. (The latter's Kid A has obviously made a big impression.) Lake Trout played the 8 x 10 the same June night that highly touted neo-garage band the White Stripes played Fletcher's, and the five band members are eager to hear about the show--they've been listening to the White Stripes too.

"We were so all about that drum 'n' bass thing for a long time," says Lowry, whose phenomenal facility at reproducing breakbeats on his kit made him the de facto star of the band for a while and helped fuel his, Griffith, and Pierce's live drum 'n' bass side band, Big in Japan. "[But] where do you draw the line between doing something cool and just trying to copy it?"

"We all grew up listening to rock," Griffith says. "Van Halen, Kiss, punk rock."

"Tons of Stones and blues," Ranere adds.

"We went through all these styles and finally we came back around, and now I just want to rock out," Griffith says with a growing grin. "We've been holding it back for years."

Live onstage at the Recher Theatre, Lake Trout displays plenty of rock prowess, whipping up peaks of excitement with noisy crescendos and straight-ahead thump while maintaining the groove-centric collective fluidity the band has spent years perfecting. But it's Ranere's prominent vocals and the song structures that delineate the rock direction most clearly.

During the period documented on Alone at Last, most of Ranere's vocal contributions were improvised and heavily tweaked with effects. As the band rekindled its interest in song structures (albeit improvised ones) over the past year, Ranere started singing the occasional improvised lyric.

"If I [had] something to say, I put it in the mix as an improv thing," he says. "And it's just slowly, slowly grown out of that. It's always been really hard for me to sing with this group. 'Let's create this weird type of music--now sing.' I never considered myself a writer and I still don't. But I'm working on it, and I'm psyched."

Indeed, the whole band seems energized by the music it's making now. Thanks to manager Lefkowitz and Artist Direct booking agent Jon Pleeter, the band is playing better shows and making more money. Before long, the members speculate, they might even be able to begin paying themselves. Pierce, Griffith, and Lowry currently cover their rent with Big in Japan; Ranere freelances commercial- music composing and sound design for Clean Cuts Music in Baltimore; Harris is in his final weeks of teaching guitar lessons at Coffee Music in Westminster.

"We're making a lot more money, but as soon as we make more money we hire more people," Ranere says--tour manager, sound engineer, publicist, and so on. "As with any growing business that expands, we're trying to put all the money back into it."

The new music and the bright new career horizons have even alleviated some of the members' anxiety about continuing to play jam shows and perpetuating the jam-band tag. "Over the past year," Griffith says, "it's like, 'Put us anywhere and we'll play,' we're so confident in what we're doing."

All this momentum begs the question of where Lake Trout is actually headed. Jam bands traditionally sell concert tickets, not records. (Only the very top echelon--the Dave Matthews Band, the "on hiatus" Phish--ring up album sales at a level likely to seriously entice major labels.) While the band members may groan over being compared with a jam band yet again, they are committed to experimentation and improvisation in their live shows and in their music in general--the sort of thing that gives most hit-seeking A&R types dyspepsia no matter what you call it. The group spent part of last December recording a concise five-song demo to shop to major labels, but it also set up in a studio and improvised for three days straight, planning to edit the results down into usable fragments for a new album--for stalwart SNS Records, if no one else rises to the bait.

They have been meeting with major-label execs, with sometimes baffling results. According to Pierce, one label vice president listened to their tape and responded, "'You guys have a cake that you've made and you have cherries all over the top of it. I see one cherry.'" Lowry says another suit told them, "'I don't think there's room for another Radiohead--they don't sell that many records anymore.'"

The upshot of all this elliptical advice, Lowry says, is clear: "They're like, 'We love it, but what do we do with it?'" To put a finer point on it, protean creativity doesn't shift units like standardized product.

Part of the problem is that, as Pierce notes, Lake Trout was, is, and will always be a live band. "It's going to be difficult to translate what we're doing to a CD," he says. "But hopefully the songs will get better and better. I feel like what we're doing now is a little more accessible than it was a couple of years ago. We're not going to change what we're doing, but I think it's turning in a new direction, and music is turning in a new direction also. Hopefully we can meet somewhere in the middle."

Ranere points to the ever-more-abstruse Radiohead and the bipolar nu-metal band Deftones. "People are just going nuts for these weird songs. That gives me hope," he says. "We're going to keep on playing. If it does hit, that'll just make things more comfortable for us to do our thing."

Major or indie label, jam-band festivals or eclectic double-bills, Lake Trout has to change peoples' minds one at a time. "There was this kid down front at the Dismemberment Plan show wearing a Modest Mouse T-shirt who was totally into what we were doing," Harris marvels, shaking his hands in the air and making a transported-rocker face in imitation. "All it really is is getting our music out to people, and they'll make their own decisions."

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