Interview | Steve Molitz Reboots Particle

Written By: Chad Berndtson

:: Interview - Steve Molitz ::

It’s been the better part of a decade since Particle could be considered a full- time band, but as keyboardist and scene mainstay Steve Molitz first revealed to JamBase back in December, the jamtronica powerhouse is back in business, albeit with a revamped lineup.

Molitz is the remaining founding member, and joining him for Particle’s first national tour since more or less 2007 are later-era guitarist/singer Ben Combe and two new Particle members, drummer Brandon Draper and bassist Clay Parnell. Both Darren Pujalet and Eric Gould remain connected to the band but are focusing on family and careers – and give the new lineup their full blessing, Molitz says.

The foursome has a whole lot planned – they’ve been writing new songs with an album planned and lots of multimedia on the way. And as they head out on tour – which began this week in the Northeast – they’re taking along a full lighting rig, complete with 24 lasers and lights manned by LD and Atmosphere veteran Wil Simon. Molitz also tells us that every show will be available for download via the day after the performance.

Molitz took a break from band rehearsals in Connecticut last week to talk to JamBase about the past, present and future of the band and also other projects he’s working on.

JAMBASE: So how’s it going with the new lineup?

STEVE MOLITZ: Rehearsals have been incredible so far. I came into this with a really open mind and no expectations, because I wanted to give Clay and Brandon a chance to get comfortable. But they came out of the gate swinging, man. It’s just such a cool and exciting thing we’ve got going, and even within the first few days we’ve been here, we’ve written 3 or 4 new tunes on top of the dozen we’d written toward the end of last year. On top of that, we’re going through the old material and revitalizing it to match the strengths of this lineup.

I think we have a good combination of staying true to the past while making it fit where we are now. The band is a collective again – really, it’s the platform of Particle material and the Particle style with new and amazingly talented musicians. I’m having a blast and we’re laughing like every minute.

[Particle Rehearses Untitled New Song]

JAMBASE: It sounds like you’ve got a foundation again. Do you think it’s accurate to say it’s been a while since Particle could be considered active, even though you have played handfuls of shows in the last few years?

SM: I think so. We never quite said we were taking a break, but we went from playing 150 shows a year to playing 50 shows a year to playing 20 shows a year, and less. We never quite went away, but obviously that’s a big drop-off, and if we still played festivals and regional weekends over the last five years or so, we never got together for big tours because we had hit a phase in our lives where we were interested in pursuing other things: starting families or other musical projects.

I’ve had some amazing adventures, everything from working with Phil [Lesh] and Rich Robinson to this ongoing work scoring video games. I learned a lot and spent a lot of time doing some discovery. I don’t know, why this year to come back with a big tour? Sometimes things just need to blossom.

JAMBASE: So no particular reason why 2014 was the year for Particle to really come back?

SM: Well, this seed was planted two or three years ago. We started talking about getting out and touring again and that just wasn’t possible at the time. Darren and Eric were both getting married at the time. Both are still playing a lot of music regionally but neither is at a point where he can commit to a full- time tour, so the 20 shows a year we’ve been doing are all we can each make time for.

In the past year, though, I just really started to miss this music and the fans – I felt it in my heart and in my bones. The band has so much history and I think I just wanted to reconnect with this music. So it wasn’t that 2014 was a target year. It took some time to discuss and talk with Eric and Darren and Ben about wanting to record a new album and get back out there. We tried for a while to figure out a way for the founding members to do it, but when Darren and Eric realized it’s just not possible, they gave me their blessing to form a new rhythm section that would be able to tour on a much bigger level.

It took a while to line it up, and I’m so excited and thankful that we have all the elements in place now. This? This is a really exciting time.

[Photo By: Robert Chapman]

JAMBASE: Was that decision to go forward without Eric and Darren an awkward conversation? Did they push back at all?

SM: No, really, not at all. They’re so supportive. They want to hear Particle music being played, I mean, it’s in all over our DNA. It’s a bittersweet thing, I get what you’re asking. I give them a lot of credit for having the sensitivity and maturity to make a very difficult decision. It’s like that old phrase, if you love something, set it free, right?

I think they realized the best way for Particle to shine was to me to move forward with it. They want, and need, to be at home right now. They have new families. It’s a beautiful next step in their lives and they committed to me that they want to see Particle carry on. We’re of course going to keep talking and jam together when we can. Darren’s in L.A., he’ll probably be with us there, and in Boston, Gould will play with us the first set.

JAMBASE: So let’s talk about selecting Brandon and Clay, and I’ll start with Brandon. But to take a step back, did you hold auditions? Was this a long process to select new rhythm section players?

[Photo By: Robert Chapman]

SM: No, it was a very organic process. Eric used to play in the Kansas City area with Brandon. I’ve known him for many years – Eric would tell me about him, and say, 'man, I know this amazing drummer, you guys should play with him at some point.' He thought if we hooked up we’d make some amazing music and also get along incredibly well, and he was right: I felt a connection to Brandon the first time I played with him.

In live music like ours you’re really searching for uncharted territory – things where you get to a point, and it’s new, and the audience knows it’s cool, and it’s uncertain and mysterious and you’re looking for buried treasure and you hit gold. It’s one of the greatest feelings for a musician in the world, and the audience knows that because it’s something that’s genuine and happens in real time and that’s not preconceived.

The first time I played with Brandon, we got to that place during a show maybe three or four times – the music was there, the lights were right, the crowd knew it. We looked at each other and we knew we’d gotten there. I can’t remember when it was, I think he was sitting in with Headtronics. He’s incredible – he’s well-studied in world music, but he’s also a killer rock and electronic player, as well as a multi-instrumentalist.

So when we got into a situation where Darren couldn’t make all the shows and needed a sub, Brandon was the obvous choice. He stepped in and was a natural, right off the bat. He was a great fit so when it did come time to pick a new drummer, he was the first person I called. And now here we are, rehearsing together for 14 hours a day.

JAMBASE: What about Clay?

SM: Clay and I have been crossing paths for like 13, 14 years now. I always loved Brothers Past, so he’s someone I knew about, and we’d come into contact at festivals. I moved from L.A. to New York a few years ago, and Clay lives in Philly, so we’d bump into each other even more often, and at very odd times and places.

Around the time I was thinking about recording some new Particle tracks and thinking about how to get back on the road, I felt like I was bumping into Clay around every corner, you know? I feel like the universe was sending me a message. Every time I’d be thinking, I have to locate a bass player, Clay would show up somewhere like at a jam session or a festival I was also at, or something.

I love his playing – his tone and his style. I was also happy he became available. He’d been doing work with Brothers Past and especially BioDiesel but BioDiesel is on hiatus for 2014, so the timing for 2014 was going to work. And Clay also did some recording with Ben and Brandon and me and the bass lines he laid down were exactly what was needed – the perfect parts. So when it came time to make a decision, I reached out to him, asked if he was interested, and here we are.

JAMBASE: And Ben was all-aboard too? I remember back in his earlier days with Particle he had other priorities that kept him from focusing on the band full-time, but he was ready to do a full-blown tour?

SM: Ben is all cylinders firing and ready to roll. He’s jumped right into the deep end, and he’s also taking the opportunity to rework his own sound and tone a bit. He has a bunch of new effects and amps and he’s incorporating some MIDI technology into his rig, and some more modern stuff. He has a lot of colors in his palette now. I watch him and he’s so excited. Whenever you have a new piece of gear you haven’t toured with, it’s like having a new Ferrari in the garage and you’re just waiting to take it out.

JAMBASE: I have to ask the obligatory Charlie Hitchcock question. You guys played well-received reunion shows with Charlie in 2010. Has he stayed connected to you and to Particle?

SM: Everyone we’ve ever played with is part of the Particle universe, and on a technical level, Charlie was one of the best I ever played with. We’ve actually been e-mailing a bunch over recent months, and when we do see each other, we always have a good time and get our laughs in.

He’s been living in China for a number of years now, and he is playing music over there and is in a good place in the scene over there. But people do ask me – still ask me – man, what’s up with Charlie? And I get a kick out of that because Charlie has his own life and a great groove.

JAMBASE: But you understand why people ask, of course.

[Photo By: Robert Chapman]

SM: Yes. You mentioned we did those 2010 shows and those were amazing. We do talk about ways we could play together and even ways we could record together. He’s only in the States a few times a year, but we do try to line things up and hopefully we can line up something in the future. We do different things now but I hold Charlie in the highest esteem as a guitar player and friend.

JAMBASE: Fair enough. Talk about the new songs you’ve been writing with Ben, Brandon and Clay. What do they sound like, especially to folks who know the Particle sound and have been around for more than a decade?

SM: It’s definitely still a lot of high-energy dance music, meant to pack a punch. We carry a lot of momentum, and the idea is still to get people on their feet and dancing. But I also think there a lot of new songs that show a more evolved songwriting style. Don’t get me wrong: these songs will take it to 11 every night. But we’ve also slowed some down so we have a better balance of 100 BPM breakbeat, electronic stuff and stuff that’s more groove- oriented.

We have some songs we plan to open up with the intention of adding lyrics. I think toward the start of the tour, they’ll be instrumentals but as we solidify them and add lyrics and workshop a lot of these songs, we’ll figure out if they can be structured for vocals, too.

I think overall we have about 15 new songs written and about ready to go and another 10 to 15 in various states of completion. Some are less about solos and more about a group dynamic. Some have the classic Particle high-energy banging electro feel. Some are downtempo.

JAMBASE: Are you looking past this tour to what’s next for Particle? Are you guys back full time you think?

SM: I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but on a macro level, the answer is yes. On a micro level, we just want to take it day by day and show by show. We’re ambitious enough to say we’re going to put out one, maybe two albums this year. We have more than 40 dates on the books and we’re going to add more, and I’m sure we’ll be out at summer festivals. We’re planning a big fall tour.

So yeah, we’re all thinking about the future and how to not only get back into but stay in the swing of things. I really missed this feeling of putting the work in. We have to make sure the Particle embers stay lit and burning. We all have the fire and passion, so we’re just so thrilled to be hitting the road again. I think we all really believe in each other.

JAMBASE: It’s great to hear and it’s great to have you back. While I have you Steve, I know you do have many other commitments, particularly scoring video games but also with other bands. I want to ask you about a few of them, starting with Rich Robinson. You seemed to hit on something playing with Rich in his solo band and now the Crowes are once again on hiatus. Are you going to be playing with Rich again?

SM: That was a great band, and I’m looking forward to playing with it again. We did record some tracks for a new album, and while I’m not 100 percent sure, I think Rich is still finishing that up. I don’t know what his plans are but I really hope to play more shows with that band. He just came off a really busy year with the Crowes so we’ll see what happens next. Rich is one of my favorite songwriters and guitarists on the planet.

JAMBASE: Another one I hear fans talk about a lot is Headtronics. Is there more Headtronics the future?

SM: Yes, and we’ve talked about doing a bunch more shows this year. Freekbass is going to be opening about 10 to 15 tour dates for Particle this spring – his group is doing the Midwest with us. I’m sure once we’ve been hanging again for a few weeks we’ll get the creative wheels turning and we’ll call DJ Logic and put some plans in motion.

JAMBASE: The other one I’ll mention is Phil & Friends. You were an active Friend from 2004 to about 2008 and I know you’ve sat in with him and with Furthur a few times since. Are you in frequent touch with Phil?

SM: We try to hang whenever I’m in San Francisco or he’s in New York and we have definitely talked about doing some things at Terrapin Crossroads. That’s another one of those things where it’s all about finding the time in the schedules. But we have been talking about how to line something up. That’s always such an incredible experience. The people who play with Phil always leave those gigs with more than they came with. You asked about my plans for the future, and that Phil is still doing it at his age is an inspiration. That’s what I want to do – go that distance.

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