A Chat with EOTO & Zebbler

Words by: Abby Miller | Images by: Brian Hockensmith

Jump right to our talk with Zebbler here!

Jason Hann and Michael Travis did what any two enterprising creative musical souls would do when inspired: they created their own genre, fashioned a one of a kind stage set and went on tour, putting them in the top rankings amongst popular visual music performances produced by Amon Tobin, Shpongle, and DJ Shadow. Night after night this year, EOTO actualizes their 2012 Time Illusion Tour while enveloped in a 14-foot lotus flower. The lotus structure is 3D mapped and VJed by the masterful visual artist and video jockey Zebbler (Shpongleton, Zebbler Encanti Experience).

We begin this exploration of meet-and-greet with the band and one of their key collaborator’s with Jason Hann discussing design details and EOTO's unique experiences as an improv band.

EOTO by Brian Hockensmith
JamBase: You've previously prided yourself in being part of the "easiest set-up" as a band. Now with the technological advances and all the additions to your stage production, how long does it take to set everything up?

Hann: They've got the Lotus set up down to an hour and a half - it used to take almost six hours. We'd have new people setting up and we got some kinks out, and now our sound tech guy can do everything in a half hour. Because all of our mics are equalized and go through the computer, we can get going in 15 minutes.

What was the first band or performance you've seen that stared to integrate this sort of visual level of technology to their live performance?

As far as the video technology, it with started with watching performances online. [The technology] has been integrated for the past seven years, where the 3D mapping was coming into its own. I'd watch New Year's Eve shows from all the major cities around the world and there's Sydney Opera House with 3D mapping, or something in Austria, and seeing technology like that on such a grand scale [was exciting] – outdoors with graphic illusions, where a whole building looks like it's bending and squeezing. I really saw that first online.

EOTO by Brian Hockensmith
As far as groups that I looked up to and saw the production and said, "Oh my God...all of a sudden this element of art...," I saw early shows of Laurie Anderson in the late 80s and Peter Gabriel, where it was very important for them to have this aesthetic quality to their concert to help tell the story of every song. Whether Laurie Anderson was putting a light in her mouth and singing at the same time, or there were some really good light guys out there who would use their lights to paint, I was really impressed with this subtle integration of technology.

The thing I like about projections and particularly the 3D mapping is that you really can take an object like the Lotus Flower that's white coated plexiglass and see it in action live; it just feels great. It's very alive and organic, more so than the LEDs, which can seem too flashy or in your face at times.

Are you distracted up there with all the colors and visuals dancing around you on stage?

Well my drum kit lights up as well, which Zebbler is controlling from the front, along with the lotus flower surrounding us. So yes, there are all kinds of visual stimulation, and yes, when we used to have just a projector onstage I'd definitely look at it more. But now, there's just so many colors flying by and I know it's changing all the time.

Needless to say, this sort of performance art isn’t for weak attention spans. Hann tantalized us with some existential philosophy when asked of the symbolic meaning of the lotus flower. Casually describing the undertones and organic sense of the whole production, he seemed modest and humored with ideas of soul expansion and conscious visual messages that transcend their audience into a one-of-a-kind live music performance. Hann took on a serious tone with his knowledgeably crafted explanation.

EOTO by Brian Hockensmith
Hann: Well, it's kind of funny how it came about. We knew we wanted to do something with 3D mapping, and we knew we wanted a unique shape. So, I drew the first incarnation, where Travis and I were each sitting in our own lotus with separate stages, and having them individually mapped out. Travis went in and drew one big Lotus.

Seems simple enough. What about the meaning behind it?

As far as the shape or meaning within that, it has this impactful meaning of the journey or depth of life and the symbolism of an entire culture. If you have an idea of what [the lotus flower] stands for then the symbolism of it just being there by itself can be immediately generated. But as far as throwing the mappings on there afterwards, where it becomes a shape shifting space or a time traveling device, that's taking it from an organic idea that comes from the soil…then applying it to the rest of the universe. There is something to say about the journey our production and the lotus flower represents.

Being an improv band, your audience is essentially your setlist, with EOTO feeding off of their energy to provide you both with the notion of what to play next. How does this exchange of energy play out from show to show?

EOTO by Brian Hockensmith
This year it seems like we've gone through a lot of different moods and it's funny because we've only been a band for six years and some people have said that we've gone back to some sort of "old school" sound. It really is different night to night. We don't have a setlist, and the only thing we do start off with [is] when we're putting on headphones for the first time we sort of decide what tempo we'll go with. For the longest time we'd start with 140 BPM and go right into big dubstep, but lately we've been all over the place. Sometimes we don't necessarily cater to the crowd as much as we do the opener. We've got Kraddy with us, who will be opening and throwing some heavier bass at you, and we'll feel it out from there. So we might start it out with something more glitch to ease people into it. But then again, it's a game time decision when we're on the stage.

How does the mood of the crowd then represent you as a band and seemingly delineate your genre?

We have come across a lot of people who hate the new-edge stuff and a lot of people that love it. It's hard to say what the attendance will be like, although we've had some really great audiences. We get influxes of different fans. It seems like we might be too electronic for the jammy fans, and we might be too jammy for the electronic fans. For that night, you play for that crowd and the expectation will filter over to their friends, sort of creating a genre. Some people want more of the harder dubstep, and like I said, some seem to want the "old-school" stuff, but really to me it's all about getting everyone out there dancing. That's the best.

EOTO by Brian Hockensmith
EOTO not only successfully tours on their own but they also appear on almost every big festival lineup in the country. While improving each show night after night, what makes a festival set different than, say, a night at the Newport in Columbus, Ohio?

At festivals you have all kinds of different people. You might have people bringing their friends who haven't seen us before, so a lot of times you're trying to get people on your side. As we try to get them on our side, we guide them through the journey, which feels really good. We played Wanee Festival this year in Live Oak, Florida, and our set was in between Further and the Allman Brothers. Needless to say, our set was more guitar oriented, but we have a good grasp on feeling out the crowd and energy at this point.

For those out of the loop, Jason Hann and Michael Travis are both percussionists in the infamous jam band The String Cheese Incident. Hann lovingly explains why Travis does not miss playing the drums.

EOTO by Brian Hockensmith
Hann: He hates playing the drums [laughs]. When he talks about it, he says it's too painful for him. He does all this motion with his neck [Hann does an impression of Travis playing the drums that is nothing short of the best thing you've ever seen], and he's worked [and] his back is all tense [laughs].

The performance EOTO produced with the help of Zebbler's visuals that night in Columbus was fantastic. Equipped with an Afrobeat flavored encore, it was retrospectively interesting. Backstage before the performance, Hann spoke about his cultural studies in African drumming and his idea of "dancing."

Your audience is always dancing as you and Travis create infectious beats and undeniably groovy music. Do you feel rather tied down to your instrument and wish you could feel that groove, or are you dancing up there as you perform?

Something that's commonly said, even amongst the different cultures I've studied with, is that drummers dance with their hands and dancers drum with their feet. It's just all intertwined and interwoven becoming the same thing. There really is no difference between dancing, drumming, and singing because it's all a form of expression. [It’s] just how you choose to express it by using what's around you, or what instrument you choose. I feel most comfortable up there if I'm moving and the whole body is going with the beat. It feels like I'm dancing.

Continue reading for our talk with Zebbler...

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