EOTO: Building Beauty From Scratch

By: Greg Gargiulo

For the countless individuals who create it, music is, fundamentally, all about composition. And though there are a great many ways of interpreting the concept due to the massive variation of styles and genres, it is at music’s very core that elements be sequenced in such a manner that’s appealing to the ear. So, for the great majority, accomplishing that feat means spending hours in the studio or with a pen to paper, tweaking, altering, refining and rearranging to eventually come up with the absolute best possible product, which may or may not assume a new life on stage. Others, still working laboriously in the studio or elsewhere, strive only to form a vague outline to build upon. The foundation is then taken to a live show and compositions are either replicated or expanded upon, with additions, extensions, effects and all sorts of improvisational techniques making it blossom into something much greater and giving new identity to what started out only as a concept. This summation, more or less, is the system by which almost all live acts come to deliver their sound to the masses. Then, of course, there’s EOTO.

When it comes to composition – or planning sets or any other preparations usually met prior to a show – EOTO saves it all for the moment they set foot on stage. While a number of bands can claim the setlist-free approach to the live setting, few others, if any, take it to EOTO’s extent. Entering each show devoid of even a rough sketch of a game plan, Jason Hann and Michael Travis choose instead to rely on their inner and outer environments – mood and energy level, location, vibe of the crowd, what they were listening to earlier in the day, etc. – plus maybe some guidance from the cosmos, to pave their path of brain-tingling musical madness. The product is as diverse and far-reaching as they want it to be, and on any given night that usually means an infinitely broad sonic playing field. From heavy, thick, body-drenching dubstep to rich, textural psychedelia, throbbing drum-and-bass and dirty, computerized glitch-pop, plus healthy dabs of trance and house, their ever-transitioning electronic mishmash is a pure, unstoppable dance-provoking machine. It’s a machine that melts and flows seamlessly from one groove to the next, unexpectedly and without warning, compelling all those present to ditch any questions and just… get… moving. It’s a strange, at times perplexing beast, this EOTO. And it’s never – ever – exactly the same twice.

To say the response to EOTO – originally an acronym for End Of Time Observatory that went through a few transitional phases, but is now pronounced “E-Oh-Toe,” the Japanese word for “good sound” – has been positive is clearly an understatement. If further evidence is needed, look no further than their next late night appearance at an upcoming festival, which will likely be jam-packed and moving in unison like one giant amoeba. Swooping across the country with relentless momentum, word of their improvisational mysticism is out and spreading fast.

Coming off three or four rehearsals a week for the recent one-night reunion of The String Cheese Incident at Rothbury (read our review here) on top of regular EOTO practices, live shows and work on a forthcoming studio album set to drop before EOTO’s fall tour, Jason Hann is a rather busy man at the moment. But, he was still able to squeeze in some quality time to discuss the being that he and Travis have built and offer some insight on how they plan to keep it growing:

JamBase: Take us back to some of the formative days. How exactly did you and Travis initially come to found what is now EOTO?

Jason Hann: It was really in the summer of 2006, at which time I’d been in String Cheese for a little while, and most times after practice ended around seven or so, me and Travis would just set up different instruments and get things going until about four or five in the morning. We started off basic, then after a while it got a bit more fusion-y, and eventually Travis got a looper pedal and I had been working regularly with Ableton Live, so we decided to utilize those programs to add more textures to what we were making. This sort of guided the process of us realizing that these programs leant themselves really well to electronic music, and that we could do a lot more than just the fun we were having with it. Then, the very first Sonic Bloom happened to be coming up at that time and we were asked to be a part of it. So, we pretty much said, “That’s reason enough to get our shit together and take this thing seriously.” And so the first ever EOTO show was at Sonic Bloom in late May of ’06.

JamBase: So around this time, as EOTO was in its earlier stages, did you guys know that you wanted to pretty much stick to a strictly improv model, with something different every night and no “songs” in the traditional sense?

Jason Hann: Yeah, I think so, pretty much right from the start. Before we started getting fancy and adding the computers and everything, we’d basically just try not to play any songs, just start playing whatever with total freedom. Then, we started getting some of the looping elements involved and that sort of thing, but we were really frightened to transition from one thing to a completely different thing, which required a lot of changes. So, when we did that for the first time, we were high-fiving and pretty psyched about it because it was like the biggest cliff that we were jumping over at the time. Now we do whole sets without even thinking about it, and the challenge has become to just keep getting better and better each night.

From a personal standpoint, I caught you guys twice in the span of about five months at Sullivan Hall in New York City. The first show brought in a relatively thin crowd, but the second one had to be filled to capacity or close. Clearly, people are catching on quickly to EOTO. What do you feel it is that kids are responding so well to?

Jason Hann – EOTO by Chad Smith
Well, first off, we feel we’re definitely getting better at what we’re doing, so that’s part of it. Plus, we’re starting to focus on some new styles of music that a lot of people are getting into. Dubstep, for instance, has really just begun to catch on in the past year, and there are some kids that are definitely looking for that type of stuff particularly. Also, if you look at the crowds that are coming to our shows, they’re mostly between, say, 18-24, so I think we’re touching the nerve of that age group, and it seems like a lot of them are willing to come out and give us a try because they heard good things. Or maybe we’re just the only show happening that night. Either way, they’re definitely coming.

Going back to the element of freedom in how you guys go about playing shows, what would you say the major advantages are of going in with no real pre-recorded plan?

Well, the best part about that is every night you have to have that creativity window completely open. There’s no, “I already know what I’m gonna do before the night even starts,” with us. When we’re improvising every night, it’s absolutely, “Where can we take it tonight that we haven’t been able to take it before?” So, we sort of instinctively go into that mode, and if we’ve been listening to a lot of different types of music that day that we don’t normally listen to sometimes you can even hear that in the recording.

Continue reading for more on EOTO…

The best part about [EOTO’s improv model] is every night you have to have that creativity window completely open. There’s no, “I already know what I’m gonna do before the night even starts,” with us. When we’re improvising every night, it’s absolutely, “Where can we take it tonight that we haven’t been able to take it before?”

Jason Hann

On the opposite side of that, just since it seems natural when dealing with something like this, do you feel there are any downsides of going in and not having anything to fall back on when you’re not feeling particularly creative on a certain night?

Michael Travis – EOTO by Norman Sands
Yeah, we definitely do have some of those. There’ll be some themes or some sounds that come up, or a certain beat where it’ll be like, “Let’s go there just to reach it.” That happens almost every night, but the minute you start stacking up parts behind the theme or under the theme, as we’re doing that, then the unlocking process [starts] and new ideas really start to come out. Ultimately, the biggest disadvantage of not having pre-made songs that we’re playing to is trying to accomplish the depth of production that’s made from lots of time in the studio. It’s a little bit of a deeper thing when you realize in that moment, those two people did that on the spot without planning it out before, and there’s a certain depth to that concept that just makes it cooler to a lot of other people than something that’s super-produced.

Definitely, and I think when you do hit some of those fantastic peaks or really nasty grooves, the fact that it’s all organic makes it so much more amazing. So, sticking with that element, on a normal day do you guys put any preparation whatsoever into what you’re gonna play that night? Or is it completely, “Let’s figure it out as we go?”

Pretty much no game plan. There’s about maybe thirty seconds before we hit the first note where we decide if we wanna start off faster or slower or four-on-the-floor or something else. But other than that, we’ll kind of just look at the crowd and make that determination based on the vibe we’re getting off of them. Whether it’s a crowd that seems really excited and knows us well or a relatively new one, we’ll try to get things started based on that.

Switching over to the technical end of the equation, what do each of your set-ups consist of on stage? I’ve noticed Travis uses at least a synth, a bass, bongos and a MacBook Pro, and you’ve clearly got your kit, a djembe and some other gear. What other main pieces have I missed?

Travis’ world consists of two computers, one of which he runs Reason on as a standalone, and the other has Ableton Live running, which all of our microphones go through so we can effect everything. Then, in my world, as far as electronics, I’ve got a Roland SPD-S Sampling Pad decked out with all sort of custom sounds, then under that I’ve got a multi-touch screen called a JazzMutant Lemur, which has a bunch of great audio features but also helps me set up a visual thing for myself so I don’t have to keep looking up at the main computer that’s running Ableton.

JamBase logged you in with 189 shows in 2008, which averages out to more than a show every other day. How do you guys keep up with that insane pace and not burn out?

EOTO by Dave Vann
I think that goes back to the whole improvising part, because we don’t really get sick of the same songs, and it’s actually easier to play night after night as opposed to taking a night off and not knowing what to do with ourselves. We also feel that the non-stop touring has been one of the main reasons we’ve improved so much, and we’d probably be nowhere near where are now if we only played 20 or 30 shows a year.

You guys have become pretty much a lockdown for late night time slots at festivals, and you’ll be hitting up another sizable load this summer [Summer Camp, Starscape, Wakarusa, Sonic Bloom and Rothbury already, with Camp Bisco to come]. At times it seems some people are getting more psyched for these than for headliners. What do you think the major draw is of the late night?

Most late nights definitely become a bit more intimate than the main stage, and the way they have the Tripolee Domes set up at Rothbury, for example, makes it really conducive for electronic music and what we’re putting out there. Plus, I think there are so many times when people are just starting to party at midnight or one, and it gives people a chance to let loose and get out whatever they haven’t gotten out already during the daytime.

Let’s talk about String Cheese a bit. Everyone is clearly excited for the one-stop reunion at Rothbury. What was the process that led to you guys deciding to come back and make this happen?

It made it really easy that all our crew and management and so many other people were already involved in the festival. Just about any other scenario would’ve required a real lot of work and would’ve been less inspiring than Rothbury. Roth just seemed to make it an easy process for us to get together.

And generally, what’s the vibe been like around Cheese lately? I assume you guys are pretty stoked.

EOTO by Dave Vann
Oh yeah, it feels really good. The scary part is we have to really, really deliver, because a lot of people are counting on it, and Phish came back so strong after taking a few years off. We want to just be super sharp and go out there and play the songs really well. The nerve-racking part is that there are all these factors you think about since it’s just one night out there.

Is there anything you can say on whether this is going to be just a one-time thing with Cheese or if you guys see anything more coming out of this down the line?

I think we’ll see how Rothbury goes for now and what comes off of that. For now, we’re just having fun in practice and it feels good playing these songs again. So, maybe we’ll play Rothbury and not even talk about it for a while since we all have so much else going on. So, it’s really Rothbury first and then we’ll talk about all the other stuff afterwards.

And just bringing it back to EOTO, while it’s tough to predict the future, are there any particular ways you see you guys evolving in the near or distant future?

We just got a new computer and it’s gonna be able to handle a lot more of the ideas we have going on. Right now the computer we have is completely maxed out as far as what we can do, and we can’t add any more effects or anything without bad things happening. With the new computer we should definitely be able to have more items in our arsenal, which will in turn inspire us to find all these other little paths.

For us, it’s really about having all these sorts of pieces to choose from, because you don’t want to bore anyone with the same sound or the same trick every time. So, if you have enough variety in there then there’s always something new and different coming out. And that’s a big thing, to keep people going with the groove, but also to keep their attention or involvement with the music.

Download a free EOTO show here. EOTO is on tour now, dates available here.

JamBase | E-I-E-I-O-T-O
Go See Live Music!