Music from jam bands, like Lotus, don’t always make their way to vinyl. In large part, it’s because their music is about the live experience, often including multiple set shows that eclipse two hours in length. Practically speaking, pressing vinyl can be expensive and even more so when an album release includes more than two records. To complicate things even more, 33 rpm records (which is the modern standard for 12” vinyl) can only hold up to 22 minutes of music without sacrificing sound quality. These hurdles seem like walls for most improvisational bands and are why their fans don’t get to experience full, uninterrupted live shows while spinning their records at home.
However, earlier this year, Lotus decided to take that jump by pressing Live in Steel City to memorialize the end of their 2023 spring tour when they played on February 25th in Pittsburgh, PA.
The band’s bass guitarist, Jesse Miller, was kind enough to do an interview with me where we talked about the show, their decision to press it on vinyl, and a lot more.
Provided below is a recap of our conversation and little nuggets of knowledge you won’t want to miss.
Why does Lotus put their music on vinyl?
To my surprise, when I first started talking to Jesse, who also does Lotus’s mixing, he told me that he’s the only member of the band that really cares about vinyl. Perhaps that’s why when the band makes decisions on what albums to press and why, those decisions are up to him.
Jesse mentioned Lotus first getting into the vinyl scene in 2008 “before it was cool again” with the release of their 4th studio album, Hammerstrike. Interestingly, 2008 was also the year that vinyl sales in the U.S. started to surge marking the beginning of the vinyl revival. On a personal note, I fondly remember buying a 1st edition of Hammerstrike in my early 20s and spinning it with friends many late nights in living room dance-offs.
Since pressing Hammerstrike, Lotus has released 8 LPs on vinyl, including Lotus, Monks, Eat the Light, Frames Per Second, Free Swim and Bloom & Recede, as well as Live Underground and Live in Steel City. The band has also released a few EPs and singles on vinyl, such as Oil on Glass / Feather on Wood.
Separate from any discussion on Lotus’s albums, Jesse and I shared our appreciation for the physical nature of vinyl records and how we like to touch and turn and open and spin music in our homes. We also talked about how spinning records during parties adds an element of fun and exploration for the people that are there, versus relying solely on digital forms of music.
Why did you decide to start putting live performances on vinyl?
Prior to Live in Steel City, the closest Lotus had been to putting a full show on vinyl was Live Underground, which includes the entire 1st set from their live performance at the Caverns on July 6th 2019. Jesse said that when the band decided to press Live Underground, there was uncertainty as to how sales would go since it was their first live release. To manage risk, the album was limited to 500 copies and to his surprise, it sold out in less than 24 hours. Had he known, they would have pressed more.
Given the success of Live Underground, and the appetite of Lotus’s fans for more live releases, Jesse has been thinking about what album to release next.
Why did you choose to press the show from 2/25/2023? What was so special about it?
Deciding to press the show from February 25th 2023 on vinyl (aka Live in Steel City) made sense to Jesse for several reasons.
From a quality standpoint, it was Lotus’s last show from a 5-week tour and the culmination of playing a lot of music together. In short, the band was locked in that night and firing on all cylinders.
From a practical standpoint, the setlist of songs conveniently aligned with the limitations of vinyl and equated to 4 LPs and about 20 minutes of music on 8 sides, with songs that didn’t need to be split. Jesse also pointed out something that I considered to be extremely thoughtful – he intentionally wanted to release a live album with songs that aren’t available on any of Lotus’s studio recordings (or in other words, songs that Lotus had only played live). After mentioning that to me, he gave a quick glance at the back cover of Live in Steel City and said that half the songs on it were now on record for the first time.
On a more somber note, Jesse also pointed out that the show was the last live performance Lotus played with the late Chuck Morris, the band’s percussionist for over 20 years who tragically died with his son in a kayaking accident in Arkansas on March 16th 2023. Being able to capture that moment in eternity, by pressing Live in Steel City on vinyl, was a gesture that only made sense.
What was it like creating the album with the French pressing company, Diggers Factory?
Before getting to the answer to this question, it’s worth pointing out that in my opinion, Diggers Factory is taking record pressing to the next level. They’ve streamlined the manufacturing process to eliminate waste and they directly connect musicians and their fans to create beautiful, high-quality, limited edition vinyl records. Plus, their catalog is impressive and growing.
When I asked Jesse about pressing Live in Steel City through Diggers, we started talking about the vinyl manufacturing process and the differences between standard and pre-ordering. Typically, a band or its record company will place an order for a certain number of records to be pressed. The entire order is placed without the band knowing what the demand will be. That’s standard in the record biz.
On the contrary, pre-orders allow bands and vinyl pressing companies alike to know what the demand will be before deciding to process the order. If the demand isn’t there, the order is cancelled. If it is, the order is placed, the vinyl is made, and the albums are sold. The pre-order option is more common with independent and lesser-known bands, and limited run vinyl (e.g., typically 200 copies or less) can spark the consumer’s interest, especially collectors.
Due to COVID and lingering supply chain issues, Jesse said for standard orders, vinyl manufacturers were saying it would take 9 to 12 months to press a live album for Lotus, which seemed too long of a timeline. In contrast, companies that follow the pre-order approach, like Bandcamp and Diggers Factory, could do it faster (if the demand was there), so that’s the direction Jesse decided to go.
As for Lotus working with Diggers to press Live in Steel City, the process was started on April 25th and shipments went out in the beginning of September – not bad! The band was also able to work with Diggers leading up to pressing the album to navigate administrative stuff and to create mock-ups, order pages and advertising material, otherwise known as admats. Lotus managed most of the creative stuff, including the decision to make each vinyl in the 4LP box set a different color. The vinyl is clear, smokey, silver and translucent black, respectively, which Jesse said, “were meant to evoke the steel in the Steel City.”
What’s next? Is more live Lotus vinyl on the horizon?
In discussing Jesse’s decision to make Live in Steel City, Lotus’s first full-length live album, we talked about other directions Lotus could have taken, or may still take, in pressing live albums in the future. Jesse has been considering putting together a collection of live material from multiple shows, which could make it easier to “fit” songs onto each side of a record, and to curate music from a larger pool of shows.
Jesse also mentioned something that I thought was incredibly thoughtful and pro-consumer/anti-establishment. He said the idea is to keep the records affordable for Lotus’s fans, which probably means keeping the live releases to no more than a couple LPs in each album. Live in Steel City is a 4 LP boxset that costs $80 retail (but feel free to take 10% off using this promo code: THIRSTY10). That’s a lot for some people.
I can attest that when I first started seeing Lotus’s shows back in 2004 (the State Theater in Falls Church, VA on 11/9/2004 to be exact), the $15 concert ticket seemed expensive, but now that I’m older, out of college and fully employed, I can afford more expensive stuff, like vinyl boxsets. Spending the extra $ is worth it to me since it allows me to experience live performances, in their entirety, with my wife and kids while we’re chilling at home. Regardless of how I feel about it, Jesse and Lotus putting their fans first just goes to show what a great dude he is and how bands like Lotus never lose sight of what’s most important – giving fans access to their music.
What beer would you pair Live in Steel City with?
I will note that when I interviewed Jesse, before we got going, we cheers-ed each other and took a sip of beer. I thought that was fitting and a nice lead to ask him what beer he thinks pairs best with Live in Steel City. Here’s what Jesse said, “I’d pair it with a session pale. The album is about 2.5 hours in total, so you want to settle in for the full experience and not fade too quickly.” My $0.02 … said like a pro.