Posted January 27, 2015 by Gerard O'Sullivan in Miscellaneous

Interview with Steve Molitz (Particle)


After a decade and a half honing their craft, Particle finds themselves at the head of the pack of the suddenly robust “livetronica” scene, which– as you can probably surmise from the title– is where electronic music and live improvisation collide.  The leader of the band is Steve Molitz, who is the keyboardist and chief songwriter for the group, who formed in Los Angeles at the beginning of this millennium.

We caught up with Molitz for an in depth discussion about the state of electronic music and its place in the jamband scene as well as what it was like to go on the road with Phil Lesh & Friends playing Grateful Dead music and what he learned from that, as well as other topics while he prepared to play a show in Nebraska.

Portland Live: With a revamped lineup how do you approach the fine line of staying true to the past while also allowing for new directions? 

Steve Molitz: Ben (Combe) and I have been playing together for ten years now so there’s just a ton of chemistry and history and everything that comes with that. We had a moment last night, actually, where we both started playing the same melody at the same time. We just sort of found ourselves playing the same thing at the same time, we just looked at each other and both had a little smile, like, “ah, nice!” One of those little magic moments. You couldn’t have planned it if you tried. That’s the kind of stuff that happens after playing together for so long. We’ve really had those moments with this lineup, we’ve kind of all been getting to that place every night where there’s just a lot of great chemistry and I think that all stems from how excited we are to be out on tour playing this music and seeing all the fans. It’s just been a really, really exciting tour so far. The crowds have been phenomenal and the energy has been through the roof and you know, we’re the type of band that is fueled by the energy of our fans so when there’s a good vibe in the room it helps push the music into new places.

PL: You mentioned the dedication of fans, what is it about jamband fans that makes them so passionate and willing to travel long distances to see a live show?

SM: It’s a great question! I think a big part of it has to do with the spontaneity and the fact that there’s a band, like Particle, you’re going to get two totally different experiences if you catch multiple shows. For instance we had a handful of people come to our last four shows, some tapers actually that we’re going to see tonight at the Bourbon Theater in Lincoln, Nebraska, and it’s really cool when you start seeing the same people hopping on tour with you and catching multiple shows in a row. I think back to my early days when I was going to see a bunch of concerts and really hopping on tour to see other bands as a fan and, to me, part of it was the excitement of seeing where the improvisations would go on any given night but another part of it is also the lifestyle and there’s just a certain camaraderie that happens amongst the fans and that’s something that I really love about the jam scene: the fact that the fans really do have a network and it does feel like one big family rather than people just showing up for a concert and then check out until that next time their favorite band comes back. It’s just such an active and vibrant community and especially these days with social media it’s cool because bands are just as much a part of the community as the fans are. We always come out after our shows and hang with people and you start to make friends over the years so with all my touring now I just look forward to pulling into each city because you get to see all of your friends that you’ve been hanging with over the years and they get to see each other so we’re really thankful to be a part of this scene, it’s such a cool thing. The same thing is happening with us on tour, you asked me about the lineup earlier, a big thing that we’re doing on tour is we’re just having a blast out here. There’s a lot of laughs on the road. We’re good friends on and off stage so that really helps the music flow in a really natural way. You know how it is when you’re just sitting around with a bunch of your friends and it’s late and you’re telling stories and cracking up and one guy’s riffing, you know, you guys are all just laughing and having a blast, that’s really the same thing we’re doing, we just happen to be holding instruments while we’re doing it… and I think the fans can pick up on that. When you go see a show you can tell that the band is really in the moment, it’s as much a part of the experience as the fans are, and for us, we really strive to create an authentic experience where you can look at the stage and know that all of the musical emotions are an actual authentic event happening in real time, rather than a reproduction. I think that’s another thing people love about the jam scene, I think they’re kind of searching for these authentic moments which is kind of the opposite of pop music where it has to sound exactly like the record and has to be totally packaged and it has to be the same every night in order for it to work. The jam thing is the exact opposite. There has to be a certain amount of give and take and improvisation and fluctuation because all of those little nuances and differences all the time are what make it so exciting.

PL: Talk about electronic music, Particle was one of the first “jambands” to play that way along with the likes of New Deal, Lake Trout, Disco Biscuits, etc. Can I ask about your take on electronic music now, especially within the jamband scene?

SM: Well everybody comes at it a little bit differently. For us, we always took a more organic approach where we were playing electronic dance music but we were always playing it with live instruments, you know, we weren’t using laptops and sequencers and stuff like that so for us even when we were playing electronic music, it still felt underneath it all that we were still a rock band at heart because we like the freedom of being able to go where the music led us rather than kind of being stuck in the same box every night. The technology has of course expanded and now with programs like Ableton you see people figuring out how to sort of get the best of both worlds where they can have a little bit of improvisational interplay but still within a more technology-driven electronic medium. It’s an interesting time, things are evolving pretty quickly. It seems like there was sort of a bubble that inflated pretty big and I’m not sure if it has burst but it certainly seems like maybe there’s a cluster of bubbles and then it seems like maybe we’re a spin off where there’s a desire for more live music and you even see a lot of the bigger DJs and producers now going out with live bands or at least elements of live bands so you’ll get a couple of guys with laptops and a couple of guys with live instruments, so I think that fans are still looking for that live experience. I think part of it is being able to look at the stage and seeing what’s happening, you know? Electronic music and DJs, it’s a funny thing because you can look on stage and see a DJ standing behind the deck and there’s a disconnect there because people aren’t sure if he’s just pushing play and hanging out and dancing or if he’s actually creating this music on the fly, even within the songs he’s playing I think the jury is out whether or not that’s his music or he’s playing other people’s music. I think it’s an interesting thing so when you add the element of live instruments into the equation then people can look at the stage and they can sort of trace the origins of all of the sounds and know exactly what they’re getting. We all love electronic music and I go see DJs and I love that as much as I love going to see a rock band. To me, I kind of like it all and I feel like that’s one cool thing about the scene right now and this probably has to do with the power and accessibility of the internet but I feel like people have really opened their minds to crossing multiple genres now. In some of the early days of electronic music, people were really into drums and bass or really into jungle or house or whatever it was that they were into and it seems like now there’s just sort of a wider umbrella that this music is falling under, and you see so many electronic music festivals now with all of these different things, breakbeats, dub step, house, and all of these different things falling under the same electronic umbrella which expands even further once you add in the livetronica scene.

PL: You have taken up some solo work in scoring for films and video games.  How has that process contributed to your progression as a musician and how do you enjoy that creative outlet compared to performing live?

SM: You know that’s been a really cool experience and it’s always a lesson in doing more with less. When Particle plays– especially on this tour, this lineup has just been really explosive– we like to ride the improvisation and really go wherever the music takes us, so sometimes when a song that’s maybe five minutes on an album will end up being fifteen or twenty minutes live. Obviously it’s kind of the exact opposite when you’re scoring a picture but even when you’re just scoring a level of a video game you just have to keep things so much tighter and the dynamics are all based on… rather than letting the music guide itself, the players guide the music and especially on a lot of the games I’ve worked on… it really teaches me how to say more with less whereas sometimes live bands say more with more. Scoring, to me, has always been a great study in composition and how different elements are interacting and that’s something I really love about Particle, is hearing how all of these different rhythmic and melodic pieces fit together in sort of this intertwining double helix that’s spinning in infinity… it’s a cool thing, and it’s always working and changing as we play. Maybe we play with a different feeling some night and it’s all happening on the fly, we’re sort of creating and interpreting these compositions when we play live all in the moment whereas with composing you have the luxury of sitting there, working, and really kind of thinking about a piece of the puzzle to put it together. Live, you kind of have to throw a bunch of paint against the wall and see what sticks. I enjoy recording, especially composing, because you really get to work in a finite atmosphere and I think of playing live more like painting where you’re adding sound and the combination of those creates the picture, and I feel like composing is more like sculpting where you start with a lot of sound and you’re kind of constantly removing. You’re just looking for things to subtract… you have to allow the composition to breathe so that they’re are dynamic shifts so I always enjoy that process and it always helps my live playing. After I’ve been recording for a while, I’m so used to sculpting and having to remove, and part of that is mixing also, you know? If you’re mixing and you say “oh, I want that guitar to be louder,” one solution is to turn the guitar up but another might be to turn the keyboard down and then you have that subtracting. That always helps me think about my live playing because after I record and I walk on the stage I’m just very aware of the composition and the dynamic levels and the overall band and I think that bands like Particle sort of treat our concerts as if we’re producers [laughs] kind of producing on the fly music, rather than kind of a pop band who is just playing the hits the same way every night. There’s a lot of wiggle room for us and that ambiguity is where all of the good stuff is hiding so we’re kind of constantly digging for buried treasure in those unknown spaces in the improvisational section of the song rather than relying on the same formulation every night. It’s been a really fun tour, we’re just at the half way point right now so by the time we get to you in Portland we’ll definitely be deep into the fabric of the double helix.

PL: I read that you recorded some new songs up in Woodstock in a barn owned by someone in the Band.  Is this Levon’s space?

SM: No, no… it was Rick Danko’s old barn.

PL: Okay, cool!

SM: It’s a killer studio called Applehead studios. There’s a great engineer there, Chris Bittner, and I actually worked with him recording two Rich Robinson albums. I just loved working with Chris. That space is just so incredible that when it came time to record Particle songs, we went and recorded up there. It’s just an awesome studio and those tracks should be coming out really soon. You can just stay tuned to particlepeople for that.

PL: You have also hit the road with Phil and Friends and had a chance to play with the likes of Phil, John Scofield, Warren Haynes and Jackie Greene.  What has that experience been like?

SM: Those were great experiences because I learned so much. They have music that is so deep and rich, there’s so much there and it’s just so diverse so I feel like it was just a great education. I got to play everything from these kind of routine americana songs to of course the folk and bluegrass stuff all the way to the more outer reaches of psychedelia. For me it was just a great experience as far as getting to explore the music and find different interpretations. One cool thing that Phil mentioned to us at rehearsals really early on was he was saying that the Grateful Dead songs are fables… and as long as you have the beginning and the end there, as long as it starts with “Once upon a time…” and ends with “happily ever after,” what happens in the middles is up to you and he was saying that there isn’t one right way to play any of those songs. I mean all you have to do is listen to multiple Grateful Dead recordings [laughs], and you can see that there are different tempos and keys, whether they’re playing it straight or swinging it, or where in the rotation it is, is it acoustic, are there pedal steel guitars, how many vocalists are there? You know even their own versions changed so wildly through the decades. So it was really liberating to get to play those songs where we were able to sort of write the narrative with a different hand every night. It was just really exciting and liberating to know that there was no right or wrong way to play a song so you could interpret it one way on a Friday night and play the same song a couple nights later and come at it with a totally different approach, it was really cool as it gives musicians the freedom to really put their personal stamp on it and know that part of the fun of the whole thing is invention. I think that’s one of the great gifts that the Grateful Dead gave the jam scene. Although musically the Grateful Dead and Particle are stylistically very different bands, the truth is the philosophy is the same. We’re all searching for novelty. We’re all looking for new ways to do different things and this tour has just been so much fun for us because we’re discovering the buried treasure that we’re seeking, you know we’re really hitting gold each night and it’s just been so much fun to sort of fly without a net and see what happens and when everything comes together, all cylinders are firing and there’s that moment that happens where the band is hitting and the lights are just right and the audience is totally in the moment and they’re dancing, there’s just this great feedback loop where you can’t tell if the energy’s coming from the stage to the fans or the other way around and really I guess that it’s just this cyclical loop, this self-perpetuating feedback loop. When we get to those moments, that’s just the greatest feeling in the world and it’s a reminder of why we’re out here going coast to coast on this month long tour, to find that moment every night. It’s been a really great tour! Like I was saying earlier, by the time we get to Portland, we’ll definitely by that time—you know we’re kind of adding new material as we go, we’ve got some new songs tonight, played a new song that we hadn’t played on this tour last night, so we’re always just trying to push ourselves to set the bar higher and let the music guide our way.

PL: Well we look forward to it, you know the Aladdin Theater is a great venue for you guys, it’s pretty intimate…

SM: Oh yeah! It’s awesome, we love that place! We’re really looking forward to getting back there. Yeah, it’s been years since I’ve been there but I love it.

Particle plays the Aladdin Theater this Thursday night, Jan. 29th, and tickets can be purchased here.

Gerard O'Sullivan



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