The darker side

Lake Trout improvises a new way to jam

If you want to hear a member of Lake Trout groan, mention the term “jam band.”

They certainly hear it enough. The Baltimore-based quintet, named after the funky, crispy soul-food treat, got its start on the area’s jam-band circuit in the mid-’90s, playing a mix of soulful pop songs and jazzy take-off instrumentals.

But these days, the group favors slow-building, layered improvisations over solos, and long passages of dark, hypnotic rhythms instead of party-up vamps or barrages of peppy vocal numbers.

“People are always searching for little pigeonholes to put you in,” drummer Michael Lowry sighs over the band’s cell phone as their van speeds along a dark Tennessee highway en route to a show. “We don’t want to be pigeonholed into any scene — we want our music to appeal to diverse groups of people. I think [the jam band label] hurts us as much as it helps us.”

Lake Trout built up quite a following in the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond with its initial sound, but at some point in the late ’90s, the music they were playing didn’t match up with the music they were listening to offstage — the sweeping drum ‘n’ bass of LTJ Bukem, the hip-hop-flavored turntable cut-and-paste of DJ Shadow, the cosmic squonk of ’70s-era Miles Davis.

Before long, vocalist/guitarist Woody Ranere was spending more time away from the mic, while Rhodes pianist/saxophonist Matt Pierce began using a sampler and electronic effects to loop his licks as well as distort and repeat his own on-the-spot vocal samples. Guitarist Ed Harris and bassist James Griffith stripped down their playing, using fewer notes to create more texture and rhythmic traction. Meanwhile, Lowry turned himself into a human breakbeat machine, rattling off speedy drumbeats by hand with cruise-missile speed and precision for extended workouts.

“We lived with this jungle DJ who would make us these mix tapes, and I would play along with them,” he explains. “I had a lot of time to spend on that stuff, and I built up stamina. It just became sort of automatic.”

In 1998, Volume for the Rest of It (SNS) captured Lake Trout’s emerging blend of tensile vocal tunes with crisp drum ‘n’ bass numbers in recording-studio freeze-frame, but the group kept evolving. Last year’s Alone at Last (Phoenix), recorded live at Charlottesville, Va., club Traxx with Baltimore-based DJ and longtime accomplice Who sitting in on turntables, submerged the notion of a traditional, easy-to-follow set list into an ever-shifting landscape of grooves, improvisations, familiar tunes and ghostly sonic textures. Lowry describes their current sound as “darker,” influenced by more abrasive and experimental sounds — these days, the band’s van rocks to late-period Aphex Twin and Nirvana’s In Utero as well as sample-jazz maestro Amon Tobin.

“The more we improvised and became comfortable with what we were doing, the more the stuff that had been lurking in the background that we’d never really had the gumption to bust out before started to manifest itself,” he says.

Despite ditching a more pop-oriented sound and resisting the jam-band tag at every turn, Lake Trout is finding success with its ongoing new direction. The band is even putting more emphasis on vocals again, although Ranere is likely to be improvising some of the lyrics in addition to his guitar lines. The band spent the first months of 2001 out West as part of the Sno-Core tour with Primus bassist Les Claypool’s latest aggro-funk aggregation, the Flying Frog Brigade. The Sno-Core opening spot offered Lowry and the rest some headliner validation. “A lot of Les’ fans were already there and were very receptive to what we were doing,” he says, sounding pleased. “The harder, darker stuff.”

Lake Trout play Fri., April 20, at Smith’s Olde Bar.??