If you want me," croons Woody Ranere on Lake Trout's 1998 CD Volume for the Rest of It (SNS Records), "that's what I'll be." The promise of total self-transformation seems heartfelt. But Ranere is lying. The last thing he or the other four members of Lake Trout would do is change because someone wants them to; in fact, they change exactly when their fans don't want them to. If Lake Trout were, say, a fish, it'd be a damn slippery one to grab hold of.
"We have this mechanism where if people start to like what we're doing too much, we change," Ranere says from his home in Baltimore. "It's a very odd thing."
Lake Trout started out in 1996 as an instrumental, Tower of Power-referencing funk band with a heavy jazz preoccupation. Named after a popular local soul-food dish, Lake Trout earned a reputation in Baltimore as a five-piece with airtight improvisational chops. By '98, the jam-band scene had begun to jell on the East Coast as a loose association of groups such as Widespread Panic, Galactic and other funk-oriented descendants of the Grateful Dead/Phish legacy frequented the neo-hippie festival circuit. Lake Trout shared the bill with many of these acts, but instead of sticking to their template of loose and sprawling drum lines, the group injected their jams with the machinelike double-time grooves of British drum & bass.
The jam-band scene being what it is -- think Subarus, slumming prep-school kids with blown-glass bongs and dancing-bears stickers -- the drum-machine-mimicking rhythms beat out by drummer Michael Lowry and other nods to club culture definitely caused Lake Trout to stick out from the pack. Too obsessed with the breakbeat to be a jam band and sporting too much of a traditional rock lineup to be classified with DJ Shadow, one of their main influences, the band looked like a perfect candidate for another burgeoning genre. In 2000, the electronic music magazine Urb mentioned Lake Trout in an article about "the granola-glowstick connection," a handful of "beat-minded jam bands raised on equal parts psychedelic guitar, jazzbo composition and communal rave mindset." The band's live album with DJ Who, Alone at Last, made the mag's short list of the best examples of this quasi-category.
But just when fans started tuning in to Lake Trout's new frequency -- what the group's members dubbed "organica" --the fivesome backed off from its signature shtick of jamming over a locked drum & bass groove and stopped playing solos altogether.
"When we first got into drum & bass," Ranere recounts, "we started doing solos over it because we hadn't heard anyone do it. Then, when people started doing it, we sort of shied away from it. Now we're a little sick of it. I think when it's not onstage -- when it's in the background -- it's a great soundtrack, but not as the focus of a show."
For its latest makeover, Lake Trout decided to embrace the one element conspicuously missing from both the jam-band scene and electronic dance music: song structure. Lake Trout's songs had always included definite beginnings, middles and ends, despite their improvisational feel. Ranere's vocals often drew comparisons to those of Mike "M." Doughty of Soul Coughing, and a noticeable alt-rock moodiness permeated Volume for the Rest of It. But fans who know that album and Alone at Last might be thrown for a loop by the just-completed, yet-unreleased Another One Lost, which grew out of the group's reawakened taste for Nirvana, Weezer, the Cure and the Ramones.
"If you listen to all three albums in a row, you'll hear us go way out on this tangent where we figure out how to play together and learn how to improv and explore new sounds and then come back and learn how to write songs," Ranere says. "With the new one, we definitely see that we may lose some fans, but I think we have the potential to gain a lot more -- because what you really remember in the end is a good song."
Ranere says that Another One Lost will feature only one drum & bass track and just one solo -- but, despite its relatively straight-ahead rock direction, it's not likely to alienate fans of the fledgling "granola-glowstick" genre. The group still improvises, both live and on the album, but it does so as an ensemble, as opposed to what Ranere calls "individualistic and masturbatory soloing." On the electronic front, the drumming is often groove-heavy and highly produced; it sounds beefy, à la DJ Shadow. Lake Trout's sound engineer, Steve Wright, also used more studio trickery this time, looping vocals and percussion for a more processed sound.
The members of Lake Trout hope that the record allows them to cast off the jam-band albatross while retaining their open-minded fan base. "Last fall we played the Iceland Airwaves festival [in Reykjavik] with all these out-there groups like Sigur Rós and Chicks on Speed," Ranere says. "No one there had heard of the jam-band scene, so, after our set, people were asking us if we were from England or Europe and saying we sounded like Brit rock and dance music mixed together. It was nice not to be lumped into something we don't think we are. For us, we can't understand how people fit us in with the jam-band scene -- I totally do understand it for what we were doing a couple years ago, and we love playing those big hippie festivals, but right now it doesn't make much sense."
One of the few bands that could share a stage with Beastie Boys' keyboardist Money Mark, indie rockers the Dismemberment Plan and jazzy drum & bass producer Amon Tobin, Lake Trout makes music that's accessible to a wide array of seemingly disparate audiences. Followers of the group are advised to expect the unexpected with each new album and show, because Lake Trout's one constant is change. "We're not going to put the same kind of album out twice," Ranere chuckles, "unless we start getting sponsored by Taco Bell and it's the only way to continue our coke habits or pay off our beach homes."
So, to correct those deceitful lyrics: "If you want me/that's just what I won't be."