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How Undercover Organism Learned to Love the Loop

The Milwaukee band shows off their jam/electronic fusion on their new live set

Oct. 4, 2016
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Photo by Charlie Kautz

When bands like Lotus, Sound Tribe Sector 9 and EOTO first began bringing jam music’s improvisational mindset to electronic sounds in the ’00s, they were considered eccentric outliers, but these days those acts seem downright prescient: There are now entire festivals, like Michigan’s Electric Forest, dedicated to the intersection of electronic and jam music. As popular as “jamtronica” or “livetronica” has become, though, there’s a reason why more jam bands aren’t attempting to fuse the two styles, explains Josh Chamberlin of the veteran Milwaukee jam act Undercover Organism: It’s really, really difficult to do.

From its roots as a fairly traditional, funk-oriented jam band in the late ’00s, Undercover Organism has grown more exploratory and electronic-minded over the years, especially since bassist Jason Haeberlin joined the group in 2010. He shared Chamberlin’s interest in electronic music, and helped push the band in a more loop-oriented direction. It wasn’t always a smooth transition, Chamberlin recalls.

“One of the things we really struggled with at first, especially when we were playing live, was how to precisely stay on a click track or loop,” Chamberlin says. “That was always the biggest hurdle. And honestly we only got better at it after messing up so many times over the years. We had some shows where we sounded so jumbled and garbled because we’d gotten so far off the loop, and that’s a terrible feeling when you’re playing live and something like that happens.”

Gradually, though, they became accustomed to playing to a click track, and learned how to seamlessly weave different beats and samples into their songs without throwing off their rhythm.
“We kind of definitely have had a good amount of practice with the electronics now,” Haeberlin says. “When we first started it was a lot more rough, but we’ve dialed it in. Now that we know how we want to sound, and what we need to hear when we play live. Having the right monitor mix is really important.”

It’s not a fool-proof sound. As Chamberlin says, “It’s always a little restrictive when you’re playing to a metronome,” but they’ve found ways to keep the music loose and improvisational; they may play to a set BPM, but they’re still free to jam for as long as they feel like. “There are some bands that play the same songs the same way every time, and we’d sound a lot better if we did it that way,” Haeberlin admits, “but we think it’s more exciting to offer a different experience at each show.”

Last month the group shared a live album that demonstrates how much their sound has gelled over the years, Live at the Miramar Theatre 9​.​23​.​2016, a recording of their opening set for the Big Wu. It’s their first with new keyboardist Tony Haneman, and offers an idea of what to expect from a studio album the band is planning to release next spring. 

“It’s one of our best live recordings that we’ve done since Tony joined the band,” Chamberlin says. “The Miramar got a new soundboard, and so recorded this one straight off the board, and the sound quality is just so much better. We’ve recorded other shows, but they weren’t worth releasing, just because of the quality of the audio.”

And although you don’t have to be a loyal member of the jam scene to enjoy the live recording—jazz fans in particular should find much to enjoy in the more fusion-oriented moments of the set—the band understands that it can be difficult for a group like theirs to reach beyond their niche audience.

“This is the scene that we’ve always been a part of,” says Chamberlin. “The downside of being in the scene is that you maybe don’t have as many fans as you would outside of it, but you have a target audience that you can reach out and market to, which is helpful. We were going to these jam shows even before we had a band, so that makes it easier because you know the people who go to these shows, and you know how to reach them. It’s a really tight-knit scene.”

Undercover Organism play Saturday, Oct. 15 at Mad Planet with Coyote, and Saturday, Oct. 22 at the Up and Under. Live at the Miramar Theatre 9.23.2016 is streaming at undercoverorganism.bandcamp.com.


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