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April 14, 2009

Prog-rock pedigree and lengthy improv will make U-Melt

After opening for regularly touring jam bands Tea Leaf Green, moe., and Umphrey’s Mcgee, U-Melt has established itself as the next link in the chain of new wave jam bands created within the past 20 years in the wake of Phish’s influence. Endowed with the technical virtuosity common to their precursors, the band combines exhilarating and fast-paced guitar riffs with a steady but infectious rhythm section. Before coming to Martyr’s this Thursday with opening act Tula, I spoke with keyboardist Zac Lasher, who discussed everything from the band’s current tour to their upcoming album.

Chicago Maroon: Well, you guys are about a third of the way through your 2009 Spring Tour. How’s it been so far?

Zac Lasher: It’s been going well. The crowds have been good; we’ve been playing well; we’ve gotten into some good venues that we haven’t played before, so it’s been a lot of fun.

CM: That’s great. Have you ever played in Chicago before?

ZL: Oh yeah, Chicago’s one of the cities we’ll absolutely play the most, and we always have a really good time in the city.

CM: One of the staples of your shows is lengthy periods of improvisation where the whole band is allowed to open up and be creative. How would you characterize the difference between improvising on stage in front of a crowd and trying to write a four- or five-minute song in the studio?

ZL: Well, the two are basically completely different things. When you’re on stage, obviously you’re just playing without stopping to really think about it, but you’re trying to channel whatever you can, trying to free your body up to be as much of an open vessel for music to come through. Writing music is a more step-by-step process. I get little snippets of inspiration at various moments in my daily life that I try and record or save somehow, and then I can go back and set up my piano and computer and really work on the music and lyrics. It’s a much more craft-oriented thing, I think, geared towards trying to make something lasting, rather than creating something in the moment like on stage.

CM: Plenty of bands with different musical styles improvise during live shows, but “jam bands” generally have a certain light aesthetic, with more upbeat harmonies and melodies. How far do you go to incorporate influences that might not generally be associated with this style?

ZL: We just kind of play what we hear and what we feel at any given moment. I try to listen to as much different music as I can, and we’ve all been schooled in lots of types of music, so different things can pop up at different times. The nice thing about being in a band like this is that we give ourselves the freedom to do that. We can go into a country-western feel at one moment, we can try a Latin feel at another, we can try something with a reggae sound if we want. There are endless variations and traditions that we can try, which for us is great.

CM: Speaking of influences, what artists and musicians do you love to listen to? Are there any that simply never get old?

ZL: Hmm, well, I’m not sure. I guess obviously you can never listen to the same thing forever, but there are also some things that are just timeless. I suppose I never get tired of listening to Stevie Wonder or The Beatles. There are certain albums that I never get tired of, but there are others that I probably would. It’s like, if you want hamburgers every day for dinner and you do that, you’d probably get sick of it. Why limit yourself?

CM: Your last studio album, The I’s Mind, was released in 2006, and since then you guys seem to have been concentrating on touring and playing as many shows as possible. Are you thinking about getting back into the studio any time soon, or are you waiting until this tour is finished to think about that?

ZL: We’ve actually been working on a record for the past 15 to 16 months now, which is nearing completion. Hopefully it’ll be out later this year.

CM: Are there any tantalizing secrets about the new album you can divulge or are you guys keeping it under wraps?

ZL: It’s a concept piece about the nature of enlightenment, which is really the most all-encompassing description I think. We’ve recorded about two CDs worth of music for the album already. Whether or not all of it gets released with the album or some stuff comes later remains to be seen. But it is certainly a big project, and it has occupied a lot of our energy the past year-and-a-half. I sometimes like to describe it as the soundtrack to the movie that hasn’t been made.