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The Low Down On Electric Beethoven: An Interview With Todd Stoops February 01, 2017 18:35
Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen
Just last year, one of the most intriguing groups in recent years surfaced in the form of Reed Mathis & Electric Beethoven, which features a purely improvisational take on the music of famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Conceived by Reed Mathis, former bassist of Tea Leaf Green, Electric Beethoven now has dozens of shows under its belt and continues to turn heads across the country. This project, which has been cleverly dubbed as "classical dance music," focuses specifically on the music of Beethoven's 3rd through 6th symphony. The freedom of this concept has quickly proved to allow a level of freedom and improvisation that not even Mathis could have predicted.
As the band prepares for this evening's show at The Broadberry in Richmond (VA), we had a chance to catch up with Todd Stoops (keyboards) to learn more about the phenomenon of Electric Beethoven and the nature of "classical dance music." While Todd and his fellow bandmates are involved with a variety of projects, it's clear that this group is focused on exploring just how far they can take this concept.
Let's start off with the backstory on how this idea became a reality. While I haven't had the opportunity to see you guys perform yet, I've been fascinated by this project since its inception.
Todd: Well, Reed Mathis is the son of two technical conductors. He grew up in an intense musical family. Both of his parents played Beethoven all of the time. Reed would play Beethoven just as a way of life, you know? He listened to that music from a very early age on. I think he told me he remembers laying under a piano and listening to Beethoven when he was like three or four years old (laughs). So, a few years ago, he decided that he really wanted to try and make this idea happen. He took the entire 3rd and 6th symphony and reimagined each section with different grooves and different musicians...a pretty amazing piece of art.
When he played it for me in the car, I was just like, "Wow...I would love to be a part of this. It was beautiful. It made me cry. It was awesome. Hearing the album...we were at one of the many super jam gigs. I forget exactly what we were doing. One of those gigs where all of the members fly in from different parts of the country. He played it for me, and I was just blown away. A few months after that, we started talking about putting a live version of this art out on the road. So, we got together and made it happen. The last six or seven months have been a whirlwind, you know?
I can imagine. So Reed recruited this all-star cast of musicians to begin recording the actual album (Beathoven). Had the album been recorded and released before you guys started touring?
Todd: The album had not been released at that point. We were sort of the band touring behind it. There were so many people involved. The cast of characters on that album spans from Pearl Jam to Phish. Some of those guys are pretty busy (laughs). I was really psyched to get the call. The album actually came out after we hit the road. We had played a few shows out in California, where the band is from. We've had the opportunity to play all over the country since then, which has been pretty awesome (laughs).
That's obviously a unique position for you as the pianist of the group. Did you have any type of similar background with classical music or share a similar passion for Beethoven's music?
Todd: No, not really. I always appreciated it. If it were ever being played, I wouldn't try to turn the channel or anything. You wouldn't say that I had ever done any deep studying on Beethoven's music. As a matter of fact, the first time I had ever listened to the entire 3rd or 6th symphony was on Reed's album. Then, I went back and listened to the symphonic versions of them. It was a really interesting experience. I feel like that has been a common theme with a lot of the people we have been performing this music for.
That's one of the things I hear a lot when meeting people at these shows. They'll say, "Wow, I can't wait to go home and actually listen to the actual symphony now." It's pretty interesting. The whole genius of this is the approach that Reed has taken to it. It's all improv. We're literally creating while following Beethoven's form, his core progressions, the melodies, and what not. Other than that, we're making it up from scratch. Whatever we do with the core progression, all of that is happening in real time. That piece of this pretty amazing stuff. I've never been a part of anything like it.
The closest thing I can compare it to is Everyone Orchestra. Matt Butler conducts the group, and it's complete improv from the first note. It has that kind of spirit, but it's focused on the preludes of Beethoven's core progressions. We might play one movement of the symphony for 45 minutes. It's pretty wild, you know? (laughs).
Watch Electric Beethoven perform at Terrapin Care Station here:
That's one thing that I was really curious about. Unfortunately, I'm not a musician myself, so I can only go so deep with this. How would you explain the concept of staying within the movement of the symphony while purely improvising? How would you compare this type of improvisation to that of the "type 2" jamming that you experience with a band like RAQ?
Todd: You know...(laughs)...it's hard for me. Knowing all of that stuff, this band is just so wild. Anything can literally happen at anytime. There is no, "Oh shit...you can't do that." There is nothing like that. Even if you're following something, and giving it a name like "type 2," there is always a destination. You know how you're going to end it. You're not going to end the concert in the middle of a type 2 jam...like, "Alright everybody. See ya later!" People would be upset, shrugging, frowning, asking, "What just happened?!" Which, by the way, would be a fucking awesome prank. There is always a destination though.
With this project, you just don't know. The destination could be something completely different each time. We've spliced and put different movements together...like the first movement of the 3rd symphony...we have spliced with other movements from other symphonies. It's really just a wild question mark, which makes it really tough to label, you know? It's just wild. That's the best label I can come up with. WILD! Focused, but wild.
It certainly sounds that way. I've picked up on that just through watching the video footage which has surfaced on YouTube. Anything can happen at any time. It's very obvious that you guys are having a whole lot of fun with it. I can only imagine the type of freedom that opens up for you as an artist. That's gotta be a different level of exploration.
Todd: Absolutely brother.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the band's first scheduled performance was last year at Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival, but you guys got a little surprise a Terrapin Crossroads the day before. Can you tell me about that?
Todd: That's right. We were originally supposed to debut at Outside Lands. We were in town hanging and rehearsing, and we ended up getting offered to play a gig up at Terrapin Crossroads. That was awesome. There was a really great crowd, surprisingly. It had just been announced, but the place was nice and packed. It was a completely different band though. For instance, what we were just talking about, at that point we had just learned all of the music. If you listen to the Terrapin show, we actually played the entire 3rd and 6th symphony. Every movement, every piece of it...more like the way that the album is. Except that we did it backwards. We started with the last movement of the 6th symphony and moved backwards through the 6th and the 3rd.
Nowadays, we will play one or two movements, and that's the entire show. We're really getting down into the grit of each movement and composing new music in real time based on the lexicon that is used in those movements, you know what I mean? It's gotten pretty wild. I don't know that...well, I think maybe once we have done something sort of like that, but we've never blown through all of it. There was one track at Terrapin that we played for 11 or 12 minutes, and we've since played it for well over an hour in the most recent evolution of the band. It's pretty fucking awesome (laughs).
Watch Electric Beethoven's official music video for "Rebirth" here:
So, in terms of the flow of an Electric Beethoven show, is it typically a one set performance? When you're working through one movement for over an hour, is there even time/reason to split the performance into two sets?
Todd: It just depends on the show. However the show is formatted. I'm not a big fan of set breaks, honestly. We've done both though. Tonight, we're in Richmond, and we're playing one set straight through. Two hours plus an encore. So, you know, it just depends on the show.
Unfortunately, being in Alabama we just missed you guys on this first run through the Southeast. I had my fingers crossed for a Birmingham or Atlanta show.
Todd: Oh, don't worry man. It will happen!
Each of you guys are involved with multiple side projects. You're obviously still playing quite a few shows with RAQ. How do you see the touring schedule playing out with Electric Beethoven? What is the focus with how consistent this band will be year round?
Todd: This is very much a priority for all of us. Everyone has other projects, but we're all kind of looking at this thing to see how far we can explore it musically. We want to play and bring this music to all of the corners of the country, at least. We would love to play Europe at some point as well. We're going to stay focused and see where it leads us, you know?
Before we wrap up, how would you best describe the evolution of this band in its six to seven months of existence?
Todd: It's becoming more and more clear to me that this is some of my most favorite music that I have ever made in my life. If it's making me feel this good, then hopefully it's translating to everybody we're playing to. It seems to be working so far (laughs). We're going to keep riding it out. The music is beautiful. This music is like saying a prayer to the universe. It's very special to be a part of it.
I can only imagine the types of reactions that you're seeing from the crowd. If you guys don't know quite what to expect, they certainly have no idea. With that level of improvisation, I'm sure the crowd reaction is priceless.
Todd: It's pretty amazing brother. The feedback has been fantastic, and it's great to see people feel it right in front of you. We're proud to be able to help process and to be part of the solutions (laughs).
Thanks for everything you guys do and all of the amazing music that you continue to share with us all. I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me, and best of luck with the show tonight.
Todd: Absolutely brother. Thanks for having me.
Listen to "Scene By The River" from Cervantes in Denver, CO (11.13.16) here: