Formed at the University of Philadelphia in 1995, the Disco Biscuits quickly garnered a reputation for exciting improvisational live shows. But the jamband approach to fame was only a facet of the group as it moved into electronic music while keeping its improvisational elements intact.
Increasing its fanbase through relentless touring over the years, the band also established its famous “Camp Bisco” multi-day festival in 1999. And, as if headlining its own festival and playing other events such as Bonnaroo weren’t enough to keep most bands busy, Disco Biscuits founder/bassist/vocalist Marc Brownstein also tours with Conspirator which includes DB keyboardist Aron Magner. Rounding off Disco Biscuit’s sound is Jon Gutwillig on guitar and drummer Allen Aucoin.
Pollstar caught up with Brownstein during Conspirators’ current tour and spoke to the DB frontman just after the band arrived for a gig in Oxford, Miss. During the conversation Brownstein talked about the group’s history, how fans perceive the Disco Biscuits and the band’s philosophy toward giving away its music.
During the early years was it difficult to convince promoters that the Disco Biscuits was a real band and not a couple of DJs sampling music?
No. Back in the day when we first started touring we weren’t really emulating electronic music as much. Back in the day we really were a real live band. We were more in the vein of straight improv rock. Then little by little over the next couple of years the music started to change and we began to develop our own thing. I think the key was convincing the fans as we went a long that, while the music was changing, it was worth sticking around and trying out this new thing we were going for.
We started in ’95 before the live electronic thing was invented. We started doing it right around the same time as a couple of other bands started doing it. It all started, sort of invented, in multiple places at the same time.
The first wave of rave was like ’91 through ’95, ’96. That was the same time the jamband thing was kind of at its peak. There were these two influences happening at the same time, not just for us but for other kids around the nation. There were bands like the Disco Biscuits. Sound Tribe Sector 9 and The New Deal which were inventing this simultaneously without being aware the others were doing it.
Are you comfortable with all the labels people have attached to the Disco Biscuits? Jamband, electronica, jamtronica – sometimes it seems as if there are names created solely to describe the Disco Biscuits. What’s your view on this?
Well, you know, we came up with a name to describe us and that name is “Disco Biscuits.” You kind of go with it. There are a lot of people out there who try to fight the labels. I’m appreciative that people care enough to try to put us into a box. In Conspirator it’s a little more neatly in a box. The music is more electronic, more like an electrohouse thing. The Biscuits, one jam will be hardcore electronic and the next will be kind of a southern rock thing. It’s really hard to describe or explain. You just have to see it.
There are people out there who don’t like being called “jamband.” They think there’s a negative connotation to that. There’s always been that kind of overriding thing in our world. You’ll hear so many people say, “We’re not a jamband,” and I always chuckled at that. I like when people call other bands “jambands” and they try to say they’re not.
But the Disco Biscuits will play jamband festivals as well as more electronic events, like the “Identity” festival tour. It seems as if you have the best of both worlds.
We fit in great at Ultra and Nocturnal, and then we fit in great at Bonnaroo, Rothbury and Wakarusa. That’s the nice thing about the Biscuits. We pre-date all of this stuff. It works really well. And in the end it’s like, “Do you have fans? Do they come to see you?” Because if you have fans, big fans, they’re going to come and see you. They’re going to fit in anywhere. Promoters want three to four thousand Disco Biscuit fans to show up when they’re throwing these festivals. It is nice. I’ve been saying that all summer; it’s really nice to fit in at an Ultra or Identity just as well as we do at Bonnaroo. It’s lucky. We’re in a fortunate position.
As a band known for improvising on stage, did you find improvising while playing electronica somewhat more difficult than as a roots or jam band?
That was the thing. We never wanted to play with samplers or like pre-made loops because we wanted to able to create the music on the cuff, even if it was in the electronic genre. If we’re playing it live with our instruments, we’re just as free to change it up as we are if we’re playing over a rock jam.
As the years went on, technology grew to a point where we could actually create loops live while on stage then manipulate them for the purpose of improv. We’ve actually been doing that a lot over the last few years so the music has been getting more electronic-sounding or authentically electronic. But we haven’t had to give up the idea that we could go anywhere with it at any time. And that was very important to us, it’s really important that we’re able to truly improvise, that we’re not coming out and doing the same thing.
The Biscuits are like 90 percent improv and 10 percent composed music. Conspirator is 90 percent composed music and 10 percent improv. Throughout the night, two or three times we’ll get into something, move it around and let it breathe a little bit. It’s nice actually to have two different bands. For us we’re way into the electronic thing and I don’t want to have the Disco Biscuits sacrifice what we’re all about. It’s nice to have another outlet. With Conspirator we can come in and be more of a DJ act that’s augmented by instruments than the Biscuits which is an improv act that is augmented by sounds. Very often we’ll end up in a place that sounds very similar with Conspirator and Disco Biscuits, but how we get there is completely different. When it sounds incredibly electronic in the Biscuits, we’re arriving there through an improv place. Whereas, we’re starting there in Conspirator. It’s a totally different thing. We want to get something different out of Conspirator. It would be silly to have two bands doing the same thing. With Conspirator, we can play it we wanted to.
But aren’t the Disco Biscuits somewhat responsible for changes in the way live music is presented, such as being one of the first bands to launch your own festival?
We were definitely early on for creating a festival based around one group like that. Our band also predates the Internet in being a way to spread music. When we started out it was cassette tapes. I’m kind of dating myself to say that. We’ve had to adapt and expand, from cassette tapes to CDs and then CDs to MP3s. Now we don’t even bother trying to sell it. There are bands like Radiohead out there that are on the cutting edge of this. The really smart bands are trying out new ways to release their music. Our last release, Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens, we sold physical copies for one night at our festival without any hype. We didn’t tell people we were releasing it. It was like, “That was it, here it is.” They knew there was an album in the can but no one knew when it was coming. Instead of hyping and over-hyping it, we let the music do the talking.
So we sold as many as we could in that one night and try to recoup some of the cash we put into the project then we put it up on our website the next day. You know, we’re almost sold out of the physical product. It’s a collector’s item. Do you want the actual CD? If so, you can buy it for 10 dollars. If not, take the music. We know you’re going to anyway. There comes a point where you kind of wink at your fans. We get it. It’s free.
No sudden heart attack the first time you saw Napster?
No. For us it was, like, awesome. We now have a way to get music for free. We’re music heads.
For many of your albums, individual band members brought songs that were transformed into Disco Biscuits recordings, but for Planet Anthem, the band worked on it as a group project from the ground up. Did you continue with the group effort on Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens or did you go back to members bringing their own songs to the sessions?
For Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens, we went back to the roots, the way we did the first or second album where we all had written songs. They were done, they were road-tested a bit. We wrote 50 songs for Planet Anthem and 40 of them didn’t make the album. So the best 10 out of those 40; that’s what ended up on Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens. And those were songs that weren’t really done by committee. It was like stuff I had written that I maybe thought would be on Planet Anthem but they weren’t. So I put it on cassette and a year went by and it developed, live, into a monster.
That’s how we used to do it – write songs, get on the road, tour-test them, work out the problems with them, let the songs grow live in that environment where we could put time and energy in it. Take it slow, figure out what the fans like and then after a year, go, “What do we have here?” The songs grew a lot from when we wrote them to when we recorded them.
Then we went into the studio for a month and played our little hearts out. We’d choose a song, play it 10 times and take the best take. Every song had a jam on it. The fans are now really starting to love Planet Anthem. At first there was a little bit of resistance to that kind of new style. But as a new technique, they’re really taking to it now. Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens is an instant classic with the fanbase. They already knew they loved the songs. It was just a matter of how we were going to get great versions of that on the album. We just went in until we had great versions of every one of them.
Every thing you’re saying makes it sound as if Disco Biscuits are more accessible than other bands.
I definitely enjoy that kind of interaction in our community and I think they do, too. Facebook is a game changer. I think that some of the most successful artists out there make themselves successful and understand the importance of knowing what it its that the fanbase likes and doesn’t like. We’re artists. In the end we play what we want to play, we write music for ourselves. At the end of the day it’s just you and yourself going to bed every night. So you got to be happy with what you’re doing as an artist. I’d like to know if there’s a song we haven’t been playing a lot at shows. Sometimes it’s nice to know that there’s an overwhelming feeling among the fanbase that we need to bring this song back. Or we’re playing this song too much. It’s cool to have that outlet where we can tailor our shows around what the fans are into. It’s really refreshing.
I go on Facebook and ask fans what they want to hear, and I’ll get 500 posts. I’ll then have an intern go through that and chart the stuff out for me and see what the trends are. What song is popping up the most in the request list? Sometimes it takes me by surprise and I’ll be like, “Wow! I never would have guessed fans wanted to hear that so much. Let’s start playing that more.” It’s a new day.
But we’ve always been accessible. When we were starting out and we were a small band, that was our personality – hanging with the fans. We are fans. You know what I mean? We started as fans of music and we shouldn’t be too cool for school and try to act like rock stars, make ourselves inaccessible. To me, that’s just not being real. We want to keep it real. We’re people.
The Disco Biscuits also have a reputation for putting on spectacular light shows. How does your lighting crew manage to keep up with a band that’s 90 percent improvisation?
We got one guy who’s been with us almost 12 years now. He’s like a member of the band. He knows what’s coming next, the same way I know what’s coming next. We’re speaking a language to each other and he speaks it with us. Music is just like language, there are things you can say in how you play. There’s different things you can say that let the other guys in the band know what you’re thinking, like where we’re going and how I’m going to take this. If we’re in a certain key and I change the bass notes, if we’re major and I’m trying to minorize it, I’m trying to tell them something about what direction I want the band to go in.
Johnny R. Goode, our lighting guy, he knows all these musical cues. He’s down with it at this point.
What’s next for the Disco Biscuits?
The last two years we played a lot less shows and concentrated on the destination stuff. We concentrated on our festivals in Mexico, Colorado and New York. Then, when something like “Identity” comes along, you hop on it. But in terms of hitting the road and doing Lexington, Oxford, Murfreesborough, Madison and Kalamazoo, I love that shit. I love what we’re doing this week with Conspirator, and the Biscuits are doing less and less of that.
Sounds as if it’s a lot of fun being you.
It’s really fun. I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t fun. There are other things you could do with your life. This is the dream. Two hundred and twenty five people in Oxford, Mississippi on a Wednesday? I’m living the dream, man.
What can you tell us about your non-profit community-based organization, HeadCount?
We started in 2004, as a way to mobilize the live music scene a little bit and see if we could harness the power for positive change. We started by registering voters. The organization has grown enormously since we began doing this. We sort of think of it now as a training ground for kids who want to get into that non-profit sector. If you’re a live music fan and you’re thinking you might want to devote yourself to the nonprofit world, we want to help you get there. We’ve had up to 2,000 volunteers at a time and we’re canvassing for positive social change.
The Camp Bisco festivals also have a rep for being green.
Absolutely. Straight across the board we try to do things that will be green for the band. From recycling at home to having a recycling program on the road, to try to have our festival be as green as possible. There are organizations out there like Reverb run by [Guster’s] Adam Gardner that dedicate themselves to helping bands green themselves on the road, from buying the proper kinds of bio-fuels to recycling programs. I’m a big fan of Reverb and what Adam Gardner has done. It’s very inspirational to see one guy who cares so much about an issue.
One last question. Is there something you’d like to say about the Disco Biscuits but no one ever asks you the right question?
I feel like we get asked all of the questions. On Facebook, the fans ask all the questions. I think the question should be more, “What don’t you want to tell?”
And my answer is, “I don’t want to tell.”
Conspirator plays South Burlington, Vt., at Higher Ground Sept. 30; Boston’s Paradise Rock Club Oct. 1; Brooklyn, N.Y., at the Brooklyn Bowl Oct. 2; Raleigh, N.C., at Lincoln Theatre Oct. 5 and Athens, Ga., at the Georgia Theatre Oct. 6. Disco Biscuits will wrap up 2011 with five nights of shows, playing New York City’s Best Buy Theater Dec. 26-28 and Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre Dec. 30-31. For more information, click here for the Disco Biscuits website and here for Conspirator’s Internet home.