A "Basis" of Biscuits Jams: Jon Gutwillig
The Disco Biscuits are currently generating some of the biggest buzz in the scene. Their trance-fusion (or Bisco) really seems to have captured the interest and imagination of many fans. On New Years Eve they debuted their rock opera, Hot Air Balloon. Rob Turner (our new Road Trip of the Month editor) recently enlisted the Disco Biscuits to perform at his Surum Kenya Scholarship Fund Benefit (along with Uncle Sammy). A number of weeks earlier he sat down with Biscuits guitarist and principal songwriter Jon Gutwillig This interview touches on a number of issues, including jam philosophy as well as the recording of the group’s Encephalous Crime, which is about to be re-released with a bonus live track. The Biscuits are currently on the road. For more info and tour dates visit www.discobiscuits.com.
RT- Since the band is in the process of re-releasing Encephalous Crime, tell us a little bit more about the recording of that album.
JG- Right now we do a lot of little gigs all over the place. Back then we were doing a lot of little gigs all over Phili. We were trying to play as many nights of the weeks as we could but nobody had heard of us and we were particularly terrible in those days. We jammed out really hard but didn’t really know what we were doing. When we went in and did Encephalous Crime we had played the songs so much live that we went and in and decided to re-open up the creative channels on the songs. We decided you do the album overdub style, production-style. We put down the bass tracks and then scratch guitar, scratch keyboards scratch vocals. After that we went over the guitar, the keyboards, the vocals. Sometimes the scratch tracks would stay, depending on how good the recording of the scratch track was- Magner’s solo in “Trooper” for instance was a scratch track.
We just went nuts on that album. There are like 56 tracks on Stone Waltz- eight guitars. It was crazy.
RT- Why did you add live versions of “Pygmy Twylyte” and “Basis For A Day” rather than studio versions?
JG- “Basis” is a live song. It was too live to put in the studio. And “Pygmy” we got because we brought equipment up to the Wetlands for the August 7, 1996 gig and recorded the whole show. The “Basis” stood out and the “Pygmy” came along with it because people were psyched to have a Zappa tune on the album.
That was actually Mark Sarisky’s idea. He was one of the engineers on the album. He wanted to put a cover tune on the album and we were pretty against it but he was so unbelievably for it was ridiculous. I think it was just because he was so sick of listening to our shit that he wanted to mix another type of song (laughs).
RT- Your current management team is the same team that has worked with Metallica, Anthrax, Ministry and many others. Tell us how that came about, how did you meet Jon and Marsha Zazula?
JG- Relix had called us in to play a party at the Wetlands and we were psyched because we were a pretty scrappy bunch of losers. We were also pretty excited that it was at Wetlands; we all grew up around New York. So we put together this crazy set together. It was a parenthesis set where every song is a pair of parenthesis- we have left facing parenthesis and right facing parenthesis- the way it works is that the first song ends the set. That was theoretically what we wanted to do and of course it ended up changed due to artistic reasons. That tape is hugely famous among Biscuit tapes for some odd reason.
Anyhow, after that gig we went on the road and I was supposed to contact Toni Brown but I spaced it for a month and half. Then I got on the phone with Les Kippel to say hello. Then he said “Do you want to meet one of the moguls of the music industry?” I was like “Yeah, why?” And he goes “Do you want to be one of the biggest rock stars in the world?” And I was like ‘I don’t know.” And he said “Do you want to sell out stadiums in Munich, Tokyo, Copenhagen?” And here we were just coming off pulling seven people at Club Toast. I was “What are you talking about Les?” But he said “This guy Jonny Zazula, you need to meet this guy, he’s a big dog.”
So I called him. Jonny is an old school Deadhead. Metal was Jon and Marsha’s baby in the eighties and then they decided to get back to their roots. That first gig was in May. Marsha couldn’t make it I remember but Jonny was there and we decided to put a hard-core ending on “Jamilia” because Jonny was at the gig. That ending to “Jamilia” has stayed but the reason it’s there is because of Jonny.
So after the show we were talking to him and he said “I can’t do anything until Marsha comes to the show to see you play, because no Marsha, no working together.” Marsha came to another club in Phili, one of the worst clubs in the world, and we were walking out of the gig complaining about everything. But as it ended up we had talks for a few weeks and decided to make it work.
The next thing I know Jon gets us on the phone and says ‘This Encephalous Crime, it’s not you guys anymore, it’s where you guys were a year ago.” This was May 97. And he was right, during that year we’d been playing four gigs a week and we’d learned how to keep things together and interesting. So he wanted to make an album to reflect where we were at that time.
We made Uncivilized Area live in the studio. Everything is scratch tracks that you hear. What we were going for was the best sounding live tape. We had Rob “Wacko” Hunter produce it. He used to be in a band called Raven where he played drums every night wearing shoulder pads and a football helmet- I mean what was he thinking? Sammy is sweating his brains out and he doesn’t wear anything.
RT- Tell us how and when the band started incorporating techno?
JG- Aron got the machine in the beginning of October 97. We did this Halloween show at a fraternity because this was still before the point where anybody was interested in putting on a Halloween show with the Disco Biscuits. We all got on stage and were a bit messed up. I remember Brownie started playing this bass line, and we all starting riffing over this bassline which creeps up in “Run Like Hell” every once in a while. We jammed over it for forty-five freaking minutes. That was the show where Magner first broke out the techno machine. He was just playing with the knobs, reading the directions. I was sitting there “oh my god, what are we doing? Where am I right now?” Brownie’s like “this is a great bass line.” Sammy was in the back in love with his monitor.
Then there was this show 11/18. The rotation from “Vasillios” into “Aceetobee,” it’s a whole side of a tape. As soon as I heard that tape I played it for the band a hundred times in a row. I think it’s a quintessential tape to understand what we were going for at that point in every Biscuit jam. We listened to it a million times and Magner got pretty good at his techno machine and really understanding it. At his point he knows the machine, can manipulate it and play it like a guitar, which is what he really wants to do, play guitar. I think in that jam all the weird sounds aren’t from his techno machine they’re from his piano-keyboard but its really smooth from start to finish. Nobody blows any notes, everybody makes smart decisions, and that’s what makes a great jam. If we had it on 24 track I would release it as a disc just because I enjoy listening to it. Anyhow that jam is what turned into a little bit of a philosophy for us, for that style of jamming, that trancey-techno jam which we do a lot on “Basis.” It’s not a “Mr. Don” which is a different style of techno jam. Although we may sound like we’re doing the same shit in any particular instance of time, the overview of the jam, the big picture, the theory behind is different. And it turns out that going from “Vasillios” to “Aceetobee” the key changes and rhythm changes involved naturally create that kind of jam. It wasn’t intended to be any kind of jam, it just ended up that way. That’s why the “Mr. Don” jam is different because there are key changes involved and certain steps from point A to point B. It’s not necessarily that we just jam out a chord progression until we feel sick of jamming, there are little steps along the way that make it more interesting for us.