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Published: 1999/06/15
by Dean Budnick

Marc Brownstein: Mooring and Morphing the Bisco Inferno

Marc Brownstein was a sophomore bass player at the University of Pennsylvania when he first met Sam Altman. At the time Altman was a freshman, who boasted of his own slapping prowess on the instrument. Brownstein found him to be somewhat obnoxious but hung out with him long enough to meet guitar player Jon Gutwillig, who similarly left an uninspiring first impression. However, Brownstein soon warmed to the two musicians, and ended up living with Altman when the pair took a sabbatical from Penn to attend c lasses at New York’s New School. In 1995 Altman, Brownstein and Gutwillig formed the core of a band that would come to be known as The Disco Biscuits. The group solidified a year later when its original keyboardist was replaced by Aron Magner someone Brownstein remembers as “this really annoying kid in my jazz class who used to answer all the questions. I knew all the answers as well, I just didn’t shout them out.” Over the past few years the Biscuits have become one of the notable bands in the scene, with a particularly fervid group of fans who travel from show to show to take in the band’s trance fusion. Following their two shows on the jambands.com tour, we spoke with Brownstein regarding the evolution in the band’s sound, his Wetlands thoughts and more.

DB: Let’s talk about the name. People describe your music as Bisco. What does that term mean to you?

MB: Bisco ultimately is a lot of different things. Recently, I was getting emails recently every few days, people forwarding me other people’s definitions of Bisco. One girl said “Bisco is the feeling you get…” That’s where she left it, the feeling you get. For us I can tell you that we feel that Bisco comes to every show and it’s been to every show since Seattle. That night there were maybe 200 kids who had seen us once or never before and we didn’t know any of them. How did we answer that? We played The Hot Air Balloon {the band’s rock opera which debuted at its New Year’s Eve show}. How did people feel about it? Well it was a really great crowd. We explained it to them, we said “Listen we have this rock opera and we’re going to play it for you. It may not mean as much to you as it would to the Bisco kids but maybe we’ll hook you through it.” And maybe we did. The bottom line is that Bisco is a lot of different things to a lot of different people but I think ultimately everyone involved knows what it is. It is a concept, a feeling, an energy rather than something that can be defined. You know what Bisco is right? Bisco is also an identity for a lot of people. There were Deadheads, Phishheads, moe.rons. There’s all this shit going on in this scene and the Bisco is defined by those people whose heart lies with us. That’s what I feel like. Bisco is the four of us and everybody who is going along for the ride.

DB: For me, the where I first experienced Bisco was the point where you started incorporating techno. How did that come about?

MB: A couple of years ago without saying it openly, we felt a need for something to happen. There was a sort of stagnancy in the scene. Most of the bands were we playing with sounded the same to us and ultimately we sounded similar to them as well.

The interesting thing is we’re not just jam bands kids. Jon was in a fraternity at Penn- actually it was less of a fraternity than a social group which had three letters in front of it- and these kids were from all over the world. They were into trance, drum and base, that type of music. We used to play our hippie shit at their house and every other party we’d do as a rave. And when we’d go out to a party there wasn’t someone spinning “Roses Are Free,” it was straight-up jungle or drum and bass or hardcore trance. Everywhere we looked and everywhere we went there was electronic music.

There was a kid named Nasir and he and Jon set up a studio over break and using the computer and live instruments they made a little techno EP. Magner came in and did some tracks. Jon was laying down loops on guitar and Magner was laying down loops on piano and then they’d run it on the computer and loop it. They still have that on a disc somewhere and we used a melody that they wrote in “Above The Waves.”

We played a show at Penn State that fall and we did a “Run Like Hell” jam which basically was excessively techno sounding. Magner was using weird sounds on his synthesizer and I would find a bass line and just play it over and over again. That was the be ginning of it. We realized that the less quickly we changed the more interesting the jam would be, so we could really lock into each other. If four guys are constantly changing it’s just an amorphous mess of music, everyone’s always filling and it can be too much. We only allowed one guy to change at a time. It started coming out of “Vassillios,” when we would all get in a groove and then Jon would change his line, then we locked up and I would change my line and we’d continue around. We were committed to building the jam slowly. What happened was that a few minutes later we weren’t playing anything related to what we’d started but there never was a point in the jam where more than one person changed at a time. Basically we took that out of electronic mu sic where you lay down a loop, lay down another loop, lay down another loop, take one loop out, put another loop on top of it. We were developing our jams the way that we heard electronic DJs develop their music.

That next week Aron went our and bought this machine that was stocked full of electric sounds. He didn’t tell anybody about it, he just started practicing on it at home. Then a couple days before Halloween that year he mentioned to us that he had bought this piece of equipment. Ultimately we played a surprise show on Penn’s campus, and we played a two and half hour set that was predominantly “Run Like Hell.” We popped into it early in the set and then we got out of it and continued to jam. It was excessively boring and extremely repetitive but it was unbelievably groundbreaking because it was the first time he had ever used this equipment with the band. And on this two and a half four tape there were five minute snippets here and there that absolutely did not sound like it was coming from a band, and certainly not this band. At the end of the evening we kind of high fived each other and said “Holy shit, it’s finally came to fruition.” It just all came out, the electronic music from our ears into our bra ins, out of our fingers and into other people’s ears. It was a huge turning point. We had this huge piece of equipment and we said “Let’s get out there and let people know it’s ours.”

We’re not really playing techno, we’re using techno type sounds in improvisational music. We’re doing it in a way that a band might get a mandolin because they don’t want to sound too much like somebody else. I don’t know if Bisco would exist if people couldn’t say there’s something this band does that other bands in the scene don’t do. It was a really exciting time for us. It still is.

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