It’s DRUMS FOR DRIBBLE: The Disco Biscuits’ Sam Altman, Camp Bisco, and What If…?
Preparing to host the second annual Camp Bisco All-Star Loon Fest – to be held this year on August 25th and 26th at the Saw Mill Ski Area in Williamsport, Pennsylvania – the Disco Biscuits are poised on the cusp of the next generation – hell, this generation – of jambands. Having tossed aside the increasingly stale conventions of bluegrass, tepid white-boy funk, and watered-down jazz that many jambands seem to make their forte, they have – through the integration of electronic-influenced drumbeats, perilous composition, and deconstruction techniques – helped bring improvised music into the present day.
Deny it as they may sometimes try, the Disco Biscuits are also perhaps the quintessential product of the jamband scene itself. Having grown up going to places like the Wetlands Preserve in New York City, they all seem to know precisely what it is they want out of a band — and are now full-well in a position to give it. The ultimate “what if…?” band, their exploits sometimes read like the late-night musings of a thousand stoned college kids in dorm-room listening sessions.
“Man, wouldn’t it be cool if they played along with a movie?” (Done. New Year’s Eve. “Akira.”) “Wouldn’t it be cool if they played the ending of the song first, man?” (Done. Quite often, at that, with “inverted” songs.) And so on. Wish fulfillment.
Electric instruments existed for a good long while before Miles Davis integrated them into jazz for “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew”, albums which divided rabid jazz followers neatly in half. While it may be presumptuous to compare the Disco Biscuits to Miles, the Biscuits – among other bands including Lake Trout (also appearing at Camp Bisco), Sound Tribe Sector 9, the New Deal, and Plexus – have attempted to modify ideas that evolved around and for another genre of music and integrate into their own. Likewise, they have caused considerably controversy within the jamband scene — at least in the sense that people either seem to go apeshit about the Biscuits or decry them as minions of Satan (seriously).
Me, I go apeshit for ‘em.
To my ears, the music is something wholly new, combining the interesting elements of progressive rock composition with a new way of looking at improvisation. Describing the first time the band played what they now call “trance fusion”, drummer Sam Altman commented that the primary difference between electronic beats and more traditional rock stylings is that “there’s no turnaround. I was playing on every four and not doing a fill.” This lends a breathless quality to the music, where the listener’s mind, expecting a short pause at the end of a beat cycle, will have to chase the beat in order to catch up.
This lack of turnaround also leads to what is probably the most common complaint about the music of the Disco Biscuits: that it all sounds the same. This is an interesting complaint, if not an outright closed-minded one, from people who have no problem with other kinds of improvised music. To most people, all jazz sounds the same, or everything the Grateful Dead ever did sounds the same, or Phish, or anything else that carries on for long periods without vocals. If one can hear the progression of a jam over a rock groove, there’s no reason why he should deny that such a progression exists on top of an electronic groove.
The improvisation that the Disco Biscuits play is linear, but not in the sense of a guitar solo that goes from point A to point B. “A lot of the time we try to fight the concept of soloing,” says Altman. “A common thing we’ll say to each other in practice is ‘you’re soloing’ and that’s not what we’re trying to do.” The band members play in loops, cycling patterns that the improvisation builds around. It’s an extremely patient kind of music, almost in the same vein as the minimalist progressions of composer Philip Glass, which changes gradually over the course of time. Picking out the change as it occurs is rewarding, but also requires a new way of listening to improvised music.
Always experimenting, the Disco Biscuits spent the first seven months of the year separated from bassist Marc Brownstein, who parted ways with the band in January. Spending most of their time at home practicing and writing new songs, the remainder of the of the band – Altman, guitarist Jon Gutwillig, and keyboardist Aron Magner – became known as “the penalty killing unit” and caused a great deal of stir within their own fanbase through drastic rearrangements of classic Biscuits’ tunes, the occasional integration of beat-box master DJ Mauricio while Altman moved to bass, and a succession of guest bass players. In early July, though, Brownstein rejoined the band after a reconciliation.
Since then, the band has been at work preparing for Camp Bisco and their fall tour (beginning in September), which will be their first full tour since last October. At the same time, they are busy recording a new studio album, their first studio work since 1998’s “Uncivilized Area” in a way which may surprise many fans (see interview with drummer Sam Altman). The festival – also featuring Lake Trout, UV Ray (featuring Sebastian Steinberg and Yuval Gubay, late of Soul Coughing), the Ally, the Ominous Seapods, and others – will surely be another step towards being the quintessential jamband, as they integrate their favorite aspects of summer festivals into something new.
On August 5th (after several weeks of frantic cross-country phone calls) I got a chance to talk to drummer Sam Altman about the new disc…
JJ:: How’s the album going?
SA:: The album is going fantastic. We were up to 6:30 in the morning this morning working on [Mindless] Dribble.
JJ:: How is the process different this time around?
SA:: It’s totally different. “Uncivilized Area” was a studio album with a real live approach. It was us pretty much doing jamming live in the studio, almost no overdubs. We tried to get a good take. Here we’re basically looping everything. We’re trying to do what we do live, take that approach to electronic music. Do you want to know the technical aspects of what we do?
JJ:: Sure, if you wanna talk about ‘em.
SA:: Basically, the way the song gets made is — like, let’s say Dribble, what we’re doing right now. I programmed in beats for Dribble, the way I thought it would sound it cool; all these drum and bass beats, some crazy Latin beats, some crazy really bizarre drum and bass parts, and then we strung ‘em altogether. And then we sit there in front of the computer and Jon will lay down his guitar lines over different parts of the drum loops, and Aron will lay down keyboard parts, and Marc will lay down bass parts.
And then when we have all these different loops and lines in different keys and different rhythms and everybody’s played over everything else – it’s almost like everybody’s played along with everybody else at that point too – and then we sit back and see what we’ve got and name each little lick. Let’s say we have eight licks in A minor over the “apple butter toast” part of Dribble. To keep track of them, we’ll name them. One of the basslines is called Fuzzy Turtle. One of them is called Peasant Girl. Jungle Fugue. We put all these things together and start arranging them.
We’re like “Jungle Fugue was recorded next to Peasant Girl and Fuzzy Alligator” and this whole weird jam starts to build out of that. It’s a pretty sick way to make music, totally different.