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Published: 2001/06/20
by Jesse Jarnow

You Still Have To Talk About Inverted Boop: Jon Gutwillig of the Disco Biscuits

The Disco Biscuits' Jon Gutwillig is a fast talker. He does this for a few
reasons. Mostly, it's a status thing.

I've tried to track him down for a few interviews. Over the summer, we
played phone tag for over a month for an interview that never ended up
happening. Whenever I ended up finally catching him, he'd lay down some
excuse, convincing me that it would really be a swell thing if we could do
the interview some other time even though my deadline was less than a week

The same thing almost ended up happening again this time around. Our
original interview was scheduled for sometime in mid-March, the day before
the Biscuits' spring tour was supposed to begin. When we got on the phone,
Jon apologized and asked if we could do the interview at the same time the
next day. I said "sure" and, the next day, discovered that the Biscuits had
instated a moratorium on interviews for the first week of their tour.
What're you gonna do?

Fast forward through another half-dozen rounds of email and phone tag. The
only way to do it, I decided, was to physically corner him. I laid a trap
for him, a month later, before the Biscuits' Cleveland show on April 18th
and waited. After soundcheck, I tried to corner him. "How long do you need?"
he asked, and began speed-walking through the still empty club.

"Half hour or so, I guess," I said, trying to catch up.

"That's five times longer than I give anybody!" he yelled over his shoulder
as he slipped outside.

"Fine then," I shrugged, not expecting that I'd have to negotiate. "15

By this time, we were on the band's tour bus, and he was ruffling through
various piles of papers, looking for a notebook. "I can do 10."


"What the hell do you wanna talk about for half an hour?" Off the bus, back
into the club.

"Figured I'd ask a little about the album ["They Missed The Perfume",
released in early April on Hydrophonics], but I thought you'd've been sick
of talking about it by now."

"I'm never sick of talking about the album." Through the club, up the
stairs, and into the backstage area. He spotted the sheet of questions in my
hand and grabbed a bottle of water. "I'll talk fast." No shit. "Shoot…" I
took out the tape recorder. "You're gonna record this? We should find a
better spot."

Eventually – now with an hour before the band was due to hit the stage – we
found ourselves in the production office of the venue, a corporate looking
conference room well removed from the club and bar.

Jon did, in fact, talk fast. Very fast. When he didn't want to answer a
question, he deftly changed the subject, answering with such a sense of
purpose that I was often hard-pressed to remember the original question.
Witness his diversionary tactics when asked about his new Parker Fly guitar.
And where most people pause to think, or buy time with "um"s and "uh"s,
Gutwillig plows on.

His answers smack of the fact that he's a member of the Disco Biscuits, a
band he's obviously a big fan of. He talks of the band's shows the way a fan
would, analyzing the band's progression with the vocabulary of a head.
There's a lot given in the Biscuits' world and Gutwillig's answers assume a
familiarity with the subject matter. As such, he seemed to betray surprise
at certain questions, such as how the band structures their song rotation or
the fact that the band inverts songs (the practice of playing a song's
ending first then segueing into the beginning, usually nestled in the middle
of a jam), completely forgetting that the band's standard practices would
seem utterly foreign to most.

We talked for nearly 40 minutes.

JJ: What was the original plan for the album and how did it

JG: The original plan for the album was to make a techno disc. It
changed because we didn't know how to make a techno disc as it's commonly
made in today's world. We didn't even own a sampler. We thought we could use
the computer as a sampler. And then we didn't have any samples, so we made
our own samples of musical instruments. We made very few samples of anything
besides musical instruments on this album, which I think is a little bit
different as well. I was thinking of ways to make sample trains and shit
like that. We didn't do that on this album. We'll probably do that on the
new album, another album.

JJ: What were the first things you recorded? When did you make
the decision to record songs?

JG: We were going to do everything in little songs. We made two
songs for our record company to prove to them that we could make an album in
this medium. Two songs on a laptop. One was the remake of a jam that we
played and the other was just a random song that we made. Both were on two
different kinds of software, just to use them and see which one we liked and
to convince them to give us some money to buy some real stuff. Neither of
those songs are on the album. And then we made Bionic Helix, which
was on "Bisco Lives", and then we made [Mindless] Dribble.

Dribble was the first real song. And then we cut Dribble into
pieces and made Highwire, Spacebird[matingcall], and I
Remember When… out of all those pieces. And then we made Home
Again. And then we made Haleakala Crater.

JJ: How did you come to the decision to snip up Dribble?

JG: We were lying in the yard of the [Belyea] Power Plant [where
the album was recorded] outside in the grass in the middle of the afternoon,
basically looking at the sky going "what the hell are we going to do with
this 29 minute piece of music?" And nobody knew what to fuckin' do with it.
I had no idea. I was just sitting there going "oh my God" and everybody was
laughing at me because I didn't know what to do with it. And they all didn't
know what to do with it either, but they were just laughing 'cause I was
rolling around in the lawn trying to figure out what the fuck to do because
we were running out of time to make this album and here we were with this 29
minute monstrosity.

The next day, we cut it in half. Half of it was I Remember When….
And the next day we cut a piece out of I Remember When… and made a
whole 'nother song, mixing it with some old parts of Bionic Helix.
One night I went in there and just sang some bullshit lyrics on top of this
one song we had made and that became Highwire.

JJ: Since "Uncivilized Area" [the band's last studio album,
released in 1998], between the four of you, you've produced a shitload of
new songs…

JG: I think about eight or nine albums’ worth. At least
seven albums. Minimum of seven. At this point, probably eight.

JJ: did you choose what ended up on the album?

JG: I wanted to do Haleakala Crater 'cause it wasn't done
and I figured that this was a really good chance to finish it — just to
stick it on tape, do some overdubs, and find some loops. Obviously, I
Remember When…, Spacebird, and Highwire were created by
being in the studio, so they had nothing to do with decisions pre-studio.
Marc [Brownstein, bassist] wanted to do Home Again because it was his
favorite of his new songs, and he wanted to do one of his new songs.

How did Dribble get decided on? You know, I just have no idea
how Dribble got decided on. I think we decided to Dribble
because I just thought it would be cool to jungle. Maybe Sammy [Altman,
drummer] thought it would be cool to do jungle. I don't remember who, but
somebody was like "let's do Dribble jungle" and that was it. We were
just brainstorming ideas and somebody said that and it sounded sorta cool so
we decided to do it.

We were also gonna do… we tried Crystal Ball, we tried 7-11
[aka Bring Your Ass To The Party], we were gonna do Grass Is
Green, all of which I think would be wonderful fuckin' electronic songs.
And that's what happened.

JJ: Do you have any plans to go back into the studio to work on
that? Or are you just gonna let the stuff backlog?

JG: I've got about 10 songs that I'd like to do electronically.
All three of those songs, I'd like to. Ducks and Geese Are Free I'd
like to do electronically. I think you can never pull that off as a rock
band, but you can pull that off electronically. It's very different from the
version in Toronto [on April 9th], which is just a rap version, which is not
what we get into. One of the demos we did for our record company, I'd like
to redo in a professional sense with the right equipment. I think it's a
very cool song. It's just so easy to make music in that medium. It's just a
big, fat joke.

JJ: Are you going to keep using this approach? Or do you plan on
doing something more traditional next time?

JG: Definitely traditional. I think a lot of the songs we play
are played to a point of contentment in the band. Everybody's pretty happy
with how they sound, and we'd like to add a few things here and there. I
don't think you wanna take something like Chemical Warfare Brigade or
Jigsaw Earth and turn it into an electronic song. What you're gonna
end up with is not as cool as the band actually playing it. I don't like the
concept of the Disco Biscuits being an electronic act on album and a live
act on tape. I like the versatility to be novel. I'd like to make a couple
of electronic albums in our career, but you also have to make time for the
meat and potatoes of the situation.

JJ: Do you have any plans for either "the Hot Air Balloon" or
"the Chemical Warfare Brigade" song cycles?

JG: Well, "Hot Air Balloon" is a rock opera and "the Chemical Warfare Brigade" is also a rock opera. Song cycles, like a leiter, is Wagner. For some reason, people don't like to be associated with Wagner. Some of his stuff is pretty cool. (Pause.) Yeah, we’re gonna make albums out of both of them.

JJ: Studio or live?

JG: Studio. No live albums ever, really. We're the Disco
Biscuits. If you wanna hear a live album, go to a show. Ideally, we'd like
to get the taping of the shows to a higher level. I think that the bootlegs
are sounding very, very good nowadays, compared to what they sounded like
when I was a kid. A lot of that, I think, has to do with that I got them on
tape. I didn't have any of the equipment. I'd tape them from a friend who
taped them from a friend. Nowadays, you can get them burned or mp3ed and the
quality is maintained a lot better than it used to be and the mics are
better and everybody knows a lot more. Still, I think, there's a lot of
distance to go.

JJ: How often do you listen to Biscuits’ tapes?

JG: Not enough. I don't get them enough. Heads used to just walk
up and give them to us. Nobody does that anymore.

JJ: They probably assume that you’ve got them.

JG: They assume, but they're incorrect. I've been trying to
download mp3s because of the Jam Doctor [ is a website that offers complete
downloads of almost every show from the Biscuits' spring tour in conjunction
with Plan C, the band's tape archive], but I can't get an mp3 player to work
on my computer. I've tried, but they just don't ever work. I don't know why
that is. I think I'm just computer illiterate.

JJ: When you do get a chance to listen to the tapes, what do you
listen for?

JG: That's a tough question. In the improv or the normal songs?

JJ: Either. What's the experience like for you to hear a show on

JG: Well, if it’s a song like Save The Robots – which is
unfinished, but being played nonetheless – I listen for parts that work well
together and parts that don't. It's basically a Voices Insane
situation. Voices Insane had the luxury of going into the set when
there were like 14 other songs going into the set at almost the same time.
Voices Insane didn't have to be played. But we didn't really tour
back then. We played, like, two gigs a week. The other five days, I'd go
home and work on music. And the next two gigs, we'd break out another song.
This was fall of '98.

Nowadays, it's either ready for tour or you're screwed, which I don't
particularly like very much, 'cause it's not a very artistic way to go
through tour. I can make little changes to the song, but I can't do anything
too drastic. I can't add sections that are difficult without having a lot of
time off for the band to get comfortable playing them because nobody wants
to play stuff that they're not comfortable with. It's just not fun. In terms
of a song like that, I'll be listening for what to do, why I don't think
it's done yet.

If I'm listening to an older song, I'll just make sure that we played it
right. If it's improv, I just listen for movement. I don't know how to
describe it. If you close your eyes and it spins around, I think it's good.
If it rotates, in some way or another, between the instruments; there's
movement there. I don't really listen to the funk of it necessarily,
although groove is very important. I listen more for three-dimensional
movement. Mozart has very good three-dimensional movement.

JJ: Is that what makes a good Biscuits' tape for you? Or a good
Biscuits' show?

JG: Yeah. That, and quick changes to cool things. If the band is
changing without being wishy-washy, and each change is a cool change, I
usually like the tape a lot.

JJ: How much do you discuss the vibe or groove of a show
beforehand, when you're planning it out?

JG: It depends on the show. It depends on the amount of time we
have to prepare. We can walk on stage with barely a setlist. Or we can walk
on stage with it being ambient night. Or jungle night. We'll do all sorts of
different stuff. The more time the merrier. Obviously, we don't have that
much time in a day.

JJ: How do you write setlists?

JG: You have songs, you rotate 'em. You rotate some songs faster
than others. Some songs are in pretty high rotation. Other songs we barely
ever play, but we try to keep them in rotation just to play them.

Sometimes… like… I really wanna jam into Stone > [Devil’s] Waltz.
We've never done it. I never even thought about it 'til the other day like,
y'know, "why don't we do this?" And we didn't do it the other day, because
we started talking about it about five seconds before we walked on stage.
That's one of the things – jamming into Stone > Waltz – five minutes
before going on stage, and pull it off, but there's gonna be that period of
wishy-washiness where you're trying to make everything's cool before you hit
Stone > Waltz, and if you can just talk about what that five minute
wishy-washiness is gonna be for five minutes before the five minutes, then
it won't happen and then the transition would be great. [NOTE: On May 1st,
in Houston, the band played Bazaar Escape > Stone > Liquid Lazer]

At Electric Factory the other night [April 15th], we talked about doing
I-Man dub. We'd never done that before either, which is probably
equally as difficult as jamming into Stone > Waltz but we just walked
up on stage and did it. That was something when we walked off stage for the
encore: "what are we gonna do?" "Let's do [Aquatic] Ape and go in and
out of I-Man and let’s keep the dub throughout the I-Man if

Then it became this no-discussion decision within the band when we hit the
second chorus whether or not to go rock or dub. It was weird, because it was
obvious that the song was better as rock, but there was the novelty of
playing the song as dub on this one particular evening. Whether you go to
rock because you know it's just a better song rock or you stay dub. Sammy, I
think, wanted to go rock. I wanted to stay dub for the novelty. Marc, I
think, wanted to go to rock but was willing to chill out in dub because of
the novelty. Aron [Magner, keyboardist], I'm not quite sure… but he wasn't
on piano, which is where he would be if he were going rock. Maybe Aron was
pro-dub, and that's probably why we stayed dub for the second verse. And
then we went rock for the third, because everyone understood at that point
that it's obviously a rock song. But if you listen back to that one, it's a
little wishy-washy.

JJ: How much planning goes into the inversion of a tune?

JG: It's just an idea we had one day. Nobody does it. Seems
fairly natural to me. You can't not talk about, unless it's inverted
[Little Betty] Boop. No, you still have to talk about inverted
Boop. You can't not talk about it. The key to the inversion is that
there's one part of the end of the song that becomes part of the beginning
of the song. It's the same section, instead of playing the section twice.

In Above The Waves, when you go back to (sings beginning of song's
ending) and it's the last four, it's also the first four. That's the key
to the song's inversion. You have to discuss which section is that section.
But that's all you have to talk about.

JJ: Everybody seems to be changing gear a fair bit. Sammy's got
the new e-drums, and Magner always seems to have a new keyboard. How has
that affected the feel?

JG: Actually, Magner has one keyboard less than last tour. Sammy,
we talked him into the e-drums, because everybody seemed to love them except
Sammy, who wanted to stay roots. After about a year of "get something, get
something, get something", he finally found something that was sonically
acceptable. In May of '99 he was using that six-pad. He used it for about a
month. I loved it even though Sammy didn't think it was that great of a
machine. I didn't care. I just thought it was so cool to hear a "DOYNG!" in
the middle of the shit. There was some cool stuff on there.

It wasn't any worse sound quality than a Run DMC record, and nobody
complains about their drums. I was fine with it. It was just as good as
"Paul's Boutique"-level of drumming equipment, but Sammy just thought it
wasn't that good. So, finally, he found something that he thought sounded
really cool — something that somebody who's very serious about making drums
electronically would use. It had some tablas on it, some stuff that he
really liked it. Finally, he found the right piece of equipment, so he got
it. We didn't need to coax him anymore. Basically, he's got these two bars.
And you hit the two bars and you can put anything you like on the two bars.
And they're basically in rim shot position. I think it's great.

Marc's pretty much got the same set up, except he's got an LFL pedal, which
turns his bass into a rave bass, a Goa 303 bass. It allows him to filter
sweep it, which is a big deal because all that kind of music they're always
filter-sweeping the bass. They never have a dry bass.

Me, I didn't get any new effects, but I got new equipment.

JJ: And a guitar.

JG: Yeah, and a new guitar and an amp. It's not the guitar. The
guitar is a fuckin' guitar. Nobody cares about the guitar. It's like the
lead singer of Poison. It's, like, who cares about Bret Michaels, really?
Yeah, he's the lead singer, but is Bret Michaels everything to Poison? No.
C.C. DeVille, maybe. He has more to do with Poison than Bret Michaels does.
It depends who writes the music. I bet C.C.'s got a lot to do with it. He
writes those fuckin' catchy guitar licks. The guitar is really the Bret
Michaels of the thing. The amp is really where it's at.

JJ: Even though you’ve got MIDI triggers?

JG: I’m not using any of the MIDI triggers yet.

JJ: You’re not using any of that yet? Do you plan on it?

JG: Yeah, at some point. I'm not rushing. I'm not a techie. I
can't make an mp3 player work on my computer. It's not like on tour I can
sit down. I'd much rather have Save The Robots in great shape. I'm
fixing a lot of the old songs. I've added a new verse to Story of the
World and changing some of the things I'm not happy with artistically.
Then I'll worry about technology or whatever the hell technology wants out
of me. (Pause.) This mic is definitely not working.

JJ: It’s working, it’s registering.

JG: Speaking of technology…

JJ: It’s way old school…

JG: It’s from my grandfather’s time…

JJ: I bought it in 9th grade to tape the Hatters.

JG: The Mad Hatters?

JJ: Yep.

JG: They’re from fuckin’ Penn, man. They’re from my school.

JJ: How conscious are you of tech issues on stage? Does it
disappear when you're playing?

JG: What kinds of tech issues?

JJ: Do you hear the e-drums and think "those are the e-drums" or
do you just accept that as what's going on?

JG: Yeah, you inherently say "here's the e-drums" just like when
you meet a person you say "here's that person". You don't technically think
that "this person is 6'1" and brown haired and has a goatee". If they look
different, you notice. If the e-drums sounded different, I'd notice.

JJ: Well, what are you thinking about on stage?

JG: Sometimes, the front row can be very distracting. Sometimes,
the people in the audience can be very distracting. Sometimes the general
vibe of the audience can be very encouraging. It's a cross. You can look in
the front row and see the look on people's faces and sometimes there are
people who are concentrating so hard on what you're doing that they stand
motionless for long periods of time and you start to wonder "are they not
enjoying this?" If you play something bad, if I blow a lick, and I look up
and they're still standing there motionless I feel like they know and
they're getting mad at me, or – at least – unhappy with me that I'm not
doing the best that I possibly could do. In fact, I'm usually wrong and they
usually have no idea and are just concentrating on what's going on and
trying to get a handle on it.

Then there's just the sound onstage itself. At the bigger shows, it's
usually pretty impeccable. It's usually why we play really well in the
bigger rooms, and we play a little bit more raw and in your face in the
little rooms, 'cause in the littler rooms it's hard to hear the nuances. In
the bigger rooms we can play a little bit more patiently 'cause we can hear
the nuances, and put it forth for everyone to hear. I think about all sorts
of things.

JJ: How much do you think about audience expectations or what
they're hoping for?

JG: I don't know them anymore. That's been my problem recently.
I've been shying away from writing setlists because I don't feel like what I
want to play is what anybody else wants to hear, including the rest of the
band. In terms of understanding the audience and why they're there, and
understanding the band and why they're there, my role in this whole thing is
a little confusing to me right now. I don't understand what people want to
hear, why people go to the shows. People tell me and I know what songs they
like and I hear the applause from the audience, but I just don't know. I
don't know how to explain this. It's just a weird personal thing.

There's so many varied levels of understanding of what our band does right
now. There are people who have seen us twice and there are people who have
seen us 200 fucking times. Me, I've seen us every time. I have different
ideas of what would be cool to do with an evening than these other people
do, than these other people do, than these other people do,
than these other people do.

The weird thing about the Disco Biscuits fanbase is that if somebody doesn't
like what you do, you hear about it! I hear about it from these people who
want to hear more of this, and less of this. And then I turn to somebody
else and they say the exact opposite to me. Very rarely does somebody tell
me what I thought would've been the best thing to do in a situation.
Sometimes, I just try to do what I think would be the best… and sometimes,
those are the worst shows. People just aren't happy. I don't know what to
do, so I defer to what the rest of the band wants to do usually, until I get
a better grasp. I used to have a great grasp of what's going on.

JJ: When did you feel this changing? Is it a size thing?

JG: It's a this tour thing. Last tour I was money, this tour I'm
just not fuckin' money. It happens. It's just the up and down of life. I
don't take it personally. I try not to think too much about it. Next tour I
could come out and have the greatest tour ever. This tour, I'm in a little
bit of a decision thing, 'cause I have a lot of songs to choose from, and
some of them are unfinished, and I don't know where to put them in the sets.
It used to be 25 fuckin' songs in rotation. When you came to a show, you
were gonna hear half of them. Now there are just so many different songs to
choose from, and so many of them are so different. You can go from
Crickets to Humuhumunukunukuapu’a to fuckin’ Crystal
Ball, which is a different world, to Soul Is Shaking. It's
just too much. Too many variables to play with. Anymore variables and it's a
nuclear reactor.

JJ: Do you take into account the fact that people are taking
psychedelics to your music?

JG: Do I take it into account? No. I've been told by people to
make the second sets different from the first sets. I think that I don't
really do that ever, as noted by fuckin' Electric Factory from two days ago
[April 15th]. As noted by Roseland from the day before [April 14th], where
people told me that I could've switched the sets and it would've been better
for some people. Whatever. The second sets of both those shows were great.

I think that people could be a lot more responsible. I think that people
could be a lot more discreet. I feel that there's something to be said for
going out and having a good time and getting yourself in whatever mindframe
you wanna be in to have that good time but then there's that line you cross
when you impose that on other people. Look at every rock concert ever and
there's always that element.

I always hope that the kids who come to see us are like chameleons. They
come to the show, they go to the show, they enjoy the music, they enjoy
their friends, they enjoy the good time, they don't put anyone else in the
position of having to ignore their job or just insult the other people
around them based on that kinda thing. You live the life the way you wanna
live it and America is set up in the way that you can really do that as long
you don't rub it somebody else's face.

JJ: Related to crowd size, is the fact that you're playing in
larger rooms effecting the sound at all?

JG: I think it sounds better, don’t you?

JJ: Sometimes.

JG: Sometimes?

JJ: I think it got swallowed up by the Palladium on New Year's.

JG: The Palladium… well, yeah. The Palladium was an interesting
gig because the Palladium's not the ideal room that we thought it was. You
gotta run the P.A. a specific way to make the Palladium sound good. We don't
run our P.A.s that way, because we're not a rock band. We're essentially a
trance-fusion band. That's basically what we do. We play a little rock and
roll here and there. You get a M.E.M.P.H.I.S., you get some rock
songs. I'm not gonna say we're not a rock band entirely. A lot of the time,
we play very wide open trance music, and very wide open jam music, without
an organ, without a ride cymbal, without a distortion pedal on the guitar,
and without a rhythm guitar player. The difference between us and how to mix
Guns 'n Roses is like a whole other ballgame.

We run the system in a clean, juicy way. What you have to do to do that,
within the Palladium, was you had to run the system hot, as if you were
mixing Guns 'n Roses. It dirties everything up a little bit. And for people
who are listening to the Biscuits show, the guitar is a little dirtier, the
keyboards are a little dirtier, everything's a little dirtier. The system
they brought into Worcester that evening was designed to be run that way.
Basically, Jon [Lesser] – the sound engineer – mid-show had to adjust the
system. Essentially, we're trying to advance our type of system, which is
essentially a more powerful system run at lower volume.

JJ: Are you worried at all about making the Biscuits' sound work
in an outdoor amphitheater?

JG: It'll be a job, yeah, but I'm not worried about it. I wasn't
worried about sounding good at Roseland, and we sounded fine there.
Everytime we go into a different kind of room, it's a problem that you're
not gonna sound exactly the same as the last room you were in. At this
point, it's just part of the job. We've played so many rooms. It's another
place, another room, another deal, another night.

Jesse Jarnow can type a
mile in about two days.

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