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Trance Musings: A Conversation with Marc Brownstein

In a corner of a rough neighborhood a sane man wouldn't enter, inside a room-full of sweaty bodies packed together like straphangers on a New York City subway at rush hour, technicolor lights flash across the ceiling as a four-headed digital beast called the Disco Biscuits emits dense electronic-styled rhythms that ricochet off the walls. Stage right, a raspy voiced, head bobbing, bass thumping, madman holds down the low end of the sonic spectrum as the band sets out on journeys of peaks and valleys that elicit joyous exaltations from the crowd. The Biscuits, notorious for their musical debauchery, has a fan base that seems to live and breathe for the band. They dance attentively, listening intently for inversions, teases and a myriad other tricks that the band may have up its sleeve. This scene is a typical one, repeated night after night in clubs and small theaters across the country, whenever the Disco Biscuits come to town.

Over the course of the past year, the Biscuits released their fourth studio album, Senor Boombox, and played over a hundred shows, including their own festival, Camp Bisco III, staged in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. At first glance, it appears that the Disco Biscuits ended 2002 in customary fashion, with a six-show run in the northeast. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the shows were so jaw-dropping that the Biscuits, who once said they would never release a live album, are putting out three titled Trance Fusion Radio: Broadcast 1, 2 and 3.

As if the Biscuits weren’t enough, bassist Marc Brownstein has formed a new side project. With a performance originally slated for May (and to be rescheduled), Laverneus Cool will perform improv-based electronica, and boast an all-star lineup of Brownstein, Al Schnier of moe. on guitar, Jamie Shields of the New Deal on keyboards, and Sir Joe Russo of Fat Mama on drums.

Onstage, Brownstein can often be seen standing away from his mic, singing along to songs in which he has no vocal part. Off-stage, he can often be found enthusiastically talking with fans in the parking lot outside a show. Wherever he is Brownstein is rarely at a loss for words…

TH: Before we dig deeper, let’s start with an fundamental question. How would you define trance-fusion and where did the band get the idea for this style of music?

MB: You take a trance beat and you put it under rock and roll and you got a whole new sound. So essentially what we do we play a lot of improvsationally minded music and we do it over all different kinds of beats anywhere from rock and roll beats, trance beats, drum and bass beats, jungle beats, dub beats. We try to basically explore improvisational music the way that the people have done it before us and to further it with new exploration.

The idea I guess was that we enjoy to explore improvisational music over rock beats but if your just doing that, then you just doing what other bands have already invented before you. To us, it seems almost like regurgitation to take a style of music and just play the way it has been played before, no matter how well you play it, no matter how tight you are at playing that style of music you’re still just running with somebody else’s concept. But to take that concept and develop it into something new that is the whole point of what we’re doing, to broaden the musical spectrum. If you not moving the music forward, you’re not necessarily contributing that much to the collective music scene.

There are so many different possibilities that it seems silly not to explore them all. It’s hard to do it this way because you end up coming across sounds that you’ve never heard before. And, it’s not necessarily easy to say, "We want play drum and bass now" and start to mimic what you’ve heard on the computer. But then to apply what you’ve heard on the computer rhythmically, improvisationally in terms of harmony and melody. Its not an easy task because it has never been done. So you have to develop the style by yourself and then learn how to do it while your developing it. There’s a learning curve in a lot of what we do. But you have to be bad at something to get good at it first. If we wanted to start playing different styles of music, we were going to have to start from scratch with them and develop them over a long period of time, which we have. One thing about the Biscuits is, we’re not afraid to try things out at the risk of them sounding not that hot.

TH: What other possibilities are out there that you’d like to explore?

MB: Well I haven’t said "God I’d love to start playing Indian trance" or whatever you could think of in terms of new rhythms. Let me put it this way, it took so long to drop a trance beat under this stuff, the day we dropped a trance beat under the music, things started to take off for us conceptually because it just opened all these new doors. But it didn’t just occur to us from the very start, "Oh, let’s play electronic music." It slowly seeps its way into the music via pop culture. You’re hearing all that stuff in commercials; you’re hearing that stuff in movies; we’re going to trance parties. When we started hearing all these different rhythms everywhere else the natural thing was to start playing over them. Have we exhausted the limits of music? I can’t imagine we have. Anytime that we discover a new type of a beat, we try to work it, we try to play it. I can’t imagine that we’re ever going to stop trying to do something new.

We’re stumbling upon new sounds just by the fact that it is improvisational. I think that there is a new sound that has started to develop itself. Sort of like a very tribal trance. There’s like a non-melodic extremely rhythmic, like Amazon trance or something. It sort of has a real rootsy vibe to it but with a trance beat under it. I think a good example of that would have been the Humu jam from the New Year’s Run.

TH: That was one of my favorites from the run.

MB: It’s funny cause it was one of my favorites too, the Humu into Robots. And upon listening back to it, it’s definitely void of any melody. There’s no melodic content in the whole jam from the very first note, maybe till when Jon starts playing guitar at the end. We’re thinking of releasing that as part of a live series. We’re doing a live series called Trance Fusion Radio 1, 2, 3 that is meant to be a series we’re going to add onto over the next couple of years. It’s not going to be full live shows; it’s going to be a lot of different excerpts from the Electric Factory this first run, 1, 2, 3. When we were listening back to Humu into Robots, we were surprised to hear that nobody played a melody the whole time. And in fact our first reaction was, "Oh, maybe that’s not the best thing." To which we responded, "Well you know it’s a completely new type of a jam going on here." There’s definitely new sounds being created not necessarily intentionally.

TH: I thought the band had said they would never release live shows?

MB: Well, there comes a point in one’s career when you have to start investigating some of the things you’ve said earlier in your career and realizing that maybe you were not correct in your thought processes. It’s hard when you make sweeping statements and then they get put into magazines.

At this point we’re multi-tracking everything, so if there is something that is absolutely ridiculous that happens. We have the option to go back and say, "That was great, let’s release it." That’s kind of what’s happening with this Electric Factory run. We came back, we did a mix to hear what the material sounded like and the quality was spectacular, the multi-track. It was just like listening to a studio CD. We’ve never heard that of our live shows before, we’ve never heard that kind of perfect quality. And, it changed our mind. We were just like "Wow, if this is what the live show is going to sound like and this is how well we’re going to be playing then there is no reason to put it out." If nothing else, just as a service to the fans because the material that we have is just such a higher quality level of sound than the stuff that is being recorded for the audience and even the straight soundboard feed.

TH: What is the musical philosophy of the Disco Biscuits?

MB: It’s a hard question. The reason it’s a hard question is cause one of the things that motivated us from the very start was to try to take this music and make it our own, try to take everything that we’re hearing in the scene and turn into our own thing. I feel that we’ve accomplished that very early in our career in terms of creating our own sound. You sort of have to accomplish that very early in your career for there to be a late in your career. If you don’t accomplish that you’re in big trouble. But that was a big thing, philosophically, for us, if we can change the musical spectrum a little bit then we’ve really done our job.

What we’re all about is finding ways to take what we’ve accomplished, take what we’ve created and get it out there to everyone. Cause I know from starting out seven years ago and trying to talk somebody, outside of somebody else’s, show into to coming to see your show. Saying, "I know your going to like my band, give us a chance your going to like us." And, from watching those kids get turned on to the Biscuits and watching that develop into what it has developed into. I know there are tons of kids out there who would love us, who don’t know it yet. For me, it’s a mission, to take what we’ve added to the musical spectrum and get it out to the public in as many ways as possible.

TH: In 2000, the Biscuits won a Jammy in the Jam of the Year category for their unconventional New Year’s Eve Akira jam. How did the idea come about for Akira?

MB: God, I hate to tell you the truth on this one. People say that it’s the most brilliant idea of all time but really what it came out of was the fact that we were having a hard time as a band and we didn’t feel like putting in the time necessary to write a rock opera and debut it on New Year’s Eve. We knew that it was New Year’s and something different needed to happen and this absolutely could not have been an easier thing to do for us. The fact that what came out of it, came out of it, is amazing. To us, retrospectively, looking back and saying, "Good Lord, look at what came out of our laziness." Conceptually, it was high art and it was really well pulled off, well executed high art but the impetus for it was definitely that we were having problems in the band. What I should say is, "We racked our brains for months to come up with a concept that was beyond what anybody else had ever done." That’s part of the great thing about the Disco Biscuits. Even in situations when we haven’t been trying, we’ve come up with these new concepts. That’s almost what made that experience so amazing was that it really wasn’t anything. We just put Akira on a video screen and jammed along to it. It’s just it had never been done, it had never been thought of before. It’s the epitome of what the Disco Biscuits are all about.

TH: Will the band ever do a live movie score again?

MB: I’d imagine at some point the screens are going to come out and it’s totally hit or miss. I’d have to say one of the worst Disco Biscuits sets of all time was the Alice in Wonderland, Halloween. I don’t think I ever heard anybody say, "That, that was good. "

I heard [the Run Lola Run jam] at somebody’s house one day. I didn’t even know what band it was, literally. And, it was on forever and I couldn’t imagine that it was us cause it was like 45 minutes; there was no vocals; there was no structure. I kept saying to this kid, "Come on, tell me, what this is. Is this Sector 9?" And he kept on being like, "Come on." I was like, "No, I’m fucking serious. Is this Sector 9? What band is this? I love this." Finally, about fucking forty minutes into it he was like, "Dude, it’s the Biscuits." And, there was like eight people there and there all just like, "Come on dude, you’re pulling our legs, you’ve got to be fucking kidding us."

TH: You’re going to be playing with Jamie from the New Deal, Al Schnier and Joe Russo {Editor’s note- the debut of Laverneus Cool has been postponed due to a conflict with the Disco Biscuits gig at the Adirondack Music Festival]

MB: Yeah, I am really excited to do it. Joe is my favorite. As much as anybody, as much as any single person out there, I love playing with Joe Russo. When the idea came up I got in touch with Al and Jamie and I was like, "Listen, I’m trying to put together this band" and I listed who I would want in the band. Al’s response was, "Dude, this is sick. I was looking to do this exact type of a project. I didn’t have people in mind for it exactly but I’m glad you got into contact with me." Jamie came back immediately and he was like, "Oh, you got it. OK, let’s do it." I knew right away, I was like, "This is going to be great." The fact of the matter is that the band is probably a really good draw anywhere on the East Coast; anywhere in the North East really all the way out to Chicago. That band could do really well, having somebody from moe. and the Biscuits and the New Deal in a band together is a big draw.

TH: So you don’t have any songs in mind?

MB: Well, we do have a couple; we going to maybe do one or two of the Al.one songs, his electronic side project. There’s a couple of Simon Posford songs that I would like to do; Hallucinogen songs that I would like to do. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do them. I know that we are not going to be able to rehearse. The whole idea of this is that we want to come in unrehearsed and just vibe off of each other. That having been said, we will develop a theme before we get out there to play – chord changes and rhythms and stuff. There will be some sort of a structure but it will essentially be all improv through that structure. I would love to get on stage with Jamie, Joe and Al four nights in a row without any songs. To me, getting on stage without any songs is sometimes the most exciting thing you can do. Definitely, the hardest thing to do because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

TH: How do think your brief departure from the Disco Biscuits in early 2000 effect the momentum of the band?

MB: It was a blessing in disguise in a lot of ways. In those six months, we wrote 30 songs. There’s something to be said about the inspiration that you take from going through such an experience like that. If you ever go through experiences in your life, where you get to that point where you just don’t know what you’re going to do anymore, when you’re completely rock bottom and there’s nothing else to do. There is so much that can be taken out of that, when you start to bounce back from it.

In my case, writing music was the means of bouncing back for me. I didn’t know what to do. I had nothing. I had been building something up for at that point it had been four years and I had envisioned it as my life-long project. That was what I wanted to do with my life was be in the Disco Biscuits. When that was suddenly ripped out from under me, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had to re-devote myself to music in a different context. It was a good period, it gave us a chance to see what it was like not to have the Disco Biscuits in our lives and nobody liked that. We didn’t decide to get back together until we had all decided in our own head that we were fine with not having [the Disco Biscuits].

When they found a replacement bass player, which they did in Jordan [Crisman], right when they decided that they could get on without me and I decided that I could get on without them. We decided that there was no reason to. Knowing that you have other options in your life for some weird reason makes it easier to deal with the option that you’re living. We got back in a band and we had been through an experience unlike any of us had ever been through before. We had all this new music, that was part of it. I had 18 new songs and they had 13 new songs and we were getting excited about the possibilities of putting them all together. Ultimately, we got out of it what we have now which is this band that we all love chock full of great songs.

TH: Tell me about that night at the Crowbar in State College when you rejoined the band.

MB: That night was crazy. I’ll tell you something that happened there, it’s funny. There’s a guy named Mike Dige. I’m in the basement and I hear their playing "Above the Waves" upstairs. I wait until they get to the "reunite them once again" line and I run upstairs. Now, I’ve been walking around this place all night, so people know I’m there. I guess, people are thinking, "Oh, Brownstein came to a show, we’re moving on with our lives. It’s cool of him to come." I run upstairs and I grab this kid, with that having been said people are still tense and feeling weird about the fact that I’m there; people are still wishing I were in the band. It was still kind of a weird thing. They get to the "reunite them once again" line and I run upstairs and I grab this kid and I was like, "Did they just say, we’re reuniting?" And, the kid turns to me and goes, "What?" I was like, "Didn’t they just say the band is reuniting?"’ And, he was like, "What?" And, I was like, "Ah, forget it man, I thought that we’re…forget it." And, I turned around and the kid was destroyed. I completely freaked him out. I was just cracking up to myself the whole time, I knew by the end of the night I was going to be back in the band. Poor kid though, the poor kid for about a year after that he was just like, "Dude, that was the worst thing anybody could have ever done to me."

It was really weird to see the Disco Biscuits play. That was the only time, hopefully, that I’ll ever be in that situation where I’m in the crowd watching the Biscuits. I got to see the Biscuits play and that was a really intense experience for me, it gave me a perspective that I will carry with me for the rest of my life because you never know what it sounds like, you never know how it’s being interpreted. I was blown away; I was absolutely blown away. I was more blown away by the Biscuits with Crisman that night than I’ve been on any night where I was behind the bass.

TH: Was it strange to see Jordan Crisman play your music?

MB: It was great to see somebody, who has a classical understanding of how to play the bass, interpret these songs. I don’t have that kind of classical training that he has. He plays the bass in a completely different way than me. He plays the bass in a much more standard form. He would be considered by a jazz musician to be playing proper bass. Where as I, would be considered to be playing an interesting non-proper form of the classical representation of the instrument. That having been said, it didn’t really work for the Biscuits. I thought it did perfectly. I was watching, I was like, "God, these guys are sick" but the guys on stage felt differently. It didn’t sound right to them. It sounded like a normal bass player, playing with the Biscuits and that’s not what makes the Biscuits, the Biscuits. Part of the sound is that atypical style on the bottom. We ride different sides of the beat. He rides a very jazzy side of the beat and I ride a very forward straight ahead trance-y side of the beat. That’s why the electronic stuff just didn’t work as well with Jordan.

It was very emotional; I was nervous; I was freaking out; I didn’t want to meet Jordan. And, Jordan didn’t want to meet me, you can imagine. I was so freaked out to meet this kid and he was so freaked out. They had to set up a meeting time and a meeting place and the two of us were ready to puke before it happened. The second we met each other, I was like "You’re in my band", he was like, "I’m you for the night." It was definitely great.

When we actually got to that moment where they announced it, I get chills right now just thinking about it, it was just like the most unbelievable thing of all time. It was just beyond anything that you can imagine on this level. I came up on the stage and I guess what it looked like to the crowd was that I was just going to come up and jam. And, when I got up there, Barber made this little speech [that Brownstein was rejoining the Disco Biscuits] and the place just went electric. Outside of the noise, I’d imagine if there was a way to test the level of electricity in the air that it would have come up on a meter, literally.

Everybody’s hair was standing straight up and everywhere you looked people were in tears. To know that you’re in a situation where you can make people happy is a blessing. To know that you’re in a situation doing exactly what you want to do in your life is a blessing. But to find out that being put back right where you belong is enough to bring people to tears is beyond a blessing. It’s just like the most incredible thing that can happen to a guy. To have gone through the emotions of not being in the band and watching the kids, knowing how they responded to it. And going through the Maui Project and knowing how emotional that was for everybody including the guys in the Disco Biscuits and me. And then to come through into that July show and to be welcomed back into the scene in that way, I hope not to ever take it for granted. I hope not to ever forget what that reaction was that night because it was unlike anything that’s ever happened before and potentially unlike anything that will ever happen again.

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