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Published: 2008/06/25
by Mike Greenhaus

Marc Brownstein: Letters From Camp Bisco

In certain ways, one can trace the Disco Biscuits’ history through the group’s annual summit, Camp Bisco. The first Camp Bisco, held at Cherrytree, PA’s TuneTown Campgrounds in the summer of 1999, established the blueprint for the Disco Biscuits’ jamtronica universe, placing DJs and jambands on the same stage. Camp Bisco II, held a year later in Morris, PA, marked Marc Brownstein’s official return to the fold after a six-month hiatus and the festival’s third installment arrived shortly after the group’s high-profile appearances with Phil Lesh and shortly before the group’s fourth studio album, Senor Boombox.

As the Disco Biscuits’ touring schedule slowed, Camp Biscos became increasingly scarce, but the festival returned to full force in 2005 for original drummer Sam Altman’s final performance. Camp Bisco IV also marked legendary English electronic producer Simon Posford’s introduction to the jam-scene and subsequent Camp Biscos have continued to contextualize a mix of electronic and hip-hop artists for the Disco Biscuits community. As the Disco Biscuits complete work on their long-labored fifth studio release and gear up for a short break from the road, Brownstein fills in on Camp Bisco 7’s electronic-leaning lineup, his new project with Posford and why he is "so over Brooklyn."

MG- This year’s Camp Bisco features a number of big names, from Snoop Dogg to Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow. Is there any artist you tried particular hard to book?

MB- Well, there are a lot of bands that we’ve been trying to get for a while. Ironically, the one band that we’ve been trying to get for two or three years and hadn’t gotten until now is Tea Leaf Green. The reason it’s been so hard to get them is because every time we go to book them they are booked on another one of the hippie festivals up here. And it is ironic because—-no disrespect to Tea Leaf Green—-but we got Snoop this year and we never tried to get Snoop before, it just worked out. Snoop’s playing at the PNC Arts Center Wednesday and Great Woods, so it just happened that he had a day off on the Thursday of Camp Bisco. I think what’s really cool about this year’s lineup is that we’ve almost shied away from jambands completely at this point.

MG- With the exception of a few jambands, like the Biscuits, RAQ and Tea Leaf.

MB- We made a point to get RAQ. Every year we try to get a band like RAQ or Perpetual Groove. I don’t know what generation jambands they arefourth generation jambands? We try to get one of those younger bands to keep the jamband thing alive. It is partially an obligation of ours to perpetuate the jamband scene. That being said, we’ve gone in almost completely the opposite direction and this festival is almost entirely electronic music!!!, DJ Shadow, MSTRKRFT, Younger Brother, LA Riots, Lazaro Casanova and now Eliot Lipp. There has been an emphasis on electronica this year and kind of leaning away from the jam. And then you have the Disco Biscuits right in the middle with our jamtronica thing.

MG- That being said, you have also booked a number of hip-hop acts over the years. Last year you had Slick Rick and this year you have Snoop. When I was in the studio with you last year, you were also writing with some hip-hop producers. Are you hoping to incorporate some hip-hop elements into the Disco Biscuits’ sound?

MB- Well, what’s really funny is when you work with these trance producers and hip-hop producers they aren’t trying to make “The Biscuits Hip-Hop Record.” They are interested in producing rock. They want to be rock producers [laughter]. Everyone wants to be what they’re not. Jambands want to be electronic. Younger Brother wants to be rockyou can almost see that on their last albumthere is a mix of electronica and rock on there. So, as much as we’ll bring in hip-hop producers with the intention of infusing the music with hip-hop —-and to a certain degree that did happen—- when we brought them in, we ended up a little more in the mainstream rock world than you’d expect because everyone is trying to go in the other direction.

Musically that makes sense. You always want to break down the barriers a little bit and you always want to experiment. Think about it from their perspective. If you’re producing hip-hop all day long, when you get a chance to do something else, you embrace that opportunity because artistically it’s very satisfying to spread your wings just a little bit. And the hip-hop producers, as much as they grew up on Biggie, also grew up on Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Likewise, as much as we grew up on Posford, Posford grew up on The Cure and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

MG- Which are the same artists the indie-rock bands playing at your festival grew up listening to

MB- Right, we all grew up on the same music, it’s just a matter of how that influenced our own head and what ends up coming out of it. It’s all very different.

MG- Speaking of Posford, along with Tom Hamilton and Joe Russo, you recently toured as part of the Younger Brother live band. What was that experience like?

MB- We played the same set four nights in a row. There was some improvisation in the set… There are one or two tracks that have a lot of room for open improv and Posford encourages us to try that. I said to him, “What do you want me to play on this track?” For one of the songs his answer was “Whatever you want to play, it all sounds the same to me.” So, there’s room to open up, and if you listen to the Hallucinogen in Dub live album, all the basslines are completely different from the basslines on the album. If I was the bass player in Hallucinogen in Dub, I most likely would be playing the basslines from the album just because I know it so well. It is just so infused in my head it would just come out that way. That having been said, when Youth plays them, he just kinda plays his own thing and Posford tools around with that.

We had a long talk about that when we were preparing for Younger Brother. Essentially he was saying, “I’m cool with you doing whatever you want to do, as long as it sounds good then I’m game.” But we did play the same setlist every night. It is like a rock set: we played 60 minutes, and the setlist is the same every night. It is funny because a lot of the same kids were there for all four shows and they don’t seem to mind hearing the same set in that medium when Posford is standing onstage. But, if I were to do that with the Disco Biscuits, there would be a shit storm from it. Good lord, if we played the same set four nights in a row, it would be the end [laughter]. God forbid, and even within my crew, with my new songs like “The City” and “Air Song,” everybody is saying, “you’re overplaying them.”

We’ve played “Morph” 200 times, more than any other song. All I’m trying to do is play “The City” enough so that when we take three weeks off and then come back and tour we can get right back on stage and it will be comfortable and developed. I’m trying to develop these songs. “Basis” wasn’t “Basis” until we played it 80 times. I want “Air Song” to have that opportunity, but the guys in my crew are saying “you can’t play Air Song’ every two nights or three nights, it’s too much.” You almost have to turn your brain off, turn your ears off and stop listening to everybody and do what you want to do in that situation. But I think it all comes down to expectations. In the end, the expectation is that if you go on Biscuits tour, you’re gonna get a different show five nights a week and if anything is repeated it’s only one or two songs. I think with Younger Brother we are creating what the expectations are because we’ve never played it in the States and that’s ok. [Younger Brother’s Benji Vaughan] said to me on the fourth night of tour, “Before we go back out on tour we need 10 new songs. We need to make the next album right away.” Now that the new Biscuits album is in the can and ready to be released later this year after our “break,” hopefully we can work on a Younger Brother album.

MG- Can you talk a little about the Biscuits’ break? I heard you guys were taking the fall off and then coming back at the end of the year.

MB- It is not even going to be a break for me. I’m going to be playing shows with different bands through the whole thing. I’m 35 years old, and I want to work as hard as I can possibly work and play as many shows as I possibly can now, so that by the time I’m 45 years old maybe I won’t have to play that many shows. To be quite honest with you, I’m suffering from cabin fever right now. I’ve been on the beach for seven days straight and I feel like I’ve got to get back to work. In terms of the Younger Brother tour, it was totally different than anything I’ve ever done before. It was really exciting playing with someone you look up to so much musically. I mean, he’s great and I see amazing amounts of potential for that band. You mix in the musicianship of Joe, Tommy and myself who have been on tour for 1,500 shows in the last 12 years, then you mix that with the production skill of Benji and then the Posford touch. It just works.

MG- In certain ways, you can trace your relationship with Posford by looking at the last few Camp Bisco festivals.

MB- It is very interesting how this whole relationship has been developing and evolving over time. Every year it is something: four years ago it was Posford is playing Camp Bisco, and then it was Posford is coming back to Camp Bisco bringing Younger Brother. And the following year he’s producing the Biscuits, and I’ve somehow managed to squeeze my way into that situation [laughter]. I mean, I said, “Do you mind if I played bass for Younger Brother? That would be a huge honor for me.” They were like, “Perfect man!” It was interesting to see Younger Brother come to Boulder and sell out the Boulder Theater. The Biscuits played the Boulder Theater, but it took ten years to get there and Posford has never even been to Colorado [laughter]. I think a lot of those kids are Biscuits kids, and it was really awesome to see him go to this place for the first time and see how many people were there for him. Then we went to San Francisco—- it was 80% Posford fans and 20% Conspirator fans. That was so cool because now we are opening ourselves up musically to a whole new crowd. So it goes both ways. We can talk about how Posford is getting all these new fans, but by the same token, Conspirator and the Disco Biscuits are also opening up to a whole new world of people who will say, “Who are these guys? Let me check it out” and maybe they’ll be able to get real tweeky on our music as well.

MG- Electron also did a one-off show in Colorado earlier this year. Do you plan to do any more Electron shows?

MB- We had an amazing show in Colorado. What’s really cool about Electron now is we went back and played the opera The Chemical Warfare Brigade, and it wasn’t really electronic. It went back to rock. It has come full circle. We started out as a rock band and infused electronic elements into it. Obviously with the Biscuits that’s still a big part of our show, and then when we went out and did side-projects for the weekend, and Electron was all rock again. It is just cool to go one night to the next and be able to live so comfortably in so many genres and have people react so positively to it. I mean, look at how many Biscuit kids go and see My Morning Jacket and it is just completely 100% in the opposite direction of what we do. We have a really open-minded fanbase. The music scene in general is really opening up. I mean, who doesn’t like hip-hop and rock at this point?

MG- It’s the iPod era. People can download almost any song they want instantly and see if they like it. A few years ago you had to buy a CD to a get a feel for a band.

MB- It is so easy to get into new music these days, but by the same token, a lot of music comes and goes really quickly. Things swell up with incredible amounts of buzz and disappear almost as quickly as they got huge. We’ll see over the next couple years if stuff that’s a huge buzz right now will it be around in the next couple years. There are bands like My Morning Jacket that got huge over time and there are other bands that were getting huge and then kind of disappeared. I’m sure when LCD Soundsystem makes another album it will be huge, but I haven’t heard their name in 18 months, and it was all I heard about for the two years before that. Basically, what it boils down to is what people in Brooklyn think is cool [laughter].

MG- When do you hope to release the next Disco Biscuits album? This fall?

MB- We’re off tour this fall, so it is definitely not coming out this fall. It is donewe’re mixing the last two tracks right now. I’m actually rerecording some bass on the tracks we recorded last week. Now it is done and we’re just tinkering with it because we have time to tinker with it. We kinda want it to be perfect.

MG- Are the new songs the Disco Biscuits have been playing on the album?

MB- No. We took all the songs that we wrote that didn’t make the album and started playing them live, like “Shadow” and “Air Song.” We made demos for some of them, but never actually recorded them. “The City” we did record and that may end up on the album, depending on how the version ends up. Tommy Hamilton produced that one in the studio with me about three ago, and this week I think I’ll go back into the studio and rerecord some bass on it and see if I can get Barber to rerecord the guitar and get it mixed. If it comes out and everyone loves it, it will go on the album. It will probably be the only one on the album that we’ve played live except for “Sweat Box”—- that we played a couple years ago in Sayreville, NJ. I mean nobody will even recognize it. It was primitive and now it’s a completely different it is kind of our Outkast-like song.

MG- Speaking of bands that were huge and disappeared [laughter]

MB- Or the Black-Eyed Peas. They got huge, they blew up and now they’re all doing side-projects. Unlike with the Biscuits, we do the side-projects and build off them and bring the songs back into the Biscuits—- kind of like Trey did with Phish or Legion of Mary and JGB with The Dead. They played these side projects, but kept the main band as their main band.

MG- Speaking of side-projects, you recently led an all-star Phish tribute at the Jammys. Were you able to talk to any of the members of Phish about your performance?

MB- The only one I saw after the thing was Mike [Gordon], and we didn’t really talk about it. There was definitely an awkward moment, and I think the awkwardness obviously came from me. We had just done this thing and now I was kinda standing there with Mike. I mean, I hope that we did them justice and kind of honored their music in a proper way. That was what I said to him, and he said, “You did.” So that was all that was said about it. Relix/’s] Jon Schwartz was standing with Page [McConnell] and Mike while we were playing “Antelope” and the story that he imparted to me was that Page had said to Mike, “Wow these guys are really good,” and then Mike said, “Let’s go watch these guys from the crowd.” Dan Berkowitz said that he was standing next to Mike for the entire “Maze” and that Mike was really into it, so on all accounts those guys seemed to like it. I mean, obviously Trey was halfway to Poughkeepsie by the time that the intro of “Wilson” actually hit, you know [laughter]?

MG- It probably would have been easier if you played before Phish accepted its award.

MB- Having to play after Phish accepted their award was the biggest miscalculation of all time, in terms of scheduling. There is no question we should have played before Phish received their award. It would have taken all of the awkwardness out of that. I have to say that definitely the single most awkward moment of my life musically, was when the four members of Phish were standing ten feet in front of me and I had to go on.

I was standing next to Joe Russo, and on the other side of them were 6,000 Phish fans and all they wanted was the four guys to stop talking and pick up the instruments and start playing some Phish songs. I was standing four feet behind them knowing that in 50 seconds they were going to walk off stage to the disappointment of 6,000 people and the next thing that would happen would be me and Joe Russo walking on the stage. It didn’t hit me that that was going to happen until it was happening. I turned to Russo and I looked at him and said, “I think I might have made the greatest miscalculation in booking history,” and he looked at me and he goes, “Yeah, but we don’t give a fuck do we? Let’s go fucking rock it.” I said, “Let’s rock it!”

MG- What was your favorite moment from the performance?

MB- No disrespect to Kyle [Hollingsworth], who was awesome, but when Aron Magner got up there for me is when things really started to click because we have this internal ability to communicate after all these years. And Russo has that too with the guys in the Disco Biscuits. We’ve been playing together for 10 years, and when Magner got up there it was so comfortable, not that the music was lacking before that. It was just a psychological comfort knowing that I can do anything and Magner would read it right away because he knows what I do.

MG- I’m sure the people who went on Ed Sullivan after the Beatles felt the same way. I wouldn’t worry about it.

MB- Luckily, we didn’t have to get on after Phish had played. But it was definitely a little awkward. Greatest miscalculation of all time, but still an amazing experience. When we were playing the beginning of “Wilson,” there was that interactivity between the crowd and us, and we were the ones on stage. It was definitely a musical highlight of the year for me.

MG- Looking ahead, how do you see Camp Bisco evolving?

MB- I think that if we could have done one thing that we didn’t do this year it would have been to book exactly everybody that had been booked on the show both this year and last year. Last year our big headliners were Umphrey’s and STS9, jambands. This year our headliners are Snoop Dogg and Shadow/Cut Chemist, mainstream hip-hop and electronica headliners. So if we could have done one thing differently or could possibly do something next year, it would be to combine both worlds.

Camp Bisco has always mixed different types of bands and DJs, even before other jamband festivals tried to be eclectic. I’m not saying it is because of us, we just happened to be doing it at a time when most other festivals our size weren’t. Look at Bonnaroo. This year’s headliners were Metallica, Pearl Jam, Kanye West and Widespread Panic, massive bands in four very different genres. Festivals definitely seem to be changing or at least expanding their scope. Rolling Stone covered the first Bonnaroo after the fact. It was a small write-up on the biggest live music event of the last ten years. It was nowhere near now where you have all these big publications reporting from the scene. Camp Bisco got a Pitchfork preview, and they said something like, “five years ago we never would have covered anything that mentions the word Biscuits, but since !!! is playing, I guess we have to” [laughter].

MG- Like we said earlier, we are living in the era of eclecticism.

MB- It’s funny. I looked around at Bonnaroo and there were no hippies and three jambands. Are there hippies anymore? The year after the first Bonnaroo everyone tried to make the next Bonnaroo and only a few festivals like 10,000 Lakes survived. Then you have these homegrown festivals like All Good or Gathering of the Vibes, which have been around for years and know their audience, even if they book a lot of the same bands each year.

MG- Unfortunately though, I feel a lot of mega-festivals are going to see their numbers shrink this year. Both Coachella and Bonnaroo fell short of a sellout and they had to cancel Vineland.

MB- It’s hard, especially with gas prices. Even Bonnaroo’s numbers are down this year. Every single major market in the country has a mega-festival. Kids aren’t going to drive from Chicago to New York to go to All Points West. They are going to go to Lollapalooza. There are just too many, which makes it even harder for band-driven festivals like Camp Bisco, moe.down or Summer Camp to survive. In 2000, Dave Matthews Band was selling out 60,000-person stadiums. Now he draws around 18,000 and he is still the biggest live act out there. Not that I am crying for Dave Matthews, but it just shows that people aren’t traveling for music as much anymore. Last summer we toured with Umphrey’s which helped and this summer Sector 9 is doing what we did with them last summer. So we are doing what Sector 9 did: not playing a summer tour, waiting for our album to come out and hopefully getting bigger by creating demand by not being everywhere.

MG- It is strange how, in general, people tend to miss what is not right in front of them.

MB- We did 10 shows in the New York/Philadelphia area and then two months later we did Jam on the River, so we are laying out of that area until the end of the year. I’m not even sure what’s going to happen then, when it comes to New Year’s. Typically we play the New York/Philadelphia-area because that’s our bread and butter. We love to play here, it’s the highest concentration of our fans, it’s very profitable and, for us, there’s no gas bills with shows in that area.

MG- I was actually just talking to someone about that today, how expensive it is for a band just to get on the road.

MB- We deal with that for every tour. We try to book our tours with that in mind, and we try to start close to home and end close to home, so you don’t have to fly everybody in and out. We do shows out west, but only infrequently because we only have a couple of markets out there. But, I’ll tell you what. Even though I’m from Brooklyn and it is a big part of who I am, I’m over Brooklyn [laughter]. I go there and I say, "I don’t even know you! Who are you?!"

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