Backstage with the Disco Biscuits: Part I
On December 30, Relix and Jambands.com sat down with the Disco Biscuits backstage at New York’s Nokia Theatre as part of a new series of streaming video interviews. The loose, at times informal conversation touched on a number of topics, ranging from the group’s winter tour to its highly-anticipated new studio album to the tenth anniversary of “The Hot Air Balloon” rock opera. With the group on the road through Marchand beyondwe decided to cull some highlights from the group’s lengthy discussion for a two-part Q & A. In Part I we’ll hear from guitarist Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig and bassist Marc Brownstein, while Part II will feature additional commentary from Brownstein, along with keyboardist Aron Magner and producer Dirty Harry. To see the interviews in video form, be sure to visit www.relix.com/radio.
Before we start talking about the Disco Biscuits’ tour and forthcoming album, can you tell us a little about your new dub step side-project?
JG- M80 Dub Station is a dub step music project, which is 140BMP music that came out of dub and reggae, and it’s gotten very electronic and very bass-heavy. The girls love it and dance to it in a very cool way [laughter]. It’s a brand new kind of music and that’s why I like it. Artistically, it’s a fresh palette. There is nothing you can do that has been done before or trite. It’s just fresh. It’s sort of like a little grease for the artistic machine. I spun my third show ever last night [December 29] and did 11 songs I wrote myself and 11 or 12 songs by dub step artists from the UK. We also had DJ MRK1 there. He’s from the UK and one of the originators of the scene and one of the highest-quality dub step artists in the world.
The Disco Biscuits have experimented with various forms of reggae and dub in the past. What was your introduction to those genres of music?
JG- I wasn’t too interested in reggae and dub until a friend of mine gave me Babylon by Bus by Bob Marley when I was 12. It was mostly Iron Maiden and Hendrix before that and then the Bob Marley opened a lot of doors. He was the first of a slew of music. From just ages 12-19 I was bombarded by a ton of music from Phish to Coltrane.
Speaking of different style of music, the Disco Biscuits are currently putting the final touches of your first studio album since 2002. I think a lot of people were surprised to hear that you worked some hip-hop producers on the project. How did that collaboration come about and would you say the album sounds like a traditional Disco Biscuits release?
JG- It’s going to be different. Every track has its own feel. We tried to make it in the modern way. It used to be that you’d get a band in a barn and get some microphones and you play for a week. That’s how you make a Skynyrd album. In today’s world hip-hop producers have really changed the way you make an album. Nowadays, you have one producer for each track. So you send a track to the producers and they decide which ones they are passionate about and want to work on. So we worked with three or four different producers, including Simon Posford and Benji Vaughan from the UK Twisted crew. Those guys are possibly the best producers I ever worked with and they did some amazing things. So we did a lot of traditional “let’s hang out and play, normal band stuff,” and we also did a lot of technically advanced stuff. There are a lot of great songs, great playing and great vocals. I think a lot of people are going to really like it.The Disco Biscuits played a bunch of new songs at the Nokia Theatre. Will any of those songs be featured on the new album?
JG- No, that’s the best part. We’re debuting new songs like crazy. And people are loving them like crazy, but those are the songs that didn’t make the cut.
So those were the best of the outtakes in a sense?
JG- Yeah. We wrote 40 or 50 songs for this album, some of them just to write. Art is a blue-collar jobif you don’t work everyday, then you lose it. So you go to the studio and do it everyday and after 40 or 50 songs some of them came out great. So the age of the songs on the album really varies some are a year and half old and others are four years old. It depends when we get hot. Same goes for our performances. Our best shows happen when we just get hot. Like a football team, sometimes you throw the ball and the receiver is just there, sometimes you just get hot. The ones we kept on the album and have shied away from playing are the ones that band felt were really just hot for some reason or another.
I came into the studio with you in 2006 when you started writing material for the album, and you played me some of the songs that you had written with the Grammy-winning hip-hop team of Don Cheegro and Dirty Harry. Have you played any of the songs they co-wrote live?
JG- We just played a song called “Uber Glue.” It was written with Dirty Harry.
You used to share a recording space with him and Don, correct?
JG- Yeah, that’s how we met them. They got kicked out of their studio and had nowhere to go. So we were like, “Why don’t you just come here and work in the corner” [laughter]. I mean this guy is 18 and already won a Grammy. He’s uber talented and just doesn’t have the money for rent. So we threw him in the corner by the fridge, and he gradually moved into the control room and took over for a while. It was a lot of fun to work with him and his partner Alex. They’re young geniuses. They’re the right Grammy award winners. The guys who win them by mistake. They’re the kind of guys who win Grammys because that kind of stuff just happens to them.
You are starting your winter tour in Northampton and then heading across the country. You haven’t played some of these cities in a while. Is there any venue you are particularly excited to play?
JG- Yeah, I’m really excited to go to Atlanta to play the Tabernacle. It’s a legendary room. We’ve never played there before. Our boys Sector 9 play there all the time. They played there for New Year’s, and they just tell us how great it is. So we’re really excited to play that room. Also, we’re playing the Congress Theatre in Chicago, which is our first time there as well. We’re doing it with some other bands as well. It’s going to be one big party is there.
So is the plan to save all your new songs until the album comes out?
JG- Yes. When we drop the album the very next show we are going to debut most of the new materiallike “bang bang bang” and there is going to be a lot of improv based around those songs on that tour too. So I’m already starting to feel like, let’s say, the 99 Biscuits, which lets say the fans say is the “classic rock opera-era.” Then there was the “hard rock-era” and the “jungle-era” and now there is this new thing. And I’m really feeling with all these new songs the separation and when you play that old stuff it really gets you going it gets you excited because it’s only in that rotation once in awhile. Then that new stuff we jam every part of every song and really try to find where the juicy jams are like in the old days.
Speaking of the old days, New Year’s Eve marks the tenth anniversary of the debut of “The Hot Air Balloon” rock opera.
JG- When I wrote “The Hot Air Balloon” I was making only $80 a week. I lived in this little, tiny stone house outside Philadelphia where the heat didn’t work and there were these old shag green and yellow carpets everywhere, and I just paced around every day because I didn’t have any money to go anywhere. It took me months to write it and there was a daythe July of that yearwhen I officially started it, but a lot of it had already been written. It’s like when I was talking about the blue-collar thing. You go to work everything and you write music and before you know it you have a rock opera. “The Hot Air Balloon” was written and then I sort of realized I had enough music that I could feel the final product. Then came the hard partplaying it.
We didn’t tell people we were going to debut it until they got there. We gave out a pamphlet with all the stories on it at the day of the shows. But it didn’t say which story was for which song, so they had to put it all together.
Ten years ago when you guys where first coming into the scene the idea of mixing electronic, indie and jam music seemed very foreign. 10 years later it is not only its own genre, but producers like James Murphy are playing in bands and live acts like STS9 are rearranging their songs on laptops during live PA sets. Do you feel that Younger Brother producer Simon Posford’s decision to form a live band was a result of his time with the Disco Biscuits?
JG- I think we had a large impact on Simon [Posford] because he was coming and seeing what were doing and how it was exciting for the fans. It turned his DJ sets into a little bit more of a show. If you are a band like Daft Punk, and you are making strictly electronic music and everybody loves it and you want to take the “show” and compete with some of the larger bands, they really go out of the way to make that happen. They’re doing a great job at that.*****
You recently traveled to Europe to play bass on an album by U.K. psytrance legends Younger Brother. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
MB- I went to London with Tommy Hamilton and Joe Russo for much of November and recorded that record. It’s interesting because [Younger Brother vocalist] Ru Campbell played piano on one song, and Simon played piano on one song, and Tommy played piano on some songs where I played bass and on one of the songs the bass and keyboards are played by [Younger Brother’s] Benji Vaughan. I played guitar on one of the songs that Tommy played piano on that had been written by Benji and me while Simon was eating dinner in the other room. We picked up the guitar and started writing guitar lines on top of it. By the time we got around to recording I just played my lines and Simon played his lines. It was such a collaborative process.Younger Brother started out as a collaboration between DJs and producers and has morphed into a live band. In many ways, it seems like they have almost evolved into a livetronica act.
MB- [Younger Brother's] The Last Days of Gravity album was starting
to sound like Pink Floyd. That's the direction they’re moving in. They're
moving towards real sounds. And we made some tweaked out sounds in London
and they were all real sounds, not plug-ins, like hundred thousand dollar
roll in series 7 synthesizers that start on the floor and go to ceiling.
Shifting back to the Disco Biscuits’ forthcoming album, you utilized a lot of new elements and sounds on this album that you’ve never used before, including hip-hop. Some are collaborations with the Twisted records guys, some were written co-written with Tom Hamilton and some were fleshed out with Don Cheegro and Dirty Harry. Can you tell us about your songwriting process?
MB- It’s going to be really interesting when we work out the credits because a lot of people worked on the album. A lot of people wrote different parts. Some songs Harry wrote outright and brought to us and was like, “I wrote a song last night, and I think it’s perfect for the Biscuits.” For a lot of these guys we actually write songs for them, and then they write songs for us. The thing is, if we want to write an R&B song we know we can’t play with the Disco Biscuits so we write it and pass it along to them. So you might have heard some of our parts in their songs. They’re hip-hop producers and that’s what their contract is. But the thing is they’re writers, rock writers, producers and they need an outlet for some of their own songs. So Harry will come in with his songs and we maybe take it into the studio with Posford and turn it into a Biscuits song. There is a lot of collaboration between Jon [Gutwillig] and Harry and Alex and Aron [Magner] and myself and Tommy. It was made more like a hip-hop album in the sense that there are a lot of producers and guests and featured players, one of the songs has 2 Faced on it.
A lot of hip-hop producers release the tracks to different producers to remix and re-envision. Are you going to do anything like that?
MB- We’re talking to Ott about giving him one of the down tempo, dub-like song that we did with Simon and Benji and one of the tracks we’re planning on releasing as a single on Twisted. And you can look for an Ott remix on that track and maybe a Shpongle remix of that track. We’ll put together four versions of that song on Twisted and then maybe a month later the album will come out.
Finally, do you feel that Facebook has helped you connect with your fans more than any other tool possible?
MB- Absolutely, it’s the best tool. I think that I’m using it the wrong way though. I’m supposed to have a musician’s page.
So you don’t have things like Marc Brownstein is going to bathroom or going to the kitchen and stuff? Not that there is anything wrong with that
MB- Well, the status update is a really good way to get the message across to 33,000 people who care about the Disco Biscuits and there are probably about 9 people that I’m friends with who don’t care about the Disco Biscuits but they went to high school with me [laughter]. But it’s an amazing tool because it allows me to do things for people that I would like to do. If there is a chance sometimes I’m able to help people out. Two nights ago someone told me I was rude to him after the show at the Highline, and we were going to The Egg show, which was super sold out and I had 3 friends with me who didn’t have tickets but I knew I could get them in. But there were like 200 kids outside from the Nokia and one kid was like “Brownstein can you get me in?” and what he said I said was and I’m not exactly sure what I said, but he said I said “Sorry, kid.” And I really disappointed him and ruined his night. I mean I was bummed out and my night was ruined when I asked Mike Gordon for a ticket at the Bryce Jordon Center in 1998, and he said no. I was like “That’s such bullshit, you’re in the band you can get me a ticket.” I almost stopped liking Phish for a while. The kid sent me a Facebook and I was like I’m sorry I was just really focused on getting out of the crowd and I didn’t mean to be rude and I apologized and put him on the guest list for last nights Dub Step show and right now we’re on good terms.
So, basically, Marc Brownstein is checking his Facebook messages.
MB- Yeah, I’ll check them if you go but not too many messages at once. Send them
one at a time [laughter].
_Mike Greenhaus procrastinates from his day job at Relix by blogging at www.greenhauseffect.com