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Published: 2009/02/22
by Mike Greenhaus

Backstage with the Disco Biscuits: Part 2

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 heard from guitarist Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig and bassist Marc Brownstein, while Part II features 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.

Marc Brownstein:

You have been working on your new studio album for almost three years and seem to be debuting new songs at rapid speed. When did you write the bulk of this new material?

Brownstein: Good question. I can speak at least for the ones I wrote like “New Autumn,” which we played in the encore on Friday night [December 28]. A risky maneuver debuting a new song in the encorethey will tell you in the entertainment industry always leave people with a song they know. We are risk takers [laughs]. I felt that the song was good enough. What I thought was people would be like, “Wow that’s a good song.” I don’t know what happened. I don’t like to get feed back. Ignorance is Bliss.

I actually thought that song, specifically, has the feel of an “old school” Disco Biscuits song.

Brownstein: If you listen carefully you can tell that it’s new because tracks are coming off of Allen’s computer and we’ve got new elements that we’ve never utilized before.

The Beatles used to record tracks in the studio and then figure out how to play them live. Eventually, they decided to stop touring.

Brownstein: The thing is it seems so bizarre. It didn’t seem that weird with Younger Brother but that’s what we did with the Biscuits.

Then the next step, I guess, would be figuring out how you envision these songs on stage while making them Biscuits songs.

Brownstein: That brings me to the new songs that we’re playing now. The method that we’re using, where we’re using Ableton and other live performance computer programs and some MIDI instruments, we have an arsenal of new instruments and sounds available and when you open yourself up to them we had been very closed-minded for some time about using computers for backing tracks and sequencers for some parts. I think Tommy [Hamilton] said, “You gotta do itit opens the world to being able to pull stuff off that you can’t do live because you wrote the parts on a computer using a sequencer. It can’t be played unless you use a sequencer.”

How to use those technological tools to enhance the improvisation instead of taking away from it

Brownstein: Exactly. That’s what’s in the song “New Autumn,” which to answer your question was written in the fall of 2007. I was sitting in the studio with [producers] Harry and Alex every month for two years straight and they would come in from their studio, which is five feet from our studio. They work on rock songs in our studio then go into the live room. When you go into the live room all you can hear is “boom da boom sssshhhh” all day long, hundreds and hundreds of hip-hop beats being made there. What ends up happening, you leave at the end of the day and all you can do is “boom da boom sssshhh.”

So I had these hip-hop beats stuck in my head for months and months at a time. In order to get them out I had to write them into songs. I had to study a lot as to how to make a hip-hop beat because I’m a bass player, and I wasn’t a producer at the time, necessarily. So I pulled out a lot of hip-hop albumsa lot of Dr. Dre and a lot of old stuff that I listened to when I was younger. I studied the sounds and where they were putting the bass drums and tried to mimic them and I’d go in and try to make the beat that I heard. What I ended up with was somewhere between 10 and 15 loops out of 40 that I thought could be turned in Disco Biscuits songs. So I started working on that. The first one was “Caves of the East,” which I’ve been playing since Europe last year. The second one was “Tamarin Alley” and the third was “New Autumn” and there are seven to nine more after that. They take me about two months each to go from a loop to making an actual song with lyrics. My friend Dave Calarco has legitimately been writing all the lyrics because I don’t have time to write good lyrics.

It goes back to the tradition of how Jerry Garcia would write with Robert Hunter and Trey writes with Tom Marshall.

Brownstein: It’s really hard to be on tour and in two bands or four bands and do all these different things and travel the world and write good lyrics too. Dave is a writer and he just quit his job to become a full- time writer. He’s writing on the Phish blog “Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts.” I called him up one day and was like I have a writing opportunity for you that you could get paid for, super creative writing. And we whipped up “Tamarin Alley” in like 45 seconds. He’s not a musician, but he is a music aficionado. He sat with me and picked up melodies. We’re four for four together right now.

Dirty Harry and Aron Magner

Both Brownstein and Jon Gutwillig have described the recording of the new Disco Biscuits album as a collaborative process. Would you agree?

Magner: Yeah, I feel like it was a collective process, which was a first. At first, we all brought in our own ideas. I brought in stuff I had done from my home computer. For instance, “Air Song,” which we play live and probably won’t make the album because it’s such a staple to our live set. I started that at home, Brownstein put a bass on it and wrote a bridge and that kind of started the process of the first time were collectively writing these songs. One person likes to keep different studio hours than another. I’ll come in at 2 PM and Jon will have been there from 2 AM to 10 AM. The credits for this album are going to be like reading War and Peace.

Harry, can you talk a little bit about how you first got involved in the Disco Biscuits scene?

Harry: Yeah, it’s been a cool experience. Our studio was across the hall from their studio. We just ended up hanging out on a friend level and then we started making music together. It was a really organic process. It wasn’t like an industry thing like, “Oh I’m gonna come here now.” It was really loose and fun.

Magner: You were used to the industry side, where it’s like “I need 30 songs” and you go write them. Then I don’t see Harry for 3 weeks and he comes up with 130 songs.

Harry: It’s been really fun and really collaborative. It’s cool because no one really has a set thing about what they do. There is no rules about anything. Aron might be singing and he might write a keyboard line, I might play a keyboard line or Jon might sing. We switch it up a lot. It’s definitely interesting and we’ve all been able to have a good input in the album. I hope the fans enjoy it. It is going to come out, I swear. The Disco Biscuits are the only people in the country not getting a Dr. Pepper or something [laughs].

Harry, who are some of the other musicians you have worked with over the years?

Harry: The first big record we ever did was for Ludacris.

Magner: At 18 years old he won a Grammy, look at this kid.

Harry: I worked with Usher, Chris Brown, OutKast, Beanie Sigul and this new MC Wild Lay. We’re developing a lot of our own artists and a lot of people. The Game, Lil’ Wayne, 50 Cent. I’m a big rock music fan, too. I was never into the jamband scene and when I met Marc he was like, “I love Phish.” I was like “Really? I thought Phish sucked.” But then he played me some shit and I was like oh this is cool. It’s like a gradual process of getting into them. But you can’t get too different than Chris Brown and the Disco Biscuits. And I was working on both of them in the same day, it was very interesting.

What was it like putting your fingerprint on these tracks without turning them into Chris Brown tracks?

Harry: Well, some of them did get turned into the Chris Brown tracks and I had to be like wait a minute

Magner: It goes the other way as well. Like Harry will call me up and be like, “I’m on a deadline and Madonna needs four beats, I’ve gotta couple of grooves, can you help me out?” So I did something for him and he’s like “They’re good, but not what we’re looking for.” So then we used those grooves a few times on the last tour.

Harry: With the technology that we have in the studio, I can make a loop in my bedroom and send it to them. It’s amazing. Me and Jon would do stuff in his apartment and bring it in. It’s pretty strange because I’m singing and writing songs on the album and that’s something I’d never do with Beyonce. It’s a great learning experience. I brought in a lot of people I’m working with in Philly, like people the Roots crew and this new cat Two Face, who performed with them the other night here. Which I heard went really good. Just trying to get a good mix of styles and inspirations.

What jumped out at you the first time you saw the Disco Biscuits live? Harry-I started off as a jazz drummer, because my dad is a jazz piano player. And I was like wow this is interesting because they have these formats and they go off into these improvised sections, which is exactly what jazz is. So I was like, “Wow, this is jazz but jam music.” I guess that’s like the whole focus of the jamband scene, but it’s like nothing else I ever heard. And really it wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th show that I was really amazed because I practice with them in the studio and being with them in a room this size with them playing, I have my bands in the air and it’s fucking amazing. But seeing them live with the crowd interactions is really cool. This is like my 12th show. I was surprised because I knew them on a personal level and I’d go to shows and people would have like Disco Biscuits tattoos and come up to them for autographs, that was interesting. It was a great process. Hopefully, we’ll finish this thing and get it out there.

_Mike Greenhaus blogs at www.greenhauseffect.com

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