Marc Brownstein Reassembles Electron
On April 17, Marc Brownstein sent his fans into a spin with a simple Facebook post that read: “Who else thinks it’s time for a couple of Electron shows?” The side project—which normally features Brownstein on bass with Brothers Past’s Tommy Hamilton on guitar, Furthur’s Joe Russo on drums, and The Disco Biscuits’ Aron Magner on keys and synths—hadn’t played a gig since 2008. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, it looked like the group was ready for a comeback. And come back they did. A mere three weeks after that first Facebook post, Brownstein was rocking out with Electron at the Baltimore SoundStage—with Lotus’ Mike Greenfield laying down the beat in Russo’s stead. As of now, the band has three more shows scheduled for their current run, and there’s no telling what kind of surprises are in store. We caught up with Brownie the other day to talk about the history of Electron, playing with Mike Gordon and what he has planned for the current run.
Can you talk a little bit about Electron’s origins and some of the lineup changes that have happened over the years?
In the year 2000, like right on New Year’s of 1999, right after New Year’s in the millennium, there was a split up between me and The Disco Biscuits that lasted six months. That six months had to have been the longest six months of my life. It felt like six years. So much music got written in that time and it was just a creative burst in my life. I had a lot of motivation coming off of the split up from the Biscuits to kind of, you know what they say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I took about a week off and then wanted to decide whether or not I was going to continue in the music business in that void. That was a good time to get out if I was ever going to get out. One of my friends kind of tricked me into going to hang out in a jam session, and I picked up the bass in the jam session and started playing this one bass line in the jam and it was kind of—when you get a good line or something when you’re playing it you just keep going back and back and back. I’m going through that with the piano right now. I can see how people get really, really good at the piano. It’s like once you start playing it and learning the chords and how every chord kind of leads into the next chord so perfectly, you see it looks harder than it is because everything just makes sense. It’s been set up to work with the human brain, so I’m going through that now with piano.
At that point, I got into this bass line and right into the jam I was like, “You know what? This is a song.” I went home and I wrote a song and then I wrote like 20 more and I started out having this band called the Maui Project, which I did on my birthday at Wetlands, which was kind of this narcissistic thing. Like a big show on your birthday. I don’t know any other way to describe it. But it’s fun to have an event where you can have all your friends come and hang out when it’s your birthday. That and having somebody throw you a surprise party, like my wife did for me this year, it’s a fun thing to do. So I did this for the Maui Project on April 8th and then after that it kind of progressed into the Electron lineup.
The first Electron lineup was myself, Joe Russo on drums, Tommy Hamilton on guitar, DJ Stitch I believe was in Electron on turntables. But maybe not, that might have just been the Maui Project with DJ Stitch. Then my friend Pauly was playing the percussion at that time. So it quickly got pared down into like a four-piece thing where it was Tommy, Joe, myself and Aron Magner on the keyboards. And then in 2002, I came back and did another lineup of it with myself, Joe Russo, Tommy Hamilton and Tom McKee from Brothers Past, and we played on June 6, one of my favorite Electron shows of all time. And we did another one with that lineup and then for a lot of years we didn’t do any shows. I guess in the late 00s we came back around to the classic lineup of myself and Joe and Tommy and Aron and played a couple of shows like that. But it hasn’t been done in years.
Joe is with Furthur so he’s basically in the Grateful Dead touring schedule type of situation. I think this weekend he’s playing out in California. Whatever it is he’s always playing somewhere. So I wanted to do it this time around but it’s hard without Joe because he’s one of the members. Him, myself and Tommy are the three members who have done all the Electron shows over the years. So I contacted him and said “Tommy and I are thinking about getting the band back together, are you available in May?” And he said no, and it was basically the only time we could do it. It was the only time when the Biscuits or Conspirator weren’t playing this summer so we chose the weekend and Joe kind of sent me a little note saying, “Hey listen man, you guys have my Electron blessing if you want to go and do some shows and I’m not available to do them. 100% do them. It’s totally chill.” So we called up Mike Greenfield to see if he was available, and he did a standout performance as the one drummer in Sucker Punch last year. Obviously he has played with The Disco Biscuits on a handful of occasions—probably six or seven times at shows with us over the years. It seems really great, we’re really excited about it. We’ve got four guys who all live in Philadelphia right now. I can’t remember the last time I had a band where everybody lived in one place, and four guys who are really, really excited to tackle the material. And we’re going to back to the material that we wrote for Electron over the years.
What was it about Mike Greenfield in particular that made you turn to him to fill Joe Russo’s slot?
Well, who else could even do it? I’m just having a hard time thinking of anybody who’s capable of just fitting in, sliding right into the mix and taking over Joe Russo’s spot in the band. Can you think of somebody else who is qualified for the job? I mean obviously besides maybe Allen from the Biscuits. But at that point you have three guys from the Biscuits in one band, it’s too much, it’s too close for comfort. I don’t know, it seems so obvious. I didn’t even think of anybody else. I didn’t even try to think of anybody else. That’s why I’m asking you, can you think of anybody else? I didn’t take even take the time to do it, I just thought, “Obviously Mike’s the guy if he’s available.” And he’s available. I think that if Mike wasn’t available this weekend, I probably would have waited for a weekend that he was. He’s been around since the beginning too so he’s seen all the different generations of Electron and he’s obviously familiar. When I say to him, “Here’s the 20 songs,” it’s not like he needs to go listen to the songs to figure out what they are. He already knows them.
Have there been any major stylistic changes with the band over the years? How has the sound evolved?
Yeah, I think there was that middle period of Electron where we were trying to make it sound less like The Disco Biscuits because so many of the songs we were playing were Disco Biscuits songs. And the Biscuits were touring heavily at the time and it was like, there’s no point in just getting on with another band and playing the same songs. So we had that moment of clarity where we were like, “Let’s write our own songs. Let’s do stuff that only we do or do covers that only we do.” I remember joking with the guys about that back in the day like, “Ok, alright let’s do it.” But we did do it for a couple of shows. I think this time around, for me at least, it’s more about the songs that I love that I’ve written that I don’t really get to play that often anymore, maybe once or twice a year each song gets played. So I just wanted to pull something together where I had the opportunity to go back with these guys that I love playing with and with these songs. Go back to the beginning, start from the beginning with the “Chemical Warfare Brigade” rock opera which we wrote for Electron while I was out with the Biscuits. All 8 of the songs have become classic Biscuits songs over the years. So we were trying to get away from that but now for me it’s about playing it. Playing “Ladies,” playing “Little Lai,” playing all of it.
Is there any chance we’ll get getting a full “Chemical Warfare Brigade” on this little tour?
Yeah, well of course, there’s always a chance. You know, I think that the show on Saturday is a later show and it might make sense. It might make sense to play one really long set and if that’s the case, there’s a chance that on Saturday I’m just going to pull the trigger. Play all of the songs the first couple of nights, get them under our fingers and then put them in order on Saturday night. I’ve definitely thought about having Saturday be the one long set, play the rock opera and then after that do some of the other songs in the encore, which would be the Maui Project songs or the covers. We’ve done one or two Brothers Past songs over the years, I’m sure that everybody in the band is going to be wanting to do that. I haven’t heard chatter about it yet but I know I will be during rehearsal.
Mike Gordon sat in with you guys once, I think it was back in 2008. Can you talk a little bit about that and will we be seeing any other special guests on this run?
He did sit in at the Metronome on the afternoon show. In fact, I was walking in the street in Philly with a friend of mine last night and he stopped to talk to a friend of his and he said, “Hey, you should come see Electron on Friday night.” And the guy looked at me and said, “I saw Electron once. It was like 2 in the afternoon in Burlington, Vermont.” And my first thought was, “We played in Burlington, Vermont?” And then I remembered this Metronome show. And I said, “Metronome, right? Mike Gordon sat in with us?” And we talked about this particular show last night on the street when I was walking around in Philly. It was a crazy experience. It wasn’t the first time Mike Gordon had sat in with us. He sat in on guitar once or twice, not with Electron but with another side project that I was doing down at the Knitting Factory, I don’t know what it was. It might have been the Trio, I think it was me and Joe and Jamie Shields, and Gordon lived upstairs from there at the time and he brought his guitar down to jam with us. But the Metronome was the first time that he played bass with us and I was also playing bass.
So you gotta understand, I know Mike perfunctorily. I’m a big fan of his, but I feel like I know him over the years mostly from afar and mostly as a fan. And when he was next to me holding the bass, it was a very intense experience. So when you have your idol standing next to you on stage doing the same exact thing that you’re doing, at any rate, it was definitely a humbling experience because the guy is ridiculous. He does a whole different thing, we do different things. As much as he inspired me to play the bass and was my favorite, I ended up far away kind of from what he does. Never was it more evident how far away we were on our instruments than at that moment when we were standing next to each other on stage playing together. He was literally running circles around me, and I don’t mean that necessarily in a bad way like he was schooling me or anything, but literally musically. He was running circles around the note that I was on. I was kind of playing one note rhythmically and he was circling it musically. It was insane. And I was probably thinking, I’m just going to stick here and do what I know how to do and let him do what he does and try to make it fit together. Pretty cool experience.