Marc Brownstein’s Improv Epiphany
“I’m addicted to jamming,” Marc Brownstein proclaims, as he discusses the major changes afoot for one of his projects. Now this assertion certainly comes as no surprise to fans of the Disco Biscuits, who have seen it realized onstage over the past 18 years. However, the bassist’s comment marks a new direction for Conspirator, the quartet he founded with Biscuit keyboard player Aron Magner back in 2004 and now features guitarist Chris Michetti, as well as its newest member, drummer Greg “Torch” Sgrulloni.
In the following conversation Brownstein reflects on Conspirator’s “epiphany that we wanted to be a band of instrumentalists augmented by computers rather than a band of computer tracks augmented by instruments.” He also discusses the Disco Biscuits, who will host City Bisco this weekend at the Mann Center in Philadelphia. Conspirator’s extensive fall tour opens on October 3 at Mexicali Live in Teaneck, NJ.
You have a new drummer in Conspirator. Let’s start there and we can move on to discuss the ongoing development of your sound.
We have a new drummer, his name is Greg [Sgrulloni], aka Torch, which is a name his friends gave him when he was a young’un. That was his superhero name. His friends named him. They all had superhero names. Scorpion, Torch whatever. Torch stuck for some reason and that’s who he is. He’s a drummer we discovered on the Internet. It’s a changed world, where one can just discover new partners by surfing the Internet, seeing something you like and reaching out to them on Facebook.
For specifics, this particular drummer was gifted to us by Adam Deitch, who is one of the special special rare cases of a musician that transcends genre and is so deeply proficient at what he does, the styles that he plays and most importantly, and the feel he has, that he plays with legends across the board. When you see somebody like that posting about other drummers, you almost don’t have to watch the video.
So Deitch posted something about Torch?
Something along the lines of, “Check out this ridiculous drummer, Torch” on his page for his fans to see.
And you happened to be on there?
Magner caught it, or Chris, somebody caught it and Chris reached out to me, saying. “You have to check out this video of this guy I saw on Deitch’s page.” I watched the video. Simultaneously, Magner was calling him and I was emailing him. At the same time, we both reached out to him. He was on one medium trying to get in touch with this kid and I was on another trying to get in touch with him. He hit me back on Facebook and was like, “Cool.” My pitch to him was we often need backup drummers in Conspirator, maybe you should come check us out.
We didn’t know if he knew who we were or had an idea about the band or anything. It turns out not only did he know who we were, he was somewhat prepared for the phone call because one of his close friends and someone who plays in a band with him is a very, very big Biscuits fan and has basically brought him the song “Commercial Amen,” and said, “Hey listen, you’re going to have to learn this song and you’re going to have to get it right because at some point you’re going to get called to be the drummer of the band Conspirator and every one of their drummers fucks this up. Let’s just learn it now, so when you get there these extra bars of music that pop up throughout the course of the song aren’t a surprise to you and you’ll just nail it and get the job.” That was Josh or “Joshtradamus” as I’m calling him because he predicted we’d ultimately call his friend Torch for the job.
Now the reason we were even doing that, we had used 9-10 different drummers, Darren from The New Deal, Mike from Lotus, Allen from the Biscuits, Adam Deitch… In the last two years we really used all of the drummers available out there but nobody was really available to join a new band. Since Conspirator started pretty much from scratch in most places around the country, we aren’t really in the position to lure someone away from one of the huge bands they’re in. When KJ Sawka became available after Pendulum stopped playing we jumped on the opportunity to add him into the fold.
We had someone who was completely available and it drastically changed the sound of Conspirator to have KJ in the band. He is a tried and true EDM star. Which was cool for us because at that moment in time the way we were feeling as artists was we wanted to something so different from the Biscuits that it would not be compared to the Biscuits. That was the thought at that moment: “This EDM thing is happening. Nobody is doing it with a live band, let’s do it for real with a live band. Let’s write some EDM music and for real go out and play EDM shows not jamband shows, legit EDM shows.” That’s what we did for a year.
The reason we did it mostly was because we were playing to the strengths of the drummer at that moment. His strength was in technology, Ableton, integration of electronics with a live show which is something that he mastered as a solo artist and also brought into a live band platform with Pendulum. He had learned so much with how to use Ableton and computers to integrate live instruments while he had the four year stint with Pendulum.
He came in and taught us all this stuff. While it was happening the band was getting progressively further away from our roots. That was intentional on our part. It was an artistic choice, understanding that if we were going to that, we would be playing to a different fan base. We were going to have to go out and play festivals and build up new fans. We were totally okay with that. We saw it as a great opportunity.
I want to emphasize that everything we do is artistic, none of it is ever about money. I feel inclined to say that because when I see other artists doing stuff like that, I’ll rush to judgment that people are chasing money or something. I want to be clear that when we do stuff… like with The Disco Biscuits, we weren’t like, “Hey, let’s take the two least popular kinds of music and mash them together, because we want to become rich.” We did it because of an artistic inspiration and we had enough dedication that we stuck with it long enough that our festival we created became in line with what was popular in the mainstream and has become very successful because of that.
I just feel that with Conspirator what we did over the last year was because we were being inspired by the stuff we were seeing happening around us at Ultra Music Festival, Camp Bisco, Counter Point. There were also these new kinds of music that didn’t exist 20 years ago and we wanted to incorporate them into the live band aspect, which is nothing new. That’s what we’ve always done throughout our years, as electronic music has progressed, we took those styles and incorporated them back into the live sound.
With Conspirator we took it a little bit far by cutting out a lot of the improvisation. Maybe it was because at first we weren’t really that good at improvising. It was a new band, we needed to develop new chemistry playing together before you could just drop everything, jump off a cliff and hope that’s it going to be the best jam that got played all week, or all month, by any band, or all year. Do you want to win the Jammy for Best Jam of the Year? You’re going to have to practice for a little bit. It doesn’t just happen. You don’t just get the Jammy for Best Jam of the Year automatically. We’ve played together for a while now.
Let’s step back for a minute. For a while now you’ve been a four-piece with the three of you, rotating drummers in and out. But Conspitator existed for a few years before Michetti came into the band. How did you initially view Conspirator and how did it change when Chris joined?
Initially when we were Conspirator we wrote an album and had some songs. We had eight songs: “Orc Theme,” “Commercial Amen,” “Liquid Handcuffs…” most of which were loops we were playing over, some of which were melodically and harmonically based. We would have the show padded with electronic loops that we would loop out and just jam over for 10-15 minutes. We would always bring different musicians in whether it was Joe Russo, Kris Myers on drums, or Tommy Hamilton or Jake Cinninger on guitar, that’s what the “conspiracy” was.
We were all co-conspirators, we were all working together. It was about collaboration. The project was about collaboration with different styles of music and different types of musicians. Like Cheme [Gastelum] on flute, we would just bring people up and have people jam with us and see what they sounded like. It was like a Miles Davis experiment. Miles Davis is gone now, but he got as far as jamming over R&B styles with his album, Amandla. This is a pretty big digression, but it goes to prove a point. Over the course of the years, every ten years or so, Miles Davis would completely turn the musical scene on its side and change how jazz was perceived, played and interpreted for everyone across the board. For us, it was playing off of that. Here we were doing this for the past ten years, now how can we jam differently than how we’ve been jamming for the last ten years.
The first bunch of years for Conspirator was loop stuff on the computer and rip on top of it. When Michetti joined the band we started writing many more songs, it became more track-oriented. EDM had become a force in the industry, there were new methods for writing songs, new methods of presentation for electronic music songs. We got inspired by that: the builds, the drops, the heady bass music and all of that stuff and we started writing that kind of song for a couple of years.
We explored it, very successfully out on its own. We went out and rebranded with a new drummer, into a new scene and Conspirator started to build up a really nice fan base.
I also want to say that Biscuits fan have been incredibly supportive on my journey with Conspirator. I understand that it seems threatening to the thing they’ve grown to love and adore. I’ve tried many times on social media to impart the feeling that Conspirator is not ever meant to threaten the Biscuits. Instead it’s giving Aron and I a creative outlet and downtime when we wouldn’t be doing the Biscuits anyway. That’s what is going on. I’ve answered that question a million times but I feel as many times as I say it, there are always people who haven’t heard me say it. So I say it again: Conspirator isn’t a replacement for the Biscuits. The Biscuits and Conspirator are coexisting because the time exists. The time for us to be artists and go out and tour exists for us. As we all know now, not everyone in the Disco Biscuits wants to tour and just play music and have that be the only thing their life is about.
As we’ve been touring, obviously not everyone comes out. The places where the Biscuits are the biggest, is probably where Conspirator is the smallest, like Philadelphia and New York, where most the people are hardcore about the Biscuits and are not as eager or open to change or support something that doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of music they want to see. I understand all of that. I’m just so grateful for the amount of support we’ve received. It’s been good. We went out and had a five show run in Morgantown, Harrisburg, Virginia Beach, Charlottesville and then Columbus, OH for a festival. They were by the far the biggest shows we’ve done in those markets. By far. Like double the crowd, in three of the markets. That’s really really exciting. For me it’s exciting to have that support. Right now we’re having a “moment.”