Marc Brownstein’s Improv Epiphany
You talk about nurturing a fan base but now you’re moving forward with a significant creative change. Have you been anxious at all about the fact that people who have seen Conspirator over the past two years might have certain expectations regarding your sound yet what you’re trying to do now is a bit different?
Yeah, I’ve thought about that, but in the end for me I just have to be true to myself. You know? I believe that what we do is better significantly when we’re improvising. When I get off stage I feel excited, charged, high. I feel like if I were a sponge, I was fully saturated. When I get off, it’s a natural high and I wasn’t feeling that as much when we weren’t improvising. And I just think this is a really open-minded fan base. I believe that those are the same kids who are seeing Big G, but also seeing Papadosio and Lotus.
We still have the songs we wrote over this last year, the songs are great. It’s just that instead of playing 15 bangers in a row, there will be three of them spread out over the course of an hour and ten minutes. When you get to the precomposed build and drop, there is so much more meaning and feeling when you’re coming out of an exploratory journey than when you just bounce them one up against each other.
Over the last two years, a lot of the sections that were improvisational had bass sounds that were made on the computer. It wasn’t freeing me up to able to do what I do. I have a very specific skill set that is my contribution to the jam. It’s very specific what I do. It’s not random. The improvisation isn’t random. There are things you can do to make jams soar, things you can do to make them funk, things that you can do to make them deep, things you can do to make them euphoric, things you can do to make them dark. And that’s what I know better than anything in the world. What I know better than anything is how to make slight, subtle changes in the bassline that are going to communicate something to another player to go in a different direction or bring in a specific vibe or mode.
I was shackled in Conspirator in terms of that specific ability over the last couple of years. It wasn’t as if it was anyone’s fault. We didn’t have a difference in vision. We had gone and made these tracks and then we were playing them live we discovered this problem with it, which was it was really hard to improvise over because this stuff that was already in it.
I’m not the producer. I’m not the guy who has the tracks who can take the stems and I’ll take the all the basses out and rebounce it and remix. I’m not that guy. I’m basically asking one of the other members of my band to do an enormous amount of work, a disgusting amount of work, to make my life more rewarding musically.
You’ve mentioned your growing dissatisfaction. I’m curious about Aron and Chris. What was their take on all of this and the commitment to move forward with a transition?
These are my best friends. They are so unbelievably supportive. When you go to Chris or Aron and are like, “I’m having an issue, I don’t like this.” It’s hard because nobody wants to be told that someone in their band doesn’t like something they’ve done. But it wasn’t about not liking the music they made or the music we’ve made or the tracks we’ve made, it’s just that this one little aspect is handcuffing me. It’s funny, we have an album called The Key and we have an album called Unlocked and an album called Unleashed. Until this week I haven’t felt like we had the “key” and that it wasn’t “unlocked” or “unleashed.” I just feel like it was very hard to change from what he had turned ourselves into, into what we wanted to be.
I don’t want to characterize like it was what I wanted it to be individually. It was an ongoing discussion for a long time about how to incorporate what we know how to do best into this, but still stay true to what we were trying to do. I want Conspirator to be everyone’s band. I don’t want Biscuit fans to feel like it’s not their band. I don’t want it to be that way. I want everybody who’s able to see my band to go see Conspirator whether they are into the electronic jams or not or the electronic songs or not and walk away and say, “Holy shit, that was incredible.”
We do have some of the best instrumentalists out there, I honestly believe that. I don’t look at myself as one of the best instrumentalists, I know that I’m not. I know that there is a different level out there on bass, a flashier level. Roger Waters isn’t there either. He’s brilliant. He’s not Victor Wooten or Oteil. There is a different level. What I do is what I do. I think I practice hard and do it well.
The other guys in the band are some of the top instrumentalists at their position. Chris is technically absolutely ridiculous and an incredible songwriter. Really, really talented. Aron is Aron. And Torch is a four-year Berklee graduate who comes from a jazz and classical background who then moved into electronic dance music a few years ago. Coming from this jazz background…something has happened that I almost can’t put into words. Something has happened over the last week that’s given me a renewed sense of purpose.
Let’s stick right there. In terms of the timeframe, we’re jumping around a little bit but in terms of Torch joining Conspirator, how many times did he play with you guys before it was obvious that he was the guy? How did that all come together?
I want to say we started looking for someone when KJ’s Destroid project started to blow up. He’s got this huge thing with Excision. Their first show had 3,000 people at it. It’s this huge thing and we’re not. So when there became weekend conflicts between the two bands, KJ obviously had to go with the huge paying gigs. For us, that was a little disappointing. For us, we needed to find a backup drummer because it was going to start happening. We love KJ. He still works on the music with us. He’s still producing with us and mixing and mastering and doing all that stuff for us. He’s still our brother and part of the team.
He’s disappointed because he is a big part of Conspirator and it is a family thing for us, being together every day for 18 months. But if he’s not completely available that’s a little bit of an issue for us. We asked Torch to come down and he played like three songs for us in Philly a couple of months ago. The story goes like this, we hadn’t really told Torch anything except “you wanna come down and play music with us, we are sometimes looking for a backup drummer.”
After about 20-30 minutes I stopped. It was kind of hot in the room. We were in one of the weird rental studios and I didn’t want to be in the studio all day. So after about 30 minutes I was just like, “Ooookay, I’ve heard enough, has everybody heard enough?” and we went to Wawa and got some sandwiches. That was the deal.
After playing for about five minutes with Torch it was like, “Oh my god, what is going on right now?” I could describe musically the difference between some of the different drummers I’ve played with over the years. Sammy wasn’t really even a drummer so much as he could just play any instrument and that’s what he ended up on because we needed a drummer for the band. He’s very jazzy, very swinging with a metal edge. He had an incredible amount of swing and feel. Over the last couple of years I’ve gone from Darren Shearer who’s really housey with it to a huge deep pocket, to KJ who’s very technical but extremely straight not jazzy, more robotic, kind of where Allen comes from. Although Allen is a Berklee guy too and has a very deep swing when he wants to do. But he’s more of a robotic player. They call him the robot. It’s great for electronic style. It’s great to be very straight, right on the beat, right on the cliff, to have that ability. But it feels different than a guy like Greenfield who comes in and is extremely light on the touch, very jazzy, just like pocket playing, gets deep into the pocket, where your bassline just plays itself.
Every drummer you play different basslines for. It’s incredible. You change your drummer and your bassline changes a little bit. The feel changes in the way that my basslines go for every different drummer. For Torch, somewhere in the second show, there was a beat, a moment, when we were playing a house jam, which is tricky to get it right. There are a lot of drummers out there who play electronic music that can’t get a simple four on the four beat right. A ton of them. I see mostly baby bands, young drummers all the time where it’s just, “That guy doesn’t have it, doesn’t have the feel.”
Torch has something really, really special going on. Every day for the last three weeks, I have had to think, “Duh. Deitch was posting about him.” It always comes back to that for me. It’s hard to find somebody who plays electronic music who is this jazzy. Most of the people who are this jazzy don’t like electronic music. It’s hard to find a hardcore musician who’s down with the EDM vibe. For me, I was worried because I know he’s really into EDM and here I am saying to our new EDM drummer: “Welcome to your new EDM band and oh by the way we want to be a jam band. P.S. I hope you can jam.”
We just started by explaining what I was looking for in very simple terms. “When we get into the house jams, I want you to think about it as a Chicago house back in the day, super swinging. Build it slowly, don’t do anything too much. Don’t go too crazy. But, build your energy, add your elements in slowly. Every 16 bars or something, bring in another little element. If you’re on an offbeat hi-hat, bring in to where it’s two offbeat hi-hats. From ‘boom, boom’ to ‘boom tikka boom, boom tikka boom.’ Just add a little element, change the beat to bring the energy up.”
When we made the switch to the new drummer we decided our new drummer doesn’t use electronic drums, it’s all acoustic. We had to listen and be like “Is this going to work without the electronic drums? We are an electronic band, is it going to sound too wonky? Too much like a band? Are we going to sound too much like the Biscuits?” All of these questions start going through your head. The answer was that it sounded awesome.
And while we were making that change from a band that was running off all electronic drums to a band that isn’t running off electronic drums, Magner and Chris took the time to do this enormous upheaval of work that needed to get done in order to free me from the shackles of the composed tracks. It took an enormous amount of work. It was basically, “Okay, we are changing drummers right now, let’s do it right now and make this change we’ve been talking about for 18 months, right now.”
I got so excited about it, Budnick. I was spewing it out on Facebook for like a week and a half a straight: videos, clips and I was gushing. I can’t tell you. I started to take hate for it. Biscuit fans who on the first day were like, “This is the greatest news of all time,” on the fourth day were like, “Shut up.” The flipside is, I’m genuinely excited. It’s truly as if I’ve been locked up and have been unlocked. It’s truly as if I’ve found the key. The great past is that the chemistry has been really, really great. Magner, Chris, everyone has been playing so well. There’s been a sort of groundswell of support for it.
Look I don’t want say anything that people are just going to laugh at me for saying or blasphemous. Last night I got a message from a Conspirator hater, somebody who decidedly and outwardly hates Conspirator. She said, “I’m really excited about the new sound of Conspirator and she said, “Please don’t tell anyone I said this, but I was pretty fucking blown away by the jamming at Catskill, it sounded at points, please don’t tell anyone I said this either, better than the Biscuits.”
Now, I think that’s one of those things, what’s better than something, how can you say one thing is better than another, everything is individual to how someone feels at that particular moment. This is from a hardcore Disco Biscuits fan who’s been following us for years. I think what she meant to say was she was getting the same feeling that she gets from the Disco Biscuits and hasn’t gotten from Conspirator in the past and that was very exciting for me.