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Marc Brownstein Talks City Bisco, The New Normal and Jim Carrey, Too

Photo by Erik Kabik

Since 2012, the Disco Biscuits have hosted City Bisco, a late-summer urban counterpart to their signature Camp Bisco festival. Originally held in the Biscuits’ hometown of Philadelphia, the event found a new home in New York City last year.

City Bisco 2017 kicks off this evening with the first of two shows at New York’s Irving Plaza, a venue the group played in 1999 and 2000 before growing into the city’s larger ballrooms and theaters. Then, on Friday and Saturday, the Biscuits will head to the beach for two additional shows at the Ford Amphitheater featuring opening acts BoomBox and Cartel Twins on September 22 and Opiuo and Ben Silver of Orchard Lounge on September 23.

The shows are a high point during the Disco Biscuits’ most active year on the road since 2010 when guitarist Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig, in particular, encouraged the band to scale back their touring. Since then, the group has largely focused on weekend runs, festivals and other big destination stands and, according to bassist Marc Brownstein, the band’s new, relaxed tour schedule has allowed them to make events like City Bisco and Camp Bisco truly special. “We go and live normal, functional lives with our families, and that’ll happen for four, five or six weeks, and then we’ll come together and throw a big three or four day party and put all of the energy and all of the preparation and all of the excitement into that,” he says. “Ultimately, for the longevity of the band and for the health of the band members and for the fans, it’s probably the best thing that could be happening in terms of how we format and bring to the public the live concert experience.”

In the following interview, Brownstein opened up about the Biscuits’ upcoming shows, his various side projects, the Zen of Jim Carrey and more.

Let’s talk a little bit about City Bisco. You’re playing Irving Plaza on the 20th and 21st, and then the Ford Amphitheatre at Coney Island on the 22nd and 23rd. Irving Plaza an intimate venue for you guys, and you have a lot of history there. And then Coney Island is a fairly new venue, and it’s outdoors with an almost festival-type atmosphere. How are you guys approaching these shows in regards to setlists? Are you saving some things for certain shows? And how will things differ for those venues?

I think that whether we’re coming through a couple of different venues in a run, or whether all the nights of the run are at the same venue, there’s always a flow that you have to keep in mind. It’s a story you’re telling over the course of many days—three or four or sometimes five days. One of the things that is unique to the jamband world that you don’t find in most other kinds of music—there are some singular examples out there, where this is true to other forms of music—but in the jamband community, the whole vibe of multi-day events is that the bands don’t repeat the songs. And so, with that being the ultimate goal for all of the jambands—whether they’re playing five nights in New York City, or four nights in Denver, or 13 nights in New York City—the idea always is that the fans know that they’re going to be able to come and most likely won’t be hearing the same music. First and foremost, we keep that in mind. That’s where you’re at going in.

Setlists are tricky. I talk about it a lot. I want to make sure that the fans are staying on their toes, and that we’re giving them a good variety of songs, not only from these four nights, but from the last shows that we’ve played. At this point, we played Lockn’ and Camp Bisco last, and there haven’t been a lot of shows over the course of the summer. Still, I have to be cognizant of the fact that a lot of the same kids who were at Camp Bisco are going to be at City Bisco. And so, while we’re definitely going to pick and choose some of the story out of songs that were played at Camp Bisco, I’d like to make sure that we’re mixing it up as much as possible and mixing in songs that we haven’t played. That’s just the nature of the game when you play 35 to 50 shows a year, and you have a couple hundred songs plus covers to choose from. It’s mostly about making sure that you’re keeping it fresh. But there’s a story—there’s an arc of the story that you have to be aware of over the course of the week. And you need certain songs to make the story work.

A lot of people are going to every single night of the tour. Are you keeping those people in the back of your mind?

For sure. We play the perfect amount of shows, that a bunch of kids are out there telling me that they go to every single one of them, or most of them. You know, maybe someone can’t make it to Austin, Texas, but they’re going to the other 34 shows over the course of the year. And I’m trying to keep that in mind as we work our way up through 2017—to keep it fresh from a setlist perspective. And keep in mind not only what we’re playing this weekend as it relates to Camp Bisco, but also as it relates to what we played last year at City Bisco, and as it relates to what we played in Philly at the Fillmore. Because we know the data is out there; we know that there are hundreds if not thousands of kids that are coming to all of these regional shows. There were some really hardcore fans back in the day that would come out on tour with us for five weeks straight. But at this point, we have these people that go back to their lives and lead these normal, functional lives, including the guys in the band. We go and live normal, functional lives with our families, and that’ll happen for four, five or six weeks, and then we’ll come together and throw a big three or four day party and put all of the energy and all of the preparation and all of the excitement into that. And then everybody sort of goes back to their normal lives.

And I think that ultimately, for the longevity of the band and for the health of the band members and for the fans, it’s probably the best thing that could be happening in terms of how we format and bring to the public the live concert experience. That having been said, I have to be sure that I’m keeping in mind that the whole front row, they’re coming with us everywhere. So it’s an ongoing story, and I like to know exactly what the fans want. For instance, this week I asked [Facebook fans] about setlists and over 400 comments came up on my Facebook page, and I’m having a difficult time sifting through it. I have to prepare on paper what’s going on for these shows, and that was a bit of an overwhelming response. But it gives me a clear picture of where we’re at. I’m not saying that we’re going to play “Rivers” this weekend, but… We have this song called “Rivers” that came out in 2010, and there were some really great versions of it but it just hasn’t been played in six years. It’s not the best song we ever wrote—whatever that means. But the fact remains that there are a lot of kids talking about it six years later, which means it struck a chord somehow with them. Or maybe it’s just that people love seeing stuff that they know might happen that’s rare. That’s what makes the concert experience fun. And people are like, “Why don’t you play all of these songs?” Well, look… If we played them all equally—if we just split all of our songs up and said we’re going to play every single one of them in equal amounts, then there would be no rare songs.

Everybody would know all the time exactly what was going to come, and it would be a rotation of the exact same thing… Although, I know you can’t just throw out a “Loose Change,” make it super funky, play it once at the Capitol Theater, and rest your laurels on it for the rest of the year. I get that. But there are moments like that, where we’ve been digging back into our repertoire and re-working stuff, then bringing it out and having it be huge. Hopefully that’s the type of thing that’s going to stay. And that’s the thing: we haven’t, on purpose, put a lot of these songs aside, but to me it’s really cool that are thirty or forty songs that haven’t been played in five years. Some of the stuff is just never going to get played, I admit, just because for one reason or another it didn’t work for the band, or somebody in the band doesn’t like the song, or the person who wrote it doesn’t love it. That’s probably the number one reason that a song gets buried forever: the person who wrote it doesn’t love it, it didn’t come out the way they intended, or they’re having a hard time interpreting what they’re hearing in their head in the four-piece setting.

It’s interesting to pick up on what you were saying earlier about throwing these big parties over a weekend. At City Bisco you’re sharing the bill with BoomBox, Cartel Twins, Opiuo and Ben Silver. When you’re curating these events, how involved are you with selecting your openers? Does your team choose them, or are you hand-selecting these acts to set the vibe?

We hand-select them ourselves. It is a team effort. The team is the guys in the band, our booking agent, and of course the people who promote the concerts are involved to a certain extent in helping us determine what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. Sometimes you just have to take a risk and go with your gut. And sometimes you have to work with what’s available, because you’re at the whim of everyone else’s touring schedules. In the case of City Bisco, I feel like we got really lucky. I’m really excited. BoomBox came in at the last minute, and I was talking to their manager—who used to work with us—randomly about something else, and I just mentioned to him that we were in the process of finishing up the lineup for City Bisco, and he said, “Hey, what about BoomBox?” And I was like, “Yeah that is awesome. I love that suggestion.”

And in the end, you try to work with everybody and make sure they can fit into the schedule. And I know that particular weekend, Opiuo is coming from D.C. We saw the schedule, and I was like, “Well if Opiuo is playing D.C. on Thursday, certainly he would be available for New York on Friday or Saturday. I don’t see anything on his schedule.” So those are the kinds of things that go into figuring out the lineup. It’s a really, really fun part of the job. As a DJ and someone who curates music in real time, whether it’s on Sirius for Jamtronica or just at DJ shows, it’s sort of like a macro-version of that. You get to curate what the vibe of a whole party is going to end up like—what the sounds that the people coming to your party are going to end up hearing. And with the Cartel Twins and Ben Silver, I think they’ll set the vibe for how we’re trying to lay it out for the weekend. Ben Silver kind of comes from the tech house world, and the Cartel Twins are kind of a New York deep-house duo, and are fairly popular in the local Brooklyn deep-house scene.

For us it’s just about, “What’s the first thing people are going to experience when they come through the doors of City Bisco?” That’s the question. You don’t want to trivialize the idea of who’s going to support your festival. It’s not about making it look good on paper; it’s about the experience of the fans when they walk in the door. And it’s not always easy to get it right. It takes a lot of work to put yourself in those shoes and think about what happens when you walk through the door at Coney Island, and what kind of beats you hear off in the distance.

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