INTERVIEW WITH MARC BROWNSTEINEvery Good Dog Deserves A Biscuit

The first words I hear from Marc Brownstein, bassist of The Disco Biscuits, are, "What's this all about by the way?" His voice is playful, rough around the edges, full of mischief. Already the power dynamic in an interview has been twisted. The guy has direction and he's not afraid to try and sway your path. As the low-end theory behind the Biscuits sound, Brownstein is also the band's most shameless self-promoter. He's also a hyperbole inducing instrumentalist, a joker, a toker and midnight rocker. Marc is also a nice boy who breaks off from an interview to take a call from his mom. He talks in pummeling run-on sentences that snake around on themselves. He's so anxious to get his ideas out that they tumble out in repetitive bursts. As I listen to him speak I'm struck several times at how his patter mirrors the imploding and exploding of The Disco Biscuits' music.

What his group has achieved in seven short years is pretty extraordinary, so his boasting is partially justified. From a band that played 50 person clubs to one that holds multi-day festivals is a good sized bump in popularity in under a decade. Their sound is a bubbly Scooby snack, a day camp for kids with a head full of chemicals, equal parts electronic fizzle, organ shaking dub, good ol' fashioned Soul Train booty funk, loopy space noodling and a pinch of many other spices, exotic and mundane, added to taste. It is not for everyone. A light heart and an endless appetite for jamming are needed. Being just plain silly won't hurt either. In many ways the band's following feels like a clubhouse that isn't always easy to gain entrance to. The layers of legend are thick around the Biscuits. Fans can tell you whether a song is played straight or is a dyslexic version. They know when a single number is actually part of a song cycle like "The Hot Air Balloon" mini-rock opera. Their new album, Senor Boombox may throw those clubhouse doors a bit wider. For a band that does "inverted versions" of their songs I find it appropriate that the next thing Marc does after asking me what we're talking about (and please note, Mr. Brownstein called me…) is launch into what he won't be talking about with us…

Marc Brownstein (MB): I'm not necessarily going to tell you about the conceptualization of this album or the difference between making this album or another album.

JamBase: I want to talk about this new album AND the Biscuits in general. Even though I haven't heard the record yet I get the sense, just because I know some of the tracks that are on it, that it's a good place for people to jump on that have only heard about The Disco Biscuits but never delved into your sound.

MB: This is THE spot. I don't want to give us too much credit. We didn't plan it that way. I don't want to make comparisons to other bands and their breakthrough albums but a lot of the things that happened… I definitely believe in fate and the way this album ended up sounding was a natural progression. It wasn't like we had to get together and say let's cut the jams out of our songs, let's polish it up, let's make it heavily produced, let's choose the songs that somebody who's never heard the Biscuits will like. What we did say was what are our favorite songs to play and how can we present them in a studio format, how can we present these songs in a way that will be different from our live show. If you know anything about the Biscuits you know that we play all of our songs all of the time. Yes, there's a couple of songs that are rare but in general all 100 songs are in rotation and if you go to a lot of shows you're going to see everything and everything with a big jam. I actually read in a review of this album yesterday that "it seems The Disco Biscuits have abandoned trying to make their studio releases sound like a live show" and I thought that was an interesting angle. Because it wasn't out of frustration that we couldn't replicate our live sound in the studio that we did this. We could go into the fucking studio and jam for 3 weeks all day long like we were at a show and we'd get sick jams but none of it would be studio worthy. That's not what that format is about. That format is about having a 1000 or 2000 kids feeding off that energy. That format is about the spontaneity, which is great in the moment and even great to go back and listen to on tape. The studio is not about the spontaneous moment it's supposed to be a deliberate effort.

JamBase: That comment in the review speaks to a profound misunderstanding of a lot of the bands that are in the jam music scene which is that they can play and play but they've got no songs. I imagine that must be frustrating to you guys because more than a lot of bands you really put a lot of sweat into your song craft.

MB: And people consider us to not be strong songwriters. In fact, a review I read in Entertainment Weekly said that songs were never our strong point and that rings true (with Senor Boombox). I'm wondering did that guy listen to the same record we made because as a music listener, as a music lover, and I'm going to say this quite honestly because I wrote 2 or 3 of the songs on the record and I like those songs too, but I'm talking "Hope" and "Jigsaw Earth" specifically, this album really has some great songs on it. It captures the essence of what these songs are about. These songs are deep. The ones that Jon [Gutwillig, guitarist of Biscuits] is writing I had never really heard the vocals so clearly until the album came out - never really heard the lyrics and I've been in the band for 7 years. I never really knew what he was saying in these situations, I'd heard the words but I'd never really heard what he was trying to say. I knew some of the words but I didn't understand the implications. It's deep, it's fucking deep what he's saying. He's talking about life in a big way. He has very interesting views on life and evolution in there wrapped around stories. There are characters but it's really about everyone.

JamBase: One of the things I've been drawn to in the lyrics of the Biscuits is that very philosophical bent that emerges in the oddest places. How do you construct your songs, do the lyrics or the music come first?

MB: It happens both ways. A lot of the times when you're writing lyrics you just put down a poem. Equally often you write the music and find lyrics to set to it. It doesn't happen just one way. In fact we have so many songs that they've been written every which way. Some of them the lyrics come first, some the beat comes first or maybe all the chord changes come and the beat comes later. I'm working on a song right now and I've got 6 or 7 sections. One section I'm struggling with is a chord progression. Sometimes I'll put it over one beat or over four beats, I'll speed it up, I'll do it over dub, I'll do it over ska or even over just plain rock. I've got the chords, they sound great, they glide one into another but I just can't figure out what rhythm to put in.

JamBase: Since we're talking about the new album I wanted to know who is Senor Boombox?

MB: There's a guy on the street in Santa Cruz he's based on. The guy on the cover is a dramatization of this shot in Brooklyn. But there's this guy in Santa Cruz who's got this boombox and all the time it's blasting music. We'd seen this guy around and we'd exchanged knowing glances. One day we see him standing with the boombox and there's no music happening. He's one of the street fellows around Santa Cruz and we named him Senor Boombox because he's this Mexican guy. So, we go up to him and ask what's the deal, why no music? He starts lamenting about how all his tapes and CD's were stolen out of his car. In fact, he had a broken antenna that was trying to pull in the radio real low and fuzzy. It was a deliberately sad situation. So, we told him flat out, you need music we'll make you music. We're going, we're going to the studio, we're going to make you an album. This is sad and we're going to make you an album. We haven't been able to find the guy since.

JamBase: There's the real CD premiere when you can finally get this guy to play the album on the streets of Santa Cruz.

MB: Ultimately that's what we're hoping for. We're hoping this is gonna break us in the Santa Cruz Mexican community…

JamBase: [Huge burst of laughter that sets Marc off laughing.]

MB: …which is expensive to break yourself in that community.

JamBase: Let's talk about the business of being a band. One thing about The Disco Biscuits is that you take a very active role in selling your own tickets, setting up your own festivals and not relinquishing control of the band's direction.

MB: It's all intertwined. Ultimately you want to come up with the ideas and have other people implement them for you. That's the situation we've been in. Hopefully the other people who implement these ideas for you don't own everything. You try to maintain ownership of everything, the merchandising, all of it. You do the very best you can. There are certain points you have to dish this stuff out to other companies for a percentage depending on what the best move for your business is. The truth is we enjoy being involved. We like knowing exactly what's going on in the business. It's all about us; the business is basically about music. We haven't built a travel agency, we haven't built a lot of things that some other bands are involved in who are getting involved in running a huge corporation around themselves. We just know that if we do things they get done properly.

JamBase: One thing I've noticed is that almost all of your festivals are located back East or in say the middle of the States but the West seems to not be a spot where specific bands are putting on their own festivals.

MB: You gotta look at the situation. High Sierra is the biggest festival out here and it only does 6 or 7 thousand people. I think what the problem is with the West Coast is that it's so spread out. If you're going to do a festival in Central California then it's about San Francisco. If you're going to do it in Southern California it's about L.A. and if you're going to do a festival in Oregon it's about Portland. But you can't do a festival like we did where we chose Scranton, Pennsylvania where it's about Rochester, Buffalo, Penn State, Charlestville, Virginia even. It was about Philly, it was about Hartford.

JamBase: Is it really just simple geography?

MB: Yeah. There's 5 markets on the West Coast that are major and there's a 100 on the East Coast. I mean when I say a hundred, I mean literally there are a 100 places on the East Coast. I could probably name you 20 of them without touching New York, Boston, Philly, D.C. or Atlanta. All the West Coast has is Vancouver, which is not our country but it's a city on the coast, Seattle, Portland, Eugene, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

JamBase: And that's it?

MB: You know, you can play Tahoe - people do play Tahoe. You can play Bend, Oregon. People do play Bend, Oregon. You can play San Diego. We play San Diego.

JamBase: I was just curious from the position inside since you aren't the only band that puts on their own festivals back East or even say in Colorado or other parts of the country.

MB: In Colorado you have a lot of people in a very small area. You don't have that out here. Flat out you just don't have it. You get two hours outside of San Francisco and it's dead in every direction for another 5 hours. It's just demographics. The Grateful Dead broke through that and became a stadium band on the West Coast. You can do that. The Oakland Athletics do that every day. It's two different things, throwing a festival and just touring. For us, we don't really tour on the West Coast that much because it takes its toll on our crew and on the band. You play the show and then you have a 9-hour drive to Portland, Oregon and then you play your show and you have 5-hour drive to Seattle and then you're done with the Coast. West Coast fans might be pleased to know I have every intention of doing twice as many shows in the future. It's been over a year and half since we played the Pacific Northwest and I have every intention of not going more than 4 or 5 months without hitting the Pacific Northwest from here on out. I'm reorganizing our touring for that purpose. We're definitely going to start playing the West Coast, both North and South, at least twice a year. What that's gonna take is some creative planning because it is not the easiest thing to do.

JamBase: When I told a friend I was going to be talking to you she said, "The Disco Biscuits, weren't they one of the first jam bands, didn't they sort of start the genre?" There's this sort of mythology that's built up around you guys.

MB: Oh really? [His voice beams with pride.]

JamBase: How much truth do you think this idea holds?

MB: I think we definitely started the whole genre. I'd have to say that's probably true. [Marc pauses and then chuckles softly.] Don't you think the Grateful Dead had something to do with this?

JamBase: I think they might have.

MB: We've been around long enough now that there's sort of a mystery as to where did we come from and when did we arrive. Somebody came up to me at Bonnaroo, after our set with Particle at 9 in the morning, and stands next to me. Now I'm wasted - we're talking Bonnaroo so I'm not ashamed to say it. I wasn't drunk but I was wasted, though I still had composure. This guy comes up to me and puts his arm around me and I jumped. This guy was huge, 6-foot, long hair, very imposing. In an extremely deep Southern accent he goes [each time Marc quotes this fan he goes into a thick drawl], "Man, that was absolutely ridiculous." And I ask him what's that mean. He goes on, "After the Disco Biscuits set you guys just stood there and the crowd was just going berserk and more and more berserk. That was just the most insane energy I've ever been around." And I said that was really nuts, really crazy. He then says to me, "I think it's safe to say the Disco Biscuits have arrived." I was wasted and when he said that it hit me. I thought we'd arrived in 1995 but it occurred to me that this guy's perception was, and he went on to explain, that the Biscuits were a good band and they were always there but what he'd experienced under the tent that afternoon at Bonnaroo separated the Biscuits from the rest of the scene. He said, "What I mean to say is what you guys just did is catapult yourselves out of the scene. Like POW!" It's not about being part of the scene anymore. It is what it is. The Disco Biscuits are The Disco Biscuits and that means something.

JamBase: The best compliment I can give any band is that they sound like themselves. In describing them I can only hint at their sound by using other bands as a point of reference.

MB: To comment on what you just said, I definitely agree with it completely. Coming from the situation we did where we were a jam band from the very start. We were a Grateful Dead cover band that played Pink Floyd and Phish, Allman Brothers and Santana. We were like a fraternity kid's dream in college that would come and play all their favorite songs. Coming from there, coming from being able to copy other people's styles perfectly and moving gradually over the course of 7 years into having your own sound is the whole entire point of being a band. You're setting out to create your own thing, setting out to make your own sound, you're setting out to get people to say that this band sounds exactly like themselves. And then having it become a reality, so much so, that not only do we sound like ourselves but there's now a ton of bands that sound like us. I'm a huge Disco Biscuits fan and I want to say this as a disclaimer so I don't come off as sounding arrogant; I made a band for myself and my friends that was going to be pleasurable to us. We changed those things we didn't like about the bands we liked to suit ourselves, to suit our own tastes. So, in complimenting myself I'm not trying to be arrogant or come off like some douche bag, I'm just trying to merely give the truth of the situation, which is, we've succeeded in making music that is pleasing to our own ears. The Disco Biscuits are my favorite band. I love the songs, I love the jams, I love the live shows though I think I like the studio albums for my own listening pleasure a bit more because I've already been at the shows. Too many songs, too many jams, too many shows - it's sensory overload for me.

JamBase: You have a mischievous nature and it's one of those things that comes out in the Biscuit's sound. And if I had to pick one word to describe a lot of the jams or musical bents in your band it would be whimsy. You seem to have a sense of humor that comes out musically and not necessarily lyrically. Is that a fair assessment?

MB: I'll tell you a little story so you can hear that you're hearing things correctly confirmed by the greatest bass player of all time. We were listening to Senor Boombox a few months ago in Marin County with Phil Lesh. We were listening to the album very intensely. It was half a business meeting and half friendly but ultimately it was a time where we were going to listen to our new album and Phil's new album and talk about how much fun we had making our new albums. When we got into the middle of "Jigsaw Earth," the fugue part, the fast part, and it came around to the end of the keyboard melody [he breaks into a scat of tweedly notes] and it came around to the melody a second time. You could see Phil's eyes kind of perk up. I thought he was perking up just at the technical proficiency of that session, the tightness and the melodic content of the session. What he said was, and I quote, [imitates Phil laughing and then speaks in a slow, deliberate imitation of Phil's voice] "There's a lot of humor in your music." And we all just turned to him and laughed and let it go. That was his comment, that we were whimsical. And it's not lyrically so. Well, "Aquatic Ape" is and everything I wrote in 1996-1997 is but I wasn't thinking about philosophical things at the time. I was just writing funny songs. That's just what I was doing at that point in my career. We get trashed a lot for that time. The Biscuits get held accountable for trying to be cutesy guys 5 years ago. We've grown out of it somewhat.

JamBase: Something like "Rock Candy" is fun lyrically but the tune can go all over the place.

MB: But it's fun without being mindless. There's actual meaning to "Rock Candy." It may be hard to determine what the hell we're trying to say but what I'm saying is 'I've got you and you've got I.' It may not seem that deep but I wrote it on my honeymoon and that's what it meant right there. I've got you and you've got I. That's all I wanted to say at that moment. I'm not much of a love song guy. But musically the sense of humor comes out. We're fun guys and that comes out. If you put the four of us in a room together without our instruments the conversation most times is going to have a whimsical feeling to it. There's going to be jokes, people poking fun at each other, there's going to be people telling really funny anecdotes about their parents or grandparents. There's a lot of humor there. Look at [keyboardist Aron] Magner - the guy's so funny, the funniest guy you've ever met. So's Sammy [Sam Altman, drummer]. Two of the funniest guys I've ever met. And if you put us in a situation where we can't talk to each other for 3 hours except through our instruments that same sense of humor is there. We're still having the same conversation…

JamBase: …it's just coming out in a different language.

MB: The words may not sound the same but the way the conversation is spoken the humor is still there. Once you begin to understand this language a bit to know what this is all about, when you get to know the language of the Disco Biscuits, you start to feel that humor.

JamBase: I got one last one for you. There is that sense that your band has been around for a long time but there's also a lot of people who just know the band's name without having any idea what the music sounds like. What would you say to those people if they asked you what's a Disco Biscuit, why should I be listening to you guys? How do you introduce the band to someone who doesn't speak that language we were talking about a minute ago?

MB: That's what Senor Boombox is all about. I'll cut myself off there by saying we didn't necessarily intend for Senor Boombox to be about all that. But the product is easier to understand than the average Disco Biscuits show. The songs are well packaged, they are executed perfectly and I think that anybody who's never heard the Disco Biscuits before is going to say, "This is interesting, I didn't realize that's what this is all about."

The Disco Biscuits Upcoming Tour Dates

Interview by Dennis Cook
JamBase | San Francisco
Go See Live Music!

Photos courtesy of DiscoBiscuits.com and AdamFoley.com


http://www.discobiscuits.com

[Published on: 9/24/02]

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