by David Calarco
Revitalized, refreshed and reunited with a new (and more mature) perspective, The Disco Biscuits torched a path across the country during their 31 show fall tour. As they wind up the last leg of this historic tour, they may need a large barricade to stop their mind-bending musical momentum. The Philadelphia quartet, consisting of guitarist Jon Gutwillig, bassist Marc Brownstein, drummer Sam Altman, and keyboardist Aron Magner, embarked on their national fall tour with a collective focus on their musical communication and an electronica-infused fury, establishing themselves night after night as four of the most original and groundbreaking musical visionaries on the improvisational scene today.
The Disco Biscuits playing has progressed over their 5 ½ years together, and their sound has evolved from guitar-driven improvisational rock to a new-age electronic sound that successfully fuses elements of trance, jungle, deep house, and hip hop rhythms to create a fantastically unique sound. Stacked with a repertoire of over 80 original songs, each of which can be stretched into numbing excursions, the Biscuits have a defining creativity in crafting sets which bear no similarity from night to night, and provide a live experience seldom paralleled in intensity and musicianship anywhere in music today. Stretching songs out past 30 minutes routinely, their sets seldom stop for a breath of air and often reach over two hours without stopping at all. For the new fan, these intricately crafted sets of music and transitions may prove initially disorienting. Yet after acclamation, the mastery of these twisting and turning musical adventures become evident. Fans across America have begun to catch on, as the band continuously drew 500-900 person crowds all over the country this fall and 1,100 each night at their recent two-night stand at New York’s famed Irving Plaza.
The unique and initially shocking aspect of the fans of The Disco Biscuits is their fervor and undying loyalty. Past that, it proves interesting how all these different types of music lovers that compose their scene can come together over this foursome. Old and young, and stemming from jam rock beginnings, the electronic music arena, and the improvisational jazz scene, these diverse Biscuit followers unite both at their shows nationwide and everyday over the internet. On the bands ever growing listserv DiscussBiscuits, a tight-knit community of over 500 fans post to the newsgroup daily, creating an analytical and fun discourse surrounding the band. The Biscuits also have their own high tech website, which has its own daily updated reports from the road on their fall tour 2000 page, with audio streams of recent shows. Diehard fans have created the Biscuit Internet Project, which serves at a setlist archive, news resource, and beyond. Yet all of this national excitement, buzz, and hoopla stems from one thing, the intricacy and sheer energy and power of The Disco Biscuits’ live performances.
The essence of their rapid fire music is constant and immediate communication; the result is a sublime musical realm. Altman’s complex driving beats combine with Brownstein’s often dub and trance-like bass work to provide the bottom half of the music affectionately called “Bisco” by their loyal and crazed audience. The proficiency and versatility of Altman’s drumming skills and his sheer intensity immediately leap out from behind the kit as he smoothly moves through many styles of beats. He ranges from hip-hop and jazz based rhythms to amazingly tight jungle and trance beats, gluing together the psychedelic madness which ensues during a typical 25 minute Biscuits jam. Altman notes, “I usually listen to Marc’s bass lines at the beginning of our jams, but once we lock rhythmically, I really feel the jam more than listen to any one part of it, and am able to move with the band instinctually. It is often more of a subconscious listening.”
Gutwillig’s original guitar mastery is signified by repetitive and rhythmically based melodic phrases, soaring and sublime improvised melodies as well as tonal colors and washes. Gutwillig’s guitar interweaves perfectly with Magner’s futuristic electronic keyboard grooves, sweeps and soundscapes, and together they provide the harmonic and melodic top half of the music. Magner’s seemingly infinite sounds are the first thing that jumps out at a new Disco Biscuit concert-goer; his keyboards easily enable liftoff to Planet Bisco. Aron helped explain his ever growing number of sounds, his technological toys, and how they blend with the rest of the band. “Aside from the combination of synthesized sounds atop of live instruments, the coupling of various “digalogue” keyboards [which produce digital replication of analogue sounds] together lends for a new effect from last years simpler setup. Our collective electronic sound was conceived with the addition of the Roland JP-8000 to my setup back in 1997, and while it certainly wasn’t the only factor, it served as a catalyst for Sammy [Altman] and Marc [Brownstein] to explore new beats and feels over some crazy, more experimental sounds. Jon [Gutwillig] then discovered new techniques to blend his guitar tone with the synth. With the addition of a few other keyboards [like the Roland MC-505 sequencer], I now have the flexibility to throw down layers upon layers of various sonic textures. Each board has its own personality with different parameters that can be tweaked and tweezed to infinity. Very similar to how each of our jams are unique, the tone color of the instruments are always changing, adding to the constant evolution of our style.”
Described in the music media as “trance-fusion,” but better and more uniquely described as simply “Bisco,” this blend of electronic rock defines groundbreaking originality, and has already begun to influence the next generation of improvisational music. While other improvisational bands often imitate and emulate each other, The Disco Biscuits have stepped away from that trend to create uncharted musical landscapes nightly, improvising four hour dance marathons rather than conventional concerts.
With a large spectrum of songs and improvisational launchpads, part of The Disco Biscuits eye-popping creativity extends past their instrumental genius to their original and unique setlist creation. They employ such techniques as inverting songs, meaning they improvise into the middle of a song and then once it is about to be over, they miraculously transition into the beginning of the same song, then jam into another song from the original launchpad of the inverted song. They can also play the beginning of songs during a show and end up finishing them one or more nights later, which keeps fans engaged in their music and makes a Biscuits show and a tour an extremely active and cerebral concert experience. Within these creative sets, more resembling musical playgrounds for those familiar with the intricacies, the band plays quite self-referentially and playfully, hinting at former jams and foreshadowing those to come in their quickly moving improvisational wake. The second part of the Biscuits true originality is that they interpret and play over many genres of music. Such musical diversity combined with their creativity provides a breadth of musical experience for their audience, and continues to draw new fans nightly. These various musical landscapes are interchangeable throughout their songs, and while often certain songs lead to certain types of improvisation, any type of exploration can derive from most any point.
The Overture (to Gutwillig’s Hot Air Balloon rock opera), Magellan, Bazaar Escape, and House Dog, Party Favor illustrate the band’s classical influence and their musical virtuosity, as they move proficiently through complex musical patterns, times, and composed sections. This combination of classical music and electronica helps to forge the Biscuits’ individual sound. As Gutwillig explains it, “I wouldn’t consider some of our stuff to be classical, because that pretty much means ‘with an orchestra.’ What we try to accomplish often in musical passages is a melodic weaving of lines where each line –bass, keys, guitar- can be sung as a separate, intricate line, yet weaved with two others they create a more powerful piece. This counterpoint approach is really mostly popular in classical music, most other forms use an accompaniment approach for basslines, etc. We find interesting arrangements and colorations by using variations on three simultaneous melodies. It opens up the bass work and tightens the music and develops some chops and perspective for our improv.”
Newer compositions such as Munchkin Invasion and Crickets, their anthemic and addictively catchy Helicopters, and their classic and always different Basis For a Day, represent some of their improvisational jams more often driven by Goa trance beats. These excursions delve deep into dark, hard-layered dance realms before releasing into sublime Bisco “trance-fusion” led by the harmonic communication of all the band members and led by the utterly mindbending waterfall-esque guitar lines of Gutwillig. “Recently, I’ve been replacing the guitar solo at the top of a jam with a nice melody I’ve played earlier in a trance section. It frees Marc and Aron up to manipulate the harmonies much more extensively, allowing us to milk more feeling out of those notes. The harmony changes are what hits you in the gut when the music is at its most powerful, the melody is what you sing along with. Why solo so much, it makes the section less melodic and forces the harmony changes to be predictable, instead of awesome. When it gets to awesome, I rip it up a little bit.”
Such Brownstein scribed songs as Bert, M.E.M.P.H.I.S., Floodlights, Home Again, and Grass is Greener, illustrate a more groove-oriented style of play that represents yet another significant portion of the Biscuits musical repertoire. These songs tend to be a bit more down-tempo and focused on collective band groove, rather than many layers of different lines and melodies on top of each other that define many of their faster experimentations. These slower Biscuit songs often reach a hard dub-like feel as well often defined by soaring grooves that flow into one another with Brownstein’s unique bass lines paving the musical course. “My newer songs have a totally different feel than the older tunes I’ve written. When I was younger, I was writing about more frivolous subjects,” explains Brownstein. “The events of the last couple of years have changed us all as people. I hate to say it, but I think we are a little more mature, and it is coming through in our songwriting. In my newest batch of songs, I have touched on subjects that are close to my heart emotionally. Love and loss, fear and anger, despair and hope, all of the parts of life that we all experience are beginning to come through in my writing, and I feel the songs are better for it. They have more feeling, more groove.”
The newest feel that the Biscuits now improvise over is the jungle breakbeat / drum and bass rhythms in songs such as Brownstein’s Aquatic Ape, Shelby Rose, Gutwillig’s Svenghali, and Magner’s newest contribution Unspoken Rhyme. In addition, these types of jams can stem from the improvisational section of any of their songs. Led by standout work by drummer Altman, these jams generally feature a higher tempo, unconventional hits and stops, and extremely intricate rhythmic patterns from all band members. Laced with new sounds and beats, this jungle feel is a new and welcomed feel to their ever-expanding musical portfolio. Yet, what truly makes a Disco Biscuits show so exciting is that their jams can move in any direction at any time, one song can feature trance beats one night, a jungle feel three nights later, and a more fluid groove based improvisation the next time it appears, keeping fans on their toes and their minds engaged.
While listening to The Disco Biscuits’ performances provide a glimpse into their musical creativity, the true scope of their emotional live improvisation can only be fully understood after experiencing their musical acrobatics in person. Garnering national acclaim by playing and touring constantly since their inception almost six years ago at the University of Pennsylvania, the Biscuits’ live experience has and will continue to define the band, even as they simultaneously delve deeper into studio production. With only two current albums, including the impressive sophomore effort The Uncivilized Area, the road has been the path to The Disco Biscuits’ national following, brought them to the brink of super-stardom, and it is their live musical journeys that will continue to carve out their unique space in music history. With a directed style of improvisation and an active musical communication, the band’s jams remain focused and are tempered with both patience and what Dizzy Gillespie called “a sense of urgency,” creating a unique musical tension that is carefully crafted and molded artistically by each musician, individually and collectively. The dynamic interplay of The Disco Biscuits brings about musical heights seldom seen in improvisational music today.
The Disco Biscuits are finishing their fall tour this week on the east coast, before resting up for a New Years musical extravaganza!
Check out The Disco Biscuits' JamBase page for all the latest tour dates.
Listen to some live Disco Biscuits right now at Hearlive.com.
JamBase On The Road Correspondant
47 days, 31 shows, 25 cities
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Photos by Adam Foley - www.adamfoley.com