Prime Time Bisco: Marc Brownstein Discusses Touring With The Disco Biscuits, Other Projects & More
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Joe Russo, Oteil Burbridge, Joel Cummins, Scott Sharrard, Marco Benevento, John Medeski and many more. (A full archive of The Art Of The Sit-In is here.)
There was a time not that long ago when even diehard fans — the Bisco kids of yore — were taking bets on the longevity of The Disco Biscuits. The rigors of the road had burned the band out, and they were going through what any hard-charging band that’s been together for a decade-plus starts to go through: the “do we really want to be doing this?” question.
As it turns out, the answer for Marc Brownstein, Aron Magner, Jon Gutwillig and Allen Aucoin was, and is still, “yes.” The Disco Biscuits are about to put a bow on one of their strongest and most consistent years, capping off with shows at Dominican Holidaze and then a New Year’s Run in Atlanta. And, yes, if that level of consistency has come about as a result of playing together less, the Biscuits can be the Biscuits by not overthinking things, even if it means disappointing fans who long for the days of long, jammy Biscuits tours that aren’t coming back.
Brownie caught up with us just ahead of Holidaze. Here he is to talk New Year’s, Bisco setlists, the joy of the 30-date-a-year tour schedule, and what’s next for Conspirator, Electron, Breaking Biscuits and much more.
JAMBASE: So how are you? You’re quoted on Facebook and elsewhere as saying it’s been a great year for the Disco Biscuits.
MARC BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, we’ve had a great year. Listen, I think the sort of ongoing narrative that you’ve seen is that 2016 sucks, making reference to some of the big musical losses we’ve had this year, like Sharon Jones and Prince and Bowie and everybody. And there’s just a big uptick in negativity — this overwhelming vibe of “fuck 2016.” But for me personally? And the band? It’s been great. The metric there is the music. From what I can tell, some people have felt like 2016 is the best year we’ve had. And people throw around stuff like that since 2009 and talked about how 2015 was the best year we had since 2009, but people are now starting to throw around 2016. It’s been consistent.
There aren’t as many shows as in the old days where we were playing 130 shows. We play about 30 shows now. But is the music good? The answer to that question is ever-changing. Everything needs to be aligned properly, and there needs to be practice and preparation and a willingness to go with the flow and make it work. That’s the No. 1 thing that leads to the music being great, and everyone in the band is excited to be part of this in a positive way. So the music goes great, and the shows sell out and everybody shows up.
JAMBASE: Do you still worry about a time where your shows won’t sell out? Where people won’t show?
MB: Not with the Biscuits. But we went out with Conspirator, and yeah, sometimes it just wasn’t that easy to draw. We had our moments, we drew very well in Boston, and Chicago, and Atlanta, and Colorado. But in New York Conspirator can be tough to draw. The closer we get to where the Biscuits are biggest … well, sometimes it’s just about the Biscuits. But you get that in your head and you feel like you’re a small band again — it becomes part of your thought process.
With the Biscuits it goes well, but it’s always something you think about as an artist. Most bands don’t last a decade, and we’ve been doing this for 21 years now. You would think at some point it starts to feel too predictable or we get too confident. You can’t predict the future. But I think our fans have been incredibly supportive and that we can continue to put out great art.
JAMBASE: Is it accurate to say you’re able to do that consistently as the Disco Biscuits again because you’re doing 30 shows a year?
MB: Some of our best years had 120 shows a year, but there’s inevitable burnout. When you’re going like that, and you’re burning like crazy putting out some of your best art, the quality suffers a bit, eventually, in terms of passion. That’s what I noticed returned in the last few years: there’s a palpable excitement for everyone being there. We’re doing the Dominican Republic, and then we’ll be in Atlanta, and we get to show up and move into a hotel for four to five days. It’s not grueling, it’s not sleeping only a few hours and then waking up in some strange place, it’s not any of the qualities and characteristics of being on a tour bus that wear people down. And that’s not just the Biscuits, that happens all over the music industry: people go out for really long periods and get broken down, physically and mentally.
This, what we have now, is perfect. This balance we have right now is everything I think we’ve ever needed. We get to play pretty consistently, about every six weeks or so, and the dates aren’t far enough away that we get into that rusty mode, but they’re not too close together that we hit the wall. I hit the wall a lot in 21 years. You get to that moment where it’s like, oh my god, I can’t believe we’re still out here and we’ve got three weeks left. We’ve had tours that went for 11 weeks. But I also don’t want to sound like I’m complaining — it’s a blessing and the greatest gift ever to play in the Disco Biscuits.
JAMBASE: Do you want to play more Disco Biscuits shows?
MB: I don’t know. I don’t make the schedule. I kind of get the schedule, and then I show up and I play and I do a lot of the setlist writing. That’s once the dates are in, I snap in and help out wherever I can and make sure the concerns of the fans are being met and addressed. So much of our success has been in building this community and making sure that everyone feels like they’re part of a family. We’re 21 years a family now, and there are new people coming in and they see it is a family. And when it comes to the show, I’m thinking, what have we played and what haven’t we played? I want the fans to get a little taste of everything and these are things we think about to try to make the experience great. When we’re working on festivals like Dominican Holidaze or Camp Bisco, we’re making sure the lineups are going in the right direction and that there’s going to be a good experience.
So I think that it’s perfect the way it is. There was a period where I was itching to play more and fill the time with more gigs, but what I found — and this was during a transitional period in my life where I was away all the time constantly and wanting to work all the time and fill the time with more gigs — was that I hit a wall again. And then I realized, no I don’t want to necessarily wear myself down again where I’m not feeling great anymore. And that I did want to refocus attention on my family, my kids, my youngest son especially and my daughter, for whom I wasn’t there all that often. I’d be away sometimes for four weeks at a time when they were really young. So what we have going with the Biscuits is perfect. And I know the fans well enough that there was this moment about two years ago now where the band really hit our stride again, and everyone started to talk about how the Biscuits were playing really well.
Now, I heard a lot of “you guys need to tour more,” and I still hear a lot of that. And I get it. I’m not so disconnected from reality that I can’t understand a contingent of the fan base that wants us to tour more. But there’s also a fan base that’s gotten older. Some have kids. They’re in that same part of life where we are, where Aron has three kids that are young, and I have kids that are a bit older, but it’s tough to get in their car and drive from Boston to Syracuse to Philly. Yeah, there’s something nostalgic and romantic about a classic tour where you’re out all the time. But a lot of the older jambands now do 30 to 40 shows a year, sometimes managing to squeeze in a true tour, but if they’re like us they pull three to four shows 10 different times throughout a year — and they’re great.
JAMBASE: How does a Disco Biscuits setlist come together these days?
MB: It all starts with Craig, our tour manager. He’ll send me what he calls the filtered setlist — and he’ll actually go in and hand-filter the stuff. We had an app built at one point — our sound guy built an app — but Craig and I like doing it the old-fashioned way. He’ll create four lists for me about two weeks to 10 days ahead of shows, knowing that when I get some spare time, I’ll look through the four lists and start to get an idea in my head of what we’re going to do.
I’ll start with some meat-and-potatoes ideas of what these shows should be, and it just sort of germinates from there: if it’s two or three shows, I know I’ll need about 35 songs to work with, with probably five that’ll be left over. That comes from a list about 75 to 80 of our originals that are in rotation, and probably like 20 covers that could be pulled out without rehearsal. Beyond that, there is a long list of songs we’d have to take 30 minutes as a band to practice and get into shape to attempt on stage. It’s a ball of clay, you know? You start to mold it, and there are so many different ways to do that. There are songs that work closely with each other, and songs that can mash-up into other songs, whether in a classic Biscuits fake-out — where we build and build and build into one song and then right as it hits, we dime-drop a different song and wig the crowd out — or a dyslexic or inverted song. We have all these things at our disposal.
I still get asked: why do you invert songs? And it’s a method — it’s a method of segueing from one song to another, or looking at how to do a peak or some sort of mini-climax, something that offers these different musical figures. But when we’re at our best, it doesn’t matter what we put in the setlist. There are hours of work and preparation that go into our shows, but the reality is it’s all about how does the band execute. I can write scribbles on a piece of paper and we could go up and play an hour of improv and have it be great. Then, there are times when I’ve felt like a set was doomed from the start — putting down five songs, for example, that don’t have climaxes. I’ve had moments of swing-and-a-miss, and they’re not often, but I have looked back and said, yeah, not the best move of all time.
But it’s the most fun part of the job during the days: constructing it, giving me something to do each show day. When you’re on tour, sometimes you have a lot of free time. You wake up at 10 a.m., you go for a run, you go back to your hotel, you sit around and watch ESPN until it loops for like the third time, and then you go to CNN and watch that through a few times, and then you’re on Yelp looking at places for lunch or whatever. In an idealistic world, you’d go and write, but for me it’s hard to do that when we’re out and traveling. I know some people can do it, but I can’t. For me, I wake up and I’m in the hotel and instead of watching ESPN until it’s time to take the stage like 12 hours later, I’ll go on Facebook and ask people what they want to hear, and I’ll look around, and I’ll work on the setlist and a plan. I love it.
JAMBASE: What’s an out-of-rotation Disco Biscuits song you’re often asked to bring back or that you personally would like to bring back?
MB: “My Lady Survives” is my No. 1. It really like that section of “Haleakala Crater.” I learn it before every run just in case we find a place to put it on. Jon wrote it — he knows it, and he’d just want to get it right. Aron and I have prepared it enough times. Inevitably, it’ll pop back up. But I hear a lot from fans, too. Earlier today I got an email from someone saying that their boyfriend really wants to hear the song “Fever” in the Dominican Republic. I admit that I have a hard time even remembering what the melody or chord changes on that one are. I can go and listen to it and it’s wonderful that someone says it means a lot to them, which doesn’t mean it will happen but is still wonderful.
Sometimes we’re not sure. Recently I told Jon that there’s this Biscuits cover band in New York — and I’m aware of four or five Biscuits cover bands — and they play songs that we only played once or twice and they’re playing them all the time. I told Jon, maybe we’ll let them have it [laughs]. I mean, they’re fleshing these songs out more than we ever did. Do we go and listen to their versions and see how they’re coming along? I mean, typically with the Biscuits, songs take six to 12 months before we hear what the song’s going to be. Very rarely do we have it all worked out when we play it the first time.
JAMBASE: Connecting with the fan community is obviously very important to you. Is there anything you wish the fans understood better about the Disco Biscuits? Anything they misunderstand?
MB: Essentially, I’m an open book with the fans, so it’s more a matter of are we listening or not listening to each other? The fans and the band, we’ve gone through so much together over the last 15 years. We lost our drummer, and then we got a new one. We went out for six years or so and we went really hard, and then didn’t anymore. So for both of those steps, in 2005 and 2011, we got a lot of questions from the fanbase about what was going on and why is it going on, and I feel like personally I spent a lot of time trying to explain this to the fans. Some were supportive, others were not. That’s the way it goes in music, so it was to be expected, but I think if you look at all the conversations you can have with your fans, we’ve had them all.
Right now we’re in this path — just like a zen enjoyment of existence. Five years ago, I would have answered your question with, for the fans to understand, it’s better for us to exist like this than not at all. But I think they all get that now. This is pretty fucking awesome what we have right now — we’ve gotten into a zone again where we’re just crushing it, and everyone’s happy, and life is great.
Sometimes I really do think, am I going to get a job when I get older? Or am I going to be like George Porter when I’m 70, out there wearing his tie-dye, on the road, crushing it? The reality is I love being in the Disco Biscuits so much. I love writing music — that the No. 1 thing that gives me happiness. When I’m writing and the melody falls into place over chords, there’s no feeling in the world like that, and it makes me elated, even if no one ever hears it.
JAMBASE: Looking ahead to New Year’s, Marc, you guys are in Atlanta, and it’s the first time in a long time you’re not doing New Year’s in the Northeast. Why this year?
MB: Well, it was time to switch it up and start giving some love back to some of the places that give us love. We were down in Atlanta for the 420 Fest, and we played at Terminal West, and then we did the Imagine festival and all this, and we thought, we should really follow all this up with some proper shows at the Tabernacle. We haven’t done that in a long time, and we were like, what better time to do it than New Year’s?
We’ve played New York for so many years in a row, and New York will get its fair share of shows next year I’m sure. But being in Times Square on New Year’s Eve … it’s just, I feel like I’ve probably done that more than anybody out there except for Dick Clark. It’s a whole different kind of energy and it’s amazing, but maybe for one year we won’t do Times Square, you know? It’s hectic, and it’s expensive, and we’ve had so much excitement and positivity there, but it’s awesome also that we’re switching it up. Hopefully next year we will switch it up again. And just to add on, we knew that STS9 and Umphrey’s McGee had both played alternately at the Tabernacle for the last eight or nine years, and we heard neither was doing it this year. It was a great opportunity to step into doing shows in this iconic week in our scene.
JAMBASE: What’s happening with Conspirator and Electron in 2017? And what else are you involved in?
MB: It’s funny you should ask that. Electron will finish this year on December 23 at the Ardmore Music Hall, and after that, Tommy [Hamilton] is so busy getting ready for the Los Muertos shows and JRAD is picking back up where it left off before Joe [Russo] had his baby. So for the time being, we’re skipping out on the winter Electron shows. The focus really will be on the Biscuits for the time being.
I do have a couple of other projects that I think our fans will be really excited about. One of them is something with theNEWDEAL’s Jamie Shields that we’ve been talking about for six months now and is an incredible concept. We’re working out some dates to do some shows in Colorado in January and I expect to make a formal announcement about that soon. And at some point, we are going to revisit Breaking Biscuits, which we did at Brooklyn Comes Alive. That was really great, and a lot of festivals have already asked about that, with offers coming in from different regions. Adam [Deitch] and Borahm [Lee] and Aron and I have stayed in contact since that show and have been talking about how do we do that again, and also about how we go into the studio. I’m not sure if that becomes new Conspirator music or something else. I’ve talked to Adam already about going into the studio for like three or four days and just laying down basic tracks, like Conspirator did in the old days. So I don’t know what’s going to happen there, but there are some ideas. Electron also recorded three songs this fall that at some point we’ll finish and do a release, maybe an Electron EP. So a lot of irons in the fire.
JAMBASE: Can you lay a sit-in story on me? You with someone else’s band, someone with your band, what comes to mind?
MB: You know, I generally shy away from collaborative experiences like that for the most part. But a few weeks ago I had a real redemption with Umphrey’s McGee at the Fillmore. A few years ago , Pony [Ryan Stasik] was absent from the Umphrey’s show at Camp Bisco with the birth of his child, so they tapped like three or four different bass players to carry their set, and I was one of them. I came out on stage and they kicked off “In The Kitchen,” you know [sings the beginning], and I’m starting to play, and I am out of tune, and everyone is looking at me weird. The song was a disaster; I looked down after it and I was like, wow, this was a half note off completely — the A was a B-flat. So we start another song, and I hit the E-string, and that’s out of tune, too. It took me the entire fucking sit-in to get in tune, and I’m finally like, oh, I’m in tune, and oh, it’s over. It was like Spinal Tap where the guy gets out after they open the glass cage. [laughs]
That was the worst experience. I’ve had some pretty great sit-ins, and I’m telling you this instead of going to the well talking about playing with Steve Kimock in Everyone Orchestra or finally, after years and years of knowing Eric Krasno, being able to play with him, with Matisyahu, on the boat. So instead of a positive sit-in moment, I’m sharing the most humiliating work I’ve ever done!
JAMBASE: But you were redeemed!
MB: I didn’t think I would ever be allowed back onstage with Umphrey’s. But they let me come up on Jam Cruise. I was out there DJ-ing but brought a bass in just in case, and they let me come up and play “In The Kitchen” with them. More redemption was needed, though, so they invited me back again in Philly at the Fillmore, a few weeks ago. I practiced so hard. I never practiced so hard for anything in my life. It was super cool.
JAMBASE: You remind me I forgot to ask about Camp Bisco. Is it coming back for 2017?
MB: Camp Bisco is coming back. We have a phenomenal lineup, it’s going to be so huge.
JAMBASE: Well, we’re all looking forward to seeing you guys throughout the year.
MB: Yeah, definitely. And thanks for that. You know I watched the whole third set that we decided to put on MTV nugs.net [Live Stash, from the Biscuits’ July 16 performance at Camp Bisco]. And at first I was like, maybe we could have picked other things for this, and then five minutes in, I was like, man, Jon is just killing it. The jam is smoking, and then later the “Cyclone” segue where we started and stopped. I got sucked into the whole entire thing.
JAMBASE: You guys did seem to be feeling it and it shows on the broadcast.
MB: And this is at a time when I don’t go back and listen to everything we did like I did when I was 22 years old. I feel like it’s a practice I’m going to get back into. It’s really enjoyable to watch and listen to these shows. Someone told me this week I need to go back and listen to the first set from Irving Plaza, that it felt like prime time Biscuits. I think I will.