Disco Biscuits headline EMU festival at Snowmass
June 30, 2011
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – A few weeks ago, Marc Brownstein, as he periodically does, returned to his old college, the University of Pennsylvania, to investigate what it would take to finish the degree he abandoned some 15 years ago. As always, it was an exercise in frustration and futility, as he realized he’d have to devote time and energy to introductory courses that hold little interest for him, and little value for his life’s pursuits. He left Penn’s west Philadelphia campus with no road map toward a degree – but with a clearer view of what is important to him.
“I figured I have far better uses of my time than taking Spanish and finishing my degree,” the 38-year-old Brownstein said from his family’s summer house in Long Beach, N.Y., as he skillfully managed the requests and demands of his three young children. “I could be writing music rather than getting a piece of paper. A Penn degree is never going to help me write a dubstep song.”
So Brownstein continues to devote his energies to the Disco Biscuits, the quartet he co-founded at Penn in the mid-’90s, and the various side projects he has developed. It seems to be a productive use of his time: the Disco Biscuits – which features Brownstein on bass, fellow founding members Jon Gutwillig on guitar and Aron Magner on keyboards, and Allen Aucoin, who took over the drum slot when original drummer Sam Altman left in 2005 (to attend medical school, of all things) – have become a top touring band, near the top of the bill at such festivals as Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Fuji Rock in Japan. They were pioneers in the movement of bands creating their own festival; next week’s bash, in upstate New York, celebrates the 10th anniversary of Camp Bisco, with a techno-heavy lineup that includes Cut Copy, Pretty Lights, Ghostland Observatory and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.
Last year, the Disco Biscuits released their sixth studio album, “Planet Anthem”; their next, “Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens,” is due for release at some uncertain point in the possibly very near future. (More on this below.)
This weekend, the band plays the Aspen area for just the second time ever, and the first time in nearly a decade. The Disco Biscuits headline the music portion of the new EMU Eco Music Festival on Saturday, July 2, in Snowmass Village. The band is scheduled to play two sets, beginning at 8 p.m., on a bill that also includes Tea Leaf Green, Leftover Salmon, RJD2 and Perpetual Groove.
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The Disco Biscuits began to form when Brownstein, a sophomore anthropology major, wandered the hallways of a freshman dorm, trying to sell Grateful Dead t-shirts. He got distracted by an invitation to smoke some bong hits, and a discussion on deep issues that underclassmen at an Ivy League school, stoned to the bejesus belt, are wont to have.
“The original drummer asked, ‘What are you going to do when you get out of school?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to be a rock star.’ They started making fun of me. And he said he was going to be a doctor,” Brownstein recalled. “We were both thinking the same thing: ‘This guy’s a moron.’ But we were both right. I became a rock musician and he’s a doctor.”
Before rock star and physician, however, there were less lofty achievements, like the frat parties that Brownstein, Gutwillig (an aspiring electrical engineer), Magner and Altman played at. At the time they were a Phish cover band, but in 1995, they began to think bigger. In events that predated the Camp Bisco concept, the foursome put together parties that featured the band playing from 9 at night till 1 in the morning, then DJ sets till 6 a.m.
“That was the frat party of our generation – a band and a DJ,” Brownstein said in a thick, rough Northeastern accent. “Instead of us playing and then the concert ending, we could have the DJ play and we could party. And that element just seeped into our music.”
By the time the Disco Biscuits hit the touring circuit, in the mid-’90s, their sound had evolved from Phish knock-off to something quite innovative. Enamored of the DJ music that had capped off their parties at Penn, they aimed to replicate the electronic sounds, but with a determination to do so on their old-school instruments. Thus, along with Sound Tribe Sector 9, a band that formed in Atlanta before relocating to Santa Cruz, and the Toronto trio the New Deal, the Disco Biscuits helped create a sound known as trance fusion or livetronica.
“We used to be the type of band that wouldn’t embrace the technology,” Brownstein said. “Our thing was, we wanted to mimic what electronic music was without using computers.”
Within a few years, though the Disco Biscuits began to loosen up on their organic orthodoxy. Magner bought a synthesizer and began adding a true electronic element into the sound, while Altman brought in trance elements. When Aucoin joined up, in 2005, he raised the band’s technological aspect another notch. What occurs now is a tangled dance between samples, loops, synthesized sounds and live playing.
“When we’re playing live, we’re live,” Brownstein said. “The band is playing live and the energy is live energy. But there are sequencers hooked up to computers that we can trigger at any time, so they can lock in with us. There’s a lot that can be done in the electronic idiom. Now when we go into that, we can be a lot more authentic sounding.”
The band has also learned a a few tricks about songwriting. Early on, the tunes tended toward complexity, long jams, rhythmic shifts. But last year’s “Planet Anthem” exhibited a wide range of approaches, from tight indie-rock songs to electro sounds to slightly extended jams.
“As you grow older, your songwriting changes,” Brownstein said. “We have a lot more depth and skill in how to put together a song. Back in the day, we were a little more self-indulgent – 20-minute songs, 40 parts per song. Now it’s pared down; each song has something that it’s about and we’re not cramming everything we know into a song.”
And Brownstein doesn’t cram everything he knows into the Disco Biscuits. Taking the electronic knowledge he has absorbed, he has in the last few years ventured into producing other musicians, and doing remix projects. The work – mostly staring at a computer – is a bright contrast to standing onstage for hours at a time, interacting with his bandmates and an audience.
“It’s square waves, sine waves. It’s sitting at a computer for an hour with one note, trying to hear the differences in what’s happening in the synthesis of the sound,” he said. “I’ve had to really go back to school in that world and sit for hours and hours, trying to teach myself how to produce. This isn’t something that comes naturally to anyone. Every synthesizer has a million knobs on it, and every one does something different, and you have to twist every knob to see what it does. I’m releasing music from a totally different angle.”
Brownstein has utter confidence that those hours of twiddling knobs are more worthwhile than a Psych 101 requirement. He can see the Disco Biscuits continuing on and on: “I’m not stopping. If they’re on board with me, I’m on board with them,” he said of his bandmates. But if the band were to come to an end, he’ll carry on with music.
“You’re dependent on three other people, and you can’t rely on them all wanting to do this forever. So I’ve got to keep my options open,” he said of getting into production. “I know I will do this till I die.”
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The Disco Biscuits are also in the process of learning a new way of marketing their music. When I asked what the release date was for “Otherwide Law Abiding Citizens,” it seemed the simplest of questions. Not quite.
“We’re not telling anybody that,” Brownstein said. “We’re going opposite what we’ve done, which is, hype the release date, hype the album. After a few months, it’s just too much hype. This time, we released the first track” – the spacey, flowing, 10-minute “Great Abyss,” available to hear on their Facebook page – “with no announcement other than, Here’s a track. The music speaks for itself and there will be a day when the album comes out – not too far off – and the music will hype itself. Let the music do its job.”
It doesn’t seem likely, at this point, that Brownstein will go back to school. But the education in music and the music business continues.
“All I really did in college was play bass,” he said. “It took my college career to become proficient at a professional level. You get to a certain age where you want to keep on learning. For a 38-year-old whose been doing the same thing for 20 years, this is all a big deal.”
The EMU Eco Music Festival doesn’t aim merely to be a green festival. It hopes to lead the way for other festivals to green their practices. So in addition to music and events like yoga and mountain bike tours, EMU features a tree-planting project to add some green to the environment and tents specially designed by Ben Shepard, the ‘X’ Tent that sets a new standard for sustainability. (Did you notice that, in three sentences, I used ‘green’ as adjective, verb and noun?)
And of course, there is music. Friday’s music is at Snowmass’ Base Village, and spotlights up-and-coming acts including several from Colorado: Bassline, Better Than Bacon, the Dusty Neil Band and the Holler! The day also includes guided hikes at 9 and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; bike tours at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; yoga at 10 a.m. and noon; and a Sunset Social in the evening.
Saturday’s lineup shifts towards better-known acts, including rockers Tea Leaf Green at 1 p.m. (‘green’ in a band name – yes!); Colorado jamgrass group Leftover Salmon (2:30 p.m.); Perpetual Groove (4:30 p.m.); a DJ set by RJD2 (6:20 p.m.); and two sets by the Disco Biscuits (8 p.m.).
EMU concludes with a pool party on Sunday, July 3, at noon, at the Viceroy Hotel, with tunes by DJ Aaron Colbert.