The Disco Biscuits
Aspen Times Staff Writer
When drummer Sam Altman, guitarist Jon Gutwillig and bassist Marc Brownstein started playing music together, in 1993 around the University of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia campus, they had no idea what to call their sound, much less how to describe it.
“We were playing as fast and as hard as we could,” said Altman. “Everybody just got onstage and we played, and I don’t even think there’s a name for the kind of music we played back then.”
As the Disco Biscuits, the band – which includes the original three members, plus keyboardist Aron Magner – has a name for its sound: trancefusion. But trying to describe the sound is still an elusive business. The music comes out of two musical movements – jam-band and electronica – that can be seen as the opposite ends of the spectrum.
On the one hand, the Disco Biscuits jam. The music is heavy on improvisation; one of the band’s hallmarks is never playing a song the same way twice. At the same time, the group uses synthesizers and looping techniques and electronic effects; the pulsating rhythms are pulled mainly from the dance clubs.
The synthesis of jam and electronica came not out of any grand plan, but as a product of the times. “The idea for the band was just to have fun and to improvise and take things where they’d go,” said Altman, who had grown up on Long Island, N.Y., listening to the hard-rock sounds of Black Flag, Metallica, Slayer and Bad Brains, and later became interested in seminal jam bands the Grateful Dead and Phish. “But as far as the electronics and technological stuff, that’s what we were listening to and that’s what people were dancing to. That’s the scene we were playing in. So we started putting all these techno beats and electronic sounds into what we were playing. It was a more liberating experience for us.”
The fusion of styles required some tinkering. Eventually, the band started working out methods for their music.
“We started developing rules for improvisation,” said Altman, who comes to Aspen Sunday, July 28, as the Disco Biscuits make their local debut at the Double Diamond. “You need rules, or guidelines, to get from one place to another, methods and techniques to get from one key to another. We try to almost never be soloing. In the improvisation sections, we’re all trying to be improvising at the same time, and to do that, you need rules.”
Those rules all clicked into place at Halloween gig in 1997. “We just started playing this groove, this eight-bar loop, that we just kept doing,” said Altman. “It was real repetitious, but the music was going places that we never imagined it could.”
One of the rules that governs the Disco Biscuits is that all of the sounds must actually be played live. “We’re still not using samples,” said Altman. “We still play every note live. So the technology for us hasn’t changed, except for the addition of some synthesizers.”
Combining such contrasting approaches to the music has been not only an artistic adventure, but a cultural one as well. But the Disco Biscuits have seen the disparate camps of listeners blend as easily as the music has.
“That’s been a pretty remarkable thing,” said Altman. “When we started out, it was preppy college kids, because we were a college band. Then the hippie kids started coming out. And then the candy raver kids. It’s all sort of mixing together. We happen to meet all of their needs, musically. And we have the same inclination as them – to get up and play as hard and as fast as we can until they turn the power off.”
One way the band has thwarted those who would cut the power midshow is by staging its own events. This summer, the Disco Biscuits, who relocated from Pennsylvania to Santa Cruz a year ago, have organized two of their own festivals: Bisco Inferno, a two-night bash at the Mishawaka Amphitheater in Bellvue, near Fort Collins, on Friday and Saturday, July 26-27; Bisco Nights, Aug. 6-7, in Boalsburg, Pa.; and Camp Bisco III: Senor Boombox, Aug. 23-24 in Union Dale, Pa. Other summer highlight for the Disco Biscuits should be the appearance Aug. 3 at the Grateful Dead Family Reunion, Terrapin Station, in East Troy, Wis.; and the Aug. 16 gig in New York’s Central Park.
Since reconciling the organic jamming and the electronic/dance elements of their music, the Disco Biscuits have focused on another aspect of the music: songwriting.
“You don’t remember a band from that jam on 10/30/91 at the Wetlands,” said Altman, referring to the now defunct Manhattan club that helped spawn the jam-band scene. “You remember that song that they did. And John and Mark have really progressed as songwriters. The craft of making a song has improved 10-fold since we started. We’re always looking for that two-pronged approach.”
The band’s last album, 2001’s “They Missed the Perfume,” was recorded in an appropriate place: an abandoned electric power plant in Easton, Pa. The band’s next album, “Senor Boombox,” is due for release in September. They also have recently released a remix album, “Bisco Lives Two.”
While the Disco Biscuits were breaking new trail when they started out, they have seen several bands follow in their path since. Altman noted that such groups as Sound Tribe Sector 9, Particle, Lake Trout and New Deal have all emerged as bands that tread the lines between jam-band and electronica act.
Despite helping to launch a new kind of music, the Disco Biscuits haven’t quite perfected their trancefusion sound. Every so often, an element is out of whack and needs adjusting.
“You can still hear my metal background,” said Altman. “The guys are always trying to get me to slow down. I’m always trying to get it to the death metal speed.”
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