Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones once said that on any given night there’s always one band that, at that particular moment, is the best rock and roll band in the world. Tonight, I’m convinced, that band is The Disco Biscuits.
We’re in the backstage area of The Chameleon Club, a labyrinth-like dance club nestled in Lancaster, PA. Amish Country. On the ride in, I remember thinking to myself, “Rock n’ roll can’t happen here can it?” Sure enough, it can.
But The Disco Biscuits do more than just rock n’ roll. Their sound, an ornately saturated cross between hard-hitting jam-rock and dancehall trance, is an ever changing mosaic which keeps the audience’s attention in motion. It also has a tendency to keep their feet in motion too.
Keyboardist Aron Magner explains it like this: “Well it was kinda like what we were exposed to in our times. The point of technology, the point of culture now – it seems to be two distinct things, two distinct groups of youths that are merging together slowly but rapidly. You’ve got the ‘rave’ culture and then you’ve got your ‘hippie’ culture, both young kids that like to go out to shows, you know, whatever – take their hallucinogenics – but basically party down. And we clearly engaged in both worlds.”
Seeing the Disco Biscuits live is like watching the creation of a third realm – the merging of the two worlds Magner and the Disco Biscuits grew up with. At once your jaw drops from the bombastic and slightly unbelievable rapid-fire licks that Jon “Barber” Gutwillig furiously unleashes on his guitar. Then your attention shifts to Magner who, with the help of a synthesizer, creates sounds usually reserved for the dance floors at raves. The best moments, of course, are when Gutwillig and Magner work together to intricately weave a contrapuntal spider web, an in-an-out stitching job that attaches the guitar with the keyboards while a relentless beat stays rock-steady underneath. This sheer solidarity of drummer Sam Altman leaves Marc Brownstein room to funk out on the bottom end. The result is dizzying and heady and naturally has gained the band a ravenous pack of fans, who fervently light-up the band’s internet discussion group (appropriately titled “discussbiscuits”) with rabid play-by-play accounts of the previous night’s show and extravagant attempts to describe just what it is about The Disco Biscuits that have people so excited.
The answer is found in a combination of things and it is that combination of things that creates the band’s suddenly hallmark sound. Certainly the band is taking the idea of a being a “jam band” almost too literally – all The Disco Biscuits can do is jam. That’s not to say that they don’t display a crafty songwriting ability. That’s just it – they do. They have a rare gift for creating songs that resemble fine architecture more than, say, three chords and the truth. Finely engineered mobile units which take the listener on a movement-oriented excursion, allowing plenty of room for side-tracks and unexpected back alleys.
“I call it a Hump Theory.” says Gutwillig. “It’s like where you want the most exasperating, the most excited, the most crazy part of the music to be, relative to the beginning and end of the song….it’s almost like [the song] Magellan. Magellan’s more like a brontosaurus – it goes up and then it, you know, sort of slopes. Well like that, that whole improv is squarely in the middle. And the song is designed around that. The parts after that are designed to bring you down, the parts before that are designed to bring you up. And that’s why the song…that’s why the song works. Because it’s designed as a whole. It’s not designed as like ‘Here’s my verse, here’s my chorus, I’m going to repeat them three times and then we’ll do a solo.’ It’s not like that. And the only reason we don’t write music like that is because, it’s um…I don’t know. There’s something impressionistic about the music the piano players in the eighteen-hundreds were doing on the pianos. And we listened to a lot of that for awhile. For some reason it just happened. And it’s really crazy stuff and they approach all their music writing that way and we definitely picked that up.”
The press has taken to calling The Disco Biscuits’s sound “trance-fusion”. Many of their fans are simply calling it “Bisco.” These are just names. Words. But one thing is obvious: However you want to label it, The Disco Biscuits are playing the music of the next millennium. It is the music of tomorrow but they’re playing it today. And I’d be willing to bet that they’re probably playing it better too.
At the end of the first set, the band rips back into a musical relapse of Helicopters, a tune they had started towards the beginning of the set. Not a person in the bar is standing absolutely still, unless of course it’s because they’re paralyzed in amazement. The bouncers don’t want to admit it, but the beat is contagious, even if the music itself tends to lose them. And then there are those that enjoy getting lost.
As the Biscuits continue to jam, occasionally clumsy notes never come off as fumbles and quickly get thrown to the wayside. When they jam, they do it with pure abandonment. And they undertake whole band improvisation as opposed to soloing over a groove. What this means is that they’re going for the Houdini stunts and not mere slight-of-hand. For a band as young as they are, both career-wise (3) and in-years (23-25), they are unusually confident in their jamming and wise enough to know that a few bad notes here and there can actually add to the insanity of a music aimed at being insane – in theory as well as practice.
“So we’ve taken the time to refine our old stuff and keep our new stuff at the level where any question that could come up, we’ve already discussed what the answer is. So if for some reason we’re jamming in the song and somebody’s improvising over a part that they’ve never improvised over
which happens a lot everybody else in the band knows how to deal with the situation. So there’s no question. Everybody knows you play whatever the fuck you want, which is a rule in our band. But you know within reason what’s a ridiculous thing to do and what’s a really smart thing to do.” Gutwillig explains.
The Disco Biscuits choose clever covers. And they choose them carefully. Once in awhile they’ll play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” by Stevie Ray Vaughn or Frank Zappa’s “Pygmie Twylyte” – a fan favorite which often turns into an entirely original Bisco jam. At one of my first Disco Biscuits shows the band ripped into a refreshingly raucous and tribal version of Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell” and I’ve welcomed that tune to any set I’ve seen since. But more often than not, the Biscuits are relying on fresh interpretations of their own creations to peak the interest of their audiences. And why not? It’s a reliable tactic.
And while there’s still the occasional break-out of a jazz standard such as “A Night In Tunisia” or Miles Davis’s “Blue Monk,” these are showing up less and less frequently as the band moves into larger venues.
Magner, whose techno antics are complimented by his jazzy approach, observes: “When you think about it, jazz was really the first improvisational music. Sure blues was fairly improvisational but jazz was the first music that really stretched it out and like also adjusted with the times. Miles Davis was certainly the pioneer point of all those changes. All of the sudden music in the pop domain started to go a little more electronic, so Miles busted out with fusion, you know – right on the nose – when the pop stuff was just starting to happen. He was always ahead of it. Right before he died he did a rap album right when rap was starting to make its way into sampling and everything.
So it makes sense that people would A.) pay tribute to their predecessors and B.) learn what had been accomplished in the past before trying to take the step yourself. You got to pay respects and learn the roots before you start going out on a limb.”
Now that the Biscuits have paid their respects, they’re going out on a limb more and more – every night in-fact. Their sonic focus seems to get fined-tuned with every addition of new tunes. And the new tunes seem to be churned out at an alarming rate. The miraculous thing is that each batch seems more and more fertile. The most recent example of this songwriting evolution includes “Bazzar Escape”, “Mulberry’s Dream” and “Smoothie King”, all three of which are played tonight at The Chameleon. And there’s even a debut – “Three Wishes” a catchy tune with bittersweet lyrics, written by Marc Brownstein. As is the ritual when The Disco Biscuits debut a tune, a strong first showing is only overshadowed during the next few shows as the tune starts to mature rapidly.
Looking out over the floor, there’s a surprisingly mixed crowd. There are the expected danksters, funkdown kids and jam-band junkies…but there is also a distinctive college contingent present, a couple high-brow music aficionados and even a few rave kids. And they are all getting down.
“We happened to take this turn last year,” Magner tells me, “You know, we’re riding it out and rediscovering new things and really editing it and working a lot to perfect the art of playing it live and still have our own style associated to it. You know, it’s crazy.”
So crazy in-fact that it led The Village Voice to call the band “The ultimate dance-hall headfuckers.” A proclamation that their fans have picked up on, hence calling the band “The Headfuckers” after the particularly crazy shows. The problem is that at the rate they’re going, The Disco Biscuits might as well just adopt that as their second name. It’s become synonymous. Tonight, at the Chameleon Club, is no exception. The band takes their bows and walk off the stage casually, without much fanfare and I am reminded of something that Gutwillig once said after a marathon set in-front of a few thousand people, earlier in the year. He had that goofy sort of half-grin that he gets sometimes when he’s horsing around, and he said with complete sincerity:
“Some people like the happier stuff. Some people like the songs that are melodic. Some people like the songs that we just fuckin’ tear our shirts off and jam our faces off.”
As the lights turn on at The Chameleon and people start to shuffle out in that dazed stoney shuffle that one gets trapped in after a night of Bisco, I think to myself that more and more people are choosing the latter.
Author Benjy Eisen is choosing the latter. He is also the East Coast’s Bingo Bandit #1, especially when he’s drunk.