Over the preceding few years a number of individuals have dubbed Disco Biscuits’ keyboardist Aron Magner, a “covert sonic operative” (okay, more often than not they have used the less prosaic phrase “secret weapon” but the point is made). However sincere and well-intentioned such a sentiment may be, though, it fails to acknowledge Magner’s urgent, defining contributions to the band’s sound. Indeed, although he is often slightly obscured by the tiers of keyboards that surround him, Magner unquestionably operates full throttle in the visible (and audible) range of the spectrum. Indeed it was the addition of his new keyboard textures in late 1997 that helped to initiate the band’s collective musical voice that individuals now refer to as “Bisco.”

Magner’s path to Bisco began with a series of jazz gigs in his native Philadelphia. While still in his early teens Magner performed professionally in a range of combinations, typically focusing on jazz standards. At that time his heroes ranged from Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea to lesser-known, essential performers such as Red Garland. While he maintains an affection for these musicians and the styles they helped to engineer, at present he is much more interested in becoming the progenitor of his own novel moods and emissions.

Magner is currently multitasking with the Disco Biscuits as the quartet remains enmeshed in a number of projects. While practicing and planning for its New Year’s Eve run (which culminates at the Palladium in Worcester) the group is also in the final stages of producing its third album, set for a spring release. Information on these developments as well as the topics raised in this interview can be found at the band’s web site, www.discobiscuits.com.

DB- Let’s start off and talk a bit about your background. When did you start to focus on the keyboard and when did you begin to play out?

AM- I began on piano when I was really young, four or five. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was thirteen, which is when I discovered jazz. It was then that I put classical music, which I had been studying, on the backburner. In the ensuing years I became more serious and started playing professionally- jazz clubs, weddings, bar mitzvahs. That’s what I was all about. When it was time for me to go to college I chose to stay in Philadelphia to maintain my musical contacts. I was even doing that in college. Saturday night everybody was going to fraternity parties and I’m walking out of the quad in a tuxedo, carrying a keyboard under my arm, ready to go play a wedding or something. Then I met these guys {the Disco Biscuits} which basically changed my life. There’s only so long that you can play “Willow Weep For Me” for eighty year old rich Jewish women. I was also seeing a number of my peers who were older than me, still doing the same thing at age thirty-five and not happy. Yeah, they had their bread and butter gigs but that wasn’t really what I wanted to do at thirty-five. It was fun at fifteen but I wanted something a bit more intellectually stimulating.

DB- Then you met the Biscuits which basically changed your perspective-

AM- It changed my life. It’s much more fun to be a fucking rock star than be dressed like a penguin. At the time they were not the Disco Biscuits. They were Xex Sea or The Capital Regime or the Party Tents, a name every other fraternity show. So whatever happened with their old keyboard player, whether he wanted to move on or get more involved in school, they were looking for another one. We had a mutual friend who knew I played keyboards and had a background in jazz. But then there was some phone tag miscommunication, and since we had never really met, Marc relayed to the guys that I was this forty year old black jazz pianist named Aaron Magnum. When I walked into that first rehearsal, an eighteen year old kid with my baseball cap on backwards and my key board under my arm, they were all looking for Aaron Magnum.

DB- How smooth was the musical transition for you?

AM- It was a pretty difficult learning curve. I needed to figure out how to play rock, coming from a jazz background where it was all about the keyboard player putting in all these sharp nines and sharp elevens, making sure the harmony was colored. I had to regress and figure out how to make triads, to wash away the theory, much of my background. It was difficult to strip it down and play bare without all these color tones that would confuse the rhythm and the harmony and the melody. This also took place in the context of four people, one of them completely new, learning how to talk to each other through their instruments.

DB- What sort of keyboards were you playing initially?

AM- I was playing a Rhodes and a pretty piss-poor electric piano. That’s comparatively little to where I am now surrounded by keyboards on all four sides and I practically have to be harnessed in from the ceiling. That was basically it, there was no techno, just a really bad organ sample made in 1987. Of course I was really frustrated about that and I was always in music stores- any musician is a pig in shit in music stores. Anyhow, I was checking out the new gear and looking at stuff I couldn’t afford to buy and I found this keyboard and started playing around with it. All of a sudden it was like “ahhhh” the clouds opened up and I had this epiphany and thought, “This is going to change my life.” I didn’t know just how one keyboard would change my life but I was really excited about it (laughs).

I came home and my parents could see the excitement in my eyes to help me out and purchase this expensive piece of technology. I took it home and then on Halloween 1997 I busted it out. I had the manual out during the show and I was figuring out how to use it. All of a sudden that keyboard player who previously was sitting in the background kind of playing air traffic controller, coloring different notes while Barber {guitarist Jon Gutwillig} assumed most of the leads here and there, was putting out these sounds and rhythms that we hadn’t been doing before. Sammy {drummer Sam Altman} was saying, “Wow all those crazy techno dance beats that I hear all the time from people’s college rooms sound pretty cool over the weird sounds Magner’s emitting.” Then Brownstein {bass player Marc Brownstein} laid down this drum and bass bassline and we found ourselves in a different area.

And it sucked.

We sat in the key of D all night. I think eventually to switch it up we busted into “Run Like Hell” and then right back into D (laughs). Of course it was D with crazy sounds and cool drum beats and stuff like that.

DB- I’ve heard that on occasion you’ll still come on stage with your manuals.

AM- That happens mainly because I’m buying a new keyboard every other month and using them in a way not intended. Some of these are meant to be used in the studio and controlled via midi, or meant to be used as a sequencer. I’m figuring out uses because I don’t like to loop anything that was looped before. I don’t want to press play and there’s that loop I programmed two months ago. I’m doing everything live, tweaking all the sounds out. Even the factory presets- by the time I’m done ripping through it I have completely different sounds coming out of it.

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