Photo by Keith Griner
After 20 years of The Disco Biscuits, Marc Brownstein is still nervous. “Yeah,” he confirms, “ Really nervous.” But these aren’t nerves that come from fear. Excitement is a good word for it, but that might be an understatement. Brownstein, who also plays with the bands Electron and Conspirator, understands more than anyone that any band—and especially jambands—have their ups and downs, and the Biscuits are on currently on the upswing. Although he doesn’t take too much stock in people’s comparisons of recent shows to those from years ago, the bassist has been around long enough to appreciate when his band is putting on some special performances.
Brownstein isn’t one to dwell in the past, but he’s good at learning from it, whether it be from failures or successes. Taking their cues from fans and themselves, The Disco Biscuits are riding a wave of consistency that he says began in the summer of 2013 and has them playing as good as ever. Now, the band is revving up for a four-night New Year’s run at New York’s Playstation Theater that will include the Philly Stray Horns, who joined them for an epic Halloween show, a fan-curated setlist and the elusive “Spin the Wheel” sets, which are decided by chance and which Brownstein calls “beyond exciting.” He took some time earlier this week to discuss the upcoming run and all the band has in store, along with what has made this past year so great and why he’s looking forward to what’s still to come.
I wanted to start out by talking about the upcoming New Year’s run. What sort of discussions did you guys have leading up to this week?
Well, about two months ago, right when we finished Halloween, we discussed whether or not we’d want to bring the horn players back out to play with us again. The general vibe was that everybody in the band really enjoyed Halloween. We had such a great time doing all those different cover songs that we played. But what really was interesting to me was the possibility of bringing the horns players in on Biscuit songs. After playing “Morph” with them, and “MEMPHIS,” there was a lightbulb that went off, and the feeling was sort of, “What else is there?” What other songs would sound incredible with a horn section after all these years of just having an occasional horn player come in and blow a solo or something? It was different to have a whole entire horn section that spent weeks working on arrangements together. The amount of work that the horns put into the show was what made the show so dynamic and exciting.
Then that conversation sort of progressed into a conversation of all of the things that we’ve done over the years that take a show and separate it from all of the rest of the shows that we’ve played over the years. The easiest things that you can do to separate one show from the rest is to just play a great show. But even then, there’s so many great shows, so you’re talking about having to play one of the best shows you’ve ever played—the five best shows out of the thousands that we’ve played. It’s a rare thing that you play a show that’s just so perfect that it’s revered as one of the great shows of all time. Although I think that recently we just played one that people are talking that way about. That having been said, we started to look at all the little special things that we did, and we started reminiscing about the shows where we did Spin the Wheel and some of the other tricks we’ve had up our sleeves over the years.
Can you talk a bit about the Wheel and how it affects the shows? What made you guys want to bring it back?
This was how the conversation progressed: “We still have the wheel?” “Yeah, we have the wheel.” “Yo, let’s bust it out.” We’ve only done it maybe two or three times in our career. We did it in Atlantic City once, and we did it in Sayreville once. It’s one of those things—it’s a little risky. You don’t have the luxury of having spent a whole day working on a setlist, you know, three hours with the band rehearsing the songs and talking about possible routes that you might take in terms of segues. We don’t like to plan out how our jams go—we like to just get onstage and jam, with the understanding that we’ve done this thousands of times, we’re going to get to wherever we have to get, one way or another—but there’s a setlist and there’s a starting point and there’s an ending point, and the only people who know what the ending point is in the whole room are the guys on the stage. So for us, the two times we’ve done Spin the Wheel are really the only two times in our whole career that the crowd has known what song is coming next, and that just changes the entire vibe in the room. Like, we all know “House Dog Party Favor” is next, and we all know that we’re playing “Frog Legs” right now. Now the thought process of “How are these guys gonna get from point A to point B?” is something that everybody in the room is involved in. It’s unique, just a completely different way of presenting your music. There’s nothing like it. People normally wouldn’t want to see the setlist, they wouldn’t want to know what’s coming next, but it’s not like we’re just posting the setlist and everybody can follow along; we don’t know the setlist either. And that creates a whole slew of issues and problem-solving that needs to happen in realtime, because some songs are not easy to jam into, some are in completely different keys. Whereas normally I would make the set flow and progress from key to key, from rhythm to rhythm, we’re going to have to go up there and wing it, because who knows what’s going to come up next.
To me, the two times that we did it, it was beyond exciting. There’s a sort of interactivity between the band and the fans—and of course, the fans are spinning the wheel, so there’s this vibe going on as the wheel is spinning and everybody—the band included—is looking at it, and everyone’s rooting for certain songs as they spin around. And you see the rare song coming and you know everyone’s rooting for it, and then there’s a couple songs on there that we put on as a joke, and who knows what else. We were joking—our friend Beef has really long hair, and he wants to donate it to Locks of Love, and we told him we might put a spot on the wheel where we’re cutting his hair for Locks of Love right there on the stage. Pull a barber chair up on stage—I don’t know! It may happen. If we have the balls to put “Cut Beef’s Hair” on the fucking wheel and go through with it.
We’ve done all kinds of fan setlists over the years. People submit setlists, I just take one off of Facebook, we’ve had one at the Electric Factory where we narrowed it down to ten setlists and we put them up around the venue and people had to vote on them in real time. This time, I just had people post them on our Facebook page, and the top four or five setlist rose to the top through “likes.” You can kind of get a sense, just through the Facebook polling mechanism, of how people are interacting with it. Even the day after Halloween, I sort of threw something on my Facebook page about the horns and got an overwhelming response from people that that was something that, if we were to understand—and clearly we do—that we’re not adding members to The Disco Biscuits permanently, that this was the type of thing where we were reserving it for a special spot and doing creative stuff with it, a lot of the fans were like, “Yeah, we want to see those guys play with you more.”
To me, it kind of hearkened back to the days of the Giant Country Horns, where Phish went out on tour and they brought a horn section and every night they played a couple songs, and they were doing horn arrangements on the go. And you have some classic horn arrangements that came out it. To this day, even when the horns aren’t there, you’ll hear people singing them in the crowd as the song blows by. As a Phan, I remember I went down to New Orleans once to see Phish at McAlister Auditorium and they had Michael Ray & The Cosmic Krewe horns play the encore with them at that show. It was really special. The horns came on and everyone was freaking out.
I remember, back in the day, there was the Internet, but there wasn’t a direct line to the band like there is these days, you know what I mean? Now you can pretty much take the temperature of your fanbase at any point. So for me, it was really exciting to come off of the stage and have this overwhelming sense that we had done something really creative, then to poll the fans and see how they felt about it. And while there were five or six people that were like, “Don’t overdo this”—which is like, obviously we’re not gonna overdo it, we get it—there was this 95 percent who were like “I want to see this song” or “Aw, I missed it, please do that again.” So for us, we got to the end of that and said, “Let’s do some different stuff this New Year’s and let’s just announce it, let people know what we’re doing.” I think for me, after years of playing at Best Buy [Theater, now Playstation Theater] every year, the idea that we can do something to separate these upcoming shows so that they don’t all blend together, that was really appealing to me.
You recently said that you feel like the past year was one of the most consistent years you guys have had in a while. Can you elaborate on that?
I think 2014-2015, the 50-some shows we’ve played, have been at that level. I felt like in 2007 it started to get really, really great. There was a show in Boone, North Carolina that I’ve spoken about over the years, at this place called Legends I believe, and it had this “Ladies” jam in it that I just felt was the moment we turned the corner from losing our drummer [Sam Altman] in 2004—and today’s the 10 year anniversary of Allen [Aucoin, current drummer] being in the band. There were growing pains. When you’ve had a band for 10 years and you’ve played a thousand shows, then you have to switch out one of the core members of the band, it’s gonna change, and it was gonna take time to learn all the music again, and most importantly to learn the jamming techniques. Music is a language, you know, and when you’re in a band for 10 years, there’s a fluency of communication that comes with playing with those people. When you replace a member, you’re trying to find someone who’s going to come in and be as fluent as possible, and that’s why we chose Allen. He was the closest in terms of fluency of any of the people we tried out, by far. But there were still growing pains, and I think at that show in 2007, we just turned the corner, like, “Okay, this is the band. We’re back.” And into 2008 and 2009, we had a really, really consistent run. And then we took a break after 2009, and I don’t want to say that the magic wasn’t there in 2010—it just changed again. We released our album, we had new songs that we were maybe having difficulty trying to find a place for in the set. Maybe we had just lost a little of our momentum. We all wanted to get off the road. Those years just didn’t have the ferocity of 2009. There was sort of a lull in the communication in the band—that’s probably the best way of putting it—how we were communicating on and offstage.
In the summer of 2013, there was a show we played before Camp Bisco, this weekend in Sayreville, [NJ], three nights. I feel like that run was very similar to the Boone 2007 show. We got onstage and it clicked and we were back. I feel like from that moment forth, we’ve maintained a high level of consistency. Look, when you’re doing something improvisational, there’s gonna be highs, there’s gonna be lows, hits and misses. The telling thing about whether the band is playing well or not playing well isn’t how was the show tonight, it’s a level of consistency over a series of runs. That’s what it’s all about. You’re gonna have a great night, you’re gonna have a bad night. You have to expect that. We’re gonna have four shows this week—they’re not all gonna be at the same level. They’re just not, that’s not the way that it works. I don’t know which one’s gonna be the best.
For me, we’ve just hit a level where I feel confident every night. I just keep hearing people saying, “Oh that was the best since 2009,” which always find funny, because we’ve been around 20 years—we’ve been hearing this since 2002: “The best since 1999,” you know? And that just reflects the reality—when you’re in a band, there’s good years and band years, good shows and bad shows. Does every year have great shows? Yeah. And every year has bad shows. When they talk about 2015 being great, that means a higher percentage of them were great than maybe three years ago. That’s what makes coming to see that band special. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. Part of what’s great about these types of bands is the risks you take. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. And sometimes you fall flat on your face.
Tying back into this New Year’s run, we’re taking some fucking huge risks this week. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I don’t know what’s gonna happen—it’s scary. We’re going out there and we’re gonna lay it all on the line, a couple of different times. But I think the fans, over the years, have expressed that they want us taking risks, and we get it. Obviously, the best moments that we’ve ever had, when you look at, like, the Akira set, that’s one of the great moments that we’ve had in our career, 16 years ago now: we got onstage, put a movie on up on a screen and played from behind the screen—didn’t have anything planned. And it turned into one of the greatest sets of music that we ever played. But it could’ve equally been terrible. And we did some other movie sets. They weren’t all at that level. So we learned: that was the massive reward that we got out of that incredible risk that was taken. I think over the last two years, we’re taking more risks and reaping bigger benefits.
Pages:Next Page »