Marc Brownstein is healthy, happy and more in tune with his instrument than he’s been in years.
Chatting from the shores of Lake Michigan, the bassist explains how the retro sounds of Star Kitchen – his new band consisting of guitarist Danny Mayer, keyboardist Rob Marscher and drummer Marlon Lewis – are not only informing his own playing, but the sonic infrastructure of the Disco Biscuits as well. In his words, learning to play funk and R&B standards for Star Kitchen has been “mind-altering.” Plus, it’s a fast track to what he describes as his main goal in life: “to make every Biscuits jam awesome.”
Brownstein points toward Sharon Jones, Bell Biv DeVoe and many others as the building blocks of his new quartet, and he’s buckling down on becoming the best bassist he can be. “One of my friends was talking about the zone of excellence versus the zone of genius,” he says. “Most people live in the zone of excellence, but then there’s that next-level and all it is is discipline: sitting down and repeatedly working on things over and over and over again.”
Hot off of Star Kitchen’s debut at Electric Forest, Brownstein describes his newfound instrumental skills, the importance of exercise, his enduring love for Camp Bisco and the potential for some new Biscuits studio work.
Star Kitchen made their debut this June at Electric Forest. In your words, how did you enjoy that set?
We’ve only played that one set. That was the debut of the thing. It’s been almost two years from the initial concept of starting a band like this, and it took me that long to actually conceive of the whole thing, find the band, put it all together, rehearse for four months, book a show, get everybody out there and, then, of course, there’s all of the elements of the experience of Electric Forest.
So there’s a lot to talk about, but if you wanted to boil it down to the set for right now, I couldn’t believe how well it went. We played all cover songs, a lot of funk songs that get played by a lot of different bands. And the idea there was to start with classics, the standard funk and R&B songs. And then as we move forward into the future, we’re going to take songs that haven’t been turned into funk and R&B songs yet. We’re playing around with Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” in the studio recently, and other things like from that new Jack swing era. There’s a whole wealth of music there that hasn’t been flipped into instrumental funk.
But this show was mainly just playing the classic hits and it went off spectacularly. We played them tight, we had the help of Shira [Elias], Sammi [Garett], Greg [Sanderson] and Josh [Schwartz] from Turkuaz which was really, really exciting. The things that excited me the most and will end up exciting fans of the Biscuits the most, and hopefully fans of just jam and funk music in general are the improv sections of Star Kitchen. Because when you’re practicing in the studio you can improv and work on stuff together, but until you get out on the stage and you’re in front of people and you get into the jams, you don’t know what’s gonna happen.
When we got on stage, we started to get into some really deep, funky, exploratory, vivid jams without a solo going on on top of them, and we were stretching it out a little bit. For the first time, we processed this now two year process to put things together. Cathartically, I was able to finally see what the full potential of this thing is gonna be down the line. The full potential is gonna be mind-expanding improvisation.
I had read that part of this whole project for you was expanding your knowledge on the bass. Have you experienced that already?
Yes, I definitely started to feel a huge difference in how I play bass and more importantly just my level of confidence of going out and playing with people. I played with everybody in the jamtronica scene over the last 10 or 15 years and we’ve been playing with the OG jamband scene for years and years and years.
But there’s this interesting thing that happened in the jamband scene where New Orleans funk musicians and LA funk musicians and jazz musicians have coalesced into one big scene together. And so now George Porter’s in the jam band scene. And Adam Deitch, who I’ve always looked up to and was a well-known jazz and funk drummer, is a stalwart of the jamband scene. And over the last year or two I started to get invited to play with a lot of those musicians. Peers of mine that I look up to and have looked up to for many years. Not that I don’t look up to the people in the jam band scene, it’s just that’s our own little insulated world. I got invited to play with Alvin Ford from Dumpstaphunk down at JazzFest and we were playing with Khris Royal and Brandon Butler and Cliff Hines and these are all local New Orleans jazz musicians and I’m the one guy not from New Orleans in that session. It was a monumental moment for me, getting to play with these dudes that are serious, serious monster musicians.
And on the flipside, I know they feel similarly. They’re excited to play with me and we’re bridging the gap between these scenes right now. My thought-process there was I need to learn all the classic, standard funk songs to expand my knowledge for that one minute when somebody’s like, “Hey, do you know how to play this?”
When I was in rehearsals with Star Kitchen a couple of weeks ago, they were like, “Do you know ‘Teen Town’ by Jaco Pastorius?” and I was like “Ah, back in the day I tried to learn it and it was out of my level back then and I don’t really know it.” And then two of the guys played it in practice and they ripped through the first half of “Teen Town,” which is complex, and I went home, turned on “Teen Town,” found a 17-minute YouTube video called “Deconstructing Teen Town,” slowed it down and started just digging in phrase to phrase. Three weeks later, we were at practice and my drummer goes, ‘Yo, did you ever check out ‘Teen Town’?” I was like this is the greatest moment ever, because I did check it out. I spent three weeks working on it.
I started playing it and we all jumped in and we were playing this crazy Jaco melody that’s a standard practice piece for bass players. And just that moment, with that few weeks of work that I put in learning that one song, changed the way that I see the bass. I learned about 50 new phrases just from learning this one super complex, super fast melody.
It was a mind-altering experience, where I had entered into it thinking about music one way and came out of it with a whole, fresh sense of how things can be played. And every show I’ve played since then, I’m attacking all of the jams with slightly new phrases, which is interesting for the bands because nobody wants to keep hearing the same shit over and over. And I’m bringing that back into the Biscuits.
I’m sure you’re super comfortable with the guys in the Biscuits. Tell me about your chemistry with the guys in Star Kitchen?
Yesterday I was sitting here with my buddies and one of them goes, “Do you believe in the Law of Attraction?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? Forget about believe in it, I’m living it right now.”
I believe that in a lot of ways so many of the things that have happened in my life and the successes that I’ve had, both with my family and with my career, are attributable to putting things out into the universe and then watching the universe deliver them to you.
One day and my son had a friend over and his friend looks at me and goes, “My dad’s in a band.” and I was like, “Yeah, right. Everybody’s dad’s in a band. What’s the name of his band?”
“Oh, he’s in a couple of bands. He plays guitar in one band called the Eric Krasno Band.”
And I was like “What!? Your dad’s in Eric Krasno’s band on guitar?! What’s your dad’s name?” and he was like, “His name is Danny Mayer.” I had never heard of Danny Mayer, so I was like, “Who else does he play with?”
“Well, he’s in Alan Evans’ trio.” So I’m thinking, there’s this guitarist that lives in my neighborhood, who plays with Alan Evans and Eric Krasno? How fucking funky must this guy be?
So I met him in a Little League game and the chemistry between Danny and I was really, really good. We hit it off right off the bat. We have very similar interests, our kids are friends, they go to middle school and camp together in the summer. So I was like, “Alright. Let’s get a band together.”
[Then we got Rob and Marlon] and we started working on that chemistry that you talked about. The thing is, as we left for Electric Forest, I asked one of the dudes who works in the studio, “How did it sound?” and he was like, “Dude, it sounds unbelievable, but there’s something else that it’s almost hard to put to words, but it’s a personal chemistry that’s going on with the band that’s really really exciting to watch.”
And that’s the honeymoon period of a new band. Every new band is like that. Obviously, the road can grind you down, so I’ve had that experience already of being ground-down on the road. Knowing about it now, when we start new stuff, we do it in a really strategic way to avoid suffering from that grind, so we can stay on a honeymoon forever.
And you’re starting to write original music? Is it going to be collaborative or will everyone write individually?
I think it’s going to be a combination of writing together and writing separately. I had a very specific idea of what I wanted this music to sound like, but I am also wise enough to know that you can’t tell musicians what to sound like; you have to let them sound like themselves. We very carefully chose who those people were, so that we knew where it was going to end up. But we all listen to different music, so when we go around in the car, driving together, I’ve been getting a clearer sense of where everyone’s heads are at musically. And I feel like when we start to write, it’s gonna end up being a little bit more contemporary funk and soul. But I’m glad that we started out playing classic funk and soul because that was the idea: to let the band evolve through the music that’s being inspired by.
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