The Pop Music Machine Appropriated EDM, says Disco Biscuits' Marc Brownstein
The Disco Biscuits have to travel to Colorado from Philadelphia to play Red Rocks, but the East Coasters might as well be a Denver band at this point. After all, this is a group that, ever since forming in 1995 while attending the University of Pennsylvania, has blended electronic and jam-band music. And what raises a storm more than jam bands playing EDM in these parts? It may always be sunny in Philadelphia, but for the Disco Biscuits, it’s always a party in Denver.
“That’s how it feels to us. It feels like Denver is a home away from home,” says bassist Marc Brownstein. “When you’re a musician, you get a lot of home-away-from-homes. There’s a tendency toward feeling like that about a lot of places that you visit two or three times a year. You have family there. You have friends. You become very close with the people who work in the venues, but there’s nothing quite like Denver for that in this country. It’s truly unique.”
Brownstein should know: He formed the band 22 years ago with guitarist Jon Gutwillig, keyboardist Aron Magner and drummer Sam Altman out of a desire to make the craziest music that four people could create. The bassist says that he initially put in hours trying to reach the same level of musical expertise that his bandmates possessed and, by late 1998 (about three and a half years after forming), the Biscuits started to jell.
“We had started to develop our own sound, melding the worlds of electronic music and rock music, and for us the rest is history,” Brownstein says. “They say with any business, you have to have a differentiating factor – otherwise there’s no need for your business. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in; it’s the same from one industry to the next. If you’re just copying what other people do, then ultimately, you’re going to go away. For the Biscuits, we had to find our own little niche, and when we did, we started to build steam little by little. To say that it was the long game would be an understatement, because we’re still out there 22 years later, still growing, still trying to make new fans.”
By the mid-1990s, the electronic-music scene was in full flight. The illegal raves of the ’80s had given way to hugely popular nightclubs, and many different offshoots from the EDM root. There was still an underground element to it, but it was an accepted and even respected genre of music. The Disco Biscuit members were attending parties at college with people from all over the world, soaking in as many influences as possible.
“We were going to see the Grateful Dead, Phish, the Allman Brothers and stuff, but these dudes that we were hanging out with, at the house we were practicing in, were bringing music in from India, the U.K. and Hong-Kong and deejaying,” Brownstein says. We were soaking it all in. Our generation of kids just loved music. You would go see Phish and Dizzy Gillespie and Method Man — all kinds of music. At the same time, we were going to raves and partying in the electronic-music scene. We loved everything.”
That open mind and eclecticism has really been the secret of the band's longevity and success. The biggest change for the act came in 2005, with its first and only member switch. Drummer Altman left to go to medical school, and Allen Aucoin replaced him. While some bands can replace members without it affecting things too much, for a group as tight as the Disco Biscuits, it’s a far tougher proposition, and it takes time to bounce back.
“We had to learn how to be a band again,” Brownstein says. “By the year 2008, we were down in North Carolina, and we hit our groove. I remember the moment where I stopped, listened and thought to myself, ‘We’re back.’ There was maybe a two-and-a-half-year period of learning how to play together. Then the band hit what I call our second peak. It seems like, as we reach the latter half of a decade, we really start to heat up. That’s part of the natural evolution of playing music in an improvisational setting.”
Two-plus decades in, the Disco Biscuits are more closely associated with the jam-band scene of Phish and Umphrey’s McGee than EDM, though the electronic elements are still there, and still helping give the band an edge. But when it comes to contemporary electronic music, Brownstein isn’t keen to be associated with the more mainstream side.
“In the early 2000s, it really got swallowed by the pop-music machine,” he says. “They appropriated EDM, and so now you go on the radio and the pop songs are EDM groups like the Chainsmokers. It’s just a matter of what your tolerance is for popular music. A lot of people don’t have any, because they feel that in order for something to be pop, it needs to be watered down to the lowest common denominator. I feel like a lot of people who are jaded musical snobs shun that kind of music. For me, I love that all those dudes became pop stars. It’s great for EDM, and it’s great for the music scene.”
It’s been nearly six years since the Disco Biscuits released Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens, an unusually long time for the band to put nothing out. According to Brownstein, the Biscuits have started to leak new material into their live set, and more is imminent.
“There are five songs in the pipeline that I really like — stuff that I’ve played with Electron, my side project,” Brownstein says. “One is called ‘Miracles.’ I get a lot of requests for that song to be used by the Disco Biscuits. It’s been really cool to put out some new material through the side project and have enough people respond to it positively. The flipside of that is, a lot of the material that we debuted on the tour in 2010 didn’t get fleshed out and got pushed out of the repertoire quickly. We brought back a song called ‘Loose Change’ recently after a seven-year break. We reintroduced it with a 25 minute version. There’s a huge amount of music in the canon that we can tap into at any time to keep people on their toes.”
On June 3, the Disco Biscuits will play Red Rocks, and Brownstein has promised the best show the band has played in a decade (though he also retracted that promise for fear of jinxing it). The Biscuits are playing seven shows in nine days immediately prior, three of them at the Ogden, so the bassist is expecting them to be perfectly heated up.
“By that Saturday at Red Rocks, the band should be as warm as we’ve been in nearly a decade,” Brownstein says. “I’ve seen the fans doing the math on social media, and it excites me more than anything to see them get excited about something like that. We’re coming back to Red Rocks with a vengeance this year.”
The Disco Biscuits, with Shpongle: Simon Posford Live, 6 p.m. Saturday, June 3, Red Rocks, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison. The Disco Biscuits “intimate evening” shows, 9 p.m. May 31-June 2, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets for the Ogden shows must be purchased with a Red Rocks bundle.
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