Saturday, July 16, 2011

Exploring a Decade of Camp and a New Identity for The Disco Biscuits

Published in by Mike Greenhaus
In 1999, the Disco Biscuits hosted the inaugural Camp Bisco at Cherrytree, PA’s TuneTown Campgrounds. In addition to multiple sets from the Disco Biscuits, the festival mixed DJs with jamband stalwarts like Sector 9 [as they were known back then], Deep Banana Blackout, the Recipe, Fat Mama, Lake Trout, ulu and Project Logic. Over the years, Camp Bisco has changed its scope and expanded its focus to emerge as one of the country’s largest electronic music festival. On the eve of the 10th Camp Bisco, Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein discuses the festival’s evolution, Conspirator’s new album and the Disco Biscuits’ busy “year off.”

This will be the 10th time the Disco Biscuits have hosted Camp Bisco since 1999. Can you start by giving us some background on what your initial idea for the festival was?

We wanted to start an electronic music festival—that was the idea. And when we started it we had a bunch of DJs, as well as Sound Tribe Sector 9 and some other bands on there that we were friends with. There weren’t as many electronic bands in 1999, so it wasn’t as easy to build a massive electronic music festival like it is right now. But the idea was unique at the time to have a festival that ran until 6 AM. That wasn’t your everyday festival. Your everyday festival ended at Midnight or 1 AM in ‘99. So what we did to change the paradigm was to add this late-night vibe in. I know it may sound funny to people because late night shows are such a huge part of the festival culture now but at the time that was a new idea. There was no Bonnaroo or big festivals with late nights in the ‘90s. I don’t know if we were the first to do it, but we were definitely one of the first to do it.

The bands went off and then the DJs came on and played until 5 or 6 AM. The idea was to fuse the cultures of rock music and electronic music, which was kind of natural to the Disco Biscuits at the time because we were born out of those two cultures. We were born from our love of rock jambands and our love of electronic music. We were doing the same thing in college in 1997 at different parties. There were raves at the time, but rock bands didn’t play them. But we would play until midnight then our resident DJ would come on and spin until 6 in the morning and everybody would trip out for 8 hours. It was perfect.

They’d start tripping at 8 PM and they’d have a party all the way through until they mellow out at 6 AM. They were these experimental college parties— psychedelic experimental parties. And what we did was we took that vibe and we put it in the festival setting. Over the past few years, electronic music festivals have gotten bigger and bigger but our festival is the biggest electronic music festival in the Northeast.

People might not remember, but in ’99 it was rare for a jamband festival to feature any electric or indie bands.

What’s really cool about that is that it’s like whether Pitchfork wants to admit it or not, the music scene is all fused together. Pitchfork can cover indie, electronic, and hip-hop, but they won’t cover the jamband side of things—it’s just not on their radar. They decidedly ignore it, but it can’t be ignored at this point. This is a merging of cultures that has happened already. This will be James Murphy’s third year in a row at Camp Bisco and his is the King of Pitchfork. Damon Dash is here, Yeasayer is here Wiz Khalifa is here—plus we’ve had Snoop, Damian Marley & Nas and the guys from Wu Tang. We’ve merged the world’s of indie, electronic, hip hop, and jambands.

What’s funny to me is that while people are only now taking about the merging of indie, jam and electronic, Ira Wolf Tuton from Yeasayer is probably one of only people who played the second Camp Bisco [in 2000 when he played with the Ally] and the 10th Camp Bisco.

Actually, I’d say probably the only person to play the first and 10th Camp Bisco who is not in the Disco Biscuit is Dave Murphy (from STS9) Murph, Jon [Gutwillig], Aron [Magner] and I are the only ones to play the first Camp and this one.

It’s amazing that Sound Tribe Sector 9 was there at that first one—now they would be a headliner at Camp Bisco. That’s something we’ve seen over the years—groups go from being the side-stage acts like Bassnectar to be the headliner at the festival, which is really exciting. The festival is growing with the artists—and the Biscuits grow with them too.

Speaking of growing together, your relationship with [hip hop icon] Damon Dash has grown over the years. What are you working on for Damon now?

Well, [singer and Dash associate] McKenzie Eddy’s album should be done and mixed by July 25. McKenzie and I have been working since last July on her album. I’ve co-written all the songs with her except for one. I wrote one entirely and she wrote one entirely. We spent a lot of time in the last year working on an electronic album with female vocals in the forefront. I have always been a fan of Portishead and Massive Attack so for me it is exciting to create something in that world. It is more of an R&B/hip-hop/pop [sound], so I had to shift gears between all these genres.

I’ve never been known for my vocal prowess [laughter], so to sit down and write a song and have a great singer interpret it or write parts on top of the music is amazing. McKenzie is so easy to work with. I can give her suggestions and there’s no ego. She allows me to really produce her and trusts that I’m going to make it the best it could possibly be, and that’s a really rewarding experience for both of us.

On the hip-hop side, we’re also still plugging away, one song at a time, on a Disco Biscuits hip hop album. We’re not doing it like The Black Keys. They went into the studio and made the album at once. We’re kind of just doing it one track at a time as we go along. We probably have six or seven tracks done, including tracks with rappers like Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa and Talib Kweli. Damon has been really great about introducing me to artists and helping me pursue relationships with them. As a hip-hop fan from Brooklyn, it’s been a rewarding experience to step out of my comfort zone and learn how to produce hip-hop. Nicole Wray is also on it—she’s a multi-platinum R&B singer who is a Missy Elliot protégé. I get emails from Nicole Wray saying, “I wanna sit down and make hits with you.” Over the past 18 months, the Disco Biscuits name and my name has been thrown out to people who would never know we existed if Damon didn’t say, “Let’s do this.”

We also remixed 24 Hour Karate School, Ski Beatz’s entire album, and we’re gonna be releasing a remix album in not too long.

Will these be Disco Biscuits songs with new rap sections or entirely new compositions?

They’re all new songs. We do have some remixes from Planet Anthem as well: there’s a “Concrete” remix with Curren$y on it that hasn’t been released yet. And there’s a “Fish Out of Water” remix as well. Ski did a “You & I” remix which is getting released with a video which is just incredible, and he also did a “Sweat Box” remix. But for the [album] we were talking about, it is going to be all original. We are calling it Disco Blue. It may take us 3 more years to get out because it’s that slow.

We have a ton of projects right now. Conspirator is recording an album and the Disco Biscuits did an album that is finished. We started working on it in November and mastered it two days ago. Aron and Chris Michetti and myself are all in the middle of making a Conspirator album right now, so over the last two years we’ve made this remix album, we’ve made the Biscuits album, we made McKenzie’s album, we’re making a Conspirator album and we’re working on Disco Blue. It you balance that with getting out on the road and touring for 4 weeks, it’s just everything goes on the back burner.

For us, when we’re on tour with Conspirator, we can continue to work on the Conspirator album. When we go out on tour in January the studio stuff just grinds to a halt, although now I’ve been carrying the studio with me everywhere I go. I’m at the beach now with my family for the next 4 weeks—outside of Camp Bisco—and I’ve got a little studio set up on the first floor of the house. When everybody goes to sleep at night I just get in the studio. Right now I’m working on a Conspirator remix that’s a 12th Planet song. 12th Planet is a dub-step artist who’s playing at Camp Bisco this summer. That’s what I’m working on today. I’m sitting here, I kinda have a headache.

Sounds like tough living, working on the beach!

Yeah, it’s a hard life. Taking in the sun and listening to dub-step—that can cure the headache. Sitting on the couch here, nursing a headache, trying to come up with some dub-step bass lines for this remix.

Let’s talk for a second about the new Disco Biscuits album. That album is made up almost entirely of older songs you’ve played on the road, correct?

Yeah. We went in and made an album of all songs that are done. Most of them are newer songs written in the past two years, like “Feeling Twisted” and “Portal to An Empty Head.” There’s one song that was written in 2002 on there. There are songs that are older—I know people know “Great Abyss” is on there, which is like more of a 2005 song. We are trying to have fun in the studio. It wasn’t the Planet Anthem style of piecemeal producing tracks. This time around, we’d go in, play the song 7 times, take the best version and Benji Vaughan from Younger Brother did some post-production work. It was definitely exciting to come in and bang out a Biscuits album, and the artwork is incredible.

I don’t know why, but my whole thing is to not hype this album. We would over-hype things in the past, and I think that this time, the music just speaks for itself.

How was that studio process different than the Conspirator process?

The Conspirator album is all new material, much more current electronic music. We’re working with sounds that have been popularized in the last 3 years by artists like Deadmau5, Wolfgang Gartner and Skrillex. That’s the vibe that the album is taking on. It has a little bit of dub-step, but is mostly electro music—mostly 128 beats per minute. It has wobble in it which is and idea that has been popularized a little by Deadmau5, who’s the most popular of all electronic musicians in the world right now and you know, we’re fans. We’ve become fans of that kind of music after years and years of not liking that kind of music. I enjoyed Rusko a lot when he played like Bisco Inferno and we had a good time hanging out. It’s like, first there were jambands, and then there were jambands that played electronic music, then there were electronic musicians that appealed to jambands and then there were bands who played like electronic musicians but more in the jamband realm.

Bassnectar, Pretty Lights. There’s the next evolution—bands playing precise electronic music, which is what Conspirator is becoming. It is more precise than jammy.

Were you moving in this new direction before Michetti joined the band or is this his influence?

Clearly Michetti. I wasn’t really into that kind of music and then Michetti kind of showed me the brighter side of how great Deadmau5 is. We were on a tour together for like 4 months, listening to music, creating music, making music. It was really inclusive, so it was less about what we were listening to and just about techniques that he gained from listening to these musicians that he’s taught me in the studio. He’s teaching me a lot about producing in the studio, I’m teaching him a lot about restraint in the live setting—how to get up on stage and not wail on your guitar the entire time. He’s a virtuosic guitar player. He’s just such a big part of this new Conspirator sound, and we are moving in a different direction really quickly.

Sometime people will say something like, “play the old Conspirator’s style.” They will send me an email or post on Facebook. But if you want the old Conspirator style you need a time machine because we’re not looking back. The new Conspirator is where it’s at—this is the hotness, it’s so much better. It might take some of the fans, with their expectations, time to catch up in terms of where it’s at, but the future is now. It’s exciting because there are so many things that I’ve learned in the last year, so many techniques that I needed to know in order to be producing legit electronic music.

You have slowly built Conspirator’s live show as well and returned to many clubs that the Disco Biscuits outgrew. Is it easier to grow a band the second time around?

It’s so much fun to go back into the clubs. I’ve not wanted to play these clubs for years. For so many years all I’ve wanted to do was get bigger and bigger and bigger—I wanted to play the next size room. So much of it is a perception that your band is continually getting bigger, and how important the perception is. It is important to the guys in the band even—to make them continue doing what they are doing. There is this mentality: We have to play Red Rocks, we have to headline the Tweeter Center, we have to do this, we have to do that. Last week we went and we played The Brockley in Philadelphia with Conspirator, which holds like 700 people. It is a little bar. But you can control the stage and the crowd. It’s a pleasure to go back and play these little places. I don’t think I would enjoy it as much with the Biscuits because the Biscuits have outgrown that. For me it makes sense for a new band to be playing the club circuit. It’s just fun to have something where the expectations are different and where it’s like if we do 500 people it’s a gigantic success, where it’s like with the Biscuits if we do 5,000 people it’s a gigantic success.

We always want to have gigantic successes and for the most part we do—we’ve had a very fortunate career, We did almost 7,000 people at Red Rocks [in May].That was one of those career defining moments—life defining moments. But coming in and playing, a 500 person place and selling it out is a whole different kind of excitement. It’s like chemicals come out of your brain and into your bloodstream and you feel the same. It’s like the excitement of doing 300 people at Wetlands in 1997 is the same as the excitement of doing a 3,000 people at Camp Bisco in 2002 and it’s the same excitement as doing 15,000 people last year. It’s just about it growing. Average success feels the same on every level or scale; the scalability of success. We’re going out on an 18-show fall tour, and the Biscuits are going on a 19-show amphitheatre tour in August and then Conspirators going on an 18-show club theatre tour in September. These two things are equally rewarding in completely different ways and on completely different levels.

With the Disco Biscuits, on Identity we’re gonna play Deer Creek, Lakewood, the Gorge, Starlake Amphitheatre, and Susquehanna Bank Center. It’s just going to be an incredible experience and we’re looking forward to hanging out with Rusko and Kaskade, getting to know these people, Steve Aoki. We are already friends with Pretty Lights but we have never done a tour with him so that is going to be nice as well.

Given that you will be playing primarily to electronic music fans on the Identity tour, do you plan to focus on the Biscuits’ more electronic songs?

I don’t know if we’re going to come out on stage and play “Eulogy” or “Kitchen Mitts,” but to a certain extent we have to play our songs. We’re a jamband. To a certain extent, Conspirator would fit better on Identity Tour than the Biscuits, but nobody knows who Conspirator is yet. I think there’s gonna be a lot of Biscuit fans at these shows, and I’m hoping that you’re average fan of music will check us out.
If they’re expecting 10,000-15,000 people a night, if one out of four in Indianapolis all of a sudden becomes a fan of the Biscuits because they’re fans of music and we do what we do best and don’t try to cater too much and just be ourselves, then we’re increasing our fan base in Indianapolis substantially. And if you’re talking about Dallas and Houston, same deal—if we can make 2,500 new fans there, we’re increasing our fan base dramatically at these places. It actually isn’t hitting our biggest markets, like Denver, Chicago, Boston, Saratoga Springs or Hartford. All the places where the Disco Biscuits are big. We’ve never been to Albuquerque and we are playing there. We’ve been to Houston 3 times in our career and Dallas 3 times in 15 years. We’ve played New York 200 times, we’ve played Dallas 3.

To bring things full circle, after Camp Bisco and the Identity tour, what does the rest of your year look like?

Conspirator is following up Identity Tour with a full 3 week tour. In 2011, the Biscuits decided we were gonna take the year off, and we’ve actually ended up playing a lot for our year off. We ended up playing around 42 shows, which isn’t really a year off after all. It’s not an 80 show year, but most years we’re only playing 60 shows, so we’re playing two thirds of what we would play in a normal year this year. This was our year off [laughter]. So we’re taking the whole fall off. As soon as Identity Tour is done, we’re shutting it down until the end of the year. We haven’t really gotten to start to talk about what we’re gonna do after that—if we hadn’t played Identity Tour it would have been a true year off where we played 20 shows or so. But when something like Identity Tour comes along, you don’t turn it down. It definitely changed the scope of what 2011 was supposed to be for the Biscuits which was, make an album, release the album, and then take a year off. But I’m glad that we have an album coming out soon and I’m glad that we have a tour coming up to coincide with it. I think it’s really great to get out and get in front of people. Obviously, I love touring the most of anybody in my band—I never want to stop. I’m playing probably 130 shows this year.

And that is your year off.

Well, I’m 38 years old. This isn’t exactly the time to chill—I haven’t hit retirement age yet. I wake up and I work, that’s what I do. I take a few breaks during the day to spend time with my children and work on music the rest of the day—balancing 3 children and 2 bands and a non-profit organization [HeadCount] is a lot. Plus, I am producing 3-4 artists and working on the management side with a few bands like Nicos Gun. So with all the different projects we have going on there’s not a ton of time to nurse your headache.

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