Interview: Marc Brownstein on the Road to Camp Bisco

By Ryan Dembinsky (Ryan Demler)

Catching up with Marc Brownstein as he juggled a busy schedule of five flights in the span of three days, it’s clear that the lack of tDB shows this year has the band more excited to play than ever. The break has been tough on fans, but the upside of the hiatus is that the band has a sense of freedom in having the entire catalog fresh. There’s no worrying about the rotation or what’s been played lately: it’s a clean slate. And in Bisco fashion, instead of playing in the practice room, why not just go out and play shows?

As Marc put it, “Practice is great, but you play at a different level of intensity at a show. No matter how hard you try to play at a practice, you can’t replicate what happens when the adrenaline starts pumping at a show. You just can’t. Your fingers get ripped to pieces at the show, not at practice. No matter how hard you pluck, you don’t rip your fingers at practice. It’s weird. You get on that show and play for three or three and a half hours and it’s just a different kind of intensity. So, we thought, we’re heading into our biggest shows of the year; it’d be nice to have a couple shows under our belt you know?”

Hidden Track: So, before we get into the more topical stuff, I wanted to take a step back and ask you about back when you were first learning music and playing bass. What kind of music you were listening to and maybe even seeing live that led you to improvisation?

Marc Brownstein: I started with music when I was seven, right about when John Lennon died. That was a BIG catalyst for me when he died. It was like, what is going on in the streets of New York? What is causing all of this hysteria and mayhem? So, I started getting into the Beatles really heavily. Then, by the time I get into six or seventh grade and met my first band, I played piano and played through that whole catalog of Beatles songs and started getting into more psychedelic music like the Doors and the Who and super classic rock, Pink Floyd.

My first band was a Doors cover band. We were like Depeche Mode meets the Doors. It was three keyboard players and a drummer [laughs], but we played only Doors songs. I played all the basslines and so what happened was about halfway through that year, even though the Doors didn’t really have a bass player, the idea was maybe I should just go to bass and play the lines on bass. So, that’s actually how I got into bass, by getting split onto the basslines of the Doors music. Since none of us could really play perfectly two-handed, so we split up all the parts on the keyboards. One guy would play the guitar lines on the keyboard, one guy would play the right hand on the keyboard, and I played the bass parts on the keyboard.

And then I discovered the Grateful Dead from there. That’s how I got into improv, and of course then I discovered Phish and that’s when I decided I was sure I wanted to do this for a living. Then I discovered electronic music, which is when the Disco Biscuits started to have some relevance was when we were able to take it all the way up to where we wanted to go and then go past that to the new level.

Now, the new band has stripped out the improv – not all of it, but a lot of it – and is concentrating just on the electronic side. So, it’s almost a full evolution from the beginning, which is the Beatles to the present.

HT: I also wanted to ask you again on the more historic stuff, as part of the older generation of fans who got into it more at the beginning around ‘98 or ‘99, I was curious how that period of when things started getting big pretty fast compares to now in terms of your excitement for it and being wide-eyed musicians?

MB: It’s exactly the same [laughs]. We were just saying that all weekend. When we got onstage at Electric Forest this weekend and there was 15,000 people watching Conspirator , you know Conspirator was built from nothing a year ago. It was from scratch. We were playing after-show Disco Biscuits parties. It’s really hard to start from scratch with a new band and so, right now, this last couple of months we’re seeing some really solid growth. From last year’s festivals to this year’s festivals; you know last year there really weren’t many people watching us.

This year it’s ridiculous. That’s what touring really hard does. People start to know these guys are playing a lot, and people start saying, “Hey, these guys are good, I saw them here, it was good.” So, it gets to the point where everyone at the festival wants to check it out and that’s what happened. It happened at Electric Forest. It happened at Wanee. It happened at at Summer Camp. It’s fun, every time we get onstage at a festival this year, there’s been 10,000 to 15,000 people. Even in Buffalo last night, we were opening for moe. You know, opening bands usually don’t really draw as people aren’t really there to see them, that’s just the way it is, but it was packed when we played. This week has just been great. We’ve really just been taking it in. I was describe right now as exactly the same as what you described back then the first time around when it started to blow up.

HT: So, what led to the decision to add the Road to Camp Bisco shows?

MB: We haven’t played shows in a while and Aron and I aren’t playing that weekend, so we all got together and said, “Do you guys think we should play some extra shows since we’re barely playing?” Everyone was into it and Camp Bisco is selling really, really well. It should be sold out by the time the Road to Camp starts. For us, that was just a big a catalyst. The thing is blowing up, so let’s play some more shows. We’re close to home and it’ll be set up perfectly. Ultimately, we’ll get on stage at Camp Bisco with the fire of having played six full sets right before, rather than sitting just in the practice room.

HT: The Disco Biscuits have been pretty innovative in terms of letting fans help choose setlists and things like that. We were curious, if you’re looking through a thousand or however many submissions you might get, what kind of ideas stick out or what ultimately piques your interest and gets chosen?

MB: Some people don’t understand about tempos or keys, so the ones that ultimately get picked are from musicians. I feel like they have to be musicians or at least have a heightened sense of time and key. They have a really strong ear and can tell that this song would go really well into this that song. That’s the type of thing we’re looking for. You know, where the keys work, where the tempos build, and the creative usage of the catalog. If something pops out, we’ll definitely grab it and use it.

HT: Do you guys tend to play most of your songs in the same key. So, when you’re thinking about segues, do you have to change the key of the original song or do they tend to stay in the key they were written in?

MB: In the middle of a song, we might start modulating the parts to get to a new song. For instance, to get to G, we might modulate to C and then jump up to the five or something like that. So yeah, we often think about the keys and the tempos, but that said, we’re the Disco Biscuits, we can get from anywhere to anywhere [laughs]. We could probably get from any key and tempo to any other key and tempo. It just might take a couple steps, but we’ll get there.

HT: Obviously, without giving away any big surprises or anything, are there certain songs that are really clicking or things you’re especially excited about for Camp Bisco?

MB: Yeah, it’s like I said to my friend when we were on New Years Run or Mexico or whatever it was, and I said, “What should we play?” He said, “At this point, just play a Disco Biscuits song. Nobody cares, we just want you to play songs. Nobody cares; just play some shows.

So that’s what it’s like right now. I get to look at the catalog and be like, “Holy crap, we haven’t played any of these songs in six months or seven months.” Everything is game. Nothing is overplayed. That’s ultimately what you have to worry about is what have you been playing too much; what have people seen a lot of; what hasn’t been played? When you don’t play shows, you don’t have to worry about that. That whole thing is out the window. It doesn’t matter, Rainbow Song, Crickets, Basis, it doesn’t matter. We could play Basis or Crickets or we could not, it doesn’t matter. Everything we play is rare right now.

HT: I know a lot of people are kind of asking what the future hold for you guys right now; is this what we could expect to see from the Disco Biscuits, where you really focus on Conspirator and then get together with the Disco Biscuits for some big events and some shorter tours, or do even know at this point?

MB: No, honestly I really don’t know. I have no idea. I wish I could give you some more information on that, but I just don’t know. There is no way of knowing. That’s a question that could never be answered. Life changes so rapidly. You look at what happens with other bands. They have plans to be together and tour all the time, but then someone gets sick, or someone gets arrested, or someone becomes a heroin addict, or someone goes to jail, or somebody dies. No too be super dark, but that’s life. Sometimes it’s futile to put forth the five year plan. Things change so fast. If somebody gets pregnant, somebody gets married, somebody has twins… At the age we’re at, it’s really hard to know.

I can tell you that as far as Conspirator, we’re all on the same page. Everyone wants to tour. Everyone wants to play shows. When everybody is on the same page with the Biscuits, we’ll do that too. It’s bound to happen at some point. That’s why I don’t want to say, “Well, we’ll probably play ten shows a year and Conspirator will tour.” I don’t know [laughs].

I’m open to it all, you know? If the Biscuits are open to a 30 show tour, then let’s go do it. It’s not happening between now and New Years though. That I can tell you for sure.

HT: Just one last question, I know you have a plane to catch in a few minutes, but with respect to HeadCount, is there anything you want to say as the election season gears up.

MB: As part of HeadCount, this is what we made it for. The whole point of the thing is when you come around to four year election cycle. We want to get 100,000 voters registered this year. The funding is starting to come together. You get around those four year cycles and the the funders start to come out of the woodwork a little bit.

For me, what’s really existing is with the funding, you never know during ‘09, ‘10, ‘11, it gets scary with the voter registration groups when the funding comes once every for years. How do you keep it operating? Right now, we’re starting to see a lot of people coming out to support what we’re doing, and that’s really exciting as the co-founder and co-chair. It gives a bit of justification to all the hard work we’ve put into it. We’re everywhere now. Headcount was in Michigan, in Buffalo, everywhere I go, so it’s fantastic.

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