“We then tried doing that while jumping through some technological hurdles, like not being able to play live together”
There’s a strong case to be made that there hasn’t been a more influential band in the jam scene over the past 25 years than Philadelphia’s the Disco Biscuits. Unlike a lot of their contemporaries who are influenced by funk and Grateful Dead-style rock, the quartet of guitarist and vocalist Jon Gutwillig, bassist and vocalist Marc Brownstein, keyboardist and vocalist Aron Magner, and drummer Allen Aucoin embrace electronic elements into their sound.
This approach makes their live shows feel more like a party rather than a typical concert. They also have a dedicated fan base that will travel hundreds of miles to see them perform. On the strength of that enormous following, they’re performing four straight nights at the Yarmouth Drive-In on Cape Cod from October 16 to 19.
I spoke with Magner ahead of the shows about being influenced by what was happening across the Atlantic during the mid-’90s, performing in an empty ballpark, being psyched to perform live in front of an audience for the first time in months, and working on a new album.
Disco Biscuits are pioneers in bringing electronic elements into a jam band sound and it has influenced countless newer bands. What initially influenced this style? Does it come from an appreciation for a lot of different kinds of music or is it something else?
It was kind of the environment that we were in during college together at a certain period of time in the mid-’90s. We got to know an international group of friends who in turn exposed us to all of this music that was happening mainly in Europe at the time. The electronic scene was already burgeoning over there but it was just starting to become sort of mainstream here in the States. It was still mostly an underground kind of scene and we happened to get into it because of those friends that we had at the University of Pennsylvania. Then it naturally became an art imitating life and life imitating art type of thing.
It definitely started an organic evolution with us discovering our sound. Most jam bands are influenced by a lot of different genres, for better or for worse. You could probably make the argument either which way, but each of us are pretty versatile in all of our musical influences or even what we choose to play as our instrument. It wasn’t a surprise that we started to incorporate these cool, new, and hip sounds and stylings that we were being introduced to at the time.
For nearly 20 years, you guys have put on your own festival called Camp Bisco every July. Along with every other festival, this one got postponed to next year because of COVID-19. How much has this affected the band in general and what have you enjoyed the most about Camp Bisco since the first one happened in 1999?
Let’s compartmentalize that question because the answer is a lot. It’s not just the Camp Bisco postponement that has affected the operation, it’s the cancellation of each and every concert that has not only affected our operation but all of the millions of people that are entertainers, that work with entertainers, that work in venues, are part of a production crew or handle managing and promoting are affected too. The entire ecosystem of arts and entertainment is hurting, so specific to us it definitely hurt that Camp Bisco had to be postponed, but does it hurt any more or less than everything else that has happened thus far this year? I’m not telling you anything you don’t realize already.
We were the first to shut down as an industry and we’ll definitely be the last to come back once the gates open up. It’s difficult, man. It’s really difficult for everybody and it’s obviously not exclusive to us in the arts. There are many industries such as retail and restaurants that are hurting right now and there are families that are hurting for all sorts of different reasons. Even families with jobs and just dealing with their kids with the stress and anxiety.
I know I’m going off on a tangent here, but this is really serious because it’s getting dire for the entertainment industry right now. I’m lucky because I’ve built a reasonable career for myself where I can afford, even though it’s still painful, to take more than six months off from playing. What happens in another six months, which is going to happen, and adding on each additional month after that until we figure out a way to reopen? It’s daunting.
On the positive side, you do have a lot of effort being put forth with the National Independent Venue Association’s #SaveOurStages campaign bringing awareness and legislation.
Back on June 23rd, Disco Biscuits put on a livestream called “Take You Out To The Ballgame” from Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia to benefit the PLUS1 For Black Lives Fund. Who came up with the idea to do this and how was the experience of the whole thing for you?
First of all, the show is still archived on Youtube. I suggest going to check it out if you haven’t already because even for the cinematography alone, having a band perform in a completely empty and barren ballpark evokes a feeling of isolation that all of us have been dealing with. Yet, it’s also positive and uplifting and it was the first time we were able to get together in months. We’re all spread out in different states and that alone was a hurdle we had to get over in order to play some music together. That was rewarding in its own right, but to be able to have a performance where we were able to really play like we meant it was too.
I’m always used to having that symbiotic audience and artist relationship happening, but while playing we were slightly less aware of the fact that there was no audience and it didn’t matter at that point in time. It wasn’t any less awkward than this period of life we’re all existing in right now, but it was definitely cool to have that opportunity. The conversations about doing this livestream started all the way back in March. We shut down when our equipment was already up on stage and we were getting ready to play a series of hometown shows in Philadelphia. That was the day we came in for soundcheck and it didn’t feel right, then 24 hours later the shelter in place order was mandated by the mayor.
We were already with it before we were forced to be with it. It just didn’t feel like the responsible thing to do. We’ve been discussing the idea since March basically while figuring out what we could do. We managed to take the three days of the concerts that were cancelled and go into the studio, which was emotionally draining because there were so many question marks about what was happening. It made it somewhat difficult to concentrate on the music and the art without being distracted by what the fuck is going on with this world, this virus and everything like that. Over the next several months, we started to see artists collaborate online together and put out some sort of videos while everyone was staying indoors.
We then tried doing that while jumping through some technological hurdles, like not being able to play live together. We kept on coming back to the same questions of: How are we going to do this? What are we going to do? And, How do we do something safely? Through those brainstorming conversations, I brought up the idea of setting up in an iconic Philadelphia location. A place like the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art where Rocky Balboa climbed the steps. Then a friend of ours had a contact with the Phillies and I was like, Sure, there are no bad ideas in these times.
As crazy as that sounded, it was like ok we got a contact with the Phillies. I couldn’t imagine where it would go, but our friend called his connection and the most incredible thing about this is that starting with that phone call, everything was, Yes. What can we do to help? Then these doors started opening up and then there were people who opened up other doors. There wasn’t a person who didn’t know what was going on, every other call led to a partnership and another opportunity. We brought Live Nation into the fold and they offset our production costs so 100% of the proceeds that we raised from that event were able to fund PLUS1 For Black Lives.
It truly was and looking back at it now, we had one chance in June to do something cool and profit off of it with some pretty good magnitude and exposure. Yet everybody involved elected that there are certainly better causes than a rock band that’s having financial issues. I thought that was particularly cool and it was cool of Live Nation too, they weren’t making any money so for them to be able to write us a check to offset the production costs was noble as well. The whole thing was just a feel good experience and our fans rose to the occasion. Everything happened real quick.
This wasn’t something that was planned for months, it came together in two weeks. In the live concert business, nothing comes together in two weeks, but because of the rate of throwing it together was so quick we weren’t able to dial in corporate sponsors or anything like that. What is impressive is that all through private donors and everybody clicking the link and texting the number on their phone we were able to raise $75,000.
That’s fantastic news. … These upcoming shows at the Yarmouth Drive-In are going to be your first time performing in front of an audience since March. What are your thoughts going into the show? Do you feel weird about performing in front of cars?
Yeah, man. I do! I definitely do. I don’t know what the feeling is going to be like and obviously it’s not going to be the same, but what is the same now? This is the opportunity that we have and the feedback on it that I’ve gotten from people who’ve gone to these drive-in shows has been [that it’s] a really positive experience. Everybody understands the limitations and everybody understands that this isn’t really going to be what it feels like when you’re at a normal show with thousands and thousands of people but this is what we have to work with right now.
We’re exploring and I think that these shows will be successful assuming that everybody goes into it with the same mindset while obeying the protocols. This is the chance to demonstrate for fans and for bands that there is a safe way that we can do concerts.
It’s been nearly a decade since the Disco Biscuits released a new album, so can we expect one at some point in the near future?
Yes, the answer to that is yes. The process has been started and we’ve been in it for close to a year now. There’s a slew of new songs that kind of have been worked on and evolved over the course of last year. When we went into the studio back when our Philadelphia shows were canceled, those were the first times we tried laying them down in recordings. I don’t think it’ll be the last time we get together to work on it so it’s still a thing.