In advance of their upcoming New Year’s run at the PlayStation Theater, we caught up with The Disco Biscuits’ bassist Marc Brownstein to discuss what to expect. Having previously announced various themes for the run, including a horn section night, a fan-selected setlist night, and a “Spin The Wheel” performance, these four tDB shows are guaranteed to be a fun time! Brownstein’s excitement is palpable, as his band is playing incredibly well and are coming off an exciting Dominican Holidaze celebration.
Read on for Rex Thomson’s exclusive interview with the one and only Marc Brownstein.
L4LM: You have a pretty serious responsibility this week. Fans are travelling from around the country to spend their New Year’s Eve with you and The Disco Biscuits. That speaks volumes to their love for your music, but do you feel any added worry for big shows like this?
Marc Brownstein: Well…maybe…maybe this week more than usual, because we’ve added so much risk to these shows. What we’ve learned, just being in a jam band in general…just being a musician is taking a huge risk. But once you get up on the stage…do you play it safe or do you take risks? That’s the difference between our style of music and other styles of music, where what they’re doing is more planned out.
In the case of this particular run of shows we’ve decided to to do a bunch of things that we don’t normally do…notably, we have a show that we’ve done twice over the years called “Spin The Wheel.” We throw a song list…I don’t know, like fifteen or twenty songs and we put them on the wheel. Then we have the fans come up on stage and spin the wheel and that’s how the set gets determined. While we have the ability to hone in on twenty or thirty songs that we’re going to put up there over the course of the night, we don’t know what’s coming.
We’ll be up on stage, in a jam, and someone will come up and spin the wheel, it’ll land on a new song, and we’re going to have to figure out, right then and there, how to GET to that new song. It’s not easy. Usually, there’s a road map. There’s more than one way to get there, y’know? It’s almost like Google Maps. You put in your destination and it’ll show you one of three different routes you might take.
There’s one that’s eleven minutes, one that’s fifteen minutes and one that’s twenty-two minutes. When we hit the beginning of a jam, it’s basically the same thing. Through the musical communication there’s a road map that comes up and we have to choose which one of these routes we’re going to take. What’s cool about this is the crowd gets to see what’s coming up next.
And now the fans are in on it all. They’re part of the conversation, and they’re part of the thought process. They get to see how the band’s thought process operates in terms of what’s coming up next rather than just guessing at what’s coming. It’s unique, and it takes the control out of the hands of the band. That’s where the inherent risk is.
But it’s like anything in life…the bigger the risk, the greater the reward. Of course, you might also fall on your face. But I think that’s what makes The Disco Biscuits and bands in our scene special. We don’t know what’s going to happen next and we’re okay with that.
This week we’re also going to pick one of the setlists we’ve had submitted, to play, and I think we’re going to do that tonight. It’s all a surprise when this stuff is going to happen, but I think tonight is going to be when the fan set list set is going to happen, the first night of the run around 12:30.
Oh, and we have a super special secret for New Year’s Eve…there’s only about a hundred tickets left for New Year’s and I would encourage our fans on the fence to get them before the show sells out. We’ve announced a lot of special stuff. We’ve announced “Spin The Wheel,” we’ve announced we’re doing a set with horns, we’ve announced our special set list show but we haven’t announced our special event for New Year’s Eve and it’s…it’s BEYOND. SO FUCKING COOL. Couldn’t be more exciting..again…HUGE risk. I think it’s going to be the biggest risk we’ll take this whole New Years run, but again…the bigger the risk the bigger the reward.
So yeah…nervous? Maybe more this New Year’s more than other ones, but I get nervous before every run. It’s kinda nervous energy that drives creativity for me. The last year and a half I’ve been less nervous than in the past. I just feel like the whole band is playing at such a high level. I’m confident that we’re going to get up there and everyone is going to have their “A” game going. That’s where the band is at right now. Everyone is taking it really seriously, and preparing for these runs.
I feel like it’s going to be great. I feel going into each of these runs that a couple of these shows are going to be beyond great, and that’s a good place to be. But you can never tell with a jam band.
L4LM: Everybody has an off night once in a while…
MB: Whether it’s LeBron James or Jerry Garcia…even the people who are the absolute best at what they do still, from time to time…miss. I think when you’re a fan of bands like The Grateful Dead, Phish and The Disco Biscuits…the bands that go really way out there in the improvisation….you can’t control it. There are going to be nights that are better than others. And there are nights that are going to be magic. That’s just a part of what makes the jam band genre so special.
L4LM: It certainly looks like you and the band are trying to make this one for the fans. How many submissions did you get for the opportunity you offered the faithful to write one of the setlists?
MB: Hundreds! It was in the hundreds. I had about two hundred BEFORE we even asked for them. Probably about 350-400 total.
L4LM: How tempting is it to just file those away and just be done for the next year or so?
MB: (Laughs) That’s great! Man…it never ends. The reality of it is that it never ends. There’s no end to the amount of creativity that fans have put towards figuring what a perfect set list would be, and they send them to us constantly. Now of course, that’s because we invite it. I don’t know if this happens with other bands and their fans, but we want to interface with the fans. We want this to feel like it’s all of ours. That we’re a community. All of us, the band, the fans, the crew. We’re all a family.
It’s almost 2016, and we’re in the age of crowd sourcing. It’s just the way people do things these days. In the age of the internet, it’s so easy to gather everyone’s opinions, to have everyone’s opinion. To put everyone’s opinions into a spreadsheet. It helps us keep things fresh. It’s helpful to us to see what our fans think would make up a perfect set list. It’s also kind of an analytical process, and all this information helps.
But to answer your question, I’m not too tempted. There’s a very few, a select group of people who truly understand the music well enough to understand what works and what makes up a workable set list. Sometimes people make stuff so far fetched that there’s no way it could ever work. Another way to look at it is “We’re The Disco Biscuits, and we can do anything!” We can get from any “Point A” to any “Point B.”
I think in the end you look through what everyone wants, ’cause that gives you a really good idea of what’s due up, what songs people are missing and what songs the fans think we’re playing too much. You really get a sense of it looking through these set lists. You notice overarching themes in them. It’s like “Okay, this song has popped up fifty times in 300 set lists.” And we’ll look and it’ll be like “Oh, we haven’t played that song since 2011…no wonder it’s popping up so much.” That’ll be the little bit of motivation that we need to take a song, rehearse it a couple of times and work it back into the rotation.
Ultimately, I think it works best when we have control over what we play every night. Sure, it would be nice to have a database of set lists we haven’t played yet, but a big part of putting one together is a feel, a vibe…a response to the room and the crowd. Sometimes it changes right at the last second depending on all of those factors. A set list is like a living, breathing organism that changes in real time. Right up to when it’s being performed onstage and even then, if we end up in a jam that sounds kinda like a song we weren’t going to play, we may end up playing it anyways.
L4LM: You’re bringing back the Philly Stray Horns back for an encore of the stellar Halloween show. You even asked the fans for suggestions for their song selection too, right?
MB: Right off the bat, I felt like we should bring the Philly Stray Horns back with us. I felt like, for them, we wanted to announce it, we wanted to announce that they were doing it. We didn’t really announce that they were playing with us for Halloween, we didn’t really announce that it was them up there with us, we just sorta had them up there with us. It wasn’t until after that we were like “Thanks to the Philly Stray Horns for being with us!”
When we asked them if they wanted to play with us again, they said they were sure they wanted to, but wanted it to be something that we announced ahead of time, to get them a little promotion…which makes sense. It felt like…there was sooo much positivity coming off having a horn section with us which is something that we had never tried before, we had to revisit that.
To be honest, I know that the fans of The Disco Biscuits like for The Disco Biscuits to BE The Disco Biscuits. We get that. The further we stray from what we normally do, the more push back we get. And rightfully so. We’ve been a band for twenty years, and we’ve had fans that have stuck with us the entire way. But I wanted to explore the fact that they all seemed to really enjoy this one deviation. I wanted to confer with them, in a way.
So I posted something on Facebook, saying “We were thinking we really had fun doing that…is this something you would want to see again? And if so…what songs do YOU think would work?” And the response was just overwhelming. Of course there was a response from the die hard fans saying “Hold on! Don’t add horns to the band!” And of course we’re not adding new members to the band. There’s only four of us in the band…we’re not going to become an eight piece…
“But…did the horns make it something interesting…something powerful and cool? Did they add cool layers to the jams?” Yeah! They did! As a lifelong Phish fan who missed when the Giant Country Horns went out on tour with them, but managed to catch a couple shows where maybe Michael Ray and the Cosmic Horns played some encores or something… I remember the feeling of going in to see a band that I had seen a hundred times…but augmented.
For me, I didn’t even really WANT to see people sitting in with Phish. I don’t know. I saw Noel Redding sit in with Phish once and I was like “Mehhhh…I wish Mike was playing bass.” It was still cool, they played Jimi’s “Fire” with Noel Redding. So I get what it’s like to be a fan of the band, and just want to see that. Y’know? I get that.
I went to see Phish in Albany and they had their original guitarist out for five songs, and I was like “Eh.” It was cool I guess, but it wasn’t what I was looking for as a fan at that time and I remember that feeling. So, for the band, I just wanted to confirm my own suspicions. That this was a sit in that went over the best. It was overwhelming. It was like 98% of people who answered my post wrote “Do that again!” “Play more of your songs!” “I wanna hear THIS song and I wanna hear THAT song…” “I wanna hear “The City” with horns, because the original has horns in the chorus but we’d never played it like that.
People were making suggestions like that and it was really cool to see. I felt how excited everybody was. I was mostly excited for the Philly Stray Horns. They put so much time and effort into the sit in. That’s part of the thing about a horn section that is different from having a horn player sit in and blow a solo over a song or something. We’ve had horn players sit in over the years, but this horn section…they made arrangements for our songs.
They went in and learned the original arrangements for the cover songs. These guys spent a month working on these arrangements, and came in and had it down after just practicing with us for one day. When this kind of effort is put in, the chances of success are much higher. About a month ago we gave them a list of songs that we thought may fit, and they’ve been workin’ on horn arrangements for weeks now.
When we finally get to this set, it’s a surprise remember, I think people are going to be excited. People are going to walk in and say “Is the wheel onstage?” “Is there a horn section set up in the back?” People are going to walk in and they’re going to look at the stage and that’s going to be a reveal for them as to what’s going on that night…and that’s going to be exciting. [Aron] Magner has convinced me, and I think rightly so, that it’s going to be so much more fun when you walk in and see what’s going on, the night of.
There’s going to be an element of surprise to these shows that I think everybody will enjoy it. Not everybody is going to see everything, but that’s what it is. Yeah man…the Philly Stray Horns are just so good at what they do…one of these next couple of nights, the fans are going to walk in and see the extra mics and know we’re going to be blowing it out horn style!
We’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…nine sets over the next four nights. And one of them is going to be with the horns, one of them is going to be with the wheel, one of them is the fan setlist and one of them is the super secret surprise. And then five of them are just going to be balls to the wall, pure, unadulterated trance-fusion.
L4LM: So you’re still going to be the good old regular Disco Biscuits a big chunk of the time too right?
MB: Here’s the thing. We’re going to be good old Disco Biscuits the whole fucking time. We’ve chosen special events that don’t deviate from what we do, which is jam and play songs. Everything we’re doing, outside of the horns, everything we’re doing is just straight the four of us onstage playing our show. It’s mostly interacting with the band, in as such as what we’re going to play. Which isn’t that far from what we do normally, it’s just more organized than it normally is.
Normally, I’ll just be on Facebook interacting with the fans leading up to a run. Making my songlists and sending them to the band. For this run it was just a bit different, y’know? More planned out and interactive, but still just us ready to jam. There’s this moment…I can’t really describe it…this moment of it being a regular show PLUS a game show. It’s special for us as well as the fans.
We’re going to be walking out on stage and there’s no set list. Somebody is going to have to come up and spin the wheel. And while the wheel is spinning everyone is fixated on it with the same question…”What is it going to be?” We don’t know and they don’t know. There’s a kinda excitement that happens when that wheel is spinning that’s different from every other show. And then in the moments leading up to the next song…everyone knows where we’re going but none of them, or us, know how.
L4LM: Seeing shows in the biggest city in the world on the busiest night in the world is like Jenga…you gotta plan your moves carefully. Was choosing later start times for the show an effort to let people going to Phish come by after?
MB: Yeah, for sure. For the New Years Eve, you gotta start a little later to do it justice. Most likely our New Years show will be sold out by then, and because of stuff like the ball drop you kinda need to choose one or the other to do it properly. There’s more overlap on New Years Eve, and it’s more difficult to get into Times Square. You kinda have to go early.
We’re playing IN Times Square. We’re literally at the base of the ball drop. So you’re talking about millions of people in Times Square. It’s definitely…you gotta be committed to going to Times Square. But should people leave Phish after their third set and come and catch two or three hours of us and see maybe the coolest thing the Biscuits have ever done? Definitely. And if you left their show after the ball drop you could still get a lot of Biscuits. But my thought on the NYE show is most of the people at our show are just coming to see us.
But the rest of the nights…FUCK YEAH! There’s more than enough time! Phish ends at 11:30, and we start at around 12:30 and play until 4. To be honest with you, there are people who come after Phish, and I know a lot of them, they’re our friends. But most people are going to do one or the other. It’s hard to do four sets, or eight hours of music, in two places. It’s a lot, to go see Phish and then The Biscuits.
And our friends used to be younger. Now everybody is getting a little older, and you gotta choose one or the other. That having been said, we do it mostly for our friends. That’s who I am doing it for. I have a lot of friends who are fans of Phish. I grew up seeing Phish. A lot of them really DO want to come see the Biscuits after Phish. So even if it’s only a couple hundred people going to see both…for us…for me…it’s worth it to play the show later.
In years past I would go see Phish too…but this year we have too much going on, I’m just too busy to be able to slip out. But yeah, it is Jenga. It’s the busiest part of the city, on the busiest night of the year. But you feed off that. It’s wild. You feed off that energy. The crowd comes in filled with it. New Year’s Eve in New York City…you can’t beat that. It’s the best!
L4LM: Speaking of special days, it was Allen Aucoin’s 10-Year Anniversary yesterday I believe.
MB: Yeah, yesterday, 10 years…where does the time go?
L4LM: Was the ten year mark the end of his hazing? Is he not the new guy anymore, or does it kinda feel like he’s always been there?
MB: He’s definitely not the new guy anymore! (Laughs) This is something one of my friends was talking about earlier today. He said John Lesser, that was our first sound guy, and manager. He worked with us for ten years, and he stopped working with us ten years ago and went out into the business world. There’s another guy named Rich Steele, he’s coming up on his 200th show and he’s a taper. Those guys have seen it all, from day one. They were there for the first era, with the first drummer, which was very different from the last ten years. The first ten years and the last ten years are completely different beasts.
So I was on the phone with a friend of mine and they said “John Lesser and Rich Steele…you know what they say? They were saying that the Biscuits right now, you’re playing as good as you ever have in your whole career.” These are two guys who know the band in and out. They’ve heard it, they’ve recorded it, they’ve mixed it…they claim that we’re at our best now.
For me, I spent a lot of time listening to the Disco Biscuits getting ready for these runs, the last one and this one. We have this streaming app of the Biscuit shows from basically the years of Allen. You asked if it felt like he’d always been there? No. It feels like we’ve had two incredible, distinct periods with incredibly talented drummers who march to their own beat.
L4LM: You just got back from the Dominican Republic and Holidaze. All we heard about was how the Biscuits blew up the stages. Is there something in the water down there or does playing in a sunny paradise in the middle of winter agree with you?
MB: I mean…we tried to quantify it. If we could put it in a bottle and sell it, we’d be millionaires. Billionaires. How do you even describe it? There’s something about the force of the wind, the forces of nature. Whether it’s the rocks at Red Rocks or the ocean at the Dominican Holidaze, it’s a powerful force. These are powerful forces. If you can somehow find a way to channel that energy into the music, the results can be amazing. Huge benefit from being in such a beautiful setting.
When your surroundings are spectacular, like they are in the Dominican, and at Red Rocks, the results can be spectacular. I wish I knew why. All I know is we keep putting ourselves in places like this because it seems like we rise to the occasion.
L4LM: How’d The Disco Biscuits get Holidaze started in the first place?
MB: Well, it was on Jam Cruise. I get seasick. Not anymore, because the boat they use is so much bigger now, but back in the early days of Jam Cruise the boat was much smaller and I would always get sick. Before our sets I would have to just lay on my back. After one of our sets I was on the back of the boat, on the top tier of the boat, and I was throwing up. And Mark Brown, I think it was Mark Brown, I have a hard time remembering because I was so sick.
Mark Brown from Cloud 9 was there, and Josh Moore was there…Josh does booking for Holidaze, and me. I think there were two guys there named Ron and John, wearing…like…captain’s hats and short shorts. It was a really weird scene. So I was puking off the back of the boat and I was llike “Dude…is there any way we can do this on land? Is this model available to us, but not on a ship?”
And Mark looked right at me and he was like “Y’know, we were just in Jamaica and we were looking at places to do something like that. We could do that.” And I mentioned how Umphrey’s would do Jam In The Dam and bring us over to play with them. So I said “Let’s get Umphrey’s and let’s just do this! Two bands, and we’ll hire some other bands and we’ll do this.” And that’s how Holidaze was born…out of sea sickness.
L4LM: That’s just hilarious.
MB: I’m not sure how everybody else remembers it. The reality is, Cloud 9 was already investigating doing these destination festivals on the beach. We were just in the right place at the right time. I was like “God! This would be so awesome on the beach!”, and they were like “That’s what we were thinking!” And, of course, now they’ve expanded. They do Strings & Sol, they do the My Morning Jacket Holiday, the Widespread Panic “Panic En La Playa” and they take all these shows and they move them to Mexico and Jamaica. They have one they call Closer To The Sun which is like a “Ska”-ish festival.
So every genre has its own event. The people at Cloud 9 are legendary when it comes to these destination concerts. They’re like the Bill Graham of the Caribbean. They have vision. They created a whole entire series of concerts. And lucky for them…they’re living in Mexico and Jamaica and on and on…they’re definitely warm weather people.
L4LM: Everybody could use a bit of extra sun this time of year. Well, I know you have a big week to finish getting ready for. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
MB: Man, thank you guys so much!
-Words by Rex Thomson, photos via Dave Vann