Most people would agree with the assertion that life is pretty mundane. Lord Byron summed it up perfectly when he said, "When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning -- how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse." We all search for ways to alleviate the excruciating boredom that hovers at the door of each day. Some folks use drugs to distract themselves. Some use music. Some toss the two into a shaker and revel in the resulting cocktail, however short-lived it may be.
One of the by-products of this uniquely human predicament is the music of Philly's bliss-mongers the Disco Biscuits, the Next Big Thing in these gray, post-Phish days of jam-based music, marketed not so much toward the dreadlocked trustafarians, but toward the kind of music lovers who wear big-legged jeans and visors, love glow sticks and Teletubbies, and consider the pacifier to be an essential wardrobe feature. The Disco Biscuits reside somewhere between Phish's patchouli-soaked improvisation and the dotty loopiness of Stereolab.
The Biscuits began by playing improvisational rock jams, but they soon realized the potential of a different niche when keyboardist Aron Magner acquired some new equipment.
"We started listening to more electronic music. I stopped playing rock beats and started doing kicks on every beat," says drummer Sam Altman, demonstrating a techno pulse -- m-ch, m-ch, m-ch -- on a dodgy mobile phone in New Haven. "There's more freedom in it, and it's way more danceable."
Danceability is the key theme when discussing "Bisco," the fan-coined term for the band's music. After all, the goal here is to allow concertgoers to dance until their legs give in, or at least until the E wears off. The band's four principals -- Altman, Magner, guitarist Jon Gutwillig and bassist Marc Brownstein -- call their sound "trance fusion," as they literally fuse electronic trance music with the jam sensibilities of their more hippie-ish progenitors, culminating in gigs that start at 10 p.m. and end when the sun comes up the next day.
"As long as people are still there, we'll keep playing," Altman says. "We're constantly getting the power shut off on us. What clubs don't understand is that it makes the crowd go wild."
It's easy to get lost in a dizzying swirl of dance when individual songs often last longer than most high school class periods. Many nights, you won't even hear the end of a song that begins in the early phases of the show, as the band's set list is a constantly evolving twist on the choose-your-own-adventure theme.
"We play our songs so goddamn long -- we could play nine songs in four hours," explains Altman. "We'll play the beginning of one and the end of another, and then we'll run out of time and have an ending left over, so we'll play that ending some other night. It's a free-for-all."
It's in this fluidity and just outside the boundaries of music -- doodling in the margins, if you will -- that the Biscuits find their sweet spot. Never playing the same song the same way twice, instead they mix and match trance, jungle, jazz and funk influences into their performances. Their grooves are not unlike those doughy biscuits in the Hungry Jack commercials, with layer upon layer stacked together, easily disassembled and rearranged to suit any player's whims. It's musical deconstructionism, and it's what makes the Disco Biscuits remarkable.
Take, for example, their third record, They Missed the Perfume. Recorded in the abandoned half of an electrical power equipment factory in Easton, Pennsylvania (also the home of Crayola), and released, surprisingly enough, on heavy-metal label Megaforce Records (home to the likes of Anthrax and the Skatenigs), the record represents an experimental approach to composition. Rather than follow the traditional path of playing live in the studio, the entire record was "built," so to speak, on a Macintosh computer.
"It's unlike everything we've ever done -- all loops, trying to get the live spirit of our songs across in this new medium," says Altman. "We used sections that we improvise live, trying to capture the improv spirit while trying to keep it composed and electronic at the same time. It was a totally fresh way of looking at the songs." Of course, in creating the record completely out of loops, the band faces the challenge of playing those new tracks live. "I didn't take into account having to fucking play these intricate beats I programmed," Altman adds, laughing.
Tracks from Perfume serve more as a rough blueprint for live gigs, a system that works well for a band in which everything is open to interpretation. This is a group of men who regularly take a piece of classical music, such as Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" or Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," and make it their own. "We wanted to play something challenging and new onstage," says Altman. "We thought it would be fun, so we got some sheet music to learn it for a live show, and we'd jam that out. If you stick with playing one type of style and beats all the time, it becomes passé."
Worries of becoming passé shouldn't be too much of a concern for the Disco Biscuits, a group whose reputation was built very much from scratch. The four bandmates first met and started playing together at the University of Pennsylvania in 1995. The jam sessions led to frat-party gigs, followed by a climb up through the local club circuit. The Biscuits eventually branched out into New Jersey, then New York. And in 1996 the group self-released its first album, Encephalous Crime, which hints vaguely at the Biscuits' future electronic bent but is otherwise forgettable (with the exception of a curious cover of Frank Zappa's "Pygmy Twylyte"). Next came The Uncivilized Area, a record more aligned with Dave Matthews and Jerry Garcia than with the rough-and-tumble drum and bass of Squarepusher or Orbital's ambient trippiness. These days, though, you'll find more similarities with the latter two bands than with the former.
"They're trying to go in a different direction, away from the jam-band stuff," says Robert John at Megaforce. "But the further away [the band] gets from New York -- where there are a lot of ravers, the Moby set -- you see more of the hippie-ish kids."
In the past year, the Biscuits' word-of-mouth buzz has indeed achieved a fever pitch. The music business is taking note as well: The band made its industry debut at South by Southwest in Austin this year. (Altman's take on the event? "I drank a lot of Flaming Dr Peppers.") Prominent among the group's supporters are the blissed-out, back-scratching, dancing kings and queens who are perpetually in search of the rhapsodic one-two punch of music- and pharmaceutical-induced euphoria. (Some of the band's detractors insist that you have to be on something -- or just have a freakishly healthy attention span -- in order to actually enjoy the Bisco experience.) One might worry, though, about the implications of being associated with the rave/jam-band scene, especially recently, with huge concert-related busts being made and high schoolers fatally pickling themselves as a result of E-induced dehydration. Most club kids and hipster types know that "disco biscuit" is '70s slang for Quaaludes, co-opted today as a nickname for E. When asked about this, Altman alternates between being annoyingly coy and curiously defensive.
"Really? What is it?" he titters. "It just seemed like a good combination of words to me." When pressed further, his voice takes on a new edge. "Kids pretty much use drugs, they're looking for an escape. Maybe if people were better parents, kids wouldn't feel the need to do drugs." Somewhere out there, Nancy Reagan is shifting uncomfortably in her seat.
Concerns about D.A.R.E. aside, the Biscuits have found their calling playing to a youthful audience more likely to Just Say No to Britney Spears' virginal stripteases than to the rampant menace of mindless hedonism for which the Disco Biscuits just happen to provide the soundtrack. Who's to say which method of boredom alleviation is more "right" or "wrong" than another? At least kids are getting exercise at raves instead of spending their evenings parked in front of the boob tube or playing Tomb Raider. As Gutwillig says, "The bottom line is euphoria. It's all in how you choose to pursue it."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.