The Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein Keeps Ears Listening (INTERVIEW)

If any band has created the perfect musical specimen for infinite dissection, it’s The Disco Biscuits. Intricate compositions woven within an ever-changing setlist every night is Band Camp 101. Who isn’t doing that? No, the Biscuits have taken that standard grade school formula and developed it into a complex math equation with a repeating decimal. But the variables don’t end on stage, as the Biscuits have continually provided enough offstage drama to keep fans analyzing band antics well after tour has ended. Amidst all of this, bassist Marc Brownstein even managed to throw politics into the equation, co-founding the non-profit voter registration group, HeadCount, enabling fans to become active participants in the recent disappointing election. And just when things looked to be exploding exponentially, drummer Sammy Altman quits the band. At that point, there’s really only one more thing you could add to an already convoluted mix…yup, a baby. Brownstein and his wife Deb had a boy earlier this year.

So rather than adding another interview fact sheet, with song breakdowns and set analysis to the library, Glide’s Joe Adler spoke candidly with Marc to discuss childhood memories, becoming a father and Ron Artest. The result is an intimate, casual and quite revealing conversation with the man behind the bass.

So what are you up to these days?

Well, what I’m doing for the next six months, I’m hanging out with my son in the afternoons for about seven hours. It’s awesome. Mainly it’s really easy. I’m putting him in the car right now and were going to go do some errands before we’re flying out to New York tonight. We have these shows coming up this weekend, so I have a couple things to tie up here in Santa Cruz. I can never tell what’s going to happen next. Typical day – my keys are in the diaper change, you know, the diaper table! That’s the way life goes. So what can I do ya for? I have a tendency, good at times, bad at times, to just talk a lot, so that tends to sometimes be an interviewer’s dream and sometimes an interviewer’s worst nightmare. For better or worse that’s who I am. I figured that out in seventh grade when the piano player of my band Fearful Symmetry told me, “Dude you never stop talking.” When I started listening to myself I was like, “Holy shit! I never stop talking.” But it’s like the type of thing whereas it could be a fault if you don’t know about it. But if you know about it, well maybe… it’s still a fault I guess. Nobody likes anybody that never shuts up.

So lets start with how fatherhood has changed your life.

It definitely changes your life. It’s almost like a cliché, you know what I mean? Like it changes your life. Cliché’s tend to be clichés for a reason. Things that have been said so many times that people stop wanting to hear them say it, but fatherhood, it has been just incredible. I thought about the process of life a lot, because I was an Anthropology student in college. I had previously put a lot of thought into the idea of evolution and cognitive thought. The process of going from a species that’s not cognitive, evolving into a species that is cognitive. That’s what I think is the big difference. Plants are plants, animals are the next step, which is movement, you take the living being and apply movement to it. From there is brain size, cognition. So I had put a lot of thought into what life was about. But until you see it happening from two cells, to two hands, two feet and two eyes, it’s just unbelievable. You look in the eyes and you see that they’re yours but they’re in another person. It’s just crazy to see this thing go from a fetus, when it was born, to now: a little person with attitude and feelings and emotions. It truly has been an amazing experience. Something that we had calculated.

A lot of people were claiming throughout the course of the year that because Deb was pregnant, the Biscuits weren’t touring. I thought that that was the most absurd claim, because that was the time to tour. If Sammy wasn’t in school it would have been the perfect time for us to tour. So what ended up happening was that, a little over a year ago, Sammy told us that he wanted to go to school and we decided, as a group, that we wanted to take a year to let him make sure and see. We just wanted to take the year off and think about it for a while. So that’s when we got to the point where we are right now which is seven or eight more shows with Sammy. So when that happened, and that was last October [2003], Deb and I figured this would be the perfect time to get pregnant, if we’re taking the year off. We knew that it would then, kind of extend that period of time that we weren’t playing or recording. But that was a good thing with Sammy not being sure where he wanted to be. I figured that the longer it was extended maybe the better it would be in the sense of how we handled it. So we got pregnant because of that, decidedly. God willing, you get pregnant when you make that decision. I’m not really a religious person, but it’s not always your choice. I know a lot of people who wanna get pregnant and it takes them a year or two years. We happened to get pregnant in a day and a half! Now we have a four month old. Its been great, it totally switches your priorities around. Until I feel that he’s old enough, or in good care with somebody else, I am putting all of my spare time into making sure that he grows up to be a well adjusted, normal human being.

When did you first discover your passion for music, and where does it come from?

I think it was the Beatles fault! If I can be quite frank, it was the Beatles. The Beatles were the best. That thing that had happened to my ears. I think I discovered them when I was six years old.

From one of your folks?

From my friend Greg…who was this kid who lived down the block from me during the summertime. He’s actually a musician in Canada, he plays saxophone now. He was seven at the time. Who would have known that we both would love the Beatles and become musicians. I think he played me Sgt. Peppers or something. I remember right after that John Lennon died. The Beatles then became such a hubbub, so I got really into it. That’s when I’m seven. I really kind of just took to music. From the start my mom wanted me to take classical piano lessons, which is something I desperately wish I had done retrospectively, but I all I wanted to do was play rock and roll. I would play Beatles songs. I had a book called Beatle Gold and I learned how to play all of the songs. In, I believe, second grade, I performed “Eleanor Rigby” for my music class in elementary school.

Do you remember how you felt after you played it for your class?

I just remember being really relieved, because I was really nervous. I was really scared and that’s something that’s never went away. People still to this day are like, “Really? You get nervous?” Yeah, torrentially nervous.

When does the nervousness go away?

That’s always the first question. It goes away the second you walk out on stage. And anybody who performs will tell you that. You get an adrenaline rush when that happens and it overwhelms whatever feelings of nervousness you had. But that’s something I’ve gone through my whole life when I’ve had to perform. I was in the play “Tom Sawyer” in fourth grade and I got so scared on stage that I forgot my lines and the kid next to me was feeding me my lines. That still happens! To this very day I can’t figure out the words to “Kamaole Sands.” I have no idea what I’m talking about. I look at the lyrics and there’s no way to memorize them. Which is obviously not true, because everyone in the crowd memorized it already. I try and I get nervous right before I walk up to the mic and you blank out sometimes. I actually read about it on recently. There was an article about people who get stage fright and how they are prone to forgetting lyrics. So I was like, “Oh wow, that’s me for sure!” People who smoke a lot of pot are prone to forgetting lyrics.

I can’t think of one time when I heard you forget a lyric.

I could name a couple times. In “Sister Judy” it happens a lot. I’ve had a lot of times when I’ll have the lyrics all printed out backstage and I’ll put them on the floor next to me in case I need a reference. And its almost like, if they’re on the floor next to me, I don’t need them!

Tell me about your childhood, growing up and some of your earliest memories.

Wow, ten years of doing interviews and nobody has ever asked me what my first memories were. I rarely talked about any of that stuff because it was such a blur to me. When I was really young, like two or three years old, my parents were in the process of becoming separated. So those are my first memories. It’s funny when I look at pictures of myself from that era. I’m always smiling, but when I remember it, I don’t remember it as happy. So I’ll see a picture of myself from two or three years old and I’ll say, “Geez, that is the happiest looking kid in the world.” I don’t know if I was happy, or if that was a fleeting moment of laughter, or what it was, but I remember it as being very difficult. As being like almost scary. I was young and having all this stuff going on. My other brothers and sisters were way older at that time and had been through it all before. For me, I was young and innocent and I kind of took the brunt of it there.

I do remember being three years old, I remember this time that I was up in Connecticut at my grandparents house. This is one of my first vivid memories. We had this little blow up dog…it was actually very similar to the puppy beast, the attack of the puppy beast where we, at “Camp Bisco 2,” sent out a couple hundred blow up dogs that were very harmless looking creatures… at any rate, I remember having a dog very similar to this dog that we used in stage plots. My brother and I were frolicking around in the backyard with the dog and there was a real dog that was twice our size. That’s kind of how I know how young I was when this was happening. So that’s the one early good happy memory I have. It’s always easy to remember the tragedies. It’s always easiest to say that I remember when my brother passed away very clearly. I remember, when I was three years old, that I ran into a wall and cracked my head open. I had to go to the hospital. I remember that really clearly. I remember when my brother had his appendix taken out. We went to the hospital. Those are the things that stick out to you when you’re three years old. Everything else is like: “Now we’re in the bedroom… Now we’re in the kitchen.” It’s funny to now see it through a baby’s eyes. My mother-in-law said to me recently that, “This is what I call God’s thank you for everything that you have had to bear with in your life, for all of the good things, and all of the bad things that you bring to the table. You‘re now being thanked.” And she said that, “The great thing is that you get to go back and do it all over again with another person; and it’s just as rewarding, if not more rewarding than doing it the first time yourself.” Bringing a child through those years is better than going through them yourself. You get the chance to do it the way you want to do it, you’re in charge. So that’s kind of an interesting thing, you get to relive your childhood again, you’re back in the toy section. I’m on my way to Toys“R”Us right now! I’ve got to pick up a couple of things.

So these are things you haven’t thought about since you were that age, now you’re in you’re twenties and touring in a band… So it’s crazy to come full circle like that and get a chance to repeat those years. It’s a very interesting question, can I ask you what made you ask that question?

You have always struck me as a very insightful person, and I was interested where that comes from.

Interesting. I was actually told that when I was fourteen years old, by one of my father’s friends. We were in East Hampton at my father’s house. I went out there and one of his friends lent me his car. I was maybe fifteen and had just gotten my permit. Out on Long Island, you could rage with your permit. So he was lending me his Jaguar, he had a convertible Jaguar, and he lent me his convertible Jaguar to impress these girls that were from my high school that were in a different scene than I was in. They were the super hot girls who hang out with football players. One of the girls, she wasn’t actually at this event, but one of the girls is now on Friends and ER and she was actually the singer in my high school band. This girl is named Bonnie Somerville. I actually saw her name on a soundtrack to a movie. I remember her getting a record deal a couple of years ago. I read about it somewhere. She was a really nice girl. But these other girls, there were two of them, they sang in my band also and I sort of became friendly with them but I wasn’t at all in that scene. I knew all the people, I was friendly with all those people, but there was this jock/jockette scene going on that I wasn’t in. I was young still, early into high school, and I must have seemed especially young. But I felt like an adult. I must have seemed especially young to these fifty-five year olds that I was hanging out with at my father’s house all the time that were lending me their Jaguars. I told them, very bluntly, that there are these chicks. I hang with them sort of, but I’m not in the game at all. It’s not in the cards, it’s not going to happen, it’s not where it’s going. And it didn’t, it never did. I eventually elevated to a point in my life where that was the style girl I felt comfortable hitting on. It took me many years to get to the point where I felt comfortable hitting on hot girls. I took me five years to convince my wife to date me. I’m a persistent guy though, and when I decide I want something I go after it and, I may really get it. Not when I was fifteen, I didn’t know how to go after it and get it. I took a long time. I was self aware, I was totally aware that was the case. I didn’t know what to do though, I never had to deal with it. And so I remember, I’m going to see this girl, we’re going over to her house in West Hampton. Her house is like nine times the size of my house. So now we were hangin’ out, and it was cool because I had broken a barrier with them. They were now puffing bowls with me at lunch time in high school. The football guys, God forbid, they didn’t know what pot was. We were at a private school, and my friends were public school kids. They’re derelicts, weed smokers and now these hot girls like smoking weed. We became friends and had a lot in common.

So this one time, I told this guy this whole story and he goes, “You know, you’re a very insightful person,” and I didn’t really know what that meant at the time. He said, “You’re a very self-aware guy and, because I like you, I’m going to let you take my convertible Jaguar and that will show these girls who is boss!” So I took the Jaguar and still didn’t get any action. But it was fun. It was the first time I learned about insight.

Its amazing what happens when people take down the masks and let their guards down. Just how alike we all are and how different we all pretend to be.

Certainly. Anybody can get along with anybody at the root of it. I would consider myself a crazy person from time to time. A very temperamental person. A hot temper, that’s certainly a quality in people that’s hard to deal with. Whether it’s me or someone else. That’s something that creates differences right away. When somebody is very temperamental, like Ron Artest, he’s not taken seriously anymore. He lost it, he lost everything he had because he was so pigheaded to think that he was above the rules. I have been there. I have been there before in my life. One time, I did something really dumb, I have never felt as bad in my life as I did for this one thing.

We were in Colorado and you know you are a mile in the air. I’m not a drinker, but I decided to have some drinks because we were parting at the Fox Theatre. We were this huge band, stoked on ourselves, sold out two nights at the Fox for the third time in a row. We probably thought we were the biggest shit in the world. I get a little drunk and a little full of myself and I rip one of their beautiful pictures off of the wall. Now in fairness to me, I was with the owner of the Fox and he was trying to rip the thing off of the wall. He was fooling around with me. I was like, “I love that picture” and he was like, “I’ll get you that picture man.” We are both wasted and having a good time and he was trying to rip it off, and one of the guys who works at the Fox was like “Donny, don’t fucking do it! Donny, what are you doing! Don‘t rip that off!” So ultimately I was telling the story to somebody later on the way out the door. I was like, “Yeah, earlier Donny was trying to rip this off,” and then was like, “I can rip that off.” So I went up to it myself and I pulled on it. The whole piece came out of the wall, plaster and all. I wish I knew where to get it, I gave it to somebody else. A year later I wrote this huge apology letter to them just because I couldn’t believe I had done something so stupid, that’s not even temper related. I’ve done twenty things temper related that are dumb, but those are the things you do until you do it the tenth one in a row and you are freaking Ron Artest and they, instead of giving you the twenty games you deserve, give you the entire season. That’s just the way the world works, you know.

I don’t know who said it, but everybody’s human, everybody has urges. Everybody feels that they are losing control at some point. The thing is, you have to be able to rein that in. If you are looking for an insight into me, then that’s one of the big things in my life. Figuring out how to rein in the anger that comes over me from time to time. You look at Kevin Brown, for me it’s always sports guys. I love sports, you get to see the classy sports guys and then you get to see the temperamental kind of jerky guys. You have to look at yourself and ask “Do I want to be that or do I want to be this?” And I know what I want to be. You know Ron Artest is the first guy to talk about how much work he does to become a better person . Give me a break! You haven’t done any work. You made a rap album is what you did. They don’t know if he can do anything. I don’t know if people are hard wired to be vein, or if you can really go to therapy to get it under control – your instinctive urges that were instilled in you when you were two years old.

I’m definitely a strong believer that it takes a lot for people to change, but that also you are pretty much hard wired from the time you are born until about two or three years old. And those things that you learn from your folks and your folks friends, from people you see, and unfortunately from television. Those are the things that make you who you are. You can change certain aspects and you can evolve in certain ways.

You said television, and it’s really funny…sometimes I will be watching TV or a movie, and there will be two people on the street screaming at each other, throwing things, and I will think to myself that that’s so normal for film. That’s even normal at times in my life. My God, there was a time when I yelled at Lisa Klein on the street after Jazzfest because of whatever, it was the stupidest reason. I got pissed and screamed at her on the street and it’s like the most horrible thing you can do, how can you scream at somebody and be an asshole like that. But then I will watch TV and think that this is ten times as crazy as anything I have ever seen in real life, and it’s just all over TV.

Even children’s shows, cartoons are the most violent thing of all time, it’s absurd. I don’t remember what we were talking about necessarily that got me on the subject of Ron Artest, but for me being around my son has made me take a long look at myself. That’s part of what thinking about my childhood and why that’s even relevant right now, why we need to answer the questions about my early memories. It’s because I do feel there is a great relevance in that kind of thing. Mostly because it’s so connected, how you act is so connected to how you were brought up and that’s a big part of what I’m doing right now, trying to create a normal kid. I think about it and, with one kid, I can see it being really easy to create a normal kid. But I also see the second and third kids who are fuck ups because there is not enough time to put into them.

I’m an only child and it’s pretty interesting right now because my folks are visiting me here in Vermont and it’s interesting seeing the similarities with my dad. Growing up I really respected him, but with our age difference, I always felt so distant. But now that I’m getting older, I see so many similarities. Today we were driving out to Stowe to have lunch with my girlfriend and were listening to the classical set you guys played [TranceMission 8.16.03]. It was so interesting hearing him comment about you guys and relating. For me, to connect with him on that level, to these songs that he has also performed in bands himself, was great.

Did he enjoy it or did he trash it?

He loved it.

My mom loved it.

It’s all in perspective, but I think it was one of the cooler things The Biscuits have done.

Yeah, I agree with that. I think that is one of the great things that we accomplished. To learn a bunch of classical music over the years and to find a way to mix it into a set in an interesting way. Culminating, of course, in many weeks of work in order to put together a full set of it. That’s a lot of work to do those classical tunes and very hard to keep fresh. It’s almost like you’re in a conundrum with them, because in order to keep them in the set you need to play them all the time. It happened to us with [“The Thieving] Magpie.” You start to get all of this negative energy from the crowd when you’re playing songs that aren’t improvisational on a frequent basis. It’s one of the major problems with being in a band like ours.

Speaking to that, what’s your perception of why some of your most intense fans are viewed as being “demanding?” For instance, with the DVD release and the problems that occurred with the initial pressing?

Well here’s the deal. These fans have invested a lot of time and a lot of money into my band…a lot of energy, a lot of CD burning, a lot of promoting. These kids have given their whole life to us. People will say, “The band doesn’t owe you anything,” but we owe them everything. We owe everything to the fans. This is about the fans in the biggest way possible…without the fans we are nothing. You can sit around and say. without us there is no fan base, without music, but the truth of the matter is that we wrote the music and those are the people that decided that they liked it. It’s an open invitation to our concerts, we don’t have control over who comes, you buy a ticket, you get in. I would say to anybody that’s bought a single ticket to see The Disco Biscuits over the last nine years: I owe you my life. I owe them the best ten years that I’ve lived. Out of thirty-one, those were the best ten. When I use the past tense, I do it out of respect for Sammy. Out of respect for the fact that in whatever we do next, this is the end of the first chapter. We have had a lot of drama and I feel bad for the fans who have had to go through that.

But I’m the same person who got slammed by the fans for even mentioning that they might have had some effect on the outcome of where our band ended up. I slightly mentioned that in an interview earlier this year and the question was asked by the fans. The question was, “What do you think is the best part of these fans and the worst part of these fans?” So what am I gonna do, just say the good part? You know, I was honest. I thought that being honest was the right thing. It’s like, when somebody says to me, “These are the things that are wrong with you.” It’s hard to hear that. It’s hard when somebody tells me my temper is a hard thing to be around. It’s hard to hear that, you don’t want to hear what’s wrong with yourself. It makes me feel sick to my stomach that there could be anything wrong with me. Nobody’s perfect, everybody has their faults and they are different with everybody. But when it comes to the fans, that was the first time that anybody said anything about them potentially having a fault. I don’t think of it as the fans having faults. It’s the fans just being themselves and the rest of the world reacting to the way that they are, in the way that they deem appropriate. I don’t want to pick on any one individual, but you gotta be responsible for your actions. Whether it’s me or whether it’s them, you can’t just do things and then think that everybody is hating on you for nothing. Now that’s the one side of it, the other side of it is how I feel about them. I love them. I owe them my entire career. From the first fan that ever bought a ticket, to the first fan that went on tour…who I’m extremely close friends with still.

Who is that?

[Mark] Foundos and [Jonathan] Lesser…these are my closest friends in the world. They did a tour in 1996, ten shows, ten days. So from those first people, who are dearest in my heart still, through every single person, thousands and thousands and thousands of them who have bought tickets to see Jon and Aron and Marc and Sammy, those people are my entire world. That comes on behalf of knowing that a lot of people blame me living out west for the Biscuits not playing and blame me doing Headcount. With everything you do there are going to be two ways of looking at it. Every song that you play there are going to be people who do like it, and people who don’t like it. I do Headcount, and there are people who think it’s the greatest thing in the world, and then there are people who wish I had been on tour with the Biscuits all year. Me and you knowing that that was a statistical improbability without a drummer who was available. There is a reason for everything, and all I can say about the fans is that they haven’t necessarily been any crazier than me. And that’s why when I say something about them, that they’re pissed at me. They say, “Well hell, you do all the same things as us!” I know I’ve done all the same things, the question was about you guys! The question wasn’t about what did Marc Brownstein do great and what did he fuck up. ‘Cause that could take about a year to answer… on both sides!

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