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By Jarrod Dicker
New Brunswick, NJ, USA
Live photo credits: Jesse R. Borrell
Jon “Barber” Gutwillig answers the phone for our 2PM interview. “Hey man, gimme one second?”
The Disco Biscuits’ guitarist is somewhere within the realm of the band’s musical kingdom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Back--so check this out. The waiter just brought me over a quadruple espresso--a fuckin’ quadruple espresso. Do I sound like I need a quadruple espresso? You know what’s going to happen right? This is going to backfire and after drinking this, I’m going to go crazy and kick the crap out of this dude [laughs].”
Espresso or no espresso, Jon Gutwillig and The Disco Biscuits are presently melodically caffeinated and continue their dominance as one of the top artists’ in the vastly populated “jam” scene. With the release of their latest album, Planet Anthem (Diamond Riggs Records) on March 16th, Bisco dives into uncharted musical waters, against the current of their usual electric/rock credo. But the Biscuits are no fish out of water. They know exactly what they’re doing.
Jarrod Dicker spoke with guitarist Jon “Barber” Gutwillig about the release of Planet Anthem, the art of improvisation, redefining The Disco Biscuits, the death of the genre, dyslexic music, the definition of “jam band”, Damon Dash and much more.
THIRSTY: Planet Anthem is “the beginning of a new chapter” for The Disco Biscuits, straying from solely electronic/rock to more eclectic styles in pop, hip-hop, jazz and pop. What unique factors do you feel set this album aside from your previous releases, making it, as described by other critics, a “game changer?”
Disco Biscuits - Planet Anthem
Barber: I don’t know man. We had a hookah in the studio this time; that was a game changer [laughs]. We added a couch. Telefunken gave us a really nice mic. I don’t sing very well, but I have to sing, so when I go into the booth and sing into the new mic, it makes me sound really good. We also got a new soundboard and some other stuff so really, they’re all game changers, you know? They’re ALL game changers [laughs]. It’s like when you get a really hot girlfriend; everyone says, dude you’re such a tool. You hear them say that in your head when they look at you, but you know they’re really diggin’ it. That’s why they won’t make tasers available to the public because they know people will just start tasering each other if they don’t like what they see. If they would only let me buy one.
THIRSTY: Don’t worry, soon enough they’ll be a taser iPhone application…
Barber: Seriously dude. Yea but then if leave your iPhone in a cab you’re fucked. You’re going to have to wait six months to get a new iPhone and tazer. Then you’ll have to get one of those clamshell phones with T9, remember that shit? Originally I thought it was a cool idea, but I almost died that year ad T9 wasn’t going to save my life. T9 is NOT a game changer.
THIRSTY: What, if any, is the meaning behind the title of the album, Planet Anthem?
Barber: It seems like everybody names their album something that shows their bands’ insecurities. Everyone, especially in the jam band scene, is naming their album something along the lines of, “Our Album Sucks.” We decided to go the other way with it. We said, let’s go with “Greatest Album Ever.” That turned into “Sweet Motherfucking Album That You Never Heard Yet and You’re Going to Be Psyched About,” and that turned into “Yo Dawg, This Album Rocks” but we thought that was too much like “Yo! MTV Raps!” [laughs] Then we said let’s change it totally and…boom…”PLANET ANTHEM.”
THIRSTY: It has been three/four years since The Disco Biscuits released an official LP. Why such a long spread in between releases?
Barber: I like that word “spread”; like butter and margarine. That’s one of the greatest words ever. You are a genius. I’m going to apply that word to as many situations as possible today.
Image courtesy of The Disco Biscuits
THIRSTY: You can name the next album, “Spread.”
Barber: Yea [laughs]. You know what, in my world, eight minutes ago I was seventeen years old. Time is so warped for me. The world that I live in, tomorrow I’ll be eighty. What happened yesterday? I don’t know. I woke up today and literally said, “What the fuck happened yesterday?” For you, what was breakfast today, for me was like Monday. I just lost a whole week right here, just now! Three or four years to you, was a minute and a half to me. You know what took us four years to make the album?
Barber: Well, I’m asking you because I don’t know [laughs]. I have no idea; those four years went by faster than anything. I would take all the money I have to buy those four years back.
THIRSTY: Bisco is known for their lively performances, spontaneity and steady improvisation. How do you guys bring the culture from the live setting into the studio when laying down tracks for a record?
Barber: We do it every way we can possibly do it, just like on stage. It’s just like with chicks; every way is possible. You date some girl and she only wants to do it one way, you break up with her because you wanna do it in the bathroom, hallway, taxicab, and all these different ways. That’s a good relationship; if you say I want to do it a certain way and she goes “Yea baby I’m down,” that’s what you’re looking for. That’s what music is. It’s that vibe in the studio, incorporating different things and using experimentation. Do we do it a “so and so” way in the studio? Yes! Do we do it “this” way in the studio? Yes! Do we make music with drum machines? Yes! Drums? Yes! Dudes coming in with big hand drums? Of course! The one thing about the studio, and a lot of the new guys don’t really know this, is that when you’re in the studio, the answer is always “yes,” because that’s how you get the vibe. It’s all about the vibe.
THIRSTY: Planet Anthem invites hip-hop producers Don Cheegro and Dirty Harry into the mix. How did this relationship materialize, and who/what helped your decision to integrate these hip-hop producers into the project?
Barber: Those guys were given to us by the music gods. They were sent down to help us transition from a live band to a studio band. Here’s a scenario: I walk out on stage, and they give me a ukulele. What am I going to do? How many tickets am I going to sell at Red Rocks with a fucking ukulele? You know what I mean? You know what you’re going to write about me if you see me up there with a ukulele? “Hey, maybe you should have just gone to a Jimmy Buffett Concert.” You can’t do it alone, you need guys in the studio to make it work. I have a ridiculous bass player, a keyboard DUDE who’s like four keyboard players in one body, and a fucking robot on the drums. You need it. You can’t do it alone. And then when we went into the studio for this record, the music gods provided us with some necessary help. And that’s what happened. Those guys hang out in the studio and make music all the time. They know how to get the vibe. Once the vibe is right, then the music happens. That’s what it is; everybody says it’s this or that, it’s not.
THIRSTY: As aforementioned, Planet Anthem takes an entirely different route musically from what we traditionally to expect from The Disco Biscuits. Some fans like it, some fans hate it. When you create a song, lyric, whatever, do you keep the audience in mind or do you create music that you like and hope that the audience likes it as well?
Barber: That’s part of the whole thing, I don’t care what people think we should sound like. I’m hanging out in the studio with Skee and Damon Dash right now and the rest of this week. I like making hip-hop. Why am I doing it? Because I like hanging out with those guys. I like making music with those guys. We derive satisfaction from creativity and we all agree on that. We like to listen to each other’s music. I played my dub set for those motherfuckers and they were like what the fuck is this shit? [laughs]. That’s what we do. That’s why my job rocks.
THIRSTY: Is that how unconventional Bisco songs like “Loose Change” and “Fish out of Water” come about?
Barber: How is a song like “Fish Out Of Water” made? Well it started out as seven different songs. The first song was called, “You Deserve It All.” Half the lyrics from “You Deserve It All” are in the song “Konkrete.” That shit gets dissected, rearranged and flipped. How do we get “Konkrete” and “Fish Out Of Water” out of the same song? Just goes to show! I have four songs going on right now that are exactly like “You Deserve It All.” Some of the lyrics will end up in one song and the chords and music will end up making another song because I’ll bring it to the studio and someone will say “I like those chords” and then someone else will say “Oh, I like those lyrics” and I’m going to make a song with both of those people and let them cut my song in half and not give a fuck because that’s part of it. You have to come to the gun fight with ammunition. That’s how “Fish Out Of Water” came about. It’s a gun fight. You’re sitting around with a bunch of dudes firing at each other and there’s no time to stop and think. You don’t have time because you’re being verbally shot at. That’s what the studios like--a gun fight. The OK fucking corral! Everyone’s shooting at each other and if you show up with no ammunition, you’re gonna get POPPED.
THIRSTY: More and more I’m seeing this integration of all different genres into the jam scene. Jay-Z headlining Bonnaroo, Nas at Gathering of the Vibes; has the jam band scene just become the mutt of all music?
Barber: You know what? There is no such thing as genre anymore. The word genre is for television. It doesn’t apply to music. It used to apply to music and now it just doesn’t.
THIRSTY: The Disco Biscuits are pioneers in the electric/rock scene. How have you seen this genre mature from where it began to where it is now?
Barber: There are no genres anymore man. There is no such thing, it’s over dawg. You heard it here first.
THIRSTY: I noticed that the track “Uber Glue” made it on to Planet Anthem while many other demo tracks circa 2006 have yet to be “pressed on to vinyl.” Is there any regret not releasing those recordings “officially” such as Air Song and Minions, and will be ever see them produced?
Barber: No, no regrets. What do I regret? I regret some crazy shit. I regret not proposing to a girl. I regret having a party at my place and someone stealing all of my mom’s jewelry. That’s the shit I regret. I don’t regret “Air Song” not going on the album. The Biscuits are on autopilot. The more I try to turn the Biscuits into some expression or ego, the more it sucks. You know? You don’t sit around and tell your girlfriend how cool you are. You sit around and tell your girlfriend how great she is. With music, you go about saying how you make the music; you don’t sit around and talk about how the music makes you.
THIRSTY: Who came up with the idea of inverting songs and performing dyslexic versions of tracks?
Barber: Everybody says that, everybody talks about that. In all honesty, that was just natural to us. It made sense. I didn’t even realize no one else did it.
THIRSTY: Honestly, it’s so much better that way. Groups in the scene seem to perform the same repetitive jams over and over and over again leaving no room for innovation or spontaneity. The crowd wants to be intrigued, and when they know they are going to sit through a 20 minutes jam they heard on the archives three nights ago, it’s anything but exciting.
Barber: Absolutely. We came up in the jam world and at that time it was real popular to jam over the same chord progression. So we took it to another level. If you listen to Mozart, you’ll notice that he moves the chord progression around constantly. He was a 12 year old kid making music, moving the chord progression around like crazy. To me that was it. The fact that everyone was doing it the same way, to me, was confusing. It didn’t make sense. It’s like playing basketball with one armed tied around your back. I would just ask why? Why were people doing this? What are they going to accomplish? Here’s a 12 year old kid hundreds of years ago who would move the progression around constantly, setting an example for everyone and here are people blatantly ignoring it. It didn’t make sense.
THIRSTY: The whole idea of the jam band scene is that artists are able to be as unconventional or conventional as they’d like. My take of it is that it is an elastic room, allowing push and pulls in any direction, would you agree?
Barber: Yea man, it’s all about improvisation I don’t think there’s anybody that improvs as much as we do. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s close. What we took out of the jam band scene was to improv everything; improv the chords, improv the sounds, improv the keyboards, improv the vibes, improv the beats. That’s what “jam band” means. It doesn’t mean play rock songs and after you play three rock songs, play one bluegrass song. People get confused. They think that’s what “jam band” means. They think it’s a genre of white guys doing rock song, rock song, rock song, bluegrass, rock song, rock song, rock song, bluegrass.
THIRSTY: And the Biscuits don’t really do bluegrass.
Barber: I happen to like electronic music and jazz beats and jungle beats and not do bluegrass. I don’t listen to bluegrass, so why should I play it? It is what it is. People would say that jam band never fit us because of that equation. And that’s not what it means to us. It means to improv everything, jam it. We’re weird, we’re awkward, we’re unusual, we’re an enigma--but only because we look at it differently and go about jam bands differently. In the days when people would play the same chord progressions all day long it didn’t make sense to us. We fuck the whole chord progression up the whole jam. We used to care, but recently we got a lot better and people ask how? We don’t jam anymore, we don’t buy anything anymore, you know what we tell each other when we go onstage?
Barber: I can’t tell you [laughs], but it’s some random shit like “Don’t do anything, just go out there and play.”
THIRSTY: Play like shit?
Barber: [laughs] Don’t play intentionally bad. Play to enjoy it, but don’t make it about you. Ever since we stopped doing the envy thing, it’s all good. It’s fun and the music has somehow gotten better and I have no idea how man, I really don’t care.
THIRSTY: Are you still actively involved in the side project, M80 Dubstation?
Barber: Yes and I do it basically because I dig the music. To me it sounds so crazy, advanced and fresh. But not fresh like, “Hey that’s a sweet jerry curl”; fresh like “Hey man, this is just right out of the fridge” fresh.
THIRSTY: Axe Body Spray fresh
Barber: Yea man, now you’re feeling it, fresh like the ladies in the Axe Body Spray commercial.
THIRSTY: What can we expect from The Disco Biscuits in the coming years, months, decades, centuries?
Barber: The Biscuits are making the best music in the world right now man, that’s all it is. Everything is unscripted, none of it is planned. Am I going to plan the future of the band? We’re not even planning the next show. We’re just trying not to die [laughs], it’s too much fun. Life is too good.
THIRSTY: So do the Biscuits write-up a set list before every show or is it a total musical free for all?
Barber: The set list is a road map. I like it, to be honest with you, because sometimes you’re up there and comfortable doing what you do without having to think of the next song. We literally, it’s like a drug, think a million miles per hour while we’re playing. I don’t want to have to think about what song to play next, I’m not even there. I’m sitting Indian style on top of a hill throwing music out of my hands [laughs]. But sometimes you’re playing and playing and playing and the next thing you know you’re playing a whole new song. That happens all the time. Let me just put it to you this way; you walk out on the stage with a set list because you want to be prepared. We’re professionals here, we’re not fucking amateurs, and we’re ready to do well. But have we ever played the set list exactly as written? That only happens once or twice a year. We try [laughs], but it just doesn’t happen.