An interview with Marc Brownstein (The Disco Biscuits) & Mike Greenfield (Lotus) who are in their own band known as Electron. The interview occurred before their set at the 2014 Catskill Chill Music Festival. This is a collaborative interview taken by Peter DeStefano (OurVinyl), Zachary Franck (Good Looks New York) & Michael Fioretti (Tristate Indie).
PD: A lot of music fans on the scene know who Electron is, but people who don’t, don’t necessarily know what to expect as far as what’s going to be in the set. So they wonder, “Are we going to hear Conspirator tracks? Are we going to hear Lotus tracks?”
MB: The answer is: no. You’re not going to hear either of those things.
MG: We’re not doing the Lotus set tonight?
MB: No Lotus tracks. It’s a self serving sort of a process for me with Electron to be honest with you. Being in a band is such an exercise of humility and being ego-free and being a part of a team and having it be the product of everybody, and as it is with Electron. But Electron was basically made as a means for me to just have a band. I actually started it while I was outside of The Disco Biscuits for six months in the year 2000. I started the band then just as, like, my band. I was like, “This is going to be my band – Electron!” And it was Tommy Hamilton and Joe Russo. At first it was this guy Steve Vidaic. I wrote all the songs that are now staple Disco Biscuit songs, all for this band and all within a year, like 25 songs. All of the songs that were from The Maui Project and all of the songs from Chemical Warfare Brigade, so it’s like sixteen or seventeen staple Disco Biscuit songs over the last fourteen years. It’s basically an early 2000 Disco Biscuit show, but only material that I wrote.
PD: So only material from that time?
MB: No, over the years we’ve added more material. And when we go out in the fall, one of the things I want to do is update the song list to include the other 40 or so songs that I’ve written but don’t get played a lot because the Biscuits don’t have shows. So there’s a lot of songs like “The Bridge,” “The Last Days of Everything,” or “The City,” which made an album for the Biscuits. In 25 shows a year we play it once. I worked hard on it. It took me a long time to write “The City” and “The Bridge.” It took me two months to write those songs – each. The chords changed a million times, everything changed a million times, the lyrics changed a million times. So I feel like this is an outlet to play some of the songs that I love and that don’t get to enjoy that much much. That’s what it’s about.
MF: Did you say all that output was over a six month window?
MB: I banged out sixteen songs in like, six months. It was my most productive period. But that’s what happens when times are hard…when you get fired from your band, and you’re like, ‘Fuck, I need multiple albums worth of material, like, yesterday…'” That’s what I did. I sat down by myself in a room, in tears, and just banged out… everything.
ZF: Did you expect to be playing in Electron still after all these years?
MB: For a long time I stopped doing it because I felt like it was redundant to the Biscuits, like there was no point in having another band that was so similar and maybe even be construed as causing issues. I don’t know if it was causing issues but I felt like it could. It didn’t really need to happen. In the last two years, shows are so few and far between that I feel like it’s more about just wanting to work. This is what I love doing, and I love doing it with Mike and Tommy equally as I do with Allen and Barber. I’ve been playing with all these guys for two decades and they’re all like brothers to me. Barber and Allen and Tommy and Mike and Aron. The chemistry of the bands is completely different. The way that we jam sounds similar at times but actually what we’re doing is completely different. We have a totally different approach to improvisation, so it’s exciting. We come out and reinterpret the songs differently and it’s cool. It’s a little less patient, Electron. We go for it a little bit more and it’s fun to go for it. We just fucking hit it. We have a unique way – Greenfield specifically – has a unique way of taking us from the first part of the jam to the second part of the jam to the peak that makes it really, really exciting as a player underneath, you know, as a bass player. I feel like I don’t have to question what’s coming next. He’s always very clear and concise with his playing.
MF: As far as pacing is concerned, Allen vs Greenfield, is it faster or slower to get from point A to point B?
MB: It depends. I mean, Greenie will lay down a 20 minute improvisational jam as good as anybody (laughs). But the thing about Allen is he will decidedly not go to the next section on purpose. He’ll be like “No…no.” And I’ll be like “Are we going” and he’ll be like, …”Nope.” And it’s cool because that’s what I mean about being ego-free. You’re in the moment. There’s four of you and you’re only one part of that, so you have to surrender to what’s happening at that moment. The trick is to surrender to the flow (laughs)…they’re so smart those fishies. You have to just be in the moment and let it be. I used to be terrible at this. I really was terrible, I’d be like “Ugh, this is terrible it’s really not going the way it’s supposed to go right now.” I’d have moments where I’d break down mentally over what direction the music was going in. Those are the bad shows, where you’re breaking down mentally. But in the same moment if I can go back, and reverse to that moment in those bad shows and handle it with cool, calm, collected attitude, it wouldn’t have been a bad show. If you could’ve not tried to force something else to happen but get in the moment and really explore what the other guys in the band are doing rather than fight what the other guys in the band are doing.
MF: Are those the moments where the bass lines kind of just write themselves?
MB: That’s a good show, when you don’t have to think about anything and the bass lines just happen. You’re just like “What the hell is happening right now? How did that happen?” That happened last night, several times.
ZF: Carlos Santana said once in an interview that it’s like super-sonic playing.
MB: He always has the analogies, right? He has the hose analogy right? He said Phish would hose the crown when they were playing on that Santana tour. He said Trey is like a hose, and he just kind of hoses the crowd.
[PR Director] : Yeah I was thinking something else when you said that…
PD: Yeah I was thinking Gwar when you said that…
ZF: How do you guys go about writing your set lists in comparison to your primary bands. Is it different?
MB: Um, Conspirator has a very different set list process than both Biscuits and Electron. Electron is easier because we only have 25 songs to choose from.
ZF: Do you feel less pressure or more?
MB: A little bit more pressure sometimes, but less pressure overall because it doesn’t matter as much, the end game is a little different.
ZF: How much is planned and how much is improvised?
MB: Nothing is planned. Well, last night, in a shocking twist of fate, we planned something for the first time since… since you (Greenfield) have been in the band at least. We decided that in “Grass is Green” or “Confrontation,” one of the two, we would jam in C sharp minor rather than in A major. But outside of that one thing, we had no idea what was going to happen. And then the jam, something crazy happened, and we started going back and forth between the two chords…
MG: Yeah yeah yeah!
MB: …and I was like “How is this happening?”
MG: For me, I’m actually using the kit I tour with for Lotus, so it’s exactly the same. Equipment-wise it’s the same, but obviously I have to approach the drums differently in this band. You know, it’s not a huge departure. It’s not like I’m doing straight ahead swing with Electron where Lotus is electronica. But they’re very different players with different strengths and I try to cater to that.
MB: I have a keyboard in the Biscuits that I use very infrequently, that would be where my setup differs.
PD: That’s it?
MB: Pretty much, I kind of keep it simpler with Electron, I use less pedals, but I like to keep it the same.
PD: Last year we talked about you processing less parts of what you were going to be playing. You said something like it’s funny that it took you so long to play your bass again. Are you still going back down that road or are you going back towards the computer work, what’s up?
MB: Um, I feel like it’s sort of in the middle right now. The thing is, our computer work right now is way more in line with the kind of music that I like, so it doesn’t feel like computer work, does that make sense? You know? If you’re recording on instruments in a studio you’re still using the computer.
ZF: Do you think you guys would ever release something for purchase, from the studio with Electron?
MB: Yeah, I guess the thing that we would do that has never been done that needs to be done is for the Chemical Warfare Brigade album to be recorded finally, and go in the studio and do it like a real album. And maybe even do some videos with it. Instead of making the whole Chemical Warfare Brigade movie which people have approached me about, but kind of spaced-out people…
[PR Director]: Shocker
MB: (towards Greenfield) …I’m going to read this interview and just be like, “…Fuck…fuck that, sorry man you’re kind of spaced out…”
MB: So, it just has to happen.
MF: When you switch gears from band to band, how many hours do you think you put in just getting everything ready to go sound-wise before say, a “dress rehearsal” show?
MB: This time we didn’t put any time into it to be honest with you because Magner and Tommy had this thing with Bill Kreutzmann this week. So I came into it with a considerable amount of anxiety, but it turned out great because the reality is that we all know how to play “Confrontation” and “Kamaole Sands.”
ZF: Do you feel like playing with Electron makes your primary bands better?
MB: I feel like playing with Conspirator makes my primary bands better because that’s the one where we’re really cutting our teeth and grinding and keeping in full shape all the time and exploring new jamming styles and getting better as musicians by playing hundreds and hundreds of hours.
ZF: Do you think you’ll do a full tour with Electron or you’ll keep it more special just doing the small tours?
MB: Down the line? I think there’ll be a full tour with Electron. We’ve got four guys here that are all in Philadelphia. It’s the only band that any of us belong to that’s like that. All our other bands, everybody lives all over the place. Electron’s a special thing. People treat it special, and we want to keep it special. We do it occasionally to keep it special. If we were going to go on a full tour we would have to put in a lot of work. We would really have to go into the rehearsal space for a couple weeks and add, you know, twenty covers and twenty originals. Bring in some Brothers Past songs and some Mike Greenfield originals. He has a lot of computer work he does that we would start to bring in.
ZF: Do you think you guys will ever write new material?
MB: Definitely. Well here’s the thing: I have new material. It’s just a matter of which band plays it first? You know I have all kinds of new songs that I don’t know what to do with.
ZF: Do you have a favorite song to play with Electron? Mike?
MB: Maybe “Plan B,” everybody seems to like “Plan B,” Tommy’s favorite it “Plan B…” (To Greenfield) What’s your favorite?
MG: I like “Home Again” a lot. I’ve been friends with these guys but also a fan of them and I remember listening to that song, especially because it was on one of their Transcefusion albums.
MB: That’s a great perspective. I like this perspective.
MG: (jokingly) Let me tell you how much I love Marc Brownstein (laughs). So listening to that song as a fan first, and then being able to play it, that’s happened to me a few times and it’s always very special. That one I like a lot.
PD: Have the shows you played with the drummers from The Dead changed the way you play your own music since those shows?
MB: No, but studying the music of The Dead definitely, temporarily at least, changed the way I was playing bass. I picked up some things from Phil Lesh that I hadn’t thought to do in the past. Maybe, certain songs of theirs, like “Shakedown Street” for instance, where I was so tuned into the guitar lines that I never even heard the bass line really. As a bassist that happens sometimes. I’m the type of guy that listens to guitar when I listen to music. Sometimes there’s songs I’ve heard my whole life and I never even tuned in to hear what the bass line is doing, which is weird.
ZF: Do you think you guys will play more festivals next season?
MB: Us? I think it’s starting to happen. Offers are starting to come in. I think next year we’ll do Electric Forest.
MG: Whoa, yeah.
MB: Maybe we’ll be able to turn this [Suwannee] Hulaween show into an Electric Forest date. Electric Forest, please book Electron.
PD: Electron Forest?!
ZF: Can you guys remember any specific shows that stand out for you over the years?
MB: For Electron? 6/6/2002. That one was really special, I don’t know what was going on there. That one was Tommy McKee on keyboards and Joe Russo on drums with Tom Hamilton and I. It was just really, crazy. I had just come off my honeymoon and hadn’t been playing bass at all for a month, so it felt really good to get back on stage. But the New Haven show that we played last year. [5/11/2013] That was so fucking good. It was really special, I don’t really know what happened there but that’s what happens with Electron.
MG: Well that was the end of our run, right? So I think we were all pretty well practiced.
PD: Oh that was all of Chemical Warfare Brigade, right? Yeah I was at that show, that was a good show.
MG: Yeah yeah!
MB: Oh we did that? Right. Yeah I think that one stands out from our shows in recent years.
PD: Are you going to do Chemical Warfare Brigade from start to finish anytime soon?
MB: I don’t know! Maybe tonight, that would be cool…
ZF: Are you going to have any guests sitting in ever?
MB: I like that idea. On Jam Cruise we had [Chris] Michetti (Conspirator, RAQ) sitting in with us, right? We did that!
MG: Especially because that one was just for the fun of it, just because Fishman got sick.
PD: (To Greenfield) What was your favorite Talking Heads track from that Vibes set?
MG: Oh wow, that was a really cool set.
MB: That’s the best Lotus set I’ve ever seen in my life.
MG: Well the best moment for me in that show was the very first song we did. The singer, Gabe [Otto], he’s not a David Byrne guy, he’s not in a Talking Heads cover band.
MB: Wait, he’s not the guy from Stop Making Sense?
MG: No, he’s friends with Chuck [Morris] and Mike [Rempel] (Lotus), he plays in a band called Pan Astral out in Colorado. So we asked him, “Hey, do you want to do this?” So he sent over some demos and we were blown away. He even had the look down. A lot of people thought we had David Byrne on stage! He’s always played music, but he’s never played in front of big crowds or anything, so we’re playing Gathering of the Vibes, and I do an eight-measure build on the snare drum, and on the last four measures he runs out, he grabs the mic, and he’s like “Hello!” And the crowd, 15,000 people just go bonkers…
MG: 20,000 people just go bonkers and he just killed it! So I like that moment the best.
MB: Why are you underselling your headlining set? We said 20,000 for our set.
MG: Sorry, there was 50,000 people there (chuckles)…
MB: Have you seen the over head shot from our (Disco Biscuits featuring Mickey Hart & Bill Kreutzmann) set? Ridiculous! I’ve never seen anything like that!
ZF: Do you think you’ll ever book with Pete Shapiro again? Capitol Theater? Garcia’s?
MB: Definitely. I’ve never been in that place, is it cool? Garcia’s?
MB: He’s definitely offered us spots in all of his venues recently, it’s just a matter of finding the right time. John is running a business right now, I’m in nineteen bands (laughs)…
PD: Can you list those please? (laughs)
MB: (laughs) No way, I can’t even name them all.
ZF: How excited are you to play Catskill Chill tonight?
MB: Like the most excited…we’ve been all summer…for anything we’ve ever done!
MF: Do you think Camp Bisco is coming back next year?
MB: Well I said it was definitely coming this year, so what does it matter what I say?
MB: It’s definitely coming back, 100%, I was 100% on this year too. I was so fucking sure we had it. I had it! And then the Gathering of the Vibes offer came along and I was like “Wow, this is a really cool opportunity, maybe we can take a year off from Camp Bisco and not force ourselves to do something that maybe isn’t going to be as good.” You know, those guys who did it, they had Hudson Project and we were going to do Camp Bisco and then do independent festivals, and it felt to me like forcing two festivals out, competing, on, you know, new land for both festivals in the same summer… It just seemed like, let’s take a deep breath. Go over here and take this really unique opportunity that will probably never happen again…
MF: Did it give you an opportunity to purge some of the things that maybe you think weren’t working there?
MB: Well we thought it was working great. We know that our fans have issues with certain things about it. But we, as musicians and music fans, we’re bringing the music that we’re into. That never changed. What happened was that music we’re into suddenly got gigantic and 30,000 people came and it brought a whole different element of people along with it and we had to contend with that. In every situation when something blows up, whether it’s a band or a band’s festival, there’s going to be those “original people” who feel like they’ve lost what they had. I remember we had a manager once, who managed The Black Eyed Peas. Now listen, The Black Eyed Peas were an underground success story before Fergie joined the band. They were a festival band in the vein of Ozomatli. They came out and did all this hip hop, funk stuff, and they were a successful band. But when they added Fergie to the band, they skyrocketed to the single most popular thing that was happening in music for four or five years – much to the chagrin of all of their fans. I don’t know. The Black Eyed Peas, not my cup of tea. I liked them more before Fergie joined the band, but I’m not faulting them for taking the sixty five billion dollars. (laughs) Because I know what it’s like trying to make your mortgage payment every month as a musician, just like everybody else. Like reporters, wouldn’t it be great to blow up and then win the Pulitzer Prize?
All: (nodding) Yes.
MB: Whatever you are, it’s nice to have success in it. So as festival owners, when our festival became bigger than the band itself, it became about something more than just us. We had to sit back, put our egos aside, and let this business that we started develop into what it became, despite the fact that our core fan base had issue with it. You have to separate yourself from the emotional side of it and the reality side of it, twelve years ago we started a business that lost money eight years in a row. It’s hard to apologize for the success, but at the same token, I know exactly where everybody’s coming from, I completely agree, and I’m in touch. I’m fully in touch with what people want Camp Bisco to be. Now, this is what I would say. Now, I don’t think Biscuit fans should have anything to complain about because the popular style of electronic music is now the kind of electronic music that they’ve embraced fully and promoted for the last five years when it was the most underground. Now that deep house and nu-disco is at the top of the genre, if we were to go and get Disclosure and a bunch of other hot disco, and French disco…maybe there’s a compromise, somewhere in between that makes sense for 2015, a compromise for the mainstream crowd that has come to expect what Camp Bisco is that crosses over with what the Biscuit fans expect. I think that we’re there. I feel like electronic music has gotten to the point where we can all agree now. We all like the same fucking music.
ZF: Do you think this is the best side-project on the scene right now?
MG: Electron? Hell yeah!
MB: I’ll let other people make that determination. Conspirator’s definitely not a side project anymore. You couldn’t count Conspirator as a side project. That’s the main project. The Biscuits are the side project now, right?…oh!
MG: Uh oh, uh oh!