Interview: Aron Magner (of The Disco Biscuits)

Electronic music’s found its way into just about every genre. More aggressively, it’s cozied right up to the improvisational music world, so much so that jam music’s biggest names now carry a few laptops and an extra keyboard with them on tour. One band, The Disco Biscuits, has been embracing this movement for well over a decade now and has helped move electronics away from just the ravers and in to the hands of the rockers. This has spawned an endless string of bands blending the rawness of live instruments with the infectiousness of programmed music, Lotus, Pretty Light, and Big Gigantic to name just a few, and whether two guys or five, the ideas come from the same source.

Even more, The Disco Biscuits have built a festival tradition to showcase the quickly evolving “live-tronic” world they so earnestly help lead. They’ve been at this for nine years, becoming not just a band but bona fide festival organizers as well. They continue to work hard to make the perfect community for this movement, and this year’s line-up for Camp Bisco makes any fan of the genre drool.

So what’s to be made of all this? Before headlining Thursday night at Wakarusa, I had the all too quick chance to sit down with maestro of the keyboards, Aron Magner, to talk about the changing musical landscape and how jammers turned to bass heads.

First off, I want to ask about the festival you guys throw, Camp Bisco. You’re one of the few bands who have been able to have an annual multi-day event for the past nine years. How has it been to run that, and how have you been able to keep it going?

It keeps with the same ethos as the Disco Biscuits. It’s the party that we always want to throw. All the bands are always hand selected by the band and the promoters and everyone like that. And even fan recommendations have been turning us on to different acts that we may have never been exposed to. Like Aeroplane at Bisco Inferno this past weekend was a pure fan recommendation, and we took a risk, you know, just going for it. When we announced it last summer when we were in Colorado people were so psyched that we got Aeroplane, and they were just making their presence known in America at the time. By the time we got to Ultra in March, they were already huge down there. I was watching their set at Red Rocks and they were just huge.

That’s a perfect example of us keeping our ears to the ground and really listening to our fan base for the things they could turn us on to. In the same regard in the opposite way, us putting acts on Camp Bisco, big or small, is us trying to expose our fan base to music that we like, to music that is interesting, to music that might not have a lot of exposure yet, but is really intelligent and we want to get it out there, whether it’s actually intelligent dance music or great, great party music. That’s essentially what Camp Bisco is: an unbelievable party with unbelievable bands in a great environment and phenomenal people, and I think all the fans share the same passion. That’s how the festival has built up after all these years.

It’s a very, very unique festival compared to all the rest of the festivals out there. It’s a little more to the point, and it doesn’t stretch as many genres. You don’t see many bluegrass bands or many folk bands, and not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you don’t see many straight up rock bands. Not to say we haven’t had some of that stuff over the years, but it’s kind of like honed in to live-tronica, if you will.

On that note, improvised electronic music has really taken over the jam scene, partially thanks to you guys bringing it in. Why do you think that is? What is it about improvised electronics that has become so big, especially now?

Electronic music has been pervasive in our society for decades now, and as technology increases it seems that everyone and their mother has the ability to both make electronic music on an amateur level, which gains a lot more artists the ability to start to play around with stuff at a young stage in their career. It also makes technology a lot more accessible. Technology is pervasive through out our entire society right now, we are almost in a digital society if you will.

There was a point when we started out 15 years ago, and that was just at the point in 95 when electronic music was just starting to come up from the underground movement, and start to become a little more mainstream. You were seeing it a lot more in commercials, hearing it a lot more places, so it was really only a matter of time before bands started incorporating those elements. There’s a lot of bands before us too that were doing the live-tronica thing. Take a look at a band like Kraftwerk. Theses guys were doing this as early as 74’, I think. I mean, that was ridiculously ahead of their time for what they were doing. There were people that were pushing the threshold of starting to use technology for not necessarily what it was supposed to be used for. Go back as early as the forties when you have the first electronic instrument, the theremin. In order to make it legitimate music, there were whole sonatas that were played with the theremin. That was pushing the boundaries of what technology at that time was able to do.

By the time we came around and electronic music was coming over-ground, it was really only a matter of time. We shifted pretty quickly from a rock band to a trans-fusion band if you will. Flash-forward to where we are in 2010, it certainly makes sense that a lot of bands now are doing live-tronic stuff. I would like to take a lot of the compliments for starting this movement — we certainly helped spear-head it — but I don’t think it was anything we single handedly invented. We were just a catalyst to expose that style of music to others.

Then why the move from the jam scene to embrace the electronic?

I think just the whole concept of the stereotype of what jam-bands were ten years ago, a lot of noodly stuff, very basic 1,4,5 changes with some noodly guitar solo stuff in there, everyone playing at the same time. It ran it’s course after a while, and you’ve already seen the best of the best. Those bands are still around that do the “jammity-jam” thing unbelievably well. They started an entire movement and they’re still doing it, and they do it the best. It just ran it’s course, and everybody is starting to push the boundaries of what improvised music can actually be.

You guys just put out a new record and have been touring it around. How has it been to incorporate it into a set? Have you been expanding on it?

Of course, that’s the goal. Any album, somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re always thinking of how you’ll perform it live. You don’t want it to be a hindrance on completing the song. The studio is what it is. It’s a separate world, and somewhere you have to be thinking how are we going to translate it, but you get there. Build the song and the art form first, and then you’ll figure out how — and for that matter if — it will translate.

You know what though? There are some songs on the album that we know are just going to be too difficult to translate into a live environment without all the pieces. There are some songs that are built around a crazy horn arrangement and a beautiful female vocalist. We’ve preformed some of those songs when we first introduced the album and one or two other times, but it is what it is, and we let it be what it is. It’s a track on the album that if we have that type of orchestration, then we’ll perform it, but we’re not necessarily going to try to force it.

There were other situations where we try to figure out how to get a square peg in a round hole. A song like “Loose Change” which is very reliant on samples and sound effects, there’s literally change dropping onto a mirror. There’s a sample that we recorded where we put a quarter right here under the index finger, spun it and waited for it to flip around and fall to the mirror and recorded that sound, and right as it hits, that’s the hit of the song and an imperative hit of the song because without it the entire section wouldn’t work. We used the computer in order to actually do that, in order to have that exact same sound effect, but we humanize it as well, you know? We’re not just pressing play on the backing track, we’re triggering a sample. So the same way I would be like, “I’m gunna play a big-ass G7 chord here”, I’m going to play a pad or a note or whatever it is that triggers that specific sample at a specific point in time. So for all intents and purposes, it’s the same as putting the quarter right there (pointing to the table in front of us) and flicking it, I just have better timing with it because I already have nine keyboards. I don’t need to spin a quarter on a piece of glass.


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