Set Break Is Over: Jamtronica Pioneers The Disco Biscuits Continue To Innovate

Disco Biscuits
Dave Vann
– Disco Biscuits

It’s easy to take for granted what seems to have always been. Dating back to the 1960s, the combination of improvisational rock music, communal environment and mind-altering substances now known simply as “jam” has created a built-in core audience that craves the live experience, filling venues and festival sites as predictably as clockwork. For the better part of the last quarter century, too, it’s been common to see EDM artists, DJs and electronic bands share festival bills and tour with jam artists. 

Neither has always been.
The Birth of ‘Jamtronica’
The Disco Biscuits played Manhattan club Wetlands 24 times between 1996 and its 2001 closure, but the band’s gig there on Feb. 19, 1998, was different. For the show, a 25th anniversary celebration of jam magazine Relix, the Biscuits were trying something different.
“I distinctly remember Marc Brownstein, the bass player, coming up to me and being like, ‘Shappy, you gotta stay. We have a new sound,’” says Dayglo Presents founder Peter Shapiro, who owned Wetlands at the time and has been one of the Disco Biscuits’ most frequent promoters over the band’s career. “I stayed, I watched, and I was pretty enthralled. It was a new sound. Like at that point, in early ’98, I hadn’t heard anything like that, really – a live band performance of electronic music, with a touch of jam. 
“Now there’s a whole bunch of them that do it, but obviously they led that part of the jam scene, and that was the first night,” he continues. “That, for me, was the launch of the jamtronica musical genre that came out of the ‘90s.”
The Philly-based band, with the core trio of University of Pennsylvania college buddies bassist Marc “Brownie” Brownstein, guitarist Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig and keyboardist Aron Magner had struck a chord, fusing elements of the burgeoning electronic scene with rock and jam influences, featuring heavy improvisation, unique setlists, rock operas and unpredictable live shows. Also adding to the groove since 2005 has been drummer Allen Aucoin. 

Disco Biscuits
Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)
– Disco Biscuits
The Disco Biscuits at Montage Mountain October 23, 2020.
“The Disco Biscuits have really figured out a way to march to their own drummer, in every aspect,” says AEG Rocky Mountains and Northwest promoter Don Strasburg, who first booked the Disco Biscuits on Aug. 8, 1998, at the Fox Theater in Boulder. “They really were one of the first artists to bring electronic sounds and grooves into more of a jam community, which makes perfect sense. They were one of the first to discover that the burgeoning electronic scene, in a weird way, was doing something similar [to jam], but coming from a different place. They became a bridge to a lot of different communities, but they were the original bridge, and they still are a bridge. There’s no surprise they have an incredibly rabid fanbase that is very musically diverse. They were pioneers, and they still are pioneers.”
“They sort of invented this, the ‘jamtronica’ genre,” says longtime agent Hank Sacks of Partisan Arts. “They were true pioneers in that world, and what they’ve done in their careers is extraordinarily unique, including their model for touring and running and creating their own festival in Camp Bisco.” With Camp Bisco, the yearly festival taking place since 1999 most recently at Montage Mountain in Scranton, Pa., Sacks says the band sells between 15,000-20,000 tickets per day. That kind of outside-the-box thinking continues to pay off.
“Being visionaries and smart, incredible musicians who are savvy about their careers also translated to successful socially distanced shows,” he says.

Set Break Is Over 

Disco Biscuits
– Disco Biscuits
The scene at Scranton, Penn.

Like many artists, the Disco Biscuits were headed into 2020 with one of their biggest and farthest-reaching touring years in recent memory, with about 60 shows planned into the fall. “Set Break is Over,” read the announcement. 
“Then the walls came crumbling down,” says Brownstein recalling the chain of events starting in March 2020, with “the momentum we had, then the rug getting pulled out from under us, and now getting to kind of piece that back together.”
That the band pulled off more than 10 drive-in shows in the fall, staged special livestream events and kept up side projects – including Brownstein’s work as co-founder of concert-based get-out-the-vote organization HeadCount during an election year – was more of necessity than innovation, but still they were pioneers. 
“Being able to pull it off safely and with 22 people on the road and no one got sick – we were really above and beyond careful – it was trailblazing at that point, but what we recognized then again was it was about the music,” Brownstein says. “Music” is, of course, in this case – and always – live music.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a vibe like this before at shows,” Brownstein says. “The first night of Camp Bisco every year, our festival up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, or the first night of Bonnaroo – that’s one of my favorite things about touring, to be on the first night of a major festival, when people are arriving, clear-headed and fresh and full of energy and have the most anticipation and excitement. 
“Every show we’re doing right now has that energy,” he adds. “Everywhere you show up, you have a couple thousand people that haven’t left their house or seen a concert in 12-14 months. It is really unique, something we’ve never gone through before in our lifetimes, and it’s special to come out of it with our fans.” 
Brownstein mentions hitting markets the band hasn’t played in years, such as Orlando, and having some of their biggest crowds yet while fans enjoy the podded setting and appreciate the work involved in putting on socially distanced concerts.
While those 10 shows in October tested the waters, the band has remained busy and innovative, with varied formats in 2021 including at the Caverns above-ground amphitheater in Tennessee in April, sold-out shows at the Showtime At The Drive-In in Frederick, Md., upcoming dates at the former tennis stadium Westville Music Bowl in New Haven, Conn., and three shows Memorial Day weekend at Red Rocks, promoted by Strasburg and AEG Presents, which moved 9,000 tickets in less than 5 minutes according to manager Evan Winiker at Range Media Partners. At press time, restrictions at Red Rocks were easing to allow 6,000 people per day, with more tickets released and going quickly.
“We feel really optimistic at the rate of vaccinations and we have plans for this summer that can be scaled in different ways if that rate changes,” says Winiker, who manages the band alongside Live Nation’s Drew Granchelli. “We are full steam ahead with doing safe, socially distanced shows and we are ready to grow them if there is a safe opportunity.” 
With shows booked into the fall including minor league baseball stadiums, amphitheaters, speedways and drive-ins, the band just announced it will headline destination event Holidaze Dec. 4-8 in Mexico, alongside fellow jam mainstays Umphrey’s McGee. 
“It’s not about the money, now, or building the album cycle, it’s about playing music in totally original and fantastic locations every single weekend,” says guitarist Gutwillig, mentioning playing in the middle of Orlando in March or heading back to what he says may be “the East Coast Red Rocks” at The Caverns. “Those three sold-out shows in Red Rocks, we’ve maybe played there like that, but never sold it out in advance in 5 minutes. It’s really cool. You have this really motivated promoter-venue base to do really awesome things, and we’re taking advantage of it and saying yes to all of these shows.”
The socially distant, post-COVID shows take more effort, planning and headache than usual. 
“They’ve certainly sacrificed to play some shows,” Winiker says of the band as well as promoters. “There’s no way around it. The promoters across the country, especially the independents, deserve massive respect and a lot of credit. The artists do as well; the guarantees are not what they are at full capacity.”

Disco Biscuits
Courtesy Live Nation Philadelphia
– Disco Biscuits
The Disco Biscuits take the field for their own benefit show at an empty Citizens Bank Park, home of their hometown Philadelphia Phillies, June 23, 2020. Bassist Marc “Brownie” Brownstein said the show, which benefited Black Lives Matter and had an assist from Live Nation Philadelphia, was a life highlight.

‘A defining moment in my life.’

Although the Disco Biscuits made the most of 2020 and early ‘21 to still sell tickets  and play for its fans, it wasn’t only about the music, as in June much of the United States (and the world) turned its focus to a different cause.
“The show we did at Citizens Bank Park was unlike anything I’ve ever been part of. It was in June after the George Floyd murder – we can call it that now and could have then – and the protests coming out of that,” Brownstein says. “We wanted to do something positive surrounding that, so we did the benefit for Plus 1 benefiting Black Lives, and with the help of Live Nation went to an empty Citizens Bank stadium and played in the round.”
While the stadium was empty of fans, it was no small endeavor, with Live Nation lending the Fillmore Philadelphia for rehearsal space and helping organize to get Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies’ home field up and ready for the “Disco Biscuits Take You Out To The Ball Game” June 23.
“They had to bring in the grounds crew, they mowed the lawn, they painted the lines, they got the field game-ready, in the middle of the pandemic, with no game in sight,” Brownstein says. “They did that for us, for the filming. We set up around second base and played a full show there and raised upwards of $85,000 that night, our fans really came to the table there.
“Talk about a special moment of the pandemic, this was a defining moment of my life – it transcends the pandemic,” Brownie says, relishing to relive the moment of being called onto the field like a real big-leaguer by the stadium PA before the stream. “I will never forget this moment, or this show. I’m so proud of the Disco Biscuits fans and the crew and our management team that pulled this event together at a time where [most] were streaming from their living rooms and houses and bedrooms. It was crazy.”
Lasting Legacy
The band’s legacy is evident – just look at any festival lineup attracting both “wook” jam-band hippie types alongside teenage ravers.
“It’s cool when you go to Biscuits shows, to see young 20-year-olds – not just 40-year-olds, but a new generation,” Shapiro says. “It’s hypnotic music. You can lose yourself in it. And that never fades, the popularity.”
“I don’t really think about it so much as being pioneers, but I’m excited to see where our music can go,” adds keyboardist Aron Magner, crediting contemporaries like The New Deal from Toronto and STS9. “Were we pioneering something at the time? It was only a matter of time ‘til we met up at the Mecca of jam bands in the ‘90s, and that’s the Wetlands Preserve. Hopefully it will lead to people taking that fusion of musical genres and expanding them even more.”
Fresh off of filming “Grateful Mahalo,” a three-night livestream event in Kauai celebrating Bill Kreuztmann’s 75th birthday with an all-star cast featuring Billy Strings and Carlos Santana, among others (see page 33), Magner says the Disco Biscuits’ influence, or potential influence, became clear. 

Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty Images
– Don’t Feed The Wooks
Dont Feed The wooks: The Disco Biscuits are widely acknowledged as bridging the gap between rave culture and the jam scene – as demonstrated in this picture from its own Camp Bisco festival from 2013. The annual event, which started in 1999, pre-dates most major North American camping festivals.
“It was so cool just listening to Carlos Santana talk … his passion for music as an art form, music in general, is so obvious,” Magner says. “Listening to his stories had me becoming aware of how many musicians have mentored, knowingly or unknowingly, and turned me and the Disco Biscuits into what we are today. To the younger bands coming up that we’re friendly with and have been influenced by the Disco Biscuits, certainly they don’t sound like the Disco Biscuits, but whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re providing that kind of circular mentorship. 
“We can have these conversations, and share information or even share tips to help navigate the music industry,” Magner says.”