Dance mixer: Disco Biscuits want to mess with your head

Aron Magner doesn’t have much time to describe the upcoming album by his band Disco Biscuits, because he’s trotting from car to studio. But the keyboardist isn’t going in to lay down tracks. It’s for rehearsals for a homegrown festival that the band has been hosting since 1999.

Disco Biscuits: Photo by Dave Vann

Disco Biscuits: Photo by Dave Vann

Camp Bisco was much on Magner’s mind when he spoke with LEO Weekly last week — but when the Forecastle Festival starts up, he’ll have just decamped. That’s a boon to the crowd coming to Louisville, as it’s during rehearsals for their own festival that Disco Biscuits go out of their way to come up with new songs and radically rearrange old favorites. And this is one act where many highlights of the performance derive from seeing how radically the songs and styles will change. 

The Disco Biscuits play music that’s often called “trance fusion.” There are layers of electronics, beats of all sorts, and a lot of the openness found in jambands. But don’t go expecting improvisational noodling — they like structure, and they like challenging themselves and each other. They are known for rearranging their songs in a dyslexic way (mixing up the parts), or sometimes inverting them, where the end is followed by the beginning, and then it’s often on to another song. They also drop in segments from well-known classical pieces. 

The band’s last album, Señor Boombox, was one of the craziest and most compelling cross-genre efforts of recent memory. As he answered some questions over the phone, it was clear that Magner wants the audience to follow along as the band members “mix things up — keep everyone on their toes.”

LEO: What was it like at the beginning of Camp Bisco? Was there the expectation going on that you could repeat it every year?

Aron Magner: Camp Bisco sort of came along because, at the time, we were playing all sorts of different festivals, and festivals were just starting to become the thing to do in the summertime. It certainly wasn’t like it is now, where there’s a festival every weekend from, like, the middle of March until the beginning of October. Back then, it was a couple of months in the summertime. And we were doing a lot of them, but we weren’t really getting the time slots we were looking for. You know, there are definitely hot spots for bands that the promoters want to put on the bill. So we decided to do our own festival. 

There is definitely something unique about it, which we knew we could continue. With every passing year, we feel how special and different Camp Bisco is. It’s the vibe of the festival … it’s the bands we put on the bill. In the grand scheme of things, compared with your Bonnaroo, or your inaugural Rothbury — which was a phenomenal festival — it’s certainly on a different scale. But I believe that Camp Bisco has the potential to be the next big festival. 

LEO: You guys drop into classical … when a piece takes a left turn in that direction, what’s the crowd reaction like? Do they go crazy?

AM: Do they go absolutely wild, like they do if we cover Rage Against the Machine songs? No. But we’ll always pick songs that are somewhat reminiscent of something in your childhood, or a scene that’s familiar. And it shows technical prowess, it shows a skill level and thought that went into arranging an orchestral song for a four-piece rock band.

LEO: So I take it you guys have covered a fair amount of the soundtrack to “Fantasia”?

AM: (laughs) Actually, a lot of the classical songs that we’ve done have been in “Fantasia,” now that I think about it. I’m not sure if that’s a deliberate thing, or whether that soundtrack is just stupendous.

LEO: With what I’ve heard about inverted songs, dyslexic arrangements … what sort of setlist do you guys assemble?

AM: We’ve got a pretty extensive catalog — there’s 140 songs. So, there’s definitely a lot of thought that goes into putting these sets together. Looking at what songs were played in that city the previous time that we were there, and making sure that you’re well-aware of songs that have been played the last four to five nights of the tour, because we always see kids on the road making sure that there’s no repeats. And making sure that the set has a certain fluidity to it, y’know? There’s definitely a science that goes into making sure these shows are as good as they can possibly be. 

LEO: That’s the first time I ever heard of “science” being applied to that.

AM: Some people do it, but differently. Jimmy Buffett does it by … random science. He’s had a lottery machine with ping-pong balls. He shoots out a ball to the crowd and whoever catches it will call out the name of the song that’s printed on the ball, and that’s what they play next. We did something like that at Starland Ballroom (in New Jersey) a couple of years ago … we were basically spinning the wheel, like with “Wheel of Fortune,” where each little slot had the name of a different song on it.

LEO: It’s been a while since you guys have been heard with a studio release. Is there one in progress?

AM: It’s two years in progress, and it’s definitely near completion. We’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. 

LEO: Any newfound sounds? Are you working at finding new beats? 

AM: What’s cool about this album is we’re using the help of friends of ours in Philly — some electronic-beat producers, some hip-hop producers. That’s helping us provide a different inspirato into our music. They’re injecting a little bit of their musical influences … though they certainly grew up on the same kind of rock music we grew up on.

We’re not just taking their beats and writing our songs around it. We’re all working as a team, and it’s nice infusing different influences into our music — whether it’s actually hip-hop beats, or whether it’s someone coming in to mix it up or providing different energy for a song.

LEO: You guys have been involved with voter registration efforts. Any message you’re saying to the crowd this year? 

AM: Certainly in an election year, we’re definitely trying to put a call to action out there for everybody to get involved. Marc (Brownstein), our bass player, is one of the co-founders of Headcount, so that is an important organization for him. I just got involved on the board with Grounded in Music, which is providing musical instruction and instruments to urban kids. The organization started in Austin (Tex.), and we just started a Philadelphia chapter of it. We are launching in a week, which is really exciting.  

Disco Biscuits play Forecastle’s West Stage on Saturday, July 26, at 10 p.m.