Camp Bisco

With their ever expanding entourage of traveling groove pilgrims along for the ride, the Disco Biscuits are at home even when theyíre on the road

by Lee Abraham

The regulars were pissed. Wet T-shirt night has always been a big deal at the roadhouse and the fact that some scraggly looking rock band was playing instead didnít sit well with the flannel shirted and Bud guzzliní town folk. It couldíve been ugly. Then the transfusional transformation took place... as soon as the band started playing, a steady stream of their happy faced and dance crazed fans began pouring into the roadhouse. Within half an hour, the small, back water dive bar was packed... the tension was gone and the party had begun.

"I think itís great," says Sam Altman, drummer of the Disco Biscuits, a highly innovative and wildly popular jamband from Philadelphia. "I mean, just the fact that we have all these people who are our friends at our shows every night, just makes it nice to go into a town, especially when weíre there for the first time. Locals who come down to see the show see all these people getting into it and then they canít help but get into it too."

-Getting into- the Disco Biscuits is an increasingly popular pastime. Call it the "Camp Bisco" effect. While the rest of the world is gradually turning on to the Biscuits, their hardcore following on the East coast is reaching eye popping proportions. Few if any bands can match the fervor of Camp Bisco.

The proof - the Biscuits attract a traveling caravan of a hundred or more freewheeling groove pilgrims that follow the band wherever they go. That means -anywhere-. Las Vegas included. Over half of the tickets for the Biscuits two day run at Legends were sold through mail order -two months- in advance. Even more impressive - orders were placed from eighteen different states. Few if any bands can match that sort of connection with their fans.

A larger, more geographically diverse and computer savvy community of online Bisco campers trade live concert tapes (a practice given the thumbs up from the band) with a zeal that easily outpaces the tape trading activity of any of their jamband contemporaries.

Even Phish, the undisputed jamband supreme of the post-Garcia era, has been caught up in the Disco Biscuits phenomenon. Earlier this year, the members of Phish came down to a Biscuit show to see for themselves what all the hubbub is about. Blending influences ranging from electronic and techno to bebop and fusion, Altman and the other Biscuits, Jon Gutwillig on guitar, Marc Brownstein on bass and Aron Magner on keyboards, work hard at being different every night.

"We look at a weekend or a five day run, whatever it is, from a strategic standpoint," says Altman. Part of the gig generalship - engineering the setlist. Heavy tape trading of their live shows has resulted in a logbook with every set, from every show, over the past three years. Before hitting a town, the Bisco boys know what they played last time through. With newly converted local fans in mind, they make it a point to mix up the tunes when they return to a town. Then thereís the matter of keeping things fresh for their ever expanding entourage.

"Thereís a lot of kids that have been going on the road with us and going on a whole run of shows, people who go on an entire tour," says Altman. "So we also have to keep them in mind and not repeat shows from night to night."

But thereís more to the appeal of the Disco Biscuits than playing a different show every night. "Itís also about the way we approach the music," agrees Altman. "Basically songs are springboards. A song gets put into a set and then it evolves from night to night and becomes a different thing. Songs mutate on the road and then the fans back home thatíve been hearing about it on the net or on tapes want to see the new versions when we get back."

While the setlists and song arrangements keep changing, one thing remains constant - the Disco Biscuits have perfected a unique sound. Hippies love it and techno freaks, well, rave about it. "We started off playing rock music and improvising over rock grooves. Then we started listening to electronic music," says Altman. "As an artform, electronic music that can go somewhere and take you on a journey, in fact, any type of music that can take you someplace, thatís not just -one- thing, that builds and expands, is good music however itís created."

The Biscuitís musical progression from basic rock to "next step" jamtronica started back in their college days at the University of Pennsylvania. "I was into lots of drums and bass," recalls Altman. "Also stuff like the Orb, Prodigy, and DJ Spooky. At some point the jams that we were playing morphed into less of a rock groove, into more of a electronic, transey and looping groove. That shift, as simple as it is, was a huge change."

Calling the new sound, "Transfusion," the Biscuits gigged around Philly focusing on their music without much thought to the future. They were, as Altman puts it, "just having fun." Then came graduation. "As we were finishing school, we were figuring out what we wanted to do," recalls Altman. "Then we realized that we were -doing- what we were going to do." Thatís when the Biscuits got serious.

"Weíre all sort of nuts," he says with a laugh. "When we really want something, musically, or if we want to play at a certain place, or whatever it is, we really donít stop until we get it. We have a philosophy that we trust our instincts and ....we really work twenty four hours a day, seven days a week to achieve that goal."

Although the band released "Uncivilized Area," last year on Hydrophonics Records, most of the Biscuitís work lately has been on the road, touring relentlessly from coast to coast. Catching the Biscuits live these days clearly shows how far their music has come since "Uncivilized." Itís a quantum leap that the band is well aware of.

Recently, they took a couple of weeks off, then stuck close to home for the next few weeks, just playing local shows. The reason for the touring lull - lots of new material to sift through. "We have all these songs that weíre looking to record," says Altman. "We have a rock opera called, ĎThe Hot Air Balloon,í which weíve performed five or six times. Thatís ready to go and itís something that we want to put a lot of time into in the studio and do a serious production. Itíll probably be a double disc"

"We also have all these -other- songs, at least another double disc worth of material," continues Altman. "So basically right now weíre deciding what the next album is going to be. We know that we want to make both of those albums. And then we have a bunch of even newer tunes that donít even fall into those categories. Whatever we do, weíre trying to get something done before the end of the year."

OK, thatís the short term goal. What about the big picture? Altman doesnít hesitate. "Having people come out to shows is the coolest thing of all time. Here we are, doing what we love to do, just playing this new kind of music. Looking at it from a futuristic standpoint, Iíd like to have people look back at us and say, ĎAt the turn of the century, in the year 2000, the pioneers of a new kind music were the Disco Biscuits... that what weíre doing really grows and becomes something new." ###