“When we first started the band, it really wasn’t about anything more than: ‘What’s this twist of a song about?’” Gutwillig says, a couple of days after the Highline show. “It’s hard to get back to that. It’s like, at Penn, what were we doing? I’d go to class, take some calculus exam, go hang out with everybody at Smoke’s or whatever, and then I’d go home and sit down and I’d just write a song for the hell of it. And then we’d go play it.”
He shrugs. “That was all it was. And then it turned into this whole, like, people-following-us-around-the-country, circus type of thing. It lost that [simplicity] for a little bit, because there was So Much Other Stuff Going On. And now I’m trying to boil it back down to that, but it’s really hard, because there are so many people at this point.”
Seasonally appropriate in his T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, Gutwillig is sitting on a concrete bench at Penn’s Landing, where the Disco Biscuits are about to make their fifth consecutive headlining appearance at Jam on the River. Just a few yards to his left, some hopeful freeloaders occupy an idling motorboat in the Delaware River. A stone’s throw to his right, a band called Bustle in Your Hedgerow is onstage warming up the crowd, which is gathered on the Great Plaza and already appears to be several thousand strong, with a reassuring ratio of males to females.
Gutwillig, who grew up in North Jersey, exudes the steady confidence of a lifelong honor student, though tempered with a distinctly mellow vibe. His initial major at Penn was bioengineering, but the department was in the process of shifting from one curriculum to another, and he felt caught in transitional limbo. He switched to electrical engineering, which worked out fine until the Biscuits got a record deal and went on tour. He recalls returning to campus after four months spent mostly in a van, only to discover that his advising professor had died and his lab projects had been discarded. “I had accumulated so many credits and lab hours,” he says, “I was able to get my degree anyway.”
By contrast, neither Brownstein nor Magner has yet received a Penn diploma, though their histories differ. Brownstein was a few credits shy of graduating with a degree in anthropology when both his father and grandfather died in close succession. “I sank my head into my music when that happened,” he says. “It was just too difficult to get back into the school mode.” Magnera musical acquaintance during my own undergraduate yearswas younger and not as far along in his academic career. Ultimately he and Brownstein left school for the same reason, which was the music.
And for a time, the music had to serve almost as its own reward. “It was a huge struggle for the first five years,” Brownstein attests. “It was unlike anything I would ever wish on anyone, in terms of the financial situation. But we made it through the rough part, and it’s really not a struggle anymore; it’s quite the opposite. We’re unbelievably fortunate to be in this position, where we love what we’re doing and can do it on our own terms.”
The band’s dressing room at Penn’s Landing, nestled in a bunker-like edifice, gives some indication of what those terms entail. Some coolers of beer sit in one corner, and on a table there are bottles of bourbon and vodka. More important, it seems, is the social atmosphere: Friends and girlfriends drift in and out, and Altman, who left the group in 2005 for med school at SUNY-Stonybrook, stands around cracking jokes from behind a pair of aviator shades. At one point Magner’s father, Alan, a physician and acupuncturist, pokes his head in to say hello.
But there are constant, quiet reminders of what the Biscuits are here to do. Magner has just popped open a beer when the band’s long-haired tour manager, Mike Polans, sidles up with a question: How much should they charge for posters, given that the event’s organizers are claiming a quarter of merchandising revenue? There’s some back-and-forth before a decision is made: $35 today, and maybe $30 tomorrow, at the festival after-party that the Biscuits are playing at the Electric Factory.
“We’ve always micromanaged our business, from day one, and we were always very involved with promoting ourselves,” Magner says moments later. “It’s our business, and we treat it as such. So everything gets broken down. It’s not just a touring rock band. There’s a bunch of different companies within it: the merchandise company, and the download company, and the record company.” One gets the sense that he doesn’t share Gutwillig’s slight ambivalence about the scale of the band’s success.
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The day after their appearance at Jam on the River, the Disco Biscuits performed at the Electric Factory in Philadephia.
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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/28/07