So how does a jam band become a trance-fusion band? “When we found our niche, which we happened to label trance-fusion, electronic music was just coming up from underground,” Magner says. “It was starting to become more prevalent in commercials and movies, though not as ubiquitous as it is now. I think it was only a matter of time before bands started figuring out how to mix electronic elements, but humanize it. We still hold true to our improvisational nature, so we have the flexibility without being confined to a sequence or a tempo. It’s taken us a while to refine that sound.”

Magner, an obsessive vintage-keyboard enthusiast, isn’t alone in recognizing an evolution. “In 1997,” explains Brownstein, “the sound had just started to develop an electronic sort of a vibe. In 1998, 1999, 2000 we were exploring it. And from 2004 to 2007, we’ve been perfecting it. So we were influenced by electronica in the late ’90s, and then we became an electronic band in the 2000s. But we retain most of the elements of our roots as we continue to develop.”

It should be noted that the electronic angle has to do with more than genre or timbre; it involves the construction of a show, which ideally should convey both the spontaneity of improvisation and the seamless flow of a good DJ set. “I’ll tell you what we’re trying to do,” Gutwillig says. “We’re trying to play one jam, one song. We’re trying to write a song, on the spot, from the beginning of the song to the end of the song. And usually with very few parts, because parts confuse the thing. But something simple, something that works, something that’s great, and something that’s complete improv on the spot.”

He adds that the Highline show, with its steady shuffle of genres, was a poor example of this almost transcendental ideal, which fans have taken to calling Bisco. “If we’re changing between feels, like from reggae to hard rock, usually it means that we don’t agree on what the song is. Somebody’s feeling the song in reggae, and somebody else is feeling it in hard rock, and the guys in the middle are going back and forth. So you have this uncertain world of the jam, and essentially somebody needs to come and rescue that jam. We try and avoid situations where jams need to be rescued. I mean, in the olden days we used to do that stuff all the time and it didn’t matter, but now we’re trying to take it to a level of, I guess you would say, sophistication.”

Not surprisingly, some of the best-loved Disco Biscuits albums are live recordings. And some of the best-loved live recordings have never been issued as albums. The wonders of digital technology have enabled the almost instantaneous availability of concert downloads, most of which are officially offered with soundboard-quality fidelity at livedownloads.com/bisco. But there are many more unauthorized recordings out there, taped and traded by fans. It’s an imperfect system, but at its core is the true conviction that the Disco Biscuits—despite the success of studio efforts like Señor Boombox, released on the Megaforce label in 2002—are generally best heard in action.

There’s a related conviction, shared by the band, that chemistry is critical. Which made it all the more difficult when Altman—tired of the grind of the road, and seeking a more grown-up ideal of stability—announced that he would be leaving in 2005. “It was a really awkward period in our lives,” Magner recalls. “It was just at that point where we opened up our eyes and realized that we obviously weren’t in college anymore. We were in our late 20s already, and we were still in this damn rock band, and now we don’t have a drummer? So it was a weird period. We kind of needed to reassess our lives, figure out in our heart of hearts whether this was what we wanted to do.” Everyone seriously considered calling it quits, he adds, only to regroup with a renewed sense of purpose.

The first order of business was finding a drummer, and not just a drummer but also someone with the potential to become a member of the family. Through an intensive process of auditions, the band went through upwards of 30 aspirants. “We had some of the most unbelievable drummers on the East Coast come and try out for us,” Brownstein recalls. “They were absolutely magnificent in their abilities, but the feel wasn’t right.” Eventually there were four finalists, who were publicly tested during a two-night run at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City late in 2005. The event was billed as a Drum-Off. (Magner’s half-serious suggestion, to call it a Beat-Off, didn’t fly.)

Aucoin, who had been playing in an Atlanta jam band called Skydog Gypsy, proved to be the perfect fit. Having studied for a couple of years at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, he had a foundation in jazz technique as well as a grasp of rock, funk, dub, drum ’n’ bass, and techno musical styles. Brownstein and Magner both recall clicking with him from the start. Even Altman, backstage at Penn’s Landing, offers a glowing appraisal: “I feel like not only does he ‘do’ me proficiently, he’s gone far beyond anything that I’m able to play.”

Last year Aucoin was on board for some strong Bisco moments, playing to crowds of 25,000 (at the Bonnaroo Music Festival) and 20,000 (at Lollapalooza). Not that it has been smooth sailing, necessarily. “I had a lot of songs to learn,” he says, almost ruefully, of his induction into the group. “Their repertoire is humongous. I think I know about a hundred now, and I still have maybe 25, maybe 40, more to go.” His goal, he says, is to wean himself away from sheet music during shows. It hasn’t happened yet.

July|August 07 Contents
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Biscuits Rising by Nate Chinen
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