On a sunny day in Philadelphia last week, Disco Biscuits keyboardist Aron Magner kicked off his phoner with City Paper spazzing out over new YouTube footage of Pat Metheny's modern-day "orchestrion" set-up — a revised method of developing ensemble-oriented music using acoustic and acousto-electric musical instruments that are mechanically controlled in a variety of ways.
"It's taking a lesson from the idea that you don't always need a person to be playing something ... kind of taking from the role of the old player pianos," Magner yammered. "These are instruments that are mechanically controlled to make some sort of musical sound. I haven't figured out how he does it, but he's playing guitar while surrounded with mechanical instruments. It's crazy, man."
Magner's hyperactive sense of enthusiasm over mechanical music reflects his undying excitement behind his band's latest studio collection, Planet Anthem. With a sturdy balance of tripped-out eletcro-grooves and guitar-driven funk-pop, the 13-song album veers away from some of the typical "Bisco" stylings of the band's vast catalog.
"As artists, we're always looking to evolve," says Magner. "It's the Disco Biscuits in 2010, you know? We always want to push some boundaries as well. This album was a lot like art for art's sake. We had time, and we didn't have a record label sitting over our shoulders, so we did what we did and made music without any pressure. It was a first for us — and a rather pleasant experience."
Magner and his bandmates — guitarist Jon Gutwillig, bassist Marc Brownstein, and drummer Allen Aucoin — dodged previous recording experiences where each member would bring their own song sketches to the table and go from there. This time, each let their guard down, set their egos aside, and trusted each other's judgement and creativity completely.
"The only goal was to simply make a good album together," says Magner. "By far, it was the most collaborative effort we've done. It was much more of a collective effort. Someone would hear a part and say, 'Aw, dude, that's really cool. Will you give me 10 minutes with it? I think I can work up a really great idea.' We even played each other's instruments in a much more collective approach."
The Biscuits worked with a number of different producers and musicians in a committee-style approach. It was an entirely new method. Taking advantage of their spacious studio headquarters in Philly, the guys jammed and brainstormed in multiple recording rooms and two control booths with an open-door policy toward song ideas.
"Every album experience become a new way of making an album," says Magner. "We've done all sorts of approaches, from trying to capture the essence of the live shows to going crazy with experimental instruments, utilizing all the features of adding back-up women to sing wild gospel.
"It's really exciting when you have both control rooms firing on all cylinders," he adds. "We now understand how to work together and work separately. We now know better how to take breaks and let someone else continue with your ideas while not being so controlling about it. We learned how to trust and ask for help. We learned what buttons not to push in our personalities. That relationship and dialog translates musically as well."
While the Biscuits recorded the tracks on Planet Anthem all over the place — on different drum sets, through different amps, and on various mixing boards — a consistent, uncluttered vibe permeates. Much of the rhythm section parts — whether created by way of synthesizers and machines or manually executed — pump with an analog warmth and human touch.
"There's no right or wrong way to record and make an album," Magner says. "It's an actual recording of where you were at a point in time, and it's going to be history soon."
If Planet Anthem splits its time between rock-oriented funk grooves (like the disco-beat "On Time" and the industrial-strength dance-rocker "You and I") and more atmospheric, electro adventures (like the spaced-out "Konkrete" and the dynamic and crisp "Quad B"), hardcore Biscuits fans and newcomers should easily catch the drift.
"I think when we first start introducing new songs into the set, there's always a contingency of fans who just want to hear the old songs that they know — the songs they have some memory associated with," says Magner. "Therefore, people can be very reserved and very judgmental, and sometimes want to shrug off new songs within the first five seconds. Some who hear a song for the first time might be like, 'Yeah, the Disco Biscuits sound of the future and fuck yeah!' Then there are those for which it take three or four times of hearing a new song to like it. When we finally figure out which parts of the songs to open up and jam a bit, that's when we start really winning people over to the song."
Some of the new grooves and sound effects might catch a few Biscuit fans off balance at first, but the band's never-ending fascination with making expressive and groovy mechanical music will certainly feel like home.