Disco Biscuits and other Philly bands lead the 'jamtronica' charge

The Disco Biscuits formed in 1995 at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Disco Biscuits formed in 1995 at the University of Pennsylvania.
Posted: July 09, 2014

BEHIND THE stage, seagulls bobbed and boats rocked in the Delaware River current. Out front, dancers swayed and bounced in tiered rows. Onstage, the bands played, one after another, each accompanied by a new instrument, one that wasn't so prevalent at the last Jam on the River festival in 2008: the laptop.

Arguably the most divisive instrument since the electric guitar, the laptop has impacted nearly every music genre and even forged new ones, like the so-called jamtronica that brought thousands to the River Stage at Penn's Landing in late May.

Jam - the open-ended, improvised end of the rock music spectrum - was once ruled by the Grateful Dead and Phish, which comes to the Mann Center tonight and tomorrow for two sold-out gigs. But if the 2014 JOTR lineup was any proof, that genre has become as nuanced as any other.

There was Zoogma, which relied heavily on sampling and prerecorded tracks. And, Griz, a DJ whose saxophone kept him on the fringe of live instrumentation, just barely safe from classification as pure electronic dance music. There were Papadosio and Lotus, whose laptop influence was less intrusive, like ambience behind the instrumentation.

This EDM-infused jam sound is no stranger to Philadelphia - one might even say it was born here during late '90s laser parties at the Electric Factory with Lotus and the Disco Biscuits.

Fans around the country look to the Disco Biscuits, who formed at the University of Pennsylvania in 1995, as pillars of the jamtronica scene. For Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein, the blending of jam music and synth-heavy electronica was a natural evolution. "It wasn't like we had done anything that wasn't going to happen," he said.

Brownstein's side project Conspirator, which played a late afternoon set at Jam on the River, uses the laptop "as a fifth instrument." But he said that putting all bands who use laptops in the same category is too easy. The computerized impact varies greatly from artist to artist.

Phish and the Grateful Dead are still his favorite bands, but Brownstein is open to musical change and cross-pollination. "Having that technology at our fingertips, all it does is create more possibilities," he said. "Possibilities for pushing the boundaries in music."

Welcoming electronic influx

As the music's changed, the fan base has remained open-minded.

The nomadic crowds are still colorful (with perhaps a bit more neon), and positivity seems to be required with a general admission ticket. If the folks at Jam on the River were any indication, age doesn't classify jam listeners the way it does with some other genres.

Some of the only fans who didn't welcome the electronic influx at Jam on the River were teenagers in Grateful Dead T-shirts, defiantly defending jam's traditional roots. Some of the older folks - old enough to have seen the Dead in concert before Jerry Garcia's 1995 death - were open to jam's 21st-century shift.

A Biscuits fan for eight years and a Phish fan for even longer, Cooper Smith, 47, said he loved the new laptop infusion. "You see people appreciating everything," Smith observed, "even the set break music."

The same can be said for the musicians.

Justin Berger was very much embedded in Philly's jam scene before graduating from Conestoga High School in 2011. His older brother turned him onto the Biscuits and he went to jam shows around town with his friends.

He has since moved to the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn., and joined jam's youth movement, playing in a band that sounds virtually nothing like the Disco Biscuits he spent his formative years listening to. The 21-year-old plays guitar in the McLovins, a young jam-rock quartet that returned to the Philly suburbs for a show at the Ardmore Music Hall in May.

A small, but enthusiastic crowd rocked to their fiery grooves and wise-beyond-their-years vocal harmonies. They hollered for the local guitarist. The McLovins sounded more like Phish - more "traditional" - than the Biscuits or Lotus, but it's easy to oversimplify bands that improvise, Berger said.

"There are hundreds of bands trying to be a jam band that don't sound the same," he said. Berger welcomed the wave of jamtronica and said he was particularly fond of Papadosio, whose double keyboard-fueled wall of sound is a "great example of how to bring in that electronic feel with the traditional jam instrumentation."

Riding sound wave

Although Papadosio, the McLovins and the Grateful Dead share very few sonic qualities, there are certain universalities within jam music. Every jam band has its own wall of sound, like a musical wave that builds and crashes when all of the musicians are playing as one. That unity is achieved by musicians with open ears. Improvisation is inherently challenging and presents a unique setting where the musicians and concertgoers share an equal responsibility to listen.

Berger said McLovins shows are about 20 to 30 percent improvised and rely heavily "on your ear and what you're listening to, and your experiences with the people that you are playing with."

It's no secret that jam songs tend to be lengthy. But what some people may not realize, Berger said, is that good improvisation takes time. Building to the intense peak that eventually defines a jam is an "emotional" process that should not be rushed, Berger said. "Let everything build on its own."

In bands with an electro flare, the improvisation process isn't much different, even if the result is. "The peak is still the most important part," Brownstein said.

When Phish plays the first of two shows at the Mann tonight, they will reach at least a few momentous peaks. It's these quick synapses of sonic bliss that made the Vermont foursome world-renowned in the first place. But with the Biscuits, the peak isn't just one note, or even one measure.

It's a longer groove "explosion," Brownstein explained.

Regardless of fundamental differences among bands across the jam spectrum, the community is still rooted in sharing. Whether sharing recordings for free, as fans have for decades, or even sharing musicians between bands - like Conspirator's collaboration with Big Gigantic, called Gigantic Underground Conspiracy - the jam environment is what computer geeks would call "open source."

The Camp Bisco festival in upstate New York, expected to return next year, and its urban counterpart City Bisco, slated for Sept. 25-27 here in Philadelphia, are organized by the Disco Biscuits. When the time comes to book headliners and supporting acts, they call their friends - of which there are many.

"Bands like the Disco Biscuits and Papadosio," Berger explained, rattling off a few other jam bands that have generated nationwide buzz, "they're all friends. I think when fans see that connection, they realize there's something here . . . there's something special."

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