Interview: Marc Brownstein On Bisco Power

HeadCount co-founder Marc Brownstein, the bubbling bass man with The Disco Biscuits, is on a roll.

On March 16, the Biscuits release Planet Anthem, an ambitious left turn of an album full of ambitious pop experiments. The album is already causing a ruckus among fans, who've been hearing some of the new material on tour. The Biscuits will mark its release with a seven-show East Coast run and will then head south.

On Sunday, March 21, the Biscuits will kick off their first Bisco Power Mission benefit with an intimate (and already sold-out) gig at Brooklyn Bowl . The show's proceeds will assist the purchase of a solar installation for Philadelphia's Albert M. Greenfield Elementary School and will also benefit HeadCount's new Music for Action initiative.

We recently spoke with Marc about all these things and more, including how he became a politically engaged person, the secret origin of HeadCount, why he recently shut down his Facebook page, the influence of MGMT on Planet Anthem, and the difference between hippies and hipsters.

HeadCount: Let's start by talking about Music for Action and the Bisco Power Mission. How did this HeadCount-Disco Biscuits collaboration come about?

Marc Brownstein: As you know, I'm HeadCount's Co-Chair, so I'm heavily involved with the issue of voter registration. As the election wound down last year, we started to think about HeadCount's future and how we could keep people engaged during the off years. I've long argued that if we really want to make a difference, we should get people emotionally involved in certain important issues; because if we’re not talking about issues, we’re not really doing anything. Getting people out to vote is great. But what’s the point of doing that if our beliefs still aren't being represented even after a change in leadership? So Music for Action and “What’s Your Issue?” are about making sure the people in our scene are represented. We wanted to get HeadCount artists more involved in these issues, too. So we plan to match up artists with the six issues HeadCount is pushing for and figure out specific, custom-tailored initiatives for all of them to collaborate on with us. The Bisco Power Mission is a chance for the Disco Biscuits and HeadCount to work on the issue of renewable energy. On our best nights, there’s a flow of energy from the stage to the crowd, we drive each other; we empower each other. So Bisco Power Mission's goal is to harness our scene's energy and actually turn it into real long-lasting energy.

Why did The Disco Biscuits decide to work on a renewable-energy project?

Renewable energy and sustainability has been an important issue for Jon Gutwillig. He's been advocating a new energy policy ever since we played the Primary Colors for Peace Concert in Washington DC in 2002. We've had many conversations about how the politics of our country are deeply intertwined with our energy policies. During the '90s, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz all signed the Statement of Principles developed by the Project for the New American Century. They envisioned an imperial American government that needed to stabilize the Middle East in order to control its natural resources. So it stands to reason that we can either stabilize the region militarily, and live off its oil reserves for who knows how long, or we can develop alternative forms of energy ourselves. Jon argues that if we'd taken the money we've spent, and continue to spend, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and redirected that money into developing alternative energy sources, we could have already put nearly a trillion dollars into renewable energy and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

I imagine the Disco Biscuits are starting on a somewhat smaller scale.

Yes. Half the money we raise through the Bisco Power Mission will go to construct solar panels in Philadelphia's Albert M. Greenfield Elementary School, and the other half will go to HeadCount to support our voter-registration and civic-engagement activities.

Why did the band choose Greenfield?

We had 22 applications and many criteria, but it came down to two or three schools in the Philly area. We chose Greenfield because it already had a solar project going on. They'd also raised money through their own nonprofit organization, and we wanted to contribute to an ongoing project. We made an onsite visit and saw that we could make it happen this year. Greenfield students and Disco Biscuits fans will install the solar panels together this summer.

When did you first become a real politically engaged guy?

It started in 10th grade at Brooklyn Poly Prep with my biology teacher, Mrs. Stone. She scared the living crap out of us. She told us that if major changes didn’t happen immediately, the ice caps were going to melt within 15 years and 12 feet of water would cover Manhattan. I’ve thought of myself as an environmentalist ever since. My friends and I were recycling before recycling was happening, and taking our own bags to the supermarket. We’re not underwater yet, but if you look at the weather patterns over the past few years, you see some really weird shit going on. The hypothesis is that the ice caps are melting, cooling down the Pacific Ocean and lowering the jet stream's temperature.

I started to think politically, though, when I discovered the Project for a New American Century website. These guys were writing about the need for a cataclysmic event the size of Pearl Harbor being necessary for the United States to go to war in the Middle East. To this day, I can't believe people don’t know that the neoconservatives who spent eight years in power had actually been waiting almost 10 years for something like 9/11 to happen. That’s when I started to get political.

How did you and Andy Bernstein start HeadCount?

Andy called me up one day in 2003 and said that George W. Bush was making him want to throw things at his TV. We both simply felt the need to do something. So we started calling people and making connections. It became increasingly clear that we wanted to reach everybody in the scene, not just people who felt the same as us. And we weren't sure why Rock the Vote wasn’t having a greater effect. For us, it was a no-brainer: So many people were going to concerts, all we had to do was be there. Andy used to work for NYPIRG and was a nonprofit guy from the start, and I'm a musician, so we pooled our resources and came up with HeadCount. And then it just snowballed. The telling moment for us was when the managers of the Dave Matthews Band, the Grateful Dead, and Phish got together to talk about what they were going to do about registering voters, and Bob Weir told them about HeadCount. We spent all of 2004 doing it right, working with our volunteers very closely, and talking to our team leaders and regional coordinators multiple times a week.

Climate change drives huge amounts of traffic on Facebook, which is increasingly being used to inform large groups of people about both causes and music. You had a robust Facebook presence too, at least until you pulled the plug recently. What made stop interacting with your 5,000 friends?

I felt like I was wasting a lot of time. Our new album drops this week and I'm working on three other albums right now. We’re working on the next Disco Biscuits album. We’re remixing an album called 24 Hour Karate School, a hip-hop mixtape collaboration with Mos Def, the Cool Kids, Ski Beatz, Damon Dash, and some other rappers. And we’re also making our own hip-hop album with the same artists; we’re on our fifth song.

That said, it’s really fun to be on Facebook when you’re on tour. It can be an incredible tool for keeping in touch with people, but it can also be a time suck with just too much information. I have 5,000 Facebook friends, but I don’t know 4,700 of them, and the feed became overwhelming. I couldn’t handle it. Most of the kids in our scene are extremely respectful, but a couple of "friends" overstepped their bounds. I was giving people access they don’t usually get, and I really enjoyed the relationship. But there were a couple of instances when people would send me mail that made me want to take a step back and spend more time in the studio. In one instance, someone made a back-handed compliment I might have taken the wrong way, but I fired back and got in there and let them have it. I felt really bad afterward. I knew I shouldn’t be punching back at fans, so I decided to just let them have their opinions even if it meant shutting down the outlet. Now I'm finding Twitter to be a much better way to communicate with our fans.

Planet Anthem was a long time coming. Since the Biscuits' previous album, the music industry has virtually collapsed, while innumerable trends have come and gone. Was it hard staying ahead of the curve?

It’s really cool that this many years and five albums in, we've made a record that's getting a superpositive reaction from corporate America. We’re getting a lot of positive response, and the video's on MTV2. Planet Anthem’s more critically acclaimed than anything we’ve done previously, which were more like jamband albums. Many new types of music have come out since Señor Boombox, and when we hear new sounds, we want to figure out how to make them. If we don’t do that. we might as well just quit. Then MGMT (a group of jamband fans, by the way) came along and made an incredibly superfunky and retro-cool album that turned the music industry on its side and brought the hipster and jamband worlds together. For me there are no musical barriers; music is music, one love. Hipsters would definitely disagree about this. But for me, the only difference between hipsters and hippies is how tight their jeans are. There's really is no jamband scene anymore. Everything is coming together. Everyone is making music together.

And finally, if you had to pick one, who would it be: Aston "Family Man" Barrett or Robbie Shakespeare?

Wow. "Family Man" is an idol of mine. And since I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and telling him what he is to me, I’d pick him.