The Core: Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig

November 18, 2020
The Core: Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig

Allen Aucoin, Aron Magner, Marc Brownstein, Jon Gutwillig [l-r], Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, PA 6/23/20

While quarantining at home in Los Angeles, the Disco Biscuits guitarist opens up about life as a new dad, his band’s first album in almost a decade and the sobering realities of entertainment in the age of COVID-19.

Family Time

We just had a baby and that changes your whole life. And it has been great to have nothing else to do but deal with the fact that the baby has changed my life. In that regard, the pandemic has been great. I love just being home all the time. I like the fact that there’s no parties to go to. Now that he’s sleeping through the night, my evenings are: Give him a bath, put him down, and then watch TV and relax. It’s a whole different world.

I’ve been able to give him a lot of attention; we’ve done a lot of bonding. But I was on a bike ride this morning and I had this thought, for the first time: “If COVID had never happened, the Biscuits would just be crushing right now.” We were really onto something in Chicago in January—new sounds, new songs. And, unfortunately, the Biscuits don’t all live in the same place, so quarantine has not been very productive for the band. Allen [Aucoin] is in Colorado, I’m in LA and Marc [Brownstein] and Aron [Magner] are around Philadelphia. But everybody has gotten a lot better on their instruments during the last few months—everybody’s practiced a lot because we’re all giving lessons through an online platform that Marc created.

Meditating with the Music

I’ve been super creative during this period, but it’s going to take me another six months to get it out. They closed off my songwriting field, which really killed my whole plan. There’s a football field across the street from me that nobody uses after 5 p.m. I liked to go there at midnight, walk around and write. I could have my alone time; it was quiet and I could sing my songs out loud without being worried about anybody listening or shooting me dirty looks. I could get really deep into the music. I didn’t keep my phone on—it was just me and the music in this wide-open space that I was in. I could meditate with the music every night. I was doing that for a while but, when the virus came, they locked that field up so people wouldn’t gather there.

Now I’m at home and, if I make a lot of noise, the baby will wake up. I have a lot of songs that I’ve started but haven’t finished. It’s been one thing after another with COVID; I got really depressed about the music business, wrote a bunch of code and I made a livestream site for the band. And that will hopefully come in handy in the next six months. I want the Biscuits to be able to livestream really high-quality music all the time. I don’t think that most of the streaming sites care that much about sound quality, so I’m working on that a little bit.

Set Break Isn’t Quite Over

We were soundchecking [at Philadelphia’s The Fillmore] when everything got shut down in March. I had been watching the Wuhan YouTube channels for a month or two before then so I already knew what was going on and had actually been trying to get them to cancel those shows, but nobody thought everything was going to shut down. That was the rap for weeks and weeks and, even though there was this massive disease in China, nobody seemed to care in America. I went onstage for soundcheck and things looked good, I went backstage and then, somebody walked over and said, “Everything’s canceled.” And I was just like, “Fuck.” It’s terrible for everybody, but the Disco Biscuits had just been starting back up.

This was going to be our first year of good touring in a long time. It was going to be a big year for the Biscuits; we were going to do some great things. And, like any band who was breaking through in 2019, 2020 was going to be a year to establish ourselves—to make some money, to stabilize the operation a bit. To have the whole business removed is just going to be brutal for a lot of people. At first, I thought it was going to be a month or two, but now it seems like it’s going to be a year or two and I don’t know how it’s going to play out. It’s beyond everybody’s calculus equation at this point.

It was a shock for me—I didn’t think they were going to pull the plug like that. I didn’t think they could pull the plug like that and say, “Everybody has to stay in their houses forever.”

Another Iteration of the Biscuits

We have been able to do a few cool things [during the pandemic]. We did a baseball stadium show [without an audience at Citizens Bank Park], where the Phillies play. That was one of those, “You only get one chance to do this in a lifetime” things. A lot of people watched the show and, like with a lot of these livestreams, it was about the community. It was about the band and the fans coming together, which is really cool. The band played great and [the livestream we did without an audience] the night before at The Fillmore in Philly was great, too. But, I also had this thought: “Damn, that stadium show would be a bad show if we were on tour right now.” If that’s us after just doing a couple of lessons and getting together—without being able to really rehearse—what would we be doing if we were able to tour?

We were able to do a couple of sessions [for the Disco Biscuits’ first album since 2011] before COVID, but it has been a couple of months since we’ve been able to go into the studio. We could probably put something out in the coming months, but there’s a lot of stuff to work on. I don’t know when we are going to be able to make another session happen. [My family and I] have to leave our house because the owner has to sell it. So, I would love to make a Disco Biscuits album, but I can’t even stay in the house that I was hoping to be in for the next two years at a minimum.

What we were doing at the end of last year was really fresh. It was like 2009, but it was also totally different than 2009—different songs, different sounds, a different band. And that’s what was cool about it. We were about to see another iteration of the Biscuits. We were there, and it was about refining things and that’s what we were going to do this year.

Another “Anthem”

All of the new songs [the Disco Biscuits have debuted recently] were written since 2018. Before that, I made an album that I never released because we just ran out of money to fund it. Also, it wasn’t intended for the Disco Biscuits and I just didn’t want to release a non-Disco Biscuits album while I was putting the Disco Biscuits back together. Those songs weren’t written with the Biscuits in mind. It’s different creating for the Biscuits than it is for an amorphous project. But in the year that it took me to make that album, we got the Biscuits back on track. And I wanted to write music for the Biscuits. So I did that, which led to stuff like “Anthem” and “Heroes.”

I probably wrote 200-300 songs between 2010-2020, mostly just for fun. I don’t think I’m going to release any of them though, unless I have to in order to make it through the quarantine. There was a good album to be made there, too, but none of this stuff is stockpiled.

[The Disco Biscuits’ alter-ego project] Tractorbeam was another experiment that was working really well before all this. I envisioned the new Tractorbeam to be a live techno project but, realistically, I didn’t think we would get there because techno songs are usually crafted in the studio. Trying to perform these songs live was like using a stapler to sculpt something out of marble—the tool is just wrong. But what we did during our last show in Chicago was working. I had just made some breakthroughs on the guitar synth. It equated to the Biscuits’ strengths because the guys in the band are all good musicians.

We’re going to move back to Pennsylvania so the baby can be near his family, which could be good for the Biscuits. We can set up a little practice place and meet there every few days to work on our music. I see a lot of potential for the band—Allen has a baby as well but he can come in for a few days every few weeks and we can do some “couch tour” shows or work on all this music that I’ve written for the band. Hopefully, I can move to the woods in Pennsylvania, set up a little studio in a barn and we can do some dope Disco Biscuits livestreaming. Then, I think the Biscuits should be in a great position. 

The Mandela Effect

Every time we think, “OK, we’ll be able to get together next month or in September,” things just seem to get worse and, not only are they getting worse, but now they think you can get COVID multiple times. And, in the middle of all this, we are watching the circle of humanity. If you look online, every part of humanity seems to hate another part of humanity. This pandemic is making people worse and less hopeful. But I also just welcomed this bundle of joy amid all this hatred, so I am lucky that I have this counterbalance that many people don’t have.

Everyone is losing their jobs or being forced to move—there are conspiracy theories about Bill Gates. It just seems like people are at odds right now and that the version of society that could have made this manageable is gone. If we were going to write a quarantine album, then that is the album we should write—I don’t wanna write this, “I’m partying in the house” album. I feel like we’re living through an actual Mandela Effect. Before COVID the world was one way, now it’s totally different, and nobody has any idea how it’s going to end up.

The Next Dead

There is no money in the music business anymore, so everybody is going to leave the business. Until now, Live Nation was propping up the whole music industry because there’s no record companies anymore. There’s a couple of marketing agencies that have 25-50 artists and then there’s SoundCloud rappers. Luckily, when the Biscuits started, we were able to make a very small amount of money because we played club shows. But that’s not going to be there when this is over. The next Disco Biscuits is not going to happen; the next Grateful Dead is not going to happen. All these bands got their start playing these small clubs. And if there isn’t a Nectar’s, then there isn’t a Phish. A lot of musicians who were going to have a great year aren’t going to have a year at all. You can say, “But there weren’t these clubs 100 years ago,” but there also wasn’t electricity in some places.

There hasn’t been any response from anyone in the country trying to change things. And a lot of these social problems in the country aren’t going to get any better unless people do something to fix them right now. I watched three religious speakers—one from each of the major [Western] religions—speak recently and they were all just hating on the other two the whole time. My thought was, “Where’s the message? Where’s the hope? How are we going to get through this pandemic? Are people just going to stay in their houses, wear fancy masks and think everything is OK?” Deadmau5 was really onto something—that dude was ahead of his time.