"We live in Santa Cruz, California," he begins. "And there's this Mexican dude who walks around downtown with a boombox on his shoulder and this cowboy hat. He's always blaring something out of his boombox, cruising around. He's got, like, cowboy boots and stirrups on. So, we started calling this dude Señor Boombox. We got to know him, so we'd be like, 'What's up, Señor Boombox? What's up, vato?' And one day, he's walking around playing smooth jazz on the radio, not salsa music like he usually plays. So we went up to him, and we're like, 'What's up, dude? What's with the jazz?' And he's like, [frighteningly accurate Cheech Marin impression] 'Aw, man, my tape player, it's busted, dude.' So John, our guitar player, saw that there's some sort of mechanical glitch in the tape player and fixed it. And he's like, 'Aw, man, I had to sell all my music now, I figured I'd listen to the radio.' So we're like, 'We'll make an album, dude. We'll give you the album, and you can play that outta your boombox.' That's pretty much the way it started."
Released only a few months ago, the fittingly titled Señor Boombox continues the Biscuits' seven-year experiment fusing electronica with jam-band-friendly improvisational rock. The formula has drawn fervent praise from fans of both genres, with ravers and hippie kids alike entranced by the new sound. But it ain't just the music: Disco Biscuits concerts have become notorious for bizarre experimentation with both the songs and the environment.
"We did a show in Norfolk, Virginia, where we filled the stage with tons of bananas and had everybody dress in yellow," Altman recalls. "We had these guys in gorilla costumes running around. It's all a combination of things like that, the music, and the light show that combine for an experience. And we never stop. We never really stop playing, so you're in the theater, we get on, we're on for, like, four hours, and it's just relentless."
The risks taken with songs are just as twisted as simian stage antics. During live shows, the band has been known to play songs backward or begin a song and finish it a show or two down the road, and it even has plans to set up a wheel that fans can spin to determine which song is to be played and which song it will segue into. Taking sonic risks is what got the boys started in the first place. Although one would expect this eccentricity to distance them from fans, the group has instead garnered an ever-growing, loyal cadre of followers. What's more, a few bands such as the New Deal and Sound Tribe Sector 9 have headed down the Biscuit-blazed trail.
"I guess there are other bands who have listened to us or came around after us and are doing some of the things we're doing, basically playing music over different grooves. But I'm not so vain as to think that style rose just from us, but by the same token, we were the only ones doing it for a while," Altman vacillates. "So I guess in some ways, we've inspired some people, and that's really cool."
As for those rabid fans who grok what they've termed "bisco music," Altman is somewhat mystified but tries to be philosophical.
"People live boring lives," he maintains. "They have things they're worrying about, things that are pressuring them, things in their everyday lives that don't necessarily make them happy. And our shows, for whatever reason, make them happy. The music frees them up from all these things they have to do in their lives. I think that's the reason they come night after night. It's more than the music; it's an experience."