Drummer2Drummer with Daniel Lyons – Vol. 4 (Dr.) Sam Altman
Hello again! Friendly reminder: I’m Daniel Lyons, current drummer for Horizon Wireless and SOLARiS, two steadily touring acts in the Northeast live music circuit. In this series I will continue to explore the minds and experiences of my favorite drummers in this mixed up music world.
In more ways than one, the subject of this fourth volume of Drummer2Drummer is a personal inspiration and musical hero of mine. As a drummer growing up in the Philadelphia area in the early 2000’s, the music of Philly’s own The Disco Biscuits became more than just an interest or a hobby to me. Not only did the Biscuits have a massive impact on my life and musical interests, but they also became the driving force behind shifting the entire jam band/live music community from the funky and Phish-y rhythms of the 1990’s, to the dark electronic landscapes exemplified by such acts as STS9, the New Deal, and many more since. At the epicenter of this growing genre was Sam Altman, founding member and original drummer of The Disco Biscuits. The man who invented “UNTZ” long before it was sold and slapped on a neon festy tanktop, Sammy has remained a mystery since his departure from The Disco Biscuits in 2005 to pursue his dreams of becoming a medical doctor. While I once toiled for thousands of hours in my parent’s basement to emulate his sound and gravitas behind the kit, I am now honored to delve into his fascinating history with the band, as well as his shift from jam band legend to humble Doctor in this fourth Volume of Drummer2Drummer.
DL: Yo Sammy! Thank you so much for doing this. Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first start drumming?
SA: I think I started in late elementary school/junior high. I had this little practice pad and a pair of sticks, and I think I may have had a basic rudiment book. I was going through kind of a hippie-discovery phase at that point, and I drew a peace sign on the pad. What a dork! Anyway, I still have that practice pad in my old bedroom at my parent’s house in Long Island. Being the spoiled brat that I was, a few months went by and my parents let me pick out my first kit, a Pearl Export series. Eventually, I had this massive drum rack set up in my room, with roto-toms and the cymbals mounted super high up, 80’s style.
DL: What kind of sticks did you use during your career with the Disco Biscuits? Did your size and brand frequently change?
SA: Mostly Vic Firth. I used nylon tips for a while but I kept knocking the little tips off, so I switched to wood tips. For a while I was using big 2b tree trunks, but then I guess I matured and switched to 5b. I think I also used Pro-mark 747’s for a while at the beginning.
DL: I’ve always sensed a military style to your playing, if that makes sense. Your rolls and sticking in songs like “World is Spinning” always gave off a marching band vibe. I’ve also felt like your playing has some roots in the punk genre as well. Where did these influences creep in from?
SA: Well, I was in marching band in high school, but I definitely sucked! I never learned the parts and just used to kind of jam out. I also hated having to march around in the stupid uniform. I think we had to be in band or chorus, so I chose band, and everyone in band had to do the marching band thing during homecoming.
Maybe the military thing you’re hearing comes from trying to (very poorly!) cop Billy Cobham in Mahvishnu Orchestra, which I was into for a while. But the punk thing was a big deal for me. In high school I got way into bands like the Bad Brains, the Cro Mags, and Fugazi. I think the first song I played in the first real rock band I was ever in was “Hard Times” by the Cro Mags. It’s kind of funny, I was running in central park the other day, and I was totally rocking out to that song. Some things never change, I guess.
I think I always tried to push the Disco Biscuits into heavier territory, with some success. [Biscuits guitarist] Jon (Gutwillig) was kind of a quasi-metal head as a kid, too. We used to joke that he would ride his big wheel to the record store to buy Iron Maiden records. Plus we both were way into Primus when we met in college. The first time I met him, we jammed out to Tommy the Cat in my dorm room—me on bass and him on drums.
DL: Your drum kit sounded simply legendary live. Your toms and bass drum were always so thick, well-rounded and deep. Did you have any help in maintaining, tuning, and purchasing your drums, or did you simply do everything yourself and by ear and feel? Got any tricks to getting that “Sammy” sound?
SA: That’s nice of you to say about my sound, but honestly, the one thing I’ve always kind of regretted since I left was that I always used little drums: 10/12/14 inch toms and 22 inch kicks. I guess that kind of grew out of the early club gigs when the PA’s were super crappy, and we didn’t have the equipment or the expertise yet to fine tune the sound for the audience or for us on stage. Small drums were easier to mike, and easier to keep from ringing and feeding back. But when we started playing bigger places, I wish I had switched to a big Bonham-style kit. I think the Biscuits would have sounded awesome with massive drums. Right before I left, I was actually thinking about pitching the guys on a set of Ludwig Visalites, but it never happened.
Generally, I would just tune the batter head on the toms down as far as I could without it sounding like cardboard, and then I’d have the resonant side tuned up pretty high. I have to admit, I was never that great at tuning my drums, but once Chris “Chief” Weltmer started tech-ing for me, it was awesome. I’d get the same, consistent sound every night. Before him, it was really hit or miss every gig.
DL: How did you contribute to the all-electronic album, They Missed the Perfume, released by the Biscuits in 2001? Are these the same electronic drums that could be found on your work in the side-project, Moshi-Omen? I always wondered if you were simply programming drums, or if maybe you played actual pads to input parts into these types of projects. Let us in on a little bit of the magic.
SA: I worked really hard on that one. We were recording in a power plant or factory (or something like that!) that our friend’s dad owned, and Jon and I would spend hours talking about the drum parts. I got really into using the drum machine to program 64ths and 128ths in specific spots to make these weird building parts and syncopations. I don’t think I used a stick to play one note on that record, but it took a lot of work to compose all the parts. We were cutting and pasting single notes for weeks! In retrospect, it was a huge pain in the ass, but we were going for a very specific sound. I think the idea was, as a band so focused on live improvisation, making studio albums always seemed kind of restrictive. That album was our way of saying, “Look, here’s a version of our music that is totally anti-live.” Of course, being the band that we were, we then learned how to rock out those versions live on stage.
DL: What were your driving musical influences during the Biscuit’s formative years? How have your listening tastes changed since leaving the band?
SA: Best laid out in a flow chart, I think.
Junior high -> Classic Rock ->
High school-> Metallica, Slayer, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Chili Pepper, Beasties, Tribe Called Quest, Butthole Surfers, Primus, Grateful Dead (I know — weird), Ramones, Cro Mags, Rage ->
College -> (Phish’s Junta released on CD) -> PHISH -> (enter BROWNSTEIN!)-> Coltrane, Mingus, Monk, etc. -> College (enter Barber and co.)-> trance, jungle, d&b, John Zorn, Mr. Bungle, classical music!!! Mozart, Schubert, Bach, etc.
->Many intervening years go by and now it’s today-> Mississippi blues, Glenn Gould!!!!, LCD Soundsystem, Tom Waits, Velvet Underground, Bowie, Cure, Dirty Projectors, Serge Gainsbourg, Mars Volta, many, many more amazing bands and kinds of music…
DL: Obviously somewhere in the development of the Disco Biscuits, the decision was made to mix in electronic sensibilities, beats, and rhythms into sound of the band. The utilization of 4/4 and electronic rhythms like jungle and drum’n’bass were simply non-existent in the jam band world when you guys started toying around with them in the ’90’s. Talk to us about what drove you to begin integrating these electronic beats into your playing. What was it like to be on the forefront of a sonic revolution during the days when mostly every jam band sought to sound like The Dead or Phish, rooted in more of a funk, jazz, and blues/bluegrass background?
SA: All I can say is that when we started, we were playing Phish covers for Penn frats, but we were taking the improv sections way out. After a while, some of the music that we were listening too, namely, Goa trance, Hallucinogen, Simon Posford/Shpongle, jungle, drum & bass, Amon Tobin, Banco de Gaia—those sounds started seeping into our performances, especially into the jam sections. Once we realized that we could improvise over those electronic rhythms and get even farther out, it all kind of snowballed. Then we set about consciously emulating electronic sounds. But up until that point, the music had really developed as a natural extension of what we were listening too, and those sounds and rhythms just made it so much easier and more fun for us to improvise. It didn’t sound stale anymore, and the crowd was eating it up, because they could dance to it like crazy! I mean, I LOVE the Dead and Phish, but let’s be honest, it’s not the best music for dancing.
DL: When i was seeing you play in the band back in the early 2000’s, it wasn’t very clear where the Biscuits were headed. At times it seemed like maybe the impact of the band would be short-lived and potentially surpassed by other acts on the rise in a scene of constantly shifting tides. There were many times that I felt like the Biscuits would always be the jam-scene’s best kept secret. These days however, the impact of the Biscuits is undeniable. They’re on the front page of the cultural section of the New York Times, have been featured in Rolling Stone on numerous occasions, have had a music video on MTV2, have frequented Red Rocks for years on end, and have been recognized by the jam band history itself as worthy successors to the Dead with several collaborations with the Rhythm Devils, Bobby, and more. I never imagined seeing officially licensed Grateful Dead/Circle Logo hoodies. How does it feel to watch your baby grow now that you’ve parted ways? Did you ever imagine that the band would make it to these heights?
SA: It’s great. I can honestly say I’ve never begrudged those guys their success—they truly deserve it for all the hard work they’ve been doing all these years. As for me, I’ve got nothing to complain about to anyone. I got to have my cake and eat it too. I got to be a rock and roll drummer, and a doctor. It still blows me away, thinking about the arc of my life and all the wonderful unexpected twists and turns. For all the trials and tribulations, I’m living a charmed life, for sure.
I don’t know what I thought about the “heights” we might have/have now achieved. All I can say is that when we were sitting there in the mixing booth, in whatever frathouse/basement/storage shed/recording studio we were recording in, in that moment, we thought every album was going to be Dark Side of the Moon. We were really deep into what we were doing — the music we were making. Sure — we fought A LOT interpersonally, but for the majority of the time I was in the band, I think we really believed in what we were doing musically. And yeah, the Stealie/Circle Logo merch is dope!
DL: What was the first Disco Biscuits show you attended with Allen sitting behind the kit? What did it feel like to watch band from the other side of the stage?
SA: I think I started showing up at shows a bit too early after I left, mainly on [Allen’s first] New Year’s Run, because after all those years of being on stage on [the] 29th, 30th, and the 31st, I didn’t know what else to do — where else to go. I was kind of lost, and I had this strong desire to stay connected to the old me, the old “us”, even while I was embarking on this massive, new, and absolutely alien journey. But now, when I go to shows, I’m a total fanboy. My wife makes fun of me because I still cry like a baby during “Magellan,” “Hope,” “Hot Air Balloon,” “Gangster” into “I-man,” and when I play her the “History of the Biscuits,” basically 50-75% of any given set that I recognize. I’m also a huge sucker for Jon’s lyrics, and I guess I always have been. I love those guys, and I love their music — our music. I have no regrets, and I don’t think I would have changed a thing about my time in the band.
As for Allen, the guy’s a machine. He outclasses me technically by a factor of 10. And to be able to step into the emotional maelstrom which I’m sure the Biscuits can still be, he’s got to have a pretty thick skin. Not to mention, he’s just about the nicest and most humble guy I’ve ever met. Since the very first time I went to see those guys after leaving, he has always been genuine and kind, deferential and classy. He’s a great guy, and an incredible drummer.
DL: Allen’s style is very different than yours, and it took me a few years to fully understand and gel with his playing after listening to and seeing so much “1.0” Biscuits. His chops are more informed by years of technical training and schooling, while I always felt like the core of your playing came from a place of deep passion and feeling. Both of your styles have produced unreal musical moments for years on end, and both of your eras of the Disco Biscuits can be appreciated for wholly different reasons. What has it been like to see the band move in such different directions after your departure? From Planet Anthem, to the addition of lasers into their light setup, to even their collaborations with members of the Dead, the Biscuits have truly changed many times over since 2005. How do you feel about the direction the band has gone in since you’ve left, and how do you think that Allen’s style has effected the overall course of the band?
SA: Honestly, I don’t really think I’m qualified to answer this one—I haven’t listened to the “new” Biscuits all that much. But from what I have heard, they are much tighter and more polished than we ever were. I can also say that from out in the crowd, the fans are eating it up.
DL: What was your favorite show you played with the band?
SA: Too hard! So many insane shows. The Akira set? Blarney Stone, back at Penn, when we sold it out and sweat was dripping off of the rafters? Some weird college keg party in the woods somewhere when we set up on a hay wagon? At the base of Mt. Fuji?? Central Park? The Whiskey? The Roxy? Red Rocks? Any one of those magical 4 AM Wetlands sets on Hudson St. when the punker bartenders would throw ice at us to get us off the stage, even though the dreadlocked kids were spilling out all the way down Hudson street? No way. Too hard, man. Way too hard to choose.
DL: What was your favorite song to play with the band?
SA: Magellan was my favorite.
DL: When was the turn of the tide for you in deciding to leave the Biscuits? As a consistently touring drummer, I feel the pains of the road, the monotony and difficulty of living life show to show, and even the slight horror in seeing the frequent depravity in the audience of the shows I play. It all takes different tolls on your psyche, your health, and your mental state. At what point did you start to realize enough was enough? I know a lot of people in our music scene have to leave bands, move on, change careers, or change their lifestyles radically as they get older and become “adults.” I don’t judge anyone for making a decision like this, but I can’t help but be curious about what led to your departure, and if there’s any advice you can give to the younger generations of us working in the circuit on how to keep it all together night after night.
SA: So I was getting tired of being on the road, and wasn’t feeling so fulfilled by the music we were making anymore. I was looking to do something else meaningful with my life. Right about that time, Jon and I went down to New Orleans for a bachelor party for a friend of ours from Penn, my friend Leo. We’re sitting at the bar at Felix’s [Restaurant and] Oyster House in the French Quarter, doing shots of tequila and eating oysters, and the brother-in-law of the groom-to-be is sitting next to me. He’s a doctor out in the Midwest, and he says, “Man, I really wish I could do what you guys do! How amazing would that be?” –or something like that. At that point, I guess I had been having these subliminal/unconscious thoughts of dissatisfaction, and so I said, kind of as a joke, “I think it would be pretty cool to be a doctor.” Everyone totally lost it —just bust-out laughing. In the midst of this, the guy—the doctor brother-in-law— says, “You still can be.”
And that was it. It just reverberated in my mind like gravity rippling out in space for the next year or two, until it bubbled to the surface one morning while I was lying in bed. Two days later, I told the guys I was leaving. That was it. I was off on a new journey. As for any advice I might have, all I can say is follow your heart. That’s just about the cheesiest, most clichéd saying ever, but for me, it’s always been true.
DL: Camp Bisco IV was not only one of my favorite festivals of all time, but it was a truly bittersweet and surreal experience seeing you play your last shows with the band. How did it feel getting on stage for potentially the last time with tDB? I think some of the sets at Camp IV were better than any show I had seen from tDb in the years leading up the festival. How did it feel when that last set ended and you had your final Salute?
SA: As usual, I cried like a baby. I felt honored and blessed. Sad and exhilarated.
Thanks again, and best of luck to you Sammy!