Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Biggest, Scariest Interview Yet (Part 1/2)

Before we get down to business. Don't forget that Al's Music Rant opens at the Comedy Festival this Wed 30th March. Bookings available at the Comedy Festival website or directly through TryBooking here.

So, here it is, the big reveal. An epic two part interview with Big Scary, so buckle up, this is as in-depth as they get.

It’s a bright, beautiful Saturday and I’ve just pulled up to the picturesque old residence located in affluent Mont Albert to interview one of Melbourne’s most exciting independent acts – and one of my personal favourites – Big Scary. The charming suburban home doubles as Big Scary’s rehearsal space, a front room decked out with keyboards, a rack of acoustic guitars, a toy piano; and Tom Iansek’s signature ‘love crusader’ Fender flanking Jo Syme’s familiar Pearl drum kit. Rustic paintings of birds and a portrait of an old Anzac line the walls while tucked in the corner next to the fireplace, away from the scattered musical debris, is the old upright piano on which parts of the Four Seasons EPs and the transcendent Falling Away were recorded. It’s only later when I point out the plaque that adorns the entrance, Summerland, that Iansek confirms that it is the Summerland Studio of their liner notes. It’s no surprise that this homespun ethic is the bedrock for the duo’s musical exploration, the spirit and character of their location has always played an important part in their sound and process. In fact, when we do get down to chatting, it’s in the family lounge-room over a full pot of Early Grey and some chocolate frogs Jo has ‘procured.’
The pair are endearingly down-to-earth, their responses laced with a soft-spoken modesty that belies a band who finished 2010 with a year so envious, it would turn most upcoming bands a sickly shade of green. In conversation, the duo begin hesitantly, punctuating their answers with self-effacing ‘you knows’ and reaching ‘kind of/sort of’, quick to offset with some light humour.  Iansek in particular is open to discussing introspectively, but only in a straight-ahead manner that never loses its way in wafting articulations. Syme on the other hand, rises from her blanket on the couch to proffer her views as well as delivering several comically-timed observations throughout. Both however reflect the balance and authenticity so prevalent in their music, broad in scope and ambition yet attractively quaint in its delivery.

In the first part of our interview, we chat about the lead-up to their upcoming Four Seasons headline tour of the East Coast. The discussion remains distinctively Australian, covering the summer festivals, triple j, local bands and venues, even ‘our’ Kylie.

AMR: Before we begin, I just want to say, as a fan it’s a bit of a thrill to see the inner sanctum.

Jo: Are you kidding? We get to be here with the guy from Al’s Music Rant.

AMR: [laughter]That’s it, it’s all mutual. So I’ve buttered you up, classic journo technique – now I’m going to ask the hard-hitting questions. So first of all, The White Stripes have split, so you won’t get any more lazy comparisons.

J: We’re just gonna fill that void right up.

AMR: Time to take over?

J: we’re like the putty… or a cork.

AMR: How did you guys feel about that when it happened? Cause you’ve been compared to them often in the past.

Tom: I didn’t think much of it at all really.

AMR: It did happen around some crazy stuff – the same time as Cyclone Yasi.

J: [sarcastically assertive] yeah, I had more pressing issues on my mind. As I’ve said before, I’ve never actually listened to the back catalogue, so it wasn’t really a shock or a catastrophe. It’s not like Jack’s going to stop making music.

AMR: Another innocuous question. Did you happen to see the 101-200 results for Triple J Hottest 100? [Falling Away placed at 167 in the post-100 results]

T: Yeah, we did. We got in there. It was cool.

AMR: Should’ve been higher, but that’s not the point…

J: It’s alright I justified it many ways. We have so many songs, we don’t use social media a lot. I really tried to sort it that way.
T: Yeah, but there was some awesome songs in that latter chart.

AMR: That’s the thing you can look at it the other way and say that where you are at, on the rise. 167, that’s pretty damn impressive. You’ve got bands like The National who’ve been around for over a decade and are only starting to see their success pay dividends. And you placed in your first go.

J: yeah true, that list was awesome as well. I mean Drunk Girls [LCD Soundsystem’s kraut-punk hit] wasn’t in the top 100. I don’t trust the voters anymore, that song was amazing.
T: There were so many that didn’t make it, that’s just how that thing goes sometimes. It’s a bit of a popularity contest.

AMR: So, leading up to the Four Seasons shows. First of all, you two did your first festival shows over summer – Falls, Peats Ridge, Southbound – how was that? Was it what you expected?

T: It was amazing. Really good, I’d never been to a festival before then so it was my first. I mean it was tiring, a lot of travel and we didn’t get to hang around for most of the shows. But there’s just something special about performing in front of a really big group of people. It’s an adrenaline rush in a way I suppose. A really different energy. The Lorne show [At Falls Festival] was the highlight for me.
J: For sure.

AMR: What about you Jo? Cause you’re a bit of a festival guru.

J: Yeah, I’ve been to Falls lots of times as a punter and it was awesome, cause you don’t often see that tent [Big Scary played the The Grand Theatre Stage]really full, maybe once for Yves Klein Blue; but most of the time it’s just a spattering of people. It was just a great morning, which we got to share with Boy & Bear and The Jezabels, who are obviously the next biggest thing with a great following. So it was a great crowd all morning, and also it made me miss the tent at the later festivals. The acoustics were really cool, it was this ridiculously great atmosphere and we’re pretty reverb-happy anyway so it just sounded great. The crowd owed us nothing, it was exciting that we hadn’t brought them there and didn’t know anyone and they were really into it. It was the first time we really had people clapping along and that kind of thing.

AMR: Getting more physically involved.

J: That’s right [wryly], there was a circle pit just during Falling Away that was pretty dangerous.

AMR: [laughter] But it is the sort of vibe at a festival, people are just checking out stuff for the first time. Bands that people know the name, or maybe a song, but really get to see a proper taste. In some ways that’s a lot of pressure. Did you find you had supporters there too? People who’d followed you to the festivals?

T: Yeah definitely, there was a bunch of people at each show. But it’s kind of more fun trying to sell it to people who haven’t heard you before. That’s the more exciting part of it. You can tell if you’re doing it well or not from the crowd, and it was really exciting to see they were into it.

AMR: Obviously, is that something you want to do again next summer?

T: Nuh…
J: We’ve done that, we’ve checked that box [much laughter] well, that’s the thing, you can’t do the festivals every year.
T: Not the same ones
J: That leads onto the whole thing about Australia and its limited scope. That said, we’d love to keep playing festivals of course!
T: I hope we got some next year. It made my summer really.

AMR: It was obviously a good way to cap off what was a very busy but successful year.

T: Absolutely, at the start of last year we set a few goals, one of which was to get on to some festival bills. And it was more of half-dreaming when we set it, and then it happened and playing the shows was a great sense of achievement. Not just for us, but for our whole team who works for us. Really good to see all that hard work paying off.

AMR: So leading on from that, now we’ve got the headline Four Seasons tour. What can we expect from that?

T: Well, my homework for this week was to write a setlist – haven’t done that yet.
J: He just broke it to me.
T: But I’ve got some ideas.
J: [excited] Oh I’ve got the ponchos and the rainjackets! Oh sh- that’s a massive slip-up. We really are going to try and incorporate…
T: …a few wardrobe changes.
J: We’re fine with Kylie’s Aphrodite tour, there’s gonna be a real fight – a tête à tête, one-on-one – decision here. Which is the more elaborate show, the Aphrodite Tour or Big Scary’s Four Seasons.

AMR: Pretty clear isn’t it? One has Four Seasons, the other has none.

J: Spectrum versus Rod Laver. They’ve been compared many a time. It’s the only fair bout though.

AMR: Costume changes, that’s exciting. Was that to make it fun for you guys? Cause some of this material is a bit older now, does it ever run the risk of you getting bored of it?

T: Totally, there’s already been that. I can be a bit difficult on that front, I tend to get bored of old stuff pretty quickly. There’s been a bit of culling but luckily we’ve been writing a bit of new stuff. Out with the old in with the new.

AMR: Will some of that new stuff be at these shows or are you trying to keep it to the Four Seasons EPs?

T: [hesitantly] a lot of the Four Seasons is kind of hard to pull off in the live setting. With all the different instrumentation and in terms of making a show that flows well.
J: That’s one of the hardest things for us when we tour, it is billed as the Four Seasons tour and that’s what we’re supposed to be promoting but trying to choose an appropriate amount of songs to justify its Four Season-ness. Because there’s really only two songs off that compilation that we play live as a general rule, and others that we’re happy to but trying to balance appropriateness and quality .

AMR: Well it’s always been in your nature – pardon the pun – to not rest on your laurels and keep growing and changing, even the expectation isn’t that your necessarily going to just play the EPs live back-to-back; that you are going to do something interesting. Even last time when we spoke Tom, before the sit-down Winter shows. You were talking about the difficulty of recreating some of that work live, how have you two tackled that? Has it been a case of re-arranging the songs?

T: There’s been a bit of re-arranging. Some of the songs we recorded with more than two parts. Things like Summer and The Deep Freeze, you have to think how to do those properly. How much you have offstage sounds happening, with samples, it’s tricky but generally we make it work.
J: Those Winter shows we deliberately went to the effort to have a bigger transport to get everything there and honestly, if we wanted to make those songs sound good we need a massive bass drum and it just doesn’t fit in the car. So to get to the gigs, even logistics like that have a bearing on what happens. Those Winter shows we went that extra mile and made sure we had everything. For a two-piece band we had however many inputs – it was kind of ridiculous. It just doesn’t make sense to keep doing it that way. It’s just a lot of logistics which kind of determines the setlist. We just try and cull as many acoustic guitars as possible, otherwise we’d have three and we think we’re not even having one – we don’t know. We’ll find out in two weeks.

AMR: At The Mercy Of The Elements you could say…

J: At the mercy of my Ford Falcon.

AMR: That’s great! It could be the title of your rarities and b-sides compilation.

J: [much laughter]That’s awesome!

AMR: We seem to talk about this every time we meet, but just your vast back catalogue and being able to do that justice. And Jo, as you say, there’s this expectation that it’s the Four Seasons show and that’s what you’re playing. With that older material, where you’re writing for the album now, does it get to the point where you just say ‘OK, we’re clearing the slate’ or do you still enjoy going back and pulling some old ones out of the hat?

T: It’s just been a case of picking the best songs regardless and the songs that are still relevant to us. There’s still good songs which we feel aren’t so relevant to us anymore, we wrote them a few years ago.
J: I’m laughing at the word ‘we’ in ‘we wrote.’
T: Yeah, I [jokingly] probably only I.

AMR: Tom slams hand on table. Do you care to name names?

T: Like, This Weight.
J: Oh yeah, it’s copped a beating recently. Verbal abuse about it which I received lately. It’s been a sturdy player and now…
T: It was just a certain point in my life two years ago and I can’t really relate to it anymore.  Those kind of things, but we’ve been writing a bit of new stuff.
J: That’s the thing, I get quite stressed about leaving songs behind – it makes me really sad, you know? – but then Tom goes and writes a flippin’ awesome tune to replace it. So my fears are quick allayed.
T: We’re leaving our options open and we’ll end up recording more than we’ll put on the album, cause you don’t know how they’re going to turn out recorded. Once they’re down we’ll just look at the final cut
AMR: Bringing it back to the headline shows specifically. You two have always championed local acts with your support slots. Can you talk about the bands you’ve got playing with you on the Four Seasons tour?

J: The Honey Month are doing two or three shows, and it’s hard to talk about the Brisbane show cause it’s not really our show – it’s a festival which the Honey Month are on as well, which is great. We don’t know a lot about them, but we’ve seen their set and they’re great and really young and use interesting instrumentation. They’re obviously great musicians themselves, I’m really looking forward to seeing more of them. We’ve got their EP [Foliage] and the instrumentation is what really strikes me, they’re trying to get good sounds and it’s not just guitar, bass and drums.
Then Step-Panther from Sydney, who we just absolutely love. It’s worth your money cause you get an awesome comedy show as well. They’re just awesome and so unpretentious and so comfortable and fun music. We love them.

AMR: And after the first show in Melbourne sold out, you announced a second show with Kins [the new outfit from ex-Oh Mercy's Thom Savage].

J: That was really exciting, we wanted to play with Kins – always - but we made the decision not to have any Melbourne bands on the tour, just to try to broaden it out. But the second show Honey Month couldn’t do, they’d already booked and other commitments, so we were given the green light to just choose whoever we wanted and we both just knew straight away that we wanted Kins – they’re so exciting.

AMR: Well you guys turned me onto them, so thank you, they are really exciting. And Tom, you supported them solo at their residency. How’d it go?

T: It was great, I was a bit nervous actually.
J: Really?
T: Yeah, I played songs I hadn’t played for years. It was good fun, I haven’t done it for while. When I first started – my very first shows – I just started acoustic at a little bar in Smith Street and it reminded me of the early days doing that.
J: It was so good to see as well, everyone was like ‘oh, aren’t you jealous you’re not playing?” I just said “are you kidding? This is so good to see.”
T: It was mostly cause of my amazing whistle.
J: You definitely have an amazing whistle, I had a few knowing looks with [our manager] about that ‘the whistle – loves it’ he’s pretty proud of it. But, it was so good. That’s the funny thing about being in a band on stage, you never, ever get to see what you look like. ‘Til you release a DVD. Whoops, spilled the beans.

AMR: I think that working with other bands is great, that you are coming up yourselves but you have the vision to spotlight others. That’s become clear, a lot of bands tend to just take anyone else who can take a gig. You actually seem to pick and choose people on a similar wavelength – musically or career-wise.

J: I think it’s really important.
T: Well, a lot of those decisions get made on band’s behalf, by the booking agent for whatever reasons. So bands often don’t get a say who plays at their show. But we’ve always done it, mostly for the audience – we want it to be a good show.
J: Curate a good evening.
T: From start to finish, not just ourselves. We want to make sure that people get their money’s worth, especially when there’s so many good bands out there to be seen. We do make a bit of an effort to make it an event.
J: It’s amazing what you find on triple j Unearthed, I think that’s how I found Step-Panther. Cause they’d just reviewed them, it’s such an overwhelming ‘click, click, click’ world with how many bands there are. But it’s great when you do find someone on Unearthed and you get to watch what happens, that’s the first point of call for many bands. Seeing how it develops.

AMR: Well, even yourselves, you’re still on there but it’s material like Polly and Apple Song and that’s obviously older stuff for you now… so update it. [laughter] But like you were saying, Unearthed was the first point of call, a lot of people don’t go to that now. They go to your website, or the MySpace and come out and see your shows. You two have played nearly all the Melbourne venues now I think. Not a criticism, you’ve done really well in catering each of your EPs, so we were talking before the sit-down gigs at The Toff, the rockier stuff at Northcote Social, The Worker’s Club, played The Corner. Is there anything still on the list?

T: [deadpan] Rod Laver. We got the residency booked there.
J: Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

AMR: Jokes aside, that would be really good for you.

J: Shit, we gotta get famous enough to fill it.

AMR: In my head that space suits a lot of your material…

J: I’d never thought about that space actually.
T: I haven’t been there for years.

J: I saw Ben Harper and it was the first time I snuck into the bar area, when I was 15, 16. It was pretty exciting.

AMR: I’ll have a Pure Blonde thanks. [laughter]

J: But seriously, I think we’ve both always wanted to play The Forum. That’d be amazing. We were there the other night though, and it can be super-awkward. It’s a really big stage and if you’re not commanding the audience I can imagine it being pretty uncomfortable.

AMR: Something about its intimacy as well, the way it focuses with the stalls and opens out into the stage area. You kind of have to command that front in order to get everyone else.

T: Totally, and everything’s so clear. You can hear everything. Making sure the music and playing are spot-on.
J: Also when you said we’ve played The Corner I was like “No we haven’t” – but we have, lots of times, just not as a headline. That would be great. It’s so funny how The Corner’s history… how has that developed? Everybody’s played there; it’s amazing really. It would be so cool to 

AMR: Is there any particular venue that you’ve played that you’re fond of?

J: A few, it’s difficult to differentiate between the show itself and the venue.
T: Well yeah, all our Corner shows – it’s been awesome, every time.
J: Well, even back in the day, I love playing The Empress. Just playing that piano is really nice having it there, such a funny venue and such a funny owner. We played there when we launched the mini-EP [2009’s self-title four track EP] and were really nervous. We’d started with this really quiet song, just the ukulele and a few keys. The venue hadn’t noticed, they had their speakers playing music. I was so nervous thinking ‘do I say something? How do I tactfully approach this problem?’ trying to create this intimate mood and just music blaring.

AMR: You could’ve passed it off as a soundcheck.

J: We’d already done that though, confirmed to the sound guy ‘we’re ready’ and I’m looking at him and he’s like ‘it’s not me, it’s the guy at the bar with his iPod plugged in.’

AMR: I remember the first time I saw you guys was at IDGAFF.

T: Was it?
J: What did we do at IDGAFF?

AMR: You did a little set at IDGAFF.

J: [remembering] Oh, with Slow Human Escape!

AMR: I think it was the first time you did Hey, Somebody

J: Really? That was an early show, that would have been one of the first shows we did under Big Scary!

The duo have come a long way since then of course, the proof being that their first Melbourne show for the Four Seasons tour sold out at lightning speed. Tickets are still available for their second show with Kins and Step-Panther at the East Brunswick Club but you’ better act quick. For the rest of you, I’ll see you there on Friday.
Stay tuned for the second part of the interview in the next few days.

Stay tuned for the second part of the Big Scary I/V in the next few days.

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