Sunday, April 17, 2011

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

Sorry for the dealy in broadcasting, the post-Comedy Festival show blues has been swift and brutal. Think of it in equal and apposite correlation to the show's success. And while there may be some new blood to the site (hopefully? in which case, hello and welcome); I really have been doing my best to get this second half up, so no more mucking about...
So, you’ve (hopefully) seen Big Scary as part of their Four Seasons headline tour, so you’ve seen their costume-changing sense-of-humour, you’ve seen their excellent taste in support acts and their obvious brilliance. But what next? With the Four Seasons behind them, it’s time to focus on that ever-pressing debut album. In Part Two of our in-depth interview, strummer Tom Iansek and drummer Jo Syme talk about their writing and recording process, their plans for the future, as well as reflecting on how far they've come. 

AMR: So Tom, a lot of the lyrics with Four Seasons were obviously inspired by nature, but even outside of those themes – with At The Mercy of the Elements as well in particular – nature seems to be a strong lyrical concern of yours. Is that something you’re drawn to?

T: Yeah it is, the lyrics often come second behind the music, and commonly a bit of a struggle. So there’s things I’ll fall back on and for some reason the weather and nature is a recurring kind of theme. But in terms of what we’ve been aiming for recently, I’ve been trying to work a bit harder for the songs and though I do toil to get words down at times I’ve been really pushing myself to search for something with personal meaning and relevance; rather than falling back on familiar themes and ideas.

AMR: And Jo, you wrote Hamilton [the lead single from the Spring EP], how was that experience? Because you’ve even said yourself before that Tom is the songwriter but we also have your contribution as well.

J: I never finish songs and I somehow was just motivated one day to do a demo of that and I tracked it up on GarageBand, mostly a rough version of what’s pretty much there now just the ending - that’s developed. I don’t know where that came from cause I never have the patience to do anything like that. But I think I was just so excited I’d finally finished a song that was more than one verse and one chorus.
T: You’ve got quite a few little ideas. That’s the thing, we’re quite similar in our struggle to… I mean it’s easier to get an idea and harder to flesh it out. To turn it into something.
J: Yeah, I mean I’ve never really sat down and designated time though, maybe something could happen if I ever, ever sat down and tried to write something – but I don’t [laughs]. Hamilton’s good cause it’s about my old boss, he really is a jerk. Hamilton being Hamilton street which is where I used to work. Actually, it wasn’t about my boss it was more about the customers. I’ve been in hospitality for eight years now and people are lovely, but a lot of the time customers are so rude and don’t even realise they ‘re doing it. Don’t even realise you’re a person – just cause you’re working.
T: and they don’t realise you’re spitting in their sandwiches.

AMR: That’s the chorus, the defiance of the chorus.

J: You play that song backwards “I spat in your sandwich.”

AMR: More specifically about the songs, Tom, something like Autumn captures the life and death theme with the season. Is there some of it that’s more personal as well? I’m thinking something like Gem In The Granite, did you find that when you were getting away from that seasonal aspect it was more personal? More rewarding or difficult?

T: I’ll definitely feel more proud if I can get something across, one specific idea out there and often it is a personal thing; and I even think that sometimes it borderlines on being too personal. I’m a bit reluctant to tell very specifically what they’re regarding, but I definitely feel like that’s what song writing’s about. Relating your personal experience and I guess that’s all you can really offer as a songwriter because everything’s been done, all you can really offer is your own thoughts.

AMR: Is it a way as well, for you to make sense of things?

T: Of course, it’s always been an outlet. If there’s something that’s been on my mind or I’ve had trouble dealing with, I often feel better having turned it into a song. It’s a way of dealing with certain things.

AMR: A way of saying ‘that’s that.’

T: Yeah, and even just articulating it as well. It’s kind of putting it into words, and even that sort of helps figure it out. A lot of the time, they are just personal issues – broad ones like: where I’m going with my life, even just being a musician, whether I’m comfortable with that role.

AMR: I mean it is still early in your career for this, but it’s sort of as soon as you are a musician with a degree of success you become a sort of spokesperson in a way. Even if you don’t say ‘this is our cause, this is our thing’ but automatically people will assume that you’re delivering a message. Have either of you ever felt that way in a particular moment?

T: I do feel a bit like that especially when you realise that people are taking an interest in what you’re doing. That’s always weird,  cause you feel that you’re not doing anything that special – I’m still like most people around me. I study, I work and I kind of just pen down some notes on the side. To have people asking about that and read into those things is kind of cool, but a lot of the time I don’t feel that I’m doing anything profound enough to warrant that sort of interest. That’s something I’m still not sure about, but it won’t stop me from being a musician.

AMR: And that’s always the great thing in that you both also have that other side of it where you just let go. There’s this intimacy and introspection but you can also rock the fuck out as well. Tuesday Is Rent Day and Hey Somebody, you enjoy that side too? Just writing something to have fun with it in a visceral way?

J: That’s a really good point because I think I get so much more enjoyment out of listening to more intimate songs, and especially what’s coming up with the sort of pieces we’ve been writing lately, but the visceral thing of being onstage and just going nuts – is so fun. I’d say at the moment the stage is where I get the most enjoyment, but more and more – these demos that we’re doing – I get more excited about that so it’s two very different things and it does definitely broaden your experience.
T: It’s also more that it’s not all mysterious as well.

AMR: I think that track in particular Tuesday Is Rent Day, shows your sense of humour. The singing breaks and  the lyrical content. It shows that you aren’t lost in the ethereal side of things, that it’s important to you as well to have that spiky energy. That broad spectrum.

T: That’s what I’m most proud of in what we do. That’s also a bit of a dilemma as well for us, cause it’s hard to get both those sides across at times, for people to get it.
J: Yeah, I’m still trying to work out my… [trails off] you were talking about values before and messages, and I’m not a lyricist, but things about actual actions. Like, ‘how much social media are you going to dive into?’ and ‘how much dumbing down of the music do you do to “make it”?’ to try and reach more people. Those questions. Then the other point of ‘don’t worry about it so much’ it’s not really so serious. We’re just really figuring it out, the different genres is really fun but…
T: Even on top of that, the other thing that worries me, the more you think about these kinds of issues the more it takes away from the music. That was what was cool about the Four Seasons. We didn’t really think too much about what we were recording or writing, we just did it and chucked it out there.

AMR: That’s what amazed me. When you first presented that concept, when you said you were going to do four EPs based on the seasons, you sort of think ‘well, the Spring one’s going to be very Spring-ey’ or preconceptions like ‘Winter will be cold in tone’. You did do those moods but the concept was just a thru-line and you used it as a launching pad for exploring just about anything musically. You’ve talked a bit about the upcoming debut album, and how you want to focus it more. Again after last time we spoke, just after Spring, and you were demoing tracks for the album. Has that been the process in the last 6 months?

J: I don’t know when we started properly thinking about [the album], we were seriously lost at the end of last year.  For a couple of months last year, we were worried about how we’re going to get four different genres – like the trashy stuff, then the acoustic stuff, and the piano then the middle of what we do which is pop piano and garage kind of guitar rock. Which I think is our sort of middle-ground, and the other things are where we extend it to. So we were really lost about how to do an album that covered all that, what to do from it. But between two different weeks we had away just writing in December and then one in January. And also chatting to a few different producers - who to make the album with. I feel like at the end of the second week it suddenly became quite clear what the album’s going to be like; and from there Tom’s already written another three songs or so. We sort of know now, it became really clear – the direction. I was so relieved. It’s still got varying genres but it makes much more sense than it could have.
T: The dilemma was ‘do we go with one particular style or do we just chuck whatever on there? We have sort of gone with just choosing the best songs. But it just happens that the last batch of songs pulled a lot of it together quite nicely. That said, we’re still undecided about the final tracklist.

AMR: It seems, even from checking in now and then, that you’ve been worried about that. Showing it off ‘here’s what we can do’ but then pulling it all together. But the fact that you’ve been thinking about it, means you would eventually reach that moment where you – click – ‘ok this is where we’re heading.’ Where you galvanise all those ideas in your head and put it together.

T: That’s why I’m glad we didn’t do an album last year, because we probably would have approached it in the same way that we approached the Four Seasons. Just done whatever and run with it. I say that because there’s things that worked really well, but there’s some things that I thought didn’t work as well and I’m glad we learned all those lessons. It forced us to start thinking about how we approach the debut record, if we really can do everything and work as well as it could.

AMR: It seems like part of that training too, is when you had the Four Seasons back-to-back. When you have the compilation all together, figuring out how you were going to sequence that – does that sort of represent the dilemma that you had? Trying to sequence it like an album?

J: Yeah, I think that's why it ended up just being the four in a row, because there was no way to make that sound like an album. For instance, the two Summer rock tracks are just so different to everything else.

AMR: Even within the Summer EP, because you have the instrumental title track and then ‘pow’

J: A big punch in the face. I don’t think we worried too much because it’s not  an album and we don’t want people to think of it as an album, even if some like to say it is. I don’t actually know why we used Spring as the opener - that seems untrue to me now.
T: Cause then Winter was a good finish…
[some light logistical banter later…]
J: Well, I think now, we should’ve started with Autumn cause it makes sense in two ways. We had one track we didn’t want to open with and one we didn’t want to finish with. So… anyway…

AMR: Well it wasn’t a mistake, it’s just something you’ve progressed from.

T: It just shows we were thinking ‘that’s fine,’ get it out there and we’re trying to take a different approach this time round – more studious I guess.

AMR: Obviously the space in which you record has always been a really important aspect, are you carrying that through with the album as well?

T: Totally, I was tracking it up in Brisbane and I went up a few weeks ago and just checked out a bunch of different studios. There’s the space acoustically, but just the vibe as well is really important. Just feeling comfortable in it, ‘cause practically you also spend so much time in there.

AMR: Even for me it was a bit of a thrill coming here, knowing that this is where you did some of your early recording. It’s funny, even pulling up I think ‘oh, that’s what I pictured’ – I mean I had no idea apart from it being in Mont Albert – but just from the nature of Falling Away or Creature of the Night; It’s the sort of place or location I pictured, so you’ve achieved that for sure.

J: [reflectively] that’s cool.

AMR: So maybe with the album we’ll say “Oh Brisbane, here we are”

T: Be able to sense the palm trees.
J: It is our Tropicana record so…[laughter]

AMR: Bring out the cabasa

J: [excitedly] There’s actually space for that! [To Tom] What’s the sound? The boots and the handclaps?
T: …oh right. cabasa, might get in.

AMR: Now, there’s a rumour going round that there’s some collaboration – perhaps international – planned for the album - you don’t have to name names. [Tom and Jo begin to break down in helpless giggles]

J: [groaning] man, there are no names, this is just like the worst rumour- I think, spruiked by our publicist. [composing herself] That was when we were looking at producers, I mean it’s true that we were speaking to people who are located overseas, but I think it was a bit premature to mention because we’re not. Doing. It. anymore [trailing off]
T: well, our engineer is from the UK
J: [brightening up] oh yeah, yeah, that’s true.
T: Gareth Parton, who’s from the UK, who’s done all The Go Team’s stuff and a bit with Foals.

AMR: Wow, that’s exciting!

J: T-Pain’s coming out

AMR: He’s on the cabasa track, he’s playing it

J: T-Pain’s flying from the states to play cabasa!
T: We’ll get Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver infamy]over to do some handclaps.

AMR: Well, he’ll do anything these days – he worked with Kanye. But, you did so many support slots with international acts and played with other bands with your own shows; is that something you’d like to do in the future? Working outside the two of you maybe collaborations or guests?

T: Totally, just personally I kind of just…
J: [deadpan] what do you mean?
T: I just want to be completely involved in music and I really admire, for example what Justin Vernon does, he just goes out and does whatever he kind of feels like. Not that what I want to give up what we’ve got, but that’s kind of exciting. You were going to do a bit of producing weren’t you Jo?
J: I got an email from this dude asking me to produce some tracks

AMR: Really!?

J: and I’m like ‘I have no idea what that even involves – I don’t know what that means, so, No.

AMR: So you got my email then? [much laughter] Who was that?

J: Just a dude I went to uni with, just in a band and thought I would be really interested in producing some singles for them. I don’t write songs, so I wouldn’t know how to develop the tracks, I wouldn’t know how to develop a team. Because my understanding of producing is like getting the whole product together, it’s not ‘hey why don’t you play a C chord there’ it’s you’ve got to get the gear, you’ve got to make a timeline, book a room. All that stuff. And I think it sounds stupid because I’m not trying to be too big for my boots, but people just want to be able to say that ‘name’ was involved.

AMR: Yeah, that association, unfortunately.

J: I was just, ‘I can’t help you, believe me I don’t think it’s going to help the publicity anyway’ so, it’s just weird. It was the weirdest email I’ve ever got.

AMR: Can we talk specifics, do you know where you’re at with the album? Are we still looking at a 
2011 release?

T: We’re hoping to finish mixing early June. We’re hoping to have already mixed our first single by the end of May and have that out to radio.
J: It’s looking like October [for a release] we’re hoping. We always feel like we’re behind.
T: Things always just get pushed back though, we’ll see how it goes. We idealised that we’d be finished recording now, originally. And had it out in August and already that’s just been pushed right back.
J: I think October is pretty realistic, you’ve got to think about the publicity’s job and I know they need enough time to do what they gotta do, but I’d rather just get it out. Our plan is to tour to the capitals on release of the album, but give it some growing time, some listening time. Give it more, do a more extensive tour next year. I think that’s good, cause it’s so weird when you see a band and there’s a whole new album and set of songs and it’s impossible for you to have had a chance to listen to it.
T: When they do their album tour the same day it’s out.
J: It’s nice to hear new tracks live, but you don’t want a whole set of it. So it’d be cool if it was three or four months after we release it, give people a chance to get into it. Because we’ll be playing less of the rock n roll so it is the sort of thing where you have to be a bit more familiar with it to appreciate it. The shows that most people would have seen us at are support shows, and it’s in those environments where we do really high-energy material, which is easier to get away with when people don’t know you.

AMR: Can you talk song titles or what we can expect musically?

J: What’s definitely on there? We’ve got Gladiator.
T: That’s a new song…

AMR: about Russel Crowe

J: That’s good, I think Gladiator was almost the track that solidified it to me.
T: Pulled it together.
J: Basically. It was having that sort of garage rock, we didn’t have to sacrifice that but it’s not too far removed from the intimate, piano tracks.
T: There’s Mixtape – that’s a piano pop number.
J: That is piano teacher heaven. It’s what she can play to her grade 3 students and ‘this is why you need to learn your scales’ [to Tom] isn’t it?
T: I had to practise my scales to do it.

AMR: That’s a great hook – I like that.

T: we’re aiming at the teacher market

AMR: There’s big money there

T: There’s a chance that Falling Away might make it on, that’s probably the only one out of the older ones with the strongest chance of appearing.

AMR: A new version? Or the recorded version?

T: I’ve been thinking about a new version, I was thinking about writing another verse at least
J: Can there be a sixteen bar drum solo?
T: we could talk about increasing the drum part
J: yeah, just four times longer. [witheringly] Really develop some good ideas in there, been listening to Thelonious Monk

AMR: Thank You. You’ll be down-tuning the snare during the solo.

J: Imagine that!? [adopts hippy-ish tone] I was tuning the snare during the solo and you gotta hear that.

AMR: Next time we meet you’ll both be smoking jazz cigarettes

J: Yazz Flute! But it’s about a 70-30 split of guitar and piano, in favour of piano.

AMR: Oh wow, in favour of piano?

T: Plenty of keys
J: Oh yeah, piano’s really taken guitar. Punched it in the knees. Then just stepped right past it on the staircase.
T: Been quite violent.
J: Such attitude

AMR: Talking ahead, so even past the album, I’m sure you’ve been asked this before. But a lot of bands are upping sticks and heading overseas. Is that something you two have considered at all?

T: It’s definitely something we’ve spoken about and I think if you’re planning to be in it for the long-term you have to look at it.

AMR: And you’ve already mentioned a couple of times the limitations of Australia’s touring schedule.

T: Australia’s great, but it is what it is. If you want to be making a living and be able to do it for a while, it looks like you do have to look overseas and broaden your market.
J: You’ve got your zips on the couch, so naughty.
T: Don’t tell Sally [Jo’s mum] I haven’t been sliding

AMR: Is this a house rule?

J: House rule is that Mum noticed Tom’s new jeans had zips on the back and she said to me one day ‘make sure Tom doesn’t sit on the leather couch in those jeans.’ Can’t believe she didn’t say something.
T: I’m just, ‘oh, how you going Sally?”

AMR: Tom gyrates on couch, one for the ladies – a visual description.

T: I’ll zip them up
J: You’ll zip them up!?
T: Yeah, it’s safer
J: Where were we? Yes, Australia’s great but it is limited.
T: Next year. Post-album.

AMR: Has there been interest? Because again you’ve had the international support acts, has there been interest for you to do that overseas?

T: No
J: That would be awesome, that would be the reason to go. There’s no point going over unless there’s someone waiting with open arms. Like a chauffeur, just pay someone to stand at the airport with a sign.
T: With a sign.

AMR: Jom and To.

J: Well [Tom] Fraser, our manager, has actually been over and he’s spoken to some people. The recurring line is: ‘Great. At least we know your name now. Show us the album when it’s done.’ Everyone wants to hear an album and wants to see you play live, that’s from a more business end of things, but no bands have called us up yet.

AMR: Wrapping up now, I just wanted to read you some lyrics from an old track of yours called The Cold. “Like spinning tops move in directionless circles/we balance on what we believe/and when our speed slows we all feel that we’ve grown in some way/we write songs and to talk and to tell how we feel to the world/ oh yeah yeah.”

T: [giggles] that ‘oh yeah, yeah’ made the song.

AMR: It’s an old one isn’t it?

J: Really old. First batch wouldn’t it of been? [to Tom]
T: That would have been on the original demo disc I sent [Jo], when we were setting up a jam.
[bit of silent reflection] that’s a good find. How’d you get that one? It is a very old song.

AMR: I point that out because you’ve had an incredible couple of years to get to this point, and it might be a bit pre-emptive, but is there any advice that the Big Scary of today would give to the Big Scary who wrote The Cold?

T: That’s a tough question. [more reflection from both parties] I don’t know I wouldn’t do anything differently.
J:  I mean, we’ve learnt a lot in terms of our…
T: Because we’ve been independent there hasn’t been the traditional kind of rise that other bands might have seen, but because of that we’ve learnt so much ourselves and I think that’s going to help us out in the future. So I’d say, ‘thumbs up, go gang. You guys are awesome.’
J: I’d say ‘Hold on to Frase, hold on when Mr. Fraser comes a knocking. A bit of a homage to our mate, who’s our manager. He really got the ball rolling. We got lucky with some radio play but then he got it happening. He’s a friend anyway, he didn’t cold-call, hired career manager kind of analogy. Which some people do. It was a really nice organic way that it developed.
T: I think we’re kind of lucky in that we could of made some damaging decisions, almost. Because he was a friend before he became our manager, we almost got someone else on board and it could have… maybe…

AMR: Could have been a different path?

T: Yeah, could have signed some shitty record deal a couple of years ago and could’ve gone a lot worse.

AMR: I think for me, that’s really prevalent, you obviously had a lot of time and space to develop. And it’s rewarding as a fan and a listener for most people, to see that you are developing at your own pace. It’s more real, more authentic. You’re not a band that have been put on a compilation or put an ad in an attempt to be the ‘next big thing.’ You are the next big thing by virtue of being developed in your own way.

T: Again, it was Tom, he wasn’t a manager first and foremost, he didn’t want to see us making huge profits just so he could get his cut. He wanted, like us, for the music to be the best it could, to be a long-term thing. He figured out it means being modest with what you aim for initially, not jump in the spotlight  and be an instantaneous ‘big thing.’
J: Even in the way he talks to us, even, we don’t have to worry if the album doesn’t sell because if you think about it as a broader career, then maybe it’s a nice thing that people can find in the future – as a back catalogue. Just that kind of attitude.

and there you have it, what was easily the most candid and in-depth interview that if not the band have ever done - then most certainly I had. One which will no doubt receive copious amounts of hyperlinking in the future. After our extensive chat, Big Scary treated yours truly to a very special private performance of new tracks Gladiator and Heartbreak. I can just hear you all turning green with envy. 
But that's not the end of the Big Scary story, in fact there's a thrilling new chapter to be added very shortly...

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