Words by Anthony Thomas
Brisbane Festival begins this weekend and organisers have prepared a killer program to celebrate our city for the next month. From the Tony Assness’ Light Garden installation to Chris Howlett’s New Dawn exhibition, there’s plenty to keep you visually satisfied. Fortunately, they didn’t forget about our ears either. Perhaps most exciting, is the inclusion of Big Scary on this year’s line-up. Made up of two Melbourne collaborators, Tom Iansek and Jo Syme, Big Scary have had a big year so far. Their much anticipated second album, Not Art, was released to much praise, they just wrapped up a bunch of national dates supporting Bernard Fanning and are now back on the road touring their album. I caught up with Jo on the phone recently mid-rehearsal for a chat about things on their end.
You just wrapped up the Bernard Fanning dates and are about start the Big Scary tour! I guess you’re expecting a different vibe from these audiences?
I don’t know! We’ve actually designed the whole tour so that people aren’t so wasted. With the newer songs, they are bit slower and quieter and we’ve found on previous tours the mood can be a little interrupted. You know when you go on at midnight and people pretty boozed just yelling out? So we’ve tried to do earlier set times, keeping it to one support for the whole tour and things like that. It might mean less energy but more intimacy and better mood.
I’m picturing a room full of people swooning, particularly to tracks like Long Worry.
That would be awesome! It’s good you said that because at the moment Tom’s hasn’t got Long Worry as a first choice for the set list but I love it and really want to play. I’ll be telling Tom you said that.
Your Brisbane date coincides with Brisbane Festival. Anything special planned for that show?
That’s actually the one we have the least control over in terms of whatever is going to be in the Spiegeltent is all we’ll be able to use. But I’m stoked on being able play in this crazy, awesome circus tent you know?
Then you’re off to Falls later in the year. Logistics must be insane over those three dates.
Well it’s kind of four actually because Southbound is involved. It’s going to be four shows in five days all over the country, which is pretty funny. We haven’t worked it all out yet but I think there’s going to be some charter flights involved.
How have you gone about integrating the two albums live?
We’ve really changed things up and opened our minds up a lot. I was always a little scared of getting a bass player and whether it would ruin the dynamic. Then on the last single tour we got a bass player and it was great, the older songs were just lifted and given new life. Now we’ve got a fourth player who will be coming on this tour and that’s to do justice to cool samples that make up a huge part and ethos of the new album. With Vacation, we could do that with just two people and it was fine but now it’s a little different. We’ve played to a lot of fans who have seen us in all our incarnations and they have responded well to having the new players. I was nervous at first but it’s all been really positive, giving life to the new songs and doing justice the new ones.
Recording of Not Art wrapped up around Christmas last year. That’s almost nine months ago. How attached to the songs are now?
It’s funny when you say it’s been nine months, I can’t believe it! I still love and am really proud of them. I don’t ever put the album on, so when I do hear the songs on the radio or whatever I still feel really inspired by them.
Is touring an album like falling in love with the song all over again?
[laughs] Sometimes it can be the opposite. It kind of feel like you’re going through the motions and that’s when it depends on the crowd. It’s been really cool because we’ve practiced the songs so much over the Bernard Fanning tour and each night we walked away with a different emotion depending on the crowd. If the crowd gives you energy, you can tell that they’re into and you totally love it. Then when it’s a bit quieter and you feel like you’re playing a bit shit you’re like, “I don’t want to play this song next time.” You feel as good as your last gig, so it was awesome we finished on a good note in Perth. We’re set to play really well on the album tour.
Not Art really feels like it took the two of you out of your comfort zones. Was that intentional?
Yeah, I guess so. Usually, Tom, in his little makeshift home studio, is teaching himself, learning and trying things over and over. It definitely was out of our comfort zone. When i first heard some of the demos I was like, “Woah! I don’t know about this.” It actually took me a while to come round to some of the tracks like, which is really funny because then all of a sudden I became like a fan after putting them on repeat in my car. It was funny; usually the music that I like more is when I don’t quite get it straight away rather then when I love it straight away. It will last with me longer. I think that’s something that we took away from Vacation, the harder you work and the more difficult a song may be become the more long-term tracks.
You mentioned before that samples became quite a foundation on this record. Why is it?
I think it was just what we were listening to and what was inspiring out writing at the time. Like, Tom started listening to hip-hop for the first time in his life and he was really excited by that idea of you don’t know if something’s live or if it’s a sample. We applied that to the production of Not Art in a big way.
Did you reach a point where you were bored just making the cut and dry, drums and guitar music?
Sometimes you feel like you just reproduce the same thing. I actually find that really interesting. For example, the drums are often the building block of a song and it’s funny that I’m going to say this because we’re supposed to say we can do it best but someone when who’s not a drummer builds a beat on the computer I often find it’s way more interesting. They are not restricted by the idea of what your four limbs can do at once and sometimes that can stunt the creativity of someone who is sitting at a drum kit playing. So, I really find samples more exciting to be honest.
Going back to that idea of being out of your comfort zone, Tom mentioned including Why Hip Hop Sucks In ’13 was a big leap of faith, particularly for you.
Yeah, I thought it was a bit cheesy at first. It made me think too much of that band that does Underwater Love or Groove Armada’s lounge kind of stuff. I was still stuck in this mindset of what Big Scary is and I didn’t feel like that song was Big Scary. Then when we had these gospel singers in New York do the vocals, I eventually realised I don’t know why I was worried about if this was a Big Scary genre because the point of Big Scary is that there is no genre. We have decided not to worry about if people think we’re an indie band that we have to make indie music. That’s not what we do, we just do the songs that we make and it took me a while to remember that.
That’s funny because “focused” seemed to be a word that kept coming up when people talked about Not Art. Would you agree?
Focused in that there was a mood that was held throughout the album as opposed to those really hectic pop moments that were on Vacation.
Did you find with that focus, came a change in how the two of you worked together?
It was really different this time because we were touring, travelling and I went away on holidays it was less of a jam record. It wasn’t songs that we had worked on riffs over a period time, the recording was more structured. It was like, “Ok, here is the basic riff or drum line,” and we recorded them, then I went away and it became more piecing the production together. It wasn’t full live takes necessarily, sometimes it was cut and pasted to create the song. The writing was really different, we wrote and recorded at the same time rather than waiting until songs were finished to record them.
Did that structured recording process lead you to decide on Not Art as the record’s name?
Not Art is a lot of different meanings, even between Tom and I. The kernel of it though is forgetting about how aware of what you’re doing is going to be seen by the public and you’re already put into the genre of being an artist. That isn’t always a helpful mentality when you’re trying to do something creative when you’re worried about what it means. So we just forgot about all those things and just made the songs.
Is the cover art or is it just a pretty picture?
No, that kind of tied in which was great. Just down the road from our studio, my brother had a photography exhibition and that photo was there. It was almost handy because it was perfectly framed in the size of a vinyl and it really struck us with that idea of, “who is the artist of a photo of nature?” Is Mother Nature the artist or is the photographer the artist? We liked how that tied in neatly with all the themes.
You spent a couple of days recently writing and recording with Jonti. What can you tell me?
That was awesome! It was a project that came through from Adidas and Vice. We don’t even know what the song is going to be used for, we were just stoked to write a song with Jonti. He came down for a couple of days and we hadn’t had much time to think about the song. We sent some old riffs ideas and he sent us a few little beats, it worked so easily so quickly. He’s such a legend! The song is pretty weird as it stands.
Can’t wait to hear it. I’ll let you get back to rehearsals but thanks for the chat.
Thanks Anthony, see you dude.