Big Scary‘s growth and influence amongst the Australian music scene is finally beginning to take form. Their early folk musings of 2008 and solo recordings from the then very Jeff Buckley-esque sounding Tom Iansek, resulted in a debut LP, ‘Vacation’; a beautifully diverse offering of DIY tracks that subtly defied the norm, their own growing discography and allowed the band to wonderfully align themselves to the changing of a tide few truly saw coming.
Flash forward a few years and the band has officially become a force well at the forefront of creativity and genre splicing. ‘Animal’, their latest, greatest and well received LP to date saw the duo more comfortable than ever behind Tom’s growing knack for minimalist hip hop-infused production and Jo Syme‘s skittish and mechanical drum arrangements. Couple all the praise with a very high placing of “The Opposite of Us” in Triple J‘s famous Hottest 100 and Big Scary are now where they should’ve always been.
I was fortunate enough to chat with Jo on Good Friday about Big Scary’s new found success, the band’s creative process and the frustrating but ever interesting ordeal of humanity.
Jo Syme: I just answered so quickly then! Even though I was sitting there waiting for the interview, I forgot that it could’ve been you and I just kind of yelled, “Who’s this?!”… So, sorry about that really quick answer haha.
Best Before: That’s totally fine. I mean that’s probably something that doesn’t need apologising for, but thank you for apologising haha.
If I am being honest, I’ve been such a big fan of Big Scary for a very long time, and you can disagree with me, if you like of course, but I think it’s safe to say that you, Tom and Big Scary are a proper force in the Australian music scene. Not that you weren’t ever before, but the recent success of “The Opposite of Us” and all the nominations for ‘Animal’ have kind of cemented you guys as a band.
I think most people you ask on the street have still probably never heard of us, but there definitely has been growth and something about that song [“The Opposite of Us”] that really connected wider than anything we’d ever done before. So now our festival crowds are packed rather than dispersed. Something really did click for people on this album I think.
The last time I saw you guys was at Laneway 2016, which was just before the release of ‘Animal’.
Yeah and I think half of that set was all new haha. We were so selfish, but we just wanted to play them. What was really cool about that show was that even though half of the songs were unreleased I could feel a really good energy in the crowd and all I remember thinking then was “I can’t wait until they know the songs”. So that was a really good and positive sign for us leading into the album.
Just quickly on “The Opposite of Us”, because you did mention about how much it resonated with people, can you tell me about the origin of that song?
Well, that song, I remember how it was written because I was asked this question a couple of weeks ago and now that I’ve thought about it I can properly answer it.
Damn it, no originality in my questions.
Haha no no, that’s fine. I just now know the answer, which is a good thing! I was listening to a bit of Craig David and Destiny’s Child for a while and really loving their drums that didn’t really do anything.
I was drumming along to Craig David and I ripped off this track called “Re Rewind” with Artful Dodger – it’s like UK dub meets Craig David – that was the origin and then I tracked that loop and sent that to Tom and then that was it.
It’s so great that you brought that up because I’ve been noticing your descent towards RnB structured stuff.
Haha yeah, descent sounds like you’re entering some horrible dungeon. I noticed it on ‘Not Art’ with songs like “Luck Now” and “Twin Rivers”. Has that been a conscious decision or are you just listening to songs you love and just setting up percussive lines around them?
For ‘Not Art’, hip hop was talked about a lot during the writing and the entire album. Tom had recently discovered DJ Shadow and just a bunch of other hip hop artists that he had never come across and it was right at the perfect time where he was learning a heap about production, so that’s what sort of grabbed his imagination and attention. Structurally and mixing wise it was very deliberate.
‘Animal’ was a sort of subset of that though. All that discussion and creation was in my drumming vocabulary but it wasn’t discussed at all.
I mean the hip hop spine of ‘Not Art’ is obviously represented in the title of one of the tracks – “Why hip hop sucks in ‘13”. Is that tongue and cheek?
That is 100% a homage to DJ Shadow. There’s a song of his called “Why hip hop sucks in ‘96” and it’s only an interlude but that’s an overt homage to him because he is the strongest influence on ‘Not Art’.
What is your current outlook on hip hop?
I mean some of its awesome, some of its tired. I think my ears are a bit tired right now. The entire world of music, especially the pop world, is derived on a production level from all these upcoming soul, electronica, pop crossovers, which are borrowing a lot of production from that hip hop world and scenes like Atlanta trap, so now it’s all in this white pop world.
I mean, I’m always talking about how big the electronic and hip hop scene is in the world right now. It’s crazy.
Mmm, well the biggest Spotify playlist is hip hop.
That quick turnaround over the last few years has been wild, even resulting in Bon Iver, the paragon of indieness, heading towards a minimalist Kanye-esque world of electronica and hip hop.
Yeah! Now this isn’t a dig at Triple J, but in the past, half of what is played on there wouldn’t have been played, but only because that music was only affordable to make through major labels but now, that’s indie music. They’ve all got these sick programs on their computers and that is DIY now. People always liked pop music but now they can make it themselves and it’s also landed in the middle of alternative and pop, it’s really interesting haha.
Tom gave me this book on Jung – we sound like such wankers haha – but, I knew Jung’s basic premises but I hadn’t really delved into the id, ego and the superego, the subconscious and conscious and I just thought, quite recently, oh we’ve got so much more language to use, can we do this album again!?
On that production aspect, how has that bleed into what you guys are doing?
It is always Tom on the reins so I am lucky to be in a band with someone so talented. The only deliberate thought we had before ‘Animal’ was going back towards, “will it work as a two piece?”. Where ‘Not Art’ was layered up, we stripped back ‘Animal’ and now most of those songs we can get away with playing as a two-piece. The tracks are a little bit grittier and less smooth now. Despite all that, we have added an extra person to the live show haha. Definitely less is more there though.
Whilst we are on the topic of ‘Animal’, how was that marrying the creative concept, in those four stages of the animal, with the musical output?
Well the four stages wasn’t really considered during the writing or creative process. That was a sort of tool we invented down the line when we were compiling the album. We always had trouble choosing song track order because we usually cover so many genres. We wanted to create a flow and it’s a long album too, and we were considering whether to cut it. So this idea was on Tom’s mind whilst he was writing the lyrics and we knew there was going to be four sides to the vinyl and because the mood of the songs kind of matched those stages and each other, it just all made sense.
There are some blatant ideas, which just match up so well, so congrats on the retroactive application of the theme haha. Do you have any thoughts on those four stages and what they mean to you and humanity?
We both read a lot so those ideas kind of already existed for us. I had just read ‘East of Eden’ by John Steinbeck and I was marvelling at how much that related to what Tom was talking about and when I gave him the book, he was equally blown away. Since then, Tom gave me this book on Jung – we sound like such wankers haha – but, I knew Jung’s basic premises but I hadn’t really delved into the id, ego and the superego, the subconscious and conscious and I just thought, quite recently, oh we’ve got so much more language to use, can we do this album again!? It’s good, it pops up a lot within books and films and it’s a nice framework to look at characters through.
One of the people I look up to is a guy called Joseph Campbell, who codified the Hero’s Journey in all of mythology and a lot of that is partnered with psychoanalysis by Freud and Jung. The journey can also be reflected from the conscious to the sub conscious and back again, shown also in those ideas of the id and the ego etc, AND also more recently discussed a fair bit in Father John Misty’s new album ‘Pure Comedy’.
Yeah I haven’t had the chance to dive into that one properly yet!
You should. I guess what I’m getting to is though, are you a bit of nihilist or an optimist when it comes to humanity?
I don’t know. I’m just constantly questioning. I don’t take anything seriously enough to decide if that’s the truth and commit to it. I read a lot of Aldous Huxley and I find religion very interesting, like what is God? Is that just a definition, like Aldous says that the superego is that God, that platform where humanity is united and it’s all really interesting stuff but it never changes what I do day to day, but I really enjoy thinking about it.
“I guess the grand plan is, I want the indie bands that I love to become really successful. We are all just fans you know? This is why I hate seeing really bad reviews because those kind of negative thoughts can really hinder a young band’s progress”.
Now I have to talk more about you haha. You’re starting a label, ‘Hotel Motel’ right?
Yes I am. I’ve been laughing at myself about that decision for a while now because I was busy enough with our label Pieater. I had a really awesome year last year with a lot of cool music around me. I went on this tour called ‘Up the Guts’, which went through the middle of Australia and that was incredible and all the bands were really interesting in their own way. I also get sent a lot of new music and I’m probably more in the Melbourne live music scene then the rest of Pieater are, so I was really inspired, but Pieater’s model is really cautious and we are more long term and hands on. If we work with someon, it’s a big deal, but I also wanted to help and I thought if it’s me or no one, I’d rather it be me, so that’s kind of the platform of Hotel Motel.
It is weird that you are making your own music but being apart of Pieater means you would also be getting sent music?
Yeah but in the end I don’t think there has ever been an artist that is at Pieater that came through that avenue – it’s been friends. Actually, Quivers, who are on Hotel Motel, I didn’t know of and they sent a submission to Pieater a few years ago and they just grew on me because I listened to them so many times, but that is rare. Something he said about why the album was written really connected with me.
Any grand ambitions for the label?
I just need another me haha. Everything that I do I love but I end up doing them all at not quite 100% which makes me feel bad, but there’s nothing I can give up so I’m not sure how it’s all going to pan out and if I will find a perfect balance. I guess the grand plan is, I want the indie bands that I love to become really successful. We are all just fans, you know? This is why I hate seeing really bad reviews because those kind of negative thoughts can really hinder a young band’s progress.
Yeah we do try to remove ourselves from negativity here.
Yeah, but now, I’m also just thinking, if a consumer sees a whole range of 5 star reviews they probably won’t give a fuck haha. They will care if there’s some 2 and then some 4, and 5, and that’s the hard thing because you have to offer different opinions to get people to listen to you. It’s really difficult.
Now you’re heading out on the final tour for ‘Animal’. Its “final resting place”, as you guys put it – there’s that theme again haha.
Haha yeah! I mean it’s the last one so we are putting the animal to rest and by the next time, I hope we are all together, but we may not be a five piece live and who knows what songs we will be playing so it’s really nice to sort of celebrate it after the reaction of the hottest 100 and to play big venues. I’m so excited.
Anything specifically different in these live shows?
There will be deeper cuts from ‘Animal’ that we’ve never played before and the stage is getting changed, like the layout and stuff. I’ve thought about cool stage props we could do but sometimes if you go too far it can be distracting. I really like feeling so close and so focused on the band and being in a totally immersed crowd. We just want it to be a really well curated night.
So there’s not going to be like different graphics in the background for each stage of ‘the animal’?
Yeah and holograms, the whole lot! How much would a hologram cost?
I have no clue but you know what, I hope I get to the point in my life where I need to be worrying about how much a hologram costs because that seems like a good problem to have.
Are there any plans for new material from the band or a solo album?
Nah, I don’t have any urge to do a solo album. I play in a bunch of new bands when Big Scary isn’t playing.
Tom and I have had one writing session actually, since ‘Animal’, and I am really excited about the ideas that have come out of there.
Can you give us any hints about the ideas that you’re excited about?
It’s different again. It’s really funny because it’s like finally, we have a set you can dance to and it would be good to replicate that next time and make the set like a party but it’s different again. I don’t quite know the flavour yet but it feels really strong. It was like we had muscles that we had worked out and it felt like a really good week of creativity and just knowing we could give stuff a try.
It sounds like you’re in the zone!
Yeah, I think so haha!
Grab your tickets to the band’s final tour of ‘Animal’ here.