the AU interview: Jo Syme of Big Scary (Melbourne)

Big Scary have just finished touring nationally with Bernard Fanning and are soon to head to the Carlton Dry Independent Music Awards, where they are up for three nominations, including best independent artist and best independent album for their latest Not Art. Big Scary have released their two albums through their own label Pieater. We spoke to one half of the duo, Jo Syme, on working independently, orchestral visions and the hectic new years ahead.

What are the pros and cons of making an independent album apart from more control and unrestricted studio time?

Those are some of the main things. I’ve guess I’ve heard horror stories during the recording process where the label would call up and say ‘more drums’ and ‘you need to write a pop song’ and all this kind of stuff. I guess it’s good to be able to learn everything that you’re doing. If you’re in an ignorant these days then you have no control for the next 20 years – you know it’s not just about the album that you’re releasing. I guess it’s an advantage if you’re only in music for the long term and being able to decide how it gets used and how it’s portrayed and stuff.

How does touring change your relationship with the music? I’ve spoken to musicians who say that months of working on the album drive you crazy but touring can reinspire. How has it been for you guys?

Yeah, that’s really funny. I think Tom [Iansek] probably got more sick of the songs than I did because he was down at the nitty-gritty levels doing every track and on the computer screen piecing it all together. I got to do the drums and a bit of singing and come back to it when it was pretty much done. But it’s true – we’ve hired some extra musicians to really do justice to these songs live so it’s been really fun getting extra people on stage – and I think we feel a lot more confident about the live show now. I think in the past Tom felt like we were playing catch-up with the live show to the amount of effort we put into the recorded stuff, so now that we’re thinking about that a lot more and having new people to really play the part, it’s really fun, I’ve really enjoyed playing the new songs.

Have there been any tracks that have resonated particularly?

There’s always one song that goes down well live called “Belgian Blues” and I think crowds just like a good rock song. I’m doing a bunch of stuff on the drums and everyone has really busy parts, so it looks like there’s a lot happening on stage, so I think that one goes down the best live. And it’s not a single, which is cool.

Was “Luck Now” always going to be a single? Is it hard to pick a single?

It’s always really hard to pick a single because we’re usually wrong. Sometimes when we thought this would be a great single and no one’s really taken onto it and other songs have surprised us. It was hard to choose. During the recording process of the album, I didn’t think there were really any singles on this album. I didn’t really get it at first, I thought, ‘this feels weird’, but it’s got to the point where I’m obsessed with it. I have the demo on repeat in my car. I think to me that was why I really pushed for that first single, because it had really struck me so strongly and I think it was a really good statement piece for the album – quite different from our previous stuff. It was a hard decision and we’re still choosing what’s going to be the next one, but we don’t know when we’re recording songs.

Do you guys know we’re you guys will be on NYE?

Yeah we’re playing Falls. We’ve just looked at our flight schedule – it’s pretty hectic. We’re probably going to be having a quiet night in Melbourne because in five days we’re in Tassie, Lorne, Byron Bay and Busselton. Pretty sure we’ve got some sort of ridiculous flight on the first in the morning so we’re just going to come back in from Lorne some time that evening, getting ready to get up early again. We might have a little party in our studio or something.

New Years Day – starting work straightaway!

That’s right.

Is there anything you guys would like to add to your music in terms of instruments or sound?

There’s heaps of different synths used in the recordings, a bunch of different ones. The main thing we’ve added is a Juno synthesizer, which comes along live. And we’re slowly building up an arsenal of sweet synths, which we don’t know how to use yet, it’s pretty funny. We’ve got this analog synthesiser called MS-20 and I’m kind of like ‘woah’, turning knobs for this pulsating sound, I have no idea what I’m doing. There’s nothing really we feel the need to include. I guess the dream is when you have shitloads of money you can bring the gospel singers on tour and bring a horn section and a string section – stuff like that.

Big Scary + Orchestra.

I think every band secretly wishes they could do that.

Very cool. I’m sure Tom would love writing for that as well.

Yeah I can’t wait ’til he writes some scores, because I think he’d be really good at it.

Yeah definitely that ‘atmospheric’, ‘complex’ sound that comes up in reviews.

Oh yeah – without the orchestra.

On the awards night you guys will perform live along with Seth Sentry, Violent Soho and RUFUS- how’s that going to sound? What do you think about the Australian music industry since you started [around 2006]?

I think it’s really autonomous and really creative and really supportive as well. It doesn’t matter what genre – because it’s such a small world and everyone can write to each other on Twitter and always playing at festivals – you kind of come to respect everyone’s different angle, for the most part. And I read articles from old-school rock and rollers complaining about downloads and I honestly don’t care because I guess I’ve never had to make money off people buying music and I’m not used to it. Now it’s so foreign to me – I’m used to people getting their music for free but then kind of getting out to shows more. I think it’s great.

I just saw this morning your collaboration with Jonti is out and that’s a free download.

Yeah, exactly. I guess it was sponsored by industry – Adidas. It was great because it meant that we got to do something creative with this guy whose music we love already. So we definitely took on that opportunity. It was really good, because I’ve never really collaborated before, so I was nervous and thought it would be super awkward or something, but it was just so easy and fun and we made a track that I think is really interesting.

How did the collaboration come about?

I don’t know how they chose the bands, but we got an email from VICE saying, ‘are you interested in this?’ to pair with Jonti and that’s pretty much how it happened – and we were up for it.

How’s the international signup with Barsuk records [Seattle-based, Death Cab for Cutie] going? Do you have much to do with them in Australia?

Not much yet. We’re kind of building the campaign at the moment. The album’s going to be released in January and we have chatted to them on Skype and they’re absolute legends so we’re really pleased, they’re really similar to us in their ethos to music and belief in music. But I guess at the moment it’s kind of emails and building content before we release the album over there. Then it will all start next January.

Would you then have a US tour to follow up?

We’ll definitely be going over there in the first couple of months next year but nothing’s booked yet.

It would be great to get to SXSW.

Yeah we went to SXSW last year and it was so much fun so hopefully we’d love to get onto that as well. But we’d also love to get on a cool support tour as well, that would be very handy.

You guys just toured with Bernard Fanning – was that a different audience to your own?

Yeah, definitely. They were a bit older and they hadn’t all heard of us. They were pretty cool. There were probably some people who weren’t interested at all but they were a different crowd and in different towns. We were in far North Queensland and places we’d never been but they were awesome. It was an awesome tour to be on – all these sweet venues like really old-school theatres and stuff like that. So it was good.

Are there any standout releases of 2013 that you guys have been listening to?

I haven’t stopped listening to Cloud Control’s new album, it’s pretty awesome – also Courtney Barnett’s two EPs. I’ve been listening to a lot music recently which is good because in the first half of the year I was really, really bad and then since I’ve been back from touring I’ve been trying to listen to as much as possible. Those ones I reckon are so awesome, I’m really excited for everyone.

I just think it’s weird to see you guys in categories with Flume but I guess that’s the music industry these days.

Yeah I know, it’s really funny but I think it’s cool. I’m glad someone made the effort to highlight independent labels and bands.