Making 'Not Art': Big Scary

Making 'Not Art': The Dwarf chats to Jo from Big Scary

What do DJ Shadow, Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen, and Joy Division have in common? It sounds like the start to a bad joke, but they’re the four key influences for Big Scary’s album Not Art. The Melbourne duo’s second offering is a layered and eclectic, amalgamating their various inspirations into an immersive LP.

Drummer and vocalist Joanna Syme says the process of making Not Art was a completely different one to writing and recording 2011’s Vacation. [b]Tom Iaksek[/i], the other half of the band, took over the reins as the producer this time around, after studying audio engineering in between albums. Syme says this allowed the band a lot more creative freedom and control.

“Last time, we didn’t really know how to tie all the songs in and what kind of phonic palette we wanted, and this time he knew exactly how he wanted the album to sound. We did it kind of slowly over the course of nine months.”

While Vacation was recorded over two weeks in a studio, Not Art was written and recorded in various locations and pieced together slowly by Iansek. Syme tracked the drums in East Gippsland, “barely knowing the songs,” she says.

“I went on holidays and Tom would sit in his bedroom studio, piecing the songs together, layering them up with all the little flourishes. Then we went overseas as a band three times, so we did little bits of recording in San Francisco and New York.”

Big Scary have come a long way since playing in their parents’ lounge rooms when they started out in 2006.

“It used to be more of a jam band, I guess, he’d just have a riff and we’d just play,“ she says. “But now because of the way Tom likes to produce, it’s a really different song writing process. It’s like the song is written as it’s recorded, almost and using a mouse you kind of cut and paste this song together.”

  “It sounds a bit soulless, but I really love the results, I think they’re more interesting songs.”

Not Art is anything but soulless. From Syme’s rhythmic drums to the haunting vocals of both singers, every song is its own journey. As listeners, we’re taken from elation to melancholy, with the time taken on each track very apparent.

Syme says the although it was their most focused record so far, elements of all the artists they were listening to can be heard, especially DJ Shadow, Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen, and Joy Division.

“They were kind of the four pillars of what we were listening to, and what was really influencing all the sounds. I mean, one of the songs was literally an ode to DJ Shadow, both the title and the sounds of the whole song, so it was quite a deliberate showing of what we’d been into.”

She’s referring to ‘Why Hip Hop Sucks in 13,’ a name drawn from DJ Shadow’s ‘Why Hip Hop Sucks in 96.’ The other tracks on the album are also named incongruously, which Syme says was inspired by Tom’s drives from Gippsland to Melbourne while the album was being recorded.

“We knew we were being a bit facetious, with ‘Hip Hop Sucks’ and ‘Phil Collins,’ and the last one ‘Final Thoughts, with Tom and Jo’,” she says. “With the rest, they were just little words we found along the way.”

‘Phil Collins’ was named in the demo stages due to Syme’s pounding 80s drums, which she says reminded her of a Collins song.

“I always just make up stupid song names that I’ll be able to remember the song by,” she laughs. “Our mixer kind of turned up the 80s knob and that made them a bit more of that epic, Anvil-sounding thing.”

Their mixer was New York-based Tom Elmhirst, who has worked with artists like the Black Keys and Mark Ronson.

“We hadn’t finished recording, but he only had this one week window where he was able to mix the album,” Syme reflects.

“So we were tracking frantically during the day and sending one finished track at a time, and he’d wake up to that, in New York and mix it, and we’d wake up the next morning and he’d send us the mixed song. That was really amazing, and so funny because we were still actually recording while he was supposed to working on the finished album”

Throughout the writing and recording process, the two also built a recording studio themselves, in an old milk bar in Fitzroy.

“We like challenges, I guess,” Syme laughs when I ask her about why they decided to build the studio themselves. “And we’re cheap, we don’t want to shell out and give someone else money.

“It’s a total dive. There’s no hot water, the electricity is really dodgy, but it was really fun!”

Although builders helped them with some of the bigger jobs, Syme and Iansek spent a lot of time hammering, sawing, and soundproofing the space themselves. It was time consuming, but Syme says it was ultimately a rewarding project to work on.

“For a while there Tom and I were just getting tools for each birthday and Christmas, we both got a power drill, and I got a jigsaw,” she says. “But it was a bit dangerous, because I remember the first time I used the jigsaw, we were having a party on Australia Day, and I was a few drinks down and I was like ‘Yeah, sweet! Let’s use a jigsaw!’”

The time taken to make sure Not Art was everything they wanted it to be has paid off. Big Scary are up for three different nominations at the Australian Independent Record Labels Association’s Independent Music Awards this month. There’s Best Independent Artist, Best Independent Album, and Best Independent Single, for their track ‘Luck Now.’

They’ll also be taking their music overseas, after being signed to US label Barsuk. Syme says she’s excited to be working with them, because “they have the same ethos as us, with regards to how to release music. They just seem like music lovers and they don’t try to stretch themselves too far, they’re just doing what they love.”

As for Big Scary, doing what they love has been working so far. Let’s hope America loves them as much as Australia does.
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