by Ben Munson
Big Scary went ahead and made a concept album about the duality of humans as thoughtful, loving creatures and debased monsters in the same instant.
Animal, the group’s third LP, sets after a lofty, amorphous idea and chops away at it with lean, angular pop. Tom Iansek fills in songs like “Organism” with organ jabs and saxophone skronks while Joanna Syme keeps impeccable time with some inventive drumming. The pair seems less playful while letting tracks like “Heaven on Earth” simmer, but no less focused on making their instruments share space instead of compete for room.
Iansek saysAnimalis intentionally sparser than the band’s previous work. They wanted to make a sizable jump ahead of what they did withNot Art, their previous album that won the Australian Music Prize. But that accolade hasn’t put any added pressure on the band. Iansek calls it a blessing that the band has been noticed but not to the point they feel an obligation to adhere to a certain sound. He says it makes him feel more emboldened to try more with the project.
Enough people have yet to discover the band that, given the slightly murdery cover art forAnimaland a band name like Big Scary, Iansek admits that sometimes people may be expecting something different.
“I have wished that we were a band that had a more coherent theme going that people and that we could wrap our heads around more,” says Iansek. “But it was a bit of a weight off when we realized that we only have to be ourselves and that’s the point when things start to get more interesting.”
Ahead of theAnimal’s release--it’s available now in our members store-- we talked with Iansek about making uncomfortable music, extra nerdery for vinyl listeners, and how much Courtney Barnett has meant for Australian music.
You called this album challenging. Do you mean that in terms of the pushing the band, the listen or maybe both out of comfort zones?
All of the above. There are parts of it that were uncomfortable for us to listen to, initially anyway. And we thought unless we were feeling that, then we couldn’t really expect our listeners to feel that. I guess I was leading the charge on that and that was a tough one to get across the line because you do want to present yourself in a presentable way.
So often, a lot of artists aim to please. And we definitely have done that. We wanted to shake that up a bit. Why is that the listener expects to be in this bubble of comfort every time they put on an album? I think about that a lot. People will go to an art gallery and look at something that doesn’t sit right with them but they’ll sit there with it and they’ll ask, why? Why is that making me feel that way? With music, I feel people are much more judgmental. Why shouldn’t music stir that same response?
Yeah. On your new album, the first track “Oxygen,” the lyrics made me feel uncomfortable.
That song speaks the most to that unease. Lyrically that song is about erotic asphyxiation. It was written about a story a friend told me, and there’s something very uncomfortable about that for me. I think it really speaks to the theme of the album. This group of songs wasn’t going to stand up with a strong concept and a lot of that was this move from dark to light, or from dark to less dark.
That concept of dark to light resulted in you splitting the album into four parts. Can you talk about the logic?
The main structure is this theme of dark to light. But within that, we wanted to break it up and play with the idea of album structure. So because it’s four vinyl sides, why don’t we split this up into little subgroups? And why it is that vinyl has to be labeled disc one, side A? Often you put your vinyl away, you forget which side you put them into and then when you pull them out next, you’re not sure which disc you have in your hand. So we thought, why can’t that be the style of the album, the first disc you pull out, you just put down and listen?
That provides a lot of variations for how you listen to the album all the way through. I can see how that would be intriguing and also frustrating.
Absolutely. People can always find out the chronological order and play it that way. And it’s just the vinyl. We thought vinyl listeners would enjoy a little extra nerdery thrown in.
The first couple of listens, I thought this record was sort of minimalist. It feels that way because of the way you use empty space but then it also has a very big sound.
You listen very closely. It’s interesting that you pick up on that. There’s a lot less going on than what we typically do. In terms of the arrangements, we try to have all these things working around each other rather than on top of each other. When there’s a gap in the bass part, there might be a sax stab or the synth jumps in, so all the gaps sort of fill up, giving the impression that it’s quite a bit bigger than it is.
You guys are doing interesting stuff. There seems to be a lot of great music coming out of Australia at the moment. Is there a recent indie rock boom happening or is that just a false perception Americans have?
I think it’s closer to a false perception. People here love making music and love music just as much as anywhere. There’s no shortage of people dedicating their lives to music here and making incredible things. It’s an amazing time for music here, especially with the country changing as much as it is.
Yeah it’s not new for people outside of Australia to like music from Australia but maybe people now are more conscious of where bands and music is coming from.
It is amazing to see with like, Courtney Barnett, having done what she’s done. Her success kind of trickles back here to other parts of the world. There’s something very Australian about what she does, how she sings and how she tells stories. And there is also something quite Melbourne about it too. To see that coming back to younger artists and see them say, “It’s OK to sing with an Australian accent and to tell stories about the city where I’m from.”
Growing up and comparing Australian music to, say, American music; One thing that a lot of Australian artists wonder about is how American artists will so freely sing about where they’re from, their city and their country and put so many references. But when you try to do it here, there’s something odd about it.