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Plugged In: Big Scary

Big scary Tom Iansek
Photo credit: Lily Daley

With their sophomore full-length album Not Art set to come out in the United States in early 2014 under their new record label Barsuk, Big Scary is finally poised to make waves outside of their native Australia.

Not Art’s challenging, genre-bending collection of tracks really highlight frontman Tom Iansek’s songwriting skills and how much he and drummer Jo Syme have grown since getting together several years ago to simply jam.

Iansek had dabbled in music throughout most of his childhood, beginning with the piano and then switching to the drums in high school.

But when his parents balked at having a full drum kit in the house, he was given a guitar. It was through teaching himself how to play the guitar – the first one he bought for himself was a Fender Telecaster ’72 Deluxe – that sparked the songwriting bug.

“Like most kids, you tend to find practicing to be a chore, but in my final year of high school, teaching myself flowed naturally, just making up words and melodies as you go,” Iansek recently told Fender.com.  “That was what prompted me to start putting things down on paper.  I left piano for a few years and came back to it with a different approach.”

A few years out of high school, Iansek was looking to put together a band and was given Syme’s contact information through a friend.  After a few stops and starts over the next year, Big Scary was born.

“I gave her a call, and the next thing I knew I was on her doorstep with a guitar jamming away,” said Iansek.  “It was kind of folky stuff at the beginning, and then I traveled for about six months and then she traveled for six months.  After a while we got back together, gave ourselves a band name and traded the acoustic guitars for electrics.”

The duo was quite productive in those early days, releasing several EPs and hammering out their 2011 debut full-length Vacation over the course of a couple of weeks.

“I think songwriting is a skill you learn, but for us being a two-piece probably helps,” said Iansek. “It’s not like we’re a four-piece rock band. It almost becomes exponentially harder with each person and voice you add to the mix.  It’s a harder process.  Our personalities really mix well, so it’s more about getting stuff out there and moving on to the next thing.”

Not Art proved to be much more of a painstaking process – a period of nine months, actually.  After touring extensively last year, Iansek and Syme spent one week together in March 2013 recording drums before touring almost nonstop for another three months.

Big Scary Not Art
Not Art is already out in Australia, and you can hear the album here: http://bigscary.bandcamp.com

Syme also had a wedding to attend in Europe, which left Iansek alone with the raw music in their studio, a converted convenience store that was appropriately named Mixed Business before Big Scary took it over.

By this time, perhaps fortuitously, Iansek had been dabbling more and more in hip hop, citing Kanye West and DJ Shadow as interests.

As much as Iansek enjoyed the music of hip hop, however, he was even more fascinated with how hip hop is produced.  As such, the moody, sprawling vibe of Not Art is cut with head-nodding beats and samples.

“We really wanted to go out on a limb with this one,” said Iansek. “We wanted to move into areas where we were uncomfortable, which is where the hip hop sounds come into it. It was really a discovery for me, as a listener.  I came at it loving that style of production, and that branched into the songwriting. It was entirely about pushing ourselves and seeing how far we could go.  There were a few tough calls to make, but it was fun.”

But Iansek could only pore over the album for so long before reaching a mental block.

“It literally came to a point where I spent a whole month sitting in the studio all day and only coming up with one guitar line,” he said with a laugh, adding, “I watched a lot of YouTube.”

Iansek eventually called in an outside hand in the form of mixer Tom Elmhirst, who has worked with Adele, Amy Winehouse and the Kills.

“That was awesome,” he said. “I was relieved for someone to take it off my hands, especially someone who was as skilled as he is. Also, putting a deadline on it helped.  We were literally recording the last song as he was mixing the other ones. We sent it over with a few days to spare.”

Now, the band has been playing the record from start to finish during their live shows, building their fan base in their home country.  But just because they are currently with the American label that broke Death Cab for Cutie, amongst many others, Big Scary isn’t taking anything for granted.

“I wouldn’t say that we’ve broken through in any sense of the term in the U.S. yet, so it’s kind of a wait-and-see approach,” said Iansek.  “We’ve learned pretty early on that it has to be a long-term game.  Looking to explode off one song or one release is probably a bit short-sighted.  I think it’s cool that we have a label over there that shares the same views.

“With the Internet and all that, there’s still something to be said for actually being in a place. It was a hard slog for our manager to try to meet people and make contacts from Australia versus actually being at South By Southwest or CMJ and whatnot.  Seeing a band live, there is so much to be said for that.”

Hopefully, live audiences around the world will soon be the ones talking about Big Scary.

For more information, visit Big Scary’s official website.

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