In the last few years, Big Scary has emerged onto the Australian music scene with an enigmatic brand of art-pop and folk. While more casual fans could be forgiven for believing that band has only been around for few years, Big Scary have been together for over a decade, starting in 2006.
Speaking with drummer Joanna Syme, she reflected on how Big Scary, which also features Tom Iansek on guitar and vocals, has grown since the early days.
‘I’ve become so much more of an open-minded musician and person because of my time with Tom,’ Joanna said, ‘I was unsure whether I wanted to play this folk material, I was quite narrow-minded to what I thought was cool and then I grew up a bit. I learnt not to have expectations and say yes instead of no to ideas.’
Big Scary had numerous releases that received comparatively little attention to the accolades that they’re used to now. Whilst it’s certainly nice to get Triple J rotation and festival spots right off the bat, Joanna firmly asserted that their slow-burning growth has set the band up for a career of longevity, rather than being a flash-in-the-pan.
‘We had time to develop our sound, even though we made some music that wasn’t world class straight away. We got to go through that process without a record label and fan expectations. I mean it’s hard sometimes, I still have to work a job for instance, but in the long run, you’re lucky.’
In the setting of a duo, the relationship between the two primary band members is the bedrock upon which a band formulates successful projects. Though, Big Scary didn’t start because of an initial friendship between Joanna and Tom. Instead, Tom needed musicians and Joanna answered the call. Nevertheless, with Joanna’s eager-to-please mentality mixed with Tom’s reflective personality, the dynamic between the two is noticeable and fruitful. There pertains a unique level of intimacy within Big Scary, an aspect which Joanna doesn’t take for granted.
‘It’s a weird relationship of being these people who just rehearse together. Different to a brother, different to a lover, different to a best friend from childhood, it’s a totally unique relationship we have with touring experiences and trust. It took me a while to realise how special our friendship is.’
The relationship between Joanna and Tom catalysed through Big Scary’s songwriting sessions. Big Scary’s artistic process initially consists of red wine and jamming down at Phillip Island, with ideas being recorded by an iPhone.
From there, the duo picks their favourite ideas and Tom configures the structures and lyrics for each song. It’s in this period of creativity that Tom developed the concept behind Animal, Big Scary’s latest LP. Within the album, there are four distinct parts, both conceptually and musically, that represents different life stages of the animal; hunting, lurking, resting and waking. In a way, the album doesn’t necessarily have a fix starting point as the record can be enjoyed at the beginning with any of these four stages, a feature that’s highlighted in the vinyl format of the album.
‘The journey of the animal was a device to tie together a very eclectic album. Without, the album wouldn’t have made much sense as a complete piece. That idea wasn’t present in the writing, it definitely emerged at the very end.’
To match the jarring compilation of the album, Big Scary commissioned artist Brett Amory. After giving Amory some key themes of the record, he returned with a darkly morose portraiture layered with the title Animal dripping over the top like blood.
‘I hate it. It’s so uncomfortable but that was the point,’ Joanna explained, ‘I was so put off, but that was taken as a good reaction. As the album is meant to be uncomfortable and there are obnoxious parts of the album. So that reaction won that art.’
As recognition of their recent album, Big Scary were invited into Triple J to perform Like A Version, a segment wherein the radio station invites an act in to perform a cover of a song of their choosing. Big Scary selected ‘Come As You Are’ by Nirvana, an act often heralded by music pundits and artists alike as ‘untouchable’ for cover selection. However, Big Scary were more motivated by a genuine appreciation for the song rather than any inspired form of artistic bravery.
‘Tom has a really non-current relationship with music. He might say tomorrow ‘Oh I just discovered the Beatles’, he’s really focused on what he’s listening to and doesn’t place music in a wider pop culture context. Like he knows that Nirvana are one of the world’s biggest bands but the reaction that comes with that never crossed his mind.’
Tom came across the song when he was jamming in a cover band and another member decided to play the lead riff.
‘It was like ‘Oh I like this song’ and that was it.'
In addition to their musical output, Big Scary also have their own record label, Pieater Records. The idea for the label was more emerged than planned for Big Scary. Being a duo, the expenses of touring and recording are far less expensive than say a 5 or 6 piece band so the band could invest in all their operations themselves.
‘When we were putting out releases instead of having Big Scary and putting independent in brackets, we would just make up a word and that’s all you need. You just need a word to be a record label.’
From there, Pieater started out of Big Scary's inner desire to help other musicians with their experience and platform. In 2014, Big Scary won the Australian Music Prize grant worth $30,000. With support from a wider team, Big Scary has used that money start Pieater and pay it forward for other artists.
‘We took that money and we supported 5 new bands with that money,’ Joanna said, ‘there’s been a new movement of granting money to labels rather than artists directly as the label can use that money to support multiple artists. Even just investing in art for cultural sake is important, for our own identity, so I definitely believe in these sorts of grants.’
Of course, another significant factor in Big Scary’s decision to stay independent is the desire for artistic independence.
‘There is no way any of our earlier releases would have been put out with a label that had their say,’ Joanna laughed.
‘Even in the early days, they would say they love it, but behind our back to our manager they would ask ‘but what style would the actual genre be? Rock? Pop?’ It’s a simpler story to tell when you’re easier to define.’
But never say never, especially as Big Scary continue to expand themselves and gain audiences.
‘I’m not anti-major, and with being independent there’s a lot of fear and people aren’t happy to take risks. Maybe in the future when I want to buy a house and I want that $4 million advance.’
Now as Big Scary move forward with touring their new record, Joanna has put her sights on new exciting projects. Most notably, her own label (another one) called Hotel Motel. With a desire to call her own shots, Jo threw herself in the deep end to support other artists.
'Half of me is regretting it right now, I didn’t know how much work it is,’ Joanna laughed, ‘I have a different taste to Tom, especially within the live music scene in Melbourne. And I wanted to support those artists that I surround myself with.’
‘Pieater is about the long-term development of artists, and that’s awesome I love that aspect. But with Hotel Motel, it’s like ‘I can’t give you my whole attention, but I have a few skills that will help this release.’’
With a new record in tow, a national tour on the way and managing multiple labels helping acts all around the country, Big Scary are anything but a flash-in-the-pan.
Big Scary's Australian Tour
Friday June 16 | Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Saturday June 17 | The Metro Theatre, Sydney
Saturday June 24 | The Tivoli, Brisbane
Friday June 30 | The Gov, Adelaide
Saturday July 1 | Metropolis, Fremantle
Big Scary will also be playing at Splendour in the Grass in Byron Bay this July
Alex Capper, once affectionally called by Ross & John of 3AW as the '7 foot fucker', loves the Essendon Football Club, stalking reddit and dabbing. He thinks he can speak French, but he can't.