Interview w/BIG Something

Morgan Minch

​I was granted an audience with BIG Something before their show at the Beachland Ballroom on March 3rd. Their music is undoubtedly kickin,’ evokes tons of imagery, and sounds like an avant-garde point of view fuels it. So, I set out to gain some insight into their new album, Tumbleweed, and their creative philosophies in general.

​​I sat down with Casey Cranford who plays the Sax and EWI (electronic wind instrument), Josh Kagel who tickles the keys and trumpet, Doug Marshall who plays the bass, Ben Vinoguard on the drums, and Jesse Hensley who slays guitar. Other members of the crew are Nick McDaniels who is the lead vocalist and mandolin picker, Cameron Grogan master of sound and lights, and their lyricist/muse Paul Interdonato. 

MM: Your new album Tumbleweed was released on February 24th. It has been said that it has a darker theme than your previous albums. What was your approach, here?

CC: That’s what people have been saying.
BV: I don’t think there was any conscious writing, anger or tension during the process. The lyricist might’ve had a dark inspiration, but you’d have to talk to him.
CC: We were exploring the sounds and that’s what kind of came out for whatever reason.
JK: I feel like in general when we start writing music there’s never an intention, it just seems like whoever comes up with a part, it’s organic.
BV: So maybe it’s subconscious and it just seeped in. I mean we’re all getting older.
CC: A lot of the time, the first person to start playing something- that will be the part we end up keeping. Like, with “UFOs Are Real,” the first thing that Doug played when he picked up his bass ended up being the foundation of the song. Some of us write best spontaneously and in the moment.

MM: And is a big part of what you do on stage improvisational?

BV: We play these songs live a whole bunch before we get to know them. Muscle memory and stuff. Sometimes it takes a bit longer to get it.

MM: So once you master the technical you can truly just kind of go, right?

CC: Yeah, and then sometimes when you’re crafting the song and improvising the vibe live. Then you listen back to the live recording and you say,  "OK this is how we should do it."

MM: And then that influences the next take on it.

JK: Yeah, It can.
DM: In the studio we track everything live together. Most of the songs were a couple of takes, sometimes only one, where we’d just run and it was a keeper take. We test them on the road for a long time.

MM: Sounds like a cool kind of cultivation. So, how would you compare Tumbleweed’s sound to your first album, Middle of Nowhere?

JK: It’s more mature. Years and years of playing together has made us a lot more cohesive.
BV: And I wasn’t on the first album. I came in in 2011, a year after that album.
CC: I see a few parallels, song structure-wise. Some of our best songs are from that album, and we’ve kept the spirit of fun songs from that album with our new and improved sound. Playing songs every night, you’re not going to get worse at it!

MM: You’ve kept your classic sound on this album.

BV: New gear has helped our sound improve. Most if us switched to in-ear monitors and that really helped compartmentalize and perceive.
JK: Casey plays an EWI now, which we didn’t even know existed when the first album came out.
CC: I knew of it- I just didn’t know I could play one… and now that we have a clearer sound, and our sound and lights guy Cameron, we just all became better listeners and when that happens, we care even more about getting the music right and sounding good.

MM: Wow, he does both. I feel like a lot of light guys don’t do sound and vise versa.

JK: No, it’s rare. We only know of one, in our scene, that does both simultaneously. Luke from Dopapod.
MM: Love them!
JK: Yeah, they’re great! Our guy Cameron started as a sound guy and we gave him some lights. He’s just good at picking stuff up like that.
DM: I wonder which one he likes more.
BV: I think he’s leaning towards lights more.
CC: He’s very good at both.

MM: Do his decisions with sound influence your process?

BV: We’ve taken huge strides since we’ve gotten him. He sees us from the outside, and he’s kind of like our consultant as to how we’re coming across, what gear we need, how to sound more professional. He coaches us.
CC: He’s also not afraid to tell us when we’ve eff’d up.

MM: I’ve read that your process contains a cultivation of constant recording and arranging. Is that true?

JH: The lyricist Paul lives in DC, he’s this crazy muse type of guy. He comes up with characters and stories, but kind of fragmented. Nick goes up and kind of harnesses all that in, and writes lyrics and a full song structure. Then we write our music and the arrangements. But when it comes to the themes, Nick and Paul kind of outsource that in.

MM: When I listen to your music it seems so expressionistic. But at the same time it seems so clear, layered, even organized. And for me, it’s so hard to do any of those things, as a musician, trying to create. It’s really hard for some people to like… come up with a song! But anyways, I notice that your songs take their time, and a lot of the times it’s not about melody or harmony, or a build and release, but instead a systems of ideas in sequence.

CC: Good point. I’ll speak personally- I don’t really fashion myself a composer. Like I said, I’m more of a spontaneous player. So what will happen is Nick will have a chord progression or whatever. He’ll be like, “Ok let’s write a melody,” and I’ll kind of be like, “Urgh.” And whatever we put out there I’ll find that we can keep that, and perfect it. It’s better for me, I don’t have to sit with this big long thing. I can hear words first and feel way better about writing a melody. Getting personal and reflective is tough. Nick pushes me to do that.

MM: Is there an aspect of not wanting to settle for something, that plays into that? I feel like, because you improvise a lot, you must think that there’s a thousand other ideas that would be so cool.

CC: A lot of these guys have taught me that when I think, “Oh man that would sound so cool,” and that I just need to let it go. And just, be satisfied!

MM: Do you guys feel invested in the niche of rock-funk, or do you really want to innovate the genre. Like, in ten years, what’s the prediction eh?

BV: All of us just play what comes out. We don’t want to play to the scene. But we all want the band to have a developing sound while keeping the cornerstones the same.
JK: We don’t think about, "hey, what’s the next sound?" but we keep pushing.
CC: And we definitely don’t want to be contained in rock-funk.
MM: Not to niche you, there.
BV: No, when you whittle it down, that’s what it is.
JH: We constantly put new stuff in, we want to get new stuff out.
CC: Ten years from now, there are all sorts of things we could do. Each member has so much potential. It’s exciting to think about the future.

MM: I have my premonitions about what your influences are, but, what are they?

DM: All our influences are so different that it’s why we sound the way we sound.
CC: Yeah, it’s the hardest question. I was raised on James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and the Allman Brothers.
BV: Definitely marching band and orchestra arrangements through school. Josh was doing that all the way through college. And playing Megaman. Watching X-Men.
CC: I used to get together every Sunday with my buddies in a church and jam with our friend who had Downs syndrome. We would improvise and be expressive. I learned a lot from that.

MM: Did that experience teach you about connecting with your audience? Do you ever look around at the crowd and try to sense emotions?

CC: Definitely. He taught me about freedom, he would play the keys, bang on drums, we would dance around. We lost our minds in there!
BV: Doug always talks to me about in the rhythm section, he likes to watch how the crowd dances and moves. As we road test a song, we figure out what works, and he might play a groove slightly differently. He’s always paying attention to how people bob their heads. You can attack the strings differently- the more emotion the better.
DM: I taught myself how to play. Right around high school I was in a band, and gigging with my friends. We’d be playing Grateful Dead music—
MM: Oooh!
DM: Really not my thing but I’d be trying to figure out how to get these people dancing. It was in a college town so a lot of those people didn’t know what we were doing.

MM: I would like to know about touring with Aqueous. Do they inspire you, do you catch each other’s vibes?

JH: This is our second show with them. Love the guitar player
(Guitar player from Aqueous walk in the moment he praises him, giggles)
CC: We rarely do an elongated tour with other bands, unfortunately. We’ve done it with a few. We did it with The Works.
MM: I always just wonder about the dynamics of a situation like this, I guess.
CC: I mean the first couple times you’re shy. But then you get to relate to each other more.
JH: Then sometimes we jam. And sometimes we do combo sets with entire bands, like with Big Daddy Love, and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong.
MM: So neat! I want to look those performances up!
CC: If you go to YouTube, look up Big Daddy Something, and Big Pigeons Playing Something. Also we’ve collaborated with Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty band.

MM: I read that you came up with your band name picking from a ton of combinations that accumulated over time.

JH: There were a lot of funny combination that led to it, but our producer John Custer coaxed us into this one.
CC: And it could mean a lot of things. The universe.
MM: I really learned a lot about how you guys think about your music. Thank you!
CC: And it helps us to talk about it.