TST Interview: Tom Iansek of Big Scary

Big Scary
Australian duo, Big Scary, set to bring magnificent breakthrough debut stateside

Big Scary is an indie pop duo from Melbourne, Australia consisting of Tom Iansek and Jo Syme. In fairness, Big Scary is far too versatile to fit into such an easily classifiable genre, but since the majority of our readers (and the general populations of the six continents not considered Down Under) have yet to receive much exposure to Big Scary outside of their three (count ‘em: 3!) soundtrack appearances on the hugely popular dramedy, Grey’s Anatomy, indie pop will have to suffice for its brevity and expansiveness.

Legend has it the band originated in 2006 when Iansek and Symestarting playing ballads in Syme’s parents’ living room while only using acoustic guitars and egg-shakers. The duo split for two years and reconvened in 2008 with a defiant mission, as well as an instrumental arsenal of electric guitars, pianos, mandolins, ukeleles and drums. Those instruments are more in line with the sound you’ll be likely to associate with Big Scary’s music in its present incarnation.

Two of the most interesting things about Big Scary at this juncture their young career are how multifaceted Iansek and Syme can be from one song to the next, and how unpredictable and exciting the coming months should prove to be for the duo. Big Scary’s sound can be described as introspective or  jubilant, pastoral or haunting, shimmering or raucous, classical or experimental, and no one can tell you that you’re wrong, because some part of it will be entirely true.

Big Scary released their debut album, Vacation, in Australia back in October of 2011. Iansek and Syme had received acclaim for their first few EPs, but Vacation brought them a wave of recognition the young duo could not have anticipated. Vacation‘s collection of inspired, magnificent songs toeing every border of pop earned Big Scary a 2011 Album of the Year Nomination at the Australian Triple J Awards, a 2011 Breakthrough Artist of the Year Nomination from the Australian Independent Record Association, #1 Artist to Watch at SXSW (We Are Hunted) this past spring, and recognition as “one of Australia’s best new bands” (J Mag).

Vacation, that Big Scary debut that took Australia by storm, will finally see its U.S. release on September 18 , courtesy of Pieater Records. With anticipation for the days and months ahead, Tom Iansek took a few moments with me to discuss playing in a duo, getting remixed and Justin Vernon.

TST: How much Melbourne and how much Australia do you feel you’ve written into and are comes across in your music?

Iansek: We’ve always been influenced by our surrounds and environment, so in that way Melbourne is in a lot of our music. We did a project a few years ago called The Four Seasons where we recorded an EP dedicated to each season. Geographically, a lot of Australia doesn’t even experience four seasons and so it was Melbourne with its distinct seasonal changes that provided the inspiration. But only to a certain point, there’s no real sense of pride coming through (although I do love my city), we don’t name streets for example.

It’s completely theoretical, but do you think your sound would vary much from its current incarnation had you grown up somewhere else – say, in the UK, Europe or America?

Definitely. I think no matter who you are, your environment and surroundings affect you constantly. I am fortunate enough to have grown up with the opportunity to make music and be a musician. Growing up somewhere else, that may not even have been an option.

Based off the theme of The Four Seasons and what I’ve read in an interview with you, I feel safe in presuming that you are inspired by the seasons and the changing of the seasons. The stories within the songs more often than not seem rooted in emotional truths (pain, joy, etc.) of relationships – walking the constant tightrope between secure, wonderful love with another and trying to leap the canyon between long silences and complicated disagreements about daily human situations that everyone can relate to. Why do you think the marriage of seasons and human relationships as influences are so perfectly suited for Big Scary?

Perhaps because these human issues are as old as the seasons. For me, both are engrained and are part of the human condition, which is what fascinates me most, and what really gets the cogs turning when I sit down to write.

There is an unquestionable versatility from song-to-song and even within individual songs in your music that isn’t readily found elsewhere. Do you have little epiphanies that come to life when the song’s style feels right for the song, or do you tend to start with a more calculated approach by coaxing the song out of an intended style from your wealth of beloved genres and influences?

It took a while to figure out why all our songs sounded so different from one another, and it comes down to how we write. A lot of the time when writing, we’ll just stumble across a riff or melody, but instead of then trying to figure out how to make that riff or melody sound like Big Scary, we tend to try and find the song that the riff wants to be. And with only two people in the band, there are less people to put their ‘stamp’ on the sound, which again stops the songs being channeled down the same path. This process also makes the writing of songs much quicker, so you end up with a lot of them, even if they all sound completely different.

Big Scary on Grey’s Anatomy

It seems fitting to mention that a bit of your stateside exposure came through the medium of television with three songs appearing on Grey’s Anatomy and a popular AT&T commercial. I was watching (and fully mesmerized by) your new video for “Falling Away.” The story and the imagery work so elegantly and thematically with the song, but it is not at all the imagery I had in my head the first seven or eight times I heard “Falling Away” before watching the video. What do you think it is that makes your songs so readily adaptable to visual mediums that maybe weren’t your inspiration for creating the songs?

I’m not too sure, I think all music is adaptable to visual mediums; it’s just a question of interpretation. We gave the song to Daniel Cummings to produce a clip and so the clip you see is his visual interpretation of the song. That’s what I love about music and working collaboratively, everybody has their own interpretation, and for something to be truly effective I think it’s about finding a way for all these differing points of view and interpretations to work together.

“Falling Away” Video 

I know Vacation was released in Australia last year and won a great deal of acclaim for you guys. Four Seasons and At the Mercy of the Elements EP earned you many honors and much recognition as well (and rightfully so), but Vacation strikes me as you guys hitting all the right notes and crafting stunning songs on an entirely grander level of melody and confidence. Would you agree with that assessment? Were you fully aware how confident and special these songs sounded in reality off the bat, or did you have second-guesses where it wasn’t until the acclaim started coming your way that you felt your accomplishment was really tangible?

Even though it wasn’t our first recording experience, it was our first album-making experience, and to be honest it was an intense and strange time. By the time we had finished recording, I wasn’t sure what to think. I guess being so focused and involved in one thing for a while you tend to lose all perspective. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or hated it. It was only once the album was released and was listened to by actual music fans that we were able to step back and think “perhaps it’s not so bad”. Looking back on the album now, I can see that making Vacation was a confusing time for us as we definitely felt confident in our songwriting but were completely at a loss as to how to combine all the different styles of music we were making into one coherent statement. I think the album for me portrays both that confidence and confusion, and for summing up so perfectly how we felt at the time we made it, I think the album was a success.

The Jacques Renault remix of “Falling Away” is pretty magnificent in its ability to bring an alternate perspective to the song by adding new colors to the palette and creating a separate energy without sacrificing the emotional core of the song. Tell me a little about the process of the remix coming to life, your thoughts from the outset and your lasting impressions.

To be perfectly honest, it was our publisher’s idea. We didn’t even know who Jacques Renault was! (We now do). I always find it a strange experience seeing what other people do with our music, whether it’s on a TV ad or a show, and this was no different. It took a few listens for the awkwardness to subside and after that I could really hear what he was doing. A lot of it was really simple things, like slightly altering the phrasing of the vocal, but that then completely changed the vibe of the song which I thought was really cool.

Jacques Renault – “Falling Away” (Remix)

Are there any bands or artists whose career choices and trajectories you aspire to follow at this promising stage of Big Scary? Conversely, are there particular missteps you’ve seen bands make at this juncture in their career that you consciously remind yourselves not to fall into?

Not really, I’m a firm believer in writing your own story. We’ve made plenty of missteps ourselves, but that has also provided us with a chance to learn from them, which is what I think is the most important thing: learning and growing as an artist (and a person). That said, we have great admiration for people like Justin Vernon who are willing to follow their musical instinct wherever it leads them.

Any great albums, films or books that have made a significant impact on you recently?

I’m currently reading A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson which very eloquently describes how lucky we are not to be torn apart by meteorite showers or solar radiation or obliterated by the effects of tectonic activity. It makes me think how truly miraculous life is to have evolved to a point where music can exist.

Thank you so much for you time, Tom. The absolute best to you and Jo in the exciting days ahead.


Visit Big Scary’s Bandcamp page for a free download of “Falling Away.”

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