Interview: The Big Troubles

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Big Troubles is a band that understands what it means to be musicians – you must constantly push yourself, and constantly evolve. The evolution and growth of Big Troubles is apparent when contrasting their debut album ‘Worry’ to their latest project, ‘Romantic Comedy.’ They have dropped the static, home-recorded feedback for a more professional and broader pop sound. The band worked with influential producer Mitch Easter, whose work with R.E.M. in the early eighties, and his own band Let’s Active, can be heard influencing some of Romantic Comedy’s tracks.

Starting as a two-member group from New Jersey, Alex Craig and Ian Drennan have since picked up two more members and grown into a four-piece indie group to be reckoned with, combining classic guitar chords with more modern and indie-pop melodies and lyrics. Last week, I had the chance to talk with Ian and Alex, the original members of the group and the two songwriters and lead singers. We discussed their new album, ‘Romantic Comedy,’ how the band has grown from their first album to their latest, as well as influences and recent touring experiences.

Emmett: You guys worked with [producer] Mitch Easter, probably best known for his work with R.E.M. and his own band Let’s Active. How was it working with such a talented musician?

Big Troubles: Initially we started recording the album with a different producer because we wanted to make a really pop album. We started recording but the guy turned out to be a total control freak, he was trying to rewrite our songs. We wanted to make a hit record and he thought we weren’t capable musicians. We got so frustrated that we had to stop working with him. Then we sought out Mitch because one of our favorite bands is Let’s Active. It was really refreshing because he let us do anything we wanted to, and just helped us a lot.

E: You mix these kinds of classic chords with new, indie-pop static that sort of changes the meaning of the melodies, but not the essence of their origin. Is there a particular genre or artist that you draw from the most?

BT: Not any one single genre or artist, especially because Ian and I split the songwriting down the middle, and we both sort of have different approaches. It was most intuitive for me to write a song with general chord structures and progressions. I try to be rudimentary and natural in my process, I decide to go with that instinct.

That said, in the year leading up to ‘Romantic Comedy’ Ian and I spent a lot of time in the car together travelling to shows, almost exclusively listening to jazz radio in the car. If we had to pinpoint the largest sources of unintentional influences on the record it would be listening to jazz.

E: Do you guys have any favorite jazz musicians in particular?

BT: David Koz was especially influential on the production of ‘RC.’

E: Do all the static tones and keyboard effects sonically embody any specific ideals, principles or concepts that you had in mind when recording?

BT: No, I don’t think it’s that calculated. Those are just sounds that we like. I try not to overthink that kind of stuff because it becomes too formulaic if you’re trying to decide exactly why you like something. We just kind of go with it.

E: Do you have any favorite bands to look out for, ones you think are going to make it big any time in the near future?

BT: One of our good friends has a project called the Ice Choir, he just put out his first single and it’s really incredible. It’s definitely indebted to eighties pop music but there’s a whole other layer that makes it deeper than eighties stuff out right now. Besides that, there’s a new project by Andrew Churchman called Cuffs, and then there’s La Big Vic.

E: Although you can tell that your sound has evolved from ‘Worry’ to ‘RC,’ there is definitely still a Big Troubles vibe to it all. Was the experience different making the first album than it was the latest?

BT: It was almost completely different. The first record was recorded mostly by Ian in his room, and the other half by me in my room. Sort of two solo home projects combined. With ‘RC’ it was me and Ian with the newer members, all four of us in a studio for ten days recording as a band with everyone’s input. The thing that stayed the same was the songwriting. The production and recording style is different.

E: ‘RC’ sounds much cleaner than ‘Worry,’ more pop, but in a good way if you know what I mean…it reaches a broader audience with a more relatable message and delivery. Was there a specific intent to the variation in sound, or an overall message of the album?

BT: I think what happened is we’re good friends with Fountains of Wayne, another band from Jersey. They liked our first record but they said, “Hey this record sounds like shit, you guys write good songs but this is a piece of fucking garbage,” so we were going off of their advice to record in a higher fidelity. Also, the jazz influence lends itself to the cleaner tones.

E: What was Romantic Comedy inspired by?

BT: I’m not sure, it’s too hard to say; every song would have a different answer. Half the time I’m not referencing specific events, I’m making general observations about the world or creating characters. I could imagine someone listens to the record and say oh, he just got out of a bad relationship, but the title ‘Romantic Comedy’ was more of a reflective joke. It was more ideas and characters, not about our ex girlfriends.

E: You recently came off of a nation wide tour. Its size marks the success you guys have and will be experiencing. What was the tour like?

BT: Too long. We really missed Jersey, but we really enjoyed a lot of the cities we were in. It was our first time touring in a van travelling the country – we were really testing out our personalities and how they worked together living in a box on wheels for two months. It was tough – it was more tension than we were used to, not all the shows went well. It was a really good experience, though, because ultimately we got to play with great bands and in cool places.

E: Favorite show that you performed?

BT: We played Vancouver twice, both times at The Biltmore. We really liked the people there, and it happened to go well. We made really good friends; we think of Vancouver as a highlight of the tour. There were also shows in San Francisco and Portland that were great. Chicago on Halloween was awesome – we were with our good friend Julian Lynch, and we all dressed up as mummified men; that was fun.

E: Any crazy stories from the tour?

BT: There may have been something involving a girl urinating on a door guy at one point [laughs]. Watching this small girl urinate on a big, older African American gentleman; man, if that didn’t happen we say we wouldn’t have made it through the tour, we referenced it several times a day to enjoy our time and raise our spirits when we were down or tired.

E: Are you guys recording anything now that you’re done touring, or are you just enjoying some down time?

BT: We’re enjoying down time but talking ideas for a new record. It hasn’t been agreed on yet but we’re trying to work hard as a four-piece band.

We have a lot of opinions, it’s more of a collaborative process. It wont sound like either of our other records, we should float that idea out so people know we’re not trying to make a record and stay that style, we want to grow with each record and keep referencing our most current interests. It’s going to sound as different as the second record did to the first; it’s going to alienate people. It was sort of disheartening when people didn’t like the first album who liked the second and vice versa…but we’re going to make the record that we want to make, it wouldn’t be interesting for us to make a record that we’re expected to.

E: There’s a lot of songs on ‘RC’ about sad, confused young women. Any recent heartbreak that inspired the theme?

BT: Just two lifetimes worth of heartbreak [laughs]. But no, not really. We’re not really as mopey and sentimental as the record makes us out to be.

E: How well do the lyrics match up with your own actual views on relationships and love?

BT: I think there’s a sort of pessimistic attitude about relationships that probably comes across pretty readily on the record. We’re not particularly optimistic people, kind of the glass is half empty people when we’re talking about relationships or really anything. That part holds true to our personalities but beyond that we’re not that mopey. We’re really consciously playing into a pop music trope of writing songs about girls and relationships –  we just want to play into that classic trope of three minute pop songs.

We’re very self-aware of what were doing, we know it’s a little cliché pop band playing love songs but we like that, it’s almost kind of funny to us. I think its pretty funny we’re in an age where there’s no shortage of guitar bands, but we have more friends in Brooklyn that experiment with electro, noise music. We have all those interests too, but we wanted to have an indie base.

E: So would you say you play into the trope to toy with irony?

BT: Irony? No, there’s a deep appreciation of this music, we really love it. I don’t think about it as ironic, we’re not an ironic band; it’s sort of post-irony.