What did you do during COVID?
If you spent the majority of time inside, bingeing TV shows, then you’re not alone. But for beloved Naarm duo Big Scary, COVID was one of the most productive periods of their nearly 20-year career. Hunkering down at Collingwood’s BellBird Studio in 2020, the pair worked on enough music to form a trilogy of albums: 2021’s Daisy, 2022’s Me And You, and now Wing, their sixth album. Those sessions saw bandmates Tom Iansek and Jo Syme’s creative processes become truly collaborative. Letting the music speak for itself has helped Big Scary push forward, reestablishing their identity following the success of 2016’s Animal. Unlike their discography up to and including Animal, this trilogy of albums sees the pair collaborating on both lead vocals and lyrics, which had previously been handled exclusively by Tom.
When Junkee speaks to the pair, they’re hours away from the release of Wing. It’s arriving against a backdrop of many life changes, as the pair are now half a world away from each other. Jo and her family are based in Central Victoria, while Tom and his family are now based in London. It’s not a typical album release — things have been compressed, largely because Jo is expecting her second child. “It’s sort of snuck up and has also been forever, because it’s such an asset-light campaign, we don’t get to do a tour or have vinyl or we haven’t made videos,” Jo says. Instead, the music is the focus, like it was for Big Scary (and many other bands) in the early days of releasing music. “There is something really nice about that,” Tom says. “And so this campaign, whatever you might call it, has a bit of that energy to it, which I like. ‘Hey guys, we made something, here it is. Check it out’ kind of thing. It also means that the music has to just speak for itself and connect on its own, which is cool.”
Both band members have other projects on the go: Jo runs Big Scary’s record label, Pieater, which is also home to artists like Maple Glider and Tom Snowdon. Tom, meanwhile, produces for a myriad of other artists and has released a trio of albums under the moniker #1 Dads. Jo says, “Big Scary is still my playtime, and it’s not the job. Even in high school, I got really good at guitar because I was doing that instead of homework. So whatever is the thing that I’m not officially meant to be doing, that’s what I love. For me, I don’t know when Tom and I will get to write together again in the same physical space but I’ll be like, ‘Yes, this is a break from the job,’ you know. Job days or slog days. So I think that keeps it really magical.”
This sense of fun is present throughout all parts of the trilogy, one that came together almost by accident. “We had a lot of material, and then it was when we kind of got into it a bit, when there were enough of the songs there, that we could sit next to each other and listen to what was going on and we could kind of group them off a bit,” Tom says. “I sat down and I pulled together Me And You, that was maybe the main one. And then the songs that were Daisy, they almost quite naturally sort of felt like a group, because they were really playful and upbeat, and then Me And You felt like the the emotional core of all the songs. Wing was, at first glance, these sort of fun leftovers and the order wasn’t as immediate with Wing as it was for the other two albums.”
Like the rest of the trilogy, Wing centres around love and relationships — but the naivety of Daisy and evenhandedness of Me And You has transformed into an underlying sense of cynicism. On one of the new album’s highlights, the downbeat ‘Ideal’, the pair are trepidatious — “It’s true/I’m bewildered by you/Beyond the weight of wisdom/Please don’t break me in two.” Tom wavers on the following song, ‘All You’ve Done To Me’, reflecting, “Love is a calamity/And I’m holding you/Hold onto me.” It’s a stark contrast to the loved-up sentiments expressed on Daisy, which featured lyrics like “And if you’re finding it all too much/Well you can catch the next train home/And if your face is all in a scrunch/Then let me find the right emoji” on the fittingly-titled album highlight ‘Love To Love’. Across the trilogy, the band’s love-related lyrics have grown up, but even though they’ve taken off the rose-tinted glasses on Wing, their hearts haven’t completely frozen over — there are still moments of tenderness, like on ‘Perfect World’ — “And as I unfurl/I am the earth’s fire/Deafening to hear/And in a perfect world/You are my desire/Can I draw you near.”
While the vast majority of the album was recorded during those BellBird Studio sessions, with just the two of them in the room, the band found themselves putting the final touches on Wing remotely — a process that was very foreign to Jo and Tom. “We’ve never worked remotely before, and it’s often a difficult thing to do, but it’s a really important thing where we’re in the room together, and we’re talking about the concepts of the album, and we’re both learning things from each other,” Jo says. “We just couldn’t really do that with the time difference, and with little kids, and not being in a physical space together. Silence is an important part of those conversations, and processing ideas, and we couldn’t do that.”
The pair play with space throughout the album: The guitar-led ‘The End Of The Road’ is tight and compact, while album closer ‘A Ribbon To Hold Us’ is grand, as shimmering synths pave the way for a almost seven-minute epic that features Jo and Tom’s swirling vocals, a driving drum beat, and an instrumental section that’s sure to go off when Big Scary make their return to the stage.
Despite the physical space between them, they made it work and pulled it off with aplomb. “This sort of way of working is new to us, but to others, it’s the norm,” Tom says. “And so it just was getting comfortable with something that was new to us, which we did. There were other personal things in there, for me, it was also just a challenging time because I was away from my family. I kind of came to the UK ahead of my family. I’ve got two young kids and my wife, so I was just here and it was really hard being away from them and I was trying to set up this life here.
“So there are other factors in there too, personal factors which made it hard to find motivation but you have to make it work, don’t you? We had to finish it, it was either finishing the album or not finishing the album. At the time, I was just in an Airbnb and I just had a MIDI keyboard and I’d come from Australia which had our full studio setup, and I was just there in the bedroom with a little MIDI keyboard and a microphone, and Jo on the on the internet on the other side of the world. That was just what we had to work with, so we got it done.”
Our conversation isn’t without interruptions — Tom is visited a couple of times by one of his children, who brings him a chattering set of teeth. Jo shares with me the fact that, as a baby, the adorable interjector was most soothed by one of Tom’s solo albums as #1 Dads, Golden Repair. It’s a particular source of pride for Tom. He says, “[Children] don’t have any of the social conditioning, it’s something they either like, or they don’t like, they just react 100 percent intuitively to something and it’s so beautiful. And I think there’s so much to learn as an adult, observing your kids who have been that way in the world. I was always chuffed that it was something that was soothing for him, and that’s what it meant to him.”
Parenting has fundamentally shifted the creative process for the pair. Time is precious, and they’ve got to make the most of every second spent on Big Scary. “It changes your relationship with nearly everything. I think it really is a whole shake up of everything about yourself in a way, because everything gets reprioritised and reordered,” Tom says. “And you have to really view and approach your life in such a dramatically different way that of course, all these other things are just gonna have to change along with it. A lot of it is just due to the time factor, you’re just not having endless time to indulge in this or that. You have to be more efficient with what you do with your time and how you apply yourself.”
Jo echoes Tom’s thoughts and says, “I haven’t had any writing periods since I’ve become a mum. We’ve had maybe some rehearsals and things like that, so yeah, I agree. You don’t just get unlimited time to play a riff late into the night, you have other things you have to do, so yeah, just that efficiency thing.”
“One thing I have enjoyed realising is that all cheesy love songs that you can’t quite connect to make so much more sense if you’re thinking that person is singing to their own child, rather than to a lover. It’s less creepy, if you’re saying all these things to another adult, sometimes I think it’s a lie, but those are true feelings for a little baby that you’re responsible for,” she says. She expands on her theory, highlighting Mariah Carey’s ‘Always Be My Baby’ as a good example of this theory. “She’s almost being a stalker, except if it’s like she’ll always be there for a little child no matter what, then you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But when she’s talking about someone she’s trying to be with romantically, like, ‘Oh, lady, you’ve gotta back off.’”
Having experienced a range of revolutions throughout their musical career to date, the band has embraced another technological leap — AI. Where some artists might shy away from using the technology, Big Scary’s leaning in, as the cover art for Wing was constructed using AI. “AI, as far as I can understand, is an amalgamation of all the information that’s currently out there, and part of music is reflecting what already exists,” Tom says. “But a lot of what music is, is coming up with something that hasn’t existed before, even in subtle ways. And I don’t feel any worry because, to me, AI is just not capable of that. And I laughed when you first mentioned it, because we kind of already have embraced AI in our artwork. We used some AI images, and we were playing with it, and that was its own journey… In the end, AI, to me, is still something that needs to be curated by a human.”
“There’s already so much tech out there anyway,” he adds. “These days, you don’t need to go and record all these different instruments yourself or pay musicians, you can just pay to use samples of people who have done it and you just need a login on a website. And suddenly you’re pulling all these recordings together that you didn’t do and you’re just the one collating this information, but you still have to do it in an exciting, tasteful and unique way. So I think it’s not a huge leap from what already exists, technology-wise in music, and to me, it’s a fun career curiosity. I loved playing with AI images, and I love looking at people who are way more advanced, what they can do with AI. It’s definitely exciting and fascinating and I don’t feel any existential threat, personally, from AI.”
While Wing draws to a close a trilogy that the band kicked off in 2021, it’s not the end of Big Scary. The band’s tradition of recording in Phillip Island and relaxing by hitting the various minigolf courses in the area is set to live on when time and life permits. “Even my mum said, ‘Is this the last Big Scary album,’ just knowing that we both have kids and we’re living apart and I was like, ‘I don’t think so,’” Jo says. “It’s something that when we have the right opportunity, we’ll sneak away and have some fun writing, and I’m just very curious to see what it’s like.
“I never know what the writing will be like the next time and I’ve learned not to try and have expectations about that. I remember after, I think it was after Not Art, I was like, ‘I loved that,’ and had these really strong concepts of what I thought the next batch would be, and it was totally not that. Now I’ve learned to just instead be excited about, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to be, I don’t know if we’ll be able to bring it,’ but I’m just curious what it will sound like next time we get to collaborate and make an album.”
Big Scary’s new album Wing is out now.
Ben Madden is a Melbourne-based music writer and Junkee’s Music Editorial Specialist. You can follow him on Twitter at @benmaddenwriter and Instagram at @benmaddenwriter, as well as keep up with his Sucks column here.
Image: Jeff Andersen Jnr
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