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Big Scary

Not Afraid of Ghosts

Jan 14, 2014 Big Scary Bookmark and Share

The opening song on Big Scary‘s new album Not Art (on Barsuk) begins with a list of all the things Tom Iansek is not (a painter, a poet, a teacher, a preacher), but it is clear that the frontman of the Melbourne, Australia duo is selling himself short of his many talentsmusic and all.

Coupled with his gift for creating logs of fictional band names (free for anyone who wants themsee him after a show) and his trick of peeling an orange in one piece while driving a tour van, it is his uncanny ability to invoke the ghost of Jeff Buckley that may be best of all. Just give one listen to the stormy ballad “Lay Me Down” and tell us you don’t have chills of falling from Grace.

Where he used to be haunted by the comparison (“I was uncomfortable with it at first because he meant so much to so many people”), Iansek has grown to embrace it. “I listened to him a lot when I first started singing, so I guess he rubbed off on me.”

In fact much of Not Art is a serenade to the many eclectic notables who have inspired both him and his partner, drummer/vocalist Jo Syme. There’s the tongue-in-cheek DJ Shadow homage on “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ‘13,” a misnomer given Iansek’s mad love for Kanye West, and the song “Phil Collins,” which was originally just a working title for Syme to remember the raw track in Garage Band (“I thought it sounded like ‘In the Air Tonight,’” she says).

If the random associations sound like a setup for a dirty punch line, the joke’s on us. Big Scary’s diversity is their strongest asset, with somber piano ballads that calm the garage rock frizz and pop-infused R&B hooks that lighten the mood in their jazz band rehearsals. It wasn’t always that grandiose, though.

Big Scary’s beginnings in 2006 found them etched as a modern folk band with simple shakers and acoustic guitar after the two met through a recommendation of mutual friends. “Tom was looking to put together a band and needed a drummer. He ended up on my doorstep with a guitar,” says Syme, laughing.

After casually jamming together for two years, in between day jobs serving tables and hosting corporate improv workshops, things shifted in 2008 when Iansek completed a program in audio engineering. “All of a sudden he was paying a lot more attention to production, and the direction of the band changed,” says Syme.

In Iansek’s opinion, though, “it’s actually quite funny how Not Art came to be. We’d record any tiny idea we hada drum beat or piano or guitar riff, and I’d chop it up to become songs,” he says, noting how consumed he became with lyrics and sound structure this time around.

The dense new vision was exactly what the band needed, first gaining exposure in their native Australia where fans touted Big Scary’s Four Seasons EP package and Vacation album debut and just last year making bold introductions to American audiences for the first time at CMJ and SXSW with whispers of them becoming “the next Arcade Fire.”

If Syme’s assessment is true that “Aussie bands don’t really get big until someone in America discovers them,” they’re well on their way to becoming the next big import.

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s November/December 2013 issue.]


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