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Together Apart, the Big Scary Interview

Photo by Lilli Waters

NO, BEING IN A BAND ISN’T LIKE BEING MARRIED. Neither is being in a football team in the finals or on tour. That’s too easy a cliché, too naff a comparison: one of those things really matters.

Still, it’s hard to avoid the comparison completely when talking with Tom Iansek and Jo Syme who aren’t married to each other or even, as the magazines like to say, “romantically involved”. They’ve just been together for nearly two decades as Big Scary. Well, together, then not together, and now together again.

Together as musicians they made several EPs and three albums between 2006 and 2016, won awards like the Australian Music Prize, and started a label, Pieater, while sounding delicate and sturdy, organic and electronic, hidden and right there in front of us.

Separately – during and afterwards – he made records as Small Time Hero, #1 Dads (created well before he actually did become a dad) and No Mono (with another partner/non-partner, Tom Snowden), and produced others (like Paper Kites and Lisa Mitchell); she helped run their joint label,(mostly worked by their manager Tom Fraser) and started her own label, Hotel Motel Records (home to acts like Quiver and Nat Vazer).

But as Big Scary? Nothing. A hiatus. A break. A split even. Maybe. No one knew exactly. Until the album Daisy arrived in 2021, the fruit of intense writing sessions on Phillip Island and recording sessions in Collingwood while Covid raged. But not just Daisy. They had, we were told, written enough songs for three albums, and were recording them all.

They were not kidding. The second of these albums, Me And You, is out this week: not so much a continuation as an extension, an even clearer take, of both musical and lyrical themes of relative sparseness and emotional revelation in tone, and what exactly we ask for and need from each other.

To continue the original metaphor, there’s got to be good reasons to stay together as a band, even if breaking up can often be down to bad reasons or bad thinking. Often musical partnerships happen haphazardly or accidentally, without planning or great thought, like some rush of emotion, an infatuation. But returning to a partnership, like middle-aged love stories, comes from mature thinking and actual decisions – not necessarily always good certainly, but still, deliberate. Big Scary didn’t accidentally come back together, surely.

“It wasn’t a conscious … there was never a convo that we had broken up; we were kind of on pause. So there was never a thought that it was not going to happen at some point,” says Syme.

"But I did have a moment when we got back together or a little bit after, where it was like all right, we are going to have to put the pieces of our writing together, and there’s going to be a campaign, and we’re gonna to release things and put together shows ….”

She sounds as if that had been more worrying than exciting.

“I’d been trying to help the artists on my label one way to do that was to say these are the tools that you can use, and you’ve got to use social media and you got to tour hard, all these things that I knew were helpful. And there when it came to Big Scary I had a moment of doubt, like we’re not good at social media, we’re not going to move to America now, we’re not gonna do those things, what’s kinda the point?”

It was, Syme admits, “such a sad frame of mind” to find herself in, until Iansek put it to her that if that was going to stop the joy of making music, if fear of failure weighed that heavily, then there was no point starting at all.

“It was a really easy way for Tom to show me that any of those fears were pointless,” she says. “So, it wasn’t so much a decision to get back together but quite a conscious decision not to let any fears of the results stop it from happening.”

Which is, as patronising as it sounds, a mature decision you’d appreciate whether this was a romantic relationship or a creative partnership.

“I’d agree,” says Iansek, seated alongside Syme on a lounge in the Collingwood studio. “I will also say that while it wasn’t an official breakup, it did feel like a breakup. We had one tough conversation where I indicated to Jo that I was going to do some other things, and that was a tough conversation, even though the message was we were just going on pause.

"I guess you never know. Maybe, depending on where life took us, there was a chance, a sliding doors moment, where we didn’t return to the band. But like you say, we did step back into it as wiser souls than when we started the band. It was a conscious re-entering into the band.”

I wonder if that “tough conversation” involved some variation of “it’s not you, it’s me”?

They laugh, but Syme responds first. “I think I was doing a reverse park in Perth at the time, before our Perth show. I think later you were like ‘I probably didn’t bring it up at the right time’, but it was very brief.”

“There wasn’t an explanation,” she continues. “But also, I’d like to think there was a lot of understanding: I think I understand Tom’s purposes or intentions, or ultimate goals. And whilst sometimes we have different goals or it might be frustrating about his modus operandi, I don’t need to ask a lot of questions because I understand. I know the answer so we don’t need to have those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ conversations.”

At its core then, this relationship, which came back together in the sort of circumstances that would test any fragility in the connection – isolated on an island to write; working in a studio with only one other regular contributor; answering questions alongside each other – there must be much more than convenience pulling Big Scary together and making this worthwhile.

“Our relationship as musicians and friends has always been a very easy relationship. I don’t think we’ve ever had an argument,” says Iansek. “As you go through life you realise that some relationships are easy and some are not, and some are challenging. There is this feeling of camaraderie and I think like Jo said before, there’s already knowing the answer [to the question you might ask the other].

“So there’s that, but also for me the making music bad has always been fun and fruitful. And it nourishes me in a certain way.”

As for Syme, not surprisingly, the explanation is not much different.

“There’s a lot of trust for me, working with Tom, for me to be vulnerable in my creativity and learning things,” she says. “Tom makes those things easy and he knows my strengths and weaknesses, he knows how to encourage the good parts. It would take a long time for me to find that kind of dynamic with a different creative partner or group.”

IF WE NEEDED MORE PROOF than their own words about how easily the combination returned when Jo Syme and Tom Iansek reconvened, from solo and business projects, as Big Scary, it would be in the volume of material created. Last year’s Daisy and this new album, Me And You, are we are told only two thirds of the songs they wrote and plan to release.

Even if it hadn’t happened during the weirdest time in anyone’s life, the Covid years, that is Prince level fecundity. Did they realise they had a three, or more, part project happening?

“We were unsure for 70 or 80 per cent of the time we were writing and making things,” Iansek says down the Zoom line, alongside Syme in the Melbourne studio where they recorded. “I guess that made us work on everything, regardless. It kind of made us finish this great big mass of songs without really knowing until towards the end what we were going to do with them.

“I remember we were having conversations, right in the middle of Covid really when the music industry was decimated, that we could release one song every month for the next two years. All our ideas of how we can get this music out there were blown wide open.”

While Syme says “the priority was we just wanted to get something out”, once the songs, or most of them, were in a near-finished state they were able to move them around and recognise connections and relationships, even if they weren’t necessarily intended.

This may be some retrospective aligning of history by me, but these two albums feel like a double album, with the songs becoming more emotionally complex the further in we go, telling the same story of coming to grips with how we manage living with/working with/existing alongside other people. Some of that is reflected in the mood and tempos; some of it in the detail of the individual lives; some of it in the way that the album moves from overt programming to a quite spare piano and drums-setting for the vocals, which are shared.

“I think they are companion pieces,” says Syme of the two albums released so far. “We had all these different ways of how they might be grouped together, but sonically took precedence. I think the fact that those Daisy songs were the livelier probably is what tied them together, rather than thematically.

"In My View [from Me And You] is quite a sad song and quite a darker song, so for sure that feels darker than Daisy, but then I think Get Out! [from Daisy] has sadness to it too, and I like a lot of the hope, or truthfulness, on Me And You. So they don’t necessarily feel darker or lighter, thematically, to me; it’s more of a tonal thing.”

Rather than darker, Me And You explores the concept that love is a constant (as a need or a pursuit) but love is inconsistent (unpredictable, not always attainable, or retainable), and that’s what makes the album as much as our lives, complex. There’s more here than love going wrong.

For a start it goes right at times, and love is not just romance but friendship and connection, as in the artistic relationship of Syme and Iansek.

“Love is just not Hollywood, you know,” says Syme who took on a greater lyric writing role with this record. “I remember some other album titles I had were like Post-Credits: so yes, the couple end up together in the film but actually the hard work is done in those decades after. If it’s a constant relationship, any relationship is work and it’s ongoing and it’s always changing.

“That’s been the case for us, realising the probably in the years since we last worked together our significant others became lifelong partnerships, parenthood happened, and you realise that it’s not happily ever after; that’s never going to happen. You always have to work at your relationships, so we wanted to be truthful about those things.”

Taking up the baton, Iansek argues that “Daisy played on similar themes but it had more a sense of naïveté to it”.

“Almost like a child’s approach, or the first step into something,” he says. “And it’s like what Jo mentioned, the images we see through movies or whatever. That’s the first access point to a lot of these things we are talking about. Which is why lot of those songs had this superficiality of ‘I love you/you don’t love me/I like you but you don’t like me’, and playing on that. Whereas Me And You, the complexity of it grows and there are these dimensions that open up beyond that first [reaction].

“Maybe Daisy is infatuation and Me And You is the bits that come after. It definitely deepens the message, thinking about it now.”

Some of the sonic decisions made are as striking as the lyrical ones, such as the absence of guitars, though by now it’s clear we shouldn’t assume any more forethought here either. Were they choices, or outcomes?

“Mostly more of an outcome, wasn’t it?,” Iansek says, turning to Syme. “We were guided, like Jo said, by the feel of them initially and it was only after that we’d made Daisy that we realised that there were no guitars on there.”

She nods, adding, “Maybe even where a guitar song from our first three albums had rock influences, perhaps that just fell away fell away for us. Maybe it’s getting older and less angst [she laughs]. I don’t know what it is, but for some reason the rock songs or punkier elements just didn’t rear their head as much in the writing time.”

Iansek remembers something else about the genesis of these songs in the vivid isolation of Phillip Island and their later recording.

“There was a lot of confusion as we really got into making all of these [tracks] about how they are going to exist and what are they going to be. Right from when we got back together and started writing and making music, there was this question of do we censor ourselves or do we curate ourselves, which is naturally a more intellectual process compared to just opening the floodgates to whatever comes out,” he says. “I guess early on we maybe did decide in some way rather who are we to judge what wanted to come out of us.”

There was beneath this too, a visceral reaction to the pleasures of creating, and creating together, the sheer joy of “let’s just make stuff” rather than “what do you think we should make?” or even “does this have to be something?”. (And you can see an extension of that in the duo’s plans for the coming live shows, which, after their previous tour being a full band effort, will revert to the two of them.)

“It wasn’t about what we made, it was that we were together again and it was fun to make stuff,” Iansek says. “And that’s also what was really beautiful and felt almost like a rebirth of the band because it harked back to the very early days when we had no agenda and would just muck around: we were two 20-year-olds making whatever music came to us. There was that again, which was really beautiful, and that only came through not worrying about what’s this song going to look like next to the song.

It does make sense of a line on the album, “love is a doing word”, in this case the love is in the doing not in the result or in the wishing. It’s a line Syme borrowed, or responded to.

“I experience art very much in relation to other art and I really enjoy how painters from different eras will play off each other. So actually, love is a doing word is a Massive Attack line in Teardrop (“Love is a verb/Love is a doing word”). I’m not taking any credit for writing that line.”

Except of course that in the spirit of art responding to other art and in the context of this album, that line resonates in different and particular ways on a listener now. Not to mention that art in response to art plays another role around Me And You, with an accompanying “scrapbook” of images, of and sometimes by Iansek and Syme, sent to media a powerful storytelling device of its own.

In that collection I note there is not a single photo of Iansek and Syme together, unless you count one where an arm (presumably his?) is in a shot of her. A metaphor? A coincidence? A final comment on the themes of separation and reconciliation and making life in all its forms work?

“The ones taken down at Phillip Island [where they were alone] one of us has got to hold the camera,” Syme points out. “The ones taken by Jeff Anderson Jr in the studio, we’re at work and it’s funny we’re here again and there’s actually a very practical answer to that. We made the album purely by ourselves.

“We had some mixing for this album and we did have an engineer for some elements of Daisy, but really it was just Tom and I in the studio here in Collingwood. It’s a split-level, and the control room is upstairs, and Tom taught me how to use the control room while he was doing his parts, and he knows how to do it while I’m doing my parts, and so we were probably physically separated by a staircase, while Jeff was here taking photographs, creating the album.”

Like the perfect double act, as Syme pauses, Iansek leans in to deliver the punchline.

“Together but apart,” he says. “I think that’s been the theme for the last couple of years, hasn’t it?”


Big Scary play:

October 13, The Factory Theatre, Eora / Sydney

October 14, Republic Bar, nipaluna / Hobart

October 15, Jive Kaurna Country/Adelaide

October 19, The Triffid, Meanjin/Brisbane

October 21, Theatre Royal, Dja Dja Wurrung Country/Castlemaine

October 22, Corner Hotel, Naarm/Melbourne


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