ALL THAT JAZZ
Words: James Frostick
Cameron Bower from Big Dead talks about the influence of jazz on his music and how it helps his band push the boundaries of composition.
I met Cameron Bower for this interview outside of Browning Street Studios in West End. Cameron teaches music there when he is not creating it, so it is safe to say he is as knowledgeable about his passion as can be. As a member of Big Dead, Cam has the benefit of being able to put his teachings into practice and to practice his teachings – so both sides of his musical career are better for it. When I spoke to Cam about Big Dead and their upcoming EP, I found out very quickly how much he knows about music. I don’t mean just playing music but creating music, crafting it, making it sound as good as possible and loving every moment of it.
During our chat Cam used a lot of musical terms that often went over my head when laced together with other complicated words. He doesn’t throw around these terms to sound impressive, he says them because they mean something to him and they are the correct words to use. The failing is on me for not following at times. Regardless, it does sound impressive when one can string a sentence together talking about ‘arpeggiated harmonics of triads using tetra chords’ (please note: that collection of words didn’t come from Cam, at least not in that order; that is a bastardised mish-mash of words I heard but didn’t understand). Cam is the other side of music teaching, the cool kind – the kind that is the antithesis to the high school clarinet teacher who fails to convey the coolness of learning. Cam makes music teaching look cool, he also makes it sound cool.
Back on track, Big Dead includes Cam on guitar, piano and vocals, Reuben Neilsen on bass and upright bass (cool!), Nathan McGregor on drums, Andrew Fincher on guitar, piano and vocals and Josh Dunn on guitar. This configuration of the band has been together since roughly the beginning of 2011, after the release of their first EP. Cam, Reuben and Josh are the remaining members of the original line-up, after two former bandmates moved on to other things.
While their previous EP was put together with a different line-up and probably a different sound, it is a great collection of songs that convey an aura of seriousness and melancholy thanks to a backdrop of nicely structured sounds that combine elements of ambient noise, post-rock and jazz. It is an interesting combination, and Cam’s vocals add to the overall vibe, making their songs very easy to listen to in my opinion.
“That stuff is interesting because it has been left in the dark for so long, says Cam. “Pretty soon after we finished it, the other two guys decided that they had enough, that they wanted to do other things. We tried a couple of the tunes with the new line-up, but we all just wanted to do something else.”
Okay, so, Big Dead are going to sound a bit different on their next EP. Fair enough. But what is also interesting is the attitude these guys have to experimentation and change when it comes to music. Like Cam, the other blokes in Big Dead are students of music. Most of them have been playing music together since they were in their early teens, the growth of their music tastes and ideas has been a shared experience and their ideas and creative tendencies have seen a similar expansion. What I found out from Cam is that Big Dead don’t seem to have any self-limitations or an ideal end point for their sound. Since they started jamming in their teens, their thirst for creating something of their own grew, as did their desire for experimentation.
“It was a really natural, organic kind of progression from just jamming on E for 25 minutes to actually structuring a piece of music and thinking about it, caring about it and crafting it,” says Cam. “It has become really important to us. It has become more than just something we do on the weekends – at least for me personally, it has become something I really care about. It’s like my baby.”
“Going from being in a band, like what we were doing when we started out which was like pop in the vein of Kings of Leon, The Strokes, The Libertines and so on, when I started listening to things like jazz music and Radiohead, Boards of Canada and Sparklehorse – when I heard people like that who were writing songs but more than that, proper art, hearing that side of what was possible with a band made me want to start – made all of us want to start – writing songs and start crafting them.”
The sound of Big Dead is very much an amalgamation of the tastes of each member. Cam informs me that even though he sometimes takes the role of band leader, directing the soundscapes and putting them together for the purpose of coherency in recording and rehearsal, he doesn’t get a final say on what the end product is like. This is necessary simply because of the sheer amount of sound each member wants to cram into each song. Big Dead live sets can include anything from ambient electronic segments, trip-hop breakdowns and free form jazz influenced expositions. It is as if they find every brand of music inspiring and they want to incorporate something from each simultaneously.
“We’ve always been surrounded by people whose tastes influence us massively,” says Cam. “An example is the omnipresence of post-rock, it has always been there. Whether we wanted it to or not, it made its way into our sound and it’s still there. It’s not quite delay pedals or tremolo picking, but we’ve got, as our friend said to us once, ‘post-rock sensibilities’. I think that’s a pretty good way of describing it, Explosions in the Sky along with Radiohead, showed us what was possible with a band. Sigur Ros as well, they are a perfect example of that, the kind of group that does ‘post-rock’ but without delay and all that.”
The jazz and post-rock influences are sort of what make Big Dead so great. I liked the songs from their first EP because it had that feeling of a carefully restrained eruption. They manage to keep a lid on the post-rock wankery that seems to permeate the sound of a few acts in that genre, yet the jazz improvisation element keeps it interesting, so you never really know if they are going to go on a tangent or not, but it all comes together in a satisfying way.
It seems as if jazz is the key ingredient within Big Dead’s sound. As a progenitor for all kinds of modern musical development, the core concept of improvisation and adaptability in jazz are the exact things that make Big Dead songs work. It may be the sole reason that they can get away with trying out so many different things, it may also be why it works so well.
“I guess for me it’s the harmonic conception of jazz that I love,” says Cam. “That’s how we learned to manipulate harmony, or I learned to manipulate harmony anyway. There is also the improvised element; we usually work in an improvised section into songs. There will be a chord progression and a melody, and that’s the only certainty of that piece of music, it can go anywhere.”
“I think because we are all students of jazz, you got to play all these different styles. I think we are really fortunate that we have found each other in this time and place because none of us want to make garage rock; we want to make different music to that. I think it is absolutely essential that we do force ourselves to change and are willing to change. I suppose the other thing is that we like getting other people involved as well. I think it is important to be malleable, especially for us, but I think for all musicians as well. If you stay as a one trick pony, what are you going to do when the group runs out of steam or you run out of luck?”
I am still yet to hear the product of the past years’ worth of recording. I am extremely excited for Big Dead’s new EP, simply because of the possibilities it holds. The malleability and adaptability sound great on paper, it is hard to contain excitement for what could possibly be some of the most interesting music to be made in Brisbane. The journo in me is going to reserve judgement for a few more weeks, but damn if I’m not anxious to hear it.
I asked Cam if he sees the jazz influence on any other contemporary acts. It is a unique quality for a band to have not only the ability to change so rapidly, but to willingly instigate it for the purpose of improving their craft. It thought their first EP was a winner, so it must take some balls to tinker with a working formula. If it pays off, then why shouldn’t every other band do the same? No band wants to do the same thing over and over again, but in my opinion, not enough are agreeable to starting from scratch more than once.
“I think definitely in groups like Radiohead, they are 21st century music,” admits Cam. “In their music I can hear a lot of elements of jazz, even in their instrumentation. In Brisbane, I haven’t really seen that much, that’s probably because I don’t go out there looking for it that much. I just don’t notice it. There is certainly a really awesome jazz scene in Brisbane and that is removed from the rock scene. I don’t see it in many Brisbane bands, at least not at this stage. I don’t know if it is bound to happen, if it will ever happen. I find it really exciting though, I like hearing a band play dangerously, to leave parts of their set list open, so there is a difference between Thursday night’s show and Saturday night’s show. I really like that stuff.”
So, about this upcoming EP, Cam and Co. are understandably excited about it (so am I, if you couldn’t tell), but I was surprised to hear that it is to be a constrained affair, following a more conventional structure.
“What happened was, we played a show somewhere once where someone came up to us after and said ‘That was the most confusing set list I have ever heard in my life’,” recalls Cam. “I guess what happened then – we have always had this amalgamation of all these different things – for the recording that we are in the process of finishing now, I made a decision to stick with the ‘song’ songs, so that we were just doing one thing. We know what we can do and we’ve got all these other things that we can do, and we love doing it, but for now I guess we have just settled on a group of songs that are relative to each other and we’ve cut the fat.”
“Our first intention was to do two EP’s. There was going to be one with song based stuff, which is what our upcoming release turned out to be, and all the rest of the stuff was going onto another EP which was going to be more electronically influenced, more instrumental-based material. That stuff will all get recorded at some point; it’s all been demoed so it will get recorded. For now it’s just a beast in the background waiting to rear its head.”
I suppose that is as close to a glimpse of the EP that I can provide, but one thing is certain, Big Dead write good ‘song’ songs, so a release full of them is fine by me. I can’t tell you what to expect, but I asked Cam what he thinks people will get out of it.
“I’m not really sure,” admits Cam. “It depends on what you are into; there is something for all sorts of tastes there. There is a lot of technical music, some really simple music, some really minimal music. I think the first thing people will notice is that it is a mixed bag. Maybe they will find it depressing, maybe the will find the lyrical content and the overall vibe of it depressing and maybe a little bit pessimistic, though I don’t think it is pessimistic. It depends on how you see stuff like that. I don’t really know what people will get from it. I hope they can relate to it, I hope that they can hear it and it makes them feel something.”
These guys are too good at what they do to not make us feel something. All I know is, Cam would be a pretty swell music teacher.