[img credit: Madalyn Baldanzi]
By Jenn Pelly
Despite rumors of an imminent break-up (with elementary replacements), Ridgewood, NJ popsmiths Big Troubles have their eyes on the future. In fact, fans of the fuzz-laden four-piece’s debut LP from Olde English Spelling Bee may be surprised to learn that the group’s future is looking pretty bright. Worry is a 4-track-trimmed collection of blistering guitar-pop that fuses the conflicting leanings of its principle song-writers: Alex Craig’s affinity for Slumberland shoegaze, and Ian Drennan’s roots in blown-out, artful electronics. But when I caught up with three of the four members in Manhattan last week-- Alex came in from Ridgewood, Ian from Boston, and drummer Sam Franklin (a.k.a. Fluffy Lumbers) from Bronxville, NY-- they made it clear that their next record will be less of the above, and more, well...radio-friendly rock. A condensed version of our three-hour conversation is below, packed with high school stories, the band's case against home recording, and some endearingly bizarre bits of humor.
AZ: You guys went to high school together. How exactly did you meet?
Alex: In 2005, Ian was in ninth grade, and I was in tenth. We were playing in different bizarre instrumental bands. My drummer asked Ian to join on bass, without conferring with me at all. So I resented Ian because I had no say in this. Ian was the symbol of my lack of agency in the direction of the band. Ian’s first memory of me was [of me] being mean.
Sam: Ian and I had a class together sophomore year. Ian, you would dress in black, and that’s when you started wearing slightly skinnier jeans, and you would wear a blazer over a black hoodie.
Alex: You became friends with Ian because you saw him wearing a blazer over a hoodie and decided you should approach him and see what his musical interests were.
Sam: Ian and I became friends because we were talking about Modest Mouse, and The Cure. Also, Luka was in Glen Rock. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Luka until college.
AZ: Alex, when did you start writing music?
Alex: I started writing songs before I knew how to play guitar, in elementary school. I made this amazing outsider pop record when I was 11.
Sam: Truly hypnagogic, the most naïve music in the world.
Alex: It was more Daniel Johnston than Daniel Johnston, more Shaggs than The Shaggs. It was songs about “wanting to rock and roll.” I was making up chords that were really dissonant, all recorded to mini-cassette. It was the most sincere music I’ll ever make. My band was called T3, which was the fastest Internet connection then. Maybe OESB will reissue it.
AZ: How did you guys get involved with Olde English Spelling Bee?
Ian: Matt Mondanile had been working with Todd [of OESB], for a Ducktails record, and he played [our music] for him.
Alex: The first time Todd listened to us on MySpace, halfway into a song, he messaged us and said, “Hey, I’m sitting with Matt from Ducktails. I want to put out your record. It will be chill.” This was Summer 2009.
AZ: Alex, do you think living in Brooklyn last year motivated you to write music?
Alex: Living in Ridgewood motivates me. Living in New York was a soul-crushing, horrible experience. I came wanting to play music, and within a couple of years I had almost given up.
Sam: The best thing about being in New York is that you end up with a very specific idea of what you don’t want to be.
Ian: There are certain popular motifs we’re trying to avoid now, that we often are accused of playing into…
Sam: Terms like noise-pop, fuzz, lo-fi, dream-pop, '90s alternative rock…
Alex: Being in New York was not inspiring. The big indie rock world that was going on when I started college was really uninteresting to me. It was the post-Arcade Fire/Broken Social Scene world of having five glockenspiels and really quirky female back-up vocalists. Eventually, I had given up on the idea of making rock music. I was always into song-oriented guitar-pop, which I played on my radio show. When I started to feel like a distorted guitar-pop song could be appreciated again, that inspired me. When the Pains got big, I thought, "I write songs like those, maybe someone will like them, instead of calling them cheesy '90s alternative rock."
AZ: When did Big Troubles officially begin?
Alex: Ian and I started recording in Summer 2009. Until then, I had been disheartened with everything and was making Elliott Smith-wannabe bastard music. It was introspective and Beatles-y.
Ian: We were in touch but we weren’t really seeing each other. I was in Boston, making computer music. It was basically microsound. That was called Big Troubles.
Alex: There is still that difference in the way we approach songwriting.
AZ: How did you go from playing Elliott Smith-type music to writing a song like "Freudian Slips"?
Alex: I wrote it right before Big Troubles came together, when I was doing the hush-toned pop. I had written the main chord progression for a different song a year before, which was heavily inspired by Oasis. When I decided to make something noisier, I was like, "What four-chord progression do I like?" The vocal melody in Freudian Slips-- that’s a John Lennon thing. The Beatles always had that resolve on everything, and I was studying that kind of songwriting. I was into a band called the Pernice Brothers, which is almost adult contemporary. It’s shiny pop with insanely depressing lyrics. I try to do that with Big Troubles. Ian and I are utterly miserable, and we need to be true to that.
Alex: We’ve been music nerds since day one.
Ian: I spent a lot of time in Soulseek chatrooms in high school. That’s how I found a lot of music.
Alex: We’re of that generation that grew up with the Internet. That’s how we discovered all the obscure pretentious bullshit we like. I have a whole collection of Nirvana failures: Dandelion, Summercamp, Orbit, Figdish. Bands that in the post-Nirvana wave got snatched up by major labels, then the album flopped and they got dropped immediately.
Ian: Rollerskate Skinny’s Horsedrawn Wishes is one of the best records ever.
Alex: The guitarist was Jimmy Shields, the brother of Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine.
AZ: I read that you also like funky '80s synth pop.
Alex: All we want to make is extremely clean pop music. There were two great records Scritti did in the '80s. Cupid Psyche in '85 and Provision in '88. Those two records are just perfect, smooth, funky pop.
AZ: So why was Worry recorded with a 4-track?
On Worry, it’s mostly guitar that’s distorted by running it through a 4-track, and then into our computers. There was no reason to even think we could make a studio record. Now there’s been more interest in the band; hopefully have an opportunity to indulge our younger impulses and make a really big rock/pop album.
We’re not going to release home-recordings anymore. We can recreate the sound with distortion pedals. The guitarist from Medicine, Brad Laner, got his sound by running his guitar into the 4-track and then running it right into the board. That was influential for us. We want things to sound like they were recorded well. We don’t want some kid who just likes hooks and rock to not be able to enjoy the Big Troubles record because he thinks it sounds like shit.
AZ: Can you tell me more about your Angelfire page?
Alex: I made a lot of Angelfire fanpages when I was young. I had one for a pop-punk band called Millencolin, I had a NOFX one. I knew the limited HTML to make a really groovy looking page and thought it would be funny. That’s early Internet nostalgia. We love crappy media. It’s an important part of our humor.
Sam: We don’t just riff with guitars. We riff with each other.
Worry is out now on OESB. Full interview transcript available via pellytwins.blogspot.com