After Big Scary’s 2016 album ‘Animal’, life began to pull Tom Iansek and Jo Syme in different directions. The beloved indie pop duo ground to a halt, with little clear indication as to when they’d be back – until now. Iansek and Syme have returned renewed and enthusiastic on their new album ‘Daisy’, a collection of songs they describe as their most playful to date.
Though it’s their fourth album, Iansek and Syme speak of it almost as though it’s their debut, with Iansek going on to say Big Scary feels the way it did when they first started all those years ago: “We’re a reinvigorated band and I think we’re comfortable in our own skin now.” Syme nods in agreement, “We’re not worrying too much about whether anything is a smart decision. We think it’s fun and meaningful and that’s all that matters.”
Big Scary convene at their purpose-built studio BellBird in Melbourne for our chat, Iansek arriving after dropping his son off at daycare. The space where the duo track “millions” of ideas, BellBird is the studio where their new record came together from start to finish. “This is the first album we’ve recorded at BellBird,” says Syme. “We designed the studio with autonomy in mind because we’ve always wanted to be able to completely record ourselves.” This DIY ethic is integral to the fiercely independent band who release music through their self-run label Pieater, which is also home to the likes of Airling and Slowdancer.
“We’re not worrying too much about whether anything is a smart decision. We think it’s fun and meaningful and that’s all that matters” – Jo Syme
Though Big Scary went dormant after ‘Animal’, Pieater was buzzing. The label released records by Iansek’s other musical projects: 2020’s meditative ‘Golden Repair’ under his solo moniker #1 Dads and ‘Islands’ Part 1 and 2 with No Mono, his experimental electronic duo formed alongside Lowlake’s Tom Snowdon. Besides promoting both projects through Pieater, Syme also started Hotel Motel Records, releasing albums from artists including Nat Vazer, Cool Sounds and L.A Mood.
“Big Scary is my main creative outlet now, really,” Syme tells NME. “Because it had been a while since we last recorded I’d almost forgotten that creative part of me existed, but it gets ignited as soon as we start playing. I really understand now what a privilege it is to be making art.” Iansek on the other hand felt it was time to return to Big Scary given it’s served as the catalyst for his prolific career. “I arrived at some conclusions with where I was at with all the music I was doing and I realised I needed to be focussing on the projects that had gotten me to that point.”
Big Scary hint at feeling some pressure to follow up ‘Animal’, which followed their Australian Music Prize win for ‘Not Art’ in 2014 and became their most well-received album to date. “We stopped just after our most successful song ‘The Opposite Of Us’ which reached number 17 in the Hottest 100,” says Iansek. “It was hard at the time because we were stepping away from whatever momentum we had, but that momentum comes with a lot of things that make us uncomfortable too.”
It’s clear that Iansek and Syme aren’t in music for the fame and subsequent attention, but rather for the joy that making music together brings them. “There’s always that childlike excitement at the thought of creating something together and that has never disappeared,” he says earnestly. “It’s always brought us back together and pushed the project on as we’ve lived our lives as individuals.”
And Big Scary have pushed into new territory on ‘Daisy’. Some foundational elements remain – Iansek’s keys and Syme’s drums make it clear who you’re listening to. But the duo toy with new sounds, too, from the dark disco of second single ‘Get Out!’ to the cinematic splendour of ‘Bursting at the Seams’, the latter featuring a rare outing by Syme on lead vocal that she describes as a blend of Channel Tres, The Flaming Lips and Donna Summer. “The album is largely upbeat and has an energy that makes you want to move and dance,” Iansek sums up for NME. “There’s some classic Big Scary because it’s still us making the music, but with some new sounds that we were interested in.”
For ‘Daisy’’s release, the duo have also embraced more creative ideas outside of the music itself. From designing the album sleeve artwork themselves, selling homemade branded candles and starring in highly conceptual music videos, Syme and Iansek have gone the extra mile to expand the aesthetic universe of ‘Daisy’. “In the past it was more utilitarian,” admits Syme. “It’d just be like ‘We need a press photo’, and then we bang it out, but now we’re being a bit artsy and indulgent. It’s a really fun way to approach things.”
Big Scary went as far as collating a scrapbook of things that inspired the new album for the media and external collaborators. These inspirations range from The X Files for the spooky ‘Get Out!’ video to the bright, existentialist artwork of Los Angeles artist Luke Pelletier. “It’s so nice to be able to give a bit of context around the album before you listen to it. It makes it much richer and so much more exciting,” says Syme. “It’s a useful tool to help those working with you receive the information in a way that’s more aligned with how you intended it to be,” continues Iansek. “I could explain in words how I picture a certain song to a collaborator, but the image in my mind could be completely different to theirs. It helps to bridge those things a bit closer.”
Which leads us to a series of photos Big Scary posted on social media to drum up hype for ‘Daisy’. Featuring masked strangers in a sea of flowers, the cryptic photos arrived only with captions that quoted from the Walt Whitman poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider”. “We’re depicting an anonymous couple as a lot of the stories in the songs are about relationships,” explains Iansek. “We wanted them to reach beyond ourselves a bit more. People do this naturally anyway as they hear themselves in the lyrics, but we wanted to make a conscious point of saying, ‘It’s not Jo and I singing about ourselves’ – we’re singing about this couple that could be anyone.”
This universality to Big Scary’s music is the quality that has boosted their reputation as one of Australia’s finest bands. Big Scary turn 15 this year, and the duo remain humble and self-deprecating when discussing their legacy. “We’ve certainly done some amazing things but I think it’s testament to the fact that we’ve hung around long enough for these things to happen,” says Iansek. “I feel we’ve gotten stronger over the time and I hope we continue to make interesting albums,” Syme adds. “It’d be an honour if there were people who cared about the back catalogue and were keen on finding out more. I’d be very proud to leave that kind of legacy.”
Big Scary’s ‘Daisy’ is out April 30 via Pieater