We meet Black Country punk duo Big Special in an east London boozer. Singer Joe Hicklin and Callum Moloney are in town to launch their new single ‘Desperate Breakfast’ at Billy’s Cafe, just round the corner. They’ll be jetting off to play showcase festival Reeperbahn in Hamburg the next day, but they’re far more accustomed to the scenes of staving off monotony in pubs and greasy spoons than all this newfound music industry lark.
“I toast my tea in mourning – for a morning come too soon,” pines frontman Joe Hicklin on the life-weary new single, spitting acid in the face of an unwanted day of grind in another loud and heady dose of reality.
“It’s about getting up, shovelling a breakfast down and going to do a day that you don’t want to do,” Hicklin tells NME. “That’s the most common thing amongst us all. It’s about how shit the cycle of all that is. It exists whether you’ve got a job or not – it’s a cycle of desperation.”
With drummer Callum Moloney from Birmingham and Hicklin from the neighbouring town of Walsall, the pair first met as what they affectionately describe as “childhood sweethearts” in college back when they were 17. Having performed together under various guises, their chemistry and love of writing together kept them creatively bound – returning to form Big Special a decade later to beat the boredom and frustration of lockdown.
Now with hype and radio support building along with some sold-out UK shows, it looks like that “cycle of desperation” could become a thing of the past, as we meet Big Special to talk about shitty jobs, politics, and what keeps them moving.
NME: Hello Big Special. What can you tell us about you landed on this sound that smashes punk with a little bit of soul?
Hicklin: “I’d done folk and Americana-type stuff for about 15 years on my own with an acoustic guitar. I’d always been writing poems as well, but kept it separate. A good few years ago I remember saying to my wife, ‘I’d love to shout my poems out’. I never wanted it to just be poems with music underneath, and I wanted to do it in my accent. Callum was the only person I wanted to do it with. It really breathed life into everything to get Callum on the drums.
“I’m not comparing us to these guys because that would be narcissistic, but Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Neil Young – whatever they do, it’s just them; whether it’s a quiet piano ballad or a mad fucking experimental thing. We knew that if we got the central voice of the band down, then we could do whatever we wanted.”
Across your three singles ‘Shithouse’, ‘This Here Ain’t Water’ and ‘Desperate Breakfast’, you’re looking to show where social concerns meet your personal lives. What does it take for an idea to become a lyric?
Hicklin: “You can’t always say something new, and you don’t want to. You can talk about your life and people relate to it because you’ve said it in your way. I like gothic imagery, I like dark imagery and things like that, but I like talking about the normal stuff. It’s the difference between painting a picture of something and taking a photo.
“‘Shithouse’ is about a breakdown and hard times, but someone thought it was about me seeing someone again and getting into a fight. It’s funny how people hear things. I like people adding their own meaning. That’s class, because it shows people are really listening.”
‘Desperate Breakfast’ deals with the start of a very sucky day. What’s the shittest job you’ve ever had?
Moloney: “I’m a trade plate driver, and that’s pretty crap. I used to work in Wetherspoons, but that was a laugh. Working in posh bars and restaurants is so much worse because they make you feel so small. Warehouse work being on my own stacking boxes for 12 hours a day, that sucked. You go and see your mates and you’ve forgotten how to speak to people.”
Hicklin: “I was a labourer with my stepdad and my brother, who also do waste removal. It’s also the best job I’ve had in the sense that you’re not under some faceless boss, but it was the hardest work. To clean a bath full of shit out into a wheelie bin and get it down the stairs of a terraced house… My worst job was probably working in a call centre for home insurance, but Tesco was also quite demeaning. I used to sandblast stones, I was a trainee barber. We’ve done a bit of everything. This song is about being in a greasy spoon facing down all those bad jobs.”
Moloney: “I have no negative feelings about it. I actually have more respect for the people that do it than I do for anyone else because they don’t have a choice. Whatever is hard about this, we’re not digging holes, stacking shelves or serving some stuck-up bastard at a posh bar.”
How would you describe the politics of Big Special?
Hicklin: “That’s a good question. I don’t want to sound like a dickhead or like we’re above our station, but we’re just on the side of the people. All of the music comes from a personal place and is about experience and everything around it. Obviously I fucking hate the Tories, I fucking hate Keir Starmer, it’s all against the people. There is nothing there looking to look after the people. The working class might as well be completely fucking invisible. It’s all wank.
“I just wish it would all burn down so we could start again. At least it would be different. Every day there’s less and less hope to seek, and it breeds either ignorance, confusion or hatred.”
Moloney: “I’m not saying we’ve got the answers, but it’s not working. That’s apparent to everyone. Anyone who is disenfranchised against this system built against us is going to understand our music.”
What do you see when you look out into the audience of a Big Special show?
Moloney: “A bunch of fucking angels! This is the first band I’ve been in where I can comfortably say that people actively want to listen to us and we don’t have to force it! They’re endlessly supportive and beautiful souls.”
Do you get frustrated with certain comparisons being a two-piece? ‘Are you Sleaford Mods or The White Stripes’?
Moloney: “I always thought I was a bit of a Meg White, so I’ll take that! Because we play to track and we’re a duo that’s so synonymous with the punk sound and the punk look, we’ve been waiting for someone to be like, ‘Where’s the shredding solo?’ But no one gives a fuck. That attitude has gone of people saying, ‘I need to see someone play that’. We’re very emotive while we play and we put 100 per cent into it.”
Hicklin: “Sometimes people can’t get past the aesthetics. We got compared to Royal Blood once because there are two of us. We’re aware that there’s less on stage, so we give it beans.”
Are you going to remain a duo?
Moloney: “This is our sound and our influences pushed together, and we love it. Plus we tour in a Ford Focus, that’s the dream of being in a two-piece. It’s just a hell of a lot easier. We’d love to do something with an orchestra one day though, or my mum’s rock choir – but we’re not looking for any new members just yet.”
What’s your overall dream for Big Special?
Moloney: “There’s that line from Boondock Saints: ‘How far do you want to take this? How far are you willing to go?’
Hicklin: “We’ve been doing music for 15 years and this has all happened in eight months. I’ve always just wanted to get somewhere doing what I do. If you compromise on anything then you might as well have stuck doing those crap jobs.”
Big Special tour the UK and Europe throughout the autumn. Visit here for more information.