Since forming in Melbourne in the second half of the 2000s, Big Scary has been a partnership between Tom Iansek and Jo Syme. Syme plays drums while Iansek plays guitar and keys and has produced the majority of the band’s recorded output. In the early years, such as on Big Scary’s 2011 debut album, Vacation, it was fair to call Iansek the band’s lead vocalist. These days, however, those duties are more evenly split.
Me and You is Big Scary’s fifth studio album and the duo’s second consecutive release to be a true, meet-in-the-middle collaboration. Though, compared to its predecessor, 2021’s Daisy, which centred on synthesisers and pop-opera playfulness, Me and You is a more restrained and earnest collection of songs.
Ahead of the album’s release, as well as a national tour this October, Iansek and Syme reflect on their respective roles in Big Scary and how Me and You signals a new ego-less era for the band.
Big Scary – ‘Goodbye Earl Street’
Music Feeds: I feel your individual sensibilities shine through in the songs on Me and You. Are you ever having to think about how to find a balance between the input from the two of you, or worrying if a certain song might sound “too Tom” or “too Jo”?
Tom Iansek: In the past, Big Scary was much more my vehicle for artistic expression. Not that Jo didn’t have an artistic voice in the band then, but Jo was shy in this way and I was the opposite and so that became the dynamic of the band to a large degree. With some time away from Big Scary, I spent time developing other projects, namely #1 Dads and No Mono, and so found other homes for artistic desires.
Returning to Big Scary a few years ago, now there wasn’t the desire for Big Scary to be mine and in fact, there was the opposite: “How can I bring more of Jo’s voice into the band, and how can I elevate her?” Doing this somehow made the project feel more balanced to me.
We were pleasantly surprised on Daisy – only after it was finished – to realise that Jo was singing lead just as much as I was.
MF: The Big Scary drum sound is immediately recognisable, from Vacation all the way through to Me and You. It’s not just the playing, but the sonic – it’s compact, nimble but firm. Do you chase this sound? Do you know what I’m talking about?
Jo Syme: For the overall sonics I’d thank Tom, wearing his audio engineering hat. I have a tone preference for the snare – I like the wires to be really present and the skin tuned up pretty tight but not pingy.
I think the overall vibe of the drum parts is a combination from both of our tastes though – less is more definitely, but I had to learn that through a bit of direction, and also realising what was going on in bands that I love. As a drummer you really want to show off and throw in as much as you can, but then as a listener you realise that drums are really annoying and they should get out of the way and support the song.
MF: The album begins with ‘F.A’ and ends with ‘You Won’t Always’, both of which feature Jo’s lead vocals. Was this a purposeful sequencing decision? Do you think it significantly influenced the character of the album, bookending it with these songs?
Tom: This was not done intentionally, but that doesn’t mean that doesn’t carry any significance. ‘F.A’ felt like a grand opener to me and the album seemed to flow very naturally from that starting point. Hearing Jo’s ‘You Won’t Always’ at the end just melted me. I couldn’t think of a better song to the end the album, and that was about the extent of it.
All the songs on the album were sequenced largely by feel. I feel Jo bookending the album may be significant as it signals a new chapter for the band. Returning to my earlier answer, the band for me is much more about the equal partnership rather than a vehicle for my self- expression, and so I love that these tracks start and finish the album.
Big Scary – ‘Real Love’ (Live at the Brunswick Ballroom)
MF: Tom, your voice, compared to Jo’s, is more refined, sometimes solemn, sometimes a bit abstract. Whereas Jo, your voice is more relatable, grounded, familiar. For both of you, is there comfort in knowing your voices will bounce and reflect off one another in the course of an album?
Tom: Yes, and again I feel the project just now sits more comfortably in itself being the partnership that reflects both of us more evenly. There is much less ego in this band than there used to be – I’m referring to my ego here – and so there is naturally less of my personality fighting Jo’s in the songs and across the album.
MF: Me and You taps into a more conventional style of songwriting than Daisy – it’s got a number of words-and-a-tune style songs. Was the stylistic direction of the album the consequence of a negotiation? Or was one of you guiding the way towards this outcome?
Tom: The songwriting was guided largely by feel and intuition, and I guess also by where our tastes as songwriters and producers had evolved to be. Having not made any music for quite some time prior, we didn’t want to load the creation process up with caveats and vetos. We just wanted to make stuff and have fun making it – which we did, thankfully.
Personally my songwriting style has evolved to reflect a certain simplicity and efficiency, saying something with the least amount of information; a less is more type approach. I also remember wanting the songs to have a “classic” and timeless feel and I guess for these reasons a more conventional songwriting approach seemed the best fit.
Jo: We had written a lot of material all at the same time and together we toyed with different ways the songs would be released, from track listing combinations to EPs to perhaps releasing a song a week instead. But we settled on the track listing of the albums probably mostly due to the sonic palette. Daisy has no guitars and the Juno synth is the main harmonic instrument for most of the album. They’re definitely the kookier, more fun group of songs, whereas Me and You feels more earnest and tender.
MF: Is Me and You your lockdown album? And what sort of role did you play in each other’s lives during lockdown?
Tom: Was it Jo? I don’t remember.
Jo: No I wouldn’t call it a lockdown album, it was written before coco came into our lives, but we had to navigate a few isolation rules in order to finish tracking. Tom was one of the few very old friends that I saw semi-regularly during 2020/21, so he bore witness to my belly growing over nine months of pregnancy, whereas for most of my Melbourne friends it was like, poof, suddenly I had a baby at the end of lockdown, when two years before that I was just living like a ratbag in a share house. So for both of us it was nice to have a familiar face around who could check in on each other’s families and share nice, light TV recommendations.
MF: Is the relationship between the pair of you as individuals and friends, rather than simply band mates, a big motivator in getting you to make Big Scary records?
Tom: Yes, we love hanging out and making music together. I already think excitedly about the day that we will return to Phillip Island, where we always go to write initially, even though I know it may still be years away.
Jo: Well yeah, it’s playtime when we get to make music together. It’s just fun, and if we weren’t good friends it wouldn’t be as fun.
MF: The album is out through Pieater, the label you run. Of the two of you, in the lead up to Me and You, who has spent more time thinking about the possible success of the album in terms of audience engagement, ticket sales, acclaim etc?
Tom: Not me.
Jo: That would be me! Along with our manager Tom Fraser, the third and hardest working part of Pieater, I’m more hands-on in the actual rollout of albums.
MF: Of the two of you, when making the album, who spent more time fussing over little details, getting things right, perfect?
Tom: That would have to be me here. I guess being a full time producer, I did lead the charge in the studio. Jo was nearly always present and ready to contribute but also was willing to give me all the space I wanted to finesse something; whether choosing the right microphone, dialling the right synth sound, layering vocals in a certain way.
Jo: But also I feel like neither of us fussed too hard this time? Compared to earlier work where things had to be perfect – I remember crying in disappointment hearing one of our final mixes for Vacation and then six months later it didn’t matter one iota.
I think we’ve learned to let little mistakes or imperfections remain where they are. Sacrificing some perfection in the name of working quickly and with a relaxed attitude is worth it.
- Me and You by Big Scary is out on Friday, 23rd September.