Big History’s Big Balance

Big History. Photo by Patrick Quirk.

Big History. Photo by Patrick Quirk.

“Blandon and I were originally going for a folky sound,” says Matt Glynn. “Then we started using recording software that had synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines, and the sound quickly evolved into the polar opposite of what we had initially set out to do.” In these formative stages, the local indie/electro pop band Big History faced a choice: pursue a rootsy, “natural” sound, or engage the machines. Keyboard player Glynn and his band mates allowed digital technology to lead them to abandon their acoustic guitars, but they were still unsure where the journey would take them.

“We didn’t know what our sound was going to be until we recorded the first song,” adds guitarist Blandon Helgason.

It was not until the band’s digital transformation was in full swing that Big History realized what must be added to the mix to remain a step above most electronic-based pop—humanity. “When I was in White Bitch, we played to a drum machine, which was very confining,” says drummer Bret Bohnet. “The drum machine was more of the leader than the drummer. It was robotic.” While such a problem is not exactly the makings of a Matrix-like struggle between man and machine, it does make establishing the imprecise human qualities that define an infectious groove difficult, especially in a rhythm-oriented city like New Orleans. “Being a drummer in New Orleans, it’s easy to get caught up in traditional styles,” says Bohnet, “but I have always wanted to take the funkier side of all this New Orleans-influenced drumming and integrate it with electronic sounds.” In a city with such a rich culture of groove, Big History made an immediate impression on the local indie scene. “People love to dance in this town, but we’re not just someone in a DJ booth pushing a button,” says vocalist Meg Roussel. “So people are connecting with it.”

Finding humanity in electronic sounds defines Big History’s loose but propulsive club-oriented grooves. While the band’s instrumentation appears to be relatively straightforward—Glynn on keyboards, Amanda Wuerstlin on keyboards and violin, Helgason on guitar, Cory Schultz on bass, and Bohnet on drums—the application of those instruments proves to be anything but, utilizing digital technology to mold sounds. “We use computers and drum triggers to get these synthesized sounds,” says Bohnet. “My drum set is basically a sampler.” The appeal of digital sounds with human inflections led to Bohnet’s drum-based “sampler”—a unique acoustic/digital percussion hybrid that utilizes traditional drums and digital samples to give the impression of a drum machine with an actual human controlling the rhythm. “If we just had a drum machine, it would be very hard for us to exist in New Orleans,” Glynn says.

However, the band’s folk background helps it maintain a human center through the songs’ lyrics. “Meg and I cut our teeth writing folk songs, where the lyrics are the meat of the song,” says Glynn. “Now that we’re writing this beat-driven stuff, the lyrics come easily.” Big History facilitates human connection by allowing listeners to construct their own meaning from the lyrics. “I want people to find meaning in the lyrics that I don’t even know about,” adds Glynn. Ultimately, Big History realizes that the lyrics, while emotionally charged and heartfelt, are not meant to bring the party down. “It’s fun, danceable music,” says Roussel. “But when you look at it, it’s more poignant than most club music.” This notion is made possible by vocalist Meg Roussel’s sultry singing, which eschews electro pop conventions and bears a torch singer influence. “Once we started doing the pop-heavy stuff, we really wanted Meg,” says Glynn. “Her voice was fitted for this whole other style.”

Their open-ended approach to lyrics can be heard on the band’s latest single, “Wardrum”. “It’s an old-fashioned, medieval notion of war,” says Glynn. “But people think it’s about a relationship or not knowing yourself. Listeners are interpreting it their own way.” The track’s driving dance groove provides a foundation for a synthesizer symphony. “I’ve been listening to a lot of ’80s synth-revival stuff lately,” says Glynn. “The song took that route with a lot of bleeps and bloops.” Now that the band has tamed the digital beast, it is hitting its stride in writing. “Once we hit the sound we wanted, the songs started coming a lot quicker,” explains Glynn. “They are more full and fluid than before.”

“Wardrum” is from Big History’s forthcoming EP All At Once, due out at the band’s release show on November 19 at One Eyed Jacks. The EP is the culmination of the band’s efforts to show the give and take between human and machine and displays Big History’s unique voice in the local indie scene. Still, the band’s aware of the door it has opened by exploring technology. “Meg can get a laptop and fire all of us whenever she wants,” jokes Glynn.