BIG|BRAVE interview: "None of us played the way we do now before this band. We're continually developing and surprising ourselves."
Last Friday Montreal trio BIG|BRAVE put out their third album Ardor. Across the album’s three extended tracks (between 12 and 16 minutes each) they present a hyper-sensitive and visceral version of doom rock. With plundering guitar riffs and extended moments of tension-filled placidity, the tracks on Ardor weave an intricate and unpredictable path, taking the listener down shrouded alleys and out into snow-bright, frostbiting vistas. It’s an album that will receive diverse comparisons, each as accurate yet insufficient as the next, as BIG|BRAVE slough off the shackles of any particular scene or sound by combining their diverse skill sets into a truly collaborative melting pot.
Naturally, when the opportunity arose to speak to the band, I wanted to get to the bottom of how music this organic yet incomparable came about. I got to speak to Robin Wattie and Mathieu Ball in Montreal via Skype, as they were readying for heading out in tour in support of Ardor.
What has changed since the last album; did you know you would end up making an album comprising just three extended tracks?
Mathieu: We were definitely starting to get more and more comfortable with longer and longer songs, so we probably knew we were going in that direction. Every time we make an album we tend to focus on the stronger points of the previous album, and so the longer songs are what spoke to us the most, so we decided to focus on that.
Did your creative process change?
Mathieu: It's the same; the more you work on stuff the more you kind of develop new techniques and you figure out different ways of making new and more interesting sounds. It's just kind of like gradual continuation, I don't think there's a conscious will to do it differently. It just evolves.
Where do the songs originate? Does one of you bring an idea, or is it always all three of you?
Robin: Usually Matt just spends a lot of time in a space experimenting, and he comes up with a skeleton or a general idea; something simple enough to work on. Then I'll come in and we'll sort of play ping pong with the idea and then form it together.
Mathieu: It's quite layered the way it happens. Usually it starts off with a pretty basic and bare idea and we just add some loud amps and feedback over it until it's a BIG|BRAVE song.
Do you ever find yourselves working on a long song and then thinking "we've taken a wrong turn somewhere, we need to go back and figure it out"?
Robin: Oh yes, for sure. Sometimes we develop a whole song and it's pretty close to completion and we scrap most of it and restart, or just drop it completely. But lately, because we're sort of figuring out more what we like and what we are sort of working towards sonically, we scrap less. We're getting better at listening to what we're doing.
Mathieu: It's also not super linear all the time There have been songs on this record where we came up with the end first and then moved backwards. All three songs are kind of each in three sections, so we kind of work on one section, add another and then put it all together. Then once we've put everything together we have to revisit the first part because it doesn't make so much sense with the end anymore. Usually it's two to three main ideas for a song, then make a collage out of that.
It sounds like a very patient form of songwriting; do you ever get frustrated or impatient?
Robin: [Laughs] Yes!
Mathieu: It takes a long time. It's almost too long. But like Robin was saying, we're getting quicker at it, but it's also very slow music, so you can't rush things. We're working on new songs now, since we finished Ardor, and I think it's going even better. The stuff we do, there's no guiding force so you just gotta follow through it. Hopefully our next record will come out in a year, not two years.
Do you ever play work in progress songs live, or do you always finish in the studio first?
Robin: How it worked, before Au De La, we had Feral Verdure, and once we finished that album we had already written a bunch more songs that we wanted to get going. After Au De La it was the same. So we were lucky enough to be able to finish them, but also listen to them all when we played live to see how it sounds before recording. Like we were saying, we're getting better at honing in on what we do that's worth striving for.
Mathieu: The songs on this record, some of them we've been playing for a while, and they've changed quite drastically. And even though the album is coming out now, it's been recorded for a while, and we've played some shows and we're playing them a bit differently. Every time we play these songs I think they'll keep changing; they'll never be exactly like the recording. There's room for improvisation in some of the parts, so it ends up changing the songs slightly. I guess it's always a work-in-progress. Recording is a pretty good document, but it's not going to prevent us from keep changing it if it needs changing.
It's a pretty atypical drumming position to have; Louis wasn't originally in the band, right?
Mathieu: Yeah, in the beginning it was just Robin and me, but also at the beginning the music wasn't like this, it was a very different band.
Robin: And even when Louis joined it was very different. It was more traditional sort of beats.
Mathieu: I think the drumming and the way that we play the guitars is all something that evolved together. None of us actually played our instruments the way we do now before this band, it's like its developed for BIG|BRAVE, which we will continue developing. That's why it's new to us. We're surprising ourselves, like "cool! We can do this?"
Robin: He didn't show up playing like this, we developed that together.
Yeah, there's some extended periods where there's no drums at all or very minimal; so you've felt it out together?
Robin: I think that goes back to Mathieu and I sort of when we're in the space together sort of reworking songs and figuring those out, those are usually sort of figured out prior to all of us playing. Then we feel it out as a band together, to see if it works, and then we usually sort of problem solve, for the lack of a better word.
Mathieu: But Louis also definitely isn't one of those drummers who'd be pissed off because he can't play for 5 minutes. I think everyone is happy to step back if that's what's required. No one's feelings are hurt if they don't get the chance to show off. And it makes the whole thing much more dynamic.
When you have collaborators coming in, like Thee Silver Mt. Zion’s Jessica Moss on violin, do you guide them? How does it work?
Mathieu: With Jessica, she's played on both Au De La and Ardor, and we practice a few weeks before going to the studio, and most of the time she just comes up with stuff on her own and it's really great and we all just look at each other and are blown away. Instantaneously it works. Then in the studio she'll usually do more than is needed, then she'll leave - she's not there for the editing - and she'll say "cut me out if you want" or "leave me where it makes sense" so we just kind of cut and paste and use her contribution in that way. But the stuff she comes up with is all on her own. The same with Thierry [Amar of Godspeed You! Black Emperor] who plays double bass on the record.
Robin: It's that level of professionalism that they have where they can just listen to a piece once, and then kind of needle and figure something out on the spot, and it's usually better than we could imagine.
Mathieu: Yeah, that's why it's so much fun to have those guys play.
Robin, your voice isn't the typical voice that goes with these kind of doomy sounds; what do you guys like about that clash?
Robin: It's kind of funny because we never really set out to play any particular style of music, it just kind of worked out that way. The singing is just my voice! But I was the singer from the beginning, so we all wanted to go in this direction this together - whatever that was, we still don't know - but it's still with the assumption that it's going to be my voice. So it was never sort of a planned thing that we're going to play this doomy type music and have non-traditional doom-type vocals. It was a very, very organic way of going about anything. It's just the voice I have.
Mathieu: If we had known we were going to be heavy band it might have been different, but these are just the tools we have. I realise that it is a contrast, but I don't even think about it much.
Robin: I never really thought about it either. I never thought about that culture up until this album when people bring it up. It's interesting because you're learning things about your own music through other people.
Do you write all the lyrics, Robin? How important are they to the sound?
Robin: I write them all. They're definitely important in the way that they are executed. I write the melody first, before I write the lyrics. Any sounds that come out that sound good with what we're doing musically, I try to write words that will complement the music as well - the sound of each word, which is a challenge, but it's a happy challenge. The actual meaning behind the words could be personally important, but I also try to make them as vague as possible so that if anyone else hears them they can have their own interpretation.
The lyrics on something like 'Lull' seem quite personal, as you said. You keep referring to Marlene, is that a real person?
Robin: Yeah, she was. She was my great grandma who passed away. She was one of my soulmates; just one of the best people I've ever met in my entire life. I was very lucky to meet her, because she's not even blood.
Mathieu: That's great though, that you asked if she's a real person, because that's maybe the one song where it's a bit more obvious what it's about, but in the context of the other songs it's like "maybe it's a made up character," which I think is pretty interesting.
There's a bit in 'Lull' where Louis sings with you; how do you decide which parts to both sing?
Robin: That usually comes about after, when everything's done. It's like "Louis where do you want to sing? What do you think would sound good?" and we all kind of figure it out together.
Mathieu: He really likes singing, he'd probably sing even more.
Robin: But he's really shy too, to write vocals. He's very self-conscious about his voice, but he has a great voice.
Mathieu: It's always fun to have that pop in once in a while.
Robin: It's also nice to have a different type of vocal, I've always found that to be interesting, especially because my voice isn't always easy to listen to I find [laughs].
Yeah, it's not used too much, so it's definitely very noteworthy when it happens.
Let's talk about 'Sound'; the lyrics are very bloody and gothic, what was the seed for that one?
Robin: That's like a conversation; like talking to very, very frustrating people [laughs]. Whether they're real people, or people you could never talk to, like, let's say Trump. If you wanted to put a meaning to it, it could be about perception, communication and just the lack of willingness that some people have to take a moment and gain perspective about their actions or inactions in creating a shitty environment for other people I guess you could say [laughs].
I wanted to ask about the end of the album, where you forcefully repeat "I am immune/ I am protected." It's so powerful that I almost don't want to ruin the magic, but is there anything you're particularly envisioning there?
Robin: Yeah, actually at the point of writing that there was a lot going on in terms of my personal experiences being a female and navigating the world and especially the music industry, where it's male-dominated.
Mathieu: Especially heavy music.
Robin: That's not to say that there aren't very nice men that I have come across; I've been reasonably lucky. But at the same time it’s about frustration not just through the music industry, but through my life and watching a lot of my female friends get hurt and be frustrated about not being heard and needing to find the strength within themselves to continue, to maintain a certain level of normalcy, without becoming completely run-down by actually how hard it is to function as a female sometimes. Because it can suck! So the "I am immune/ I am protected" is sort of like a mantra, like "I can protect myself... I can be immune to these things; I don't have to let them get to me." If we can all sort of harness that strength within us, we'd probably help ourselves make a safer environment. That's sort of the gist of it; it was just me needing to find that inner strength to carry on.
You guys have toured with the likes of A Silver Mt. Zion, Low, Kim Gordon; do you have any particular lessons you learned from those experiences?
Robin: I have to say the level of professionalism in terms of knowing what you need as a musician to convey your craft the best way you can. And knowing your band mates and how they work professionally. A lot of the stuff we learned was actually just learning through each other.
Mathieu: Through all these tours with other people and seeing them do it night after night, it's all been great preparation for us also. It's fun and all, but they're long days and they can get annoying, but you see how people plough through it and what you have to do just to keep your sanity. It's just wonderful to see all these people doing this; this is their life and it's very inspiring.
Robin: It's affirming watching them do their thing, because it's not easy touring. It's long days, it can be very trying, you're never alone - unless you're in the toilet or taking a shower. So watching them navigate those troubles to do what they love to do is inspiring.
Mathieu: I think we've been lucky that with all those groups you mentioned they all seem to be genuinely enjoying this. Sometimes you see a touring band and you think "why are you doing this?" For these people to have been doing this for so long and still be happy about it is great. They're doing it for the right reasons.
Do you have a bucket list band you'd like to tour with?
Mathieu: I'd love to do a tour with The Dirty Three. I've seen them a lot and it's such an explosive show. I think it would be really fun to do something with them. Two years ago I'd have said Sunn O))), but we did that!
Robin: Ahh! It was great!!
What is the most exciting thing about releasing this new album?
Mathieu: I'm very excited for people to hear it, because it's like it's coming out this week, but for us it's been done for such a long time. I was bummed out that it wasn't really exciting for a while, but now I'm seeing people are receiving it and there's nice reviews, it's really amazing. I'm really just happy to have it out there. So that and then all the touring.
Robin: Yeah, I can't wait! I can't waaaaaaiiiiit. Touring is the best thing. Any chance we get we like to explore and walk around and eat all the foods [laughs].
BIG|BRAVE’s Ardor is out now on Southern Lord.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 19th September 2017.