Some bands just land in your orbit at the perfect time. We’ve all experienced this scenario.
Arriving in 2014 with their debut album, Feral Verdure, Montreal’s BIG|BRAVE (Robin Wattie – vocals, guitar, bass and Mathieu Ball – guitar) have spent the last seven years refining their sound and, like all good artists, finding new ways to enhance their art.
The band’s road to Damascus moment came in 2018 with A Gaze Among Them – yet another acolyte to enter the broad-church of experimental heavy music.
With tracks such as Holding Pattern and Body Individual, BIG|BRAVE unleashed a sonic storm of nuclear proportions with carefully sculptured riffs, tearing jerking tones and hypnotic repetition.
It was hard to imagine the band emulating A Gaze Among Them, the kind of album that exudes a quality that is generally only captured within a certain space and time.
In 2019, Wattie and Ball welcomed drummer, Tasreen Hudson, into the fold and on VITAL, BIG|BRAVE‘s follow-up and fifth long-player, the throbbing, monolithic slabs of noise slowly seep into your bones. It not only matches its predecessor, it transcends it.
Look no further than the humid, dynamic intensity showcased on lead single, Half Breed. One of the finest songs released in 2021 and perhaps the best thing BIG|BRAVE have cut, thus far.
Half Breed follows the belching opener, Abating the Incarnation of Matter, and alongside the cauldron of anguish in Of This Ilk and the barnstorming closing title track, these songs make VITAL a pivotal journey and one that won’t slip from the conscience anytime soon.
BIG|BRAVE make the kind of music that drags you into the vortex. Unlike most albums, VITAL also has the ability to pull you out of that very vortex. The tones instantly bruise, the rhythms crush like a vice while their hypnotic heaviness reaches new terrains in the world of psychedelia. It creates those burgeoning juxtapositions. Down-trodden yet uplifting. Ugly yet beautiful.
The rolling, multi-layered waves of sound can be attributed to producer, Seth Manchester, who has extracted a renewed vigour alongside BIG|BRAVE.
Continuing their alliance from A Gaze Among Them, with VITAL, both band and producer combine for a lethal collaboration of dark intensity, naked reality and sonic purity. Containing tones that could launch tremors through oak, it’s the finest metal album of 2021 and not much will beat it if we’re perfectly honest with ourselves.
Like most during the COVID-19, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for BIG|BRAVE, with Wattie, Ball and Hudson losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Like many, the band has relied on Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit. Like most benefits, it has helped a lot of people but not everyone, confirmed Wattie when we sat down to talk over Zoom last week.
Despite this, the band pressed on and indeed, that ceaseless march continues.
A band conjuring up such a subversive, feral spasm of noise, I wasn’t sure whether Wattie would be forthcoming in revealing much about the semantics of BIG|BRAVE, preferring to hide behind the undercurrents of drone her band so gloriously assembles.
I couldn’t have been further from the truth. A bright, affable conversationalist, if anything talking to Wattie was like catching up with a long lost friend over a beer.
So much so that we decided to run the transcript in full.
Sun 13: VITAL sounds like BIG|BRAVE’s most aggressive work to date. Would you agree?
Robin Wattie: “That I can attest to. Definitely.”
S13: It has a slow burning quality to it. Where A Gaze Among Them felt instantaneous, VITAL takes a bit more time to sink in, but that has the ability to reward the listener more, too. Was that something you were thinking about when recording?
RW: “I think it’s actually a bit of a common thread in all of our albums we write. It’s an accident, we don’t tend to do that on purpose, but a lot of the feedback we get is, and increasingly more with every album, that it is a slow burn and it is hard to listen and you can’t grab onto it as easily - you do have to listen to it over and over to get a better grasp of it. It’s not intentional, but it’s definitely something that seems to happen and that’s fine. I kind of like it because you have to listen actively, not passively.”
S13: That probably lends itself to bands like yourselves having maybe that cult status - that group of listeners who are prepared to give the music time and as an artist, I guess you would prefer that core following rather than listeners who casually listen to music in the background…
RW: “Yeah. It’s really lovely and gratifying. For one, we never expected to have any followers. We were doing this because we just wanted to write this music and then people grabbed onto it and we have this consistent core group of people waiting for the next thing, which is so touching and validating. I don’t know… when you put things out there, you’d be happy if a person can get something out of it. But if there’s more than one person, (laughs) it’s really nice.
“I’m just happy if people like it and put it on in whichever way they want to listen to it, whether it’s passive or actively. But I would say to fully appreciate our music, it’s an active listen.”
S13: Were all of these songs written during lockdown?
RW: “Yes, they were. It was because of lockdown that we were able to write. The whole band decided to isolate together but separately so that we could go and spend six months in the practice space, safely and comfortably.”
S13: With regards to the writing process, it feels like the lyrics come before the music. I get the impression that you spend a lot of time playing until you find that right tone to work around your words?
RW: “Yeah. It kind of works both ways where I do spend a lot of time on the lyrics. As a habit, or a need, I write separate to the band. I have short stories that will never get published, it’s really just for me personally.
“I’m constantly writing then when it comes time to think about writing the album as a whole then I glean from what I’ve already written and what I’m currently writing in the moment, because with writing, it takes time and things happen from the first practice date to the day of recording.
“So yeah, it’s a little bit of what you said and a little bit of… finding the right set of words for each song that fits best. A lot of the time right up to when I’m about to record the vocals I’m reworking just so it sounds right and it fits.”
S13: So the short stories that you write. Do you cherry-pick from those or are your lyrics totally different to your short stories?
RW: “I only write what I know and what I know is my reality. I don’t have many short stories and it’s not just them. Some of it is just me rambling and getting things out there and maybe I’d go back to it and make it more coherent.
“So some of it is from my short stories because there might be a string of words that sound lovely or would work very well in a song, but it usually comes from, like… vomiting words onto paper and then I might rearrange them into a short story then I might take that and switch it into a song, or leave it as is.”
S13: In the left-of-centre metal community, over the last couple of years existential dread seems to be a common theme, but a song like Half Breed feels like your most political song. What was the thinking behind it?
RW: “Well… it was a decision that I made when I first read those words by Alexander Chee - they are not my words, it’s an excerpt from his autobiography, How to Write An Autobiographical Novel.
“When I read those words they resonated with me so deeply that I knew I wanted to do something more with these particular words. Then when it came time to make the album, without me consciously doing it, I decided to take these words and put them into a song because they so eloquently described my reality from ever since I could remember.
“To speak in conversation I’m not as eloquent as I am in writing. But even in writing, I couldn’t say it so perfectly, so the thinking behind it was I actually just wanted to get this out there because sadly our reality now is pretty violent. It always has been, but it’s at the forefront now and what angers me is that I had to feel…
“I think the thinking behind it was that I wanted to talk about it. This is a reality that I don’t get to talk about with many people. My lyrics always have broadly to do with observations and people around me and how they navigate the world and how I navigate the world.
“To put it very simply, and this is very basic - why do people have to be so mean? is what it comes down to and asking those existential questions, just feeling the weight of the world in existence.
“I’ve always shied away from being very explicit with my lyrics because I didn’t feel like I could take up that kind of space, but now I’m in a time where I think, ’fuck it, I’m going to take up this space and talk about my reality a little more explicitly’. So I think it was about being okay with that.”
S13: Going back to the metal scene, a lot of artists don’t express that reality like you have. I think there’s a lot of unintentional hiding because a lot of people in this space are very shy people by default, preferring to bury themselves in their art. Half Breed feels like it’s taken its own direction in this space…
RW: “I was a bit worried about being that explicit, too, because, as you aptly put it, especially in the metal scene, we’re like tender-hearted, shy folk, for the most part, right?”
RW: “And that really resonated with me when we started playing these shows, when we got signed to Southern Lord the whole metal community… I really got a sense of that. And yeah, I used to do that. I used to do that until A Gaze Among Them, just like, ’I’ll hide in metaphors and let people glean what they can from it’. That’s also good, too, because I don’t want to ostracise anybody. But thank you for that - it’s very encouraging because it scared the shit out of me.” (laughs)
S13: Abating the Incarnation of Matter. Talking earlier about aggression and it really sets the tone for the album.
RW: “This was the first time I started to explore the idea of living versus not living. Taking your existence into your own hands. Like with a lot of people across the world, depression and suicide is all too common.
“It’s basically about that and being able to… it’s pretty vague, I am hiding behind metaphors but the thinking behind it has to do with that and has to do with that deep frustration that most feel when they are in the throes of the darkest place they’ve ever been in. We don’t want to be or mean to be…”
S13: It just happens…
RW: “Exactly. So it’s kind of like that.”
S13: With BIG|BRAVE‘s aesthetic, there’s a vibe that each of you come from vastly different musical backgrounds. Is this the case?
RW: “Very much so. Our new drummer, well for two years now [Tasreen Hudson], she comes from more of a… I don’t know what to call this type of music anymore (laughs). Like, a lot of independent singer-songwriters, like a dream-pop background. She’s a prominent musician, – everything she touches she just knows how to play. She has a beautiful wispy voice and the music that she comes up with is like these beautiful melodies. Not mainstream pop but very much beside that.
“Whereas I come from… I’ve never played in any other band than BIG|BRAVE and I’ve taught myself guitar before I started playing and kept teaching myself as I went along. My choice of music that I gravitate towards is usually like all-timey, bluegrass, soul and R&B. Don’t get me wrong, I need heavy music (laughs). I need to listen to it.
“Mathieu is from a string of math rock bands. He played in a lot of those bands. He also listens to everything. Except we all don’t listen to mainstream pop…”
RW: “I listen to more hip-hop than them. But yeah, very very different.”
S13: Odd statement, but I’ll put this to you…
RW: “Do it!”
S13: BIG|BRAVE has to be one of the best band names out there…
RW: “Really? Do you think so?”
S13: It has to be. Perhaps even tattoo material. What’s the inspiration behind it?
RW: (Laughs) “Wow. That’s so nice to hear. I often think about our name. I get shy about it. It’s hard to have perspective [of your own name].
“The inspiration behind it was actually… solely to do with the fact that, for me, it took a lot of courage to play music in general, because I was self-taught then I met Mathieu and he’s prolific. He basically taught me that if it sounds good then that’s all it needs to be.
“But then to play shows, to take up that space that I’d never taken up before to go from folk-ey ambient living room music to really loud heavy music, for me personally it took so much courage to not just do it, but then to keep doing it then to feel okay doing it then to feel confident in it. So, it was really my way of saying this takes a lot of courage, ’Hi! This takes a lot of courage’ (laughs). That’s what it came from.”
S13: Seth Manchester and BIG|BRAVE seem like the perfect fit. How important was his involvement for VITAL?
RW: “Yes. Crucial. With ‘Gaze’, it was the first time we’d worked together, so there was a learning curve. We wanted him specifically because of how he pushes recordings to whole other levels. With him, there are no wrong things to do. He’s super technical, don’t get me wrong, but he’ll push and push and keep working things out and do absolutely anything he can think of to create a sound or a texture, and that was our modus operandi from the beginning, so to see that it was great.
“But then after recording that, we got a good sense of how he worked. Then we became friends and anytime we were playing a show around where he lived he’d always come see us and that also gave him a sense of what we were intending to do in our recording, because our recordings don’t do the music justice. Like, if you really want to understand what we do you have to see us live because it doesn’t translate nearly as well.
“But with Seth he’s able to really push the recording medium to as close as possible to what we do live. Because live, you feel it in your bones - it becomes a full sensory experience, but with recording there can be moments of stiffness and static which isn’t always great, but with him he’s able to pull the best out of us.
“Mathieu always says it’s BIG|BRAVE and Seth Manchester, basically. If we were to list members of the band he would be included because we wouldn’t translate the same way if it wasn’t for Seth.”
S13: I didn’t think you could get any louder than A Gaze Among Them, but listening to that and VITAL back-to-back and I would say VITAL is more immersive and loud.
RW: “I know, right?”
S13: Was that something you and Seth thought about before recording?
RW: “We didn’t even talk about it. It was a given. We were just pushing it. He’s constantly pushing it forward. I know that if and when we record another album with him it’s going to go further. I just know it because that’s how he works. He’s constantly thinking of newer, or better, or older ways of actually doing that. He’s phenomenal.”
S13: I was thinking about artists and producers doing a trilogy of albums. The notable one is High On Fire and Kurt Ballou. BIG|BRAVE and Seth Manchester have to do the trilogy…
RW: “We can’t do two, I agree. It feels unfinished and there’s momentum. There’s more to do and it would be kind of like, running then being halted on the edge of a cliff.” (laughs)
S13: Going back to the aesthetic and I would say that there’s very much a hypnotic heaviness attached to your music. But I would also say that it’s taking the idea of psychedelia to an extreme. What are your thoughts about that?
RW: “Totally unintentional. We’ve got that before and I think it comes down to the hypnotism that you’re speaking of because we have these, not necessarily rolling rhythms, but they are very basic and we stretch them out as long as we can take it. It’s easy to fall into that and actually… space out, like going into a trance.
“But totally. We’ve never set out to do that, but it’s exactly right. When I listen back, I feel that, too, and even playing, we go into our own universe, the three of us, and occasionally one of us looks out and are like, ‘Fuck they are watching us!’ But it’s easy to do.”
S13: It’s almost like this tribal minimal music.
RW: “Right, we get that a lot, too.”
S13: It’s probably not unlike Sunn O)))…
RW: “It’s true, the first time I heard them live I could have pissed my pants! Because you feel it and depending on the notes they are playing you feel it on different parts of your body. It completely overtakes you. Then there’s the smoke, which adds to the whole experience. I was vibrating so much that I couldn’t tell whether I needed to pee or not.” (laughs).
S13: The title track ends VITAL emphatically. Was it an easy decision to finish the album with this song? It feels like the right ending.
RW: “You think so?”
S13: Yeah, for sure.
RW: “It was on the feeling of it. It felt important to end it there. It was so easy to string these songs together then when we realised VITAL was the last song, we were like, ’Fuck’ (laughs). I think it was a bit of a happy accident but definitely felt right [to end it there].”
S13: Montreal has always struck me as an eclectic music scene, but not one that showcases a lot of metal, at least to the outsider. How much does the local landscape influence BIG|BRAVE?
RW: “I think it heavily influences us, even in ways we don’t understand. Subconsciously. With Mathieu specifically, too, because he was playing shows at a young age and he dove head first into music and would see every show possible. He still does. He observes it and breathes it in and I know it definitely influenced him. Me, too, by way of seeing shows. Not being formally trained at all, it just opens up the world to you and what you can do.
“I remember the first time I heard a Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] album - I was a teenager. I didn’t know you could do this! I also grew up on the radio so was like, ’What the fuck, this is amazing!’ Definitely, it influences us directly and indirectly.
“I know Efrim from Godspeed has been so generous to us with his time. It felt like he was basically our protector. He was like, ’I just wanna make sure you’re okay. Don’t worry about this, this and this. Just focus on THAT!’ We were like, ’Okay…’
“Because of him, it opened up the world to us because he invited us to open for Godspeed and Thee Silver Mt. Zion and that was the catalyst for us. People were like, ’Who’s this band?’ and we were like, ’We’re just a bunch of kids!’ (laughs)
“So for me the influence is not just musically or the possibilities, but also the generosity that these heavyweights of music, in Montreal specifically, were just showing us which was so motivating and encouraging.
“So I took that in and like the heavy scene… because Montreal has such a huge population, we’re on an island, so we basically live on top of each other. There is something for everyone but it’s pretty separate. You will get some bleed but people never really… with the heavy metal shows, I worked at bar for a long time and I would only ever see these people at these shows but with the more experimental, post-rock kinds of communities, there was more bleed. So going back to Mathieu diving into every show, unless you are actively seeking out everything, you kind of live in your own bubble. Which isn’t the best with regards to the approach to music.
“I know there’s a city in Alberta, Edmonton, where everyone saw everyone’s show. It was just a given and it was very community based and supportive. Not to say that it isn’t like that here in Montreal, but because there is a ’cool’ and ‘scene’ culture here it kind of overshadows the people that are trying to make music with heart (laughs).
“Unless you don’t make cool music… like we didn’t get any attention from anyone until Efrim. We knew that he didn’t have an opener for one of their shows, so we asked and he was like, ’Okay, open for us’ and that was it. Like we were totally there by luck and timing but because of that people started paying us attention, we’re so fucking lucky.”
S13: So Efrim was the catalyst. How did signing to Southern Lord come up?
RW: “Well, we did the same thing. ’Dear Lord, we just recorded an album with Efrim from Godspeed, here’s a private link to our album’. And by fluke, because Greg [Anderson - Southern Lord founder and member of Sunn O)))] gets hundreds of those emails a day and it was like, pure fucking luck. He opened his emails and was like, ’Oh, I kind of like it, let’s have a chat.”
S13: It was the band name…
RW: (Laughs) “Maybe! Pure fucking luck.”
VITAL is out now via Southern Lord available on CD/streaming now. Vinyl copies of VITAL arrives on July 9. Purchase/Pre-order from Bandcamp.