Mixing the Momentum with the Melody – Big Bliss On Their New Album, Artistic Direction, and Bass Lines
After stopping at the Blockhouse on their tour for At Middle Distance, we caught up with the Brooklyn-based band Big Bliss to talk about their songwriting process, musical influences, and self-identity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How are you guys? How did the show last night go?
We’re doing good! We are on the way to Cincinnati. The show last night was solid, I really like that venue. Blockhouse is great. And that band Fever Dream Horror Scene? They rip, they’re really good. So yeah, it’s only the second time we’ve been there. We have been to Bloomington and we’ve played at Blockhouse before, but I think this time around we were looking for some bands that really rip. So, that was great.
What have been some of your most memorable stops on the tour so far?
Well, we are a week in on this particular tour and Chicago was amazing. But we had to do two shows in a day which was exhausting. We did this live session thing at 11 AM and getting anywhere by 11 AM while you’re on tour is surprisingly brutal! But yeah, that was great. We played at this place Burlington which was a really awesome venue on the West Side with this band Ganser. They are one of the best post-punk bands going I think, and I think everyone should listen to them. What else y’all? [asking Cory and Wallace] Oh yeah, we made the mistake of going to Taco Bell as our first meal on tour… [laughs] So, you know, we started off on either the right foot or the wrong foot depending on how you look at it. [laughs] And then we proceeded to get Taco Bell at 10 AM in Chicago before the live session we did. So our food adventures have been a little weird. But that’s kind of a part of it I guess. Grand Rapids was great! We played at this place called Pyramid Scheme which was just a beautiful venue. Our first show was in Pittsburgh at Rock Room which you can still smoke in because its a bar in Pittsburgh. So that was really weird. I felt like we were thrust back in the 90s when we walked in but amazingly, most places we’ve played have had a lot of pinball… Pinball has been important to the venues. It seems like every place has the same iron-made pinball machine. But that’s cool [laughs] I’m down with that.
I understand there was some stylistic adaptation necessary when bassist Wallace May joined up with the band. What were some of the most challenging/rewarding aspects about her playing a new genre she was not familiar with and how did you and Cory help with that transition?
Sure. So when we started the band, Cory and I had a pretty clear idea for the sound we were going for, just as, sort of, a jumping off point. I’d like to say we were using New Order – Ceremony as a roadmap for what we wanted it to sound like. But we were just writing songs as a duo so it naturally came out that I liked a little more Punk with a little more of a Rock feel. We didn’t have the bass with the chorus pedal or stuff like that but we knew what we wanted to do and it was to derive some aspects of late 70s, early 80s post-Punk. Sort of like, my favorite part of the era which was when the Cure started really doing its thing and when Joy Division transferred into New Order. Just that pocket of time right there, before they went hard into the dance stuff, which I still love. So we had a very clear target.
Then, I met Wallace. I had randomly seen her band, Young Tides, which was kind of an Americana band, and I loved it. So I approached her to record their EP, and while we were in the session she mentioned she had played bass in High School and college in what was a cover band. So, you know, she had played bass years and years ago and had just mentioned it while Cory and I were on the search for a bass player. But other than that the fact I thought Wallace was cool as shit, I didn’t really have much to go off of as far as, like, if it would be a good fit. So we made a bunch of playlists, gave them to Wallace and we were like, “just think about the bass like a guitar” because, in a trio, especially one playing post-Punk music, the leading, melodic bass is really important. But she picked it up right away. There were times in the practice room when we’d be like, “maybe that part fits too well, maybe you could make it a little more intense” and she got it right away. We hit the ground running and now we’re like writing songs off the basslines she’s bringing in so we’ve gotten over that hump of trying to figure out what we want the band to sound like. Now we are evolving it as we go as a unit, you know?
Yeah! You mention Joy Division and I‘ve heard you cite them as an influence for your music in the past as well as bands such as The Cure and Interpol. Can you tell us a little more about those influences?
Sure, yeah. Interpol was really important to us. Their first record came out when I think I was a freshman or sophomore in high school and I remember hearing it and just being like, “I didn’t know Rock music could be this… cool!” You know, dark, and cool, and still have so much melody and drama about it. I really dig it. But Joy Division was the band I heard in college that made everything click with me about what I wanted to do.
What are some examples of specific sounds from Big Bliss’ output do you think you can attribute to any of your earlier inspirations?
I mean, I think the bass playing is really important. I think Peter Hook was a pioneer of sorts in making the bass a leading instrument. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but in Rock music, there are standard formats for what each instrument does and what sonic space it takes up. But I think for us, we’re just trying to find where the melody can be within a three-piece especially. We’re trying to build interesting chords around leading bass lines and icier guitar sounds, like, I’m playing through an AC30 right now which is a famously bright sounding amp with a Telecaster. I think those sounds are really important. Everybody plays with a pick so they can get that sort of, growl, out of each instrument. Cory’s approach is to keep things pretty steady and it’s all about mixing the momentum with the melody, I guess I would say. But Peter Hook is the one individual we point to as like a player we admire and take cues from.
I hear you talk about these anthemic bass lines that are a staple in your guys’ music. Is that where you like to build off of when you approach your songwriting, recording process?
Yeah, absolutely. The way it comes together, I mean, is we write everything together in the practice room, instrumentally. So what ends up happening is while we’re all set up, Wallace will be plucking around on some bass notes and I’ll hear a certain sequence of notes that sound sort of like an embryonic version of a cool central melody. I’ll go, “wait Wallace do that again! everybody shut up!” you know [laughs]. So she’ll start repeating that, I’ll start building guitar chords around it, and then we’ll build in the drum beat. That’s kind of how it comes together because I think it’s important for the bass to be that in charge where we are almost forced to build the songs around it. But it’s cool that way, you know? It’s less about big guitar riffs and big guitar moments and stuff. It’s a collaborative process and the bass is such a huge part of it. I think the dynamics are left to Cory and I to figure out and we just kind of keep Wallace going throughout the tune. That’s how we’ve been formatting our recent stuff.
What would you say is the most significant difference or growth from your last project, Keep Near, to At Middle Distance would be?
I think At Middle Distance feels more of a complete Rock record as compared to our EP which was kind of, like, five energetic, post-Punk tunes as what we were going for that showcased the trio aspect of it. We layered some more things into this record especially on the guitar side because we felt like we had completed everything from a rhythm-section perspective and we were trying to build in textures with guitars that would sell everything as a whole better. But it’s funny because the songs are notably a bit darker and a little more intense than Keep Near was. Keep near had more of a pop lean, you know? But this record feels more complete to me. It feels like a complete record front to back. It’s like the songs were written in a batch and they all kind of make sense. It’s definitely a bigger Rock record than our earlier stuff. But that’s also why, when we can, we’ve been playing with another guitar player. My partner Ana, who plays in a Brooklyn band Fruit & Flowers, has been playing guitar with us and it helps. I think we are realizing how massively we made and produced these songs versus the tautness of Keep Near. I guess that’s the biggest difference. Things opened up a little bit, got a little bigger, a little more anthemic and epic. But I think we really like playing things live like that.
Absolutely. Hearing you mention a lot of these songs being darker than some of your past ones, I have a question about the cover art. How does the striking, unique cover for At Middle Distance capture some of the themes present in the album such as emotional distance and the trials of personal relationships?
Well, Ana did the cover art. We had no one concepts whatsoever for the cover art after we had finished the record. For some reason, there was just a block and I couldn’t picture what I wanted. So, she took this picture of me in our living room and we’re, like, holding a work light underneath her cell phone. I had done the vocals at home and wrote all the lyrics at home and I would talk with her often about what the themes were and I would run lyrics and vocal takes by her, so she was a central part of the record being made. She was so supportive and such a huge part of the process as a whole that she really understood what we were trying to say. So, she took this picture of me and then two hours later I came back and she had, you know, superimposed a flipped version of it, or however you would describe it. There were a lot of themes about the reflection of identity and, like, the duality of your projected self versus your actual self, so she thought the mirrored aspect communicated that well. She made this image and we were like, “oh that’s cool! Its kind of creepy, kind of statuesque,” and there’s also this aspect of being frozen in thought feeling with the way she textured the face. But she thought something was missing so she found this diagram of what happens with sound reverberation when you project it against a wall. Again, this is another mention of the reflective qualities of the record, the mix between the introspection and the societal critique we were trying to get at. So she put that over the face and it all made sense from there. I really love it. And then, on the inside, there’s like a poster version of Cory and Wallace’s faces which makes it super cool [Laughs]. So yeah that’s how it came across. She could probably describe it much better because she put a lot of thought into how it actually communicated the themes of the record. I feel like it does that really effectively in an abstract way.
Do you have any plans for the next direction of Big Bliss after the tour you can give us a few hints about?
Yeah, we have a bunch of stuff we want to do. We’re gonna tour some more next year and do some festivals and stuff like that, hopefully with a consistent fourth member. But, we are also writing right now and planning to record as soon as we can. I can’t speak to what that release would end up being, whether it would be an EP or LP or whatever just yet, but we definitely have another record of some sort under our belt that we’re working on and really stoked about. We’re stoked about the new tunes. I think they are heading in a cool direction that brings more light into things. We’re trying to pack the hooks in and stuff and we are really excited about it. So that’s what we got on our plate.
That is very exciting to hear!
Yeah man, we want to release something as quickly as possible but we tend to, you know, ruminate over things [Laughs]. But hopefully, we get it out soon.
Thank you so much for doing this. Good luck in Cincinnati!
Thanks, dude! Thanks so much for having us.