Interview by Brett Myers.
Big White, a five-piece Australian band, is a shit ton of fun. At least, to listen to. I didn’t get to catch them during their first U.S. tour in 2016 in support of their debut album, Teenage Dreams. An infamous tour that landed them 11 shows in a row in NYC while almost burning down another venue and getting thrown out of their own green room in the Lower East Side due to a surprise set from Green Day.
In theory, they should be just another youthful, by the books rock band, singing about the beach and falling in love in the music scene. But what they have that so many other similar bands never appreciate is joy. A sense of joy that we’ve all felt at the right rock show, but we lost in our attempts to look cool and unbothered. And in a political climate that weighs down on our psyche harder and harder every day, isn’t joyful art just as important as the political?
They’ll be back this weekend on March 9 and March 10 and you better believe I won’t miss them. Especially with their newest high-energy jams like “On and On” and “How Did You Find Out.” These singles precede their sophomore album, Street Talk, due on March 30, and I caught up with their frontman, Jack Wotton, just before their nearly day-long flight to discuss the new album and the Australian music scene.
What’s been the “mission statement” of Big White since its inception?
To create music that educates, informs and inspires.
A lot of the press mentions how versatile your music is and the very wide range of influences you guys put into Teenage Dreams. In particular, going from “Never Dare” to “Dinosaur City” to “What Happens In The Night” is like a tour through a few decades of music. Do you guys have an affinity for a particular era or genre of music? Is there a difference between the music you love to listen to and the music you want to play?
You’re right. We are pretty cosmopolitan when it comes to what turns us on. Each era has its winners, no doubt, so it’d be tricky to say. The late 70’s and early 80’s was a great time for Australian and New Zealand music. Radio Birdman, The Go-Betweens, The Birthday Party, The Triffids, The Clean, The Chills, The Sunnyboys…the list goes on. It’s hard not to feel an artistic affinity to those bands despite our own music coming to life in a different millennium.
As a five-piece band, there’s got to be a ton of different references and inspirations. What are some of the ones that you were unaware of previously or that were surprising to you?
There’s not much the individuals in Big White can surprise me with. We are all Dylan heads at the end of the day, but there was a lot going on when we were writing Street Talk. Cody was deep into Chicago House, Nick was inspired by the clarinet, Bowen was listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye or Tom Waits, Elmo was dancing to Grace Jones, and myself. And this goes for all of us. We’re pumping a lot of Tom Petty.
With all of this talk of references and what you guys sound like, do you think rock music has an issue with nostalgia? What acts out there make great music and avoid sounding like the past?
Oh, yeah, it does for sure. Sometimes, I feel like touring is no different to the Antiques Roadshow or, sometimes, I even find myself asking how is what I do any different to that of a Civil War era marcher? I think it’s impossible to call yourself an artist and not acknowledge your family tree. Artists come from artists. In terms of what sounds new, there is plenty. I think Young Thug is doing something quite original with his voice, especially on “RiRi.” It’s about doing something that’s not boring, right? A fresh take on whats good.
Just between “On and On” and “How Did You Find Out,” the new tracks are already so incredibly different but still feel genuinely Big White. What was Teenage Dreams trying to say versus what Street Talk wants to say?
I think Teenage Dreams serves as an initial statement of “this what we do,” both for ourselves and whoever listens to us, that we are a band that plays a bunch of different stuff. Street Talk is owning that again with something bigger and bolder. We are a group comprised of different voices so there’s no point hiding that. It’s something we’re proud of.
I also have to specifically ask about “On and On.” I haven’t been able to stop playing it since I heard it on Alt Citizen. It’s a simple song, but it has such incredible energy and I’ve been so excited to hear it live. Tell me about what went into “On and On,” especially being the first release after Teenage Dreams.
That one just came out of nowhere about three days before we took off out of Sydney and set up the studio for a month straight of recording. Cody started on his diatribe in overdrive and the band powered on. We wrote it in about half an hour and decided then and there it was going to be on the album. It’s one of our favorites to play.
The Australian acts that blow up here tend to lean toward pop like Sia, Betty Who, Flume, Kylie Minogue, etc and luckily there are more rock musicians getting bigger like Tame Impala, Courtney Barnett, and Alex Lahey. Who’s not getting enough international attention in Australia?
The pop acts you mentioned are better really. That’s a tough one because there are way too many decisive factors at play when it comes to who is and isn’t getting attention. Everyone you have mentioned has worked hard for what they’ve got and however they have gotten lucky overseas only they and the gods of the transatlantic music industry have the answer for. I’d love to see more of my friends’ bands make it abroad. Doing that comes down to simply making connections and sending emails and, most importantly, spending your last paycheck booking those flights while they’re cheap.
I feel like musicians in the States can be very over the top and flowery. And when I look at Australian acts like the aforementioned Courtney Barnett and Alex Lahey and you guys, the music is very pure within its genre and a bit in your face in the best way possible. As artists and listeners, how do people think about or approach music in Australia?
I wouldn’t know and I can’t speak for everyone. The acts you mentioned are pretty straight up with what they do. But there are still plenty of artists who are a bit tricky. I like the optimism in the American landscape for wearing your heart on your sleeve. In Australia, if you want to go for it and want to retain some sort of integrity, then an ironic approach is somehow qualified. I guess with a sense of standing on the outside looking in, we know a lot more about American culture than the U.S. does us. So, for Americans, I can’t help but see why we wouldn’t come across as anything but up front or interesting.
Visually, there’s definitely been a change in your music videos. The videos for “Dinosaur City” and “What Happens In The Night” were super lo-fi and managed to be dark and colorful at the same time. The video for “How Did You Find Out” is still lo-fi but very bright, beachy, and more serene. Was that darkness with the older videos reflective of anything back then and is that newfound brightness an intentional change?
We’ve always had fun with our videos. Most of them are of us just hanging out. We think we’ll go big with this next one. Maybe a movie.