Growth Spurts: Sitting Down With BIG Something’s Nick MacDaniels
Late last year, North Carolina’s BIG Something released their second studio album, self-titled, a sweeping panorama of magic, matching their name and style. Everything about BIG Something radiates like a night sky. Their live shows and serious touring schedule ¬-have brought much acclaim, whether it be the backbone of Ben Vinogard on drums and Doug Marshall on bass, or whether it be the trading melody and solo virtuosos of Casey Cranford on sax and Jesse Hensley on lead guitar. Or it might be Nick MacDaniels, the cool, easygoing singer and guitarist.
However, what sets a band apart from the others is the upgrade that happens when they play together, and BIG Something is the Voltron of jam music- less Garcia and more Umphrey’s; however, totally their own and very distinctive.
Their second album came highly anticipated for fans that had to wait several years for the record to come out. After years together, BIG Something has developed strong sense of self. Nick took the time to help us understand the Something in BIG Something.
This is a BIG album, sound-wise. What’s your thought process on where a solo belongs, who’s going to solo, and how hard you’re going to rip it up?
For us, it’s all about building energy and deciding what feels right for each song. Our songs can be very different from one another, so we like to compliment the overall vibe and theme of the song with the instrumentation.
A lot times, when we’re writing or playing live, we try to make sure we can build layers and that everyone can play together using interlocking parts without one person soloing. We like to make sure the song structure is established so that pockets of open space can emerge from the core of the song. And those pockets are usually where we end up after the energy starts to build. We try to keep everything balanced and make sure everyone gets a little time to drive the car.
But with Jesse– who in my opinion is probably one of the best guitarists in our scene, and Casey- who is just so naturally gifted on any musical instrument he touches- it makes sense to let them take the lead more in solo sections. And if the particular solo section calls for it, they are always going to rip it up as hard as they can. Or if it’s a more soulful and ambient solo section then its not about "ripping it up" anymore; it’s about the feeling and the expression that goes in to the notes. I think that’s naturally a big part of Casey and Jesse's role in the band anyway, with the instruments they play. Their solos are always so magical. It’s especially fun to watch them solo together and trade licks and build harmonies at the end of a big instrumental section.
How many shows do you play and how has touring influenced your sound?
We played over 120 shows in 2013. Every year we are gradually touring more and more and we hope to cover even more ground 2014. It’s been incredibly rewarding getting to travel the country, meet new people, and spread our music.
I think our sound is subconsciously influenced by all these experiences on the road. Plus, we get to play and hang out with lots of other amazing bands, musicians, artists, painters, bartenders, writers, promoters, and cool people in general who we are constantly inspired by.
Touring has definitely made us tighter than ever, musically- our catalogue is way more refined than it has ever been. When I write, I try to imagine playing live in one of the various settings we’ve experienced – whether that be a late night festival set in front of a thousand people, or a Tuesday evening playing in the corner of a restaurant for 20 people. It helps having those experiences to draw from when imagining new song ideas for the live show.
Touring can be really difficult too, so there are some drawbacks that come with living out of a van and being away from home so much. At least for me personally, I find it harder to write and work on new material when we're on the road and playing shows every night.
I’m really excited because we now have a little time to develop some new original material. We had been learning a lot of covers to help supplement our Halloween and New Year’s Eve shows, but now that those are over, we are finally getting to brainstorm on some new original material and it feels great. I think this new stuff is really going to help elevate the live show to another level.
The album captures a live show feeling, in its fluidity and composition. Was retaining that sound conscious and how did you go about doing it?
We wanted this album to be its own experience- a little different from the live show- but not too different. Plus, all of the songs were written and performed live, years before they were recorded. So we got used to their live energy. We wanted to recreate that energy in the studio while also using the production to elevate the listening experience.
Our producer, John Custer, adds a whole new dynamic to the equation. He wanted to help us make the songs sound larger than life, cinematic almost. He has a way of finding magical little parts that really complement the songs with lots of new embellishments, harmonies, and layers built on top of the live foundation.
Were their songs of yours that didn’t make it onto the record?
Well, we recorded 11 songs first and then decided at the last minute to add a 12th, “Bright Lights”. So that one almost didn’t make it. But I'm really glad it did. I love how it turned out. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album now and it just barely fit on the CD.
There were also a couple songs in our repertoire that haven’t been recorded yet that we decided to omit from this album. “Pnut’s Song” was one of them. I’m hoping it will end up on a future CD at some point.
Then there’s also a ton of new material that we’ve written after we started making this album: "Megalodon", "Love Generator", "Capt. D", "Truth Serum", "Grey Matter", and "Club Step", just to name a few. The album took several years to finish, so in the meantime we’ve been developing new songs live for a while now. We’re actually getting ready to get back in the studio very soon and I am probably more excited about that right now than anything else. I love the recording process. We all learned so much from doing these first two albums. I think the next one we record is going to be some of our best work ever.
Describe the place that the band calls home. What’s it like and how does it influence your sound?
Most of us live in Burlington, North Carolina. Ben, our drummer, currently lives in Raleigh and Casey, our sax player, has always been from Greensboro– so central North Carolina, basically. These are all great places to live. We love North Carolina. Its got the best of everything: country, city, beach, mountains, etc. and I think that comes out in our sound. We practice and do a lot of our writing in Burlington. Burlington is nice because of its laid back, slower pace. There’s not a lot going on so we can focus on music when we’re home. It’s kind of where the idea of “the middle of nowhere” came from when we named our first album, Stories from the Middle of Nowhere.
Going back to Stories From the Middle of Nowhere, where we follow Pinky around, where did that story come from and in your own words, how would you summarize the story?
The first pinky song we wrote was “Pinky’s Ride”. This was actually the first Big Something song ever written, as well. Our lyricist, Paul Interdonato, came up with the idea for a pimp-like Robinhood-esque character, a likeable outlaw vigilante who plots the ultimate heist with his favorite girl and finds himself on the run from his arch nemesis, Deputy John Law. We had the idea for his character first. Then we tied all the songs about the character together by naming him Pinky.
“Pinky’s Woman” is sort of a prequel to “Pinky’s Ride”, as it describes his relationship with Amanda Lynn and his dream to "steal a little fortune and live off the land." And “Pinky Goes to Jail” is sort of like his tragic downfall. The law finally catches up with him after his girl leaves and escapes with all the money.
.... But.... as it turns out .... Pinky’s journey continues on our new album in the song "Jose’s Pistola", which takes place after his escape from jail. He flees to Mexico where he has a run-in with a bounty hunter named Jose. After emerging victorious from a deadly standoff with Jose, he rides off into the desert sunset where he “hears the coyotes calling his name” and feels “this is where I belong.” His story ends in the desert, which is also a reference to "the middle of nowhere."
There are several references to a father on the new record.
Yep, there’s "Good Man" and "The Moonshine" that both reference a father figure. And it’s no coincidence they are back to back on the album. The songs are all written with fictional scenarios in mind, so they can take on different meanings to different people. “Good Man”, in particular, could even be interpreted as a song about Pinky’s father. But it can also go deeper. The father concept is something that almost anyone can relate to. I think the idea of passing something down from generation to generation is a powerful one.
For me personally, I love my dad. He’s awesome and we have a great relationship. I probably took it for granted when I was younger, but he was so good to me and our family growing up and he still is. And yet, he grew up never once meeting his Father. He never even knew his Dad’s name.
We did a lot of research on our family tree when I was younger, trying to find out who his Dad actually was and we think we figured it out. But that was a very formative experience for me and it helped me appreciate how lucky I am to have such a great Dad in my life. I'm sure that stuff is always in the back of my mind when I sing those songs.
You have some steady shows at this point: your music festival, New Year’s Eve… How does it feel to plan for these events, meaning, how do you approach them as special events and what are they like from your perspective?
It never ends! As soon as our music festival, The BIG What? ended last summer, we started brainstorming for our Halloween show. And then as soon as that ended we started prepping for our New Year’s Eve show. Now that that's over, we're back to planning The next BIG What? coming this June. I'll stay up ‘til five am every night thinking about this stuff. Keeping up with all the details is pure insanity sometimes, but it’s also really fun and I like to think we’ve gotten pretty good at it.
We’ve also got some truly great people on our team that make putting on events like this possible. We couldn’t put on The BIG What? – if it wasn’t for a handful of people who work tirelessly behind the scenes. And it’s so cool to see how positive our community of music fans has become. The BIG What? almost feels like a family reunion now and we've only been doing it for 3 years.
Everyone is just so friendly and people take care of each other. It’s great to see our music bringing people together like that. For me, there’s always two sides of the planning that goes into these events: One, there's the logistics related to the general operation of the event itself- the production, hospitality, volunteer and staff coordinating, booking, scheduling, decorating, marketing, etc.– and then, more importantly, two, we have to plan the music for our sets and try to make them as special and creative as possible so people leave feeling like they just experienced something new and unique, and not just another show. It’s really challenging, but so rewarding when it all comes together.
Tell us about a show you played that really blew you away, for whatever reason. What’s one of the strongest concert memories you have?
Honestly, there are so many shows that they all start to get a little fuzzy. I wish I could remember some of them more clearly.
There was a show in Virginia Beach where we invited a mentally disabled young man to join us on stage and he ended up playing guitar with us the whole show. That might be one of my favorite memories from one of our shows, simply because it reminded everyone what life is really about and why we play music together in the first place.
What was your first concert?
My first concert was 311 and De La Sol at Nissan Pavilion in Virginia when I was in grade school. My friend Paul convinced his mom to take us. We were probably, like, 11 or 12 at the time. I remember loving it. And as it turns out, Paul and I remained good friends and he eventually became the band’s lyricist. Many years later we got together and wrote the first two Big Something songs ever: "Pinky's Ride" and "Amanda Lynn". A lot of the lyrical themes from our songs come from his imagination. We co-write most of the lyrics. So it’s pretty cool we can say we went to our first concert together.
What music/bands do you consider your absolute favorites? Any favorite songs? What makes them your favorite?
We all have very different musical tastes and backgrounds so I’ll just speak for myself. One of my biggest inspirations is David Byrne and The Talking Heads. I love the songwriting that floats above their funk grooves and the artistic vision that goes into their live show. It’s sort of mesmerizing and timeless without being flashy or one person showing off too much. It’s about the group as a whole and the meaning of the songs which are often really strange but also really profound.
I’m constantly listening to a lot of different music so it’s hard to narrow down my favorites of all time. But here are several that come to mind: Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Bob Marley, The Flaming Lips, Earth Wind and Fire, The Gorillaz, Michael Jackson, Prince, Rage Against the Machine, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, The Allman Brothers and so many more; it’s hard to say off the top of my head.
And of course I’ve seen a few pretty amazing Phish shows in my day, too.