(Photo by Lilli Waters)
NO, BEING IN A BAND ISN’T LIKE BEING MARRIED. Neither is being in a football team in the finals or on tour. That’s too easy a cliché, too naff a comparison: one of those things really matters.
Still, it’s hard to avoid the comparison completely when talking with Tom Iansek and Jo Syme who aren’t married to each other or even, as the magazines like to say, “romantically involved”. They’ve just been together for nearly two decades as Big Scary. Well, together, then not together, and now together again.
Together as musicians they made several EPs and three albums between 2006 and 2016, won awards like the Australian Music Prize, and started a label, Pieater, while sounding delicate and sturdy, organic and electronic, hidden and right there in front of us.
Separately – during and afterwards – he made records as Small Time Hero, #1 Dads (created well before he actually did become a dad) and No Mono (with another partner/non-partner, Tom Snowden), and produced others (like Paper Kites and Lisa Mitchell); she helped run their joint label,(mostly worked by their manager Tom Fraser) and started her own label, Hotel Motel Records (home to acts like Quiver and Nat Vazer).
But as Big Scary? Nothing. A hiatus. A break. A split even. Maybe. No one knew exactly. Until the album Daisy arrived in 2021, the fruit of intense writing sessions on Phillip Island and recording sessions in Collingwood while Covid raged. But not just Daisy. They had, we were told, written enough songs for three albums, and were recording them all.
They were not kidding. The second of these albums, Me And You, is out this week: not so much a continuation as an extension, an even clearer take, of both musical and lyrical themes of relative sparseness and emotional revelation in tone, and what exactly we ask for and need from each other.
To continue the original metaphor, there’s got to be good reasons to stay together as a band, even if breaking up can often be down to bad reasons or bad thinking. Often musical partnerships happen haphazardly or accidentally, without planning or great thought, like some rush of emotion, an infatuation. But returning to a partnership, like middle-aged love stories, comes from mature thinking and actual decisions – not necessarily always good certainly, but still, deliberate. Big Scary didn’t accidentally come back together, surely.
“It wasn’t a conscious … there was never a convo that we had broken up; we were kind of on pause. So there was never a thought that it was not going to happen at some point,” says Syme.
"But I did have a moment when we got back together or a little bit after, where it was like all right, we are going to have to put the pieces of our writing together, and there’s going to be a campaign, and we’re gonna to release things and put together shows ….”
She sounds as if that had been more worrying than exciting.
“I’d been trying to help the artists on my label one way to do that was to say these are the tools that you can use, and you’ve got to use social media and you got to tour hard, all these things that I knew were helpful. And there when it came to Big Scary I had a moment of doubt, like we’re not good at social media, we’re not going to move to America now, we’re not gonna do those things, what’s kinda the point?”
It was, Syme admits, “such a sad frame of mind” to find herself in, until Iansek put it to her that if that was going to stop the joy of making music, if fear of failure weighed that heavily, then there was no point starting at all.
“It was a really easy way for Tom to show me that any of those fears were pointless,” she says. “So, it wasn’t so much a decision to get back together but quite a conscious decision not to let any fears of the results stop it from happening.”
Which is, as patronising as it sounds, a mature decision you’d appreciate whether this was a romantic relationship or a creative partnership.
“I’d agree,” says Iansek, seated alongside Syme on a lounge in the Collingwood studio. “I will also say that while it wasn’t an official breakup, it did feel like a breakup. We had one tough conversation where I indicated to Jo that I was going to do some other things, and that was a tough conversation, even though the message was we were just going on pause.
"I guess you never know. Maybe, depending on where life took us, there was a chance, a sliding doors moment, where we didn’t return to the band. But like you say, we did step back into it as wiser souls than when we started the band. It was a conscious re-entering into the band.”
I wonder if that “tough conversation” involved some variation of “it’s not you, it’s me”?
They laugh, but Syme responds first. “I think I was doing a reverse park in Perth at the time, before our Perth show. I think later you were like ‘I probably didn’t bring it up at the right time’, but it was very brief.”
“There wasn’t an explanation,” she continues. “But also, I’d like to think there was a lot of understanding: I think I understand Tom’s purposes or intentions, or ultimate goals. And whilst sometimes we have different goals or it might be frustrating about his modus operandi, I don’t need to ask a lot of questions because I understand. I know the answer so we don’t need to have those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ conversations.”
At its core then, this relationship, which came back together in the sort of circumstances that would test any fragility in the connection – isolated on an island to write; working in a studio with only one other regular contributor; answering questions alongside each other – there must be much more than convenience pulling Big Scary together and making this worthwhile.
“Our relationship as musicians and friends has always been a very easy relationship. I don’t think we’ve ever had an argument,” says Iansek. “As you go through life you realise that some relationships are easy and some are not, and some are challenging. There is this feeling of camaraderie and I think like Jo said before, there’s already knowing the answer [to the question you might ask the other].
“So there’s that, but also for me the making music bad has always been fun and fruitful. And it nourishes me in a certain way.”
As for Syme, not surprisingly, the explanation is not much different.
“There’s a lot of trust for me, working with Tom, for me to be vulnerable in my creativity and learning things,” she says. “Tom makes those things easy and he knows my strengths and weaknesses, he knows how to encourage the good parts. It would take a long time for me to find that kind of dynamic with a different creative partner or group.”
In part two, on Thursday: what the new Big Scary albums tell us about us as much as them, how electronics gave way to moves more basic, and when something that’s constant isn’t always consistent. Read part two here.
Me And You is out September 23, on Pieater.