The first six albums longlisted for the 9th Coopers AMP were revealed today, with an impressive mix of Australian artists and their albums up for the annual Australian Music Prize and its $30,000 cash reward. (UPDATE 13/12: View the full list of AMP nominees here)
But there’s one humble little Melbourne duo that clearly stands head and shoulders above their peers as being the most deserving winner of the title of Australian Album of the Year and of the Coopers AMP’s own mission statement of encouraging, rewarding and promoting Australian music of excellence.
Not Art, the second full-length album from indie twosome Big Scary has been listed for this year’s AMP, and yes, we may be jumping the gun a little as the nominations have not closed for the coveted award, but unlike faltering Liberal politician Jaymes Diaz, here is a definitive six point list of reasons why Big Scary’s Tom Iansek and Jo Syme are the most logical, deserving winners of this year’s Australian Music Prize.
1.) They’re More Deserving Than The Other AMP Longlist Nominees
Let’s start with potentially the most contentious point, why the other albums listed for the 9th Coopers AMP long list aren’t as deserving. Wait, hear us out. Rather than turning this into a messy pissing contest, let’s look at some logistics.
If The Drones win, it merely reinforces the fact that they possess one of the year’s best records in I See Seaweed, something that their dedicated fanbase and most critics, who fell over themselves to sing its praises (guilty as charged), are already well aware of.
Besides they won the inaugural 2005 Australian Music Prize, for the intimidating, deathless snarl of a masterpiece that is Wait Long By The River And The Bodies of You Enemies Will Float By. While a second AMP in the trophy cabinet would be lovely, as well as the cash, it’d be as much validation for the music press and cult following as it is for the five-piece.
It’s a similar argument for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Push The Sky Away, and while their pockets aren’t as gilded as some would assume, it’s hard to ignore the classic status of their long-winding 30 year career, with all the spin-offs, publishing income, and royalties that go along with it. Would $30,000 towards the goth poet par excellence really contribute to the emerging landscape of Australian music in the same way it could if it went to a younger band?
Blue Mountains MC Dialectrix would certainly benefit from the financial injection, listed for his fourth album for local label Obese Records in nearly as many years, The Cold Light Of Day. But the hard fact is that it was a similarly hip-hop minded act, Hermitude, that claimed the top prize last year, which certainly stirred a bit of a hornet’s nest from a community of dissenters.
HyperParadise wasn’t an undeserving win by any stretch, but a second year running towards an Aussie hip- hop act may result in a backlash that the AMP organisers simply can’t afford or be bothered with, bold judging choice or not.
That leaves Bob Evans and Abbe May, and no disrespect to either of them, both have used their latest albums to make some daring artistic shifts – especially the latter’s shift from the guitar-toting blues vamp on Design Desire to the electro-hewn pop vixen of Kiss My Apocalypse.
But while both of these albums may exhibit personal transformations, to the casual listener, Abbe May’s musical migration may not seem as remarkable as Big Scary’s, while Bob Evans hasn’t affected his singer-songwriter charm enough to prevent him from getting the all-important radio airtime. (Familiar Stranger indeed!)
2.) Not Art Is One Of The Best Albums Of The Year
Not Art is not only one of the strongest local releases this year, it’s one of the strongest albums of 2013. Period.
Big Scary’s 2010 debut album Vacation was no slouch in the creative department, but it’s follow-up expands on Tom Iansek and Jo Syme’s music world in just about every element while offering up a rich, distinctive listen that continues to reward long after the first spin potentially confounds.
From the bold opening of ‘Hello, My Name Is’, with its slashes of post-punk guitars and commanding, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, to the closing experimentalism of ‘Final Thoughts, With Tom and Jo’, Not Art daringly stretches into sonic territory and intimate songcraft few bands – Australian or otherwise – could conceive, let alone achieve.
Largely in thanks to the astonishing growth of Tom Iansek – he of the blessed Jeff Buckley-esque expressive falsetto – as a producer. Drawing from the dense production aesthetics of hip-hop (and DJ Shadow’s 1998 masterpiece Endtroducing… ), Iansek has the vision to bring such far-flung musical territories together with his and Syme’s knack for intimate, honest songcraft.
Their romantic palette of ornate ivory tinkling and two-piece guitar rock now enriched by a gospel choir, growling sub-synths, clattering cut-up drum loops, and experimental flourishes that don’t encroach on their deft, minimalist sense of character. In the best way, it is a record completely unlike any that’ll reach your ears this year.
I could go on gushing, but it’s worth re-iterating a point made in my initial write-up of the album. “Is Not Art a masterpiece? No. But it’s made by a band very much capable of one or two during their career if they can craft such an impressive record as their second studio effort.”
3.) They’ve Done The Hard Yards
There’s no glamour in pointing fingers here. Big Scary haven’t ‘done it tough’ more so than any of the other artists listed for the AMP, none have taken shortcuts to reach the respective points in their career.
In fact, by that yardstick, the AMP should go to either the dogged Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, whose elegiac Push The Sky Away proved to finally earn the band a chart-topping album in their native country, or The Drones, who in their own words have always played “the long game” and arguably produced the best album of their 16-year career.
Though Big Scary have been around half as long, they’ve paid their dues as much as any band as proudly independent in attitude and spirit as they are.
Rather than fall prey to the allure of a big record deal after just a single or EP release like so many other fresh musical saplings, Big Scary got to where they are through as many gigs in tiny venues giving it their all for audiences only a handful strong as the veterans of the industry.
I can recall seeing Big Scary early in their gigging days at a bizarre armpit of a venue (which shall remain anonymous) tucked beside the Punt Road freeway crossing in Abbotsford wondering why the nine or ten people there weren’t standing slack-jawed agape at the duo instead of slouching with regular precision into their evening brews.
They may have been a little more awkward, but the pair played with as much passion, synergy, and ego-less joy then as they do now, as anyone who’s caught a Big Scary live show recently can attest.
Big Scary are currently opening for Bernard Fanning on his national Departures Tour and you can be damned sure that they didn’t score the coveted slot through any shady back-room dealings, but with little more than great music and a hard-working attitude.
“It’s hard to know exactly how it works,” Iansek recently admitted when we caught up for an interview; “but he definitely listened to our music and went out of his way to send us a nice e-mail and say ‘G’day, looking forward to the tour, you’re a decent bunch’.”
Which brings us nicely to our next point.
Head to Page 2 for more.
4.) They’ve Earned The Respect Of Their Peers
If Big Scary do claim the 9th Australian Music Prize, its likely that the other bands won’t mind, because as anyone who’s played with/met/interviewed/photographed/dealt with them will tell you, Tom Iansek and Jo Syme are, quite simply, lovely humans.
They’re completely incapable of any of the rock star bullshit or egotistical umbrage that many bands in their position would have succumbed to; even as their career slowly balloons they never seem at risk of severing the string of humility that grounds them.
A quality that’s also earned the respect of – and even seen them become personal mates with – a long list of local artists including (at the risk of trainspotting), members of Powderfinger, The Vasco Era, World’s End Press, Something For Kate, Courtney Barnett, Vance Joy, and nearly anyone else Big Scary cross paths with. And for what it’s worth, Triple J honcho Richard Kingsmill also named 2010’s Vacation among his Top 10 favourite albums of that year.
5.) Big Scary Will Put That $30,000 To Great Use
Not Art, like its predecessor, was issued through Big Scary’s own independent label Pieater. Essentially a cottage industry completely self-funded and run by the band and their long-term manager, Tom Fraser, from the band’s own headquarters, Mixed Business; an old bar in Fitzroy that the band completely did up themselves as a creative hub – complete with recording studio, rehearsal space, mixing station – and enough artsy, homely frills to make any Melbourne band jealous.
There’s an upstairs thinking zone called ‘The Room of Contemplation’, a rec-room called ‘The Bollywood Room’, a kitchen, an outhouse toilet, and a space for playing a ‘game of hook ring’ (Google it). As Syme stated in a recent interview, “we just really want it to be a creative space, and slowly it turns out that it has been.”
It’s a labour of love that the band almost literally built with their own collective hands after acquiring the lease in October 2012, but the end of that 12-month term is drawing near.
If nothing else, that $30,000 in prize money could stave off the landlord from putting up the property for development plans (never a clear-cut business) and help Mixed Business realise its potential as the initial vision for Pieater as an umbrella for fostering emerging local talent – recording, releasing, and managing bands literally under the one roof – starts to becomes a reality.
The crucial puzzle pieces that formed Not Art were assembled at Mixed Business, Tom Iansek’s second solo effort under his Dads moniker was recently completed between its walls, while the group have started to get other bands to come through and use the studio.
It would be a real shame if all that was scuppered should tragedy strike and the band lose the lease, in which case $30,000 is a lovely leg-up to found the proverbial Mixed Business Mk II in another location.
6.) It’ll Help Them Break Overseas
Big Scary recently signed an international deal with the Seattle-based Barsuk, the indie label that most famously helped groom Death Cab For Cutie for the big leagues, cultivating them back before they were Seth Cohen’s favourite band on The O.C. and their signing to major label imprint Atlantic (but that’s another story).
Big Scary are the first Australian signing for Barsuk, filling a smart niche in a roster that includes Nada Surf, Menomena, Ra Ra Riot, and Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan.
It’s a deal that was inked sheerly through the mutual appreciation between the two parties rather than any big-wig power-broking (see point #3).
In fact Big Scary signed off with Barsuk over a Skype session where they “agreed on a lot of things… like the approach to the commercial side of music, expectations,” says Iansek. “It just became apparent pretty quickly that we were on the same page about a lot of these things – giving things time they need, long-term approach to it all.”
Barsuk will issue Not Art, but an American tour is still up in the air. It’s still a financial risk that perhaps neither Big Scary or the small-scale Barsuk are ready to take on just yet even though – of course – the important exposure to the US market is always a major end-goal for many Australian bands.
Big Scary have made smaller in-roads abroad, stealing the breath of audiences at SXSW 2012 with their dynamic talents (and Iansek’s road-tested beard), and their industry showcase soon won them invites to a handful of extra, last minute additions to their touring schedule – including Canadian Music Week, and gigs in Los Angeles and New York City’s Grasslands Gallery.
It would make sense to capitalise on that initial momentum and an AMP recognition would bolster overseas touring plans, while the $30,000 would help with the funds to commit to them.
In Summary, They’re A Damn Good Fit
Should Big Scary be ushered into the hallowed halls alongside previous AMP winners (and by now, you’re hopefully starting to see that’s exactly what should happen), it just seems like a snug fit.
Like previous AMP recipients, Big Scary have that tricky balance of having a distinctively Australian character – like past winners The Drones, Augie March, and Eddy Current Suppression Ring – but also a broader appeal that doesn’t compromise their integrity – like AMP winners Lisa Mitchell, Cloud Control, The Jezabels.
But most exciting of all, is that impressive as Big Scary – and Not Art – are now, they are at a creative juncture that signposts the potential of their next creative destination.
The AMP organisers should recognise that accomplishment and give Big Scary what they so duly deserve, the 9th Australian Music Prize.