Big|Brave’s all-encompassing catharsis

Avatar photo
Big Brave interview 2023

Throughout their decade of making music, Big|Brave have represented a kind of purity of concept in heavy music. Their music is powerful, intense, massive, yet on albums such as 2017’s Ardor or 2019’s A Gaze Among Them, the Montreal trio continually refined a sonic paradox, employing minimalist compositional techniques in order to create a maximalist sound. In their earliest days, they never expected to make a career out of their atypical sound, and in spring of 2020, when live music ceased and bands’ livelihoods worldwide dried up overnight, they considered for a moment whether the band would even continue. Instead, they kicked off the most fertile period of releasing new music in their career, in 2021 dropping Vital and their collaborative album with The Body, Leaving None But Small Birds, as well as finishing a third album, not to mention guitarist Matheiu Ball’s solo record Amplified Guitar, which was released last year.

With their new album nature morte, out this month via Thrill Jockey, Big|Brave reach the climax of a flurry of creativity that finds them with a newfound sense of purpose. The album pivots off of the English and Appalachian folk roots of their collab with The Body that finds them employing similar writing techniques that tell similarly haunted stories, and with an even more pronounced focus on melody. Additionally, with the addition of drummer Tasy Hudson to the lineup, they’re likewise taking joy in each other’s company as much as they do the performance and composition of their music—offering them a reminder that creating something with people you actually like only enhances the work itself.

“The dynamic within the band changed because of the fact that Tasy and I are friends, and Mathieu and I have known each other so long, so there’s this great chemistry,” says vocalist/guitarist Robin Wattie. “It was just kind of the right time and the right place for us to come together. And work is less like work, regarding the heart of hearts of writing and touring. Everything is fun and something to look forward to. It’s less of a chore.”

She continues, “There are certain dynamics with certain bands where it’s like (unenthusiastic voice) ‘OK, here we go…'”

“We’re in a good place with a good group of people,” Ball adds.

Over a Zoom chat during a snowy day in Montreal, Wattie and Ball spoke to us about old folk music, reaching a major milestone as a band, and taking nothing for granted.

Treble: The roots of nature morte kind of start with the collaborative album you made with The Body, Leaving None But Small Birds, which featured new interpretations of public domain folk music. How did that project come about?

Mathieu Ball: The initial idea of making a record like that, that was Lee (Buford)’s. Lee was adamant we did something like that. Even though none of us believed that we could or backed the idea until the first day of recording. We were like, “There’s no way we’re doing this. We’re going to show up in the studio, we’re gonna try, it’s gonna fail, and we’re going to set up all the amps and drums and we’ll do what our two bands would normally do.” And Lee put his foot down and said, “No we’re doing this,” and it was really good to have someone say, “step out of your comfort zone.”

Robin Wattie: He really wanted to do an Americana-style record. He had the idea because he and Chip are from Arkansas.

MB: They’re from Arkansas, where Levon Helm is from. And we’re from Canada, where Robbie Robertson is from. Not Toronto, but close enough. And he was like “Yeah, we’re like The Band!” But the public domain stuff, Robin, that was your idea. Like everything else on the record, it happened on the spot.

RW: We wrote it and recorded at the same time, which was very new for our band. I didn’t know what to expect with regards to who would write words or who was gonna sing, but then Lee was like “So Robin, you got some words?” We had just finished Vital and I was spent, as far as what I could do. So I was racking my brain and thinking about, “OK, this direction that we’re going with Americana-style music…Like what the fuck am I gonna do?” I had always wanted to do something with old folk and Appalachian old-time music. So I took this opportunity to dive into it and really try to make it work. Like researching, not just lyrical content, but old hymns, listening to archives, hours and hours of archives of not just those songs, but melodies and things like that. As the musical component was being developed in real time, I was researching and putting it all together, and noticing themes. Like there’s a couple handfuls of themes in all these, across genre: Heartbreak, love, betrayal, god and sinning, factory workers—just a lot. So I’m like, how do I update a lot of these lyrics, because some of them are very misogynistic and racist, and class—these are blue collar workers that are singing them to get through the day. Femicide is one of the themes, so I thought let’s change the narrative a bit. Like with “Polly Gosford,” it’s a very popular song and (all versions) have some kind of worker, whether it’s a carpenter or shipworker coming in and falling in love with this one woman so he could have sex with her, then he promises to marry her and kills her and her baby. So I thought, let’s make this a revenge song and her ghost came back and kills him. And that worked out really well with Lee’s original concept of Americana music, and I just kind of took it in that direction.

Treble: Following the work you did on that record, what direction were you seeking with nature morte?

RW: I really loved that old folk sort of way of…how things are worded, I really, really appreciated that and tried my best to keep that theme, or an homage to that. Which paired very well with the concept of the lyrics regarding the subjugation of femininity and all of its pluralities. Not just with humans but the earth. And it’s now an age-old thing, so that worked really well with how I titled each song. And that kind of represented how timeless that subjugation of femininity is. And how nothing’s really changing. And I went one step further and tried my hand at writing original lyrics with that in mind. And then with regards to music, I feel like we tried to move forward, and on our past albums, we went forward while keeping our original concepts in mind and would come back and explore another branch of what that would mean. Correct me if I’m wrong, Mathieu, but I feel like with this one we really reset. 

MB: Yeah. The Body record kind of helped us break out of this pattern we were starting to get stuck in, where we focus on the one chord and that kind of bleak way of writing. Which is something we wanted to do, but during The Body record, we allowed ourselves to start exploring another side of music that we like. Getting back more into the folkier side, or the jazz stuff we like, the Alice Coltrane type of stuff, and that enabled us to be a little more colorful with the songwriting. There’s a few chord changes on this record! And this was a result of doing that and having a great experience. And after how many records with a more narrow musical language, it was time to switch it up. It’s going in that direction even more now—we’re writing for a new record we’re going to record in the next few months, and we have a newfound freedom. It’ll always sound like Big|Brave, but it’s opening up more and more. 

RW: Big|Brave just kind of ended up, despite ourselves, kind of its own entity at this point. And it was going in the direction it was going and that was great and fun to explore and experiment with. But I think The Body collab really helped us reset our brains in how we can approach writing music going forward. We were, in retrospect, falling into a pattern, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we didn’t want to fall into a pattern. That was one of the main concepts when we started—to not do what we’ve done before. But practicing music with other people besides who you jam with all the time, or learning anything from a new source, it just helps you open things up.

MB: You throw one new element in there, and it snaps you out of it. 

Treble: Making the kind of music that you make—big, powerful, emotional—is that a therapeutic thing?

RW: Yes, definitely.

MB: One hundred percent. Every time we play this music it’s a full cleanse. I think because Robin’s approach to singing, to hear Robin sing every night, if I wasn’t trying to concentrate—well, it’s not that hard to do what I do. But I’d be tearing up. Using the amplification to physically feel something, it’s full catharsis. I don’t even know what happens during that hour. You get to go somewhere else. That’s what I really enjoy about it.

RW: Throughout the whole process, the catharsis is there, from the inception to the live show for me, because it is an outlet. I can put things in it and then it contains it and I can release it. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be to other people listening, but it’s just out there. That energy can’t be bottled up. That energy has to leave the body, to feel good and make room for joy. It has definitely helped. It is its own form of therapy, I guess you could say. And not just physically playing the live shows night after night. Because I have to belt and scream and then feeling the vibrations of the amps and the drums, which is really nice and almost like an interesting body massage. (Laughs) But intellectually, too, because what I write about lyrically, for example. Some of it is generalized and vague—I like opening things up for people to take what they can. I also like being direct and concise, so there’s some stuff that’s very plainspoken. But it’s an all encompassing catharsis.

Treble: Big|Brave just crossed one decade as a band last year—congratulations on the milestone! A lot can change in that amount of time; what’s different for you now than when you started?

M: When did we start playing music, 2012? It has been ten years, wow! The boring part was, in the beginning, financially it was much harder. Now we can come back from tour and work a bit less instead of having to come back and the next day go back to your job immediately. There’s also the backing of labels now, which cuts down on the cost of recording. This thing we wanted to put all our attention into, there were all these other things in life that put it on hold. But more and more it feels like we can put all our energy into this. We still have things to deal with, but to have this as the main occupation now, the biggest part of the day, is a dream come true. I look at my calendar and it’s all Big Brave stuff, and I’m like “hell yeah.” 

RW: That is the biggest thing. Not having to go to our dayjobs immediately after. We still need dayjobs. But that stress is – all our energy isn’t being used up by our dayjobs so we barely have enough to spend on the band. We also didn’t expect all of this to happen. 

MB: I still feel like any tour we go on might be the last one.

RW: We approach every tour like it’s the last, also because we don’t know if we’re ever going to return to that city or that country or eat that food or drink that wine. We’re almost like tourists before we’re a band touring.

MB: None of it is taken for granted. Everything is a blessing. 

RW: That’s a big thing. But one of the other big things is…Mathieu and I, even though we wouldn’t say it out loud, we wanted to keep going but it got hard, balancing our day jobs with the band and trying to see if this is actually all of this hard work is worth this amount of stress. So there was a while where it was like “I think this is going to be the last album.” And we’ll take it year by year, especially with the pandemic. Like this is endtimes! We need to really figure things out. And then with Tasy joining, it was really light and fun and really rekindled my joy for writing and recording and playing live. The specific universe of playing live in that one show. All of those little details and what that entails, it just kind of renewed my love and joy for it.

Treble is supported by its patrons. Become a member of our Patreon, get access to subscriber benefits, and help an independent media outlet continue delivering articles like these.

Scroll To Top