"Without wanting to sound bigheaded, I don’t know anyone else making the same music as us. At least not in this country,” says James Green, the motive force behind Big Eyes. If you haven’t seen the six-piece, Sheffield/Leeds/Manchester collective (“We’re not really a band or a group as such, more of an ensemble, I think.”) then seek them out.
Their last album, ‘Love Is Gone Mad,’ seems as good a place as any to start. It contains Sixteen tracks, none of which venture far beyond the three minute mark. Almost all of them instrumentals, none of which seem to owe a debt to their country of origin. All make for engrossing, if fragmented listening. The sound - keening violins, the monotonous huff of the harmonium and the chang of acoustic guitars create an oddly melancholic atmosphere.
"Sad songs are infinitely superior to happy songs. There’s something inexplicably satisfying about depressing music that makes me feel really good.” James explains.
To Sandman’s ears, at least, they conjure up a sense of displacement, of refugees, of the shattered Europe of the 1930s. The kind of music that immigrants cling to as a reminder of a lost home.
The lack of vocals can oddfoot listeners used to folllowing a voice but James has no problems with it. “When we write the music we’re not writing narratives, there’s no point in compromising your vision by sticking a vocal over it.” He also defends the group against the cliche of writing for ‘imaginary films.’ “It’s a copout saying that.” Then he remembers, “we are working on a soundtrack to a film being made here in Sheffield though.”
“I listen to a lot of classical music,” says James, “modern classical, Rachmaninov and Dvorak and I really like European folk from places like Bulgaria and Ukraine.” James will also pay respects to The Dirty Three, the violin led Aussie instrumentalists.
Live Big Eyes are distinctly odd, almost autistic in their lack of direct communication with the audience. They sit in a semi-circle, wearing waistcoats and the kind of hats Italian emigres wore in turn of the century New York. The percussionist, Andrew, often has a pipe clamped between his teeth. Between songs there will be a spot of instrument swopping and Elodie, Big Eyes’ French connection, will quietly scribble something down in a notebook. Towards the end she will recite the poem she has been writing. The impression is that of a capital city cafe band in the bohemian quarter. Rather than the tedious artifice of cool however James points out that the lack of eye contact between player and listener is less to do with glacial cool than the fact that “we’re all terrified.”
While many, more conventional bands, see their music as a vehicle to parade their egos on stage Big Eyes live life started from the need to air the music in public. “I was living in Leeds and I’d been writing all this material. I was offered a gig at the Star Bar in 1999 and suddenly thought, ‘shit, I need to form a band.’” A motley crew of musicians were gathered and have taken this new identity.
Quietly, almost without fuss, Big Eyes have built a reputation. Over the last couple of years they’ve played with groups such as I Am Kloot, Cinerama, Fat Truckers and Daniel Johnson. Their music is released by respected indie label, Pickled Egg and on the new album Terry Edwards, who’s parped horns with Gallon Drunk and The Bad Seeds (amongst many others) plays on at least one track. James himself may well be heard harmoniuming on The Rachels (American avant-garde sound scavengers) next release.
As the group are scattered between Yorkshire and Lancashire James doesn’t feel Big Eyes is specifically a Sheffield group. In fact during the interview he stated that he felt the city suffered in comparison to Leeds. “There’s a fantastic scene there with people organising their own gigs and promoting themselves. Here there are too many groups seeking record deals, seeing music as vocational rather than communal.” However a few hours after the interview he e-mailed Sandman and qualified himself.
“I think I may have sounded a little down on Sheffield music during the interview. I’ve been to quite a few good gigs in Sheffield recently, especially the Hello Cuca/Texas Pete/Real Losers one at the Grapes, nice to see a bit of rock and roll chaos once in a while. Oh yeah, another band from Sheffield I rate is the mighty Man Atom, kinda like Peaches gettin’ it on with Johnny Cash! I do think, though, that there is a lack of good left-field artistes around though maybe that’ll never happen, with Sheffield’s ‘pop’ heart an’ all.”
Big Eyes next E.P ‘I See Creatures’ will be available on Pickled Egg in early January.
Gambol along to Jack’s, Forever Changes and Record Collector for a copy. Also check out their website for more info.
words: Jack Tractor