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Big Special

Big Special: “The album theme is depression in its different forms”

Culture

Big Special are the new band from Birmingham whose debut album 'POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES' is an ambitious opus of poetic punk-hop-scuzz.

Big Special are both big and special. Big in terms of the ambition behind their music, which is fully arriving this week in the form of a 15 track album called ‘POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES’. And Special in terms of the uniqueness of their form, which takes the blunt wit and hard edges of Sleaford Mods and The Streets, and filters them through Black Country soul and their own idiosyncratic damaged poetic sensibilities. They are as extraordinary a band as you’ll hear all year.

They have called the album “an honest expression of a working-class experience in modern England through the eyes of ill mental health, a pursuit of art and political disenchantment; a story of rumination, realisation and reaction.” All of which comes through loud and clear when talking to Joe Hicklin, songwriter and frontman, and Callum Moloney, drummer and warrior of sound.

The pair used to be in a band together in their college days in Birmingham when they were both doing a BTech in music, had stayed mates and occasional collaborators but nothing serious since work had moved them to different areas. Until Joe sent Callum some of the tunes he’d been working on in lockdown. “I was working as a van driver and doing sessions bands and weddings, and was finally earning money off music, even if it was playing Marvin Gaye at Nigel and Fran’s wedding,” says Callum, “Then Joe buzzed me saying I want to start a band again – I didn’t think I had it in me to give it another shot. Then I heard the demos…I could hear Joe in it and the Midlands in it and I just wanted to be involved.”

“It all started with an initial demo in lockdown,” recalls Joe, “I had never used any recording software and I just started messing around with it. I had this idea for a new band and I thought I’d better get it down rather than explain it. And it was born then, from a new love of experimenting with all this shit I didn’t know how to use.”

The tracks were written early, but developed over a long period, as they polished the songs with co-producer, Mike Clarke, and pummelled them into shape with relentless touring.

“We started gigging in April 2022, and the songs started to evolve,” says Joe, “Bands like Sleaford Mods and Billy No Mates were opening our eyes to the fact you didn’t need a guitarist and could be just as creative. I don’t think either of us knew how cathartic it would be performing that music in front of people and trying to show off to each other, make each other laugh, trying to up each other’s energy, and that all ended up feeding into the album.”

The buzz began building up around the band around a clutch of singles, including the deranged melodic-punk of ‘Shithouse’, which sounds like Slaves murdering Interpol.

Much of the buzz came from the sheer variety of the tunes that were emerging – like, who are this lot?

‘Trees’ sounds like a county lines version of LCD Soundsystem. ‘Desperate Breakfast’ is psycho new rave. While 6Music fave Black Dog/White Horse is Ennio Morricone meets Nick Drake.

Such differentiation is extended to the album, which covers enormous territory in its 15 tracks, from the droll anti-exercise Beat rap of ‘I Mock Joggers’ to the goth electronica of ‘Broadcast: Time Away’ and the closing ‘Dig!’ which is like The Cure doing motivational self-help. Each one is densely packed, highly detailed, a testament to their meticulous approach that came from a sense that this record was important and it couldn’t fail.

Callum: “Even the last week before we submitted the album, we redid all the drums. Then Joe was adding in more guitar tracks, and throwing little bits into it. We had more resources now that we had a label, and it’s like, if this is the only album we get to make at this level, let’s just get it absolutely bang on.”

While the songs are individually complete pieces, the truly impressive aspect of the album, the thing that people are going to really hold onto, is the way they combine into one overall vision tying it all together. It’s not a concept album as such, but ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’ fans and ‘Austerity Dogs’ fans are going to recognise it as a journey through a time and a place and a mind.

“I was in a pretty bad depression during the initial writing. And the big theme of the album really, is depression in its different forms. When we have it personally, societally and generationally as well.”

But while there is undeniably a Midlands perspective here – “A Midlander is always pretending they’re not one – as they’re looked down on by part of society…it’s the forgotten middle area,” says Callum – it is too timely a vision to not connect with people everywhere. We have all been touched by depression on all those levels over the past few years, to the extend where it has been difficult to see a way out. Which is where music that can articulate this comes in, to lead the way.

Joe: “When you’ve been through those things, I’ve always connected to something in a book or a film or a song that you see yourself in. Like, you know someone else gets it and says it in a really interesting or beautiful way. If someone gets that from us, that’s lovely.”

“What I’m trying to say with the title, is that this is so many places, this is so many people. We are a Midlands band and people will recognise that, but the actual emotion, and the message behind it, is universal.”

Callum adds, “It’s been really satisfying taking it to South America. Non-English speaking people are going mad for it. The energy still translates. I love our song ‘Dig!’, which sums up the album and the journey to get to it. The many years of struggle to get to this place. It’s just a calm drumbeat and to play that, in the best seat in the house, watching my best mate from when I was 16 giving it beans on stage in Chile in front of 14,000 people…we play it at the end, as the peak and clock each other’s eyes after thinking it’s never going to happen after 10 years. Most nights I’ve come off stage crying.”

Ah yes, because despite the album not being out yet, Big Special have already been on tour with Placebo in South America this year, and starred at South by Southwest. With a busy summer of festivals coming in the wake of the release, god only knows where they’ll be by the end of 2024. They’ll be Big, you’d imagine. Big and Special.

Callum: “I just hope the album becomes part of the conversation. I hope people can see we’re being honest.”

BIG SPECIAL – ‘POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES’ is out on 10th May

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