For February's Big Read, Mic editor Daisy Carter sits down with London-based outfit The Big Moon following the release of their second LP.
‘Somehow, we’re sort of cursed, to the point where once we listened to the whole of The Life of Brian like it was a radio show’, laughs Celia Archer, bassist and vocalist for London based four-piece The Big Moon. She’s describing how the band – also consisting of Juliette (Jules) Jackson (lead vocals, guitar), Soph Nathan (guitar, vocals) and Fern Ford (percussion) – keep themselves busy on the road when they go on tour, waging what sounds like a losing battle against the TV in their van. And touring is something The Big Moon will certainly become reacquainted with over the upcoming months; following the recent release of their second record Walking Like We Do with label Fiction, they’ve already played a number of intimate shows at record stores around the country, are currently supporting Bombay Bicycle Club on tour, have a mini headline tour of their own starting late February, and then plan to hit the road again in autumn following festival season. The Mic caught up with Archer and Jackson prior to the band’s set at Rough Trade last month to talk about the new album, the state of the world and of course, Monty Python.
The pair's fondness for each other is palpable, something which the band’s between-album lull clearly did nothing to dissipate. During the interim, Nathan released debut record Stranger Today as part of trio Our Girl in 2018, while Archer joined former Palma Violets members Sam Fryer, Pete Mayhew and Will Doyle, along with guitarist Adam Brown, to create indie-hybrid Gently Tender. As Archer explains, however, these separate projects didn’t alter their dynamic as The Big Moon: ‘this is still this, and Jules is still the songwriter, so even if we’re filling in different parts of it, it’s still the world Jules has created’. Jackson agrees, asserting that ‘it’s good to have a break, you know? When we came back together to start rehearsing properly after like a year of writing, we just fell back into the same groove really. It just feels exactly the same!’.
While they’ve been performing their new material for a while now on the festival circuit, these record store shows marked the first time the audience as well as the band were familiar with the tracks. ‘It’s also the first time we’re doing kind of more stripped back versions of them, which feels quite naked’, acknowledges Jackson. ‘When you’re playing at a record store and there’s people standing right here [holds hand up centimetres away from her face], you can’t just be super loud and in their face, because they can literally hear you singing in the room away from the microphone… so you’ve just got to break it down a bit’.
'Although it received such a positive critical reception, they were determined to do something different for their next effort rather than merely sticking to the debut’s tried and tested formula'.
Indeed, ‘breaking it down a bit’ is a good metaphor to describe the change in direction the band have taken on Walking Like We Do. Debut album Love In The 4th Dimension – which was released in 2017 and subsequently nominated for the Mercury Prize – was hailed as a masterclass in indie-rock, guitar-based instrumentation coupled with witty lyricism. Although it received such a positive critical reception, they were determined to do something different for their next effort rather than merely sticking to the debut’s tried and tested formula. ‘There’s just no point in doing that’, states Jackson. ‘It’s not fun for us – we know how to make an album like that, we’ve done it. All the recording we’ve done before has been lots of recording live or recording about six layers of a guitar line; it was all about being maximum. This time, I really think we learnt how to be more minimal and how sometimes, things can just hit harder when there is less rather than more’.
Minimal, however, doesn’t necessarily correlate to simplistic. This record saw the addition of synths, flute and brass instruments to The Big Moon’s repertoire – a versatility which was apparent even during their pared back Rough Trade performance, most notably in Archer’s swapping between bass and keys, Nathan between guitar and bass, and the moment Ford grabbed a trumpet from behind her drum-kit during lead single It’s Easy Then.
The overarching constant throughout both the gig and the record itself, then, are Jackson’s cutting lyrics; they tackle a breadth of subjects from social inequality (Dog Eat Dog), to restless dissatisfaction with modern life (Holy Roller), to the inevitability of change (Barcelona, A Hundred Ways to Land) – all with a wry humour and clever turn of phrase. Talking about her writing process, Jackson muses: ‘I think when you’re writing songs, you’re trying to explain things or boil down a feeling, to process something into a four-minute long thing that makes sense. And that can be a relief, as things are just really strange in the world at the moment; politically, socially, environmentally – everything’s a bit fucked. So, you can’t really help but try to process those things. It just comes in the context of the world around you’.
'And that can be a relief, as things are just really strange in the world at the moment; politically, socially, environmentally – everything’s a bit fucked'.
While The Big Moon are resistant to those who would lazily only label them a ‘girl band’, women in the music industry is a topic which has been receiving considerable attention recently, especially in light of the comments made by TRNSMT Festival boss Geoff Ellis about how gender-equal festival line-ups ‘will be a while [away]’ because ‘we need to get more females picking up guitars, forming bands, playing in bands’. Reflecting on their feelings towards sexism in the industry, Archer sighs ‘we are four people who identify as women, so we are an all-female band, that’s true. But it’s just like with anything – you’re in your bubble, and people in our immediate world respect us and treat us in a certain kind of way, and you’re like “this is okay, everyone’s aware of this”. And then you get hit with a comment like that and you’re like “oh, fuck”. And you see the nominations for like, all the awards across everything this whole season and you’re like “oh… right”. You can’t really escape the fact that society is sexist, and racist, and ableist – you know? It’s going to take a really long time and it’s going to be a long fight for everyone who is squashed. So, it’s both annoying and like “ah, for fuck’s sake”, but also not surprising that years of these different kinds of imbalances haven’t just been magically changed in the past five years. It’s a long fight’.
For some bands, the case may be that the material the lyricist writes comes as a bit of a surprise to the others, but not so for The Big Moon. While Archer acknowledges that ‘with the first album there were some songs which Jules had written before she’d even met us, so there’s some stuff which I don’t 100% know [what it’s about] because it was written by a person I never met’, she goes on to assert that ‘I don’t remember being surprised by [the songs on Walking Like We Do] because some of them I’ve been listening to for nearly two years now – it’s only ever like “oh, that’s so fucking good”, you know?’.
'You can’t really escape the fact that society is sexist, and racist, and ableist – you know? It’s going to take a really long time and it’s going to be a long fight for everyone who is squashed'.
Another reason for her bandmates’ easy grasping of her lyrics may be Jackson’s impressive ability to pinpoint and vocalise a range of relatable experiences such as navigating life in your early 20s. She describes the benefits of having some time off to write, as ‘it’s nice to go home and have a normal life, and be around your friends in a normal way, and not just go away for three weeks and come back and find that things are different again. It’s lovely to nurture your friendships’. Equally, however, she recognises that it’s nigh on impossible to escape the fact that this stage of life can hold periods of rapid and often significant change. ‘Definitely the past couple of years there were a few moments where friends moved away or had babies and all that kind of thing and you’re like, “wait what, when did we start doing this?”. You start to feel like an overgrown teenager because you’re in a band’. ‘It is weird to be that age where people are like “I’m engaged!” – I mean, you [Jules] are engaged’, Archer chips in as they both laugh, ‘but it’s weird for the response to that to just be “aw yay!” rather than “oh, why?”. That’s definitely started to happen to us with our prolonged adolescence of a job’.
Adolescent job or not (and I’m sure the myriad artists older than the mid-20s mark would have something to say about that), there’s no doubting that The Big Moon poured all their energy into creating and nurturing Walking Like We Do – their own sonic baby. ‘I just feel really proud. It already feels like it came out a month ago, we’ve been so busy, but we’ve been building up to this for about 2 years now so yeah, we’re very happy’, Jackson beams. Enthusiastically conveying their feeling of what is, essentially, strong parental pride, Archer adds: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder on anything – I mean, it’s not like I haven’t worked hard on things before, but we really put so much into every decision. Having a big team of people means that the further you get away from us, the less it is possible to care about something as much as we do, so we’ve been a bit more confident arguing this time around for that extra time or extra money or whatever it was. And when we were rehearsing just before Christmas, our label sent us the actual vinyl and it was just amazing to hold it and look at all the artwork and everything – the product of thousands of tiny little decisions – and just be like “yes, this is it! This is what we wanted it to be!”’.
The recording process took the band to Atlanta to work with producer Ben Allen [Bombay Bicycle Club, Animal Collective, Kaiser Chiefs] and was completed over the course of a month, which Jackson says ‘felt like a luxury, considering we did the last album in 12 days’. Their decision to work with Allen stemmed from the desire for a producer ‘who would have ideas, and whether we would use those ideas or not is up to us’, Jackson laughs. ‘Ben was really creative and collaborative and would come with his laptop and be like “what about all of these different ways this song could go?”.
Archer is equally complimentary, stating that ‘it’s nice to have someone who can come in and not take over, but can give you things you hadn’t thought of or make things happen which you don’t know how to make happen, but you wanted’. With the help of what appears to be characteristically enthusiastic gesticulation, she explains how part of the reason recording this album took so much longer than their debut was the sheer amount of possibilities presented by each track. ‘The songs on the first album really knew themselves and we just had to capture them, whereas these ones were more like “I could be the single”, or “do you want to put drums in the first chorus? Do you want to put a chorus at the beginning so that everyone gets the hook straight away?” – there was lots of thinking “ahh, what should you be? Tell me!”’.
'I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder on anything – I mean, it’s not like I haven’t worked hard on things before, but we really put so much into every decision'.
Even with the songs themselves finalised and recorded, the band then found themselves labouring over which were going to be released ahead of the album as singles; with 11 tracks, Walking Like We Do isn’t a hugely long LP, and it’s difficult to identify one which doesn’t have something to recommend itself as a single. Effortlessly bouncing off each other, Jackson begins ‘yeah, it was a constant “maybe this one, but oh, what about this one? – ”’, before Archer jumps in: ‘ – we never thought Barcelona was going to be a single, we were literally saying that this morning, you just sort of go with what makes sense at the time. But the good thing about this album is we love it all, so it didn’t really matter what order things came out in. The main thing was just whatever would get as many people as possible to hear it all which is what we wanted, so any of them could have been singles really’.
One thing, however, which was an easy decision to make was which would be the album’s closer – ‘Jules was very certain about ADHD’, confirms Archer, ‘but you’ve got to put them all somewhere, and that does become quite obvious’. At the suggestion that the notoriously tricky second album often faces critique for including so-called filler, she exclaims mock-indignantly: ‘Jules has never written filler!’. ‘Well, you haven’t heard all the songs on my laptop….’, Jackson laughs. ‘My laptop is like a massive messy jumble of blobs of ideas which all get Frankensteined somehow, eventually’.
Whether it was conscious or not, the decision to release Walking Like We Do in the middle of a decidedly grim January was especially apt considering the intrinsic sunniness of the record. Numerous interviews characterised Love In The 4th Dimension as a safe refuge away from everything going on in the world in 2017, and that aspect of their music is the primary link between that album and this; the shimmering melodies, still occasionally interjected with bursts of raw guitar, act as a reminder that, in Archer’s words, ‘it is going to be summer again!’. Brimming with a cautious optimism, the new record is, she believes, ‘a testament to the way Jules is as a person, because it’s an acknowledgement of all the shit going on, and like [Jackson] said – songs are a way of processing a feeling, and I just think it’s wonderful that the way [she] processes these feelings is optimistic and hopeful, even at the moment’.
Having successfully navigated a shift in sound, changing personal lives and of course torturous van journeys with an unreliable TV, The Big Moon are very much back, armed with the sonic equivalent of a perpetual summer evening spent outside where, despite the looming presence of darker days, nostalgia and possibility hang heavy in the air.