Post-Punk Trio Big Bliss Premieres 'Surface,' Talks New Album: Exclusive
The music of post-punk trio Big Bliss is almost like a dream on wax with its trance like bass and guitar riffs and driving drum beats. Since 2015, this group has been on the rise, releasing single after single and evolving their sound into the kind that can be both “anxiety-ridden” and “ruminating.”
The Brooklyn-based band, comprised of bassist Wallace May, singer-guitarist Tim Race and drummer Cory Race (yes, they're brothers), have dropped their latest single, “Surface," and have announced the release for their latest album, At Middle Distance, which will launch on October 19 via Exit Stencil Recordings.
Billboard spoke with Big Bliss and discuss the band’s journey, the new single's commentary on the Millennial generation, and the rewards and struggles of recording At Middle Distance.
Can you give me a brief sum up of Big Bliss’ origin story?
Cory: Tim and I started playing together when I was in another band that we were just kinda playing on the side and slowly writing songs, but eventually we got Wallace and we said, "You have to be in our band." We have taken on a fourth member sometimes but for the most part it's been just the three of us.
Tim: Cory and I had never really worked for others and we had never played together until we both moved to New York. It took some convincing with Wallace, but we eventually talked her into it because I had worked with her on an EP of her previous band Young Tides and we got to talking in the studio at some point and she mentioned that she had played bass in high school and for some reason, even though that the music we were recording didn't really line up with the band that I was trying to put together. I was just like, "I feel like this is going to work," and it did right away.
I know most of your music is a blend of post punk and indie rock sounds. How did you evolve as a band sound wise to this point and what kind of sound and style influences do you have as a band?
Tim: My early influences were Joy Division in college and that kind of like--up until then I was kinda just more into Americana, folk rock, and indie rock and then once I heard Joy Division I just kind of like went into this post punk rabbit hole for a few years. So bands like Echo and The Bunnymen, The Cure, and more recently Interpol really inspired how I write songs and play guitar. So, that's what kinda stuck with me as genre wise. And Cory had played in a bunch of different bands before--
Cory: I've been playing for--I've been touring on and off with bands for over a period of fifteen or so years. I've been in a lot of bands as their secondary drummer. I've started a lot of bands all over the board but one thing they all had in common is that they end up being similar to something that does end up being kind of cool to someone I guess. Not even on purpose it just you know, it's just how it goes.
Tim: Yeah it's kinda influenced by whatever you're hearing at the moment. So Cory and I started to think of a very clear goal of taking influences from late 70's punk and post punk and sort of trying to fuse the melodic approach to that and see what happens.
Wallace: I think through high school and into college I've played in bands but they were all more on the realm of pop rock or Americana type stuff and so when Tim was like, "Come play bass for us," I was like, "Well, I don't know. I'm not familiar with this type of music," certainly when it came to playing it. I was not familiar at all. He was like, "It'll be fine. You'll get it." He made me a playlist of music and was like, "Just listen to this and then think like that when you play the bass." I was just like, "Ok......" *nervous laugh*
So it was basically a reintroduction to the bass?
Wallace: It definitely took a little bit of time but it was very much--it was nice because Tim and Cory were both like, "We're not judging you. We know that you're not familiar."
Cory: If we have an actual sound, that is a big part of it. Wallace adapting to playing a style of music that she wasn't used, in particular using pic instead of primarily using fingers. I think that's like fifty percent. If we do have a sound, that is the reason for it. I think the way she adapted the bass playing and having such a heavy role in our writing our songs, it's just way in the forefront usually.
Wallace: I think when I started, if I wasn't doing it the way that they wanted it to be, basically they were like, "Do your thing, " and then if something was a little off Tim would say, "Try not to make it so happy," and that made sense to me. They were like, "Make it a little bit more anxious," and I was like, "Ok, that makes sense."
Tim: I think a word we use a lot in practice is "anxious" and for some reason that word makes sense amongst the three of us when we're talking about the songs we're writing. We want that sort of effect out of the music because I think that bands like The Cure, Joy Division, and all those bands were really good at conjuring that emotion out of a simple rock band set up and I think a lot of it has to do with higher notes on the bass and more melody on the bass and this sort of fractured, driving sense of momentum that I really like and I think we have been trying to channel since we started.
I totally get that. I feel like post punk in its own way is a genre that demands to be listened to because of its momentum and drive. When I was listening to your single "Surface" that idea definitely came across.
Tim: That's great! I think post punk can be a lot of things. You can go the This Heat route and just totally freak out or the more lyrical, societal, critique of The Fall, which is sort of the center of what they're doing. Or you can go the New Order, Cure route where it's more about melody and drive. And all of those things still fall under this movement that started in the late 70's and I think it's interesting because post punk is often less immediate then a lot of other genres of rock, but if you pay attention to it it's so rewarding. When I first heard Joy Division I didn't know what to make of it. I thought it was maybe a little too difficult for me and I didn't understand and I didn't know where the hooks were, I was looking for that kind of stuff. Then my band at college covered Joy Division and once we did that and I started to play the songs and understood how they were constructed i was really impressed and I was just like, "This is definitely what I want to do."
Tell me more about the single, “Surface.” What is it about? What inspired the song? What was the creative process and how did this single come to be?
Tim: Wallace could probably speak to the bass line because I think like we do with 60-70% of our songs we've built around the opening bass riff. How did we come across that riff Wallace?
Wallace: I honestly have no idea. I really think it was--I find that sometimes when it's just us at practice or setting up or getting ready to start practicing somebody is messing around on their instruments doing something and I really think it may have just been me messing around and Tim was like, " Wait! Keep playing that," and then Tim would go off on something and then Cory would go off on something.
Cory: I think that's how we right nine-tenths of our songs. It's accidental. The ones we plan on writing will be fine too but all the accidental ones we write we end up loving.
Tim: I think that happened in practice the other day. Wallace will be tinkering away at the bass and I'll be like, "Wait! What is that?!," and we'll stop to play that for fifteen minutes and build a chord progression around it. So that's what happened with the band aspect of "Surface." When we land on a riff we write this sort of progression together and it's very much a collaborative thing. This tune, one thing I really like about how it turned out is that if you pay attention to the structure of the song it takes it two minutes for it to hit the chorus.I like the build of anxiety into this sort of pay off moment. What that did was help me build this central lyrical idea of coming to terms with my reflection and observing my millennial peers and the people around me and how they're engaging in this weird landscape that our generation is facing. What the music said to me was this sense of insecurity and final realization that, "I don't know what I'm doing but maybe that's ok," once we get to the resolve of the chorus and that's kind of what the idea of the song is. I look around at people my age that have moved to New York and have found their awesome start up job or whatever and they're trying to build for retirement, hoping that Social Security will still be there and we're constantly being bombarded with bullshit ads. Everybody has these weird marketing jobs that don't really seem to do much for society but that's what our economy is built on now. It's like there's no more Union jobs and it's all service industry or weird start up jobs or working in the media and it feels like there's not much solid ground underneath that. So, I just had to come to terms with that for myself and that's what the lyrical content of "Surface" is about and it's sort of like we're trying to build the anxiety of that feeling around it within those three and a half minutes.
So basically the song serves as commentary on the Millennial generation and where we are today with our existence and with or future?
Tim: Yeah it is. We've been totally screwed. The generations before us totally ruined our economy and Social Security isn't going to exits in fifteen years and what are we supposed to do what that?
Wallace: Plus I think those generations before us are looking down on us like, "Why can't you do it? I did it," and it's we're just like, "It's hard--"
Tim: Because it's a totally different world! Here's the thing, it was a more stable world economically then too. It's just a shit show in comparison to how it was when they succeeded because of how they did things. And that's what has made it to how things are now. I think us being in New York informs a lot of that sort of anxiety because I think you sort of come here to find work. You sort of come here to find a job or to do a thing, to do something and I feel like in New York, there's a lot more pressure put on what you do as a young adult. What you actually do really really matters.
What was the creative process like for the album At Middle Distance? Do you feel like you’ve gone a different direction at all from your previous work?
Tim: Definitely. I think it definitely has. Even the difference in the style and sound between just our most recent single "Contact" and the record is pretty stark. In our EP it sort of leans into that dreamier aspect. Sort of leans into the murkier, reverb soaked sound that we were kind going for at the time. I had more of a tendency to throw a bunch of reverb on it but I actually saying to Jeff Burner, our producer, when we went in to mix this one was that I didn't want cover this in reverb and I only wanted to use it where it was necessary, because I think that can sometimes be the protective shield with more of the production team rather than relying on the songs to get you through it. We wrote them over a period of a year and a half and then we wrote a couple of them, like maybe two or three of them, in the couple months leading up to actually recording the record and those songs to me turned out a little heavier and sort of darker than our previous material which I like about it. So there's some pretty clear differences.
Cory: I will add though that I do like what we're doing in that it is changing. I like when a band does evolve from album to album or just simply make some changes and tweak something and turns it into something different with little changes here or there. I always thought that was cool and I hope that continues to be the case for us.
Wallace: I think--at least from my perspective, I can't speak for Cory and Tim, but from when I started playing music with them I had never been through the whole way we write songs and just writing it there and then as a group versus, my entire life I've only written songs where a song is written by Person A and then I write my part separately where I have my time alone to mess up and go back and fix everything perfectly and then go in and show the rest of the band. Writing it as a group was much more intimidating, going into it and being like, "Oh you just want me to make up something right now in front of you guys?" That was a lot scarier but I feel like now I've gotten way past that point and it's comfortable and so nice to write together and it just feel like we're all--I don't know, we can all just tune into each other so well now.
Cory: I feel like we've known each other for a hundred years just from this album process alone.
Tim: Yeah! I think one thing I really like about this record versus our EP, as much as I like our EP and proud of it, I think these songs are pretty cohesive and I think it's sort of a product of us writing the way we do together and that sound. When you write like that I think it's easier to find this central theme and I think with this record being a bit darker, a bit more anxiety ridden and ruminating and notably sadder than our previous material. I think we had a much more satisfying experience when we dredged up the energy that existed in the songs rather than trying to go for the heartbreak. In doing that, I think it formed the way that we approached the actual writing of our tunes by making them just the slightest bit louder and the slightest bit confrontational, although I would struggle to use that word fully. This record is a little more ruminating, a little more tense, the vocal style is notably different I think from even "Contact." The record itself is a very self-reflective, self-critical piece and there's a darkness to it but we don't want to soak everything in darkness either. We want to have moments of levity and beauty also. You need those moments of release and with "Surface" I think we did this and a couple other songs.
What was your least favorite part of recording At Middle Distance?
Cory: Oh boy, we'll have to schedule another interview!
Tim: It's tough to make forty something minutes of compelling music. You spend years working on songs and listening to those songs in a live setting or in the practice space and then all of a sudden you get into the studio and all of a sudden there's this very clear, high definition mirror being held up to you. You're like, "Oh man, I look like shit." It's so easy to be self-critical and fuss over the minutiae of the sound and our producer Jeff, bless him, was so patient with me. When we first went into the studio and started recording we got the basic tracks down and we were really stoked when we walked out of those session because it all sounded great and had this great energy to it. We went back and once the vocals were done we did the first batch of mixes and at first we thought they were great but once we kept listening to it over the next couple of weeks my opinion of it started to deteriorate really quickly and before I knew it I'm at the point where I'm like, "Let's just throw it out the window. We need to start over," which was totally unrealistic and was like being stuck in a rabbit hole. Luckily Jeff, in his wisdom, had us take a break because we were freaking out and wondering, "Is this the record we want?" We came back and reworked a bunch of stuff and added elements, worked on some more melody stuff, and built up more of this tension and release aspect of the songs and I think that paid off a lot. I think all that work was worth it but it was a struggle and it definitely sent me into a tail spin because we cared about this record so much and we care about our band so much and it was really important for us to deliver something we were proud of and it feels great to be able to say that I think we've done that.
I looked at the track list and I’m excited to see what else you guys put out. Are y’all planning on releasing any more singles before releasing the album in October?
Tim: We're looking at putting out two more singles before we release the record as a whole.
What else as a band are y'all excited and looking forward to after the album release?
Tim: We're stoked about touring. Since we started as a band we've been lucky to tour relatively consistently for a newer band and I think we really like. We have a van, we're ready to go. So having not toured yet this year, we're getting a little antsy and getting ready to go. Once we out the record out, which is tricky with the timing an it being the end of the year, we don't want to show up in Detroit on Thanksgiving. So we'll tour at the end of the year and then tour next year and hopefully SXSW and stuff like that.