'Dream Big': How Big Gigantic Broke the Saxophone Into Dance Music

Big Gigantic 2015
Courtesy Photo

Big Gigantic performs at Coachella in 2014.

The Colorado duo premiere new documentary and recount their struggle to bring live instrumentation to EDM.

Anyone who has been to a Big Gigantic show can attest to its appeal.

The Boulder live/electronic outfit -- comprised of saxophonist/producer Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken -- is a rollicking, funk-fueled roller coaster in concert, careening through blistering sax breakdowns and snarling synth bass drops while commanding the fervent fandom usually reserved for jam bands.

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Big Gigantic’s scene-straddling balancing act has elevated them to a rare sort of festival staple – equally at home playing ‘heads-only’ outings like Electric Forest, Shambhala, and Camp Bisco as mainstream festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Ultra Music Festival.

They also remain hometown heroes in Colorado, where their annual Rowdytown concert series at the hallowed Red Rocks Amphitheatre – set to kick off this weekend from Sept. 25-26  has sold out every year since its 2012 debut. The event features prominently in their new documentary, Dream Big: A Big Gigantic Story, which Billboard is exclusively premiering below:

But while the live instrumentation that Big Gigantic embraces is now an emerging trend in electronic dance music – particularly saxophone in growing sub-genres like tropical and melodic house – that wasn’t always the case.

As the story goes, Lalli originally took up the saxophone in sixth grade, and it soon became his ticket out of his native (and hated) Las Vegas. Honed through years of practice, his sax skills eventually earned him a full-ride to college and a 90 percent tuition waiver at the Manhattan School of Music’s masters program in jazz.

“I was basically homeless after that, because I was trying to play jazz in New York  which is the hardest thing ever to do,” he says. “Thankfully I met up with this Afrobeat band out of Boulder called The Motet.”

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Lalli moved to Boulder in 2004 and played with The Motet for four years. During this time, he met and became roommates with Salken – who worked as the band's drum tech while juggling graphic design and pizza delivery jobs.

Lalli began jamming with Salken and learning to produce electronic music after being exposed to instrumental electronic rock band Sound Tribe Sector 9 and DJs like Diplo and Flying Lotus playing after-parties in the Colorado scene.

“That culture caught on so fast, and everybody was trading music over message boards, because the idea of a blog wasn't cranking yet,” says Salken. “The music would spread, and they would hear about these after-parties. Everything happened at the right time.”

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Gigging had slowed for The Motet by 2008, so Lalli decided to start Big Gigantic with Salken – melding electronic beats and saxophone melodies with live drums and keys. The duo soon accrued a cult following in Colorado and its “accepting” Southwestern environs, touring the country and releasing their first album, Fire it Up, and follow-up Wide Awake EP for free in 2009.

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However, getting to the next level proved difficult as the sax-led group didn't fit neatly into the EDM boom's DJ-focused format.

“The after-parties started becoming almost bigger than the regular shows everyone wanted to see a DJ,” says Lalli. “That's when we were starting to come up. That was the hot thing, while we're doing this live thing. It's interesting because now everyone's like, ‘It's so refreshing, you guys are playing instruments!’ and we've been doing this shit for six years!”

“Funk wasn’t cool until the last few years,” adds Salken. “Now it’s cool to play an instrument, whereas there was a period of time where these kids didn’t even know instruments existed. It was all electronic. Now, through electronic music, instruments have been bought back in. It's a cycle for sure.”

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Because no major agencies believed in the hybrid sound, Big Gigantic’s manager Ben Baruch was also forced to act as their booking agent for the first two years.

“Every major agency listened to it, brought it into their weekly EDM meetings, and then came back saying, ‘It doesn't make sense,’” says Baruch. “They couldn't wrap their head around the sound at all. It didn't fit into their mold of what they want to do. We were just going to keep doing what we did until someone could come out and see us and get it.”

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In order to get gigs without agency backing, Big Gigantic would often agree to door deals in which they would assume all of the financial risk. But when their dedicated fan base delivered – and it almost always did – the duo turned the arrangement to their advantage.

“You can actually make more money if you do a door deal,” says Baruch. “As the thing grew, we had our original deals locked in because we took a risk at the beginning. We were so confident that if people just came to see us, it would build.”

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Their faith proved well founded. Big Gigantic stayed the course – touring tirelessly to convert the uninitiated while releasing their second free album, 2010's A Place Behind the Moon – and began getting their first festival main stage looks in 2011. Many of the shortsighted agents who had spurned them soon started seeing the light. While the duo eventually signed with Paradigm, they still make a point of working with local promoters who supported them early.

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“It was really important if it was a homie who knew the scene and had brought us up from the beginning,” says Salken. “If you go to a bigger thing, they might not be as in touch with the kids. That community is what grew this whole thing.”

And grow it did. With a continued focus on touring and free releases like 2012's Nocturnal and 2014's The Night is Young, Big Gigantic became a fixture on the festival circuit by 2014, bringing out a 34-piece high school marching band for their lauded Coachella debut and curating Bonnaroo's SuperJam with Skrillex.

"Now when I see guys on top like Skrillex and Diplo, they're like 'Cool, Big G. They do their live thing, they're unique,'" says Lalli. "Just because we stuck with our guns, we actually get the opportunity to do these other cool things that maybe other artists haven't."

As the band has evolved, so has the role of Lalli’s saxophone. Working on material for a new album he wants to be "timeless," Lalli sees new artistic avenues for his multifaceted instrument.

“Because I was literally the first one doing it, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing,” he admits. “But it can be super flexible. You can drizzle it on the top, from a little added extra sound to it being the thing that's leading. Now working on all this new music, I've tried to put it in all those places.”

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Fellow Boulder artist GRiZ also a saxophonist and electronic music producer  describes being encouraged by Big Gigantic’s success when he was coming up.

“Nowadays, producers feel the pressure of the genre blur,” GRiZ says. “To set yourself apart, there is a huge push to add in a ‘live’ element electronic drum pads, horns, guitar, a hype man, etc. I think Big Gigantic’s impact is that they are seen as the OGs of that area and have this respect from other DJs for what they are doing and handling the crossover.”

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After years of paying dues, Lalli feels fortunate to be in a position to inspire and empower other musicians. Whereas others may have never looked back, he still regularly brings his old buddies from The Motet on the road to jam with Big Gigantic before thousands of fans.

“I just feel super lucky to be Dom the saxophone player guy,” Lalli says. “It feels special. It caught on enough to where fans are like, ‘I wanna do that too.’ They send me pictures like, ‘Just bought a saxophone!’ Or they'll send me videos of them playing my tunes by themselves on their sax. It's crazy.”

Asked if he ever considered dropping the sax during the more difficult years, Lalli doesn’t hesitate.

“No, it’s the ultimate way for me to express myself,” he says, grinning. “I can say whatever I want to say with the sax. It literally comes out my breath.”