INTERVIEW WITH MATHIEU BALL AND ROBIN WATTIE BY CLINT GEE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATHIEU BALL
Montreal’s BIG|BRAVE has been making waves in the heavy music world for the better part of a decade. A steady stream of increasingly impressive and experimental albums have gained them recognition somewhere in between the circles of doom, post-metal, and noise. Their intentional distance from any particular subgenera has allowed them to make that space their own. Free from the confines of standard song structure and a typical approach to heavy music, BIG|BRAVE creates a sound that is both cathartic and inviting.
For a trio capable of pummeling listeners with a sonic tsunami of tones, there is something to be said for the silence between notes that pulls listeners in like the tide. In 2020, the band found the time and energy to focus on new ideas and writing their fifth album, Vital, via Southern Lord. Guitarist Mathieu Ball and vocalist/guitarist Robin Wattie talk about the past, present, and future of BIG|BRAVE, touching on the recording process, inclusion in the music community, and plans for the coming months.
How would you describe your music in a sentence or two?
Ball: That’s kind of tricky. I would say a minimalistic heavy experimental rock band that plays with dynamics and space a lot.
Wattie: I use whatever everyone else describes us as.
Ball: I never use genres. I don’t think we fit into any of them. Also, we never think in that way when we’re making music. When we are describing music, it’s just how it actually sounds sonically.
Wattie: We had this one review. I thought it was pretty hilarious. He wrote, “Boom. Pause. Pause. Boom.” (laughs) I thought it was quite accurate.
Because of the depth of your sound, you often get placed under the general genre of metal. Do you find that to be helpful or hurtful when putting an album out?
Wattie: It’s definitely not hurtful, but I don’t know how accurate that is.
Ball: We’re always categorized as metal, but a lot of people are, “You’re not metal,” and I’m, “We know.” We didn’t decide to be under the metal category on iTunes. Because we make heavy music, I don’t think there’s any other genre where heaviness is utilized as much. So, we end up being under that umbrella. I think it helps. If you like heavy music, there’s a good chance you’ll like our band. But also if you’re into straight-up metal, you might just hate our band, because we don’t play those riffs and we don’t completely go into that world. It’s good and bad. We’re probably way too boring for a lot of people who just need intense metal. That’s why I always say “experimental” first and foremost.
Wattie: With Vital, there’s this new category that I hadn’t heard before. They’re classifying us as post-metal doom. And I’m, “That is interesting.” There are definitely elements of doom and experimental metal components for sure.
Ball: We’re really in between worlds, and that’s fine.
“WE’RE ALWAYS CATEGORIZED AS METAL, BUT A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE, ‘YOU’RE NOT METAL,’ AND I’M, ‘WE KNOW.’”
That’s not a terrible place to be, right?
Ball: It’s intentional, too. We’re trying to do something a bit different. Not that we’re super original, but we are always taking elements from different places and make our own thing. That’s why you get so many different labels, because people hear elements of different genres and throw those at us. It was intentional to borrow from some other worlds.
Vital is your fourth release with Southern Lord. What’s the process of handing them a finished product? Do they give you full creative control?
Wattie: We have full creative control. That’s also another beautiful thing about this label. Greg [Anderson, co-founder] is, “Just do it,” and he is our number one champion and our number one fan. Every time we have something, he is just, “Killer,” or, “Amazing.”
Ball: Whenever we finish a record and send a rough mix, I’m always so nervous. They’ve been happy every time. Full creative freedom, but you’re still handing them something and there is so much unknown. Every time he’s been so stoked. They’re just so supportive. The first record we had done when we weren’t on the label yet. We got in touch, and he liked it and put it out. At this point, he’s, “You wanna go record? Go do it and we’ll put it out.” He trusts us at this point. It’s quite great.
Some artists have been holding back on releasing new music because the touring and promoting cycle has been so disrupted. Did that have any effect on releasing your album?
Wattie: We got it out as soon as we could.
Ball: Our plan was to go into the studio in 2020. That got delayed a bit because of the pandemic, but if nothing had happened, it still would have come out around the same time. It would have been ready for a tour. We would be on tour right now. That obviously didn’t happen, but we had planned to release in April or May. And there wouldn’t be a point in sitting on it. At this point we are talking about recording another album for next May. If the music is done, it feels better to put it out there.
Wattie: If anything, the pandemic gave us more time to spend on the record. Everything was shut down. We actually had time to go to the practice space almost every day to work on this for six months. Otherwise we would have been touring and having to carve out time to record.
“WE ACTUALLY HAD TIME TO GO TO THE PRACTICE SPACE ALMOST EVERY DAY TO WORK ON THIS FOR SIX MONTHS.”
You recorded the last couple of albums at Machines with Magnets studio in Rhode Island. How did you get into the States to record?
Wattie: For Canadian musicians, we have to be a part of this guild, the Musician’s Union, in order to apply for this artist visa to even play in the States. Recording, technically, we don’t need this visa, but it is better to have it because we were going across the border to spend the money with those visas.
Ball: The visas were still valid. It was closed and very stressful. A month before recording we drove to the border and spoke to the guards to see if we could make it through. Because we had those visas they said that we probably could. But they always say, “We can’t confirm it.” So, even on the day of, we were texting the engineer saying, “We hope we make it across.” But they let us through—a great miracle. When we were finally in the studio I couldn’t believe it because there was so much uncertainty. Everything is still closed, so everyone is, “How’d you make it across?”
As far as the band quarantining together and writing, how did that impact the recording process?
Wattie: Before going into any recording session we’re always quite prepared. And now that we understand Seth, and Seth understands us and what we are going for and how we go for it, we know we can leave an ambient song on the album for the studio. We just had a vague idea and we knew that we could write and record in the studio confidently and do it well without worrying and running out of time. The rest was already pretty structured and refined.
Ball: Whenever there is a rhythmic section with drums, we went over these parts over and over. Everything with drums was all figured out, but all of the ambient parts, what happens before or at the end of a song, what feels more improvised, that’s from feeling at ease or comfortable in that studio. It’s great to work like that—to be super prepared and have those moments of improvisation. We’ll keep doing it that way from now on.
“IT’S GREAT TO WORK LIKE THAT—TO BE SUPER PREPARED AND HAVE THOSE MOMENTS OF IMPROVISATION.”
You’re obviously passionate about the creative process and recording, but you spent a ton of time on the road in 2019. What do you find that you enjoy more, touring or recording?
Wattie: Touring! Hands down!
Ball For me, it’s the entire process. It’s a great creative outlet from recording to making our own videos and the artwork. It’s fun to explore different ways of being creative with this three-piece band. It has been sad to not have the touring, but there was still so much more creative work to put into the album. I still feel privileged that we get to do this. At this point, I miss touring too, but to be honest, I didn’t mind the downtime. When everything stopped, we just gardened for three months. I’m ready to tour again, but it was nice to take a break.
What are you most excited about to be back on tour again?
Ball: A lot of bands don’t do tourist things and don’t take days off. If they have a day off, they are losing money. Whenever we are booking tours with our agents, we look for days off, especially in places like Europe. We’ll see the routing and be, “That looks great. We need a day off there.” We’ll find a cool little Airbnb in this city and eat all the food and try the different boozes. That part is incredible.
Wattie: We never know if we will get to come back to these places, so we might as well capitalize on it, right? It feels more like traveling and meeting a fuck ton of people and eating amazing food and then getting to play with your best friends.
“IT’S A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE ENTERING THESE SPACES LOOKING LIKE THIS OR LOOKING DIFFERENT AT ALL, OR EVEN FEELING DIFFERENT.”
Robin has said, “This album involves what it means navigating the outside world in a racialized body and what it does to the psyche as a whole while exploring individual worth within this reality.” How do you hope to see the heavy music community evolve in regards to those kinds of stereotypes or biases.
Wattie: This is actually an interesting question because it’s not that those spaces are necessarily closed to people that look like me and other people of color and others. How do I explain this? The people that would go to these shows and most of the people that play this type of music are really of a certain demographic. So, to put it plainly, it’s a different experience entering these spaces looking like this or looking different at all, or even feeling different. I don’t know if it’s a matter of what needs to change within those spaces. I’ve never even thought of it (laughs). I just try to take it as it is and think about it and ruminate. But I have noticed that there are more people of color attending these heavy shows and more women.
Ball: These spaces have never been cut off to anyone else. There’s no sign on the door of a venue that says “white guys only.” What I’ve seen is that as more and more people get involved, people feel more represented. It’s not like they could never go, but when you see someone who isn’t that stereotypical person who would attend any kind of show, it makes you feel more represented and heard. It’s a lot of small changes, but I think it’s all going in the right direction.
Wattie: Like booking the same bands, you don’t even have to search that hard anymore to find other demographics making similar or heavy or interesting music. Booking could change a bit, or at least the habits of booking could change. And also with that, the more different kinds of people that occupy a space, those spaces change to accommodate everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I love Saint Vitus, but the bathrooms are fucking disgusting.
“WHEN WE FIRST STARTED AS A BAND AND DOING OUR DIY TOURS, I COUNTED ON ONE HAND FIVE OTHER WOMEN IN TWO YEARS THAT I SHARED THE STAGE WITH”
That’s a common theme throughout a lot of metal venues across the country.
Wattie: Yeah, it fucking sucks ass. I remember the first time I went there I was amazed, and every time I enter that space I’m like, “What!” But then my second thought is, I have to fucking piss in this shit. I’m literally standing in piss, squatting above this thing and it’s disgusting. That’s just the way it’s been for so long because all of the people that would pee in there didn’t have to touch anything (laughs). With that said, the more the demographics change, the spaces will conform to that. When we first started as a band and doing our DIY tours, I counted on one hand five other women in two years that I shared the stage with. And I didn’t even count people of color because it was mostly white people anyway. Then we got signed to Southern Lord and started playing bigger shows. I had people and other women coming up to me, even if they didn’t like the music, they were, “It’s so nice to see another person in the room who isn’t another white dude with his shirt off.” (laughs) Same thing with our drummer Tasy, too. You don’t see a lot of heavy female drummers. People write her saying things like, “Fuck yes, this is so encouraging.” And because of things like that they feel like they can be in this space.
How does the album title, Vital, tie into the theme of the lyrics and everything else?
Wattie: It actually stems from the lyrical theme of every album to date. Now, it’s just more explicit. It’s about, “What makes one human worth more than another? What makes you think you are more right or worthy or entitled?” Those types of things. Essentially, what makes one person more vital or of more worth than another?