August 13, 2009

Big Gigantic: A Human Touch to a Tested Sound

Words by Dean Schaffer; photo by Jonathan Katzenberg

When drummer Jeremy Salken tells me that he’s only 19 years old, I almost believe him. Maybe it’s his looks or his youthful attitude, or maybe it’s the fact that I can’t see the mixed drink he’s holding in his wristbanded left hand, but, all things considered, it’s probably his music. Salken (actually 28) tours with Big Gigantic, the musical brainchild of Dominic Lalli (actually 31). Lalli himself is an accomplished saxophone player and member of Boulder’s groove machine The Motet, and his current project combines the improvisatory impulses of jazz with the essence of electronica. Formed late last year, Big Gigantic just released a new album, Fire It Up, which reaches backwards, forwards and sideways for musical inspiration and direction. The result is something new, something which, like Lalli says, “is just so many different things.”

Big Gigantic undoubtedly qualifies as “electronica,” but the name hardly does justice to Lalli’s vision or his nuanced execution. He muses, “The one thing different I wanted to do with this project is make electronic music, but make songs and make melodies, especially melodies. I really wanted to have something where you would be singing the melody later, which happens more with songs by bands, not by DJs.” On “Fire It Up,” Lalli’s natural melodic sensibilities shine through. “Got to Keep On,” “Landmark” and the rest feature driving electronic rhythms, but also catchy-as-hell synth melodies and keyboard riffs. Whereas house music falls back on thumping, repetitive bass beats, Big Gigantic returns to the age-old craft of good songwriting: juicy hooks, memorable choruses and beautiful harmony – only instead of guitars and vocals, Lalli has a laptop.

The cultural significance of this shift hasn’t escaped Lalli’s notice; when he discusses his musical vision, he muses, “Back in the day, saxophone was what the guitar is now. I’m not saying the guitar is turning into the laptop, but shit happens. You can either hate on it, deny it and get left in the dust, or you can embrace what’s new and find a creative way to use it.” This innovative, progressive attitude explains worlds about Big Gigantic’s approach, both to their music and to the enterprise as a whole – the band is giving Fire It Up away for free online at Lalli looks to the Internet as the independent artist’s boon: “The beauty of what’s going on these days is you don’t have to be on a mainstream label because everything is so Internet savvy. We just get online all day and just promote, promote, promote. You can do a lot of the work yourself.” The real money, he points out, isn’t in records but in touring; fortunately for him, that’s where Big Gigantic gets even more interesting.

Anyone who attends a Big Gigantic concert expecting to hear a typical DJ performance is in for a surprise. At the Sunset Strip’s Key Club on June 18, as at all of the group’s shows, Lalli arrives with his indispensable computer, but also with some unexpected additions: his saxophone, a keyboard and Salken. Lalli programs all of the album’s drum beats digitally, but Salken performs these beats live, adding a particularly human touch when Lalli solos over the electronic tracks on the saxophone or keyboard. More than anywhere else, this is where Big Gigantic’s jazz roots blossom into something unique. Lalli, always humble, minimizes his group’s inventiveness: “We’re sort of like a DJ a little bit, with a little bit more.”

But when the other DJs perform afterward at the Key Club, Big Gigantic’s inventiveness becomes even more apparent by contrast. Ott, from the U.K., showcases an impressively eclectic taste, mixing Western beats with Indian sitar and reggae-style steel drums (all in the first three minutes!). A sole figure perched stoically next to his laptop, Ott’s performance, a skillful blend of styles in an unbroken stream of music, somehow lacks luster – for all his dexterity, he simply is not an exciting spectacle for a concert (granted, after all, that isn’t the point of his set). The night’s headliner, Shpongle, attempts to address this problem by spicing up the show with four dancers, whose elaborate, otherworldly costumes look like a cross between DayGlo fantasies and Quetzalcoatl. But for all the pomp, Shpongle and Ott can’t match Big Gigantic’s raw intensity when Lalli blows passionately during his sax solos in “Wish I Knew” or “Fire It Up.” Big Gigantic brings the improvisational excitement of jazz and the emotional intimacy of live musicianship to their inventive beats. It’s like electronica is growing up, but, like Salken, staying young at heart.

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