Tue, 16 Dec 2008 13:25:04
El Coyote is a strange place. The Los Angeles Mexican restaurant is much older than most of Hollywood's denizens, and if you live in Los Angeles, you know it's a rarity for anything to be older than 40 and still considered "cool." El Coyote is an institution of sorts—L.A. doesn't have many of those. It's a city where hot spots come and go within a year. Trends flash and dissolve. People move in and move out. It can often be the most lonely and transient city in the world. In many ways, that transient nature mirrors the volatile music industry perfectly. However, there are a few bands that will be here for a long time, just like good ole El Coyote's been. Bigelf is one of them.
The Los Angeles rock quartet creates epic and heavy orchestrations that border on bombastic musical theater and minblowing prog rock. At the same time, they're catchy as all hell. Their latest album, Cheat the Gallows, is easily one of the best rock records of the year. The band conjures the classics, while imbuing a modern attitude into each and every track—much like Witchcraft, Down and High On Fire, but much often more melodic. They aren't your typical Silverlake hipsters trying to hijack old school rock for fun either. They truly live this.
Sitting in a dark corner booth of El Coyote, burly Bigelf frontman Damon Fox is affable and at ease. Even though he seems mellow, he's very excited to talk about his epic vision. About the album's breadth, he explains, "Well, it wasn't completely thought-out or calculated. There were a lot of stories going on in my head, originally it was supposed to be a double album. I was recently looking at my Bigelf playlists and remembered that I had it broken up into 'Act I' and 'Act II,' which I thought would be interesting. It obviously didn't end up being a two-disc album. The record is a play about our struggle and in some ways there's some sort of glory to the tragedy of it all in there. It's like when there's a train wreck, you have to look. When there's a car crash, you have to slow down and see. That's Cheat the Gallows."
It's definitely one record you can't turn away from. The title, Cheat the Gallows, refers to cheating certain commercial death in such a plagued industry. Bigelf continues to put out records, despite having switched labels and seeing so many suits give up on them. They've persevered, and this album is triumphant proof of that. However, this isn't the band's first self-referential knock on the biz's pitfalls. "I think it's our third album about how bad this business is," laughs Damon. "You get into this business, and your records are everything to you. However, record companies don't always see it that way. With our last album Hex, people would ask, 'Why has it taken so long for your record to come out?' Well, circumstances outside of our control hold up things. We ended up posting it on our website as a free download. It hurt our group's creativity in a sense. Some labels were looking at it and considered releasing it. It's not like we were asking for a huge advance or anything. They ultimately said, 'We like it, but we're not going to put it out.' Cheat The Gallows was our 'fuck you' to that. Our current label Custard has been great to us though. Their attitude has been, 'We're going to release your music and going to do this, this time.' We're on a wave, and we'll see if it's a good ride or not."
Either way, that ride has been very natural for Damon and Co. They tend not to force anything or plan it out too much. Damon continues, "There's no formula, the only thing that stays the same is that I write the song. That song may or may not be completely realized at the beginning. It changes by the time the band interprets it, there isn't a formulaic way of doing things in Bigelf. I go with whatever works. A lot of the songs on Gallows were really unorganized. The album just ended up being comprised of a bunch of spontaneous tracks. The origins of the songs usually start with piano chords, a guitar riff or a title. It's not some songwriter on an acoustic guitar that brings in twelve songs to record. Bigelf is too complex for that kind of thing. 'Blackball', for instance was a really cool song to make. It's a three-minute song with this big top, circus vibe. But it had this outro riff, so we expanded on that as a group. It was created together, it wasn't planned at all; it simply happened. The song has this sense of burning blues. I think that's a really odd thing for us because we don't really have blues in our music. It's an interesting statement for the band. Anybody can play the blues—that's the whole point of it. But when someone plays the blues good, it's heartfelt."
“We're on a wave, and we'll see if it's a good ride or not.”
There's a cinematic quality to the band and when asked what else he's into (specifically if he's a movie fan), Damon revealed being a roleplaying fanatic. "When I was kid, I was obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons, a super geek. Hence the name, Bigelf. I think part of that cinematic stuff has got to come from when I was a child. I was into things like Excalibur and Star Wars. Our music falls somewhere, thematically, between fantasy and sci-fi. I was listening to our song 'Counting Sheep' the other day. I really listened to the thematic quality to it. It felt like a movie."
The visuals are integral to everything for Damon. In fact, he stresses the whole package like his favorite bands did. "Bigelf is an influence band. When you look at Led Zeppelin, especially early Led Zeppelin, they're ripping off a lot of classic blues songs, but in an amazing, original way. But it's their interpretation that made Zeppelin legendary. On this record, we certainly tried to achieve our own sound and I think Gallows is a step forward for us. You’ll hear the influences in there, but it doesn't sound like anything in particular."
The band is more of an experience than just a band. "Bigelf is its own reality. That came as a result of experiencing years in an unhealthy musical environment. There was a decade where we created our own universe for our fans to come into. It's a complete universe, when you come in, you don't really need to go anywhere else. From there, you make your own journey or experience. Those are the feelings we're trying to conjure up with people. When we perform, we release energy. We try to challenge the listener. That's my opinion on it. Otherwise, it's so fucking boring."
Ultimately, change is important to Damon. "I don't think modern music, with the exception of a few bands, challenge the listener. I'm just talking in a general sense. Today, genres are isolated more than ever. Before, bands like Pink Floyd and Queen were just considered 'music.' Everything is so isolated inside of its own subgenre these days. Now everything is stuck inside subgenres, doom, metal, grind, whatever. It keeps listeners segregated, which is unfortunate. I think Bigelf is a reaction to that division in music. In a way, the music industry created Bigelf. We are a reaction to what didn’t exist. From that, we rose up.Nirvana occurred because there was so much gluttony in the Sunset Strip scene and hard rock in general. By 1990, it was everywhere and too prevalent. I think that's how it works in general—artists react to the world around them and create something. Bigelf's reaction is still taking a while to set off, but Cheat the Gallows is a good start."