Big Sir talks about creating a new album in the face of illness
During 12 years of sonic partnership, vocalist Lisa Papineau and bassist Juan Alderete's mesh of meditative lyrics, electro-inflected boom-bap and prog-jazz has combined fury and philosophy in a way that doesn’t have to shout to be heard.
Formed in 1999, their band, Big Sir, brought together the operatic tone of Alderete's fretless bass with Papineau's penchant for soulful restraint. On Feb. 7 the band released "Before Gardens, After Gardens," their first album in six years, via Rodriguez Lopez/Sargent House.
Despite their positive outlook on an album over half a decade in the making, the inspiration it took to make it has taken a serious, very literal toll on their bodies.
Shortly after completing their previous album, "Und Die Scheiße Ändert Sich Immer" in 2006, Papinaeu and Alderete were both diagnosed with life-threatening diseases. Alderete was found to have polycythemia vera, a rare bone marrow disease that makes the body produce too many red blood cells, while Papineau discovered she had multiple sclerosis. And just three weeks before the release of the album, heavily steeped in reflections on life and death, Papineau was also diagnosed with cancer.
Despite their health obstacles, both have been incessantly busy with projects ranging from Alderete’s work as the bassist for The Mars Volta to Papineau’s solo career and collaborations with artists like Air and M83 and ME & LP with Matt Embree of RX Bandits. But even with so many other projects to occupy their time, both admit that their shared sense of humor, affinity for bass and West Coast gangsta rap creates a bond that keeps them together.
Ahead of Big Sir's gig at Harvelle's in Long Beach on Monday, Papineau and Alderete spoke to Pop & Hiss about crafting their new album and facing mortality head-on.
Pop & Hiss: What is special about the chemistry you two have with this project as a bassist and vocalist?
Lisa Papineau: Musically for me, the thing I responded to as a singer was the tone of the fretless bass and how much like a voice it sounded and being able to kind of sing along with it, not like you’re a solo singer. And with this project, all the comments about my voice are "it's whispery sounding." Well, it’s not whispery and it took a lot to find an organic tone that’s playing along with the bassline and I don’t want to disrespect the space that bassline creates. I’m going to try to slip under it.
How are both of you doing these days after being blindsided with major illnesses right before embarking on the new album?
LP: I’m really struggling with walking and for the past year I haven’t really been able to use my hands. They feel like they’re being squeezed with rubber bands. But more importantly, we’ve spent all these years writing this album that’s a reflection on life and death and accepting death and being OK to move to the next realm. And just as we finish it I find out I have cancer. And I’m just saying to Juan: "You've got to be kidding me. This is is like a made-for-TV movie, or like payback from the universe.”
Juan Alderete: Even though we were getting hit with all these health issues, it won’t affect our intent to present this music live and on record and through artwork. Lisa still does all the artwork for the albums. Through medication for my disease, I’m fine. My disease tends to work over time; I feel great right now but in five years I don’t know. Some people, this disease hits them hard.
Aside from your health, was there anything else that what accounted for the six-year gap between albums?
LP: It started in 2006 and then there was downtime because we were both making other records and writing things here and there. But we got a lot more hard-core about 2009 and we ended up cutting out a lot of stuff and doing new songs and we ended up doing a shorter record and using some songs for different projects. Also, we worked on it in between traveling.
Your newer songs seem to have a bit more of an electronic influence than past records. Did you notice any particular stylistic changes on this album?
JA: On the first record we used SB 1200 and MPCs or drum machines. But nowadays we’ve got Logic [beat-making software] and it’s so much easier. Lisa and I love hip-hop and this is kind of our way of creating hip-hop-type music. We might’ve made this kind of record back then, but it was just harder.
LP: We actually recorded a lot of live stuff and then chopped it up. The elements are still the same but maybe we just oriented toward more digitally cut-up stuff which is more hip-hop or electro.
Talk about some of your musical tastes outside of some of the other projects you’ve been in.
JA: I rep L.A. hip-hop over anything any day. And it’s got to be gangster. Lisa was way deeper into Warren G than I was. Before her I’d just gotten into his hits, but she was like, "You'd better check out that album, fool," so I ended up getting into it even more. But for the record, Rodney O and Joe Cooley are the ones who started gangsta rap. They were the first ones to really go hard in their rhymes. But, seriously, I cannot find a Rodney O and Joe Cooley T-shirt anywhere. I want an “Everlasting Bass” T-shirt. I would kill for that.
Big Sir performs with the Vespertines and C-Gak Monday at Harvelle's, 206 The Promenade N, Long Beach. (562) 239-3700, www.longbeach.harvelles.com. 9:30 p.m. $5. 21+.
-- Nate Jackson
Photo: Juan Alderete and Lisa Papineau of Big Sir. Credit: Cari Veach