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Interview: Pat Graham (Big Nothing)

15 April 2022

Photo by Rachel De Soro

It’s a common tale – young punk rocker grows up, discovers The Replacements and changes course. The members of Philadelphia’s Big Nothing came from punk and indie rock backgrounds and have found common bonds in the music of Big Star, Teenage Fanclub and Tom Petty. Dog Hours, the band’s latest album, was written and recorded in the midst of the pandemic and done so in a way that was all new to the group, by trading files back and forth digitally rather than getting together in a rehearsal space or studio. Bassist Pat Graham tells me that he enjoyed this new way of collaborating with his bandmates (Matt Quinn, Liz Parsons, Chris Jordan) and this way of writing songs may continue but, at the end of the day, nothing beats recording together in person.

Given what we’ve been through since the start of the pandemic, when it comes to the band, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned in the last two years?

PAT: We’ve taken a step back and realized we all enjoy playing music together and we love writing songs and recording especially. Being creative and having a musical output has become more important to me than physically playing shows. When we were touring, we were making music to do that. We were making music to be in front of people and physically go to shows. We had a really fun time writing the record separately and sending songs to each other and going like, “Oh, what if this chorus did this? Or what if there was a chord change here?” We still love playing shows but I think it was a shift. For my mental health, writing music is the most important thing.

We’ve shifted from writing songs so we can play them live to becoming songwriting nerds, we’re focusing on the songs. We’re already writing new songs, that’s something we’re excited about. We’re constantly honing in on these songwriting skills that we had been ignoring.

Does that mean that maybe you weren’t quite as focused in the past, it was more of a hurry up and get something done so we can get on the road?

PAT: It’s a different kind of focus. All four of us come from a punk rock background. For me, I’m writing songs imagining people at the show singing along or moving to the music. I’m writing with a certain energy in mind and a certain formula I’m familiar with. I think the pandemic forced us to think, “What other bands that aren’t punk bands that we like, what are these classic songwriting techniques that we haven’t explored?” Instead of the verse-chorus-verse-chorus, we were like, “Let’s try to write some quieter songs, songs that have nothing to do with the live performance and then approach the live performance after we’re finished recording.” That was new for us.

You mentioned you come from a punk rock background. Big Nothing has more of an Americana feel. Was it a natural progression or did you get tired of playing punk rock?

PAT: In a weird way, based on our intentions with this record, that’s the highest compliment you could pay us. For the American D.I.Y. punk scene, the four of us have been around for a minute. Without trying to sound too narcissistic, we’ve all been in bands that have toured all the time. We’ve all got varying levels of recognition for it so when we go to write records, we already have this weird fan base. They are desperately like, “This is punk. This sounds like a punk band”. That’s a natural thing to do, but, for me personally, in the last five years I’ve become unhealthily obsessed with Tom Petty.

I watched the Tom Petty documentary four or five years ago, the four-hour documentary, and I’m a sucker for any rock doc. I grew up worshipping punk and so classic rock or pop rock or anything close to it was always a no-no for me. To watch this Tom Petty documentary and be like, “This dude, attitude wise, he’s got the punkest attitude of anything I’ve seen in a long time.” He’s a spawn of other things, but all the punk bands I love are ripping off that. So it is a general progression, it all goes back to this core thing of trying to write the best song.

With punk bands, they’re working off pop song structures. I got into pop-punk when I was young and didn’t even know that it was like fast Beatles. I went through the motions. You get into the Ramones when you’re 13, and then your early 20s roll around and you’re like, “Oh, the Ramones are the best band ever.” It’s this progression of like the Ramones took the Beatles and invented the things I love about punk. That has rolled into really appreciating the classics and wondering where all this pop song structure comes from.

I just want to write perfect pop songs but at the same time, the four of us just had practice last night and Matt, our guitarist, was like, “My amp is not loud enough.” We were like, “It’s plenty loud dude.” And he was like, “It has to be louder.” We can’t escape the kind of punk roots we’re in. Not as an insult to punk, but with this record, our whole thing was, “How do make this not pop-punk? How do we not make people think this is another run-of-the-mill punk record?” We really focused on turning up the acoustic guitars, turn up the swooning melodies.

You wrote and recorded the new album separately?

PAT: Yeah, which was definitely new to us.

So you were uploading files and listening to each other’s stuff?

PAT: Yeah. We have a What’s App song share. We have our band chat and then we have a separate song share where we put all of our demos. The process is usually Matt will have a pretty fleshed out song and send it to me. Matt’s less concerned with the chorus or structure so I’ll take his GarageBand file and dissect it and try to add some stuff, take away stuff. It’s like a full collaboration.

Is that the way you did things pre-pandemic?

PAT: No. Coming from the punk world, what we’re used to is getting in a room, having a riff and being like, “Here’s a little thing I wrote. What should we do after that?” And then someone says, “This riff that I have goes with that riff sort of.” Our past has always been loudly competing with each other in a room and not being able to hear the vocals. It takes a lot more patience but we prefer the demo sharing and listening in headphones.

When we went to record, because COVID was still so hectic, we did drums and bass in a studio together but then our plan was to finish everything else at home separately. We planned to record our own guitars, record our own vocals. We tried that for two weeks and it was terrible. Without having an engineer to help facilitate things and without having each other there to be like, “That take was bad,” it felt impossible for us. That was another defining moment for us. It was like, we’re always going to do it in a studio together.

Do you feel like you’re all in sync with each other or were you logging into the What’s App and listening to something and thinking, “Wow, I had no idea that somebody had this in them”?

PAT: It goes both ways. When Liz brings songs, she has two or three songs on the new record, they are always pretty varied. It kind of depends on what she was listening to at the time. I’m always pleasantly surprised by her songwriting because I never know what to expect. That’s really fun. Matt has his formulas that he likes to stick to and he just likes to change them slightly. I work as the push for both of them because I can take a step back. With Matt, I’ll be like, “This song is great but it sounds like the last 10 songs you sent. What if you try this tempo?”

Over the years, we’ve learned to set our egos aside. Our feelings get hurt here and there but I think we’ve all learned to agree to try to write the best song and make the best record. I’m also someone who will try to write one or two songs for each record and I’ll try to go off the wall because I think that’s important for cohesion in an album.

Mine is super dependent on what I’m listening to at the time. One of the songs on the new record, “Make Believe,” which I wrote, is like an ’80s power-pop rip-off. I try and look for obscure bands and be like, “That riff is great. I’m going to try to work off that.” I’m much more intentional. I want this specific sound on our record.

Do you all write lyrics?

PAT: It kind of worked out with this record that everybody who brought songs to the table was writing the lyrics. None of us are very married to our lyrics. Liz typically has all of her lyrics fleshed out but for Matt and I, we’re in the studio a lot of the time and like, “This line is weird.” We’re much more of the school of “what words sound good together?” as opposed to the true meaning behind the song. Liz is working the lyrics out as she goes.

Matt’s lyrics are very internal. Even before the pandemic, a lot of his stuff will be sparked by a crazy day. A lot of his lyrics are anxiety based, inner monologue based. I feel like a lot of his lyrics tend to be about the small interactions you have that aren’t spoken out loud. One of my favorite things from this album that he wrote is something along the lines of “The keys you keep under the sink in case you have to go.” He’s very visual. In his brain, he’s like “Why am I making the decisions I make?”

Liz is very visual too. She bases her lyrics off experiences. Her big song on this record, “Still Sorta Healing,” is all about driving around with the memories you get flooded with when you’re driving around your old town which I think a lot of us are doing during the pandemic, driving for no reason and trying to find things to do.

My lyrics on this record … one of them, I was just trying to write a great pop song about love. The other song, “Make Believe,” was written during the George Floyd riots and trying to process not only the situation in our country but also trying to process what it means in a pandemic and how it can translate to a song. All the lyrics are processing. Instead of “I went to this bar and I saw you there,” it’s more like I’m sitting and processing in my brain ethereal shit.

The longest song on the album is 3:21. Everything is pretty short. That falls into the idea that a great pop song is short and to the point as are punk rock songs. Is the song length something you pay attention to and try to intentionally keep short?

PAT: I think it’s sub-conscious but we talk about it a lot. We talk about shortening the bridge. That comes from our punk rock background. We’re just very impatient songwriters. I often reference Sam Cooke in that regard. If you go back, he almost is never not singing in a song and those songs are like 2 minutes. But, they’re in my head all the time. We’re not jammers, we’re definitely not jammers.

Is “A Lot of Finding Out” supposed to end the way it does? It almost sounds like it was cut off before the final note.

PAT: Yes. The actual stop at the end, the two hits, that was an accident and practice once and we were like, “That’s pretty fun.” We did debate for a while about putting another verse or a bridge in that song but I’m always a fan of leave them wanting more. That chorus, to me, is one of the best on the album and I just knew the song was good if it ended there. If we add a verse or add a bridge, it might ruin the vibe and energy of the song.

You guys are based in Philadelphia. It seems like there’s a lot of bands that move there. Does it feel like it could become the next “scene”?

PAT: I think, in the music history books, we’ll look back on this era in Philly and be like, “That was an important time.” That’s not new. I’ve been playing shows for 15 years and at least the last 10 years there’s been a lot of transplants coming through and new bands popping up all the time, full bands moving to Philly. That happens all the time. I love it. I’ve taken it for granted because I grew up here but I think that’s so central to us being able to be a band and have as much fun as we do. A lot of times, I’ve called it the sixth borough of New York because there is a lot of people who either commute here for work or have moved here because it’s still affordable compared to New York. I’m hearing a new band every day, it’s crazy.

With your Americana sound, are there other bands in Philly that you consider your peers?

PAT: The people I’ve grown up going to shows with are the folks in Hop Along and Radiator Hospital. There are all these indie-pop bands and I think we’re leaning that way. We have those bands to play with but the Americana thing isn’t really huge in Philly but there are indie bands a plenty doing their spin on Pavement or what have you. We play with a lot of those bands.

Are you thinking about touring at all?

PAT: We would love to but Big Nothing is not our full-time gig. We’re all in a spot where, we have enough friends that tour full time, that if they asked us to go on a tour, I’d take a week or two off work and go have a good time but I don’t think we’re in a position any more to book our own tour like we did in the past. If we get asked to tour, we’ll go out and we’ll play New York when we can. We love to leave town if we can. We’re hoping to but not in a crazy rush.

To close it out, everyone has a story. It’s the one that they tell the first time they meet someone or it’s a good icebreaker or it’s one that your friends always say, “Pat, tell them that story.” So, what’s your story?

PAT: For years, me and the rest of the band I was in when we were in our 20s, we all worked at this arcade/batting cage/laser tag arena. It was in the suburbs, probably 40 minutes outside of Philly. We had a basketball court and there was a sign-up sheet. We would take calls during the week, write people’s names down for pick-up games. There was a random Thursday night and I strolled into work and I was checking the sheet. The last name on the sheet for a pick-up game was Shyamalan. I was like, “I wonder if there’s any relation?” The players start to saunter in, everyone shows up and I’m like, “I don’t see him.” And then, the last guy, he comes in all rushed, it’s M Night Shyamalan. I was like, “What is happening?” I shit you not, he comes in and he rushed up to the counter and he’s like, “I’m so sorry to inconvenience you guys but one of our pick-up players, he’s not coming in tonight. Does anybody want to play a game of basketball?” Me being 5’ 5”, I was like, “No,” but there’s a co-worker I had, he’s like 6’ 2”. It was honestly one of the most squandered opportunities ever. We were like, “Dude, you’ve got to chop it up with M Night. This could change all of our lives.” At one point, we’re all spying on the game, pretending we’re cleaning stuff and walking by the game. I watch my co-worker straight up deny M Night Shyamalan a layup. I was like, “Dude, that’s not the move.” After the game, they left and never came back again. I was like, “That could have been our chance.”

There’s one other fun fact. In the small suburban town that I grew up in, we lived about a half mile from Chubby Checker. He stayed in the Philly suburbs and lived off his “Twist” money for years and years. He was apparently very mean. My mom saw him once at the train station but apparently he’s very unapproachable.