Midlands duo BIG SPECIAL on their debut album 'POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES'

Interview Big Special: Special Offers

With debut ‘POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES’, Midlands duo BIG SPECIAL are tackling everyday politics with bare bones grit and twinkling wit.

BIG SPECIAL, putting the punk in punctual!” Callum Moloney laughs as he joins today’s Zoom. His band may be on the verge of tipping over into the mainstream, with their debut album, ‘POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES’, mere days away from release, yet the duo are still aggressively polite and on time. “Fashionably on time,” nods singer Joe Hicklin. “Well, we’ve found that most people in the music industry are always a bit late…”

It’s a surprising introduction to a group that specialise in abrasive, clattering songs with titles like ‘SHITHOUSE’, ‘BUTCHER’S BIN’ and ‘MONGREL’. Across their debut, they draw from a palette of foreboding electronics, distorted vocals, and buzzing, razor-sharp guitar lines, but throughout all 15 tracks, the unifying factor is the vocalist’s lyrics. At turns morose, bracingly honest and thoroughly pissed off, ‘POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES’ roughly chronicles the dog days of the Covid lockdowns in which the band started, but also takes in class, mental health, regional identity and friendship along the way – all struck through with a thorough dose of self-deprecation.

“We just wanted it to be an honest album – genuine, of our time, and representative of our life,” says Joe. Both musicians had forays into bands before BIG SPECIAL, but this time around, says the frontman, “I was committed to this stripped-back, bare bones songwriting. I wanted to do something different, and seeing bands like Sleaford Mods – they had a laptop, and it was like that was the new acoustic guitar. You could get some cracked recording software and just mess around; that’s the new working within your means.” Callum cackles: “Joe, you’ve got to stop snitching on yourself that you’ve got a cracked version of Logic!” Joe laughs, shaking his head. “I haven’t now! Once we got a bit of money, I bought it.”

The band are keen to point out that much of the record dates back to their very earliest days. “A lot of stuff that’s on the album was on the demo that Joe sent me four years ago now,” Callum explains, joking: “Why polish a turd?” In serious terms, though, holding fire before recording or releasing anything – or even playing any shows – has allowed BIG SPECIAL to chase a more considered sound.

“Being able to go back and forth; having the time to build our voice and this catalogue of stuff,” Joe nods. “Then we started gigging and what came to life on stage re-informed the recordings.” “That’s my favourite bit,” says Callum, “when I tell people that the album’s basically four years old, but then the very last recording session was what, four months ago? Couple tins of Guinness and Joe pulled out a guitar in the last hour, suddenly the album’s got tons more guitar on it; we were sprinkling them seasonings in, all the way up until serving.”

Midlands duo BIG SPECIAL on their debut album 'POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES' Midlands duo BIG SPECIAL on their debut album 'POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES'

“The point is that politics is personal. Your whole life is political.” – Joe Hicklin

Both Moloney and Hicklin grew up in the Midlands – in Birmingham and the Black Country respectively, as they’re keen to point out – and the region’s post-industrial identity runs through every facet of the album. It’s an area that lacks the cultural framework of somewhere like Manchester or London where bands are given the means to climb the ranks of the music industry without leaving their hometown.

“Making it in art, when you’re from round here, is getting out of here,” says Callum. “It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yeah the infrastructure’s not there, but there’s a generational, bred-in lack of want and urgency for creativity; for non-factory workers basically.” This lack of a path towards art is something that chimes with Joe too, and will resonate across any part of the UK that was once defined by industry. “The history of the area is just hard work,” says the frontman. “It’s labourers and factory workers. Then that industry was taken away, and it was generations of people just trying to find something to do to get by.”

The duo are at pains to stress that they’re not pessimists – they believe in the Midlands, and see positives on the horizon. “I think things are improving,” Callum says. “There’s a huge art scene that’s thriving, but Midlanders are always walking uphill. I think it’s taken a couple of generations to catch up. In the Black Sabbath era, it had its flowers, but recently they’re starting to regrow.”

The album tackles these ideas in ways that should echo far wider than just the Midlands. “It’s obviously about where I’m from,” says Joe, “but that’s a million different places, just in England.” He stops to think. “It’s that want for us to recognise our similarities through the hardships, rather than all the shit that keeps us butting heads with each other. The big hopeful moment is ‘DiG!’, at the end of the album, which is the big closing curtains, roll-the-credits moment. That’s where I really wanted to emphasise: ‘Just remember there is a thread of hope in all of this shit, of recognising that it is shit, and it’s shit for all of us’. There’s hope in the connection of the struggle.

“The point is that politics is personal,” he continues. “Your whole life is political. We’re not listing atrocities by politicians, but we are talking about life. Everyone had a bad time in lockdown. Me and my missus were living in a converted garage in Birmingham, covered in black mould, with our two dogs; my wife’s a teacher, she was teaching from home – it was a madhouse. Luckily for us, we had this giant silver lining of coming up with BIG SPECIAL. But the class stuff, the mental health stuff, it’s all ongoing, and it’s still informing what we’re making.”

With only two members, it would be easy to imagine BIG SPECIAL putting Joe and Callum under a lot of pressure, but the unity and connection they’re hoping to stoke clearly begins at home. “We rarely disagree,” says Callum. “It’s been a learning curve, touring and doing all this stuff. It’s strange labour, and it’s a lot of work to be done for two lads, but we could run a corner shop with a lot more hard work in it and we wouldn’t fall out there either. I see us as more of a comedy two-piece than a band,” he chuckles. “It’s like the Two Ronnies in the van,” grins Joe. “One-two-three-four!”

Midlands duo BIG SPECIAL on their debut album 'POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES' Midlands duo BIG SPECIAL on their debut album 'POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES'

“There’s a huge art scene that’s thriving, but Midlanders are always walking uphill.” – Callum Moloney

DIY A&R (and how BIG SPECIAL got signed thanks to a very helpful bit of serendipity)

Callum: Luck is when preparation meets opportunity, innit? Because the only reason you’re talking to us today is because two brothers from Joe’s school moved to London, and one of them was doing our label’s tiling!

Joe: His brother, my old friend from school, was doing some podcast with [our label]. I don’t know if the tiling came through the podcast or the other way round, but the tiler was playing ‘SHITHOUSE’, and then Adam, our A&R guy, asked them about it, and he sent him it over. Adam phoned us, had a chat, phoned our manager, we went for a curry and he signed us. And that was that!

Callum: It was before our fucking tenth gig! So I’d feel like a liar if we sat here and said that luck didn’t have a gigantic part to play, but in turn it’s because he heard our song - we are very lucky, but we worked fucking hard to get here. You said it yesterday Joe: ‘If we do pull it off, we’ll be happy for every single day of struggle’. 

‘POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES’ is out now via SO Recordings.

BIG SPECIAL play The Great Escape (15th - 18th May) where DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now. Visit diymag.com/festivals for more information.

Tags: BIG SPECIAL, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the May 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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