Claws In: On The Second Bill, Big Bill Transform Into Something Delightfully Monstrous

by Nick Hanover

Big Bill

If you’re in a band, chances are your least favorite question is “Well, what does your band sound like?” It’s like being at a party where everyone feels forced to ask you what you “do” and when they ask it, they don’t want some lengthy response about your hopes and dreams and aspirations, they just want to know what kind of boring bill paying occupation you’ve got and whether they can co-commiserate about it with you or if you’re one of those lunatics who has a job they actually like. The musical variation of this means doing a lot of mental calculation: do I need to posture and make up a bunch of hip influences we likely sound not at all similar to? do I need to make my stuff sound more palatable so this person might actually pay the $5 cover to come see us sometime? or do I say we sound unlike anyone else? That latter option is almost always a lie. Unless you are in Big Bill.

Over the past couple years Big Bill have proven themselves to be the burgeoning titans of some kind of freak pop scene in Austin, crafting music that fitfully hops between punk, indie, power pop, surf and even a bit of twang. Their debut EP A Hard Day’s Bill seemed to have a lot of B-52’s influence to it, with Alan Lauer’s mighty yet danceable drums and Eric Braden’s off-kilter voice weaving between his brother Cody’s often surf-tinged guitars. But when we interviewed Eric last year, he confessed he is actually “super ignorant about music” and “only came to music late in life.” Eric did point out that the crack band backing him is more than sharp enough to make up for the gaps in his knowledge, and on the band’s newest EP The Second Bill it seems that a lot of their musical insight is running off on Eric. Where A Hard Day’s Bill was mostly stylistically coherent, closer to the classic ’70s UK punk end of the spectrum than anything else, The Second Bill deviates wildly and also has Eric Braden taking more confident reins, dropping the bulk of the reverb that shielded his voice on the debut and reaching way up into the most nasally registers of his voice rather than try and hide it.

The patient zero for that vocal approach is “Juice U,” the centerpiece of the debut (and a song I campaigned, to no avail, to top Ovrld’s Best Songs of 2013 list…sorry guys)– “Juice U” is lean and wide open sonically, offering plenty of space for Eric to menacingly list off his (possibly vampiric) wants and desires before exploding into a messy, spastic chorus. Right from the start, The Second Bill features this approach with the campy “Claws In,” a dirty little number about some kind of mummy lady haunting a small town that bridges the gap between Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers and the Cramps. The song has a more boogie-like rhythmic approach, Lauer at first uncharacteristically dialed back while Jennifer Monsees’ bass and Cody’s guitar work together to make a throbbing, pulsating mass around that drumming, punctuated by mewling guitar licks and Eric’s mock sneer.

That sneer gets flipped on “Sweet Boy,” where the band morphs into something at first resembling the Nerves as Eric does his best to convince some wary bystanders that he is not “a bad, bad man” but is in fact a “sweet boy.” Even when the band is outright threatening victims, like on the similarly power poppy “Don’t Try to Run,” there’s a sweetness to it, like they’re both confident in and apologetic about their inherently evil disposition. That dichotomy even gets a highlight in the surf rock opus “I Wanna Do Evil,” as the hapless narrator states he is “Trying to sleep/But the neighbors keep/Summoning Spirits.

The EP’s weirdo bonafides come at the very end, though, with “Two Weeks,” a glorious singalong anthem to getting kidnapped by trees only to have them rip apart your body, all set to a tune that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Cheap Trick album. The song begins as a kind of nervous, paranoid road anthem, complete with call and response vocals restating the narrator’s quandaries, but its bridge leads into perhaps the catchiest chorus Big Bill have ever created, structured around the simple line “I put in my two weeks,” which in turns make all that paranoia just seem like workaday stress. Then that second chorus leads into a spacier new bridge, detailing all the horrors those trees are perpetrating.

Though we’re only in 2015’s first month, it’s difficult to imagine any other artists offering up a musical statement so concise and assured in its identity. Big Bill may not be the most prolific band in Austin, but each EP they release hurls them closer to some kind of weirdo apotheosis but what makes it even weirder is that their pop abilities are growing equally stronger, making them one of those rare bizarro bands that is so irresistible even normal audiences can’t help but be entranced. Mark my words: the next step in this Bill trilogy is going to launch Big Bill into some kind of national freakspace.

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover