WILMINGTON — “David Byrne is one of my biggest influences,” Nick MacDaniels told Port City Daily last week from Milwaukee.
The lead singer of Burlington, N.C.’s Big Something said the band frequently puts Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” (1980, “Remain In Light”) on its setlist. Upon their return to Wilmington’s Greenfield Lake Amphitheater for this weekend’s three-night Halloween romp — each night anchored by a different theme — fans can expect more than just one Heads song on Sunday night: Big Something will be popping up as a Talking Heads tribute band.
MacDaniels is channeling his idol, seen in Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” concert film, shot in December 1983 over four nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater. The tour featured Byrne in his now-iconic oversized suit and tie.
“I need to hit a big and tall store,” MacDaniels said.
The lead singer said he was able to catch Byrne during the 2019 American Utopia tour (now reprised on Broadway).
“I walked away so inspired,” he said. “I would love to get to a point where the band is able to do shows that are experiences like that — where the whole thing is an art project.”
Though Big Something won’t be recreating a mobile, dancing band as seen during American Utopia, the six-piece — also including Doug Marshall (bass), Josh Kagel (keys, trumpet), Casey Cranford (sax, EWI), Jesse Hensley (lead guitar), and Ben Vinograd (drums) — have already paid tribute to the New Wave and avant-garde-pop band during a show in Atlanta. “And fans loved it,” MacDaniels said.
The first two nights in Wilmington will come with other welcome surprises, MacDaniels promised. On Saturday, the band will be joined by Saxsquatch.
“He basically just wears a full body Bigfoot suit and plays saxophone,” MacDaniels said.
Big Something will turn into a jungle band and encourages the audience to come decked out to the theme as well.
Friday, they will be reprising their Royal Rumble Tour from 2020, reuniting with friends Andy Frasco and the U.N. It was Big Something’s biggest tour to date, MacDaniels said, starting in Athens, Ga., and ending in Chicago, Il. The musicians dressed up in wrestling suits and masks, crushed beers, broke boards over their heads, jumped on each other’s backs, and crowd-surfed maniacally.
“It was kind of like a play on a wrestling match, where both bands would have musical battles,” MacDaniels said. “It was just a really crazy high-energy show.”
When Frasco takes the stage with MacDaniels, the two switch identities. Each dresses as the other and mimics characteristics.
“It’s more like a comedy routine,” he explained, “where I pretend to be him with his voice, and he pretends to be me and acts really shy and quiet.”
The Royal Rumble Tour was the last one Big Something embarked on before Covid-19 shut down music venues and grounded the band while they were building momentum, growing into the crest of their careers.
“Things were really going well, and we were about to take another big step forward as a band, then Covid kind of threw a wrench in the gears,” MacDaniels said.
Instead, the bandmates became relegated to their homes in separate cities across North Carolina. MacDaniels started streaming shows from his living room, sometimes garnering upward of 40,000 viewers. The band got creative in how to sustain the energy, which had always primarily been dependent on touring.
They embarked on a few drive-in concerts and pod shows (not quite as extreme as the bubble concerts from the Flaming Lips — “that’s pods on steroids,” MacDaniels said). They played a few special one-offs in Winston-Salem, Myrtle Beach and Richmond, as promoters and venues shifted gears.
“Everybody had to kind of adapt with the times,” he said, even if it meant making for a few odd concert-going experiences. Big Something is very much an interactive band who likes to connect with dancing crowds and feeds on close-knit vibes. The Covid shows relied on social distancing, which also pared down intimacy.
“It was a little weird — hard for the crowd to all stay in their pods,” MacDaniels said. “Everybody wanted to come up to the front of the stage and just go back to the way it used to be.”
It was a far cry from the 2,500 people who usually attend the band’s annual festival, the Big What?. On hiatus throughout the pandemic, its return is penciled in for next year, Aug. 4-6.
The band started the event as a small gathering on a friend’s farm, Possum Holler, in Prospect Hill before moving to Mebane, N.C., as attendance grew. Nine-years strong, it’s now hosted at Shakori Hills in Pittsboro, N.C., wherein fans camp over three days and enjoy music from Big Something and special guests, day into late night.
One of MacDaniels’ favorite festivals happened in 2019, as Big Something was wrapping their Friday-night set. They had their pals in the Empire Strikes Brass — a nine-piece — appear in the audience, instruments in hand, and lead a second line parade across the farm.
“All of a sudden, they come over the hill and into this field, and there’s a stage set up in the distance,” MacDaniels remembered. “It’s covered from top to bottom with these white see-through sheets, so you can’t really see us on the stage. You can just see the lights and our silhouettes, and we were playing ‘Echoes’ by Pink Floyd. But next year is going to be the biggest one yet.
Currently, the band has been touring four nights on and three nights off the road as they get back into a groove. “It’s just been a gradual ramp-up,” MacDaniels said.
Though the drive the band was feeling ahead of the pandemic was somewhat stunted, it wasn’t a complete slow-down. MacDaniels said he continued collaborating on new songs with musician friends like Josh Phillips, who once played in Your Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, as well as Americana singer Maggie Rose. Songwriting has always been a joint effort for the lead singer, who lost his steady collaborator Paul Interdonato in 2017.
“We were just best friends,” MacDaniels said. “It was really fun, and so that’s where the identity for a lot of our songs comes from: Paul’s imagination.”
One of the band’s first tracks, “Amanda Lynn,” started as a chord progression band members had recorded earlier in the day before that night Interdonato filled it in with lyrics, singing along effortlessly to the looped melody.
“But there’s the rare occasion when you’re, like, having an out-of-body experience where the song comes together all at the same time, with the music and the lyrics,” MacDaniels said. “‘Megalodon’ was like that.”
From the 2014 album “Truth Serum,” the song was created simultaneously in minutes, according to MacDaniels. “Paul just taught me so much about the craft,” he said, crediting their creative teamwork for 80% of Big Something’s song makeup.
When Interdonato passed away, Big Something was setting up to record “The Other Side” in an old church, Echo Mountain Studios, in Asheville, N.C. MacDaniels called it an “emotional whirlwind of a week,” mired in the ghosts of Interdonato’s words. The band was left raw in the studio, reflecting on all the lyrics’ meanings, approaching each word in a different mindset from how they originally heard them.
“We recorded ‘Smoke Signal,’ which Paul had written right before he passed, and in the lines of the chorus I think he was referring to himself,” MacDaniels said, “talking about how he would be missed. So it was a really heavy experience doing that album and putting it out.”
MacDaniels decided to honor his friend on the next release, 2020’s “Escape.” It was a really nice transition for the band,” he said. “We were kind of escaping the weight of all of that heaviness and entering a new phase in our career in our music.”
Over the last year, Big Something has been readying multiple projects for release in 2022. Among them are a live album and acoustic album, plus new material that will lead to a brand new record. Right now, they’re in the early stages of working through fresh tracks, which haven’t even been road-tested except during sound checks.
MacDaniels said they will continue to work with John Custer, who has produced their catalog to date. A trusty comrade, the lead singer said Custer constantly sent them snippets of sounds and hooks, loops and chord progressions throughout the pandemic.
“It’s what he always does,” MacDaniels said. “He’s incremental to constructing melodies that help cultivate our music.”
MacDaniels said Custer intrinsically taps into the myriad sounds Big Something folds into their repertoire: jazz, reggae, hip-hop, rock, funk.
“It’s a big sound, it’s a big something,” he said the the producer once said of the band, solidifying its name.
The new work will include the mastery of engineer Bill Stevens, who runs Ovation Sound in Winston-Salem, where Big Something will record, MacDaniels confirmed.
“We also have a bunch of big shows in 2022 that we haven’t announced yet that I’m really excited about,” he added, “and some of the biggest venues we’ve ever played, teaming up with a lot of other great bands.”
Atlanta’s Sweetwater 420 festival is on the docket, which will come with a beer collaboration. Cranford, the band’s sax player, who also performs on an electronic wind instrument — bandmates call it a “space flute” — “says it should be a barrel-aged sour,” MacDaniels quipped, “with boysenberries.”
The details of the beer are still being finalized, though it’s actually Big Something’s second beer launch. Truth Serum IPA was released by Tobacco Rogue Brewing in Raleigh already.
“We love doing stuff like that,” MacDaniels said.
The cheeky drinks offer a taste of the band’s larger-than-life persona. Vivacious light and sound shows, dress-up parties, and themed concerts aplenty showcase a playful tone that keeps the fans coming back. Each show this weekend will have friends of Big Something meandering through the audience at Greenfield Lake to choose best costume contenders.
“It’s not necessarily, like, if you just bought a really fancy costume,” MacDaniels clarified, “but whether you put a lot of creative thought and energy into it. That’s usually how we pick the winners.”
Someone will take home a Big Something mystery box, filled with collectibles, memorabilia, and other items. “It could be tickets to our festival, it could be merchandise,” MacDaniels suggested.
Big Something will perform at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater Oct. 29-31; tickets are $27.50 or $35 day of the show. All three concerts require attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours of the performances.
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