By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
It's a cold world out there for a little band, and one night for Big Sir it was so cold that their instruments quit working. Those vintage synthesizers are as susceptible as antebellum dowagers when it comes to inopportune swooning, and the winter wind curling in off the ceiling put all the tubes and transistors to hypothermic sleep, and they would blink but not bleep if they even blinked at all. Plus all the stringed instruments kept shrinking out of tune—cold contracts—and so Big Sir had to retreat to the sort of conservative arctic arrangement that no one besides Björk ever thinks about. Because they are people of temperate disposition, they adjusted no problem: a set sans bleeps that singer/co-songwriter/co-producer Lisa Papineau files along the lines of "not necessarily a bad thing, but a great learning experience."
Big Sir are a flexible and forgiving band—Papineau and co-songwriter/co-producer/bassist Juan Alderete de la Pena (also seen playing in Mars Volta) designed Big Sir to be that way, in composition and recording and performance under extreme conditions, too. They write by remote exchange and record with borrowed auxiliary members (a hootenanny feel, says Papineau; once they had so few headphones during a session that the drummer kept time by watching Papineau kind of . . . dance to the beat) and they put it out onstage live with the best backline circumstance delivers, currently including Hella's bassist Jonathan Hischke. Like Fibonacci sequence: Big Sir unfolds from one plus one into a field of sound and varied membership and you could fit anything up to one of Harry Partch's homemade garbageolodeons between Alderete's pads-on-paws bass and Papineau's gentle vocals. Betty Davis and Impulse! jazz and Annette Peacock and Eno post-Roxy for pop: Didn't gas rationing make that decade so good?
First Big Sir record was soft but smart with Papineau learning how to sing—"I'd always been kind of a screamer, and I thought that was the only thing I could do," she says. She'd been a little girl who sang in church before she sang on Warped Tour, and since nobody is ever allowed to scream in church, she must have had some sort of tumescent delicacy waiting for revival. She and Alderete had shaken Sir off the tail end of Pet, a '90s alt-rock band that did the quiet/loud rounds—the Warped thing, Crow soundtrack, Tori Amos record deal—and ended with enough escape velocity to propel members to various bigger things.
Guitarist Tyler Bates went on to score wild zombie and reptoid flicks (and the coming blockbuster 300), for instance, and Papineau and Alderete started Big Sir because they'd found a particular resonance between them the very first time they played together in Pet: Alderete did about three notes and, says Papineau, everyone said YES! ("It was my birthday then, too," she says. "Happy birthday to me!") And so, though it started a little strange (slurry spoken-word over a mope beat), that first Big Sir album puffed into a song called "Lisa's Theme," which put Papineau's breezy vocals over sleepy bass and a beat so understated it was hiding halfway behind the drum kit, and so the clouds resolved into something recognizable.
The cut/paste pop sound came from Papineau and Alderete's tendency toward spectacular circumstance; though for new album Und Die Scheisse Ändert Sich Immer (on GSL) they'd do things like snip out three finished songs in three days when they were actually in the same room together, a lot of times they'd just transmit ideas in pieces back and forth and back and forth. Frankenstein procedure like that can really drain all the fluids out of something, but that birthday-present moment between Papineau and Alderete meant long distance made no bad news: you just have a feeling that the other person is going to respond with the right kind of parts, says Papineau. They still pull in guest musicians the same way today: intuition and a bottle of wine, she says. "In seventh grade, they'll have listened to the same Thomas Dolby album," she says. "Or they'll have a good handshake. And we'll say, 'He's our kind of people!'"
Aw, say you: how folksy and true, from a girl who tells how she was picked on for an "unfortunate perm" in the very first sentence of her bio. Sad and soft and funny, too: How was Lisa ever a screamer? Well, she was younger and college puts weird ideas in everyone's heads—she even had a performance-art career, which she has come to laugh about politely, and now when she talks about music she talks most affectionately about the earliest things she ever heard, the kind of thrift-store brass records whose dust and gravity make up the bottom of half of Big Sir still.
She loved Cat Stevens, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, she says, and although she has since heard about 10 thousand records, she says there's something about the first ones she still remembers: "I remember the first day," says Lisa. "I remember the chair I was in and I remember the sun through the window and I started weeping for joy. 'Rikki, Don't Lose That Number' by Steely Dan. I was really little! And I have no idea why—I was just sitting in my mother's rocking chair and thinking . . . this is so beautiful!"