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What Goes On: Big Clown

Big Clown's agitated and intensely tight garage-punk comes in short packages, but it also feels right at home in Memphis' underground punk scene. To find out more about the Memphis four-piece, we caught up with drummer Zach Mitchell and vocalist Lucy Isadora to discuss the origins of Big Clown, their other musical projects, and what it was like fulfilling the band's dream playing at last year's Gonerfest.

Photo by Raegan Labat

Formed in early 2019 — Big Clown — consisting of vocalist Lucy Isadora, drummer Zach Mitchell and guitarists Jesse Mansfield and Stephen Turner — are one of the newer bands ripping it up in Memphis' underground garage-punk scene. While not (yet) officially a Goner band, they have already played for the label's streaming show, Goner TV, and have a good relationship with the label. so much so that they were asked to play at last year's Gonerfest, tearing through through their short, but frenetic bursts of garage-punk rattles and nervy eruptions. On their most recent album, Big Mad, recorded and self-released in early 2020, the band's madcap blast of scorching distortion and impeccably tight persistent beats bounce around Isadora's casual acrobatic vocals and rapid yelps, which swings between narrative and riot grrrl.

To find out more about the Memphis four-piece, we caught up with Mitchell and Isadora to discuss the origins of Big Clown, their other musical projects, and what it was like fulfilling the band's dream playing at last year's Gonerfest.

Paperface Zine: Take me through the origins of Big Clown. How did it start and what was the vision when forming?

Zach Mitchell: Big Clown was an idea that I had been kicking around since high school. I watched a lot of Beck's Record Club stuff (a true '00s indie rock artifact) where he'd get his famous friends in his home studio to cover an album over a weekend. The kicker was that no one could learn the songs ahead of time. I wanted to do the same thing with original songs. Wasn't able to really do it until I moved to Memphis and had access to Jesse's [Mansfield] home studio, so I pulled in him (who I'd known from years of playing in the Mississippi indie rock scene), Lucy (who I had been collabing on a fast food review zine with/the band she was singing with who had just broken up), and Big Steve [Turner] (who was one of my first friends in Memphis through our other band Late Night Cardigan). Originally I wanted to play one show and break up like the band Bad Times, but I was talked out of that pretty fast. Bad Times didn't even do that shit, they played like three shows and lied to everyone about it. I didn't really have a strong vision when I put the band together, but eventually we established a few loose rules for the band: the alternate tuning, short songs, comedy improv style yes and'ing ideas, etc etc. I mostly just wanted to get everyone in a room and see if the idea was even feasible.

Lucy Isadora: The first weekend turned into (most of) of our debut EP Gains Weight and everything since then has been a little more thought through, but there's still a sense of spontaneity to everything. I had been singing with a very short-lived band and we had broken up in a semi-dramatic fashion. I was pretty sad, because it was my first band and I really thought I wouldn't have the opportunity to be creative in that way ever again. Zach had this idea to do a bad times-style band with his bandmates Jesse and Stephen. I was an enthusiastic fan of everything the three of them did so I said yes! We recorded most of our first album in one weekend, I wrote 99% of the lyrics on the spot as they were writing songs, and we literally just did whatever made us laugh the hardest.

If somebody asked you on the street to describe Big Clown’s sound and style in only two words, what would you tell them?

Mitchell: Riff Jackhammer (coincidentally, that's also my professional wrestling name)

loud, fast. I am not very good at describing bands haha.

Collectively, how do each of you shape the dynamic of this lineup?

Mitchell: Most of the music is written fairly spontaneously, so we all contribute to that in the moment. It's a fairly democratic writing process. Even when someone brings a demo or half completed song in, there's a lot of molding and shaping that takes place from all sides. I will say, this project is 100% not doable without Jesse's incredible home recording setup.

Isadora: One of the blessings of making music with people whose work I am a fan of is that I trust basically any decision they make, because I know it'll be a good one. I came into Big Clown having basically no experience having a part in the songwriting process and it's been great to learn more about that with people I know are going to make great songs either way.

Aside from the projects you already named, what other projects are you part of?

Mitchell: Between the four of us we're in like 10 other bands and none of them really sound like Big Clown. The top to bottom writing process in Big Clown is extremely different from every other band I've ever been in. Big Clown songs are more about getting one good idea on paper and moving on from it as fast as possible. Lingering on something for too long kills the magic. Someone will either come in with an idea or we'll work on something someone plays on the spot, usually based on a rhythmic idea. Just as an example — "Salami" was written by me when Jesse asked me to write the "dumbest" guitar part I could and then he played it backwards. Shit like that doesn't really happen in other bands.

Isadora: I'm currently starting another band with some people here in Jackson, a more synth-punk focused thing. It's definitely a very different and cool experience, because I'm playing a synth and trying to figure out how to squeeze the most fucked up sounds out of it. It's been a great learning exercise, but it has made me realize how spoiled we are in Big Clown — we practice and record at Jesse's house, where he has an entire studio ready to go, so we can record ideas as soon as they happen! My new band is practicing in a glorified broom closet and recording ideas on our iPhones — still super fun, but definitely a different vibe.

Photo by Brandi Rinks

Your most recent album, the razor sharp and impeccably tight Big Mad, was released at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Where did you record it and what was the recording and mixing process like for it?

Mitchell: It was recorded at Jesse's, the same place where we record everything. That's actually the second version of the album, we recorded the entire thing minus the AC/DC cover a few months earlier, but weren't totally happy with it. That's the good part about recording in your guitar player's home for free! He also handled the mixing. Pretty easy process once we threw an entire album in the trash, I guess.

Isadora: Yeah Zach basically covered this but I just want to add — Jesse rules! If you are in a band and want your record to be amazing, you should get Jesse Mansfield to record it!

Lucy I know you're the primary songwriter so what inspired the songwriting on Big Clown, Big Mad?

Isadora: I wrote a lot of those lyrics during the fall of 2019. It was my first year out of college and my first year teaching — anyone who teaches knows that your first year is just really super hard. So I had a frustrating job that was making me extremely anxious, on top of the normal post-college feelings of "oh my god what am i doing with my life," and I wrote about it a lot to get my feelings out. I didn't realize that so many of the songs on the new record were about that until we got reviewed in Magnetic Visions Zine and Billiam said the lyrics were sad. I was like, what? but when I re-listened to the record I was like, oh yeah, I was extremely depressed and anxious when I wrote all of this.

What was it like playing at last year’s Goner Fest and playing these newer tracks live? Also, what were some of your favorite bands you saw?

Mitchell: One of the original goals of Big Clown was to play Gonerfest, so getting to play it was a true dream come true. We were part of the 2020 virtual one too, which was great, but not totally the same. Getting to play at the same festival as The Spits, Reigning Sound, and dozens of other incredible bands was fucking insane. Like truly some bucket list shit. Still can't believe it. I threw my snare at the end of the set and damaged it though. Playing the new songs is cool. Best bands included MSPAINT, Reigning Sound, and Snooper. Love seeing Southern folks getting after it.

Isadora: Gonerfest was incredible. I literally found punk rock via Goner Records, so anytime we get to work with Goner I just pinch myself. MSPAINT, Snooper, and Spread Joy were probably my favorite sets, and of course I loved Reigning Sound and cried during their set.

Lastly, what can we expect from Big Clown in 2022?

Mitchell: Hopefully a new record. We have a couple of new songs in various states of completion that I'm excited about. We're also getting out to some new places this year — the Midwest especially. Hoping there's no Omega Variant or whatever that's going to kill all of us and make writing, recording, and performing music impossible because I'd like to do the clown thing forever.

Big Mad is out now. Stream the new album below.

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