Drums + Sax = Big Gigantic

Most electronic groups aren’t centered on drums and saxophones. But then, Big Gigantic isn’t your typical band.

Hailing from Colorado, the team-up featuring Dominic Lalli on sax and Jeremy Salken on drums mixes electronic dance music with wily improvisations to create something as, well, big and gigantic as the state’s famed Rocky Mountains. Their high-energy shows are just as majestic, with Lalli switching between sax and keyboard, often stopping to play DJ in between.

Big Gigantic is very spontaneous with both members very much “in the moment” as Lalli multi-tasks various musical elements while backed by Salken’s big-beat drums.

The road to Big Gigantic includes Lalli receiving a master’s degree in Jazz at the Manhattan School Of Music as well playing jazz for the Colorado-based band The Motet. Combined, Lalli and Salken blend jazz, hip hop and electronica into a unique experience that can only be called Big Gigantic.

Touring in support of their upcoming new album, Nocturnal, Big Gigantic is headlining some dates, performing with Pretty Lights or Bassnectar on others. Pollstar recently talked with Lalli and Salken as they prepped for a gig with Pretty Lights in Burlington, Vt.

Photo: Dave Vann
“The Hangout Beach, Music And Arts Festival” in Gulf Shores, Ala.

A band based on drums and saxophone. How did that come about?

Jeremy: We’d been in traditional bands before – punk bands, jazz bands, whatever – but always being fans of electronic music and listening to all sorts of different stuff. We were kind of wanting a way to blend the worlds together without just straight picking up a laptop and being DJs and not using instruments. We wanted to use our musicianship and bring that into the electronic world that at the time was mainly every song was the same length, every song’s always the same. We wanted to bring our world, like improv, into the electronic genre. And also add stuff that Dom, because he went to school for jazz, knows about, harmonies, melodies and stuff like that, and bring that into electronic music. It was more of a rhythmic thing at the time.

Do you consider Big Gigantic an electronic band with jazz undertones, or is it mostly jazz with electronic influences?

Dominic: I would say it’s definitely more of an electronic thing and that’s really what we’re going for. It just so happened that saxophone has been my voice since I’ve been trying to do music. So it’s not like a happenstance in terms of the saxophone and the jazz thing. It’s just my melodic and improvisational outlet. The same with Jeremy in terms of the drums.

I guess because there are saxophones involved and there’s a lot of improvising going on, you could say there are some jazz undertones but we’re a fairly heavy electronic band where the jazz undertones might come through as more of a melodic sense of the whole thing and maybe the improvisational sense.

Jeremy: The jazz thing is easy for people to throw in there because of the saxophone, but we’re obviously not swinging. The way that we play, you wouldn’t call it jazz if you saw it. But a lot of people like to throw it out there and we’re kind of trying to use any way to shear away from it. We love jazz, but Seems like kids, if they’re like, “Oh, they’re jazz,” they’ll be like, “We don’t want to listen to jazz because that’s what our parents listen to.”

We could be playing dubstep and if there’s saxophone in it [some] people will think it’s jazz.

Were record labels and talent buyers scratching their heads about the sax/drums arrangement when you first presented the concept?

Dominic: A little bit. We have our recordings and we have our live show. They’re similar but different. Our live show is definitely a bit heavier. So I think they went, “Hmmm. Is this going to be something? I can’t imagine it in my head.” I definitely heard promoters go, “When I saw the thing come in, I heard you guys have a lot of buzz and I wondered how they’re going to do this thing.” And then we do it and they’re like, “Wow! I can’t believe it. It works. It’s great.”

Do you think the uniqueness of the band helps wins audiences over?

Dominic: I think so. One main reason is that it’s just different. In any new genre, style or fad, the name of the game is that freshness. There’s already so many people up there with a laptop and an amazing light show pumping out their tunes and having the big drops and build-ups. We have that little added flavor of live to it. We’re improvising big solos and building that way, with solos and melodic and content, instead of just doing the normal electronic thing.

Jeremy: There’s an interaction we have going on that you can’t really get if you’re a DJ or even if there are two DJs. They’re never really bouncing back and forth. You see the two of us playing, sweating and feeding off each other as a full band would.

What goes into making Big Gigantic music?

Dominic: It’s different for every track. Sometimes we’ll start with a little vocal sample that we’ll work the track around. Or maybe it’s drumbeat or bass line. A lot of times I’ll be like, “I want to make a song with… this feeling. And you start with some chords that sort of go in that direction. There’s a lot of different ways to start but I try to find new ways to begin working a tune out so that it gives a little more variety to the songs and they’re not the same songs over and over again.

Jeremy: There’s some tunes with samples in them. If we do a remix, there’s a little sample, but I think most of the stuff is like crafting a certain kick drum tone or snare tone. He’s making it from scratch most of the time.

Dominic. I jam a lot to the stuff until I find something I really like. We’re a little more into the songwriting area than most DJs and producers. We have a lot of tunes that are sort of like intro, kind of a verse section breakdown into a chorus. Probably 95 percent all instrumental stuff.

What about the other instruments played on your songs? Do you play the instruments yourself, bring in session people or sample other recordings?

Dominic: I play that stuff. I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m going to jam this keyboard part until I find a keyboard part I like.” When I have a chorus I’ll sit there either with my saxophone or some lead tone and play melodies for five hours until I find something that resonates with me.

Generally speaking, how long does the creation process take before you finally have a track?

Dominic: Sometimes it happens quickly and sometimes it takes forever. It’s really hard to say. Anywhere from a week or so. That’s mixing it all and getting everything sounding really good. About a week to three weeks.

Jeremy, as a drummer, do you sometimes find rhythm in everyday occurrences, like traffic noises or other sounds you might encounter and think you might be able to use it in a track?

Jeremy: Dom does the majority of the producing. We’re always talking different ideas back and forth to each other, but I know he’s grabbing from life in general. It’s not just a musical thing with him, it’s coming from everywhere. As he said, sometimes he’ll write a song for a feeling, an emotional thing or whatever. You could say we grab from everything, every kind of noise. It’s not just music-related.

There’s definitely rhythm to everything. You’re pumping gas and you hear the rhythm. Everything has some kind of rhythm to it.

Dominic: I always get this mental imagery. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that Bjork movie, “Dancer In The Dark.” She’d be working in a factory or something. There’s regular factory background sounds and it will turn into this whole musical number. Lots of times you’ll be sitting there and you hear this “tik, tik… tik, tik, tik, tik.” And before you know it you’re singing something over it. And in your head it turns into this big musical number.

When you’re playing live in front of an audience, are drums and sax the only instruments you’re playing?

Jeremy: [Dom] is playing keys. A lot of it is harmonies to what is already there so it sounds like there’s more than just two people.

Dominic: And I do DJ stuff like mixing the tracks, cueing different sections and doing effects as a DJ would do. It is an intense thing live. I’m pretty much jogging and playing sax for however long our set is. It’s a little tiring. If I’m playing it for the whole time, I take a little break and then DJ a track, make that track go into another track, say, where I’m playing sax again. There’s a bit of DJing and things going on with the live instruments.

Jeremy: There’s a lot of interaction with the two of us and Dom calling to go to another section as he would in a band. We’re going to build this up and then go into this next section. We have this kind of silent, whatever, kinetic thing between the two of us where we look at each other and it’s just like “Al right, here we go. Here’s the next part.” There’s a lot of that stuff happening. It’s not just the two of us playing over the music. We’re going to bounce over here, and then we’ll bounce over here and then we’re going to do this section for this line. It’s orchestrated more like a band is.

Dominic: We cue each other. We set up cues to set up cues to set up cues.

But how do you stay on top of everything yet still be able to improvise?

Dominic: That’s what we do – improvise.

Jeremy: That’s the easy part.

Dominic: We can step away and get into a music thing. That kind of comes easier and then we have to learn to do the DJ thing more.

Jeremy: It’s kind of backwards. Because of our training and being a band, the improvising part comes more naturally. Now it’s pretty natural because we’ve been doing it so long. Bringing the electronic part and making it something that’s danceable. It’s not just us soloing for two hours straight.

Dominic: We have loops set up in those sections so we can be more flexible and improvise. And even be a little more flexible with the track in terms of dropping off the bass and then we improvise, do a big buildup to bring in the bass section. I can play half of my sax with one hand. I can be like, “Okay, I’m going to do this thing with my left hand and then cue something else with my right.”

Jeremy: He’s doing a lot of multitasking.

Your new album, Nocturnal, comes out in October?

Dominic: Yes. Sometime later October, worst case, early November.

Will it be released as physical CD or will it be download only?

Jeremy: Physical will be more at the shows. Not necessarily through record stores, but definitely at all of our concerts.

What’s different about Nocturnal?

Dominic: I think we’re continuing to develop our sound. I think on this album, more so than the other albums, we’re really capturing feelings, emotions and situations that happen in life. Capturing that in individual songs.

I think the production side of it – I learn tons everyday about this stuff – I feel a lot better in terms of how the drums are sounding, how the bass sounds. Probably a little heavier on bass tones on this one, but keeping that same melodic content, something that tells a story. It’s a cleaner sound, a little bit heavier sound but at the same time keeping all the elements that are Big Gigantic throughout the whole recording?

What do you see down the road, say one year or five years?

Jeremy: Probably just keep growing. We want to keep doing our thing, expanding on what we do now. Right now we’re in the middle of planning our next light rig and what we’re going to add to our live show. We just want to keep the whole thing growing and moving forward.

Dominic. We’ve just been on tour with Bassnectar and we’re currently touring with Pretty Lights. They’re not only our friends but people we look up to in terms of bands that are doing, in terms of our genre, really well. I think we’re trying to get on that level. And being the nature of saxophone and drums, people are always like, “I wonder if it’s going to happen. I wonder this, I wonder that,” and I think with our hard work and trying to be smart and trying to do the whole thing right, we’ve gotten pretty far with drums, sax and electronic music. The sky’s the limit. We’re not going to put a ceiling on anything we can or can’t do. We’re going to take it as far as we can. I see it working. I see it happening. We’re somewhere in the middle of different styles within the electronic genre.

Are you exploring other outlets such as movie soundtracks, TV, or licensing music for advertising?

We’ve been working with licensing and publishing people. Nothing has been set in stone but we’re making the connections and looking forward, after the album, into the fall and winter getting that stuff going. Hopefully you’ll be seeing our name in that world.

Are you as much in control when it comes to lighting as you are with the music or do you have someone who interprets your music into the light show on stage?

Jeremy: It’s a little bit of everything. We’re very active in all aspects of our band and business. Just earlier today we were on a conference call with our manager, a lighting designer, our lighting guy and the two of us bouncing ideas back and forth. We don’t necessarily hand it off and say, “Make something.” We’re very involved in the process.

Dominic: In this genre the production and lighting goes hand-in-hand with the music. It’s a whole sensory experience. It has to be up to par with the music.

“In any new genre, style or fad, the name of the game is that freshness.”

Upcoming gigs for Big Gigantic include Knoxville, Tenn., at The Valarium Oct. 7; Louisville, Ky., at Headliners Music Hall Oct. 8 and Des Moines, Iowa, at People’s Court Oct. 19. Shows with Pretty Lights include two nights in Oxford, Miss., at The Lyric Oct. 11-12; Tuscaloosa, Ala., at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheatre Oct. 13 and Alpharetta, Ga., at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre Oct. 14. For more information, visit BigGigantic.net.