by Rob Mair
photo: Jared Castaldi
“I always had this mental block of being like ‘but we’re the ‘working man’s band’,” says Pat Graham, affording himself a laugh at the noble absurdity of the sentence. We’ve gone deep down a rabbit hole, talking about art and artistry and the ethos that powered one of the Philadelphia scene’s flag-bearers, Spraynard, even though we’re really here to talk about his new band Big Nothing and their stellar college-rock inspired opus Chris.
Yet it’s difficult to disentangle the projects, with the former both seeping into and pulling away from the latter.
Much of this conflict exists solely inside Graham’s head, tying Spraynard to these lofty aims of DIY ethics and endless packed-out basement shows and a reluctance to take on bigger tours or embrace parts of the industry that might have provided relief from carrying the burden of the band.
“You look at bands like Iron Chic – I’ve had this conversation with them a million times,” says Graham. “They feel weird about having a booking agent – and I’ll be like ‘Dude, you guys are a great band’. But it just doesn’t feel ‘punk’, and that’s a shitty mindset to be in. It’s something I couldn’t escape with Spraynard. Even doing that Gnarwolves tour in the UK, which was a great tour – a really great tour – and those guys were great, but I just remember thinking, ‘Oh man, those tickets are expensive’.
“We had one show in Richmond, Virginia, which was a city we did really well in, and this show was crazy – it was one of the craziest shows ever played – and everybody in the band was super excited and I was just freaking out. I was like ‘We can’t be popular,’ you know?
“It was a really weird mindset but something I was stuck in. It felt wrong to be bigger.”
It’s easy to see and understand his conflict. On the one hand, he’ll talk about being rooted in this DIY pop-punk world but being unable to get Spraynard to the next level, the next he’ll say that playing anything bigger than basement shows felt wrong as Spraynard were never meant to be the band to play big arenas.
Bummed out at hitting a “pop-punk ceiling” and a personal wall between members, Graham and Spraynard drummer Pat Ware (now of Joyce Manor) decided to wind the band down – a move that in hindsight saved their friendship, he says.
At this point, some might have collapsed in on themselves – Spraynard was Graham’s life for a decade, after all – yet the decision was one of liberation, freeing himself up from the pop-punk confines and providing the opportunity to try something new.
Enter stage right Philly musicians Liz Parsons (Casual) and Matt Quinn (Crybaby), and the newly-relocated Chris Jordan (Young Livers). While Graham, Quinn, and Parsons had talked about doing something together, it was Jordan’s arrival that proved the catalyst for the new project.
At the top of the interview, Graham jokes that Big Nothing is really down to his love of the Gin Blossoms – or how, behind its core, is the desire to be Third Eye Blind – but really the musical touchstones are much more nuanced, with each member bringing into play their own idea of what Big Nothing should be.
“We each had our band,” says Graham. “I wanted to be Superchunk, Liz wanted to be Superdrag. Matt came in with this Replacements vibe and Chris… Chris is just a fucking solid drummer. He was like ‘I’ll play whatever pop rocks you guys wanna play’.”
If it all sounds rather scattergun, fear not: Chris brings all these ideas together, wrapping them up with nods to the aforementioned Replacements and Gin Blossoms to make one of the year’s most exciting and engaging indie-rock full-lengths.
Getting here though wasn’t without its troubles, though. In 2017 the group released a strong four-song EP which hinted of the greatness to come but which now doesn’t compare to the fully-realised songs found on Chris. Conscious that the group had three strong songwriters, they initially recorded ten songs, but the results sounded like different bands – something they were eager to avoid.
As a result, they culled the ten down to a svelte four – “Four songs we could see playing live,” says Graham – before starting to write more. The results on Chris are much more cohesive, living in the same realised world and playing to the artist’s strengths. Indeed, Graham will say that ensuring whatever they produced was ‘cohesive’ was an initial concern right from the outset – even if such fears were unwarranted.
“I can’t think of a band where I hear three separate songwriters, and I’m like ‘This sounds fucking crazy!’, laughs Graham. “In fact, when you get four people in a room together to write music, it all comes out pretty much cohesive. It’s like when the Menzingers write two different songs; you might know it’s a Tom or a Greg song, but you’re not ‘What the fuck is this?’
“Also, it helps that at its core we all want to be the same kind of band. When we go to practice all the same bands always come up. It’s always like ‘What would The Replacements do?’ Or ‘What would Against Me! do?’ We’re all in the same place.”
Another reason why Chris works so well is that Graham has made peace with the fact that his pop-punk roots remain within him and allow him to be the songwriter he is. He says that his songs for the EP were influenced by the indie-pop of Japanese Breakfast, but that this was perhaps an attempt to do the “Least Spraynard thing possible,” as a means of gaining distance between the two acts. Yet Chris needs the propulsion and the accessible song structures to work – even if the vibe is much more indie-rock club than sweaty basement show.
This idea even translates to how Graham sees Big Nothing and what he hopes to achieve with it: “It’s my attempt at being a college rock band… and that includes career-wise,” he says, and that seems to an entirely accurate and fair description of an act that owes a debt of gratitude to both the pop-punk of Graham’s past and the 90’s indie-punk of the scene’s forbearers.
“I think Big Nothing is a way for me to push my songwriting and what I’m capable of,” he continues. “It’s not necessarily a clean break from Spraynard – these are still poppy songs… And it’s not like I’m bummed on Spraynard, either, because really I’m not. I’m very proud of what we did, and I would be in that band a million times over.
“It’s more just like… wanting to see a new movie. I wanna explore different aspects of the music and what I’m capable of.”
As we wrap up, our talk turns to legacy and how some acts break through the ceiling, while others remain nostalgic throwbacks. There’s no doubt that Spraynard achieved considerable success – even if Graham considers them a basement band. Yet there’s also a sense that such bands will never be more than a ‘cult’, savoured and celebrated by die-hards, even if subsequent projects achieve cultural and critical acclaim. “You think there’s someone out there that loves Scream, and just wishes Dave Grohl was in them again? Maybe they don’t even give a shit about Nirvana?” asks Graham rhetorically, through stifled laughter.
He may be joking, but it’s a salient point, especially coming from someone so tied to a particular sound and a specific scene.
And nostalgia plays a big part of this too. Whether it’s a Snowing reunion tour in Japan, or a Get Up Kids renaissance for those of us of a certain vintage, this desire to look back is continuing to fuel today’s indie-punk scene. Big Nothing maybe nostalgic in sound, but they also represent a brave step forward.
Sure, Graham could’ve penned a record in the style of Spraynard, but as it is, Chris is the first step for four Philadelphia natives to make a break from the past and try something new. To that end, it’s a triumphant success and one of 2019’s most outstanding debuts. Of course, as Graham acknowledges, it’s not a clean break – Spraynard’s legacy casts a long shadow, after all – but it is a tantalising glimpse at a bright and brilliant future.