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Friday, January 17, 2014

Checking in with Big Jesus' Spencer Ussery

Thomas Gonzalez (from left), Spencer Ussery, Aaron Wamack, C.J. Ridings
  • Tim Song
  • Thomas Gonzalez (from left), Spencer Ussery, Aaron Wamack, C.J. Ridings

Spencer Ussery is a chameleon of Atlanta's metal scene. He's screamed in O'Brother, provided the low end for Irreversible, and finally settled as the bassist/singer for his current outfit, Big Jesus. He recently stopped to chat about the group's debut album One, shifting stylistically from Soundgarden to the Beach Boys, and being featured on BBC Radio 1.

When did Big Jesus start taking shape and how did you evolve into your current lineup?

Spencer Ussery: We started in 2009, and it was the idea of our rhythm guitar player C.J. Ridings. He just called me and a buddy of our's named Zach. It was a three-piece, and he was playing bass. He had written this song that was on our first EP that we don't really talk about much anymore. There was a point in time where I wasn't playing in the group anymore, and they were dormant. We really started writing One in really late 2012, but we actually recorded in May. We wrote a full-length record, scrapped maybe two or three, and tracked in three days. C.J. is a recording engineer who used to work at Southern Tracks, so we were able to knock all that out ourselves. When we finished tracking everything, we sent it to Mike Sapone, who's produced bands like Brand New and O'Brother's latest record, and mixed it. Now we're here playing off the record.

What are the main stylistic differences between your first EP and One?

The first EP had more of a grungier sound, more in the vein of Soundgarden, early '90s grunge. It was fun to play at that time but our sound developed into what it is now, which is more of an alternative feel instead of grunge. I read a review that was a pretty cool way to think about it. The review said we went from grungy riffs to groovy riffs and that was really what we were going for. We wanted to carry the groove rather than just produce brutal, nasty riffs.

Why did you decide to include the juxtaposition between the heavy, chugging riffs and your airy, melodic vocals?
It was always something I wanted to hear. I like Torche a lot. We came up listening to Torche for a little while and they have that same vibe. We get compared to them semi-frequently. Not many people are doing really heavy riffs with more melodic vocals, so it was kind of like making our sound a little more unique and not being pigeonholed into this grungier sound. I love the Beach Boys, and I write songs on acoustic guitar and piano. I've always sang more nice rather than grungier, though I was O' Brother's original singer and I did some screaming back then. This record is more up my alley in terms of my range and my style.

How did you transition from O'Brother to Big Jesus?
It took years and years. I quit O'Brother back in 2006 and spent a year playing music and writing songs by myself. Then I joined a metal band called Irreversible and took over one third of the singing in that band. C.J. used to be in Irreversible prior to me joining. That was the big in-between band. I'm still super close with all those dudes. I just recently went on tour for a few days with O'Brother, Torche, and Hot Water Music. I love those guys.

What was the songwriting process like for One?
It was definitely a collective effort. C.J. birthed a lot of the riffs that started the songs. A few of them were written in our practice space together. After the first EP, we wrote and recorded a full second EP that's never been heard. Some of those songs ended up on the full-length, but most were scrapped. The album really gelled and solidified when our recording drummer Aaron Wamack, who also used to play in O'Brother, joined the lineup. The process starts when someone starts playing a riff by accident, and we're just goofing and we're like "wait, what if we slowed that riff to molasses speed, and made it this trudging thing?" That ended up being the track "Heaviest Heart." It was just us goofing off.

What kind of response have you gotten so far?
So far, so good. We've self-released, we don't have any outside distribution. We pressed 200 CD's ourselves. Through our bandcamp, we've been selling CD's and digital albums, and we've shipped CD's to Belgium and Chile. We've received a lot of London love, and a good bit in Canada too. The craziest thing we've heard so far is that BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe, who's known for breaking bands, played us on his show. We started getting emails from people in the U.K. saying they heard us on the radio. We come to find this dude just played us, we have no idea how he got it, and he played our track "Again" on his prime-time BBC radio show. The love we got from Europe in general after that was wild. That was pretty flattering because I've been listening to his show for years.

Do you have plans to sign to any labels?
We're shopping around right now. There are prospective things. There's a guy who flew in to see our show tonight. There's this pop-punk band called Man Overboard who really like us. I've never heard of them personally until they hit us up, but they run a little tape collective, and they're gonna put maybe 150 copies of One on cassette. That was pretty cool. We have a lot of people asking about our vinyl, which is something we really want to do but don't know anything about. There's not really much to talk about because I don't really want to jinx anything or let any cats out of the bag.

Now that you have love all the way in the U.K., do you have any plans to expand your tour outside of the Southeast?
Oh yeah. We'll see what happens with a new label because we'll need some tour support. We all have jobs and stuff but we don't have a big band fund or anything we can tour off of. We don't have any savings we can go and spend. We need some assistance. Our guitar player works at the Earl, I work for an e-mail company, C.J. has been delivering pizzas, and our new drummer Derek Olivera [from Manray] just moved to Atlanta from Athens. We're just kind of bumming around, but the sky's the limit.

Big Jesus plays with Stone Mountain Freeway and the Sword on Tues., Jan. 21 at Masquerade. $16. 7 pm. 695 North Ave. 404-577-8178.

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