Serving up massive beats to a world ready to shake its thing
By Dave Kirby
The best way to predict the future, the computer scientist Alan Kay once said, is to invent it.
While it is certainly the case that Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken wouldn’t take credit for inventing electronic dance music (EDM, for short), their particular approach for merging conventional instrumentation (acoustic percussion, saxophone) with the now well-established technology of laptop programs, samplers and sequencers have vaulted the duo past the rave and club-gig scene. Headlining festivals and blasting through subgenres like funk, dubstep and hip-hop, the duo crafts a churning potion where soul collides with funk, thunderous rock dynamics frame ecstatic vocal passages, and doomsday electron-ics are laced with searing sax solos and gal-loping percussion.Weaving improvised music and electronically produced music into dizzy-ing layers of euphoria, a Big Gigantic show leaves one breathless and exhilarated.
With one leg in the house/DJ discipline and the other in live, improvised music, Big Gigantic sure seem as if they’re invent-ing something.
The duo’s dramatic rise in popularity over the last few years, due in no small part to their mesmerizing stage show, should be understood in the broader context of EDM as a mainstream musical movement. EDM is here and is already huge, most of its adherents being far too young to remember the 1970s battle call “Disco sucks!” What was once an underground scene here in the U.S., confined primarily to after-hours clubs on the coasts, has exploded into a financial and artistic juggernaut. When SFX Entertainment went public last year (it claims to be the biggest producer of live events and content focused on electronic music culture), it told prospective Wall Street investors that the EDM festival business would be worth upwards of $4 billion a year. And that was probably an understatement.
So Big Gigantic’s success isn’t that the duo succeeded by creating their own scene. They did so by humanizing and expand-ing the genre, and stamping it with their own distinct personality. In a crowded field, Big Gigantic now finds itself near the top, sharing the Colorado EDM spot-light with acts like Pretty Lights (Derek Smith) and EOTO (Michael Travis and Jason Hann), all of whom have garnered national acclaim.
The New Dance Scene
“Basically, the scene has just grown like crazy,” notes saxophonist Dominic Lalli. “I feel like it’s gone through its own cycle within itself. It reminds me of how hip-hop exploded into the scene way back [when]. It was this huge underground thing that became so big it started to become a part of the pop music, and now today it’s just a huge part of our culture.”
This isn’t the dance-music scene that a few of us may remember from four decades ago, when producers like Giorgio Moroder and record labels like Casablanca were churning out sequencer-driven, fern-bar disco singles at a furious pace, guaranteeing their swift obsolescence with formulaic and hit-driven orthodoxy. The electronics and sampling technology available to contemporary EDM artists are light years beyond the crude sequencers and synthesizers that professional studios used 40 years ago. The software nowadays is relatively easy to use, especially in the hands of a generation of artists raised on computers and video games; just about any kid with a good idea, an HP and a sampler has a chance to land a gig and draw a crowd someplace, even if it’s a dive bar on a weekday night. A laser light show doesn’t hurt, either.
Inspired by a post–Burning Man tribal aesthetic incorporating sonic experimentation, multimedia presentation values and the curiously hypnotizing musical fusion of futurism and retro, EDM is as much an event as a musical discipline. For Big Gigantic and most of their peers, the live experience is the point; the duo’s record-ed music, including their fifth and latest album The Night Is Young, is avail-able free for download.
But it’s not all about the machines. Drummer Jeremy Salken, who originally hails from Richmond, Va., played for years in rock and funk bands, and the Las Vegas raised Lalli has a master’s degree in jazz from the Manhattan School of Music. The duo got started as roommates in 2008, when Lalli bought his first Mac from The Motet’s lead singer, Jans Ingber, and started playing around with it.
While it was musically quite different from what he’s doing now, Lalli says his Motet experience was essential to pre-paring for his role as sax player and producer in Big Gigantic. “I was so green when I joined The Motet,” he remembers. “I seriously had no idea what the hell I was doing, but one thing it did help me do was to gain some confidence in terms of playing in front of an audience. We played so much and developed such a vibe between us that it helped me realize what it took to make an audience pulse back and forth with the band. And that’s super important as a player, improviser and writer, especially for dance music. Musically, we were mixing electronic sounds with Afro-beat and funk tunes, and that’s sort of what musically led me into wanting to do something more electronically with a project.”
The duo recently returned to the States after a run through London and Europe, where EDM has been a mainstay for young club-goers for years. “The fans have been super receptive to what we’re doing,” says Lalli. “Having live instruments—especially sax—in the mix is a bit outside what they’re used to, but the kids were all getting down at our set! As far as the music scene in the U.K., I feel like the torch has been passed back and forth for generations, the Beatles being a huge example of music to come across the pond and change our pop music. Electronic music is the same thing. We’re influenced by folks over there, then we push it in a certain direction, then they catch on and make it something different; then it gives us something even wilder to use as an influence.”
Big Gigantic hosts their own festival, the third annual Rowdy-town, at Red Rocks Sept. 26-27. Extended to two nights, the show helps solidify the band’s repute as one of the area’s biggest EDM draws. Salken says the band takes its hometown party very seriously.
“We’re so insanely proud of what we’ve accomplished in the short time we’ve been a band,” he says, “and playing Red Rocks is kind of the pinnacle of that. We have our hands in pretty much every decision that’s made, from helping in the design of the light rig to the color of shirts our ‘Lil G’ volunteers wear. Because Rowdytown is two nights this year, we feel like we’re finally getting a chance to see a more complete vision of what it’s supposed to be. The concept has always been to make it feel like we’re setting up camp for a few days and celebrating with all of our friends and family.”
Dave Kirby has been writing about music for various publications since 1978. He lives in Boulder with his wife and their two white German shepherds.