Expanded Interview with Jesse Hensley
Recently we released an interview with Jesse Hensley of Big Something. Jesse had some time to kick-back briefly after a long string of tour dates and we decided to add some additional questions to the interview. Jesse also expounded upon some of his previous responses. Jesse and I will continue to work creatively in the future to bring you up to date on the Big Something as they continue to develop their sound & tour extensively.
Big Something is easily one of the top rising talents on the jam scene in the country and I don’t speak such words lightly. They could be the next big jamband, the ones to help carry the torch. This is jam music at its finest. The group moves your soul to uncharted sonic spaces that astronomers could only dream of discovering. Their newest release is their finest case of showmanship to date. Big Something is on pace to join the greats on the scene, charting territories only the best jam acts have embarked upon. Their most recent album to date is nothing short of exceptional. It takes you on a journey through a storm of synths, and menacing hard-rock riffs. The stadium-rock meets classic-rock drumming and sax lines will leave listeners gasping for air as they ascend to the soaring heights of magic that is their self-titled sophomore album.
Founder of LiveMusicDaily.com, Andrew McConnell, spoke with Jesse Hensley, Big Something’s lead guitarist, to discuss their most recent album, live performances, his musical influences, and more.
McConnell– You handled the studio aspect of producing this new album very well. You all didn’t compromise Big Something’s knack for instrumentation. How did you manage to make a good studio album, but not take away from showcasing the signature live sound of the Big Something?
Hensley– Well, we had been playing these songs well before we recorded them so we had a pretty good idea of the structures and what we didn’t want to compromise. Going in with John Custer our producer, is another huge aspect of the magic that happens in the studio environment. He is a brilliant dude as far as sonic engineering and knowing which sounds go where. He knows how to tickle your ear the right way. We were able to take this group of songs that we had been playing for probably two years or better, show him what we had and ask what artistic/production work he saw fitting for those songs.
We go into the studio, play the parts and we don’t think about it really hard, or at least I personally try not to. In the past recording sessions we have tracked things out separately. So usually when I am there doing my guitar parts, it’s just Nicky, John and I. There are no other underlying distractions to worry about. There isn’t anyone waiting for you to finish laying down your part so they can record, you can really focus on what you want to do. Personally, I went in for this last album and didn’t really think about it as hard, and the tracks turned out really great. I learned a lot in terms of what my guitar should sound like in the mix, not only in the studio, but live as well. I think we all have kind of been learning this individually or just constantly making efforts to be aware of sound and sonic space so to speak. John has a unique way of manipulating things in the mix. For example, you are playing the part you wrote, but Johnny knew what it was supposed to sound like in the mix to make the listener really appreciate the part that you are playing. He has a gift for making the sound more approachable to the listener.
A lot translates after we hear the recordings a few times as well. There are things that we didn’t even realize we were doing that stand out now. Those things tend to carry over into the live settings after we hear the final mixes for a while. We start to focus on those things more and it becomes something brand new all over again. A great example of this would be the closing track from the latest album entitled “Bright Lights.” I went in to do vocals one afternoon and had not recorded the last solo section on guitar yet. John randomly pick up a Brian May model from Burns of London (View Photo Here) and started flipping around the pickup switches. After he finished calibrating the thing, he handed it to me and told me to take a round at that solo with that guitar. In my head I was going, “hmm this is gonna be weird,” Plus I have never physically put my tree climbers on one of these guitars in my life so I didn’t know what to expect. We got the track down and I left the studio thinking, “welp we’ll change that next time I’m here,” welp, we didn’t. And now after hearing it like that I couldn’t imagine it being any different. John heard something in his head and we went with it. To me, that’s just amazing. So, I think it is a mixture between having the song ready to go and also having someone who can take the song and do something magical and mysterious with it. Overall, it has been a mutually beneficial experience. We all have certainly learned a lot from one another and have definitely learned a lot from John.
AM– Yea, I mean I would agree overall it was a very successful album. Jambands often fail to reach their potential on a studio recording. All the jams have directions and the lyrics are full of substance. It is accessible to a new listener; but don’t get me wrong it is by no means easy listening. I think that the hardest part perhaps for a jamband is making an accessible album that refuses to compromise performance.
JH– [Laughs] Oh yes I know exactly what you mean but like you said, it isn’t easy listening. There are some songs on that album that have over one hundred tracks going on inside them; that’s a lot of sonic movement. Custer has been doing this stuff for so long, he just instinctively knows where things go. He is quick, and when you are playing the parts in the studio you feel good about it. There is no question about it; you are thinking “that is the part.”
AM– As a guitarist I really enjoy your tone. You have a gritty space rock tone with a lot of vibratos and fast-paced playing at well calculated points in the song. Could you tell me about the guitar rig you use live and the one you used on the most recent album?
JH– For me, it’s kind of a new thing figuring out my tone for different sounds and emotions that I would like to express in my playing. I played acoustic guitar a lot with my dad growing up as well. He is a bluegrass musician so it was definitely more of a traditional style jamming with him. I never learned on an electric guitar until I was around 14 or 15. If I have a specific style of playing then it has been influenced greatly by the acoustic guitar.
I listened to Stevie Ray Vaughn a lot growing up, as well as many other amazing players. Stevie had a special way of playing the guitar because his personality came through in his music. I try to leave myself open for that I guess which can be hard sometimes because you’re trying to write a part and play it. After that part becomes comfortable and natural, it’s nice to be able to let that musical idea develop its own personality through improvising.
Now I play a Warmoth parts guitar. I’ve been playing it for about five years and it’s a semi hollow body. It doesn’t feedback like a hollow body, but it is not pingy like a solid body. The amp I am using is a 1967 bandmaster silver face, run through a Mojo cabinet. It’s kind of barebones, but I have this one pre-amp I use a lot called the BB plus made by Exotic. In the studio I use a pedal made by Matt Pharaoh out of Raleigh. I’ve never met him but I bought the pedal from a great pal of mine, Kim Shomaker of Shoemaker guitars in Burlington NC. It’s a gnarly fuzz tone but also has the Octavia effect built-in with a true bypass. I can’t really use that pedal live because it tends to get a little lost on stage but in the studio it has been one of those staples. I try to let personality come through in my tone by trying to not think too hard. Rather than sitting too long with way too many options, I try to make a decision quickly. If you have good equipment that you have grown attached to, and it feels like an extension of yourself and who you are, well then that’s your tone.
AM– Could you tell us a little bit about the Big Green Machine distortion? It certainly helps push the tone to new levels, but how did it give you some extra ideas to explore in the studio?
JH– Like I said it’s just a fuzz tone with an Octavia. I’ve had it for many years and it just has that personal vibe about it, even when the footswitch cuts in and out [Laughs].
AM– In general, the core of The Big Something is a hard rock act with sonic space sounds. There is an electronic ambience, but a game-changer in any band is having a killer saxophonist. How have you added Casey’s sax work into a band that is a hard rock act?
JH– I think that is on Brog, he has instinctively found his own way of doing that. He comes from a whole different background. Casey grew up playing music in school and learned a lot of great jazz, he’s is into everything. I don’t want to even start listing all the things he can do – it’s really is beyond me. His style of playing is not really based off of one particular type of music. He is a huge Grateful Dead fan and Phish fan, but also loves Tool and Rage Against the Machine. Not to mention he loves jazz and Afro-Beat music as well. He is an alto sax player at heart, which for me; I think the alto cuts a lot better in a rock situation tonally. His natural way of playing is great and we have all gelled well with it. It has expanded all of our ears and minds to new so many new things.
AM– You grew up around a studio with your dad, one that you two built, is it a place for formal recording or more for getting the creativity going for new ideas you have?
JH– Well Pops mainly built the studio; it was his project since he has always been into music. We have a woodworking shop downstairs where he used to build instruments like dulcimers and such. When he got settled in life, he made enough time to build his own studio. It has taken since when I was about 13 to finish it. We lay down ideas there, but have not recorded a particular album. For me it is just great to have a place to go and play and write in a comfortable environment. There are constantly talented people stopping in to write and record when we’re not gigging.
AM– The album title Songs from the Middle of Nowhere is not the name by coincidence. The Carolinas are home to many great musicians. The landscapes are beautiful out there and as a fellow musician, I know that nature can be one of the most inspirational motivators in terms of creativity. For you personally, how has the music scene and the lay of the land been a part of your musical journey?
JH– Yes, I think it inspires all of us. You can take a trip and see the ocean and the mountains in the same day. All that scenery leads you to start thinking; North Carolina is awesome. There is a lot of folk music and back in the day there was the beach music scene so I grew up listening to a lot of that, we all did. We all reside here now but Nick is from Maryland, Ben grew up in DC, Josh is from Delaware, and then Doug & I are the hometown rednecks I guess [Laughs]. We all met up in a college town named Elon and it used to be called The Anonymous Band when I first joined. The band has definitely mutated a bit into Big Something. We are all influenced by different things, having grown up from all over, but NC is a great home, ya know? I think for us the most important part is the people. We feel comfortable here which allows us to make the best art. I grew up basically in the middle of nowhere, no pun intended….well maybe a little.
AM– You guys have been on the road pretty heavily in recent years. Those experiences along the way, people you meet, sights you take in, all of that has to be an inspiration and translate into how you play live. Tell me about the group bonding that goes on when you are on the road. What is your most memorable on the road experience in recent memory?
JH– [Laughs] There is lots of group bonding since we see each other constantly. I think we all inspire and influence each other on a regular basis. These people are my best friends and we get to see and hear all these amazing things as a group or unit. Those things greatly influence us all on many levels. There are too many to name but I think every week there are hundreds of memorable experiences. It goes from hearing a song together on the way to sound check to getting to play shows with people that you have looked up to for many years.
AM– As I mentioned, the Big Something is a hard rock space jamband of sort. Who are your personal guitar influences? It is hard to pinpoint your sound, but I think it’d be in the ballpark of if Jake Cinniger (Umphrey’s McGee) stole Tom Morello’s (Rage Against the Machine) pedal board, and then invited Dicky Betts (The Allman Brothers) over for a jam session. Who were your musical influences growing up, and what are some hometown musicians we may not know of who played a big role in fostering your musical journey?
JH– Well there are tons and tons of people whom I look up to musically, not all of them are guitar players. I’m definitely a huge fan of The Allman Brothers, so that whole scene of musicians have influenced my ears a lot like Duane, Dicky, Warren, and Derek, but also guys like Jimmy Herring. I love his phrasing and ability to play emotionally and vocally. I’m a huge Jeff Beck fan as well.
When it comes to hometown heroes, the list goes on for days. Kim Shomaker was my biggest influence and teacher for quite some time. He not only taught me a lot about music but also how to do it in your own way. He spent a lot of time teaching me how to repair guitars and gear which is one of the most valuable lessons on the planet. I learned a lot from my first guitar teacher as well. His name is Brad Martin and he is a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist. He taught me a lot of the basics and pushed me to work hard. On another level, I have played music with tons of amazing talented people in my hometown area and made a lot of great friendships. I started first playing with The Mason Lovette Band and learned a lot about gigging. I also had a weekly Wednesday night gig at Brewballs Bar in Burlington with a band named The Ends for two years or better. I also played in a band called Kings and Queens. Having the studio at my disposal has also led to meeting many other amazing musicians and songwriters such as Ben Sutton of the Ben Sutton Band, Walt Atkison, Jive Mother Mary and many others. I feel blessed to have grown up in an area where there were many like-minded people.
AM– The way I heard of you guys was when my old roommate Charlie Scott went to the Big What one summer. He came back to Dallas and “the magic in the woods” was all he could talk about. Could you explain the festival to those who may not be familiar with the event?
JH– It’s a great spot and there is a lot of great energy. It is a smaller festival, about 800 or 900, and it has certainly grown over the past two years. There are a lot of people that help plan the event. It is a roundup of all of our favorite bands and people we have been playing and touring with over the years. It is created from the relationships you make on the road – those friends you try to keep up with. This festival is a homecoming of sorts; just a real good hang out in the Raleigh area. It gives us a cool place to be artistic in the way we truly want to be artistic. You should definitely come out this year; it’s a real BIG time!