An Interview with Dave McWane & Alex Stern from Big D and the Kids Table

For those living under a rock, Boston-based, Ska band, Big D and the Kids Table have been a self-propelled ska machine since 1995. Accented with a multitude of sounds ranging from classic 50s doo-wop to punkrock and ska, Big D have always remained a constant light within the genre.

I recently got to sit down with vocalist David McWane (Big D himself) and guitarist Alex Stern to discuss their upcoming plans as a band, their work on the newest album, The New Way Out, put out jointly with The Doped Up Dollies, and their views on the present day music industry.

You played Amnesia Rockfest this summer in Montebello. Luckily, I got to attend both the Operation Ivy set and the Big D set. Did you prefer that vibe to this latest bar crowd performance?

Alex: I preferred the fifteen thousand people [laughs]. When magic is magic, that’s what I want.

Dave: Whenever the vibe is there. The thing with that show was that, well, we played two sets that day. For the Big D set, that was awesome. But the funny thing about the Operation Ivy set… I went up to the drummer for that set, who was the drummer for Goldfinger, and I asked, “You did the Greenday cover set last night. Is there going to be like twelve people or two hundred?” He went like this to me, “Oh my god, you have no idea. There’s probably going to be about 15,000 people there.”

Alex: We thought there was going to be twelve people, and we closed it right after System of a Down, and there was a bit of drama. There was a real big jerk running that stage. He tried to shut down the show because there was ‘something wrong with their sound.’

Dave: He was just cranky.

Alex: Yeah, the stage manager was just drunk and wanted to go home.

Dave: He said, “You don’t have monitors, you should just cancel the show.” We just laughed, and said, “Oh, you don’t know us.” There was no way we were going to cancel that show.

Alex: We would play to just that arcade machine.

Dave: To answer the question at another angle: for me, if you play a show where everybody loves you, that’s nice. It’s very nice. That has nothing to do with my life. Most of my life is exactly like when you are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, and you’re playing a show where you have to prove yourself. Big D has never been a fortunate band. So, I do like playing shows where I have to prove myself; it just adds this wonderfulness. I am uncomfortable when everyone says, “You’re awesome.” Well, that’s nice that you think that, but shows where the consensus is that we’re going to suck and the crowd wants to hate you, those shows are amazing. Those shows you have to prove yourself, and it’s punk-rock and that’s amazing. I like the shows where almost everyone hates you.

I have to ask, Planet Smashers tour?!

Dave: Well, that’s funny. During the show, I heard the band, they were like “What are you talking about?” Matt from The Planet Smashers just asked me. I just saw the message on the way here, on my phone, and he asked if we want to do a short package tour in like March or April with really cool bands. Death By Stereo, and, I actually forget the other band, but I know the other band is really awesome, I just randomly forget. It’s not The Flatliners, but it’s like, as cool as The Flatliners. You know what I mean? And, one of my most favourite package tours, well there’s three of them. One of them was The Planet Smashers, Bigwig, Big D, and… I’m just blanking, but another band. And I love package tours. The reason why in the underground, a lot of times there aren’t package tours is because you can’t pay everyone. You can’t get the ship to float, but Matt seems to be able to do it somehow. I don’t know how the fuck he does it, but if I could for a second re-live the fun of his last package tour with Bigwig and everyone, I’d love to. I think it was Bigwig, Death By Stereo, Planet Smashers, and us. And The Flatliners! I think that was a whole tour. It had a name, I forget the name, but I still have the jacket.

Alex: Frostbite?

Dave: Yes! Thank you! Frostbite!

Alex: I wasn’t even on the tour, and I remember the name [laughs].

Dave: Yeah, it was the frostbite tour. So, Matt just said that, and I’m all about it. Matt is one of the only people that I know that can do that. I know we did it twice, just trying to copy Matt.

And other than the tour, is there anything else in the works, like new albums? Anything that is coming up that you want to tell us about?

Alex: I think we are getting ready to work on a new album in earnest, but it’s going to be the first album in a while that’s not driven by the fact that we’re in a cycle. It’s an album that’s driven by [the fact] that we want to make an album that’s very different from the other items that’re in our cannon. Really make something different. So, most of our process around that is discussing what could be. We’re not even sure what it’s gonna be yet. We’re in a pretty heavy brainstorm. And that brainstorm is going to give way to us in a practice space pretty soon working out ideas. You could see it in April, or could see it in April of 2017. We don’t know.

Dave: We’re not even close to ever writing. We’ve had this history where we put out Good Luck, and people wanted Good Luck 2, but we made How It Goes, and everyone was upset. Then when we had How it Goes, and did Strictly Rude, everyone wanted How it Goes 2. We never like to write a second version of a song. We completely have the ability. We can write the same song a hundred times, but if that’s not what we want to do, then it kind of feels like we are taking advantage of our listeners.

For our new record, we just want to discuss exactly what we want to do. We know there’s going to be a lot of pushing the boundaries. We know what we want to do, and it isn’t re-writing any other songs. I think that’s what frustrates people with us, and I think for the solid, techy listeners, that’s what they like about us. Our problem is, that’s what we liked about the bands that we listened to. We don’t like the same record being released every time. So yeah, we’re just gonna make a son of a bitch record next time. And we just finished making The Doped Up Dollies’ record.

For those who don’t know, it’s almost a confusing thing, because The Doped Up Dollies have been in a partnership with you guys for so long. How is that kind of relationship, and was it more so that they just ‘grew up and you sent them off to college’ to make their own record?

Dave: I would say it’s exactly like that. We listen to a lot of reggae and a lot of traditional ska, like The Specials. Anything in the old school genre, there’s always wonderful backing vocals. And my mother and my father, they personally just listened to a lot of go-go stuff, a lot of 50s stuff, a lot of The Temptations, and with that stuff it’s just all about what I like in music. That’s where I’m coming from, so we brought The Doped Up Dollies on for Fluent In Stroll, and a lot of people look at Fluent In Stroll as the Big D crazy record. Like, “Wow, they changed,” but it’s so incorrect. We got way more shit for Strictly Rude than Fluent In Stroll.

Really?

Dave: Oh yeah, when we went from How It Goes to Strictly Rude, we got way more negativity said to our faces with pointing fingers asking, “Why did you do this?” But for some reason everyone thinks Fluent In Stroll is that record. And that’s not right. I just think that a couple of people didn’t like it.

We’ve been playing with the girls, the girls are wonderful, and there’s a couple of interchangeable slots that happen, but we’re all still friends. The Doped Up Dollies have been a part of Big D for about seven years. Seven years. That’s almost a decade. And this is our first time being able to cut a slice of time to be their backing band. To have them up front. And it’s awesome, and the record is awesome. Everything worked out great, so we had a ball doing it and now that we finished doing that and the record is about to come out, we are about to kill our next record.

You’ve been at this for so long, and seen a number of member changes as well as life changes. How would you say that affected the sound as a band? Has that made it evolve, or was it just wanting different sounds that made it evolve?

Dave: I would say that this is the best crew we have ever had in the band right now. Everyone is so on the same page. A lot of us never really wanted to be in a band, never really wanted to do this, we just accidentally did it. We were just jamming together because we were in music school and then suddenly out of nowhere someone asked us to play a show. And then we were a band. BUT everyone wanted to do other things. We were all just people hanging out, but as everyone’s life did their calling, they respected that. We are all friends, we are about to play this card game called Pedro soon with all the old members just because we want to play a card game together. But we don’t want to play music together, because certain people want to do other things.

As far as Big D and the Kids Table is concerned, this is a juggernaut crew of people who are just outrageously obsessed with music. I always say, there are people who are in a band, then there are people who are musicians. And we are musicians and horribly addicted to it.

Alex: Well, I think the way I would describe it is like this: we are from Boston, which is a sport’s town. Dave and I are not necessarily sport’s people, but we appreciate the system and I think Big D is a lot like a baseball team. If you leave it, you’re not banished forever. That’s not how we do things, and when you’re new you’re also allowed on the team. We can’t do the things we do without everyone on the same page. We can’t have a new member sort of banished to janitor duty. We need everybody in it. So, when we take on new members, and remember almost everybody on stage right now was a new member at some point, we always work our way up through the system, and that system works because it actually allowed people to work their way up through it.

I’ve been in other bands that have been together for a third of time that Big D have been together, and I actually once was asked to not do an interview because I wasn’t seen as good enough after I had been in the band for four years. And I remember that. The point being is the way we function best is by having the best people possible, and we need to move the thing forward. And we will constantly be bringing back old people, and we will be constantly bringing in new people.

Dave: An example is this Halloween show coming up. On The Doped Up Dollies’ record, Paul and Dan, who used to play horns in Big D and don’t play horns in Big D anymore because they don’t want to tour anymore, they played on The Doped Up Dollies’ record. And they’re going to play with us on Halloween. And Chris Bush, who used to play saxophone for Big D and lives in Hawaii on some small island now, he’s flying back to visit us because he misses us and wants to play that card game. He is going to play both Halloween shows as well. We’re not musicians that want to be in a band, we’re just musicians that love and cater to each other all the time. We love to make it work.

How does it feel to still be doing music after all this time, and still have it be such a prominent part of your life?

Dave: I would say that Big D did one thing that I’m very impressed about. I like to think that we lived through the fall of music. I don’t want to diss the new sound, because that’s what older people do, but I believe musicians are now second to entertainers. I think that techno won, and boy bands won. We all knew that from the movie The Fifth Element. Everything’s going well for us, but The Foo Fighters are kind of like the last big rock band. And Big D somehow made it through the tsunami. Kevin Lyman from Warped Tour said once in an interview that somehow, every year, Big D is relevant. You also have to understand that we have no push. Every year, there are so many new ska bands that are pushed by a huge label. They get all the tours we can only dream of. There’s always these new industry things happening, but somehow, it’s still great for us.

Aside from musically, what would you say are your greatest influences creatively?  

Dave: Makin’ babies [laughs].

Alex: Well, living real life is obviously an influence. Having a family, and trying to not just be a punk-rock architect is an influence. But then there are influences in pop-culture. MSNBC is regarded as the ‘Liberal’ news station. But after 8:00pm, it has some really great commentary. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, there’s actually some really good reporting being done, and I watch it as much as I can. I wouldn’t say the process goes MSNBC, pen and paper, write song. But it’s just more being informed in general.

In America, we have a real problem where to be an informer, you don’t have to have the facts. So, trying to get the right facts is very important for a songwriter in America; trying to get things that are actually truthful. It’s okay to be biased, but [it] need[s] to be grounded in reason. There’s a lot of that, and one thing I know about Big D, Dave and I alike, is that movies are a huge influence; Tarantino in particular. He’s a huge non-musical influence on us because he is the Big D of movies. He’s not afraid of homage. Big D is not afraid to take things that have never been done before, acknowledge them in songs, and really flip them around, and Tarantino’s the king of that. He’s often criticized for it. I would say, for non-musical media influences, he’s probably the guy.

Dave: Yeah, sometimes people ask me what music I’m influenced by, and I would say that there’s nothing. It’s all real life experience, and movies. Often you get inspired by music and it really builds the character that I think is more powerful than your president, or your family, or your friends. After that, I don’t like hearing about other people’s problems. I would say it’s movies, and art, from Shepard Fairey to Banksy to Quentin Tarantino; the people who are doing real art. Music’s losing the art right now, so there’s no influence there. I look to street artists and good independent film artists, and I do a bit of writing. I look for influence for Big D in all the places other than music, and also for me personally in what I do outside of music in my writing.

I think it is a fortunate child’s world out there in America right now. Meaning, if your dad works for Sony, you could be the next Taylor Swift. I don’t think her dad works for Sony… But if your father works in a publishing company, you could get a book published. It’s a bit of an incestuous thing right now. I think that capitalism is slowly being replaced with ‘corporationalism,’ a term I am probably just inventing now. Corporationalism is basically all the parents that are successful making sure their child is their successor. And that makes grass-roots people like us have a different wall that they will never get through. So, I am not inspired by all the fortunate children who have all the wonderful spots they were handed. They are not inspiring to me at all.

Speaking of your writing, would you say it goes hand in hand with your music? Obviously with the lyrics there is writing, but does your music influence your writing, as opposed to your writing influencing your music?

Dave: When I started touring, obviously the handheld devices didn’t have internet. There were no smartphones, and if you wanted to call your girlfriend you had to find a pay phone in Germany. If you wanted to call home you had to find a pay phone in France. It was all pay phones and stuff. We weren’t as connected. Everyone was in their vans, and I had nothing to do but read books. So, for eight to ten years, I just strictly read books, over books, over books. All these drives I just read, and read, and read, and read. That’s a strengthening thing. I almost went to college three times over just for being in a van for twenty-four hours over and over again.

I started to realize, “If I can write a song and press a CD or an album, I can write a book.” Once I decided that, I spent about four or five years just reading about how you write a book. I didn’t want to just jump into it. I spent a lot of time reading and learning to write, and I am a dyslexic, I can’t spell. I am a terrible speller. I just started writing from my inspiration from my number one authors. My poetry started because there was lyrical content that was inappropriate for Big D, and there was more to say.

You guys recently released Stomp and Stroll, two great albums that are obviously very different sounds, and you mentioned earlier with the new album you want to take it in a new direction. Is there any specifics you have in mind in regards to that sound?

Dave: Something just recently happened with us with The Doped Up Dollies’ record, that I think we are going to…not 100% implement with the new Big D record, but start with it. Many bands have to practice at 7:30pm after work, until 10:30pm or 11:00pm. So, they work a nine to five job and they go to band rehearsal, and it’s a scheduled time. That’s really hard. You just worked for the man, now go be creative. After you just did traffic, write your record. It’s very difficult and I think that’s a bad recipe.

For The Doped Up Dollies’ record, we didn’t have any music ready; we talked a little, and we had one rehearsal before the record where we wanted to noodle some of the songs. But once we got to rehearsal we decided, “No, no, we might lose that magic.” So, we just went to my cottage in New Hampshire. I have this shack that my grandparents got for 55 cents because they bought a pound of coffee, and I guess during that week they had a special.

Alex: He turned it into so much more than a shack, it is really beautiful and really great. There is that whole tiny house craze now, but this is what the tiny house would be if it wasn’t dreamed up by HGTV. This is a totally organic tiny house.

Dave: Basically, the guys in Big D, they work so hard. As a vocalist I can see how hard they work. Even when we go to a nice studio and stuff, there is pressure. As an artist, can these people ever do their craft and not be stressed out? That was my question. I know we can’t do 7:30-10:30pm practice, so why don’t we come to my cottage, you guys can go swimming, my wife and I will get them beer and food. Just to make sure they are not working. They are just being musicians, they aren’t being entertainers. We were supposed to do three or four songs, and we did thirteen.

All we did was talk about a song for about fifteen to twenty minutes, noodle it for about fifteen to twenty minutes, and then do three to four takes and it was done. None of those recordings were edited. No cutting and pasting, nothing was touched. With the new Big D record, maybe we can’t do 100% of that new recording style we have come up with, but we will basically do that. We will devote four days to discussing songs, and go there and play them. And that’s the record. No more over thinking.

Alex: We can’t say yet, but we have a very good recording plan that when it comes time for people to hear it, people will go, “Oh, Big D made the plan that you might not have thought they would have made, but was the right one.” We have a specific friend of ours to record it in mind, and we know that, for the size of the sounds we want to get, he is going to really help us with our vision. Once again, we are really excited because we have a Massachusetts based enterprise for it. There’s a lot of pride that will we make a really pro record right at home.

Dave: The only difference I think that this record will have with The Doped Up Dollies’ record is that, I personally, want to cut the vocals live with the band. When we did The Doped Up Dollies’ record the band just recorded and the lyrics weren’t ready, so the band recorded and we brought the horns and lyrics on later. But I want to record a record live, like old school Beastie Boys, and punk records. I want to just record live with the band. That makes a little detail change.

Will that effect the vocal quality with live-off-the-floor recording?

Alex: It can, and the only way to deal with that is to have plan b’s where we may record two versions of some songs.

Dave: It effecting the vocal quality is the entire point, essentially.

Alex: Perfect isn’t perfect. And now that I am in the position where I can give people guidance, watching people agonize over shit that nobody will ever care about is one of the hardest parts in music. Is the guitar solo bad? Yeah? We should take that out. Is that guitar solo not bad, and could just be better? Yeah? Then just become a better guitar player. You’re not? Then record it right now. Making sure that music is being made for people to hear is our job; us agonizing over sounding like “Purple Rain” is not our job.

Dave: I noticed there is one big difference in recording during the fall of music, as I call it, and that pivot moment is ‘Pitch-Correction.’ Protools and pitch-correction is a wonderful thing, but what I like to joke about, and it’s not so much a joke, is that before Protools, you used to hear this in the studio from any member in the band: “Shut up, shut up, just play it again. Play it again, I can do it. I know, just play it again.” That’s what you used to hear. Now you hear: “Is that good enough? Can you fix it?”

That change really hurts the people that knew the old. At one point I used to do the same, and say, “Is that all right, is that cool?” And I just don’t want to be apart of it anymore. I want to just fucking do it again. I want to bite the fire again. And we did that with the Dollies’ record.

Alex: We used the computer as a tape deck. We didn’t edit anything, but the one thing we used it for, and the greatest thing about digital is, you can listen to your takes in rapid succession, without rewinding. That helped make decisions. The ability to evaluate performances is the best thing about digital, and we will always use that, there is nothing wrong with that, but all the records where we didn’t give a fuck about fixing it were the best records. The bands and records where we worried about if it sound like they could be on MTV; that’s where it always goes bad. When we don’t worry about it, it always goes well.

Dave: The best thing about The Doped Up Dollies’ record is that vibe was right, and you hear and feel it.

Big D and the Kids Table are a force to be reckoned with. Keep yourself posted on new material and tour information on their website and Facebook Page. Dave’s books can be found on his separate site. I am halfway through one of his masterpieces, The Modern American Gypsy, and I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of his work; it is a great accompaniment to the music.

If you can get yourself out to Massachusetts, check out the two Halloween shows they have planned for the end of October. It is definitely an adventure worth taking.

Written and Compiled by Danielle Kenedy
Header Photo by Eric Brisson
*edited by Kate Erickson

About Danielle Kenedy 22 Articles
Danielle Kenedy is an artist in every aspect. Based out of Toronto, she lives and breathes music, making it the biggest factor in her artistic endeavors. In addition to being a musician, Danielle is also a graphic artist, luthier, and writer. Her designs have been published into t-shirts, drum skins, posters, and other merchandise for many musicians, and she has been writing about the arts since 2008. Currently, the Graphic Design program at Centennial College is where she is honing her skills in digital art to further her freelance career in music-based design work. Those who know her call her a ‘music-encyclopedia’ with an over-attention to detail.

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