5-1-Tunes: Big Bill

By Tess Cagle 

Big Bill wants you to take a walk on the wild side.  With their manic brand of “cartoon punk” and a mission to make even the biggest introvert cut loose, the band continues to win over new fans who they lovingly refer to as “Bill-ions” making them, naturally, “Bill-ionaires.”

Eric Braden, lead vocalist of Big Bill, sings to the crowd at Ditch the Fest Fest.

Since its inception in 2012, Big Bill has gone through a series of evolutions. Officially founded by brothers Cody and Eric Braden and their friend David Fitzhugh, Big Bill went through a few drummers before Alan Lauer joined the band in early January 2014. Last fall, when Fitzhugh fell seriously ill and returned to Houston to recover, Jennifer Monsees filled in on bass, and she has since become a permanent fixture.

Big Bill has officially christened their genre “billwave,” which the members describe as “party-slop” and “cartoon-punk.” “It’s pop and punk but not pop-punk,” Monsees says. “It has punk influences, like really fast upbeat songs that try to get people dancing. I say cartoon because it’s supposed to be fun. It’s playful and theatrical.” According to Lauer, the band’s music sounds like a punkier version of the B-52’s meets DEVO. “Sometimes, I’ll even throw in the word ‘psych,’” he adds. “We’ve also got a lot of surf beats and surfy guitar parts.”

Eric is the primary songwriter, but every member contributes to the process. When Fitzhugh was still active in the band, he and Eric would take “weird walks” around the city and brainstorm ideas based on whatever signs or other things crossed their path — a method that inspired “Claws In,” the opening track on their newest EP, “The Second Bill.”  Lately, the group has taken a more conventional approach to writing, bouncing ideas off one another and piecing songs together from one central riff or melody.

Cody Braden, guitarist, performs at Ditch the Fest Fest.

Eric says the one thing he hopes listeners get out of their music is a sense of wildness. Before they take the stage, Eric runs laps around the venue, psyching himself up so he can do the same to the crowd. During their set, he stalks across the stage, throws water at the audience and leaps into the crowd mid-mosh. “I like to see people being totally uninhibited and fulfilling, something they don’t get to do in their normal life, because everyone is kind of playing a character anyway — a character that fits into society and doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable,” he says. “Normally, if I was in a crowd of people, I would just let other people talk. It’s really amazing to have a microphone and be the loudest person in the room. It’s so freeing.”

Lauer says Big Bill is an all-inclusive band that brings even the shyest concertgoers out of their shells. “People always say that we’re a party band, and I feel like that kind of minimizes what the band is,” he explains. “When you come to a Big Bill show, it doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert who hates to go out and meet new people. We’re an all-welcoming band that tries to push forward positive energy. It allows people to be themselves more and get crazy.”

Aside from being larger than life in both sound and theatricality, Big Bill’s lyrics have a deceptively dark edge to them. Eric says their song “Two Weeks” is essentially about dying, with lyrics like, “Kill me if I don't learn / It's not the money, it's the dying that you earn.”

Monsees says this dark element is what drew her to the band in the first place. “Honestly, I’m not sure that always gets across,” she says. “Maybe it doesn’t need to, but it’s something I really gravitate towards and something I’ve always appreciated about this band, so I hope it does. I feel like, for me personally, when we’re doing it right, the songs are really catchy and fun and energetic, but there’s also something that is kind of holding back in a strange way. It kind of has this push-and-pull element to it.”

Eric Braden encourages crowd participation during their song "Wild Walk."

Big Bill just finished recording “The Second Bill,” and Lauer promises a much rawer sound that encapsulates their live performances better than their debut EP, “A Hard Day’s Bill.” Produced by Paul Millar, also known as SlugBug, the EP features both new and previously unrecorded old songs, as well as a few extra studio flourishes, like synthesizer sounds. “It’s just a little different than all of the live shows,” Cody says.

What’s next for Big Bill? Will this EP be their stepping stone to greater things? Will the “Bill-ionaires” go from being a clever name to a reality as they obtain the key to fame and fortune beyond their wildest dreams?

Well, maybe. But Cody has some different, humbler goals: “Hopefully we won’t break up and we’ll keep playing.”

Catch Big Bill at their EP release party this Thursday, Feb. 19 at Holy Mountain, as well as at few unofficial SXSW shows (dates to be announced).