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Big Special are the punk duo who want us to dance through the darkness

Big Special’s Joe Hicklin and Callum Moloney are finally ready to unleash their debut album and rattle the bones of a weary nation.

By Nick Reilly

(Picture: Jack Alexander)

“Prop me up in a greasy spoon / Under an English summer pale moon / Another desperate breakfast / Out of the rains of June,” comes the distinctive growl of Big Special singer Joe Hicklin on ‘Desperate Breakfast’, one of the early stand-out tracks from the Black Country duo.

As those scathing lyrics suggest, Hicklin and drummer Callum Moloney are only too aware that, as Blur once attested, modern life is rubbish. But where others will trudge along in the monotonous minutiae of daily life, this pair are experts at dissecting our tumultuous times in a way that’s rarely been done before, and finding unity in the bleakest of circumstances.

“I think that’s the overall sentiment of our debut album (the upcoming POSTINDUSTRIAL HOMETOWN BLUES),” says Hicklin. “We don’t want to give any answers or say that we know the way. It’s just us going, ‘This is shit, we know it’s shit, and you know it’s shit, but let’s try and do something together.’”

There have been plenty of bands raising similar state-of-the-nation moments in recent years (see the brutal electronics of Teesside noisemakers Benefits), but it’s the sonic palette of Big Special that makes them a truly exciting proposition.

That aforementioned track skips along with a haunting, Tom Waits-esque groove, while ‘This Here Ain’t Water’ sees Hicklin transforming into the kind of God-fearing fire-and-brimstone preacher that you’d expect to see in the deep south of America. Elsewhere, the pounding ‘Trees’ bounces along with an electronic groove that buries itself within your skull after one listen.

Moloney and Hicklin first became friends when they were 17 but went on their own creative paths before being drawn back together under the lure of Big Special during lockdown, a decade after their first meeting.

“It sounds cheesy, but the two big green arrows that stand out in my life are when I met my partner Billie, who I’m now engaged to, and when Joe sent me that first Big Special demo,” explains Moloney. “I just thought, ‘I need to be part of this.’” Now, it looks like that faith is duly paying off. Let us present the band that we think will become a defining act in the future of UK music. 

I was already excited to chat to you two, but it seems more of an occasion that we’re chatting on the morning that your debut album is announced.

HICKLIN: Yeah, it’s been fucking crazy, man. Our phones are exploding, and I’ve just had to move my phone away from it, so I don’t have to hear any of that while we’re chatting. There’s part of us that feels like you’re giving up your child to the world to be picked apart, but it’s been the main thing for us for three years now and we’ve put a lot of time into this. We’re at our producer’s house now, just before we send the record off, and it’s very important to us. After five o clock today, it’s done and then that’s that. That’s a bit fucking terrifying, but it’s been a long time coming, man. 

One thing that really stood out to me is the variety in your songs. It’s easy to pin you both as this state-of-the-nation duo, but there’s some amazing depth and soul in there.

HICKLIN: We like to think so. We pretty much had the idea for this album before the band. It was like we came together to make this album, which really feels like a bit of a journey through a lot of levels. On one hand, it’s a record that tackles the cycles of depression I’ve gone through, but we want it to flow, and we’re quite open to genres. We’ve got huge influences from across the board. So, if we wanted to do something a bit more soul, we could go in that direction. If we wanted to do something a bit more hip hop or a bit more punk, we could go in that direction as long as we can do whatever we want. There needs to be a central voice of what we’re doing and that gives us creative freedom. 

(Picture: Jack Alexander)

Another thing that struck me is the story behind you two coming together. You were friends, but Callum’s faith in the project made him abandon some comfy financial gigs in order to do this band.

moloney: We were in bands as kids, and we came together after a decade of not writing music together. I was a drummer, and I always say it’s impossible to make money as a drummer. If you ever have kids, and they want to pick up an instrument, don’t give them a pair of fucking drums because they’ll be broke until they’re in their thirties! 

But I’d been playing in a bunch of function bands, and for once I was getting decent money from it. I was working on the vans too, and the money was good there. So, when Joe messaged me saying, “I want to start a band,” it was tough. That’s a big, open-ended statement, especially when you’re nearing 30 like we were. I didn’t want to be that dad in fucking denim down the pub when I’m 40, so initially I said no. I’d been with my partner for seven years at that point too, and she’d stuck me out when I wasn’t making decent money. 

HICKLIN: I completely understood his reasons too, but I did say to my wife that I was going to ask Cal one more time. I sent him our demo for ‘This Here Ain’t Water’ and, well…

MOLONEY: It sounds cheesy, but the two big green arrows that stand out in my life are when I met my partner Billie, who I’m now engaged to, and when Joe sent me that demo. I just thought, ‘I need to be part of this.’ I left a bunch of the wedding bands and started doing more work on the vans to make up for it. Three years on, and it’s been the best decision I ever made because it’s been mad.

(Picture: Jack Alexander)

HICKLIN: It’s funny what comes out of stressful periods because I wasn’t even working at the time I wanted to make this band. I was in a fucking mad depression, and it’s just mad that it’s all come back around. We just filmed our latest video in the place where we used to rehearse, like, 13 years ago when we were kids.

moloney: I wish we could, like, lean over the shoulder of them 18-year-old lads and be like, “Oi! In 12 fucking years’ time, you’re still gonna be broke. But you’re gonna be buzzing!”

HICKLIN: I’d reply, “12 fucking years?! That long!”

You’ve really landed on something with your lyrics though. ‘Desperate Breakfast’ feels like this incredible reflection of the rut and malaise that so much of the UK seems to be in right now.

HICKLIN: This is the thing I wanna tackle and write about with my music. It’s just honest, man. It’s just about personal experience, and if I can be honest about what’s happening day to day to me, then that might be happening to however many other people, you know.

moloney: It’s us being honest and open about the social depression of England at the moment. The lack of any sort of cultural identity and the ignorance towards the working class. The mental health needs of the nation — we’re just trying to look at that darkness through our own eyes. 

What have your own experiences of that been like?

HICKLIN: I wasn’t working when I formed this band, and it was pretty bad. It was lockdown, when we were forced to be retrospective, and I was going over years of work and family and how all the things in that realm tend to work. Work, trying to be professional while dealing with mental health issues, and how that relates to anyone. But there’s a real thread of hope through the album too. Me and Cal talk a lot about how much our wives support us, and with my wife, she’s been a massive part of that. A big part of the album to me is how she just wouldn’t see me drown.

But the album ends on the song ‘Dig’, and it’s about that feeling of something being shit, but you just gotta keep fucking moving forward and see what happens. I think that’s the overall sentiment. We don’t want to give any answers or say that we know the way. It’s just us going, “This is shit, we know it’s shit, and you know it’s shit, but let’s try and do something together.”

(Picture: Jack Alexander)

Moloney: Joe says it live quite a lot, there’s a lot of power in shouting at the void together. It’s a big release for people to be able to come and just shout at the void! 

What are the politics of Big Special? Your music touches on quite a lot of social issues, but it never feels too implicit or preachy. 

HICKLIN: We love music that does that. We love Benefits and that on-the-nose political thing they do so well, but we want to be creative in our way too. I don’t want to hide anything, though. Like, I can tell you now that we’re both fully leftist, it’s just that we don’t want to nail ourselves to a post too much in our music. We’re not trying to explain anything to anyone. We like the idea of people taking their own view from our music; we try and be personal so that people can relate to the wider human experience of what we’re on about. 

Moloney: We don’t wait to nail it to a post either. To be like, ‘Oh, we’re just a political band. We’re just a working-class band. We’re just a mental health band.’ Because the more you start doing that, the narrower are the opportunities. It’s clear that we’re talking about the Tories, but there’s a million other things you can take from our music.

Another thing that struck me is the sheer breadth of your sound too. On one hand you’ve got electronic beats like ‘Trees’, but then ‘This Here Ain’t Water’ sounds like a god-fearing preacher launching one hell of a sermon!

HICKLIN: One of the main things is I knew I didn’t want to play the guitar on stage, and then the rest of it was experimenting with that and defining what our sound would become. 

MOLONEY: And that’s funny because Joe is from a guitar background; no one knows how good this guy is on guitar. He’s got this secret weapon too, our kid. He can scream the most important lyrics you’ve ever heard back at you, and then the next minute he’ll sound like fucking Frank Sinatra! 

You’ve already got quite a bit of support in your corner too — Steve Lamacq and Tom Robinson have been constant champions of your band on 6Music. 

MOLONEY: Ah, good old Lammo! I was actually in London with my fiancée in Brixton for a gig, and we were walking back to our airbnb afterwards when we just bumped into him! He plays the music of thousands of bands, but he just stopped and was chatting to me for 20 minutes about how much he loves this band. He championed us before we got signed in December 2022. He found it, heard it, and whacked it on. Tom Robinson asked us to support him at a little gig in Brum too. 

It’s underrated how much of a big deal it is to smaller bands, you know, like when you’re trying to make that leap into being a band that people recognise and take seriously. We’d be doing one gig a month because that’s all we had the time for, and then suddenly it’d be like, “Wow, Steve Lamacq played our music!” That’s enough momentum for people to pay attention to what we do. That confidence boost can keep you going for another month because there can be a lot of rejection in the industry, people turning away and not listening. 

So, he’s been really nice, and so too have all the fans who jumped on and supported us. We haven’t had any real negativity; people have been supportive and it feels like they’re getting our music and what it’s about too.

That’s why it feels so nice to announce the album this morning. People have been sending a load of support to us and it’s lovely. It does feel like we’ve just announced that we’re pregnant. Now we’re finally ready to let our child out! 

Taken from the April/May issue of Rolling Stone UK – you can buy it here now.