In the middle of the summer, after rehearsal for the Dedicated Followers of Fashion, a short-lived Kinks tribute band, the de facto Ray Davies (Crystal Furs’ bassist Harley Dear) received a text from the group’s drummer, Jesse Gage (Movie the Band, Robot Therapy). She read the text’s two simple questions aloud to guitarist Amanda Hand (Crystal Furs, Diabolical Machines).
“Are you, me, and Mandy going to start a band?” Gage wrote. “And is it going to be called Big Heaven?”
Hand laughed. “Tell him yes!” she exclaimed.
Though Dear would move away before the project got off the ground, Gage and Hand would move forward as a duo, and Big Heaven officially began playing in November. In a surprise move, the pair dropped a four-song EP on their Bandcamp page on January 7, weeks before it was expected. The recording was tracked in the final days of 2017 at Cloudland Recording Studio with producer/engineer Britt Robisheaux (Pinkish Black, Jandek, B.J. Thomas).
Strike a Match is 12 minutes of simple pop fun. The mini-album opens with the choppy, danceable “Creature,” which the duo previously released as a single shortly after they began playing together. The snigger-inspiringly titled “Jim Smells like Weed” belies its heavy subject matter. It’s a song about holding on to some semblance of a constant in a chaotic and uncertain world. The highlight of the quartet of songs, however, is “Pearls,” Hand’s personal and painful ballad about how a seemingly idyllic life is often anything but.
“It’s the most personal song I’ve written so far,” Hand said of the song. “It started out influenced by someone I follow on Instagram, about having all the trappings of a perfect life, designer clothes, and house. But really you feel like the walls are closing in and you want to tear it all down and change. I kept it in my pocket for a long time because there were some days I couldn’t sing it without crying. When I got past that, I was ready to record it.”
Despite the diminutive lineup, Big Heaven’s sound is anything but small. Gage’s drums are firecracker concussive, and Hand’s furry, fuzzed-out guitar provides a thick bed for their voices to jump on and luxuriate in. Vocally, the two complement each other as well as a punk-rock Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton –– Gage, insouciant and unhurried, and Hand, seraphic and powerful. Whether trading lines or singing together, their voices find their respective lanes easily. All of this makes for a sonic aesthetic that is streamlined and focused, clean of extraneous fluff but still as big as the sky.
“Our songs have simple chord progressions and unfussy guitars on purpose,” Hand said. “It gives me freedom to write hooky melodies that we hope will ear-worm their way into your brain.”
Indeed, the hooks sink themselves deep, and the tunes will have you wearing the carpet out in your living room. But Hand hopes they give you something to think about as well.
“So much of radio pop and rock is about either desire or anger, written by people who are probably younger,” Hand said. “I have a little more experience, and I want to find those people with a little more experience and give them songs to sing. At a certain point, you start asking yourself, ‘Is this all there is?’ And we need songs that address those questions.”
Gage, on the other hand (pun intended), is a bit more to the point: He just wants people to dance.
“People don’t dance enough in Fort Worth,” he said.
That Thalia-and-Melpomene theater mask duality makes the twosome such a natural fit. Their music seems to be the natural extension of their personalities. When describing their working relationship, it’s easy to see the obvious inevitability of Gage’s simple recruitment text last summer.
“Mandy has a really serious work ethic,” Gage said. “She also knows way more than I do. It’s making me a better musician.”
Amusingly, Hand echoes a similar sentiment back.
“Jesse does everything I can do and more,” she said. “So we work really fast together. He’s not afraid to try things. If something doesn’t work, it’s no big deal. Also, he’s wicked funny.”
The duo is planning an official release show for Strike a Match, though they’ve yet to set a date. You can next catch them at House of the Rising Thumb in southwest Fort Worth on Saturday, Jan. 20, with Mañana Cowboy and Daryel Sellers.