A Keen Attention to Song Structure Distinguishes the Punk Act Big Eyes

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Kait Eldridge, guitarist, singer, and songwriter for the New York-based punk act Big Eyes, is marking out her territory. After more than ten years as working musician (an impressive run for someone who’s only 28), Eldridge hoists her own flag as a sonic and lyric proprietress.

Through the group’s often-morphing cast of characters, Eldridge has always been the brain behind Big Eyes, a fact she asserts loud and clear on the band’s latest release, Stake My Claim. The album appropriately features a cover photo of a pugnacious Eldridge standing solo this time around. The band plays Now That's Class on Thursday, Aug. 25.

“I’ve always just kind of been on the fence, where I wanted to have it be the full band, so the full band was on the first two LP covers,” she says via phone from her New York home. “Then at this point I’ve just had so many different people in the band, it kind of gets old for me getting asked the same question of ‘Oh, uh, who’s this guy? How come it’s a completely different lineup on this record?’ So I think right now I’m just trying to make it more of a statement: ‘Alright everybody, this is my band, it always has been.’”

Many of the band’s lineup changes were a necessity as Eldridge moved from New York (near her childhood home of Long Beach, New York) to Seattle and back again. Big Eyes sustained its reputation as a hardworking DIY punk band in both big-city musical Meccas, releasing two prior full lengths and numerous singles between almost ceaseless touring.

However, Eldridge feels the band never quite found a true cadre of likeminded bands in either place.

“In Seattle it felt like we never really found the exact scene for us, you know?” she remembers. “There was like a handful of garage-y kinda punk like Burger Records-style bands that would play together, and we didn’t really fit in perfectly with that. Then there was more like crusty kinda pop punk or whatever bands, and we didn’t really fit in there either. So we would just kinda play around in all of the different scenes. It was cool because we’d try to do the same thing in New York as well, and you know maybe anywhere we moved we wouldn’t perfectly fit in, but we just try to play wherever we can with all different types of bands.”

Big Eyes has played alongside groups ranging from punk traditionalists Against Me! to pop punk rockers the Thermals. The band spices the flourishing garage punk sound (Black Lips, FIDLAR, Twin Peaks) with the instrumental interplay of ’70s arena/hard rock (Thin Lizzy, Blue Oyster Cult). It's a punkier version of Screaming Females, who also take a page or two from the classic rock book.

Eldridge’s keen attention to song structure, which stems from her interest in '70s pop rock, makes the band rise to the top. Although Big Eyes is a guitar-centered band, Eldridge points to instrumentally-diverse music like Electric Light Orchestra and Fleetwood Mac as key influences on her ability to write a solid song with flow and intricacy.

Eldridge’s songwriting matures and ripens on Stake My Claim. The guitars on the album stand stoic in comparison to the more pliable, dance-y riffs of the band’s earlier work. On the album’s title track, guitars crisscross over one another in harmony, supporting heavy minor chords like Greek columns. Even with the added complexity, that familiar punk guitar chug still makes an appearance on tracks like “Just Not Right” and “Count the Pegs.”

On her quest to claim her conquered musical territory, Eldridge’s blunt lyrics are both the shovel with which she digs trenches for relational warfare and the keys to the getaway car when she needs to make an escape. Despite the antagonistic connotations of “staking claim,” sometimes the phrase can just mean getting out of a situation that proves detrimental instead of plowing ahead just to prove a point. Eldridge not only flees from obvious dangers, such as the stress of a toxic relationship (“Alls I Know”), but she also details the experience of pinpointing an unexpected adverse influence on her life: birth control.

“That song is called ‘Curse of the Tides’ because it’s about birth control," she explains. "Once I tried it for two months, and it completely made me lose my mind. I was super depressed, super manic and irrational, like not handling it well. When you’re kinda caught up in the moment you don’t realize ‘Oh, maybe it’s this.’ I was just like ‘Oh, maybe it’s something else.’ But as I started getting off of it I was like ‘Jesus, that stuff is super toxic for your body.’ Or it can be, at least it was for me. The tides are related to your monthly cycle and all that shit, so that’s what that song is all about.”

Eldridge has become increasingly bold in her subject matter. She recalls an early encounter with Seattle indie rockers Tacocat, who are known for their shameless approach to writing lyrics about women’s issues. Their song “Crimson Wave,” for example, is about a woman on her period.

“I got a lot of respect for the fact that they sing about a lot of taboo kind of shit. They’ve been doing that shit since day one too, I think I met them in like 2007 or 2008, and they had a song about UTI or something,” she says. “I don’t think I’m going to turn Big Eyes into any kind of political venture, but the older I get, the more I’m putting my foot down.”

Beyond lyrics and life circumstances, Eldridge has learned to stake her claim within her music career as well. Leaving behind Big Eyes’ Seattle lineup to move back home in 2014, Eldridge felt pressure to record and release a new album rapidly on top of the anxiety of a cross-country move. Faced with the decision to haste the recording process by pulling together friends for a makeshift backup band, Eldridge instead chose to gather a new lineup and put in the time to tighten up the sound before recording.

“We were in Seattle and we were touring so much, and we were putting out so many records, it was just nonstop,” she says. After I finally got back home to New York, I kind of looked at it and said ‘There’s no need to do that. What was I thinking?’”

Eldridge occasionally wonders if the band might have lost some momentum during the two-year break between albums (the group's last LP, Almost Famous, came out in 2013). But Stake My Claim does far more than glide along with the power of inertia; it propels the band to new sonic and lyrical depths. It’s a product Eldridge feels rightfully proud of. “You know, there’s no rush; I’d rather not drive myself insane and take my time and feel a lot better about everything because I’m not rushing it.”

Big Eyes, Fan Fiction, Brainwave, 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, Now That’s Class, 11213 Detroit Ave., 216-221-8576. Tickets: $5, nowthatsclass.net
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