Cheat The Gallows
Words: Todd K Smith
“There’s always something nobody considers vogue, it’s knowing what that is.”
~ Damon Fox, Bigelf
Not since Emerson Lake and Palmer have we seen such a majestic band built around a central keyboard player/vocalist. With Bigelf’s new disc Cheat The Gallows (on Linda Perry’s Custard Record) Damon Fox is a force to be reckoned with. Not only does he play both Wurlitzer and Hammond (at the same time) but also is the group’s eerie vocalist and mad hatter conductor. Bigelf first rose to prominence in the mid ‘90s as a psychedelic doom-based outfit built around Fox’s cathedral riffs and Richard Anton’s heavy bass lines. With guitarist A.H.M. Butler-Jones and drummer Thom Sullivan they released the Closer to Doom EP (’95). Perfectly timed, the disc was immediately adapted into the growing stoner rock movement. Its focus on vintage sound equipment, haunting melodies and layered guitar has since become legendary. Many assumed the band was Scandinavian due to their progressive arrangements. They were signed to a Swedish record label and mastered their second record Money Machine (’97) there but in reality the band got its start in LA were Fox still resides.
Steve Frothingham a one-time resident of Malmö, Sweden swapped seats with Sullivan on drums and later two Fins, bassist Duffy Snowhill and guitarist Ace Mark, joined the group replacing Richard Anton and A.H.M. Butler-Jones respectively. The band’s third album, Hex (’03) was recorded in Lund, Sweden helping the band attain cult status through much of northern Europe where their mixture of Black Sabbath, Beatles and Pink Floyd has become iconic. One critic wrote: “Flaunting a style that is unparalleled, Bigelf have forged a sound all their own: heavy pop rife with epic guitars, maniacal keyboards and rich, sophisticated harmonies laid over a foundation of hallucinatory hard rock. Working within their carefully constructed pop framework, they have injected a diabolical sound quality with quasi-psychedelic overtones, where demonic timbres are mingled with explosive experimental passages. Bigelf is a cutting edge, musical experience unlike anything else out there today.”
“You can make music into your own cathedral, your own church,” say Damon Fox as we sat under a cloudy sky in Sölvesborg, Sweden. Bigelf has just finished their stellar appearance at Sweden Rock capping a year-long world tour. Fox is talking about his two large up-right organs that encase him on stage. Like Captain Nemo in a top-hat he discusses his fascination with vintage gear. “It started when I was in my teens working at Voltage guitars in LA. I’ve always been interested in vintage guitars. I’d see a picture of Jimmy Page and try to figure out what type of guitar he was playing. There was a photo of ELO with Jeff Lynn playing this gold top and I had to find out why he was playing that guitar. I found out later it was a 1953-‘54 gold top an amazing guitar, so there was a reason.”
Fox’s tutelage turned into an obsession. “Working at Voltage put me in that environment. I got to understand the difference between old verses new. I started to see first hand things that were different like Germaine transistors. I would analyze the sound. I become enthralled with it. Then it became a ‘Raider of the Lost Ark’ kinda thing. It was about finding gear, checking out the Recycler and cold calling people. My first time in England I bought a couple Laney heads for 200 quid now there like £2,000. There’s always something nobody considers vogue, it’s knowing what that is.” In the early origins of Bigelf, Fox was the guitar player then switched to keyboards. “I wanted that big organ sound but quickly realized that it would be hard to find a keyboardist dedicated to a Jon Lord, Keith Emerson-style - specially someone with the same love for vintage sound and equipment as I do. I used the piano for songwriting then started playing Hammond and figured it out.”
Cheat The Gallows was a make or break record for Bigelf. Recorded over five years it gave Fox an opportunity to write his most elaborate work and yet his most commercial. “’Counting Sheep’ was the most extreme, the most out there piece I’ve written and our single ‘Money, It’s Pure Evil’ is the most universally basic,” says Fox. “I like to push both ends of the spectrum.” Yet, it’s the depth within tracks like “Blackball,” a road song with horn section or the Horselips-like galloping riff in “The Evils of Rock and Roll” that audiences are responding to. Says Fox, “With this record we needed to really get noticed so we took our many styles and textures and put them together like a painting. ‘Superstar’ is a pure pop song with a great hook where ‘Race With Time’ uses the distorted organ to give the song a Pink Floyd presence.” It was that dexterity that attracted Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy to take notice and invite Bigelf to join them for a world tour.
“Mike Portnoy changed our lives,” says Fox. “You can’t pass up an opportunity like that. We were hoping something would catch after the Hex album but it never took, now were able to get the full scope of Bigelf out to a larger audience. Italy is the king of prog rock so those have been the most crazy, fanatical shows.” The group have been back and forth to Europe several times this year in between dates in the States. “We’re making good use of our time,” say Fox. “We’re already throwing ideas around for the next record, working up riffs during soundcheck. This lineup is the best I’ve ever worked with. Our guitarist Ace Mark is like David Gilmour in that he has flash but it’s understated. Duffy (bass) and Froth (drums) are the best rhythm section around and make what we do work really well.”
Bigelf are picking up some A-list fans along the way. They include Courtney Love, Nina Simone, White Stripes and even Alicia Keys name checked them in Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine stating, “They're an insane mixture of everything from Led Zeppelin to Stevie Wonder.” Fox played piano on Christina Aguilera’s hit “Beautiful” and Bigelf back Aguilera when she covered John Lennon’s “Mother” for the ’07 Amnesty International-related Instant Karma: The Campaign To Save Darfur. Says Fox, “Linda Perry (mega producer, 4 Non Blondes) is a good friend of mine. She’s what I consider a song doctor and helps a lot of artist find their voice. It’s her studio that we recorded Cheat The Gallows, she’s a fan and has been kind enough to help spread the word. Our audience finds us. We’re the kind of band that has something for a lot of people whether it hard rock, prog, or melody-driven but it’s not so different that people freak.”
“When we started the band fifteen years ago we were in a Badfinger, Beatles, Black Sabbath mentality,” continues Fox. “We had three singers, three songwriters and would split the songs up three ways. We’ve since moved into our own universe. We’ve created our own space and now feel all the elements are finally together.” Judging from the crowd response at Sweden Rock, Bigelf have defiantly come into their own. “The best shows are the ones that are unexpected,” says Fox. “Before this gig we had show at a club with it’s own restaurant. The stage was the size of three of my organs. We were going to cancel, but the chief came out all excited and shook our hands, they expanded the stage with a hammer and wood. When we went on it was packed. Each show is special. We’ve had the most amazing year and consider ourselves fortunate. If you don’t put yourself out there and take the risk, you’ll never know what could happen.”