Big Digits (8.30.06)

Posted on July 28, 2008


You’re gonna party like it’s their birthday

Big Digits have a lot in common with the Blues Brothers—physically, logically and even in that weird rock missionary way. It’s hard to tell where they’re coming from most of the time. Few clues about what’s really going on ever surface; even on their new album, Smoke Machines in Lazervision, most of the verses hide under distorted, disembodied vocals. Maybe if punks joined forces with hip-hoppers back in 1983, it would have sounded something like this.

It turns out that to understand this group, you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way—through the live show. “It’s just what we are,” explains Mac Carroll (aka MC Mac Swell), the duo’s lead rapper and programmer. “‘Smoke machines in laser vision’ is what you should experience at our show, even if there aren’t actually smoke machines and lasers there.”

Their mission isn’t anything groundbreaking; they just want you to go bonkers dancing, and they are more than willing to lead by example. There’s not much in the way of gimmickry—just some beats going through the PA and two dudes onstage rhyming, clapping, shouting, jumping and stomping with pretty goddamn complete abandon.

Over time, Big Digits—an MC/hype-man duo—have been learning, more and more, how to deliver the goods. Carroll has been stripping beats down from the old Big Digits style, which is full of cutesy samples and nods to indie rock and videogames. Their current approach is simpler, building sparse dance anthems on the scraps of leftover beats.

“When I’m DJ-ing a party, I want to play things I like, but I also need to play things with a simple beat, something that somebody can catch on to make them dance,” says Carroll.

When I talk to Carroll and partner TD Sidell at the Middle East, everything seems to be in order. Sidell, the sideburned and mustachioed Belushi to Carroll’s Aykroyd, speaks mostly in conversational shrugs and lays out the plan in broad strokes.

“The people that pay their money to see us deserve to have a good time. We give them every ounce of energy that we have,” he says. “We try to make it a shared experience.”

“We still come across all our ideas by accident, on off days in thrift stores in Seattle or something,” Carroll adds. “The Steve Perry song is just from a record we found that we thought we could use in a remix of our song ‘Chairs Electric,’ because the record had ‘electricity’ in the title, but it turned out the beat was right there for a completely new song. Stuff just happens and there’s no agenda, outside of thinking, ‘This might really get people moving.’”

Carroll says that the perception of the band has been changing a little. To call Big Digits a joke band is off the mark and always has been, but you can’t blame people for not knowing where they draw the line. Their website is covered in super-crude drawings of tepees done in MS Paint, and they have songs called “Night Owl” (about the ill-fated MBTA program) and the aforementioned “Why Did You Reject My Steve Perry Fan Fiction?”

Still, though, did anyone call P-Funk a joke band? Gnarls Barkley? Seeing Big Digits at a party or a show is like watching the end of a summer-camp movie, when the goofy kids who’ve been making fat jokes and getting in food fights finally go up against the bad guy. You know you’ve been laughing, but now you understand: These kids have fortitude! Even if they’re doing it in, say, black-and-gold designer wrestling masks, as Big Digits have lately. “It’s like if Cobra Commander had the really good tailor instead of Destro,” says Sidell.

They’re even authentic underdogs. Smoke Machines is coming out on the excellent but tiny Bodies of Water Arts and Crafts label, home to acts like the tights-sporting Tunnel of Love and Wildlife. Carroll and Sidell book all their own shows, though they lost their tour-mobile a couple months ago when torrential spring rains flooded Carroll’s car. This fall, they’ll probably be renting a cute little coupe to take them across the country.

That fortitude carries over to their lyrics, too. “’Hey Birthday’ is about when we just got home from tour once,” says Sidell. “It was my birthday. I had no money. I had no job. It was pouring out. I sat at home and drank whiskey alone.”

“Also, it’s about this girl I knew that had the same birthday as me,” adds Carroll. “I sort of hated it because that was supposed to be my day, the Mac holiday.”

“So now we have this song that we dedicate to people at shows—whoever has a birthday there—but really it’s against everyone but us,” Sidell concludes. “It’s saying ‘Hey, fuck you: This is my birthday.” [Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig 8.30.06]