A Bootstrapped British Invasion

Aug 15, 2017

Up, up in the sky of the San Bernardino Forest, amid miles of thick trees and lurking bobcats, a bizarre murder mystery is unfolding. Inside a cabin-like house, the four members of the London band The Big Moon are dressed in Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hats and peacoats, collecting clues. The villain they're after, fellow London songwriter Marika Hackman, is outside taking a breather: a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, beatboxing the 2000s UK garage crossover hit "Gotta Get Thru This" by Daniel Bedingfield to herself as the sun begins to set.

Hackman and The Big Moon are touring America together and moving like there isn't a moment to lose. Since landing in Los Angeles 36 hours ago, they've pulled through their first co-headlining show, made headway on an epic drive to Oakland on four hours' jetlagged sleep and shot half a music video for The Big Moon's next single, "Pull the Other One," with Hackman cameoing as the baddie. The plan is to wind up in New York three weeks later; Hackman's touring band is at home, so The Big Moon will play twice each night. There is no tour bus, no tour manager, no indication of whether there will be audiences — just the five ladies, their one roadie and boxes of t-shirts. The shoot finally wraps at 3 a.m., but not before an overzealous smoke machine sets the house's fire alarms off and Hackman sustains a cheek injury from a flying fidget spinner, the Sherlocks' weapon of choice. Lobby call is at 7 the next morning.

"This is why it's so hard to sleep in the van," bassist Celia Archer exclaims earlier that day, clutching her heart while mouthing along to Irish boy band Westlife's "Flying Without Wings." The tour van is the musicians' own British microcosm, soundtracked by a self-curated '80s and '90s nostalgia playlist called "FM FM" that keeps them constantly giddy. It features UK acts like The Corrs, who made it to the Billboard Hot 100 in the early 2000s, and Westlife, who never put a dent in the US market but were massive at home. When someone points out that The Streets' Mike Skinner made it onto American radio rapping about chips and baked beans, Big Moon frontwoman Jules Jackson lets out a delighted sigh: "Did he?"

For British acts, making any impact in the States is daunting — not just culturally, but logistically. "It's hard to have a presence out here, it's so big," says drummer Fern Ford, who switches between the driver's seat and working on Excel spreadsheets. Guitarist Soph Nathan uses van time to catch up on text messages. She splits her efforts between two bands, and the other, Our Girl, requires any attention she has to spare. But a mutual sense of romanticism keeps spirits high. "We met Kate Tempest the other day and told her what we were doing — and she goes, 'Are you mental?'" Archer says, laughing. "It's fine, we can do all of it. We fought for this."

The previous evening, over a slapdash dinner between soundcheck and showtime, Hackman and The Big Moon reminisce over the beginnings of their love story. Sparks flew instantaneously last year, when they all met at an industry awards show in London. The Big Moon's members were fans of the already established Hackman and tried to play it cool. "We'd been dancing together for a while and I went, 'Oh what's your name?" Jackson says, all coy. The women exchanged numbers — and jackets, in a bid to have to meet up again at a later date.

Ever since, they've been each other's biggest cheerleaders and love to fawn over their 2017 releases. Hackman's track of choice off The Big Moon's Love in the 4th Dimension is an ambling, jangly number called "The Road": "That will always be my favorite," she says, as the others clap.

Released in April on Columbia, The Big Moon's debut was made during the summer of 2016, a time of post-Brexit discontent in the UK. Nevertheless, it's stoked by relentless optimism. "I've always thought it easy to write a sad song," Jackson says. "It's much more useful to be galvanizing, to bring people together." At its best the album has the catchiness of Elastica and the comic timing of early Blur — whose reckless cockney sentiment from "Girls & Boys" ("Avoiding all work 'cause there's none available") is echoed in songs like "Bonfire" ("We'll start a bonfire to make the time fly / 'Cause I'm so bored I could burn this whole town").

Other standouts like "Sucker" and "Formidable" feel imbued with the members' friendship, which is barely two years old. "I got an email," Nathan says of the band's origins. "'Looking for a young, fun female guitarist ...' I was like, 'That's me!'" Archer notes they didn't even have any mutual friends on Facebook — which is where Jackson, fed up with working in a bar but never serving drinks because she can't make cocktails, first posted a status looking to cobble a pack together.

"I was a waitress my whole life," she says. "I wanted to have a gang of friends, travel the world and do all the things that we're doing. It looked so much better than topping up people's glasses of water."

Their own record is the only indie rock they can all agree on; their common ground lies more in pop songs and power ballads. ("Sometimes I play things just to rattle Jules' cage," Ford says. "If I wanna wind her up I'll put on The National and she goes, 'Oh, for f***'s sake.'") It's with side-splitting humor that they pull through, Jackson's in particular. In the dressing room that night she divulges a Big Moon rule to never eat fan-gifted food, because they once learned, after the fact, that a man had rubbed his genitals all over it. And when Archer runs straight offstage to the restroom, Jackson reveals she once peed herself during a show. "I was wearing black tights," she says, "so it was fine."

Spending even an hour with the four Big Moons is enough to understand why Hackman — now 25, but a self-sufficient careerist since 19 — invited them into the studio last year to back her on her second album, I'm Not Your Man.

Released this June on Sub Pop, it's a bolder, more upfront record than her first, no longer couching her sexuality in metaphors about nature. In its grunge-fueled opener, "'Boyfriend" — a song about male fetishising of lesbian relationships — Hackman uses her own to goad a male counterpart: "I held his girl in my hands (I know he doesn't mind) / She likes it 'cause they're softer than a man's (I like to moisturize)."

Pitchfork called it "the proper arrival of a bold young British force." In sound, it has more in common with Kurt Cobain or Mac DeMarco than Laura Marling, her former tour companion — though it's Marling she's most tirelessly compared to. "Someone called it posh folk," she scoffs. "It blows my mind, it's such bulls*** and so frustrating. What the f*** is posh folk? That's not a genre. You don't go to the 'posh folk' section in a record shop."

There's nothing posh about about it when the five musicians schlep their gear into L.A.'s Bootleg Theater, barely recovered from their journeys, and sprint through a rushed soundcheck. Watching them practice Hackman's "Violet," a randy song about her fixation with a lover's mouth, and The Big Moon's straight-shooting "Cupid," about a guy chasing a one-night stand, underlines what both artists excel at.

"Sometimes people don't take us seriously because we are really enjoying it," Jackson says. Like Hackman, they've had to grapple with being unfairly reduced. Though their albums are packed with progressive ideas and tell stories with a female gaze, they're also very accessible. Jackson says songs like The Big Moon's "Silent Movie Susie" can be all the more interesting for their subtlety.

"That's about a time when I lost the feeling in my nipples," she says. "There's something about taking a vulnerable experience and turning it into a song that you're playing with your friends loudly at people. It doesn't have to be explicit. That's how you change the world."

That confidence in the candid has influenced Hackman, too, who has dealt with anxiety since the day in her late teens when her appendix burst while on holiday, leading to her first panic attack. (She's prone to them now and lays off caffeine.) Finding kinship with these other 20-something musicians, she says, has strengthened her armor. As a fivesome, their company is frank, inclusive and funny, and to be part of it feels almost subversive.

"We had a conversation earlier about different types of farts," Archer says. Hackman jumps in to assert that farting comfortably is all about position. "I was once in so much pain — then went to the loo, knelt on the seat, did a little press-up onto the ground with my hands to the floor for thirty seconds," she says, smiling. "I smashed it."

Later that night, a first taste of victory is upon the musicians when, returning to the venue, they see a line formed all the way around the block. "F***** hell," Archer says. "Is this for us?" Not only have they they turned out a crowd, but there's a trio of underage fans begging to get in. They've come on a 15-hour bus ride from Mexico, bearing individually wrapped party favors. "I've never been a superfan of a band until I discovered them," one young woman says, adding that she first heard the albums three weeks ago.

"This is our second gig ever in L.A. and there's so many of you!" Jackson says as she takes the stage for The Big Moon's own set first. By the time the band gets to its riot-punk version of Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger," she's so exhausted she has to sit down.

"I felt like I was in the womb," she says immediately afterwards, pouring out rum shots to try and resuscitate everyone before Hackman's set. As they huddle backstage, preparing to get back out there, no one can seem to find words of encouragement. Spirits may be high, but their brains are broken.

"Guys," Jackson says. "Let's just have fun."

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