As DJ Gonzo, Aharon Segal has been performing in the Triangle since 1999, backing live emcees and spinning hip-hop and R&B records. In August, though, Segal made the unlikely move of joining a proper rock unit, The Big Picture, the first time the drummer-turned-disc jockey has been in a band since high school.
"They had a lot of energy and a lot of drums, and I really dig that kind of high-energy rock 'n' roll music that's danceable," says Segal, recalling the Big Picture shows he saw before signing on. "I was ready for the challenge to be more creative and more experimental in terms of the styles I was willing to explore."
Segal's addition is the latest but certainly not last step in the evolution of The Big Picture's lineup, which now features nine contributors. They're led by Jonny and Joah Tunnell, brothers and two-thirds of local power pop wunderkinds The Never. The Tunnells have been recording songs since 2008 for the project, their main musical focus since The Never went on "permanent hiatus" following guitarist Noah Smith's enrollment in art school last year. The band's current iteration helps the Tunnells realize the sound they'd always imagined.
"We were being a little too rock 'n' roll when we wanted to be more electronica," explains Jonny of the piecemeal development. "We're extremely happy right now with what we're able to get out of having so many people in a band, because that can always come off as way overplayed."
The Big Picture pulls members from across the spectrum of local music: Guitarist Alec Ferrell plays in Durham metal outfit Hog, while Leah Gibson lends cello to Lost in the Trees. Bassist Johnny Hobbs once backed the folkie fare of Jenna and The Jintlemen, and singer-songwriter Sarah Fuller met Jonny while playing music with mutual friends. Bowerbirds member Mark Paulson joins the band when his schedule permits. Vocalist Lisa Keaton and vocalist/ percussionist Alphonse Nicholson stumbled into him while working with Durham theater company Little Green Pig. It's Jonny's job to wrangle them all.
"As a bandleader, Jonny has it set up in a way that reminds me of Afro-Cuban jazz," Segal offers. "It's nothing like that musically, but in the structure and with a composer writing songs and teaching people very specific parts. The bands are often large, and the parts are often small but meticulous."
For his part, Jonny values the unique contributions brought by each of the players. Segal was brought into the fold to "produce" drums, for instance, chopping up and playing back beats previously recorded by bandmates on acoustic and electronic drums while adding his own live percussion. "It's a rock 'n' roll group, but it's all put together with turntablism, strange sounds and samples," says Segal.
Due to his DJing experience, Segal also works to keep the band's sets consolidated and concise. That skill will be invaluable since The Big Picture plans to record three mixtapes and later combine them seamlessly on vinyl. Released digitally this Friday, Psychic Psalms: Chapter 1 blends The Never's heavy emphasis on vocal harmonies with skittering electronics and soaring strings.
Explains Fuller, "The Big Picture's music isn't as linear or as structured as others, so it has kind of a psychedelic feel. We've also been talking a lot about crop circles and thinking about prophesies in songs and about different states of consciousness."
Jonny's already full of new ideas of sounds and elements for subsequent Big Picture music; he rattles off the names of other musicians he wants to get involved. For him, subsequent efforts need to include even more collaborators.
"I love playing the role of producer in my recording sessions," he says, "and I want the chance to do that with other people as much as possible."