After years spent playing in hardcore and metal bands in Atlanta, guitarist CJ Ridings and some friends decided it was time for a change. Coming together under the name Big Jesus, they added harmonies, hooks and a layer of feedback familiar to any fan of the psychedelic side of Nineties alternative.
The band has birthed one of 2016's most pleasant rock surprises, Oneiric, out September 30th. The album title means "dreamlike," and crystallizes the band's fuzzy aesthetic. This batch of loud yet textured songs – some new, some previously self-released – were recorded with producer Matt Hyde (Deftones, Slayer) last December in Los Angeles. Equal parts snarling riffs and sugary melodies, songs like "SP" and "Shards" could soon mean fans of Silversun Pickups and Mastodon are clinking pint glasses at a venue near you.
The tracks from the sessions with Hyde eventually made it into the hands of Good Charlotte's Benji and Joel Madden, whose MDDN management roster includes English pop act Jessie J and emo punks Sleeping With Sirens. Benji put on the songs in his car one night, and called Big Jesus the next day. "I ended up listening to the whole record," he tells Rolling Stone. "It just made me want to drive and listen. I think this band is going to have success rather quickly."
Originally formed by Ridings and bassist/vocalist Spencer Ussery, Big Jesus honed their present sound with the help of guitarist Tommy Gonzalez and drummer Joe Sweat. This fall, they're blasting Oneiric to the early arrivers as opener for Good Charlotte's headlining club tour.
"There's been a bit of a void there in the last few years for incredible live bands," Benji says. "Look, you have guys like Queens of the Stone Age or the Foo Fighters. But a lot of what's considered 'alternative' relies on tracks and ProTools. You see this band come onstage, the four of them just turn their amps on and the tones are amazing."
Signing with MDDN was also an ideal way to launch the Big Jesus Instagram to new heights. A goofy face swap featuring Gonzalez's mug and Benji's Benjamin Franklin back tattoo did the trick. "That one went viral." Ridings says. He also told Rolling Stone about another face swap – this one with the Beatles – and the band's many varied influences.
The name "Big Jesus" started out as a joke, and then stuck. Which other names did you consider?
We were considering the name Lower Gods for a while. We still wanted to be something epic and big. We never really got around to changing it. One thing happened and then another, and then it was too late to go back on all this. We have a love/hate relationship with the name. Most people in bands hate their own name, but everybody else doesn't care that much.
How does Big Jesus compare to your previous bands?
All my bands since I was 14, 15 years old have been in the punk, hardcore and metal scene here in Atlanta. This is the first time that I'm not embarrassed to tell my grandma, "Hey, hear my band." It wasn't until my twenties that I started getting into really classic musical albums like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the Beatles' Revolver and Zeppelin and Siamese Dream and Loveless. I think it's undeniable that whatever band I'm in is going to have riffs, but I made this one more melodic.
Speaking of Loveless, the lyric "Don't leave me loveless" ended up in the song "Lock and Key." Conscious or unconscious My Bloody Valentine reference?
Spencer and I write all of the lyrics together. When we're writing them, it's always trying to think of words or phrases that will be like a tagline. Not something that's overused as straight-up like "I love you" or any cliché that you would say to somebody. We had been listening to Loveless. It was around the time when they had just put out the MBV record. We were listening to that a lot, so it was fresh on our brains.
How do Smashing Pumpkins comparisons sit with you?
Siamese Dream is probably in my top 10 favorite records. It definitely influenced a lot of the guitar writing and guitar tones starting out for us. We've tried to take that influence and take it somewhere else. The Nineties alternative sound has had a resurgence the last few years. It's undeniably part of our band, but I still want to have an aspect that's progressing the genre. Smashing Pumpkins, My Bloody Valentine, Weezer ... those bands definitely heavily influence our songwriting and aesthetic.
What do each of the guys in the band contribute?
Spencer plays bass and sings. When I first started trying to develop this project and write songs for it, he's the first person I had in mind to play with. He brings the most of the melody to the sound. Tommy, who plays guitar, is a ripper. On a technical level, he's so much better than me it's ridiculous. When I have ideas for things, I make mouth sounds and say "Do something like this." Joe is the newest member. We've had the Nirvana curse of going through a bunch of drummers. Joe comes from a metal background. He's insanely good, almost too good. I've had to be like, "Do a fill like that, but a quarter of it."
What did you lose when your tour van was burglarized earlier this year?
I lost all of my recording equipment that I had saved up over the last couple of years. I had a little mobile setup to take to bands' practice spaces and record them for super cheap. There was a lot of sentimental stuff in there. Engineers that mentored me gave me rare microphones. The first guy I ever interned for had given me an AKG 414 microphone. A drummer had hit it and broke it. He was like, "Hey, if you can fix this microphone, you can have it." I made it work, and it was mine. It was the hugest deal to have something like that starting out. After that, Atlanta really rallied behind us. We didn't ask to put on a benefit show, but people were willing to help out of nowhere. It was awesome.
Why did you create a band T-shirt that looks like you face-swapped with a Beatles picture?
That attests that there's another side of us that's totally silly. Once somebody said, "Let's just take a classic photo of the Beatles and superimpose our faces on it," everybody was like, "Hell, yeah." When we were about to pull the trigger and order it, we were like, "Do we really want to do this? Yeah, of course." Whenever you make a super-serious shirt, nobody really says anything. Making people laugh? It's more fun to me to have people react that way.
What's it like having the Maddens as management?
They're super-great dudes and it was a really easy decision to go with them. I've worked in the studio and you meet celebrities who are big in the music industry. You never know if someone will be down to talk or if they just want to be in their own world. Benji texts me all the time, and not just about band stuff. They're insanely down-to-earth and personable. When they were thinking about putting us on the bill to tour with them, they were like, "Are you sure you want to play with us? Do you think the match-up is okay?" From our end, we're like, "Hell, yeah, we wanna play those shows." Big shows will be fun for us. I think their fan base will be into it.