The electronic dance duo Big Gigantic have sandwiched a Madison gig between stops on a two-month tour. The night before, they're in Tulsa, and the night after, they're in Columbia, Mo. Hauling their usual stage rig across the Midwest and back in two days' time is impossible, so the duo are flying light to Wisconsin and devising their stage production on the fly. On Oct. 27 they'll headline Freakfest, State Street's annual Halloween blowout, alongside Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller.
"We're pretty good at improvising," says drummer Jeremy Salken.
This statement applies to their music, too.
"Coming from a jazz background, both of us, we love to do it," says Salken. "We've been playing together so long, at this point we know kind of what each other is going for, and there are really subtle looks and cues."
Salken, 31, and saxophonist Dominic Lalli, 35, were roommates before they were bandmates. Lalli had moved to Colorado after getting his master's degree in music performance and was playing in a funk and jazz group, the Motet. He and Salken started messing around with sounds that eventually developed into Big Gigantic's instrumental mix of jazz improv, heavy dub and slick hip-hop beats. What started as a half-serious side project soon became their main focus.
The melding of organic and electronic took off on the festival circuit. Big Gigantic give intense, sweaty live performances aided by a stunning light show. The duo also offer free downloads of their music, but at least some of their growing fan base still wants to pay for it. Earlier this year, their sophomore album, Nocturnal, climbed to number two on the iTunes electronic-music chart.
Other songwriters may draw on private joys or exorcise demons to find their muse, but Lalli composes like a chef. He talks about writing music like a cook over the stove - experimenting, tasting, refining. He might start with an 808 hip-hop beat, add a jazz melody, then throw in a layer of dubstep or a dash of drum-and-bass.
"I'll take different elements and try to put them in a pot of something brand new. In an artistic way, I like to take a lot of elements of different styles. The way I write, I'll try to take what I love about this song, what I love about that song," he says.
Herbie Hancock is Lalli's main jazz inspiration. But, at the same time, he "wanted to have the reoccurring elements of electronic music - the hits, the breaks, the wobbly stuff." From these components, the duo set up sections where they can "really dig in" for improv.
Performing adds the final ingredient: energy from the audience, which feeds the groove. "People seem to start chanting along with [the music]," says Salken. "We try to set the landscape ...and let the listener take it from there."
New music is in the works for Big Gigantic, after the current tour ends with their second annual New Year's Eve show at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom. For the next album, Lalli says he's arranging a collaboration with a singer. In the past, the duo have performed one-offs with LouLou Ghelichkhani from Thievery Corporation, but Lalli won't yet say who'll appear on the new album.
He did drop one hint, though: The singer is a woman.
"It's not completely locked in," he says. "I'm just excited about her voice."