December 29, 2016

Featuring: Big Eyes

Big Eyes' Kait Eldridge has staked her claim, 
and she's not going anywhere anytime soon.

There’s a common misconception ingrained in children’s heads that being in a band is not something that’s “for girls.” This often leads to them not picking up an instrument until they’re much older, or in some cases not at all. Long Island-native Kait Eldridge, who has fronted the band Big Eyes for the last six years, didn’t fall victim to this stereotype. Instead, Eldridge started her first band at 13 and hasn’t slowed down. “My very first band, which was called the Unkept or something, I started with my friend Ace when I was in eighth grade and he was in sixth grade,” she noted. “I used to go to this house every Friday and we would have band practice in his basement and then watch Pink Floyd’s The Wall.” Since then, Eldridge has consistently fronted a group or played with one (she used to tour with the recently revived P.S. Eliot) since she was in high school. With Big Eyes, she’s excelled at creating riffy eighties rock-influenced songs that touch on topics of anxiety and heartbreak. Big Eyes is an extremely rare combination of tough and sensitive, as if you were getting a peak into Joan Jett’s diary (FYI, she lives in Eldridge’s hometown).

Predating her actual time in a band, Eldridge first got into playing music via an uncle would take her to shows like Lit and No Doubt in middle school. He also encouraged her dad to buy her an electric guitar. “I actually started playing viola in elementary school and not to brag, but I was first chair in the orchestra,” she reflected. “But when I started guitar, it came naturally since I was already used to a string instrument. But I was way more into guitar, so I was like, ‘Fuck this viola, I’m into guitar now.” Her uncle was clearly pointing her in the right direction, as Eldridge has yet to slow down at 28. She was an active participant in the Long Island music scene in the early 2000s as a teenager, where male-heavy punk and hardcore were the dominant genre (and still are to some degree). This led her to meet musicians who she would later cross paths with, including members of the band Nude Beach and Joe Steinhardt of Don Giovanni Records. She would later go on to release the first Big Eyes 7” and album with Don Giovanni. Eldridge briefly attended SUNY Purchase but decided to drop out and move to New York to pursue music outside of college. During that time, she wrote and put out the first official Big Eyes album, Hard Times, right before she decided to shake up her life a bit.

In 2011, Eldridge left her home base on the East Coast for the coastal opposite of Seattle. The move was catalyzed by relocation of a family she babysat for and the mindset that if she wanted to move, being 23 would be the time to do it before “real life” got in the way. Her three years in Seattle offered her a chance to break free of New York’s many creative restraints. “It was easy to work on music in Seattle. Rent was cheaper than New York, I had a driveway to park a van, and I could have a van since it was so much cheaper,” she said. “We had a backyard and I had my very first BB Gun.” She was able to finish and release the sophomore Big Eyes album, Almost Famous, and embarked on a number of major cross-country and international tours. But the freedom that Seattle offered also came with its downsides. After some time, Eldridge found herself feeling isolated in the sprawling city. She found that it was difficult to connect with other people and channeled these frustrations into songwriting. “I was really kind of in a funk in Seattle after a while. I was like, ‘I don’t like this place, I’ve got to get the hell out of here,’ so I left and I feel like I’ve regained consciousness,” she said. “I was just kind of in a haze out there, I was like ‘What am I doing?’ We were touring so much and doing so much, I had no time to sit and think about what was really going on and what I really wanted for the band.” After three years of sticking it out in Seattle, Eldridge knew her time there was up. She considered moving to Portland, but ultimately decided to return to her roots in New York. Coming back to the city meant giving up space and the ability to tour for long periods of time, but Eldridge has found a certain charm here that she wasn’t able to find during her time on the West Coast. “As much as it can suck sometimes here, you can make some great conversation with a stranger and form a real connection,” she said. “Everyone here is kind of in each other’s shit so we have to talk to each other.” She’s also able to maintain a balance between musician life and the aforementioned real life. She’s able to make money outside of music by babysitting, but still has enough time to work on writing and recording while occasionally getting out on the road. “I do kind of miss those big long tours, but it’s a lot better for my health and sanity,” she noted. “It’s nice now that we can do two or three week tours, so we get the best of both worlds.” During her time back in New York, she also returned to Don Giovanni to put out her most recent album, the defiantly mature Stake My Claim.

Stake My Claim is the sonic version of Eldridge finally putting her foot down on the world. She retains the power pop and classic rock influences that have defined her sound over the last six years (Big Eyes got its name from a Cheap Trick song after all), but offers a new introspection that comes with aging. “I was like a bundle of angry, anxious energy at 22,” she said. “And now at 28, I still have my anxiety, but I feel like I’ve chilled out in a lot of ways — I care a lot less and I’m a lot less angry.” Writing songs became less about her anger towards outside forces and instead more focused on figuring her own shit out. For example, she reflects on her younger years and how far she’s come on track “When You Were 25,” all over shredding guitar solos and punctuated drum beats. Eldridge comments that Big Eyes has “never been a part of what’s trendy” in music in New York, but that’s what makes the band so special. Eldridge writes music that’s timeless; it wouldn’t have been out of place in a record store in the eighties but won’t sound outdated in ten or twenty years from now. She’s able to take the best parts from genres that are typically more “macho” or masculine and use them as a background to navigating the trials and tribulations of nearing your thirties.

Being introspective doesn’t necessarily mean that Eldridge has gotten quieter. As a woman who’s fronted her own band since age 21 (and is of a short stature), she’s had to deal with more than her fair share of sexist roadblocks along the way. This ranges from guys telling her they’re into “chick music” at her shows to being treated like she can’t handle her own instruments. “I definitely had a Napoleon complex in the past, where I had to be like, ‘No, fuck you!’ to everyone,” she said. “Sometimes it freaks people out and it definitely comes from sexism. You’re allowed to get loud and angry, but that means I’m a bitch. But I’ve gotten exhausted, and as I’ve gotten older the less I feel like I need to prove myself.” With Stake My Claim, Eldridge shows that she doesn’t need to prove her place in music or the world anymore — she knows she’s found it. Seeing Big Eyes play live only reinforces this sentiment, as she commands the attention of the entire room while showing off the skills she’s spent almost two decades honing. Eldridge has staked her claim, and she's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Listen to Big Eyes on bandcamp.

Photo by John O'Callaghan.

Written by Emily Thompson