Big Deal: Jesse Wong, Alice Costelloe, Jessica Batour and Kacey Underwood. All photos by Nic Shonfeld.
It’s an uncommonly warm day in East London and Alice Costelloe and Kacey Underwood, otherwise known as Big Deal, are sipping some coffee and soaking up the sun. Today Big Deal are coming clean, if a little reluctantly. Not that they were necessarily hiding—in their songs they’ve had no qualms harnessing the rawest emotions—but six years ago when the pair first started performing they preferred to lurk behind their hair and really keep their private lives private. When the duo released Lights Out, their 2011 debut, it struck a chord for several reasons. Where other bands might shout to be heard, Big Deal drew listeners close with songs barren of bass or drums, and just the occasional distorted guitar. It’s a truism that any artistic partnership between a man and a woman will engender bullish questions about the nature of that relationship. Art is so rarely appreciated in a vacuum and these days more than ever we want to know the inside scoop. We’re greedy, what’s the hook? Our reaction to Big Deal was no different. As a band they were pegged as thoughtful, bookish outliers in London’s tight-knit music scene—they knew tons of people in bands, but preferred to stand a little to the left of the Dalston party scene. Given that their songs are hushed confessionals it was all too easy to take their lyrics as darts striking at the core of their partnership. When Alice sang, “Take me to your bed / Don’t take me home / I wanna be old, I wanna be older” on “Kool Like Kurt,” there appeared to be no shades of gray. Alice was still a teenager, Kacey was a 20-something, and together they created 12 songs that read like diary entries, a relationship captured in its halting early stages before they truly gave into each other. But if you asked them if they were a couple at the time, they’d shrug it off, attributing their intimacy to a close creative bond: They were simpy best friends.
Fastforward to now and Big Deal have three albums under their belts, including 2013’s June Gloom, and the lately released, long-awaited Say Yes (out on FatCat). Although songwriting remains the sole preserve of the duo, they’ve fattened their ranks to include Jessica Batour on drums and bassist Jesse Wong. Whereas before they’d play festivals only to find their songs blown away by the breeze and drowned out by whatever band was playing on a stage nearby, for June Gloom Big Deal plugged in and actually rocked out. (Depeche Mode were so smitten they chose the band to open for them on their European tour.) Big Deal’s sophomore opus is a heady trip combining wistful melodies and power pop chords with one flannel-clad arm reaching back to the grungey goodness of 90s alt rock. To an extent Say Yes follows this blueprint. Recorded at the Lightship95, the same bowels of a boat-turned-studio where they made June Gloom, they also reteamed with producer (and former Test Icicle) Rory Atwell. Their most notable evolution being their increasingly muscular guitar lines and Alice's let-loose howl.
Completed some 18 months prior, there were moments when the pair feared Say Yes would never see the light of day. Cut by their label Mute, they split from their management around the same time; then they had their demos stolen at a party. Surprisingly it was after the self-funded album’s completion, in the midst of shopping it to labels and contending with rejection, that Alice and Kacey wrote the record’s defiantly positive titular track. Born out of frustration, the chorus demands you shout along: “Say yes / Stay out / Never coming down / Never coming down!” And then at some point during these inbetween days of finally wrapping the record, the pair broke up. “We’ve always just had a really intense friendship,” says Kacey, trailing off, and then to Alice: “You can talk about it now, I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth.”
“It wasn’t super different from the intense friendship-relationship of writing, to slipping into more,” explains Alice. “But I guess it’s kind of harder to slip out the other way. It was really tough and stressful making a record not knowing who was going to put it out…”
“But also it was really hard making a record with me,” Kacey interjects. “I’m a perfectionist, super business and cutthroat when it comes to making that piece of art, and as you can imagine that’s not the nicest.”
“Not going to disagree with that!” says Alice, and then they both crack up.
Honestly it’s remarkable Alice and Kacey found each other at all. Alice was raised in a leafy enclave of East London by an artsy family and a stepdad with a choice record collection that included Blondie, The Beach Boys, and Elvis Costello. She picked up the guitar early and at 13 founded her first band. They released one record, also on Mute, when she was 15, and split not long after its release. Alice continued her high school studies and college applications. By contrast, Kacey was born in Joshua Tree and raised a Jehovah’s Witness. It’s an upbringing he’s never discussed until now. Every weekend Kacey would knock on doors and do his bit for the religion he was born into. Although he went to a regular public school, his interaction with his classmates was minimal: no extracurricular sports, definitely no dances. As Kacey puts it, “You go do your business, keep your head down, try not to talk to anybody, come home.”
Music wasn’t a big part of Kacey’s household—his dad’s records were tidied away in a cupboard—but his older brothers would smuggle in copied tapes of Metallica and the Smashing Pumpkins, which he’d play to death. By his late teens Kacey was pulling away from the strictures of his upbringing. “Like being Amish or Mormon, it’s a very hard thing to get out of: it’s your family and the structure around it is such that you don’t have the life skills you need to go out into the world and be without that community,” he explains. “You see a lot of people who leave and become drug addicts; they drop out, and then they come back.” When the opportunity to study abroad presented itself, Kacey jumped at the chance, not least because his studies became a valid excuse to skip church. His rebellion was set in motion. “I wanted other things in life, I wanted to experience more,” he says. “I saw a lot of the things that didn’t make sense in terms of thinking critically about spirituality or about practicing it. But there were other very simple things too, like I just didn’t get along with Jehovah’s Witness kids.”
Kacey wound up studying at Cambridge before dropping out and moving to London to start a band. And then came Alice. While trying to forge a career in music, Kacey took a part time gig teaching guitar at a school where Alice’s mom was as a teacher. She thought it might be cool for Kacey to help Alice brush up on her skills.
If Lights Out was the soundtrack to their unconsummated intimacy, and June Gloom was the pair moving through the world as a unit and writing songs that reflected that, where do we find Alice and Kacey on Say Yes? The aftermath of love and an attempt to salvage the good stuff is for sure woven within, but more than anything Say Yes plays like a coming of age record.
“When we started writing we were tackling bigger themes about the universe about life and death and rebirth,” says Alice. “It’s the least personal record of the three because we know each other so well now we weren’t just writing in our own world.” It’s easy to forget Alice is still only 22. Kacey’s now in his 30s but still trying to work shit out and makes sense of the world, just like the rest of us, but it’s worth noting the imprint of his cloistered early years. That’s not to say he’s in a state of arrested development, but rather he’s a curious mixture of wise and wide-eyed, which was notable even when we first met some eight years ago. There’s something in this that allows Alice and Kacey to communicate on a level despite the respective years they were born in.
“I think there was things in both of our lives that helped us deal with [the break up], it’s not an easy thing to deal with ever, but when you’re dealing with something as hard as being in a band is already, then that’s a really, really tricky, complicated, process," says Kacey. "Ultimately trying to find the bit of gold all that painful shit gets kind of purified into.”
This isn’t simply a breakup record, there’s an explorative element to it too. But that's up to interpretation. “A lot of people have come up to us at shows—and it’s one of the things that make it all worth it—and said, your record got me through my breakup, or me and my girlfriend fell in love listening to it,” says Alice. “For this record we made our own soundtrack of trying to get through a breakup, so I don’t know if that will work for everyone else, but I don’t know how the other ones did either!”
So this is the story of Big Deal, of Kacey Underwood and Alice Costelloe: How they came together and fell in love and fell apart in one sense, but stayed together in another. OK, so it’s not the whole story, because it never is, and anyway that is theirs alone. What is ours are three records which to a degree document their journey, but also mean so many different things to so many others. And we’ll always have that.
Big Deal make Kim Taylor Bennett feels a certain kind of way. She’s on Twitter.