The Bigger Empty wasn’t supposed to happen.
In 2014, Mike Felumlee went into the studio, joined by his longtime backing band, to record his new album—but this time, something was different. At some point, he realized, they’d stopped making a record, and had inadvertently started a new band.
After nearly ten years of serving as a live vehicle for Felumlee’s solo material, the newly-minted group released its debut EP, The Bigger Empty Vs. The Cloud, via Artistic Integrity Records in 2015, with a full-length album to follow. However, the addition of singer/pianist Amanda Mourdry fundamentally changed the group’s sound, leading Felumlee, drummer Kevin Baschen and bassist Reuben Baird to scrap the album and start over.
Guitarist Tom Counihan joined in 2016, as the quintet focused its energies and braced for the future. Felumlee writes unconventionally conventional pop songs—sometimes the chords or melodies don’t go quite where you expect them to, but once the song gets where it’s going, you’re glad to have been wrong. His voice is sincere and unaffected, his lyrics clever but without guile. The addition of Mourdry brings a richness to the songs, her voice blending seamlessly with Felumlee’s to reinforce existential musings, gentle admonitions and everything in between, her piano expanding the textural palette in directions never even hinted at on Vs. The Cloud. Counihan’s playing style adds sophistication and a palpable sense of excitement to Felumlee’s rhythm parts, while Baschen and Baird are a veritable machine, a rhythm section honed by a lifetime of working together, maintaining a level of workmanlike consistency while never sounding mechanical, never missing an opportunity for a well-timed flourish.
Musically, the band’s influences are relatively unsurprising: big feelings, loud guitars, shameless hooks. Residing somewhere between the cynical sincerity of the Replacements and the dreamy melodicism of Nada Surf, with a sort of earnest cheekiness that falls somewhere between Superchunk and Superdrag, The Bigger Empty are part of the long power-pop tradition of endeavoring to make sure the feelings don’t turn maudlin, the hooks don’t get saccharine, that all elements remain balanced; and the group’s remarkable success in this measure is no accident— it comes with experience.
While Baird and Baschen cut their teeth in Chicago power pop mainstays Sketch Middle before joining up with Felumlee, Mourdry and Counihan are accomplished singer/songwriters, playing as Amanda Sena and Tom Daily, respectively. Felumlee, best known as the original and current drummer for Smoking Popes, was a member of Alkaline Trio and has been recording as a solo artist since 2001.
In pulling together and forging their input into something greater than any one member, the band is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a testament to the power of learning through experience. Tellingly, the name of the band comes from a song inspired by Felumlee’s dog, Jet, who has a long history of running away. In the song, Jet finally gets to see
the world, only to long for the world he knows. “Now that I’ve seen the bigger empty,” as the chorus explains, “home feels like home.”
While writing music is an inherently uncomfortable process, The Bigger Empty—the band that wasn’t supposed to happen, the creative outlet none of them knew was missing, this collective of lifelong musicians who have seen that world and all it has to offer—feels like home, too. Come. Listen. Get comfortable.