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Big Pig Beats the Drums for Oleh Witer's Musical Individualism

May 21, 1988|DUNCAN STRAUSS

Oh no, not another group with three drummers and two percussionists, a wailing harmonicat but no guitars or bass, formed by a Ukrainian-speaking Australian influenced by '30s a cappella gospel and Japanese drums and featuring five vocalists, including a soulful female belter of Sri Lankan descent named Sherine. . . .

Yep, another one of those bands. Moreover, the story of how Big Pig came together and wound up with a much-admired debut LP ("Bonk"), a dance-chart champ ("I Can't Breakaway")--not to mention a sold-out Big Pig gig at the Roxy on Sunday--is every bit as routine.

Actually, as told by bespectacled founder Oleh Witer, the Pig tale is either a long story full of struggle and change or a breezy yarn full of good fortune and quick results--depending on where you pick up the narrative.

The full story goes back about five years, when songwriter-drummer Witer, frustrated over playing in a string of unsuccessful groups, traveled from Australia to London.

"I'd been in four bands and nothing had really come of it," he recalled, reconstructing the Big Pig history with Sherine over drinks in a West Hollywood watering hole. "I put loads of effort into each group, and at the end we'd have nothing to show for it, except a lousy demo or something.

"And I thought, 'Well, right, if I'm gonna do it again, I'm gonna do it on my own terms completely. I'm going to write all the songs, I'm going to create something that's very different and I'm not going to compromise at all on my ideas.' And that's really what sparked it off."

That's also the kind of noble bluster issued by many a young rocker before reality slaps him in the face, or his record company persuades him to sing a different tune.

But Witer knew what he wanted musically: a strong element inspired by gospel from the '30s ("that's really when that transformation from traditional music to pop music" was made, he explained) and drums. Lots of drums.

"The idea was to have four guys playing like a giant drum kit and have each one play a different part. But I wasn't really sure how to do it, though I sort of had an idea. And then I saw these Japanese drummers," he said, referring to an ensemble he saw perform in London.

The troupe had 10 drummers and it worked wonderfully, Witer remembered, which further convinced him his approach could too.

"When I saw them, the key to it was orchestration--that each guy had his own part. There was no improvisation at all," said Witer, 30. "So from that point on, I knew how to do it. It was just a matter of getting the right people."

That's where the struggle-and-change part of the story comes in: The first, London-based incarnation of Big Pig involved eight or nine drummers, with Witer trying to sing over the polyrhythmic din; members came and went. That early version did perform some shows--one of which Sherine happened to catch.

She liked what she saw and was keen to join when Witer moved the Big Pig operation to Melbourne after his visa expired. A back-up singer who has logged tours and sessions with the likes of INXS, Sherine had earlier worked in other bands with Witer.

"Since I started joining bands eight years ago, as long as the music was high-energy, really strong, that was the criterion," explained Sherine, 27, whose soulful singing has drawn frequent comparisons to Eurythmics' Annie Lennox.

Just as Sherine was eager to join Big Pig once Witer returned to Melbourne, people were quick to support--and sign--the band.

If it sounds as if Big Pig's fortunes are tied to its live presentation, Witer suggests that seeing the band perform is also essential to understanding the polyrhythmic equation, which he said is hard to explain but easy to appreciate.

"It's very difficult to verbalize," he allowed. "But wait till you see us live. Then you'll go, 'All right-- now I see what he's talking about.' "

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