Music in Review: Big Brother Smokes • Tabula Rasa

Award Winning Group Drops Third Release Full of Bounce, Swagger & Pulse

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music,   From Issue 835   By: Matt deHeus

03rd November, 2016     0

ta·bu·la ra·sa - noun: an absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals; a clean slate

If the third time is supposed to be the charm, you have to feel good about the prospects for Tabula Rasa, the third release by Big Brother Smokes.  The band first burst onto the radar of local music buffs when they took several prestigious categories in the 2014 Review Music Awards, including the awards for Best Original Band and the Critic’s Choice Award for their EP “Waves.”

Two years on, the band is back with its first full length release, recorded over the course of the last year at Reed Recording Studios in Bay City.

The time put into the project was a big difference this time around, as the first two discs were recorded in classic “indie” style, completing the tracks within a couple of very concise sessions.  These discs did a good job of capturing the energy and rawness that makes Big Brother Smokes a popular live attraction.

Tabula Rasa, which stretches out over 11 tracks, is a much more polished affair.

As drummer Ross Wilkin put it, “The second one was done much quicker and we had gone into a harder style.  For this one we decided to go back to Andy (at RRC).  We spent a lot more time on it.” Singer Matt “Bumm” Wardin agreed, “There is a year’s worth of sweat in it.  We kept going back over it, listening, fixing things.”

When you listen to Tabula Rasa, you can understand why this detailing was such a daunting task.  For songs that are so nimbly delivered, they are pretty intricate affairs, owing to the syncopated vocal style of Bumm Wardin and the impressive musical chops of brother and multi-instrumentalist Travis Wardin and drummer Wilkin.

You can hear the band’s full range of influences as they meld their own unique brand of rock that draws as much from reggae as it does progressive and alternative rock. 

From the heartfelt opener “Golden” – which was actually written and recorded after the band thought they were done with the album – to ska influenced closer “Hyde”, singer Bumm Wardin’s slippery, yet gritty, vocal wails sit neatly on top of classic power trio arrangements that have as much bounce as they do swagger and pulse.  Much like the music of influences like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime and Incubus, Tabula Rasa is full of hard rock music you just might decide you can dance to.

As Travis Wardin described, “We generally start with the music first.  We write the parts and then go from there.”

Brother Bumm elaborated, “I am a farmer and I have the daily routine on my Bobcat down.  Once we have the music, I can drive around and sing until I have something.”

And they really do have something:  A fresh approach to what now might be classified as “classic” territory.  A quick listen to modern rock radio will indicate that Big Brother Smokes is a throwback.  No “Cookie Monster” vocals here; the singer actually sings.  And the lead guitar player takes solos - which is something probably worth mentioning in more detail.

One of the most refreshing things about Tabula Rasa is how the band chose to apply their obvious musicianship, especially the preternatural skill that Travis Wardin displays when he has a stringed instrument in his hands. 

The instrumental breaks are tasty, not gratuitous.  They come and go in a flash, a mixture of complete composure and utter chaos in a matter of a few bars.  You’ll hear some Santana influence, you’ll hear a bit that sounds like (Chili Pepper’s) John Frusciante, but what you will say at the end of all of it is “Wow.  That dude can play.” 

You just must give it up to guys who can make an album that will appeal to guitar heads AND your girlfriend.

When asked about the band’s plans, Travis Wardin offered up “I really can’t think of a bad time we have had travelling.  We plan to do more of that coming up.”

Bumm added “We really like to do some mini tours, or at least weekend tours.  We have already been playing in places like Lansing.”

As Wilkin summed up, “We feel like we have a library of songs to work with now.  We have our old songs and the new songs.  We still play covers we like.  We want to have balance.”

Well, don’t we all, Ross. Don’t we all.

You can buy Tabula Rasa at and stream it at  Learn more about the band and their plans on Facebook.



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