Setting up, plugging in, and turnin' it up in a circuit just outside of the local "alternative" indie scene, Charleston rock quartet Big Black Building have diligently pushed ahead with their own, no-nonsense style and manner. Founding members Chris Sullivan and John Melnick formed the band seven years ago and never lost sight of their main goals. They wanted to entertain their audiences and themselves on stage from week to week, and they wanted to document their own expressive rock songs and get them out there for popular consideration.
"There is the situation in Charleston where if you are going to be a working band and play five to six nights a week, you're going to have to play covers," explains Sullivan, 36. Born in Jacksonville, Fla., Sullivan grew up in Charleston and started playing rock music in his teens.
"There are only a few places that really lend themselves to promoting original music," he says. "In the meantime, we definitely try and put our own feel to a lot of the songs that we do. For example, we do Zep's 'Rock & Roll' and there's no way I can sing it like Plant in that key, so we do it in a lower key. I'm not at all a studied musician. I'm really a bread-and-butter kind of guitar player and play strictly by ear. Because we play live so much, a lot of times I'll bring in a new song and we'll learn on the fly during soundcheck. We stick to the skeleton of the tune, but when it comes to the meat and muscle, we put it on there our own way."
The current Big Black Building lineup includes the heavily tattooed Sullivan on lead vocals and guitar and Melnick, 38, on lead guitar, along with newly-initiated bassist Adam Irick, 36, and drummer Adam Bradley, 24, (formerly of Kapone).
The band name comes from a passage in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas in which the main characters are searching for a place called the Psychiatrist's Club in a "big, black building," where they hope to find "the American dream."
"We've definitely solidified our sound," says Sullivan of the current lineup. "It takes a while when you bring in new guys — to really play with them and have everyone feel it out and figure out their place and role in the band. And it took us a little while to really get ourselves where we need to be."
Thus far, Big Black Building have released full two albums of original material. 2000's nine-song collection Tested — crisply recorded by engineer Frank Lisenbee at Scorpio Productions — featured Melnick on lead guitar and bass, and drummer David Kieser. The tunes bounced back and forth between mid-tempo anthems and four-chord chuggers. 2005's 11-song Take a Chance — recorded at Fusion 5 — is already out of print. The collection demonstrates a tighter full-band sound and a more fully-developed, dynamic songwriting style from Sullivan. Hints of classic, late-'70s and early-'80s metal and hard rock make their way into the fist-raising rockers and power ballads ... those hints of metal resembling those found in the likes of the Screaming Trees, The Cult, or Social Distortion, rather than anything related to the poodle-hair metal out of Hollywood.
"Right now, we're mostly doing covers and a few songs off the CDs," says Sullivan. "Aside from that, we all draw from different styles of music, so it's very hard to put a finger on it and say exactly what it sounds like. A great way to describe us is as a 'blue-collar guitar-rock band.' It's definitely a guitar-rock band. A lot of my musical influences come from '70s rock and old, traditional country guys like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. It has a Southern edge, but all over the place.
"If we're playing at Wild Wing, the set is pretty different from when we're playing at Big Deck Daddy's," he continues. "This lineup is sharp enough to catch on and adjust to any situation, fortunately. These days, we are playing the north area now — and we do get up to Charlotte and Virginia from time to time — we are playing more Southern rock stuff. That's been more of our direction. We do great at biker bars!"
When they're not fielding requests from crowds at north area roadhouse taverns and biker bars, they're in the studio and practice space working on their own material. As the primary lyricist and songwriter, Sullivan assembles the basics and then brings them to the band. "I do my solo thing at Wings on Rivers Avenue on Tuesdays and it's a blast," he says. "It's an easy, fun gig where I can try things I don't normally get to do with the band. Sometimes, they end up as new Big Black Building songs."
Look for Big Black Building at the Pickled Parrot on Thurs. Feb. 23 (and every Thurs. night), and at O'Malley's in Summerville on Sat. Feb. 25. Look for Chris Sullivan performing solo at Wings in North Charleston on Tues. Feb. 28 (and every Tues. evening) at 8:30 p.m. Keep an eye out for the band's new studio EP this spring.