Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Additional Q&A with Noah & the Whale

 Taking its name from the acclaimed 2005 film drama “The Squid and the Whale” - directed by Noah Baumbach, produced by Wes Anderson and starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney and Jesse Eisenberg - Noah & the Whale were part originators of late 2000s new folk scene in London. 

Singer/guitarist Charlie Fink started the band in 2006 with violinist/pianist Tom Hobden and older brother Doug on drums (who left four years later to study medicine in college).

Before joining the group, bassist Matt “Urby Whale” Owens was a child actor. In 1994, he was in a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie “Return of the Native” alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones and Clive Owen (it was nominated for a Golden Globe and Emmy Award). In '09, guitarist/keyboardist Fred Abbott joined and new Aussie drummer Michael Petulla came up earlier this year.

Fink produced ex-girlfriend Laura Marling’s 2008 debut album "Alas, I Cannot Swim" (which featured Marcus Mumford on drums); It was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize.  

Before making Noah & the Whale's current effort "Last Night on Earth," Fink was intrigued by the romantic idea of night time, where anything can happen. While listening to Lou Reed’s “Berlin,” Tom Waits “Bone Machine,” Tom Petty and cellist/composer Arthur Russell, Fink and the band used a drum machine, partly out of necessity, after Doug left.

Here is more from my interview with Hobden, also a contributor to Mt. Desolation with Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley and Jesse Quin...

Q: How are fans responding to the new album's decidedly different sounding material on tour?
People are fist pumping in the air and generally having a good time.

Q: Is everyone in sync now with new drummer Michael?
He’s been with us since the beginning of the year. He has quite a battle – to try and emulate drum synths and all the stuff that appears on the album. He’s been doing a marvelous job.

Q: When everyone started to work on the songs, was there any goal in mind?
Whenever we approach an album, it’s always very refined. We know exactly how many songs are going to be on it. It’s never a matter of whittling down 50 songs to get 10. That’s where we are able to draw a cohesion from and make the album sound like a unified piece of work...we purposely tried to challenge ourselves. It would have been quite easy to sit back and settle into a routine.

Q: Was breaking away from the new folk scene you’d been part of ever in the back of your minds?
I’m sure it was, subconsciously. It’s weird: you’re so insulated when you’re touring. You don’t see any guys [in other bands much]. You’re so immersed in what you’re doing. It felt like a natural progression, to be honest, because we were influenced heavily by the stuff we were listening to at the time. 

Q: What was recording in L.A. like for the band?
It was amazing. We actually spent a whole month out there in August...many songs that made the album were heavily derived from the demos – even using sounds and such. It was an encouraging time.

Q: This album took a lot longer to record than the previous two. Was that simply a matter of getting the sounds right?
Yeah, it was. We started in January of last year and hired a space out for a month in East London that was a converted synagogue. Set up all our stuff there and got down to the main graft of writing songs. Then, to be honest, the rest of the year was more of a matter of waiting for diaries to sort themselves out so we could work with Jason [Lader]. Also, like I said, making the songs as concise as possible. Some of the original demos were like nine-minute long epics that were kind of meandering (“Old Joy,” “Wild Thing”). Those demos were quite extensive. It’s always harder taking away than it is putting on.

Q: Your violin work is most prevalent during “Just Me Before We Met” and “Waiting for My Chance to Come.” Are you mostly playing piano on the remainder of the songs?
Yeah, I play keyboards and synths. I’m all over the place, really.

Q: When you first heard the lyrics Charlie had come up with for these songs, what did you think?
I was very impressed; he’s not really written like that before...what I really like about Charlie’s style of lyrics are the themes he’s exploring. They’re very much universal ones that everyone can relate to in some way or another. Whether it’s the boy on the bus in “Tonight’s the Kind of Night” or the photos in the drawer and the girlfriend asking, ‘who’s in this picture?’ on “Just Me Before We Met.” They’re all things that have happened to everyone at some point.

Q: With a running time of 33 minutes, the album can be easily absorbed in one sitting. Do you think there’s something to be said for not piling on so many tracks?
I think it takes a certain daring to make the shorter album. People wrongly think that if you load up an album, [others] will find what they want in it and they might have to skip the odd track to get what they want. That’s definitely not our philosophy. Many of the albums I love are really short. It’s a skill, more than anything else.

Q: What can you tell me about the 12-minute "Making Of" short film that just debuted online?
A lot of the footage was taken from our time in the demoing studio. I think the main body of the footage is from our time in Los Angeles. Charlie does a voiceover and explains what happens. It all slots into place and is pretty informative.

Q: Does the band hope to break America with this album?
Yeah. We’ve been touring America quite awhile now and it’s something we love doing. It would be great to have more success over there. It will always be a matter of turning up and constantly playing good shows. We’ll see how it goes. We’re certainly ambitious.

Q: At the end of August, you'll open for Arcade Fire at the Manchester Evening News Arena. Excited?
It’s probably one of my most anticipated gigs of the year.

Q: Switching gears, let's touching upon some history: when you first started playing music as a kid, who were some of your early music influences?
I’ve played violin since I was four or five. My mom was an opera singer, so I was always heavily involved in the classical world. As I became a teenager, I started branching out more and listened to a lot of Warren Ellis (Nick Cave), seeing another dimension to the violin. It’s moved on in the past few years to people like Arthur Russell and a huge array of people.

Q: When you were in school, did you intend to join a string ensemble or orchestra?
I was actually. When I left school, I applied to various music colleges and conservatories over here. I had some good offers, but I took a gap year after school and formed Noah & the Whale with Charlie that September. It was kind of weird. I’d just started a band I was really excited about and then also having to go to these auditions for something that was a completely different world – the classical violinist route. I kind of let that slip through and focused on the band.

Q: Were Charlie and Urby local musicians around the Twickenham area of London that you associated with?
Charlie and I did go to the same school, but he was a few years older than me. You know how it is in school – you never talk to people who are older. He’d gone off to Manchester University for a bit, didn’t like it and dropped out. He came to London and I was playing in various outfits in my last year in school. We took him under our wing and he started playing guitar in a band I was in. From there, we started to do our own thing.

Q: In one interview that I read, Charlie said he initially took over the vocals because nobody else wanted it.
At the time, he certainly was a nervous performer. I’m surprised he said that because I’ve always seen him as wanting to be a vocalist. I never thought it was a burden on him. He’s progressed a long way. I think his singing has gotten better and better. I think he’s really able to use his voice as an instrument to express exactly what he wants. Before, maybe he was slightly inexperienced. It’s great there’s a naiveté involved with that. Now he can really flex his vocal muscles and show what he’s got.      

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