Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Noah & the Whale interview

courtesy of Mercury Records
A version of my interview originally appeared in the North County Times and can be viewed here: 

The band plays on Tuesday at San Diego Woman's Club and Wednesday at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles before heading up to San Francisco 5/26-27, Portland 5/29, the Sasquatch Festival in Washington 5/30 and Vancouver 5/31.

“Waiting For My Chance to Come,” a feisty tune off Noah & the Whale’s engaging new album “Last Night on Earth,” could easily describe the London band’s fortunes in America.

Formed five years ago, the group helped spearhead a fresh folk music scene that would later include Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn and others. Their U.K. gold-selling 2008 debut disc “Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down” and single “5 Years Time” both went top 10 back home.

Here, the pastoral music drew positive reviews, comparisons to Belle & Sebastian and Swell Season (Marling provided gorgeous backing vocals) and a prominent performance slot at the Coachella Festival. Released on Interscope Records, it didn’t receive much deserved attention.

Lush and less immediate ’09 follow up “First Days of Spring” --- whose subject matter revolved around the disintegration of lead singer/guitarist Charlie Fink’s relationship with Marling --- landed prime time network TV licensing placements in the U.S., yet only made minor ripples on both sides of the pond.

All that should change with “Earth,” N&TW’s strongest effort to date, where the musicians took a sharp left turn into pop/rock-oriented territory, utilizing synths, sequencers and drum machines for the first time.

Fink sought to use the instruments in an intelligent way and not rely on previous chord patterns. After less than two months, the collection has already gone gold (100,000 copies sold) in England.

“We’ve always been a bit hard to pin down,” admitted violinist/keyboardist Tom Hobden (pictured above, second from left), via Birmingham, where N&TW was on a sold out, headlining U.K. tour. “Our fans realize we’re the kind of band that follows our instincts…people are impressed that we’ve morphed into this new sound.”

Hobden particularly enjoys playing the vibrant new tunes live. “As much as I loved touring the previous album, it was a very hard, emotional thing to get yourself on that level where you could do the songs justice every night. It was a [difficult] year for everyone. So it’s a nice stage that we’re in now where we can perform with lots of energy, excitement and a generally life-affirming motto.”

Recorded last summer in Santa Monica with Jason Lader (Elvis Costello, Rilo Kiley, Julian Casablancas), the Brits found “the heat alone was quite a shock.” The producer “turned us onto a lot of cool sounds, but honestly, we went out there with a clear cut idea of how it was going to turn out.”

Clocking in at just over a half hour, the album doesn’t wear out its welcome.

“The goal was to make as concise an album as we could --- a real, straight down the line pop album, with some unusual bits and twists along the way,” explained Hobden.

Since the young band fashioned their name after Noah Baumbach-directed 2005 drama “The Squid and the Whale” and Fink helmed a short film which accompanied “Spring” as well as N&TW’s latest music video and a making of “Earth” documentary that debuted this week on, it’s no surprise the front man strived to infuse many of the songs with a cinematic vibe.

“We threw ourselves into the romance and excitement of being away from everything that’s familiar,” explained Hobden. “Purely because of the location where we were working, it was all slightly dreamy and filmic [anyway]…we made sure we took some inspiration days, headed up to Ojai and did a lot of walking around up there.”

“Last Night on Earth,” takes its title from a Charles Bukowski poetry collection.
Hobden said several songs are about “breaking away from home in the context of the open road: that American ideal of driving out into the unknown.” After listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” in a car, Fink wondered if they could write in a similar style.

Reflective tune “Give it All Back,” with lyrical references to The Boss, The Band and The Beatles, bears a passing resemblance. Sometimes Fink’s deadpan vocals recall Lou Reed (“Just Me Before We Met,” which uses New York School poet Frank O’Hara’s work as a touchstone), while his third person character sketches can be as intriguing as Jarvis Cocker (“L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.”). Luxurious gem “Wild Thing” even brings to mind the Velvet Underground and “Twin Peaks” soundtrack.

Veteran backing singer siblings Maxine and Julia Waters (Michael Jackson, Neil Diamond) make their presence felt on the gospel-tinged “Life is Life” (another Bukowski nod) and “Old Joy.”

Other selections feature singing contributions by Jen Turner of Here We Go Magic, noted percussionist Lenny Castro and former Black Crowe Adam MacDougall on Moog and Fender Rhodes.

Although the band’s star is on the rise in England, Hobden recently got a reality check while filming an episode for the fourth season of studio performance series, “Live from Abbey Road” (which airs Stateside on the Sundance Channel).

“We had a short break and I went over to this old piano in the corner, just wanting to twinkle some keys. Suddenly this security guy rushes over and says, ‘don’t touch that! The Beatles recorded ‘Lady Madonna’ on it.’”

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