The trajectory of Noah and the Whale's career has been carefully crafted over three albums, from the deceptively sunny insouciance of their 2008 debut, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, to the personal heartbreak (and rebound) of 2009's The First Days of Spring, to the brighter, more observant spirit of their new album, Last Night On Earth.
Noah and the Whale kick off their European tour tomorrow, April 6, in Utrecht, Netherlands. They'll wend their way back to the States this May, playing New York's Irving Plaza on June 18 before returning to the UK to play a series of festivals, including T in the Park, Reading and Leeds. Their full tour schedule is here.
Noah and the Whale have visited The Alternate Side for a past session (another is upcoming this spring), but TAS briefly caught up with singer and songwriter Charlie Fink and violinist Tom Hobden over email last week to chat about the band's subtle and smart new album, the eclectic influences that guided them and what SXSW really means to young bands:
TAS: The chaos of SXSW seems to be the antithesis of what Noah and the Whale might enjoy. How do all of you survive the crowds, queues, crazy schedules and BBQ? What other bands did you see down there and who made a real impression on you?
Tom Hobden: How did we survive? Locking ourselves away in our hotel rooms I guess. Only kidding.....partly. A constant flow of suntan lotion, pulled pork and H20 helped get us by in the somewhat stagnant carpools of downtown Austin.
We managed to see our friends King Charles and The Vaccines play and I managed to check out a couple of new bands, including Young Buffalo, which was great. It must be said though that Charlie did actually spend most of his time in his room but he had to edit the video for our next single (much to his relief I'm sure)
TAS: Charlie, The First Days of Spring was such a deeply personal and reflective album; there seems a real change of mood directing Last Night On Earth - deliberate? You're rather intimately wrestled with the state of the heart in your lyrics, but here, you've written in the third person which is a big change - why that decision?
Charlie Fink: Primarily it was about testing myself and trying to add another dimension to my songwriting. Like Tom Waits says, when you write songs in character you try not to eclipse yourself and on the contrary, you find a whole family living inside you.
TAS: Given the shift to more narrative songs on this album - not to mention a new lineup - what was the collaborative energy between all of you during the gestation and recording of this album?
Tom: We hired a huge converted synagogue in Bethnal Green. We have a thing about beginning working on albums on 2nd January and it was no different this time around. Charlie had penned a few tunes and we all chipped in our ideas from the off. Those initial demos had a real Springsteen feel to them and subsequently morphed quite some way before we were done with them. This was the first record that our guitarist and keyboard player Fred [Abbott] had contributed to. His addition aside, we approached the writing in a very similar way to previous albums: Charlie would come in with a new idea and some rough lyrics and we would all help flesh out that skeleton. We officially started recording Last Night On Earth in Santa Monica, LA that August. Now, apart from the obvious sun, sea, general good times and a change from the surroundings in which we had made music before, recording in LA grants you access to a wealth of brilliant musicians who are literally one call away.
TAS: How in the world did you connect with The Waters Sisters?
Tom: Jason Lader, who co-produced the record, had previously worked with Jenny Lewis and had managed to procure the likes of the legendary Waters Sisters, whose accolades include backing vocals on tracks such as Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Starting Something," for her album. Big league stuff. We were tackling the last track on Last Night On Earth, called "Old Joy," and wanted some angelic, pure, but powerful harmonies to complete it. He told us that The Waters were nothing but the best! So we made that call, and we got them! Once Maxine W. had taken a sip of her signature coffee, fortified with no fewer than six brown sugars, we gathered around the piano and it all came together within minutes.
TAS: Given the third person narratives in this album, what might have influenced you via either film, literature or art, that you know impacted you as you wrote and recorded this album?
Charlie: Lyrically the biggest influences were Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Charles Bukowski and Frank O'Hara. Sonically the biggest influences were Brian Eno, Arthur Russell and Prince. I also wanted to capture the mood of some Hopper paintings, 'Just Me Before We Met' was in a small way inspired by Morning Sun. Also the film "Breaking Away" helped inform "Give It All Back" and David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" was an inspiration for the characters in "Wild Thing."
TAS: What excites you most about others' discovery of Last Night On Earth, now that it's out? What song particularly makes you happy or proud and what are you most looking forward to playing live? Was there a track that was a particular challenge to nail down in the studio?
Tom: I am excited about peoples' reactions to the record not only because it is another progression in the music we make but also because of the overriding theme of hope and excitement which we'd like people to draw upon, the limitless possibility of the nighttime and the romance which that evokes. It's hard to single out a favourite song. I guess I'm most proud of the diversity of the record; the bombast of the opener "Life is Life" yet the awkward, almost voyeuristic intimacy of "The Line." The challenge, and I think ultimately the record's success, is in making that transition a coherent one.
Charlie always writes exactly the right amount of songs for an album, never more, never less, and this "tailor-made" approach helps remind people of the strength of albums. Now that doesn't necessarily mean that we didn't have to wrestle some tracks into shape! "Give It All Back" certainly took some elbow grease. It wasn't until we had the breakthrough of trying the main hook on marimba that we maneouvered it into submission. After all that it's probably one of my favourites to play live too!
TAS: Wandering around Austin last month, what was the overwhelming impression that you've had of SXSW? Do you think there's too much pressure on young bands to break "big" quickly rather than hone their craft and find their voice?
Tom: I guess my initial reaction to strolling the streets of Austin during SXSW was how much the festival had grown since we were there four or so years ago. Although it was really very recently ago, I remembered my impressions of the city back then with a great degree of nostalgia; I was only 18, it was our first time playing in America and it was a dream just playing at that festival, let alone being fortunate enough to get signed while there. And that I guess is the sharp reminder that struck me as I wandered about this time around.
Back then, I hadn't had the TIME to do anything else at SXSW than rush around like a headless chicken, being whisked frantically from one venue to the next. SXSW can become nothing less than a rat-race for those first-time bands. For those few days Austin teems with music industry guys and it would be foolish to ignore the fact that a primary function that the festival serves is to allow those young bands to find that break.
Nevertheless, I think it's a shame that you can forget all about the Austin crowds themselves, a melee of Americans who have heard your demos or whatever on the internet and in many cases have travelled hours and hours just to catch you up on stage for that instant, however fleeting it may be. I think it is hard for new bands because such significance has been placed by the music-buying public on that very first album. It seems crazy to me. As with any form of art, it takes time, nurture and a degree of maturity to begin to understand your craft. Greats such as Bruce Springsteen took time to cut their teeth. It's interesting to wonder how they might have fared if they were starting off in today's climate. What's more, once you've been able to make a credible first record, the challenge of making a second is where it gets really tough. So many pitfalls!
TAS: Do you feel that Noah and the Whale has very much found its voice on this third album?
Tom: For us, It was far harder to engage people in an emotionally-challenging album, The First Days of Spring than it had been for Peaceful, the World Lays me Down. Pursuing that point further I've always thought it something of an irony that similar themes and moods had often been overlooked on Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down. We were confident in the music we were making on First Days and it was key for us and our musical development to have explored those avenues and made, in my opinion, some of our most beautiful music. We are very instinctive in Noah and the Whale and like to follow our gut.
After a year of touring First Days and the subsequent transfer of Charlie's brother and our drummer, Doug, to the medical profession we felt like moving on to different pastures. We'd collectively been listening to a lot of stuff: Lou Reed's Berlin, Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on The Edge of Town, Tom Petty, Brian Eno, Arthur Russell (a particular favourite of mine) and many more. With hindsight, the absence of Doug meant that it was as much through necessity as anything else that we started experimenting with drum machines. We were looking for a new energy and I'd say that's what we will always be striving for. We've got to be making music that we believe in and our proud of at that moment for it to translate on record. Instincts are everything!
TAS: Charlie, When you look back at the young guy who first wrote and recorded Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, what do you wish you knew then that you know now? And what would you tell your younger self?