For longtime fans of the band, led by the soft-spoken, heart-on-his-sleeve singer and songwriter Charlie Fink, the band's latest, lighter album, Last Night On Earth, represents yet another step for the group whose last album, 2009's First Days of Spring, was a gorgeous, darkly ruminative discourse on heartbreak and its aftermath.
In addition to Fink, the quartet's new lineup is comprised of bassist Matt "Urby Whale" Owens, violinist Tom Hobden and guitarist/keyboardist Fred Abbott (they've also recently added touring drummer, Jack Hamson). The guys recently dropped by The Alternate Side and WFUV's Studio A to chat with Claudia Marshall and performed four songs from the excellent Last Night On Earth. You can listen to the complete session via NPR Music too.
Plus, check out (and download) the bouncy - dare we say happy? - RAC mix of "Tonight's the Kind of Night" below:
Claudia Marshall: [Last Night On Earth] is the third record for you. The band is five years old now?
Charlie Fink: Yeah, I think it’s five years.
Claudia: What an evolution it’s been too, from the famous breakup record, First Days Of Spring, and here we are with the third record, a very different sounding release, isn’t it?
Charlie: Absolutely. We very purposely wanted to test ourselves on this record and not rely on what was familiar.
Claudia: Did you set out to make a different sounding record or did it just come out that way?
Charlie: A bit of both. It’s funny, I was talking to someone about this the other day and obviously you have a vision and whatever, but also, part of the reason we started experimenting with this was out of circumstance. We didn’t really have a drummer making this record; my brother, who was the drummer on the last record, left and is now a doctor. That’s probably why we began experimenting with drum machines more than anything else.
Claudia: Funny. So form follows function. I think it’s demonstrated beautifully on “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.”
Claudia: Could you ever have imagined that this would be the direction that you’d be going in?
Charlie: Honestly, I didn’t think this far ahead making the first record, you know? I think the more time you get in the studio, you get more ambitious. You think you can do more and you want to try out things you haven’t played with before.
Claudia: You’re playing with some synthesizers on there, all kinds of different sounds that we haven’t heard in the previous releases. I sense that you took yourself by surprise a little bit.
Charlie: I think so. I knew when starting this record, like I said, that I wanted it to be fresh for us. Like you said earlier, I think the second record and the first sounded pretty different. The fourth record is going to be like a hip hop record (laughs).
Claudia: I do think there is a sensiblity that ties all of the records together.
Charlie: Absolutely. They’re all recognizable.
Claudia: Has there been any backlash or resistance to it at all? Because there’s always this expectation that a band is going to sound a certain way, especially when you come out with the breakup record of all time, and then we’re chanting “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.”
Charlie: To be honest, the first shows we’ve done have been really good, really well received. It definitely felt harder bringing First Days Of Spring out after Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down; I think people were more surprised by that than they are by this. People came to those shows, when we were first starting to tour, with an expectation that we were going to be playing purely these sort of uplifting, joyful tunes and then we come out and do this morose, ten-song breakup album (laughs). Now, it feels also, for the people who made the journey of the last album with us, this almost feels like the next installment, in a way.
Claudia: You’re also writing from a somewhat different perspective I think. Writing the characters in these songs, if you will.
Charlie: This album is just a more outward looking record.
Claudia: Storytelling, in a way. More global.
Charlie: Definitely. This next song is a character song and it’s called “The Line.”
Claudia:Last Night on Earth, the name of the record, refers to what?
Charlie: Well it’s actually a reference to this series of [Charles] Bukowski poems called The Last Night of the Earth poems. I also like the immediacy of the implication of that, but at the same time, for a while we toyed with the idea of Night Windows as the title of the album. It’s an Edward Hopper painting. I liked that idea that it’s like looking into someone’s life for one evening and these songs are a cross section of what could have happened yesterday or last night.
Claudia: Are you at all concerned that the songs are going to be misread? There’s so much that goes on with the autobiographical nature of songwriting. Is that all in your head while you’re writing this?
Charlie: Not really. You’re still investing a great deal of yourself in the songs. You’re putting yourself through other people’s eyes. The next song we’re going to play, “Tonight’s the Kind of Night,” is indicative of how I felt writing it. There came a period in my life where I was looking to make a change and make a fresh start, for us as a band as well.
Claudia: Charlie, you do most of the writing? I also read that this was more collaborative?
Charlie: Yes, lyrically it’s all me and then we tie the songs together.
Claudia: So the next song is where you were looking to make some kind of shift for yourself.
Charlie: It was the first song we made on the record. I wrote it New Year’s Day 2010. As you know, the start of a new decade, a good time to make a change, a new start.
Claudia: Did you make a big change?
Charlie: I feel like I did. Nothing dramatic. But for us as a band, this record is different. The first tour we did after First Days of Spring was a three month tour and running from September to the end of the year. Over the course of that tour we had band members leaving, all of our equipment stolen, and it was a tough record to start touring. By the end of that we were looking to have a fresh start. It kind of came full circle in the end because by the time we were playing First Days of Spring at festivals, it was a real moment. We were looking to do something new.
Claudia: The songs have an anthemic feel to them and there’s a lot to be said for the influences behind this record. Was there a certain kind of music you were listening to as this record came together?
Charlie: Definitely. There was two sides: things that were more influential lyrically and things that were more influential production wise. The starting point was when Fred [Abbott] lent me the DVD of the Tom Petty documentary “Running Down A Dream.” That was really inspiring because I’d never been much of a fan of his and saw that and realized how great he is. Likewise with Springsteen who I kind of discovered over the course of that year. A lot of records; even Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours I hadn’t heard until two years ago. For me, the albums that I found most inspiring lyrically were Berlin by Lou Reed and Tom Waits’ Bone Machine in terms of character writing and story songs. Those two are the pinnacle. Also, in terms of production, things like Arthur Russell's Calling out of Context, certainly the more dance-y stuff that he did. Brian Eno’s early records after Roxy Music, like Before and After Science and Another Green World. Some Prince as well, the Dirty Mind record.
Claudia: I definitely feel the Lou Reed a lot on this record, especially on the next song that you’re going to do. In fact, there’s a direct line in many ways.
Charlie: When we were first finding the seeds of the record, I was listening to Transformer a lot. I’ve listened to a lot of Lou Reed albums over the year and Transformer and Berlin were probably two of the most [important]. There’s also a great record called New Sensations which has the track “Doing The Things That We Want To” on it. When we first went into the studio with Jason [Lader] who co-produced the record, I said that was my reference for guitar sounds. He then said, “Well, if you like that, you should check out ‘Dirty Mind’ by Prince. The guitar sounds on “Dirty Mind” are super weird. They work incredibly well on the album.
Claudia: I love the contrast between the melancholy quality of the song sonically, the great tension created by the violin part and the word picture that you paint. What a story!
Charlie: I remember I wanted to write a story that had the mood of Laura Palmer’s character in "Twin Peaks." I was trying to make a character like that. I love David Lynch; he’s probably my favorite director.
Claudia: The one thing I forgot to mention earlier, which is very different for the band, is the process. The previous records were made in a much more compressed time period. This spilled out over nine months?
Charlie: Exactly. The funny thing as well is that this record is 33 ⅓ minutes long. A very short album.
Claudia: Now how did you make it 33 ⅓ minutes?
Charlie: It’s the third record! The last track is 3:33 as well. Very strange. (laughs). The reason why it took so long because it was a nine-month refining process. Nine months of stripping songs down to their bare essentials, lyrically as well. I wanted the narratives very direct and straightforward.
Claudia: On the track "Old Joy" you have some very beautiful gospel vocals.
Charlie: There are these singers called the Waters Sisters who are legendary L.A. vocalists. They sung on Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something.”
Claudia: Wow, to have that on your resume is something.
Charlie: Yeah, just next to Noah and the Whale. (laughs). Michael Jackson. Alphabetically. They’re quite close yes (laughs).
No, they’re amazing. Jason had done the Jenny Lewis record with them before and so I said that I heard some gospel vocals on this, and he said, “If you want gospel vocals, these are your guys.” It was a real moment when we stood around the piano [in Sunset Sound studios]. Fred was playing the piano and we were trying to figure the harmonies that they were going to sing. It was the room where Prince recorded “Purple Rain.” We stood around the piano in that room figuring out the harmonies for this song and that, for me, was one of the highlights of making the record. That studio, not that room, was the last place where all of The Beatles played together in the same room. It wasn’t on a Beatles record, but on a Ringo [Starr] record or something. Some real heritage in that studio.