Q&A with Freelance Whales

freelance whales

It was a Monday night at the Drunken Unicorn. The last show I went to at the venue collected a crowd of about 12 people, but the band was good! Anyway, I had the opportunity to meet up with Freelance Whales during sound check and catch a one-on-one interview with drummer Jake Hyman. The band is currently on tour with Miniature Tigers, having finished an earlier tour this year in support of the Shout Out Louds.

I was first turned on to the band early this year, before they re-released their debut album, Weathervanes, on the Frenchkiss/Mom + Pop Records. Their imagination lives in a sound that marries cityscapes with the allure of rustic homes laid out under starry skies. The quintet of multi-talented musicians is best known for crafting rich, rhythmic sounds with playful, pop energy—the band’s whimsical nature sticks to your skin even after the album (or encore) has ended.

The show was packed, drawing a surprising number of people over 40 (I’m not hating! I’m just saying…), and a not-so-surprising crowd of hipsters from Decatur to Marietta and probably beyond. The band, consisting of Judah Dadone, Kevin Read, Doris Cellar, Chuck Criss, and Jake Hyman, showed off a strong instrumental versatility, with almost all members trading off on instruments throughout the set. And by the way, the band can harmonize! I mean, seriously, every member can pull their weight on vocals.

What was most impressive about the whole night was the energy in the room. Fans were singing along, at times just as loud as the band, and dancing the entire time—in as intimate a place as we were, it was as if Freelance Whales had come “home” to Atlanta. The band played songs from Weathervanes, as well as a couple new songs, including the recently released “Enzymes,” and even a Broken Social Scene cover to end the encore and the night.

If you have a chance to see the band, I highly recommend you do so. And definitely pick up the album first… it will make the live experience a hundred times better.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out some photos from their set back in March at The Earl in Atlanta, GA by clicking HERE.

INTERVIEW with Jake Hyman:

The Blue Indian (Beth): So what were you guys doing before  the Freelance Whales?

Freelance Whales (Jake): Kevin was playing around New York. He’s a blues guitarist, well, was a blues guitarist, and still is a really, really great blues guitarist. And he was playing around the city with a bunch of different bands.

Chuck had a solo project. I forget the name, it was something about “microwaves,” anyway, it was amazing. He did a lot of mashups, and he was also writing a lot of cool, really original, electronic, vocally affected music… it was really cool.

This was Judah’s like, this was like his first baby, you know. He was in a band… we went to college together but didn’t know each other. He had a band called Go Mordecai in college. He was the electric guitarist.

TBI: Where’d you guys go to college?

F. Whales: GW in DC. And, Doris, she’s been in a lot of bands. She started playing drums when she was 15 and I think in an all girl band. And most recently before Freelance Whales she was in a band called Remenitia—it’s like a punk band. I think she played bass. Maybe played drums.

I was in like 6 bands at the time. I was working in New York as a writer and musician, and this was like the sixth band—this was the last of the six bands that I joined and then I slowly phased all the others out.

TBI: Is music the main focus for all of you guys now?

F. Whales: Yeah.

TBI: So it’s your income now? You don’t need any other jobs?

F. Whales: No. When we first started I was still doing freelance writing from the road for a start up music company, doing music reviews and concert reviews.

TBI: When you guys finished the album, you weren’t actually signed to Frenchkiss yet, right?

F. Whales: We put it out ourselves in late August / September ’09.

TBI: And then it came out this year. Has anything changed for you guys since you signed to Frenchkiss?

F. Whales: It’s way easier to get records out.

TBI: Different bands talk about the problems of signing with labels, whether they’re independent or major ones. Have you guys had anything like that, as far as creativity or direction?

F. Whales: No. In terms of those things, it’s been a blank slate. They let us go in our own direction. We just put out a single called “Enzymes” with Green Label Sound, and it was very generous of both Frenchkiss and Mom + Pop (they both worked on the record deal) to let us work with another label to put out our first material since the album. I think they could have vetoed that, and they let us do it. It was a really helpful decision from them to kind of let us take a creative risk in a different direction, but under a different name—not band name, but a different backer.

TBI: Will “Enzymes” be part of your next album?

F. Whales: It can’t be, legally. (laughs) But the b-side to “Enzymes,” which will be out in the not too distant future, can be. But we haven’t decided.

There’s no second album in the works, as of now. There are new songs being written, but there’s nothing specifically for the second album.

TBI: It seems like you’re too busy to be writing the second album.

F. Whales: Oh, see, some bands can do that. But, we work best in a rehearsal space. Even if it’s just getting the bare bones of something down in the rehearsal space, and then developing it on stage, that’s how we work best, I think. Well, “Enzymes,” for example, was written by Chuck, mostly, but then, pretty much written in the studio when we recorded it, like on the spot. And then we had to learn it for the live show. It was kind of the way Weathervanes went, except that we all had pretty creative input in “Enzymes.”

TBI: Right. When you guys came together, was the instrumental stuff already laid down by Judah?

F. Whales: There were rough demos of everything, well, not every song. But there was a lot done.

TBI: The lyrics were done, right?

F. Whales: Some of the lyrics were done. Some weren’t. Some of the melodies were done, some changed over time. Some of the drum parts, some of everything, there was a shell with everything. And then when we started working out songs together, when there was something that really worked for the performance, we could go back into the studio and place it in the song.

TBI: Was it difficult for you guys that Judah had already kind of sketched where he wanted the songs to go?

F. Whales: It was certainly a challenge for everybody. But I think that was part of the draw to the band for everybody. You know, I was little bored, and maybe not rightfully so, but I was a little bored with playing the same old singer-songwriter stuff. And, nothing against singer-songwriters, especially since I’ve gone on the road with something else, there’s a lot to be said for it. We were all looking for that challenge of kind of achieving someone else’s vision. And he had, and has, a very specific vision for what Weathervanes is and you know, I think it’s always an ongoing challenge to make it sound the way it should sound.

TBI: Have things changed from when you guys recorded the album and now, playing it for over a year. Have things changed in how you play it live?

F. Whales: Yeah. You know, there’s a third verse in “Generator (First Floor)” in the live show. There’s a different ending to “Generator (Second Floor).” The drum parts are somewhat loyal because I recorded all the drum parts on the album, but in the live show I take some liberties because I’m a Blues and Jazz drummer. I try not to stay too much in my box, but I’m also not allowed to stray too far.

TBI: I’ve read a lot about the lyrical content, you know the story about it is online—the boy and the girl, the figment of his imagination (or apparition). It’s a really unique story and pretty detailed throughout the whole album. Now that you guys are writing new stuff, although none of it is concrete, are you keeping the same idea of a story throughout the whole album?

F. Whales: I think we’d all like to, when it comes time to write a second album, tie songs in together. We don’t have a concept yet. We all love the idea of having an over-arching concept, even if it’s loose. Even if there’s a story but the songs are loosely connected to the story, we like that idea. But, as of now, there’s no second album so there’s no concept.

TBI: Do you all like to write lyrics?

F. Whales: I like to write lyrics, but my confidence is slim to none. Everybody else is excellent, they are very excellent lyricists. And I don’t think I’m necessarily bad, but my lyrics end up more like free-form poetry than lyrics. You know, Doris has some beautiful songs. She was in a project—oh I left that out, what she was doing before Freelance Whales. She was in a project called Doris Cellar, which was her on piano. The songs are incredibly beautiful and it’s how Judah found out about her, was through that.

TBI: When you guys were doing the street and subway shows, did you take most of your instruments with you?

F. Whales: We took everything that doesn’t have to be plugged in. Which was, I think, just a consequence of not having power.

TBI: Did this throw you off because you weren’t creating the sound you were used to?

F. Whales: I don’t think it threw us off. It was certainly different; we had to reinterpret the songs for that setting. But it’s something that served us really, really well on many levels. Not just on the publicity level. We became so much tighter, vocally, as a band, constantly being able to hear what the people around us were doing. It’s pretty hard on a stage to hear exactly four voices when you run through one speaker. It gets a little draining on the speaker, I think. So, when you’re in a subway, you have that natural reverb, and it really helps that you can hear the people around you, and it brought us vocally, much, much tighter.

TBI: Do you think that now, because you’re playing venues and on a label, will you ever, I mean, you can’t go back to playing street and subway shows, right?

F. Whales: We can if we don’t announce it. I mean, we can if we announce it. But we’ll probably get arrested. We announced one, I don’t remember when it was… it was after some people had found out about us, not all people, but some. And like a hundred people showed up and the cops came and they asked us to leave. And we try to be very polite when the police come because they’re just doing their jobs, and because we were so understanding they just asked us to move further down the platform where people wouldn’t fall in front of trains. So that was really nice of them.

TBI: You’ve been touring so much this past year… are you guys tired yet?

F. Whales: Sometimes.

TBI: I mean, do you like what you’re doing now? You’re not really operating out of a home base.

F. Whales: Well, you know, it’s difficult to be on the road all the time. It’s a hard lifestyle, and it’s certainly not for everybody. It’s been a pretty tiring year. But we’ve had some good time at home. You know, I don’t think we’re the type of band that’s going to be on the road twelve months straight. There are plenty of those bands out there. I think we’re all tired; we’re all looking forward to working on another record. At the same time, getting to play music every night is not a burden.

TBI: There are worse jobs.

F. Whales: Yeah, we’re not cursed with being a surviving touring band. There are plenty of bands that do this and can’t even survive and do it anyway. So it’s an honor, it’s a privilege, and it’s also exhausting.

TBI: Right, a lot of bands have to go back to jobs after tours.

F. Whales: And we’re really lucky to not have to do those things.

TBI: I think, generally, fans don’t really understand what you go through.

F. Whales: I think it’s better that they don’t. I know when I was just a music fan and this wasn’t a remote possibility in my mind, I certainly glamorized the whole experience. And it wasn’t until the end of the first tour that I looked back and was like, ‘man, that was not nearly as glamorous as I thought it was going to be.’ But that’s ok. Fantasies are fantasies, and then they’re not anymore.

TBI: You guys get compared to a lot of different bands. What are some of the comparisons that you’ve liked, or respected at least?

F. Whales: You know, I think people compare us to a lot of people. And I don’t really dislike any of the people we get compared to. I think some people like to use those comparisons in a pejorative way, perhaps, and that’s their decision.
That’s part of what I loved about Judah’s demos, was the references back to things that I liked. I don’t know when Postal Service came out, like seven years ago or something, but you know, that’s not that long ago. People jump ship so quickly on these bands that they used to love, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with some of the comparisons, even when they’re used in a negative way, though that’s unfortunate. I don’t think you should ever be like, ‘they sound just like Owl City, don’t listen to them.’ But if you’re using the comparison as a way to help people listen to the music and access the music, I think then any comparison is a good comparison.

TBI: What are some of the comparisons that you’ve heard?

F. Whales: Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Postal Service, anything with Ben Gibbard in it, yeah, I think those are the primary ones.

TBI: Ok, I know that you haven’t nailed anything down for the next album, or gone anywhere near that, but just from what you guys have been learning on the road together, do you think there will be a pretty noticeable evolution in what you create next?

F. Whales: I think there’s a one hundred percent chance that there’s going to be… I don’t want to say “departure.” You know, it’s not like we’re choosing to go in a different direction, but when you have five people writing instead of one person shooting for one specific thing, it’s just going to be different. That being said, we all have input on each other’s parts. People can tell me how to play a certain drum part, and I’ll certainly take their input into consideration, and usually use it. In the same way, Kevin’s always really open to people suggesting things for his guitar part, and we’re always open to editing synth patches. I think as you get five different creative processes involved, things are just naturally going to change. I would say it’s more of an evolution than a departure, but certainly different.