Noah and the Whale

Interview with frontman Charlie Fink

Oct 09, 2009 Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Web Exclusive
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It has been only slightly over a year since Noah and the Whale released its debut album, but the London-based band has come a long way in that time. While 2008's Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down was a collection of songs inspired by love and loss, fueled by the jumpy single "5 Years Time," the band's new album, The First Days of Spring, is a more epic affair, a grandiose statement driven by the same lyrical themes but presented as one album-long conceptual statement, aided by a distinct orchestral bent. Add to this the fact that the band has released the album with an accompanying full-length film, and it seems clear that Noah and the Whale is more comfortable with its collective ambitions and more at ease with expressing those ambitions without restraint or censor. Frontman Charlie Fink checked in with Under the Radar to discuss his band's new album, the film, and what it all means.

Frank Valish (Under the Radar): You spoke with Under the Radar a couple years ago, before the first album came out, and you talked a bit about how the debut was purposefully written as an album, with a consistent thread, themes, and vocabulary to it. This album certainly continues in that way of thinking. Can you tell me a bit about what inspired this particular collection of songs?

Charlie Fink: I think you're absolutely right. I felt that even more so with this record, that was what I was trying to do. The ideas for the film that accompanies the record were probably the same things we talked about last time: trying to create a full, submersing album experience that you experience from beginning to end, and where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Writing the album was very structured, very precise. It was like writing 45 minutes rather than writing individual songs. But then the content just comes from life experiences.

When did you have the idea to couple the album with the film? Was that the plan all along?

Yeah. Before I had any narrative or any songs or anything, the idea was to make a film where the backbone and the structure was the record.

Did you immediately know what you were looking to do with the film, or did the songs come first and the concept of the visual piece come later?

Yeah, the lyrics led the whole thing. They were the first things that were written. And it was an entirely different process from before. Previously, I would either just have a melody or a couplet or a chord progression, and a song would come out of it. But this time, I had very clear headings and a structure. I had a structure before I had any songs. And then sometimes you have just a heading. You'd have a title before you had a song. You had an idea. So the first thing that happened was that structure, the lyrical structure, and way the album was going to flow. The film was taken into account once we started to do the music for the record. That's when you're trying to keep the images in my head. The film started more abstractly, like just a few images, and that fleshed out into a story.

So it's not necessarily that the ideas for the film were coming as the music was being written.

With the film, I wanted to check for narrative. I didn't want the stories from the album and the film to be the same. I didn't want it to feel like a musical. I think it's important that people can project what they want onto this record. The reason why I wanted to do a film was, as much as anything, to exaggerate the content of the album, not to sort of impose on it.

It seems like, from the press materials I've read, that you've tried to make it clear that the film can accompany the album or it can be independent of the album. It can complement the album, but this is not a 50-minute video to the album.

Exactly. Yeah. It's a complicated thing to explain.

Your debut was essentially finished before you were even a working band for a year. When you first spoke with us, the album was being mixed, and you had just really formed the band eight months prior. How do you feel you have matured since having some time to gel as a band, be on the road and such? Do you feel that the new album more clearly and consistently reflects who you are as a musician and who Noah and the Whale is as a band?

Undoubtedly. I think it definitely realizes our vision more. Although, obviously, the vision changes. This is definitely a progression for us, but the thing is, I don't feel that there is an obvious arc with music or with a career. I think each project is independent. Someone whom I really respect is Neil Young, and an album like Trans, you can only respect Neil Young for making that album. It's not like that was a progressive move for him necessarily, and it's not like that album is reflective of who he is, but it's the fact that he's making it, that's what's important. And that is something I'm going to try to pursue. Pursue each project as it comes, I guess.

Were there things that you were disappointed with on the first album that you sought to rectify in this project?

Not really. I think, maybe, no, not really. I still really love the first record and am really proud of it. I think maybe yeah, the ambitions are slightly higher with this record, but I guess that's partly because of being a band for longer and being put on a different platform. But no, like I said, I think when you're looking at these things, they either achieve what they're meant to achieve or they don't. There's nothing bigger than that. And I felt like the first album reflected well where we were. And also, I have this idea that songs aren't really ever finished. They are always evolving and they can always change. So when you play a song live, you're doing something different from when you put it on record. The way we play some of the songs from the first album now, they sound entirely different. And people will hear it that way as well.

I understand that you were listening to a lot of John Cage and Fred Frith during the making of this album. How do you feel that informed the writing process, the recording, or the album as a whole?

It was more influential on the recording process. The difference between the first record and this record was that on the first record, we kind of imposed limitations on ourselves. Like with the drums, it was just kick drum, floor tom, and snare, and generally acoustic guitar-led songs. The reason why you put those limitations on is because it forces you to be inventive. Whereas with this record, I think we still used that inventive approach to the way we played instruments, to kind of have free range and use that same approach to try to find a unique way to play an instrument. The prepared piano is still making it sound unique and inventive, and at the same time, in a way, it's just making a fuller version of what we were doing previously.

You did a lot of touring off the last album. I wonder whether that grind in any way inspire you to make a more grand, ambitious statement.

I don't know if it was the touring. The thing is, when you're making a record, it's a million tiny steps. You have your initial vision and then every step you take toward being in the studio, something is going to influence what's going to happen. It is being on the road. It's everything you see out the window of the van. It's everything you listen to. There's no way you can predict how you would have done it any other way. I think now I feel comfortable, but previously I felt frustrated by live, obviously because you can't do as much as you can during a record. So I think maybe those frustrations made me more ambitious going into the studio. But I kind of enjoy now that live is a separate thing.

How are these songs translating? Or how are you translating these songs live?

The thing is to not try to imitate the record, to do something different. I'm really happy. And I've often been critical of us as a live band, but now I do feel that they're coming across well. I guess the main difference is that they're slightly heavier live. You know, kind of knocking about a bit harder.

I was hoping you could tell me about the orchestration? Did you score that all yourself?

No, most of the strings are [Noah and the Whale violinist] Tom [Hobden]'s. He plays some viola and violin on the record. The only extra players we got in, we got in brass players and the choir, and then the guy who did the flute and clarinet. But the majority of it is just Tom tracking. And Tom arranged the strings and the choir on the record.

If there is anything I find myself personally wanting for when I listen to your music, and this record in particular, is more of an emotional balance. The album seems as a whole, almost depressed in its content. But then there's a song like "Love of an Orchestra," which is very positive and hopeful and lively musically. But even that song ends abruptly at two minutes. I find myself wanting more of that.

It depends what you mean. Whether you mean lyrically or whether you mean melodically or instrumentally. The one thing, there's more of a sense of joy in that track than there is anywhere else on the album. But I think that's important, and that's why it's positioned where it is on the album [track 6 of 11]. What I hope comes across is that it is a journey, that it's this story from the first track to the end. And I think it's a cathartic one and a redemptive one. And I think overall it's a joyful story. But I agree. I think those sort of moments of relief are so satisfying because of where they sit.

Is it easier for you to write from that position of loss and hurt and sadness because of that cathartic aspect. To write from that place where you can get that hurt out.

Yeah, I guess. It just feels very instinctive and natural for me to do it. It's the first place I go.

You said in an email interview with us late last year, when you were in the studio, that you felt this was going to be an album that would test you and test your fans. I wanted to follow up on that and see if you would elaborate on that at all. Do you still feel the same way?

I definitely think that it tested us, in that we put everything into it. It was an incredibly exhausting process. And I invested myself fully in it. So that's how I feel it tested us. And then, with the fans, yeah, the first record I guess is more immediate than this. And it doesn't scare me that there might be people who liked the first record that might find this too difficult. I don't know, it's impossible to predict. And I guess the reverse is true, that there may be people who come to define us by this record.

(www.noahandthewhale.com)



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