Since 2006, Noah and the Whale’s lineup has evolved as frequently as its sound. The currently five-piece folk outfit stepped into the international spotlight with 2008’s heterogenous indie-pop compilation, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down. Though that album’s sentimental single “5 Years Time” delivered enough commercial wholesomeness to land soundtrack deals with SunChips and the family-friendly Saturn, their somber 2009 followup, First Days of Spring, and 2011’s electronic-indulgent Last Night On Earth proved they were more than just pop-rock assemblers. Though the band certainly humors those moments. This week, the British rockers played a string of shows in California in support of their latest album, Heart of Nowhere. While at The Fillmore in San Francisco, the group heartily threw back to an upbeat version of “5 Years Time” - replete with a live marriage proposal. (Watch: Video by Roman Gokhman)
In their fourth studio effort, Heart of Nowhere, Noah and the Whale appears to have grasped a greater sense of bearing - at least in terms of physical consistency. Guitarist Fred Abbott and drummer Michael Petulla have replaced original members Laura Marling (who exited the group after Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down) and Doug Fink (who left after recording First Days of Spring). The album, which premiered in May of this year, was recorded in two weeks last November as a live in-studio set.
This week, Ones To Watch caught up with band members Fred Abbott and Matt Urby before their show at the House of Blues in Anaheim. Topics covered: Heart of Nowhere, how being in a band is akin to a Peter Pan existence, and Madonna.
Ones To Watch: This latest album plays a lot with the concept of time, there are 3 songs with the word “time” in their titles, while fate and destiny seem to have played a big role in the album. So do you feel that you have a firm grasp of your mortality?
Fred Abbott: Wow.
Matt Urby: (laughs) I was expecting … “What will you be doing in five years time, why are you called Noah and the Whale?” I’ll let you handle that one, seeing as you’re older and wiser
FA: Supposedly. I think we’re all aware of our mortality, but you know - human beings are always deluding ourselves in order to forget about it. So that we can enjoy life - we deliberately forget about the transience of everything. Because if you are constantly aware of that, then everything is rather depressing, ‘cause everything could actually be meaningless…
Because nothing you do will last, nothing that we’re seeing here at Disneyland - it won’t be here, it’s not going to last forever. It will be gone. I don’t know where I’m going with this.
MU: Well it’s when people are wrestling with either the consequences of mortality or they’ll throw themselves into something like a show. We’ve had a lot of people that have clung with particular songs that do deal with death, even songs that you wouldn’t expect. Like when we were writing “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” off the third record - it’s amazing how many people you meet who cling to that. Like they come out to shows and say, ”I’m here because of this thing that happened to me.” It’s one of their great releases. When you do go through something traumatizing you want to throw yourself back into something that’s meaningful. So you often see that from night to night.
Ones To Watch: Do you have any good tour stories so far?
MU: Last night, we played the Fillmore in San Francisco - we are the first band to ever have a marriage proposal accepted there. It was in the middle of “Five Year’s Time.” The guy was phenomenal: gave the speech, got down on one knee, had her family come out. And then…she said yes. I gave a speech, accidentally, we gave a toast of 12-year-old whiskey, I accidently handed the bottle to the underage part of the crowd. And then we played Van Morrisson’s “Crazy Love.” You know, having a massive, life-affirming moment makes you see…Life Goes On.
Ones To Watch: I see what you did there.
FA: It was magical.
Ones To Watch: Did you cry?
FA: I almost had a tear in my eye, it was pretty emotional - I’m a sucker for romance.
Ones To Watch: I feel like you’ve taken a very optimistic approach towards mortality, and growing up, and leaving childhood and dealing with the changes.
MO: In many ways it’s very positive. To say there’s one thing worse than being at a party, knowing the party is going on and people have to leave, is knowing the party is going on and you’ve got to be there forever - for many people that’s far more hellish.
FA: We romanticize our pasts a lot, it probably wasn’t as great as we’d like to think it was. So I’m not sure whether I would like to go back to being a teenager again.
Ones To Watch: So what was the approach towards the songwriting and the themes that went into creating this album?
MO: I think one of the themes is the extended adolescence thing. It’s never more acute with musicians, I’ve got a lot of mates for example. When you’re teenagers you get obsessed with albums and obsessed with music and it means so much - in the other world, people have distractions than this kind of thing - wives and children, etc, so they don’t have the time to devote to records and getting a hold of them and listening to them solidly and making them such an identity thing as it was for them back in the day. Whereas for us we’re pretty much able to play music every night and get into albums
FA: Being in a band is kind of a Peter Pan existence, you kind of don’t go past that stage. We’re very lucky.
Ones To Watch: With Last Night on Earth, the band embraced a more techno and synth-friendly sound. Do you see that electronic influence being a part of Noah and the Whale’s future?
FA: The sound of that album came out of the fact that we didn’t have a drummer; we were necessarily forced to use drum machines, but now we do have one. You’re kind of shaped by circumstances and necessity. So we cut this album as a live band album because that’s what we’ve been doing and what the band sounded like at that point. Even with the drum machines I think we were fairly nostalgic about it anyway, artists like Prince and Talking Heads were already 20 years old and featured those sounds -
MO: And you can have drum machines and synths with character and tone, and you can get it right. We’re kind of looking for, personally, the raw sounds and stuff with character. I like more guitar sounds… something more distinguished and with idiosyncrasy.
FA: Well yea, and all the records have sounded so different in the past - we could go in any direction. I feel like the guys have so much different influence and ability in the band we could do so many different genres.
Ones To Watch: What are you listening to together on the road right now?
FA: We listen to pretty diverse stuff. We don’t listen to anything together!
Ones To Watch: You mean you don’t listen to communal radio?
FA: We do - but we fight every night. One day this guy’s doing Drake, the next it’s Creedence Clearwater Revival. So people are putting on different stuff from dance music to hip-hop to R&B, then back to like, classic rock.
MO: It worked rather topographically. When we were in Seattle we were playing a lot of Soundgarden. And we were at the Fillmore and were like, “Let’s slap on some Petty!” It’s the great thing about coming to America - it’s the big dream for every band. You come to these places you’ve dreamed of coming to. In L.A. we’ll probably be playing some Doors and Guns & Roses.
Ones To Watch: What about in your off-time? Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
MU: I quite like - it’s cheesy as hell - but I quite like doing “American Pie,” it gets the room involved, and also I find it impossibly emotional, and I find it’s been bastardized by, you know, various horrendous versions.. I think even Madonna might have one.
Ones To Watch: What’s your take on Madonna?
MU: I think Madonna’s phenomenal, naturally..
FA: -Just not her version of “American Pie.”
MU: Just not her version of “American Pie!”
My mum’s favorite album was actually The Immaculate Collection - which every song is just mind-blowing good. And she, contrary to popular belief, she writes herself. She’s very, very good, and her work ethic’s phenomenal.
FA: You’re a bit of an expert, there, on Madonna.
MU: Well, I like to know these things. She’s amazing! Lot of respect.
Ones To Watch: Your music, which has many whimsical elements, has been described as everything from folk-rock, indie-rock to British indie-rock. Do these types of genre labels bother you?
FA: Part of it is because we have so many different sounds, it’s quite hard to pigeonhole us. The media would like to pigeonhole every band - like it’s an indie-rock band or a jazz band, whatever - and we’re quite hard to do that to.
MO: It all kind of goes through the same machine live - so everything gets kind of unified live.
FA: Yea, when you see us live, you’d say it’s a “pop-rock show,” but that’s not what we really are.
MO: Well, the only thing I’d say is pop is that we’ve got singles.
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