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- Posted on Mar 16th 2010 9:42AM by Donna Rodgers
How did you get started?
I started playing instruments like the piano at a very early age, like the piano in an untrained way -- there were lots of instruments in my grandparents' house. I started playing bass guitar, I played in a jazz band, I played percussion instruments, I played covers in a band. In college, I picked up a guitar with no core training. Songwriting is my focus. The group got together in August 2008. I felt like I wanted to deconstruct the process of making music, and things that I hadn't tried over the years, like the harmonium, gloeckenspiel, synthesizers. I wanted to piecemeal new ideas in a thoughtful way.
Who makes up the group?
My name is Judah and I'm from Bloomington, Delaware originally. I came to New York after I graduated from college. I play mostly banjo, synthesizers, and bass guitar. Doris is our only native New Yorker. She's from Queens. When we met her, she was in music school, and she already had really beautiful rehearsal space that was hugely, hugely convenient for the band coming together, because we didn't have to find a new one. She is mostly a bass guitarist and she also does a lot of really beautiful vocals. And she plays a lot of harmonium, too. Chris is from San Francisco, California. He's an extremely accomplished banjo player. He's really great with keyboard. He's also a great guitarist, and a great songwriter, too. Jake is our drummer and he's probably the most dedicated to one instrument out of the whole group. He is originally from New Jersey. He's kind of like sung chamber choirs for most of his adult life. Kevin is very experimentally-minded, which I like. He tries very technical things, like the bamboo organ that I was telling you about earlier. That's everyone. There's five of us.
Where do you like to play?
There are places all over the country that we love to play. We love to play at Schubas in Chicago, Illinois. We love playing at Sheba's in San Francisco, California. But we also love finding places out in the world to play. We love playing in subways. We love playing in the streets. Or if we can find people who may be interested, wherever we can find good accoustics.
How would you describe your sound?
Well, normally I wouldn't because we would probably be able to play it! I'd say first and foremost it's pop music, maybe like it's textured, layered pop music. Then I might go on to describe the instruments involved. And that fact that there is a lot of folk lists and a lot of vocals and that sort of thing. But I guess sometimes we say compositional pop or something that sounds maybe a little too overblown.
How did you choose your group's name, Freelance Whales?
Freelance Whales, the name is a long story. I could give you the full story or sort of an abridged version.
The full story.
The name comes from an experience that I had growing up as a kid, growing up in Israel. My family lived on the Sea of Galilee, which is a lake in Northern Israel that separates Jordan from Israel. My father and his brothers had all been in the merchant marines. You know that everyone in Israel kind of serves in the army, so earlier in their lives they had been merchant marines and they were all really great divers. I remember from a very early age that I really admired their ability to do a lot of skindiving. They would like disappear for minutes at a time and they would dive really deep. They would bring stuff up from the bottom. So at one point, there was no one around, and i decided that I was going to try to do some deep diving! And try to bring something to the surface! So there was this sort of incident that happened, where I dove down really deep, and I found this rock. It was really big and I had a hard time bringing it to the surface. So this lifeguard had seen that I was struggling with it, and he sort of pulled me to the side of the shore. There was a fisherman nearby who had seen this little event transpire. As I was kind of laying there, I had a little water in my lungs and I was sort of exasperated, but this old man who is standing by is really like quietly laughing to himself. It was this old guy who had been known around the area and was thought of as a little crazy. He had seen the whole event transpire. He called me something in Hebrew that roughly translates to 'liberty whale' or 'freedom whale'. And I sort of translated that in my head to freelance whales! I was like six or seven. Yeah, as a little kid, trying to impress his father. More than that I think we chose Freelance Whales because we thought that the letters looked pretty written down and we thought that it sounded nice to say. It was something we didn't mind saying over and over. There's the aesthetic reason and there's also that little anecdote. Whales are very spiritual and musical creatures.
What are your musical influences?
We have a whole slew of influences, a lot of contemporary and a lot of older influences as well. We're really heavily influenced by some kind of smaller geeky bands that I was close to when I went to college. One of them is called Le Loup. It means the wolf. I think a lot of our songs were inspired by another band called These United States. Then also, we like some bigger contemporary groups, like we all really love Broken Social Scene, and we really love Stars. Those are some of the more prominent ones.
Do you get into any mischief on the road?
Yeah, well, right now at this very moment we're at an IHOP which I think is sort of a vice because it is not the healthiest kind of food around, but that's not super titillating. I mean, I think to fulfill the mother of all cliches: we tend to treat hotel rooms poorly. Not because we want to, but because there are so many of us and we tend to cram way too many people into a room, so sometimes we leave and we feel really really bad about the shape of the room. But that's just because we're moving so fast, you know? But vices? No, I mean we don't have too many vices, I don't think. We all try to treat ourselves really well on the road. We try to take care of our bodies and stuff like that because it is such a demanding process. We drink a lot of tea and coffee. That's not really a vice. I drink a lot of this tea -- I guess it's like deep throat, it's like respiratory tea or whatever. It helps to maintain good breathing and stuff like that. So it would like help you feel less congested apparently, although I haven't seen any signs of it yet.
What's in your festival survival kit?
We've never appeared at SXSW before. We played last year during SXSW. We'd only played a couple of shows at that point and all [our shows] had been in New York. We just played our first proper festival about three days ago. The Harvest of Oaks Festival in St. Augustine, Florida, which is sort of on a big campground area. There are lots of people and it was so much fun. But the only big festival we have done before this was CMJ this past October, which is really more like a music conference.
You might get a better answer if you asked me after SXSW, because it's going to be the first one. I think that requires real survival skills because we're going to play 9 shows in 5 days or something like that. But so far what we have in our survival kit is a really, really good tour manager, which is something that you need to survive a festival, and a really good sound engineer, who in our case is the same person. We have a lot of vitamins, a good place to sleep and shows that don't go too long. And really, really great bands to play with. I think that's the only way to survive a festival, if you can play with bands you really love. We're gonna need some sunglasses, so we're going to have to hit the sunglasses shop and bring a lot of sunscreen...and...tighter jeans, tighter shirts, all of these things.
Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
I very rarely feel guilty about listening to music so I am trying to think about what I should feel guilty about. I guess whenever we listen to our own record that's a guilty pleasure but we're usually doing it to learn more stuff about it. I guess every now and then we listen to dance, dubbed or reggae stuff, which we love. I can see how someone else might think that's a guilty pleasure.
What was your scariest/creepiest/craziest experience on tour?
Oh man, let me think, there's a few that are coming to mind, let me think which is the scariest. This past December, on a tour we just finished up, we had gotten back to New York and that's part of the reason why this is so frustrating, because we had just driven like 15,000 miles safely, we were finally home. We were driving to play a Haiti benefit in Brooklyn, and I was driving. We were having a very intense sort of discussion and I managed to drive our van into a cement truck, I'm afraid to say. Everyone was fine, but it was really scary. We were sort of in the middle of the highway in Queens. With the side of our van being kind of cut into by this huge industrial cement truck and the interaction with the gentleman that emerged from that cement truck -- you know at first he was aggressive ,and then sort of calmed down in a couple of minutes. But I think that was probably like our most intense moment on the road.
What's next for Freelance Whales?
I think we're going to be touring quite a bit. We're going to be touring and our new album, Weathervane, is coming out on April 13. We're trying to find every moment we can on the road to work on new songs and try to redefine the writing process for the whole band. So that's like a big part of what's going to be next for us. We do know, also, that when we get home and we have some real time to do creative things that we really want to start making ome instruments. Just one or two, but Kevin and I have had this dream for awhile now that we want to make a bamboo organ and so that's when we get home in mid-April. I think (we are) going to take several days and work exclusively on this bamboo pipe organ. Which is essentially an organ to be made from harvested parts of old organs. (We) are going to cut the pipes for the organ out of bamboo and it should sound like ...a choir of Japanese flutes when the wind runs through it. It is kind of continuing on our independent study of instrumentology. And then hopefully we can start demo-ing some new songs shortly after that. We are working on three songs and we all have several ideas...very general themes for what the next record should be about. We're just trying to develop some of these things because we have a little bit of time before anyone is expecting the next record. We really want to make sure that we're kind of further ahead than we should be in terms of developing what the second record should sound like, where it could take place, what could be in the songs and what kind of era or time period it could be in...that kind of stuff. We're all kind of trying to play with different ideas and we haven't decided on anything yet, we're just kind of throwing these questions out for ourselves.
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