Freelance Whales | July 28, 2010 | The Basement | Columbus, OH
photos by John Danner
When I introduced myself to Freelance Whales lead singer, Judah Dadone, I immediately noticed how much he resembled Mark Ruffalo. Same kind eyes, and soft voice. Doris’ personality reminded me of my friend Brit Boras, her contagious laugh just bursts out and gets everyone else rolling. Jacob, Chris and Kyle reminded me of my older brothers, strong, creative, and very intelligent.
Finding a place to conduct an interview can be an ominous chore. Ideally, you need someplace quiet so the audio can be understood for transcription, and private, so people don’t interrupt. The quietest place these Freelance Whales and I could find was on an patio above the venue, with music blaring from the upstairs bar, and from the Gaslight Anthem show next door. The 5 band members and I arranged ourselves around a table for optimal audio quality. I set my iPhone in the center…
KP: I really hope this picks up everything.
Jacob: We’ll lean into it.
Judah: We can all talk unnaturally loud and monotone.
KP: Gaslight Anthem is next door, and they only sold 900 tickets apparently.
Kevin: I’m surprised.
Judah: What’s the capacity there?
KP: It’s a lot, like 2,000.
Judah: I thought Gaslight Anthem was really big right now.
KP: They sold 1600 tickets when they were at the Newport last time they were in town which was about six months ago. But only 900 here tonight.
Jacob: They’re kind of Springsteen-ian.
Kevin: They talk a lot too.
Jacob: Chris brought em on stage at some festival.
Chuck: I heard that he played with them.
Jacob: Yeah he played with Bruce. I think Bruce came on during a Gaslight Anthem set.
Jacob: Like a festival, yeah.
Judah: Yeah I think he saw them backstage and was like, “Hey man, I like your band. Can I play with you tonight?” And they were like “ch-yeah!”
KP: Did you see when Lenny Kravitz heard a high school marching band playing his song and he came out and he was like, jamming with the high school marching band. They didn’t realize who he was.
Judah: Did he just whip out an electric guitar and an amp?
KP: Well, no, there was kids in a high school band playing electric guitars and drums and he would take over the drumset for a couple bars, then he’d get on the guitar for a couple bars. The kids didn’t even realize who he was.
Chuck: The question is, why is Lenny hanging around high schools?
KP: That’s true. I think it was in a park or something, and he just happened to be walking by. So all of you are based in New York City, right?
KP: There’s only one person who was born and raised in New York City out of the band?
Doris: That is I.
KP: Yeah? So how did all of you guys meet?
Judah: The band got together in like 2008. Everyone had their own little musical projects and stuff like that. It seems like everyone in the band was actively looking to be in bands and using different online utilities like craigslist and myspace and stuff like that. A few of us started getting together and there were like three of us for a few months. We were rehearsing in a little practice studio in Queens and then a few months later we formed a group of five members and decided to stay there.
KP: So how did you guys start out? I understand that you guys used to play on the street.
Doris: We started off in a rehearsal room. I’m trying to shout. I’m like, “WE STARTED OFF IN A REHEARSAL ROOM!” And then we’d just practice acoustically in this farm colony on Staten Island. You guys can take it from there. [laughs]
Kevin: Well originally it was mostly electronic instruments, like the whole design of it was electronic. Except for obviously like, banjo, acoustic guitar. But they were still running through pickups. And still running through the PA. We ended up trying to come up with a better way to play without having to use electricity. So we broke a lot of the songs down and started playing acoustic, and we really enjoyed it. And as way to promote the band without having to hand out fliers, which is really kind of…it doesn’t work, in New York City especially. You get a lot of sarcasm and people just blow you off. We thought the best way to do it would be to bring it to them so they would realize that the music is actually good. And from that we thought it was a good idea, so we started playing in the subway.
KP: You’re actually the first band I’ve ever interviewed that’s actually done promotion on the streets, and really pushed themselves, outside of just playing shows in venues. Can you describe your journey from that point when you guys were playing on the streets to touring with Tokyo Police Club?
Chuck: Pretty much for the first full year that the band was together, we started doing shows in January of 2009, like proper stage gigs, just really small little bars. Our friends were being sweet enough to come out and support us but we decided that we wanted to reach new people and to not have to beg our friends to come out to shows. We decided that when it got warm again we were gonna go outside and we were gonna do it in the subways and in the streets and stuff. We started doing it before every club show that we had two or three times for like five or six hours. We noticed that lots of people were coming to the shows because of it, but we were also meeting lots of people that wanted to help in different capacities, meeting people that worked A&R at different labels and people that wanna take photographs and people that do music videos. It was this really strange, unexpected way of opening up lots of doors. Not all of those things necessarily came to any kind of fruition, but there was this growing community in a way, like a collective consciousness in New York that’s really hard to get even when you’re playing lots and lots of shows. We started doing that and then I think some A&R people started coming out to shows, and then by the time that we played the CMJ music festival in October of 2009 there were labels that were trying to put us out on tours and trying to give us deals and stuff like that. Shortly after we did our first tour with this English band called Fanfarlo in November and we’ve been touring since then.
KP: You guys met Adriana right? She’s dating Amos.
Doris: Yeah, that’s right.
KP: I can see that show being a really good blend for you.
Doris: It was a really great experience. We learn things from bands on every tour, and just being around them, they’re a really good band to look up to cause they’re so technical and they’re dynamic is always changing.
Judah: They’re really tight, and they sing beautifully together. Since then we’ve done four tours so they were our first one. We try to look at the bands we’re out with and try to see what they’re doing right, how and why. We did UK in January…? January 12th, 15th, something like that. Mid-January. Yeah we played with Fanfarlo at the University of London. It was a lot of fun.
KP: What would you say is the biggest difference between American audiences and European ones?
Doris: The accent.
Judah: That’s the main thing.
Jacob: I don’t think we know enough yet to be able to judge.
Chuck: We’ve only done like two or three shows so it’s pretty hard to tell.
KP: Next time you’re in London you guys should try this drink called “Snakebite black,” have you done that?
KP: It’s like half lager, half some kind of cider, and a shot of black currant cordial. Apparently it’s illegal in some parts of London but it’s legal in other parts of London. It makes guys pretty violent.
Kevin: That sounds amazing.
KP: It’s pretty tasty.
Kevin: Make people violent. They would probably get violent just from drinking heavy alcohol. They were probably upset to begin with, if you’re angry you’re just gonna get angrier.
Doris: I could take ‘em on.
KP: I don’t know what it was, there was one part where this drink was legal and everybody was getting them. Anyways, you guys play a lot of different instruments. Name off some of the craziest instruments you’ve ever used.
Doris: Glockenspiel is one.
Jacob: Yeah. That one’s pretty crazy. I think the waterphone is a little more out there just cause it doesn’t really have as much a tonal quality as an ambient, kind of eery quality to it.
Chuck: It looks strange.
Jacob: It just looks crazy. It’s definitely the biggest attention getter. I remember we used to bring it with us on the subways and stuff. People would always come up and ask us about the waterphone. Or just, ya know, “What is that?”
Chuck: It’s like having a cute dog. Girls’ll talk to you. Just walk around with a waterphone.
Jacob: You’ll get musicians to talk to you.
Kevin: It’s funny though, musicians will always be the ones that ask, “What is that thing? That looks amazing.”
Doris: We have a Frankenstein-ish organ called a harmonium. I play that for the electric set. Kevin plays it and Judah plays it for the acoustic set. But we all get on it from time to time. It’s just like an organ that you pump air into. It’s kind of like an accordion except it sits. And it’s actually not that strange.
Jacob: I think most of the instruments aren’t that strange. I guess some people think that the combination is strange. I think the only one that’s really weird is the waterphone, and it’s cause it looks like a medieval torture device or a sex toy or something like that.
Doris: I don’t know how you would use it in the bedroom.
Jacob: I was trying to figure it out myself.
KP: Has there ever been an instrument where you’ve tried to use an instrument that’s not worked at all?
Doris: The recorder.
Judah: Oh yeah, we tried that today.
Jacob: We had a melodica.
KP: Craziest thing, I saw a guy in a taxicab playing the recorder a few days ago.
Doris: Was he good?
Judah: Could you hear him?
KP: Yeah, it sounded like something out of Lord of the Rings, but he was just sitting in his taxi.
Chuck: So he was good at the recorder?
KP: It was really weird, I was just walking outside of work and he was jamming on his recorder.
Judah: My mom’s learning to play the penny whistle. I just wanted to throw that in there.
KP: You should get a pan pipe too, that would bring it all around.
Kevin: Yeah we should start a Peruvian pan flute band. Indie rock, to Indie’s rock.
Judah: It’s great cause in the New York subways you get a lot of world music and stuff like that, and so you’ll see pan flute players and stuff like that. It would be fun to just like, as a joke, get really good at the pan flutes and go down in the subway.
Doris: Oh my gosh!!!
Kevin: That would be amazing.
Judah: Okay we’re gonna do that.
Kevin: That’s happening.
KP: Describe your creative process, like before you write songs, how do they come about?
Doris: Judah wrote all the songs on the album, Weathervanes. But we’re currently working on some other material that Chuck wrote, I wrote a song, and we’re just jamming it out in the studio. The same way we jammed out all the songs on Weathervanes.
KP: So it’s becoming more of a collective?
Judah: It’s becoming more of a collective thing. It’s also becoming more of like, writing as you’re playing, like performing. Our first record has a lot to do with writing in a more home studio-y sort of scenario where you’re just putting thoughts down, recording them really quickly, and looping them. I think that served us really well in some ways. But I think something that now we want to be part of the creative process is actually playing as a form of writing.
Doris: We practiced for like six hours twice a week on the songs, making them bigger than how they sound on the album. Not necessarily bigger but it’s like a totally different vibe, different structures, like they’re extended. That’s sort of like how we write as a band. I can see, this is not in stone, but I can see the next album being more like our live setup.
KP: So when you play live are you trying to imitate what you have on the album or are you trying to do a different type of thing?
Doris: Probably extend it.
KP: The translation from the album to live stage.
Kevin: The way I look at it, you take any kind of piece of music or idea on the album and you play it and you go, well, you know what would sound good here, tweak it. Everybody starts tweaking things, and eventually it becomes a little bit different. Either it becomes a little bit more aggressive or it becomes jammier in certain parts. I think through playing the same songs over and over again the desire to want to try something new becomes stronger and stronger, and then eventually you just do it.
Jacob: Or just the instinct to do something like, I think you’ve been really really creative about this, just indulging whatever kind of impulse you have at any moment. And then just trying to keep track of like what works for you and what works for everyone. Having songs is like having pets, they’re always growing and you need to give them haircuts sometimes, and you have to take out the kitty litter. They’re these beasts and sometimes it’s like a burden. You have to maintain them and they’re always changing. It’s a both active and passive process.
Doris: Sometimes they bark at you and sometimes they lick you.
Kevin: What I really like about the on the spot changing things you’ll hear something, I do it with Jake a lot cause Jake’ll do something new, and I’ll just look at him like, I didn’t hear that before. The other night Chuck started doing something different with part of Kilojoules and I just remember after the showing being like, “Dude, that was awesome.” It’s exciting cause you’re still talking about it.
Doris: I actually woke him up in the middle of the night and I was like, “Chuck are you up?” He’s like, “Kinda.” We’re in the hotel room and I’m like, “Remember what you did with Kilojoules? That was awesome.” [laughs] “Alright sorry to wake you.”
Chuck: “Thanks Doris, I’m gonna go back to sleep now.”
KP: So I absolutely hate asking this question because I think it’s so lame, but so many people, when I told them I was interviewing you guys were like, “Freelance Whales?! Where did there name come from?” They really wanna know that.
Kevin: Let’s turn the record 180 degrees.
Judah: The name Freelance Whales is a sound collage, I guess, that is not meant to be thought of literally in any way. Hopefully it doesn’t conjure images of whales lining up for job interviews or something like that. The quick story is that when I was a kid I spent a lot of time in Israel and I had a near drowning experience in the Sea of Galilee trying to pull a big stone up from the bottom of the lake, and someone had pulled me to the side of the shore and there was an old man who called me a freedom whale or like a liberty whale. It’s not actually something that was in the forefront of my mind that much when the band was getting together. But we were thinking about whales, I mean, whales are really interesting creatures for a whole variety of different reasons. They’re really musical. One of the things I love about them is that they’re the biggest mammals on the earth, but they’re also like, needles in the haystack of the ocean so you’re lucky to see one in your whole life. So they’re simultaneously really really big and really small, and that’s how the music felt to me. It feels like a big sound that could be happening inside a little music box, or something like that. That’s why whales came into the equation. And then freelance was a good word to play with as people living in New York. It implies autonomy and self-reliance and freewheeling mentality.
KP: That’s cool, that’s the best story I’ve ever heard behind anybody’s band name before.
Judah: Well thank you.
Doris: Yeah, Judah.
KP: What do you attribute the attention you’ve been getting on blogs and music websites to, it seems like it’s been really positive but then there’s been this other side that’s been like, “Oh they’re relying on the formula that everybody’s had like two or three years ago.” It seems like it’s going really well for you guys, but there’s positives and negatives.
Doris: I try not to read anything online about us, and I take it as it comes. I know when I’m disappointed or I know when I’m super overzealous about the sound that we just projected. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. [laughs] But I try not to read that stuff.
Judah: Remember the dream you had the other night about the snake that bit you and you got stronger?
Doris: Oh yeah, I had a dream that a snake bit me and it didn’t kill me. Although, it was killing other people, it only made me stronger, and I was holding it up.
KP: That’s awesome.
Judah: You got this adrenaline rush.
Doris: Yeah it was like an adrenaline rush and I saved the people in the building cause I took the snake out of the water.
Judah: I thought the snake symbolized Pitchfork.
Judah: But I mean the whole thing is like, the fact that anyone is listening to it is meaningful and significant. It’s really important for us to remember that everyday. The fact of the matter is that, we had a certain grace period where we were making music and people were only going to write about it if they liked it cause it wasn’t really out and about enough for people to write about it if they didn’t like it. So the fact that people are writing about it that don’t like it, it’s sort of like, it’s at a level now where it means we have people behind us and we’re really lucky to have those people. We try to focus on that and we try to punch as many faulty holes in the logic of all those other institutions as possible.
Kevin: There is the rare negative review that has something constructive to say and in that case it’s really good to get sort of, maybe it’s not objective, but an outsiders perspective on what you could improve next time. Or if it’s a criticism of the live show, like something that could go differently. I don’t actually have a specific example of a time that actually happened but I guess that’s the theoretical way a negative review could be constructive.
KP: Pitchfork seems so political. Ya know, you start blogging about somebody and then they put out their album and they’re gonna give ‘em a good review. This whole thing about Pitchfork I don’t believe. There’s good and bad about either but…
Judah: I was totally cool with them not giving us a good review. It just wasn’t very musical. They chose to focus on things that didn’t have very much to do with music. To me it just felt very shallow.
KP: Yeah, definitely. That’s what I noticed when I read it. Last question, I actually heard a girl talk to you about this, your voice has been compared to the guy from Format.
Judah: From The Format?
KP: Yeah, a lot. Was that girl saying that she heard about you through The Format?
Judah: Oh yeah, this girl Lisa.
Kevin: I just met her too.
Judah: Oh you met her too?
Kevin: I just met her downstairs when she told me she talked to you about that.
Judah: Yeah she’s from Cleveland apparently, and she had her birthday party on the night of our show there. She invited us back to this rec center where she was having this big dance party. We couldn’t go but it sounded like a lot of fun. But yeah, she compared us to The Format.
KP: So when people compare your voice to The Format, how do you feel about that? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Judah: Well I didn’t know about them, and I checked them out. I can see that. I think vocal textures, I think we all know people that talk in a similar way. But yeah, I don’t think too much about it. It’s just one of those things where I think for some people, if it’s a way for some person to get into another band, or like to build a bridge from one band to another, then it’s a positive thing. I think what I heard of that band they’re really really cool, but I think I was finding more differences than I was similarities, which is good. Maybe for her that was a way to build a bridge from this other group that she knew, to us.
Doris: Does he speak like you too?
Judah: I’ve never heard him speak, I don’t know.
KP: I think it’s just the intonation when he sings. Today when I was doing research for the interview, listening to The Format and listening to you, I could see a little bit, but you have a much more distinct tone to your voice than he does. And they haven’t done anything in years.
Judah: Do you have a record of theirs that you particularly recommend?
KP: I haven’t really listened to them since my sophomore year of college and that was like five years ago.
Doris: Well I bet they’re awesome. [laughs]
KP: They’re not bad. I was in a really crazy relationship with a guy, and I was like, I relate to your songs.
KP: So, what are the next steps for you guys?
Judah: There’s a lot more touring. We’re gonna finish this one and then we’re gonna go do the UK thing then we’ll come back and we’ll have a month and a half. I think during that time period we’re gonna rehearsing a lot together and maybe trying to get one really polished song together in a recording studio and then we’ll probably be touring more throughout the late fall and winter.
KP: Cool, you gotta come back to Columbus.
Doris: Well, we’re doing our first full US tour, I don’t know about full, that’s a strong word, but we’re headlining around the United States for the first time in a circle. We’re excited about that.
Freelance Whales are to embark on a US tour with Foals starting in April. Tour dates can be viewed here.
Thanks to Autumn intern, Jane Bruce, for transcribing this interview for me!