I met Charlie Fink at our first year at the University of Manchester, at our prison-like first year student accommodation, where the fire alarm went off at least once a night and the lift was prone to drop in freefall. By some miracle, in amongst the pounding Pendulum from the raver that lived next door and the party fiends that lived all around us, Charlie’s room was two doors down from mine. I introduced him to the music I loved, anti-folk and Devendra the like, and we bonded over a mutual adoration of Bob Dylan. Along with another friend we were lucky enough to have on the same floor, we started a band together. Charlie had been playing solo for a while by then, notably at these strange monthly gigs, West London hoe-down nights where everyone would dress like cowboys and play foot-stomping country-folk. I remember going to one and feeling terrified.
He left uni after his first term, his interest in his subject not enough to keep him on the depressing freshers merry-go-round. His almost obsessive music-making was a constant even then, his insomnia allowing him to stay up all night writing new songs and hooks for our band. Just after Charlie moved to London – when he changed the name of his group from Johnny Hatracket to Noah and the Whale – we went to see Emmy the Great play with Diane Cluck, Emmy announcing that Johnny Flynn was leaving her band and that she was looking for a new multi-instrumentalist. Soon after Charlie joined her band; soon after that Emmy left, to be replaced by the then relatively unknown Laura Marling, with whom Charlie had just toured with. He went on to produce her EP, My Manic and I, and then her full-length record, Alas I Cannot Swim.
When I met him, Charlie was nervous and paranoid, directionless. I can still remember me and my friend going into Charlie’s room in first year and eating his considerable supply of hummus, much to his chagrin, as he sat in his pyjamas, restive and inactive.
As I write, the song ‘Five Years Time’, about to be re-released by Young and Lost (supported by Universal), lies at 25 in the official UK charts. It hasn’t even been physically released yet (get it in stores on August 4). It also features on a nationwide US ad campaign. Noah and the Whale’s first record, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, is released on August 11 on Young and Lost / Universal.
Are you happy with the album?
Charlie: I am happy with it. A lot of bands work in different ways, you get some bands who originate from the studio and then find it tough moving to live shows, but we were always a band who played live even before there was an incentive to record. Although all the arrangements were set on the songs and everything had been played hundreds of times, it’s that process of transferring it from being a live song to a recorded song. I think that’s a very different discipline – playing live and recording something. On top of that we wanted to have a unifying sound throughout the album as well. It was important for us to, you know, make that transfer and have a unit out of it. I think that worked. It’s amazing how you see bands struggle from having a really tight, interesting live set, and then moving into the studio and just not being able to make it work – so that was satisfying.
The Silver Jews, for example, who’ve been recording for over a decade, only started playing live very recently. For you, what’s the importance of touring?
I don’t think it was ever necessarily a conscious decision of ours to be a touring band. I think as much as anything it was a thing we wanted to do, to go and play shows, as much and as many as we could. There was never any sort of tactic to it – like, “we tour for this long, and do it like this” – it just felt natural. I’m always surprised at bands that don’t do it like that, as I think that’s the best way to do it. Part of it, I guess, is familiarising yourself with the songs, and you do learn a lot about the songs from playing them live.
I often think as well that writing songs is such an abstract thing; Dylan once said that – after he’d had his prolific period in the ‘60s and had his down-patch in the ‘70s – he was trying to do something consciously that he’d previously been able to do subconsciously. I definitely think there’s a lot of the subconscious involved in songwriting, and I think often you understand songs more the more you play them. The more you play it the more it becomes apparent to you why you wrote it. Obviously when you write it there’s something in mind, but it is abstract. Touring just felt like the obvious and natural thing to do - when we started it seemed completely absurd that we’d get into the position we’re in now.
Sometimes it’s difficult for a new band to come out with a debut album when it’s a collection of songs that weren’t necessarily written together. How difficult was it to make the record sound coherent?
I think that at the outset the songs weren’t written with an album in mind – because we never thought we’d be in a position where we’d be able to do that. Bur you don’t have to force it – all those songs were written over not so long a period, over maybe a year, and I felt that there was enough to say about what I was singing about that that quantity of songs just spilled out. And once the possibility of an album arose the later songs were written purposefully to bind it all together. I think the album has a theme and a vocabulary, but that wasn’t necessarily drawn out just for album, they were just the themes that I was writing about, with words that have a broader meaning. When the themes of the album are Love, Death and Time, those are probably the three broadest themes you can write about, so you’ve obviously got a huge space to run with it.
Is the next record going to be similar, or do you want it do be more personal, more cohesive, to paint with less-broad strokes?
Well I would definitely like to do a ‘part two’ to this album at some point; I do feel that there’re no conclusions at all on the album – there’s a lot of questioning and internal debate. The next album is in the process of being written now as being one piece, and I’d almost like to see it as something that could run as one continuous track. We have this dream plan – to make a film that runs parallel to it, that’s not a literal translation of the album but thematically representative of what it is. The themes on the new album are a lot more personal – it feels like I’m writing something completely different. Once the first album’s finished and you have that blank canvas it’s intimidating; once you have some success with something it’s scary to move away from that. But at the same time it felt unnatural to try and continue with that.
It’s that abstract thing about songwriting – potentially I could never write a song again! I did a show once with Marissa Nadler who works as well as being a musician, does office work part time. She said that when she can’t write she goes and works, and then suddenly she’ll get a month where she’ll be inspired and write an album. I’ve always felt I’d like to have the bravery to do that as well. I always try and work out whether personal happiness or your art is more important – I’d like to think that if at one point I get to a situation where I’m content enough and happy enough, that if I couldn’t write songs it would be okay.
Has Noah’s sound been at all influenced by the people you’ve worked and collaborated with – people like Emmy and Laura? I can hear a lot of that West London ‘hoe-down’ sound in your live shows too – why do you think that sound was particular to West London at that moment?
Well I think you’d probably agree that the live sound and the album sound are quite different, and I definitely think that the album sound is the sound I see as being our sound. We’re getting into the position where we can afford to bring in a few more people and try and play around more with the live sound. A lot of the live sound is produced, not in a bad way, through limitations – the number of people you have in the band and stuff like that. I think that’s the same for a lot of bands. Whereas being in the studio you’re completely liberated from that. You’ve got endless options for instrumentations and there’s no pressure.
I was probably more heavily influenced by the time I spent in Manchester, before I moved to London. Obviously you introduced me to a lot of new stuff, hearing a lot of the anti-folk stuff, Daniel Johnston and Bonnie Prince Billy – that was really eye-opening stuff to hear. Once I’d discovered all those bands, in London I found the people who’d also been influenced by that and were taking from that their own thing, like Emmy and like Laura. When I met Emmy I think neither of our sounds changed that much from meeting each other – she’d already established her sound by the time I’d met her.
I guess with Laura it was a very different thing – when I met her, her music was completely different to what she does now. But at the same time I could tell that she was trying to discover the sound that she’s now got to. I personally think that what she does now is phenomenal; this whole year for her has been one of progression and discovery. I definitely feel that I’ve had some influence on that, and it’s been a really rewarding process to see. Not that I claim a big part of it, just that I feel I am part of that progression; making her album with her is something I’m really proud of. To be honest, I brought a lot of stuff with me from Manchester to London. I don’t want it to sound like a big deal or anything, but I think that ‘scene’ in London is very different to how it was a while ago.
Video: Laura Marling, 'Ghosts'
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It’s funny for me to see someone I know so well being pushed by a major label, to be in major papers et cetera. How does it feel to you to be in the middle of that?
I think people don’t realise how long a process it’s been. We’re in a position now that we’ve never necessarily sought to be in – it was never the initial incentive. A year ago we recorded four tracks in a friends studio, one of which was ‘Five Years Time’, and took the EP to the Young and Lost girls, who we knew did limited releases. But they took ‘Five Years Time’ and told us it’d be a good single. At that time, the very fact that someone wanted to release something we were doing – even if it was only 500 copies – seemed like the biggest success anyone’s ever had! It was absurd to me at that point to have that level of success. To be in this position… I can’t even comprehend it.
But we’ve never pushed for it, we’ve never been a ‘buzz’ band. We were in a position where we had nothing to lose making the record as there wasn’t much expected from us. We were just excited to be making a record. But we never recorded something specifically to be in a strong position, it just so happened that people liked it, and it was then that we were ‘pushed’ more. But at the same time you can push something as much as you want and nothing can happen.
Obviously it’s flattering on one level – that other people like something you’ve put so much heart into. It’s the fact that people I really respect like it; the fact that even Laura loves the album feels like a big success. Or that people like Adam Green or Broken Social Scene like the band. And then on top of that to have this weird impending potential commercial success, which was completely unintentional – all the bands I love sell no records and aren’t on the radio. So it seems absurd to be in that position. I guess confusion is the main emotion I feel!
Video: Noah and the Whale, 'Five Years Time'
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27 Cambridge Secret Garden Party
3 Cambridge Folk Festival
4 London Banquet Records in-store
5 London Rough Trade East in-store
8 Leicester Summer Sundae, DrownedinSound stage*
9 London Field Day festival
12 London Oxford Street Zavvi in-store
15 Edinburgh Cabaret Voltaire
16 Stafford V Festival
17 Chelmsford V Festival
13 Dorset End of the Road festival
* with Youthmovies, Howling Bells, The Mae Shi and Fuck Buttons, info