Noah and the Whale: 'Failure is a badge of honour, because it means you risked failure'

Their folksy debut had a teenage Laura Marling on backing vocals; now they're building lush synth soundscapes around their steps into maturity. As they prepare for the release of their fourth album, Noah and the Whale tell Chris Mugan how far they've come

Chris Mugan
Thursday 25 April 2013 17:07

At what age do we progress from youth to adulthood? For Noah and the Whale's 26-year-old fresh-faced singer and lyricist Charlie Fink, that time is fast approaching. “A close friend got engaged recently, which was interesting because we'd spent 18 months on the road so I didn't really know about his fiancée,” he explains. “Also it's a landmark moment for you and your friends when the first person gets married. It made me consider what era of my life I'm in.” Indeed, so startling was this flash of insight, it provides much of the inspiration for his band's fourth album.

Much of Heart of Nowhere is about youth, maturity and the choices we make as we pass from one state to the other. These are themes especially apt for a group that have developed spectacularly since they emerged in the late Noughties from the same west London nu-folk scene that spawned Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling. The Whale (their name was inspired by their collective favourite film The Squid and the Whale, and its director Noah Baumbach) first came together as long-term friends in leafy Twickenham, where Fink had absorbed old-school sounds provided by his mum, a nurse and part-time folkie (older brother Doug eventually gave up being the Whale's original drummer to qualify as a doctor). Owens played in a group with the elder Fink before Charlie recruited them to his cause.

Marling sang backing vocals for the Whale until her own solo career took flight, partly with a debut album produced by Fink. The pair were also in a relationship, the break-up of which helped shape the group's path further down the line, after which she dated Marcus Mumford. Though rather than hone their own banjo-rock sound, the Whale have taken a more diverse path. But first the group quickly found success with their folky debut, 2008's Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, which went gold and spawned hit single “5 Years Time”. Then came the aching The First Days of Spring, which with implacable focus chronicled Fink's break-up with Marling, its wallowing quality softened by sumptuous arrangements. The Whale decamped to Los Angeles to work on their third album, the gleamingly positive Last Night on Earth that came out in 2011 and marked a shift in sound as well as tone.

The band had reshaped themselves as a pop group based around synths and electric guitar, something they continue on Heart of Nowhere, which manages to sound more organic than its predecessor, recorded by a group of musicians that, bar a new drummer, have grown together.

Sat in a north London pub garden amid Islington's gentrified mews and squares, we can all feel especially mature. Fink and bassist Matt “Urby Whale” Owens both opt for veggie risotto, choosing healthily as the tour treadmill looms once more. They explain it was not just Fink taking stock on this record as his cohorts were given the chance to consider the journey they had taken over the past seven or so years.

Rather than come to the band with finished songs, as had been usual, their writer chose to shape rough ideas with Owens, violin player Tom Hobden, guitarist Fred Abbott and drummer Michael Petulla, recruited after the recording of Last Night on Earth. They bravely chose to record its follow-up live, a decision that has helped cement their idea of what they stand for.

“This time I'd bring an idea to the band and then we'd evolve it together,” Fink explains. “Because we'd made three very different records, we were trying to investigate the strand that combined those three and defines us as a band and make something that consolidates that.”

“Live, we have found a coherence because everything goes through the gamut of your set-up and amps, so there's only so much variation you can have,” Owens adds. “So the material off the first three records had gone through that and we love playing live, so that informed how we made this record.”

“When we started we didn't really know what we were going to do,” Fink admits. “For the first couple of weeks we were searching around, not really finding anything.” Until, that is, the epiphany regarding his mate's engagement opened up an avenue lead him to roll back the years, giving much of Heart of Nowhere a nostalgic feel that is curious for a bunch of musicians still in their twenties.

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“There's some nice memories in [the album],” the lyricist admits, grinning. “Urby was in a band with my brother when I was 11 and they were a couple of years older, called The Nuclear Toads, and it was when I was first getting into music. The first line of ”Silver And Gold“ is 'I was looking for Harvest, but I found Silver and Gold', which is about finding Neil Young records in the library. You don't choose what you find, you find something and you learn to love it.”

“It's that time when you get really obsessive about your music,” Owens says, expanding on the theme. “I've got a lot of mates who aren't as fortunate to be doing what we're doing and they're not as into music as when they were 15 or 16. I remember how exciting it was to get an album for Christmas and, as Charlie was saying, you had to listen to it because you only had three and they were £18. It was about who was listening to what, cool, identity. You get fans who are that age coming to our gigs now, so it's all going full circle.”

Even though we can remain infantilised by consumerism and pop culture, Fink is convinced youth remains a distinct period. “It is something everyone still goes through to some extent, even if there's a period of extended adolescence, I guess because there's not many jobs, or people have debt coming out of university so they have to live at home. What's important in the record is that it's not about making a big statement, it's more about acceptance of being the person you are or are going to be.” Avoiding the Jungian archetypes of achieving adulthood, Fink and the band imbue Heart of Nowhere with a sense of progression, especially with its two striking book-ends. The title track's explosive opening involves a violent confrontation, the drama heightened thanks to a gripping guest vocal from Anna Calvi, who both Fink and Owens were blown away by at festivals, finding out when they met her at Glastonbury two or three years ago they were mutual fans. By contrast, contemplative closing number “Not Too Late” has a hushed, country-rock feel, Fink revealing that he chose an under-rehearsed take to give added immediacy.

“With all our records I hope there's some level of journey from beginning to end – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he continues. “[Heart of Nowhere] starts out with a melodramatic, angst-ridden story, about a kid wanting to break away from his family and be someone new, and it evolves into the last song about acceptance.”

Owens adds, sweetly, that he is looking forward to playing the album on a car journey so his dad can hear it for the first time. “These are the records that you naturally stick with. If it doesn't have that depth you won't play it as much. You won't keep returning to it because it doesn't have enough to give.”

If this sounds dangerously close to a concept album, don't fear. Throughout, Fink and his bandmates prove they have retained the pop nous they evinced on Last Night on Earth. The songwriter, though, has devised a narrative in the form of a half-hour film to be shown during their forthcoming Month of Sundays residency that begins at London's Palace Theatre this weekend. Fink has caught the film-making bug, with one to accompany the band's second album that he now dismisses as a “50-minute music video”. His new project is a much more ambitious affair, with plot, dialogue and a co-writer.

“I find music needs context,” Fink explains. “You hear something in a different environment and you suddenly understand it or something that didn't appeal to you now does. Also, it evolves the ideas and themes of the record.”

Judging from the promo for the track “There Will Come a Time” that serves as a trailer, Fink's short takes the album down a much darker route, creating a dystopian nightmare where adolescents are corralled in a ghetto until they are deemed safe enough to re-enter society. An avowed sci-fi fan, he sees the genre as less about the future than today's concerns. “What I like is when the film tells a human story: ET is about divorce, Let the Right One In is about young love. This film is a coming-of-age story about friendship and memory.”

“That's when sci-fi is at its scariest,” Owens opines. “Like 28 Days Later, something that looks like it could happen tomorrow.” If Danny Boyle's zombie fright-fest is sci-fi, then this is more alternative reality than futuristic, which leads you to wonder about Noah's possible other lives. If they had stuck to the acoustic sound, could they be filling stadia in the manner Mumfords promise to do this summer? It is a question the pair neatly side-step. “We're very fortunate to have done four records that we're immensely proud of,” Owens says. “It's been really rewarding for us to do that and have people go for it.”

“There's a speech Charlie Kaufman gave at the Baftas", Fink adds. ”He said failure is a badge of honour, because it means you risked failure. That's a nice sentiment.“

Noah and the Whale's new album, 'Heart of Nowhere', is out on 6 May. They play Bournemouth O2 Academy tonight, then tour

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