Experimenting with new sounds is something every band does at some point in their career. Few groups however, have tested sonic boundaries with each new album in the way that Noah and the Whale have. Between their three albums, including the recent Last Night on Earth, Noah and the Whale have explored musical styles ranging from friendly folk to easy-going electronica. The London quintuplet have been touring England since February and will continue their tour through Austria, eventually coming stateside where they’ll play tonight and Friday night this week at the Independent. In a phone interview, the band’s bassist Matt “Urby Whale” Owens shared his thoughts on recording, music genres and reinvention as a musician.
For Last Night on Earth, the recording process was longer than usual for a band that normally takes a shorter period of time. “We normally do (records) in three weeks,” said Owens. “This one we did in nine or ten months. The advantage of giving ourselves this much time was that we could demo stuff and then return to it with fresh ears.” Being able to give each song more attention allowed the band to be more creative with the album. Owens said that the band believes a song “never stays still” and that the slower process gives them more time to toy with each song: “We were able to conceive (the songs) in January, and then six to nine months later, capture the evolution.”
However, though each song may have a fixed sound, the band itself is fairly difficult to pin-down in terms of consistency. Their upbeat folk style was the center of their first album with their break-out single “5 Years Time” with its infectious whistling and beach-time guitar progressions. Instead of shifting gears for their second album, the group decided a new route was needed, as The First Days of Spring took a darker, emotional route. The joyful melodies were replaced by more somber, orchestral tracks. Although some say the album was still in the realm of folk, the record showed that the band was not afraid to push boundaries and be confined by genres.
With the release of Last Night on Earth, the band changed their style even more drastically by introducing synths in addition to an upbeat tone. With all these changes, Owens felt a bit irked that people still considered them to be folk music: “I think it is slightly bizarre that people call an album with synths, drum machines and electric guitars ‘nu-folk’ ” said Owens. Although their style is unpredictable, Owens said that regardless of their instruments, the band will “still approach music in the same way and make cohesive albums that work well as a whole whether using synths, drum machines or violins.”
This exploratory approach to music goes along with the band’s constant urge to challenge themselves. They purposefully make each album distinct to keep their listeners expecting the unexpected. Owens said that “after doing (material from earlier records) for some amount of time, you naturally want to go in another direction. We wanted to challenge ourselves with this latest record.” Challenging oneself and going out of your comfort zone is something that Owens sees as unavoidable for most bands: “I think it’s natural to be a musician that wants to keep challenging yourself. Every time you make a record you’re older and still learning about your craft, so (the records) are going to change because you’re a different person and there seems to be a certain inevitability to it.”
Regardless if you love or hate the ever-changing sounds of Noah and the Whale, their drive to always challenge themselves as musicians is a bold move on their part. Rather than sticking to a formula, the band prefers experimenting, with their erratic style being the only constant. Whether their next album is rap, acoustic or heavy metal, Owens promised that the group will always put 120 percent into whatever they do.
“The more you know, you realize the less you know. I think that’s a nice unwritten mantra for the band in many ways,” said Owens. “You constantly want to be challenging and surprising yourself and have the bravery to put yourself in those kind of situations. I want to us to continue with that philosophy in our albums, shows, videos and in everything we do.”