Local San Fran band Or, the Whale chats

Posted by Miss Ess, June 11, 2008 11:57am | Post a Comment
San Francisco's own Or, the Whale is on the rise. Their album LIght Poles and Pines contains a country-tinged bunch of slow burners and their live shows are jam packed with energy and fantastic musicianship. Here, the band collectively answer the first half of the questions, and then sometime-banjo wielder Alex answers my nitty gritty questions toward the end of the interview.  The band explains how the group came to be, their current obsessions and what is in store for the future of Or, the Whale.

Miss Ess: How did Or, the Whale form?

Or, the Whale:
We formed from the renewed friendship of Alex Robins (guitar) and Matt Sartain (guitar), who had gone to high school together in San Diego and both coincidentally moved to San Francisco in the fall of 2005. Subsequently, Alex put an ad on Craigslist about forming a "Sweet Country Rock Band." Jesse Hunt (drums) and Tessa Wagner (former lap steel player) both replied to the ad; in the meantime, Alex responded to a separate ad posted by Lindsay Garfield (vocals) about finding a guitar player to collaborate with. Matt went to school with Justin Fantl (bass); Lindsay worked with Julie Thomasson (keys). Our first show with this original line-up was January 2006 with Two Gallants at Making Impressions Fine Printing Salon in SOMA. Tessa left the band in November 2007; Alex then answered the Craigslist ad of Tim Marcus (pedal steel) who then replaced Tessa and solidified the current line-up.

Miss Ess: How did you guys develop your sound?

Or, the Whale:
We'd like to think that our sound continues to develop with every song we write. We are confident that our coming album will sound very different from our previous album, Light Poles and Pines. Initially, our love of The Band, The Rolling Stones, and other contemporary Americana bands pushed our song-writing. However, recent songs show influences of indie rock, power pop, folk, and soul. Ultimately, we'd like our sound to keep moving in different directions.

ME: Why do you think there is so much interest in the Bay Area at the moment in young country/bluegrass tinged bands like you, Devil Makes Three, Trainwreck Riders, etc.?

The Bay Area has always had different movements going on (psychedelic music in the late-60s, punk in the late-70s/early-80s, freak-folk in the last few years, currently dance punk and experimental pop), some that reflect the country's music movements and some that are anomalies. There is an interest in this formerly rural music being played in urban places. However, the genre has existed for many years and will most likely continue. Although we set out to be a "sweet country rock band," the truth is that we've always been open-minded about the songs we write and the sound that our music would eventually make. That being said, listening to The Devil Makes Three, Trainwreck Riders, us, and other "Bay Area alt-country" bands, the differences are obvious. Music fans are fickle but also looking for bands to champion and support. Hopefully we will all be so lucky.

What show that you've played stands out the most in your mind and why?

Our show at the Great American Music Hall [in San Francisco] after a month-long tour was pretty vindicating. A year before, we had all gone to a show together there. We swore that one day we would play in that room. To play there a year later was just so special. We'll tell our grandkids about that show.

What's next for you guys?  Shows/tours coming up?

We're starting to record our next full length album this summer and fall and also heading out on a West Coast tour, culminating in another show at the Great American Music Hall with The Federalists and Emily Jane White on August 15th.

Was there someone in your life early-on that supported your love of and interest in music?

All of us have had support from our families early on. Whether playing music at young ages, having music majors/minors in college, or having music playing/loving parents, we have all been given an opportunity to continue our creative lives within this band. With a democratic outlook, we are all invited to help shape and mold our songs into what they eventually become.

How do the songs form in your band?

Usually someone will bring in the basic structure/chords/lyrics of a song. Sometimes there's a melody and some words, sometimes there are just some chords. Ultimately, the songs are worked out in practice until the band is confident performing them live at the next show. Each person takes the structure and is pretty free to work out their own musical parts.

So what is your favorite album right now, if you had to pick quick-style?

The new Bonnie "Prince" Billy record [Lie Down in the Light] is great. Love the Rhodes/clarinet dual solo on "For Every Field There's a Mole."

I'm loving that record too! What have you been listening to lately?

A lot of smooth stuff. Genesis, Michael McDonald, The Doobies. Oh, and Midlake.

What artists/songs can instantly bring you back to your childhood?

"Sister Golden Hair" by America. Hall and Oates. Nothing awesome. If you wanna go way back, Raffi. The "Mandolin Rain" record by Bruce Hornsby. My mom wore that tape out in her minivan.

Oh yeah, my mom was way into Hall and Oates and Bruce Hornsby too. Have you always been interested in down home style music and if so, which artists have made the biggest impact on you?

The Band, Neil Young, and Gram Parsons have been our favorites since we started the band. Matt and I saw the Townes Van Zandt movie (Be Here to Love Me) together in the theater, smuggled in some whiskey, and just cried and cried. Julie and Lindsay were in a country cover band called The Country that played covers of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn. I actually really used to hate the song "Amy" by Pure Prairie League. It was my dad's song for my mom (named Amy) and I didn't like the country-ness of it. Now I kinda love it. I still hate the Eagles, though.

What is your favorite local band besides yourselves?

We probably listen to Bless You by The Court and Spark the most as a band. Just an incredible record. Lindsay always asks (without fail) who the woman singing on the record is (it's Wendy Allen). As for current local bands, we love Low Red Land, Emily Jane White, Dame Satan...the list goes on and on. Music in the Bay Area is unbelievable right now.

The Court and Spark were such SF staples for so long. It still feels weird that frontman M.C. Taylor no longer lives here. What's the best live show you have ever seen?

One of the best was definitely The Arcade Fire at the Magic Stick in Detroit. It was right after Funeral came out and they were still asking people if they could sleep on their floor. It was my "Nirvana before they broke" show. And it felt like that as I was leaving the venue! Just incredible, desperate, wonderful music. I didn't even like the record much before that.

I love it when that happens. It's so rare! What musician would you trade careers with if you could (living or dead)?

Will Oldham seems to have the life. I got to meet him with my fiance in April up at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County. Just a really humble, creative guy that seems to have just the right amount of success, respect, and public anonymity. Not to mention crush-worthy facial hair.

Hah! Which is your favorite Beatle and why?

. When Sinatra gives you props for writing the greatest love song ever, you've made it!

Didn't Sinatra say "Something" was his favorite Lennon/McCartney song? They had to set him straight about who really wrote it! Just goes to show what a true dark horse Harrison was. What's an album you love that you think more people should be aware of?

The new Last of the Blacksmiths record [Young Family Song] is so great! And Gord's Gold, the Gordon Lightfoot greatest hits record on vinyl. If everyone had a copy of this record, there would be world peace and no global warming. Too bad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" isn't on it.

I absolutely adore Last of the Blacksmiths.  Good call on that one. What song is your theme song right now? (You know, the song that appears in your head in your quieter moments.)

"Twilight" by The Band. I have a demo from the box set that's just Richard Manuel playing piano and singing. It makes me really, really sad. In a good way.

Richard Manuel is another dark horse. What is your favorite music related movie?

The Last Waltz! How great are the Staples Singers!? How coked up is Neil Diamond!?

Yes, the Staples Singers' "The Weight" is my favorite part of a movie full of favorite parts!  There's a guy who works here at Amoeba SF who was at that show and all he remembers about the entire night is the Thanksgiving turkey they served before the set. Now that is a mid-70s experience!  Anyway, thanks so much for your time!

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