Lucky for me, I had the chance to interview the drummer for Freelance Whales, Jacob Hyman, last Thursday. It was my first ever band interview and phone interview and, like, my 6th interview of all time... so of course I made a few mistakes. The major flub was sitting next to the window in my apartment outside of which the Red Line train passes nearly every five minutes. This made transcribing the interview like interpreting Morse code... underwater. Despite the grueling activity, and to save you the trouble of hearing it yourselves, I completed the task! Oh yeah, and, I promised him I wouldn't post the audio.
And now that I've made a flurry of admissions, I will also confess that, through the process, I found myself rewinding the tape over and over again, asking a lot of questions: "Did he say Judah was listening to 'Darth Vader' when he wrote songs for the first album? or 'Stars'? In this case, I went with the logical choice-- but ears can be deceiving.
So... I'll make you a deal: I'll send this to Jacob when it's posted, and allow myself this ample excuse to make corrections if there's anything I've translated incorrectly. I don't think it's too far off, but I want to be honest here... I'm only part whale.
RFC: Other than being busy, has much changed since you guys started getting a lot of attention?
JH: Well, I’d say, we have been really busy. We used to practice twice a week for about 8 hours, and we haven’t really had a chance to really grind it out and practice in the studio for a while, we’ve been riding it out on the road instead. But things have definitely got more intense at some point, I think. We had 6 weeks off just now between tours and it’s the first time we’ve been home in about 6 months. It was nice to get home and relax and calm down, but it's been difficult to motivate ourselves to really do any hard work.
JH: We are working on a new song write now. I’ve written a few, personally, but I don’t know that they work well with the band—though they could eventually be adapted. We’ve been playing a song for a while that Chuck wrote, called “Rise and Shine,” we’ve been playing it at shows. So we’ve been toying with that one for about 6 months. And there is another one Chuck wrote that we will hopefully be recording some time in the fall.
RFC: So, as far as I’ve read, you guys started out pretty organically, playing outside in subway stations and on street corners. Did you guys ever make money “busking”?
JH: Oh sure. We made a little bit of money. When we first
started out in the studio in Queens, we used the money we made busking to pay for the studio. It wasn’t very much money but if we
went out two or three times, it would easily pay for a month’s rent. Which was
nice, then we didn’t each have to pony up money. We were at a point when none
of us were really working, we were just waiting for things to get moving. But
that wasn’t the original goal—it was so we didn’t have to annoy our friends to
come to shows. It was like, this is a way to get free advertisements to shows.
There was one show we played in Brooklyn, where 15 people came up to us
afterwards and said that they’d seen us playing on the street and they liked
what they heard so they came to the show. And we realized this was an original
marketing idea. And that’s what it was, and then it became sort of a practice
stage for us, where we could really hone our vocals and rearrange the songs for
that performance stage, re-interpret songs that were already written.
RFC: Cool—is that originally one of the reasons you are such a mobile band?
JH: Well, we have two set ups—the set up we play at the club and the acoustic, more organic set up that we use on the street or on the radio most of the time. We have a set up on the stage with synthesizers and a drum kit.
RFC: You mention playing on the street as a marketing tactic; did you have others at the beginning?
JH: We used the Internet a lot. I was tweeting our shows—but then I passed the responsibility on to Chuck (laughs). I think it was a really good way to hold people’s attention in New York, where it’s really hard to hold anyone’s attention. So I think the Internet was a huge resource for us at the beginning, and it’s obviously still a huge resource, but not the only one anymore. And I think, really, the busking and street performing happened really early in our history as a band and that’s really the only thing that could be considered a well-planned marketing effort. That’s how we met the people from our label. That’s how we met our managers, almost everyone that we work with now.
RFC: Was there a specific moment when you felt like it was all working, or that you’d made it somewhere you’d long been trying to get to?
JH: I’d say all of them (SXSW, Lollapalooza, touring the UK), they all add up. When we got offered our first tour—we were like “we’re going on tour with a band, we’ve made it!” And then when that became commonplace, it was like playing the 930 Club, that was actually a life goal of mine, so that was really nice. They are all a good conglomerate of the moments that add up to… something, some feeling of accomplishment or success. It’s hard because they keep coming. It would be nice to consider one of them the “one moment” but they’ve all meant something, so it’s hard to single one out. That’s all fair to say, I don’t know that we’ve made it either—I don’t know ‘made it’ is—we’re still in van, and we cram ourselves into one hotel room, or stay with friends when we can… you know…
JH: Hmm… well, before I joined the band, I really loved the harmonium. It’s beautiful. I’d used it in chanting and meditation I’d done in the past. So if I had to pick something other than the drums, the harmonium would be my favorite instrument in the band.
RFC: Here’s a hard question: What would you say is the music that’s influenced you the most? Like, what are the most influential albums or artists in your life—outside the band?
JH: Growing up, the Beatles had a huge influence on me… definitely. I’ll go for something more original on my second pick. But the Beatles are my largest influence, vocally, you know, all the harmonies I focus on, I learned from the Beatles. More recently, I was a Blues drummer for a long time, and a Jazz and Latin drummer, I think those are my primary genres—so those are my primary genres—so it was quite a twist for me when I joined. John Mayer,’s Blues stuff before I joined the band influenced me pretty heavily, you know, Miles Davis, lots of good old dad stuff. And the most recent, I would say, Fleet Foxes’—like their northern folk style, and their drummer is doing the kind of drumming I want to do. And like, J. Tillman, his solo project is exactly what I would want my solo project to be like, if I had one. And I think the songs they write, the stories they tell, and their five-part harmonies and sort of Renesance modern folk feel is so cool and so admirable. For me, I would like to embody that.
RFC: So the band has been compared to Sufjan Stevens, Ra Ra Riot, and Postal Service. Do you appreciate those comparisons, or do you try to move in the other direction from them?
JH: Well, I don’t think those are inaccurate comparisons. It’s an honor to me to be compared to any of those bands. And we’re all fans of all those bands, certainly. But I think some people will write it off—because of the associations with those bands, or like an anti-Ben Gibbard mentality—but I personally don’t see where those things come from.
RFC: Is there something you’re really striving for that people haven’t really linked your music to in blogs and interviews?
JH: I know that Judah, when he wrote the album, was listening to a lot of Stars, I know he’s a huge fan of Winn Butler of Arcade Fire. It may have been mentioned—and a comparison to Arcade Fire is a ridiculous honor for all of us. They definitely have a huge influence on everything we write. And I think it’s impossible to avoid that, we love them. It’s the same thing with Radiohead—or any of the music you love—you are going to pick your favorite parts—and allude to things other people have done. Some people won’t even notice that you’ve referenced them. If they do notice you’ve referenced them, that’s totally fine, everyone references everything, especially in music—it’s a very referential form of art.
RFC: That’s true. Uh, ok, well I’ll wrap it up with a few questions you probably get a lot: What’s the story with the band name?
JH: Um... the band name comes from an incident that occurred to Judah when he was a young boy, I think he was about seven. He was living in Israel with his father at the time. It’s a long story, it’s kind of dreamy and ethereal, and you know, we doubt the authenticity of it ourselves, but he claims that it’s real, so I believe him. It involves him almost drowning, and he’s pulled out of the water by a lifeguard and there is this crazy old man on the shore and the man says “you’re like a liberated whale” in Hebrew… so later, he thought on this a lot, and changed liberated to freelance.
RFC: Sounds like the man on the flaming pie.
JH: Ha. Yeah. I think it’s an awesome story.
JH: I think we’re just taking it one step at a time. We’re still kind of focused on our first album. We haven’t even headlined on our first album yet, and it came out in April. So, you know, we are going to headline on that some time this year. We’ll stay out on the road a while, hopefully we’ll keep writing some new stuff and there is definitely a goal to put out a second album—but we’ve r never written together before, so that’s new. It’s like getting to know each other all over again. We’ve been a band for two years but we are just beginning to understand each other from a writing perspective. So I think I would say that’s the goal—and beyond that we haven’t really talked about it. I think we are all people who like to take things as they come, and I think we’d like to keep it going for a long time, if we can.
Freelance Whales hit the Metro with Tokyo Police Club on August 20th.