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From subway platforms to the ‘musical stratosphere’ with Freelance Whales

Photos by Marc Fong // Written by Molly Kish //

Showbams spoke with Jake Hyman (drums, percussion, vocals) and Kevin Read (acoustic and electric guitar, glockenspiel, mandolin, synthesizer, vocals) from Freelance Whales on October 18th before their sold-out show at Mezzanine.


Showbams: I know you guys formed in 2008 having met through shared friends and Craigslist. Was there a singular ad you put out or was this something you guys all collectively went into looking for a music gig?

Read: Um, I don’t think that there was one singular ad, I know that I put out an ad on Craigslist, Chuck (bass & synth) put an ad out on Craigslist. Jake actually knew Judah (lead singer), or already had ties with Judah.

Hyman: We had connections through college, we were actually in the same year from George Washington University. So when I went to try out for the band, I was like ‘Oh it’s that guy?’ Really I didn’t know who it was and it was that guy.

Showbams: Like a serendipitous type of case. I know that your name is a derivative of this kind of process and sort of appeals to the independent environment of the city you lived in and you’re early start as musicians. So where does the whale part come in?

Hyman: Well, there’s a few answers to the question. The most interesting answer is that when Judah was a kid he was staying w/his father in Israel on the Sea of Galilee when he was swimming and had a near drowning incident. When he was pulled out of the water, there was an old fisherman that would go and sit by the water all day, & he said he looked like a free whale, like a whale that had been freed. So, that’s where the whale comes from.

Showbams: As a band you guys started to first gain notoriety by playing on Subway platforms and out in public places over in the East Coast. What was the specific choice behind those type of locations?

Hyman: Well, it was a practical choice initially, we were playing in New York where there are like 35 venues on every block and each one has five bands playing every night. The only way you get paid is if you bring 15 friends at least, for most of them. So we were relying on our friends every two weeks to come out for our entire fan base, and we were tired on leaning on them so hard. Also, them feeling guilty and there’s no guest list … so everyone had to pay $15 to come. We decided to see if we could go play on the subway and get people to come.

It started actually, we were on a random street corner and then we moved down to the subways later, as a more accessible approach. It sounded great, it’s funny b/c it’s like one of the least original things in the world. Preforming on the street, you know busking, people have been doing it for thousands of years and it’s funny that it’s become such a story you know, that that’s how we started.

Read: Yeah, well I think you know what’s kind of cool is that we took electronic arrangements and made them acoustic arrangements, so I think maybe we did something kind of original I guess. Haha, yeah, maybe? The sound is really amazing down there, the echoes and re verb are really cool, unlike anywhere else.

Showbams: Also, in 2009 before Weathervanes was officially released on Frenchkiss/Mom & Pop Records, you guys self-released the album. How did you go about the recording and production process of that?

Read: Well, the early Weathervanes stuff was actually recorded and arranged mostly by Judah on the weekends. We’d come up every once in a while and assist with some of the aspects of the recording and lay down parts. We would come up to the rehearsal space, but a lot of the early stuff was really just, Judah. Jake’s on Mohawk for sure because he plays all of the drums.

Hyman: But that was after the fact. Judah even actually arranged most of the drum tracks over the twelve hour day we had in the studio. I had some chance to mess around, but mostly I was more true to what he arranged.

Showbams: How did you guys get it out to the record labels?

Hyman: Uh, that was from the subway as well. Yeah, pretty much everything that happened to us when we were starting out was because of someone we met via playing publicly. Like we would play house parties because someone would come up to us on the street and be like, “Hey, we’ll give you a hundred bucks to come play at our place.” And we were like, “Alright, fine.” It turned out at one of those places we met Paul Hanley, who works at Frenchkiss, and we still work with him to this day. We also met our manager Andrew through those performances.

Showbams: I know the newest album Diluvia came out a few weeks ago and it was featured on NPR Music’s “First Listen”, and in that review, they focus on how playful the album is and that it “had an utter indifference to sounding cool” and that it was “unselfishly charming.” Is that the kind of sound you were going for? How do you feel about that review?

Read: I think it’s pretty good. It’s not something that we thought about. We were in the house in Upstate New York, Tannersville and just trying to write the best songs we could. I guess it’s better than them having said “we try really hard to be cool.”

Hyman: Yeah, I’d definitely rather you know be considered unpretentiously cool, than ya know … I guess the key is to look cool without trying. So, that’s what you got to look forward to for LP3 — “cool without trying.”

Showbams: I know that with Weathervanes it was largely composed by Judah, with the lyrics coming from a combo of dream journals and childhood memories. What was the inspiration for Diluvia?

Hyman: I think we spent so much time together over the past four years, since we’ve found each other. Our pop culture consumption has sort of come from many different places and we’ve all started to overlap. We’ve gotten really interested in science fiction, fantasy and astrophysics. One of the first emails I have from Judah is just a long list of Ted Talks and theory, because we had a long conversation on ‘String Theron.’ So I think a lot of the lyrical content, was formed by the musical content which came first and the music just sounds like it’s in a bigger space, that it’s further out. Like Judah says, that it’s out in the stratosphere of sound and it really is! It sounds like it takes place in that part of the atmosphere where the earth meets “quote” outer space. So the lyrical content reflects that book Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos,’ and things that are scientific or play with science in an emotional way., which are things we wanted to reference a lot.

Showbams: You guys just kicked off the U.S. leg of the tour and broadcasted your performance via YouTube live stream. Does it feels different playing when cameras are on vs. off?

Hyman: You know there’s always so much at a festival, especially there’s so much going on in the lead up to playing because everybody’s on. You have 20 minutes to get all your garbage up there and start playing. There’s just so much happening that you don’t have time to think about anything like that. It’s great, I’m glad that we don’t have time to sit and stress about the exponential number of people watching on YouTube.

Read: It’s actually better when there’s more people because then it becomes hard to individually pick out somebody. The early shows we played where there were like 5 people in the audience, it was really hard. Haha yeah b/c you would be making eye contact and get all insecure. You’d be like, “You’re looking at me, I can see you, you’re the only person in that corner. You’re staring at me.”

Showbams: Throughout your travels you guys are very socially connected, how do feel like this type of communication has influenced the success of your band?

Read: I think social media is a pretty cool tool, when it comes to interacting with people. I think if you do it in a way where you’re actually talking to somebody and in times trying to get a conversation back from them, that’s pretty cool. If it’s like just shooting out information, “Try this, buy this, come here”, it’s kind of lame. I think trying to be interactive is what makes it work.

Hyman: Definitely, you know, it’s a tough balance. We Just put a record out so we want people to buy it, we do want you to come to shows, we want to play for people so we have to kind of promote ourselves. At the same time however, it definitely is a balancing act between too much self promotion and too much meaninglessness. You see so many tweets from somebody like, NY Times is a great source for news but if they're tweeting every three minutes about something you just kind of go numb.

I don’t want to throw The New York Times under the bus. I wish I had picked anybody else like somebody terrible, like if you subscribe to the Romney campaign, you probably get a lot of things popping up to just ignore all of them. There’s too many things.

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