Noah and the Whale – Bestival, Isle Of Wight

 NATW_album

ARK DE TRIUMPH:

FLOOD BROTHERS

Written by Stephen Brolan

And the Heavens opened. And the Earth, with all its sin, corruption and Peaches Geldofs, fell under the wrath of a vengeful God. And verily the people of the world and all its animals got absolutely pissed on. And there followed an almighty flood. And thus was it done…

Don’t panic. The Fly hasn’t gone all Old Testament on your arses. We’re merely reporting on fancy-dress extravaganza Bestival 2008, where it seems the namesake of the band we’re here to interview – that being folk-rocking four-piece Noah And The Whale – has brought the goddamn weather with him. Biblical things are indeed afoot. It’s not so much raining cats and dogs here – it’s actually raining every fucking animal in the world. Two of each, obviously. And it’s here The Fly finds himself, garbed in flowing brown (and getting browner) robe, long grey wig and beard, kitted out in what we consider to be an approximation of non-existent man-of-the-Ark Noah. OK, so he probably didn’t wear glasses or hiking boots, and he almost certainly would have had a big Biblical stick to smite people with, but hey – you can’t get the staff these days. And so thus attired, The Fly trudges through a trail previously traversed by a herd of diarrhoetic woolly mammoths, gingerly unplugging each boot from the shite and looking like Old Man River doing a bizarre slo-mo version of the All Blacks’ haka dance.

Bring me my fucking Ark!

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When we eventually arrive at the artists’ enclosure (at the opposite end of where we’re camped, no less), The Fly roams through the throng of beautiful people looking more like a moving shit heap in a grey wig than God’s first lieutenant. Indeed, the band all look somewhat startled when covered-in-crap Noah Fly squelches over in their direction. And before you know it, we’ve opened our gob and said: “Hi, I’m Noah.”

The laugher is warm and generous, which is good cos The Fly feels like a Bible-sized tit.

Taking our place at the table, we’re quickly informed the band’s set has been pulled because the stage they’re supposed to be performing on has sunk. Could this band have a more apt name? But it’s not just the weather providing the deluge surrounding Noah And The Whale at present. With the success of Song of the Summer™ 5 Years’ Time and the hype surrounding the release of debut long-player Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, a considerable precipitation of adulation seems to be forming a rising tide, with all and sundry seeming to hail (stone) them as the next big thing. Not that this downpour seems to be bothering them much.

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“Nothing really feels that different really,” frontman Charlie Fink shrugs. “Apart from maybe at festivals in terms of crowd volume. I mean, the occasional people who have come up to us have been really respectful.”

“We’re not talking Beatlemania here,” quips eager bassist Urby.

Indeed, there immediately seems to be an air of detached nonchalance about the four-piece that belies the industry-driven bustle that encircles them. While there may be a storm brewing, it’s all very much happening outside, while Noah And The Whale shelter together in their own private Ark, somewhat bemused by it all. And as the outside world and the industry at large leapfrog over themselves affixing I-saw-them-first kisses to the band’s collective arse, the group themselves have apparently been watching the skies gather for some time.

“It’s not like we went from jumpers-for-goalposts to Wembley Stadium,” fiddle-playing Tom explains. “It was more of a gradual process, and I suppose that’s kind of made it less of a storm.”

“The whole process is what makes it,” Charlie continues. “It’s hard to see it from an outside point-of-view – people see things differently, saying you’re an overnight success and stuff, and that’s exactly what it wasn’t from our point-of-view. We have put a lot of work in and toured off our own back. But people see it as being handed to us all of a sudden.”

“I feel it’s more deserved in myself that we played all those gigs and we honed our sound,” Charlie’s brother Doug considers. “Now, everything that’s happening is just the magnitude of all that work we put in.”

Urby concludes: “Unless you go through that process of gigging and allowing the songs to evolve naturally, it would be a lot harder to get a fully realised album.”

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Having actually achieved that fully realised piece of work way back in February, the band now find themselves slightly puzzled by the excitement surrounding what to them is an old piece of work they considered would scarcely receive anywhere near the attention it has.

“I think people are surprised [by its success] – even the people that backed it,” Charlie says. “I’m certainly surprised! And we’re at that point now that we have the knowledge in our mind that people actually get our music as we go into making the second album. And we’re making the album we want to make – probably quite leftfield and less commercial than the first one.” He pauses. “Even though we never actually thought that would be commercial,” he laughs. “So it’s a weird thing to be going in to make a record that will probably have less appeal, coming on the back of a previous one you never thought would have any appeal in the first place.”

“We went in with a kind of punky attitude and recorded the whole thing in three weeks,” the softly-spoken Tom states. “And I think a similar process is going to happen this time.”

But surely, considers The Fly ‘neath his stupid wig, having the knowledge that there’s a market for their off-kilter approach, and knowing what people like about their music, brings with it a certain pressure?

“I consciously ignore all those thoughts,” Charlie insists firmly. “The songs I’m writing are just a progression of my songwriting and how we play as a band – it’s natural. The influences we have with the new album are definitely bands that don’t sell records, as with the previous album. It’s leftfield music.”

“Also,” Urby punctuates. “I don’t know how you would get together and write something you think someone else would like if you’re not happy with it yourself. You need to make music that’s true to who you are.”

It soon becomes evident that Noah And The Whale frequently throw out conversational diversions towards talk of the second album, as if that’s what they desperately want to talk about – hardly surprising when you consider how long ago the current album was completed, and how overly talked about it must be for them now. Indeed, there’s a tangible sense of animated exuberance when talk turns (is diverted) to the follow-up, making us wonder whether everything that’s exciting all else isn’t, for them, now a bit lived-in.

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“Well, that may be true of one or two songs,” Doug concedes. “But each audience you take the songs to always respond differently, and you feed off that and it keeps it fresh. The songs evolve.”

Charlie elaborates: “I don’t believe in that philosophy that the recorded song is the finished product – they always have different angles and you find different ways to approach and interpret them. Like now we’re picking up electric guitars and…”

“Woah!” The Fly orates in Biblical fashion through his big beard. “Noah And The Whale go electric?”

“Noah And The Whale are going bloody grunge,” Charlie grins. “I’m happy for you to run that story, by the way.”

Come on! We might be dressed like an Olympic-level doofus, but still…

A chorus of “no really”s ensues around the table, followed by a worryingly earnest Urby leaning forward and declaring: “We’re not dragging you on at all. There’s about seven songs on that first album with electric guitars and it doesn’t feel unnatural in any way.”

“We’re not an acoustic band,” insists Doug. “It’s just that acoustic music suited those songs.” To which brother Charlie offers up a bizarre explanation coated in a flavour of confession. “The reason the songs sound different is that none of us really know what we’re doing. I mean, Urby’s a bassist playing a harmonium, and he doesn’t even know what a harmonium is!”

“I don’t,” Urby chips in helpfully.

“Things just work in a weird way,” Charlie concludes. “When we write a song, we just go to whatever sound fits with it. And if you can’t play the instrument, it doesn’t matter – just make a sound.”

“The point is,” Urby says pointedly, “that we’re not too familiar with our instruments. When we, for instance, pick up an electric guitar we won’t play electric guitar licks and things you generally associate with it. The best guitar sounds, in my opinion, don’t sound like guitar – they sound like a saxophone or a buzzsaw or whatever.”

A good point Urby has here. Charlie, meanwhile, has a story to elaborate the point. “When I was at school I learned to play jazz guitar,” he remembers. “And my teacher was a total weirdo – I love the guy, though; he’s one of my favourite people ever – and one day he asked me what the most important thing in music was. And he just sat there for about five minutes, silent.” Charlie himself pauses for a second, adding emphasis. “And eventually he said that if you’re trying to play jazz guitar, don’t listen to Devendra Banhart, listen to Charlie Parker or Miles Davis – try and play another instrument on guitar. Basically,” he concludes, “if you’ve heard it all before, it’s boring. And if you’re comfortable with your instrument, it’s not always a good thing.”

Familiarity certainly seems to breed contempt amid NATW’s ranks, and from such skewed approaches and strange teachings great things have been borne in their truly exceptional debut album, which is at once like everything and nothing you’ve heard before. Eccentric yet coherent; folky yet apt to funk your face off; a ray of sunshine dancing behind some very dark clouds indeed, not least in Charlie’s often lugubrious lyrics.

“It’s a mood change record, certainly,” Charlie says of the album’s all-encompassing seasonal schizophrenia. “It’s all meant to be optimistic though. Even the most sombre tracks are optimistic – it’s never defeatist.”

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Despite seeming to have a near obsession with kicking the bucket, lyrics such as “Death do not feel the victor/My poor life makes you none the richer” come across as mortal acceptance rather than morbid lament. Small wonder then that, as the storm of hype gathers around them, from which floods of praise are beginning to fall, they retain a sense of detached indifference. Where other bands in the same position might become affected – infected even – by the sense of omnipresent expectation, Noah and the Whale, like their lyrics, appear to be at terms with their musical mortality, nonchalantly accepting of the fact that, despite the downpour, it could all end tomorrow. It’s just something they chose to ignore.

“You don’t want to get involved with much else other than the music,” Urby says. “It’s not like we got in a band to do anything other than the music – and that’s the focus that’s always there.”

“We’re all aware now we’ve got a platform and basically people are gonna hear the songs we make, and that’s exciting,” Charlie concludes. “But I think if you want to be an honest artist and you want to respect those fans, you’ve got to continue doing what you’re doing exactly the way you want. That’s the most honest way – the only way.” He pauses. The rain outside is pummelling on the canvas like some shite metaphor. The Fly takes a mental note. “The deluge of other stuff is irrelevant,” he states. “It’s how you deal with it artistically that counts.”

And with that, The Fly gets his bearded arse up and bids the affable chaps of Noah And The Whale the fondest of farewells, before receiving a last-minute round of generous accolades for our fancy-dress endeavours. “That’s the most dedication we’ve ever seen from an interviewer,” Charlie beams shaking The Fly’s hand, before promising: “Next time, I’ll dress up as a fly.”

It’s a promise we’re gonna hold him to. [Real-time update: Having subsequently met Charlie and friends numerous times, he has never greeted me as an insect].

Back outside, God is still straining 40 days and 40 nights on the piss from his almighty cock. And though the deluge may have sunk their performance tonight, as indeed the tides of expectation may threaten to capsize, Noah And The Whale have all the self-belief and conviction they need to see them through whatever storms lay ahead – an Ark of triumph in a world awash with shite and unworthy animals.

Bring the floods forth…

Stephen Brolan

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