Jake Hyman of Freelance Whales talks about subway busking and road testing songs
Based out of Queens, New York, Freelance Whales (due tonight at the hi-dive with Minature Tigers) play the kind of atmospheric, experimental pop music that is often lumped under the umbrella genre title of "chamber pop." That's probably because the band actually seems to take care to craft songs that are catchy enough, even when they're melancholy, to stick with you well after you hear them.
In the early days of the band, Freelance Whales performed songs on subway platforms in New York City where you're lucky if people give you as little as five minutes to hear a song. But from these sorts of shows and more traditional gigs, the act landed opening slots on tours with other up-and-coming indie rock acts like Fanfarlo, Bear in Heaven and Cymbals Eat Guitars.
This year, the group's 2009 effort, the delicately melodic Weathervanes, was reissued by the two labels Freelance Whales calls home. We spoke with the band's main drummer, Jake Hyman, about those shows busking in the subways of New York and the virtues of road testing songs.
Westword: Is it true that you guys used to busk at subway stations in New York? Why did you do that and what were the most memorable responses you would get?
Jake Hyman: We haven't had to do it too much lately because we've been on the road for so long. But when we were first getting started, it was kind of an unromantic notion about getting people to shows. That was the goal. It wasn't like a money making scheme. It wasn't any way for us to make our living. But it was certainly a way, at a point, to stop having to put so much pressure on our friends to be the only people supporting us. And trying to get out music out there a little more.
It took off in a way we never planned or expected. I think we owe a lot to those... I don't know if you'd call it busking, but we call it public performing and playing for people when they least expected it. It definitely took the average age in the audience up considerably. The responses were incredibly positive.
We selected our locations very carefully and we played places where we knew people were looking to be surprised by something. Like Williamsburg, Brooklyn or the Lower East Side of Manhattan where on any particular night there are a lot of people out and a lot of people are looking to have a good time and willing to give you five minutes.
The very first time we did it, there was a break dancer who came, and he did some break dancing to one of the songs. We had no idea what to expect that first time, and it continued for about eight months until we went on tour.
In that New Dust interview, you said some of your favorite bands road tested material. Who are some of those bands, and what stories of testing out songs are prominent in your memory?
We just started to road test some new songs. Now that we're headlining, we have time to soundcheck and work on new material. One of my favorite bands growing up and still is the Dave Matthews Band, and they are notorious for road testing material. They rarely put out an album that doesn't have songs that haven't been played hundreds of times for people. Phish, also, similar story. Judah and I were big fans of that band. I think it's really cool when a band can take a risk in front of fans.
In the interview with Randomville you said something really interesting in that one of the best parts of touring is learning from the people with whom you're on tour. What are some of the most important things you've learned from other bands? What makes the drummer in Bear in Heaven so great to you?
Every time we've gone out on the road, we've learned something new. When we first went on tour with Fanfarlo from London, we'd have a great show, and the next day we'd have the worst show we ever played. We learned from them that you have to be a good band every night -- be consistent. You can vary between consistently good and having an excellent show here and there. It was a really valuable lesson for us early on.
Then we went out on tour with Bear In Heaven. With them, we learned a lot about aggression. They play really loud, so we had to up our game to keep up with them. Opening for them, we wanted to bring a similar level of energy. For me, their drummer is one of the best drummers I've ever met in my life.
I don't know what exactly it is about him. He just puts things where you wouldn't think to put them and they work so well. He plays very carefully and not at all randomly. He's very deliberate and almost electronic in his precision but applies so much dynamism and energy. He's the star of the show, but the songs are amazing, so it's a really cool marriage of him getting to show off but also be really tasteful.
The material on the album sounds like you really change your instrumentation and arrangements regularly. Is that something you do live, and what's the most interesting and challenging aspect of that approach to making music?
We use a lot of instruments live. We try to recreate the sounds on the album pretty accurately. There are computerized sounds on the album, but we reinterpret them for the live show. We do use a large number of instruments for there being only five people. There's a lot of switching around. Other than me, people are switching all over the place. The biggest challenge other than switching, is having a lot of inputs. And a lot of open microphones so there's constant feedback that needs to be battled.
I read an interview in Spinner where Judah Dadone said you had sung in choirs most of your adult life.
I started singing when I was three. I sang in opera with my sister for a production of Hanzel and Gretel. I've been singing on and off since then. In high school, I really got into regional choirs. I was in the New Jersey regional choir, and I was All State in New Jersey. I was kind of a glee geek, if you will. In college I did a lot of singing, and after college it kind of tapered off.
I didn't sing for a couple of years, and I missed it, and I found a choir in New York I really liked, where I respected the conductor and director. That choir was the Riverside Choral Society. I joined, and within three months, I had sung at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. It was incredible to sing with these people, and they were having a good time. No one was professional. Now that I'm on the road so much I can't practice with the choir.
How and when did you first become involved in playing drums?
I picked up drums when I was nine. In 1998, I got my first drum set. I took lessons for a while and when I got to college I didn't play for a year and a half, and then, I had a drum teacher who changed everything. He was the first person in my life who was able to motivate me. My first training was in funk and rock and in college I got into jazz pretty heavily, mostly Latin.
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