San Francisco's Or, the Whale traces its origin's date back to a 2006 Craigslist ad asking if anyone wanted to form "a sweet country-rock band." The seven-piece collective has since strayed considerably from those country-rock aspirations — at least if you're referring to this country.
Their self-titled sophomore album suggests decidedly Anglophilic inclinations, with Lindsay Garfield's hauntingly beautiful vocals — particularly on the song "Never Coming Out" — recalling the late Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny.
"I'd always heard of Fairport Convention, but I don't know that I'd ever listened to them actively," says Alex Robins, the band's other lead vocalist, songwriter and guitarist. "And then I went out and bought Liege & Lief, and I thought, 'Holy shit, this is what we sound like!'"
Finding kindred spirits across the span of four decades was actually a thrill for Robins: "You couldn't do better than British rock and British folk in the '70s," he says. "While it's not on purpose, I think that all of those bands have influenced a lot of the more recent bands that we like. Like [Denton, Texas band] Midlake; they're so awesome and that new record is obviously pretty much a direct attempt at trying to make a late '60s English folk record."
Fin de siècle
In that regard, Or, the Whale, whose name and punctuation comes from the original title of Melville's Moby Dick (there are three English majors in the band, after all), takes a more diversified approach. Robins' "Datura," for instance, has a Levon Helm/Robbie Robertson feel that's more indicative of the vision he and bandmate Matt Sartain initially had when they posted their ad.
The group is often labeled an Americana act, a term band members have been known to use themselves. For his part, Robins has vivid memories of seeing Wilco perform on Saturday Night Live and devouring each new issue of No Depression magazine.
"I used to read that all the time, especially in college," he recalls. "I would walk to Borders and drink coffee and read No Depression."
In spite of its name, No Depression was forced to go the online-only route in 2008. And while Or, the Whale came along too late to be featured in the print edition, you can find seven of their songs on the No Depression website, including a mournful, pedal steel-laced rendition of Britney Spears' "Toxic."
The Britney cover doesn't appear on Or, the Whale, which is just as well since the album is a pretty earnest affair. "It definitely feels a little darker, and I think the songwriting is so far beyond the first one," says Robins.
There's also a big difference in the arrangements, which were actually worked out well in advance this time, rather than just fading parts in and out of the mix after the fact.
"We learned that you can't always play all at the same time when you have seven people."
Meet on the ledge
If Garfield's "Never Coming Out" is one of the album's emotional touchstones, Robins' "Rusty Gold" is the other. The song's three verses each recount incidents of personal loss: a dog's passing ("Now that she has been set free / Hope her ghost will visit me"), a house burning ("My old room lay in its path / Wood and steel ain't built to last"), and the loss of a family member ("My brother passed with the cold west wind / Someday I'll see him again.")
Two of the three tragedies are real. "My dog and my brother definitely did pass away, but the fire did not physically happen," says Robins, whose brother Sean fought a six-year battle against Ewing's sarcoma up until his passing, at the age of 22, in 2006. "The song is sort of a lament on loss and how we deal with that loss. I think everyone is so afraid of failure and loss that it gets into your psyche, and people become shells and live a sad existence without taking risks."
Robins doesn't want that to happen to him. "The whole idea of killing time is really shitty. Like, 'Yeah, I'm just killing time, we're all killing time until we die.' Well, hopefully we're not. I'd like to think that even on my days off, when I sit around in my pajamas until 11, I'm still enjoying those moments."
Meanwhile, Robins believes there are ways to honor and celebrate your losses. His family started a nonprofit called the Seany Foundation, which is dedicated to fighting pediatric cancer.
"It's unfortunate that he hasn't been around to see the growth of the band," says Robins, "but I think in some ways he knows."
And while the musician expects to meet up with his brother again someday, he figures there's still plenty of life to be lived in the meantime.
"Regardless of how far we get and how much we do and where I end up, so far it's been five really awesome years and I think that it's going to continue to be," says Robins of his band's trajectory. "So you just enjoy it as much as you can for as long as you can.
"And luckily we're still here," he says, laughing. "So that's good."