Noah and the Whale’s Tom Hobden Talks Disney Land, Growing Up, American Influences + New Album ‘Heart of Nowhere’
London’s Noah and the Whale are often compared to folksy contemporaries Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling, but while all three came up in the same circuit, they've taken different paths to reach their respective levels of success. With each release, Noah and the Whale have explored a different style -- everything from blithe folk-pop to crushing, droning heartache -- almost to the point of making concept albums.
This constant reinvention has earned the band new fans with every record and showcased the members’ growth as songwriters. On their fourth LP, 'Heart of Nowhere,' released earlier this year, Noah and the Whale return with the kinds of rollicking riffs and Americana-inspired storytelling heard on 2011’s 'Last Night on Earth.' Always quick with a joke and conversational twist, fiddler and keyboardist Tom Hobden recently took time away from the band’s day at Disney Land to talk with Diffuser.fm about the new record and more.
Where are you now?
I’m actually at Disney Land, of all places, so you’ll have to bear with me if you hear too much background noise!
Well, I’m sorry I’m taking you away from “the happiest place on earth!”
You know what? I’m alright. I’ve let the guys go on ahead and do all the rides I’m too scared of.
What rides have you been on so far, then?
So far, I’ve done this new Indiana Jones one, which is actually rather good. I had doubts, but it was actually pretty damn good. I’ve taken a rain check on Space Mountain. That one’s not for me. And I think they’re going to tackle another one that’s going to be far too much.
Excellent. So to get started, each of your four albums has a very strong theme to it. And on 'Heart of Nowhere,' there seems to be a recurring idea of time. Was that deliberate?
[Singer] Charlie [Fink] is our lyricist, and he’s always written with time as a main theme. We’re still young and doing these tours. It’s still quite an adventure. I think in this new record, specifically, it’s been writing from experience, whereas the previous record, he was writing from a character’s point of view. I think the songs on this record that really highlight what it’s all about are songs like 'Lifetime,' which is a song that Charlie wrote about a friend that he had. His pal had gotten engaged and was due to get married, and Charlie was completely oblivious to all these massive life-changing moments in his friend’s life.
We live in a time of incredible communication and the Internet and whatever, but you still usually lose track of where you are and where your friends are in their lives. And that’s something that’s so important. You take it for granted, really, that you can just call up your friends on the phone or send someone an email, but it’s so valuable to keep in each other’s lives.
Your last album, 'Last Night on Earth,' went platinum at home. What kind of pressure did you feel to replicate that record?
We’ve always been in a very fortunate position, in a sense that we’ve been signed to a major record label for these four albums, but we’ve always had complete control over where we want to go with each record. It’s really exemplified, like you mention, releasing an album which is quite different sounding from the previous year. I remember in the early days in between our first album -- which had gone gold in the U.K. with singles like '5 Years Time' -- and then releasing an album that’s completely melancholy, about a breakup, with no real singles, with their support. Which is an incredible position for any indie band to be in. We’ve always been very fortunate, and we never felt any pressure like that, no.
Since you mentioned your label, can you talk about some of the challenges you faced trying to release this album in the U.K. and abroad? When 'Heart of Nowhere' came out in the U.K., I wanted to get a copy and was told you guys didn’t even have a label in the States at that time!
It’s such a strange one, you know? Obviously, these labels are businesses at the end of the day, and they want to make money. Sometimes, the process to release records can kind of baffle me. We didn’t actually have a record label in place in America until relatively recently for this new album. We’d released records previously with Mercury, or an imprint, rather. I guess ultimately, the American labels look to how a British band performs at home before they go and put out the money to release a record in the States. You always get that delayed chain of reaction. It’s fair enough, you know? It’s business at the end of the day, so I can’t really find a problem with it.
It does mean that it’s quite strange that you get a stilted start to the campaign. You release it at home, and it builds momentum, and then you release it nine months later at the beginning again. But I guess it means you get a more polished outcome from us because we’ve done it before, and we know what we’re doing! It’s very much honed in our own heads before we get to present it to you guys. It’s probably for your benefit.
You’ve been through this cycle before. Are there things you've wanted to talk about, in terms of the record or your experiences in the U.S., that journalists haven't asked about?
[laughs] That’s a good question! I honestly feel quite at home out here. I’m beginning to know cities and places I like to go. Such a big part of the touring life for us is obviously going to new towns and exploring these places and getting a feel for them. So I dunno! Whereabouts did you say you’re from?
I’m based in Miami.
Oh. Well Miami’s actually a place I’ve never been to. I can’t even talk to you about it and our previous experiences there.
Well you guys should come down here!
I would love to do that! I hear it’s sunny and there are nice beaches and nice people.
That is all true. It’s not all 'Miami Vice,' I promise!
Oh, excellent! But you know, as musicians, we all have different interests, as well. As a band, we’re all really into our film, actually. That’s a big thing for us. Charlie’s made films with previous records and with this new album, as well. So that’s one interest. I like to read. I like traveling. I like Italy. I’m a big Italophile.
As you just mentioned, you guys are kind of film buffs. What hidden references have I missed on this album?
We made a film. Well, actually, Charlie directed a film called 'Heart of Nowhere,' as well, which is kind of an accompanying piece to the record. It was written very much the same time that the music was being written, so they work hand in hand. It’s about an imagined future where all the teenagers are round up and put in this holding center where they’re kind of tested on and given these mind-bending drugs and stuff. It’s kind of sci-fi. A couple of these kids form a little rogue movement, and they start band, which is against all regulations and rules. They try to break out of this complex and head to the grownup town and put on a gig. I don’t want to spoil the whole film for you, but that’s a rough basis.
Many have described 'Last Night on Earth,' and even some parts of 'Heart of Nowhere,' as rooted in Americana traditions and Springsteen-esque. How does it feel to me performing those songs in, well, America?
Good point. When I look back, all our influences throughout our band career have mainly been American for some reason. I can’t put my finger on why. Especially this new record, we’ve been listening to a lot of Talking Heads, a bit of Roxy Music, actually. It’s pretty interesting now, being in America. The previous album, 'Last Night on Earth,' was very American-inspired, like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. I don’t know why, but I think coming-of-age albums are always sort of rooted in American themes. It’s ridiculous because everyone comes of age regardless of what country they come from! But it seems like there’s an American mysticism. Maybe it’s because of the idea of leaving a small town to a big town is more exaggerated on an American scale. I guess that adds a certain amount of drama to it.
Anything else you’d like to add about Disney Land, 'Heart of Nowhere,' your time in the U.S.?
Well have you ever been to Disney Land? I could get some advice on where to go! I’m looking around, and it all seems slightly overwhelming. I see there’s a really good steamboat over there. I think it’s called the Mark Twain paddle steamer or something, which seems right up my alley. I might head over there.
I endorse that.
Good. You can vouch for that!