Interview with Alex Robins and Tim Marcus of Or, the Whale

Kristiana and I had the pleasure of sitting down with Alex and Tim from Or, the Whale this past Sunday before they played at the House of Blues here in San Diego. We immediately hit it off thanks to a shared love of Northern California- the band calls San Francisco home while they aren’t out touring the west coast. Now that their tour is wrapping up they are looking to start recording their next album. Until then we’ll have to enjoy their self title sophomore album which mixes country, bluegrass and classic rock with a whole lot of heart.

Haley- What are your major influences as a band?

Alex- As a band I think we started with a particular idea of what we wanted to sound like and as we started it was kind of Grand Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris and more country, like a lot of harmonies, the Rolling Stones, classic rock in general. We wanted to have a big rock band that was really fun to play live. As time has gone on, we have been together for about 5 years; we go more for particulars now. We allow our influences to write sort of different types of songs that fit into the formula. We love Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young. Our influences are always changing. You’re always hearing new bands that you’re like wow that would be awesome to sound like. We try to figure out what it is that those bands do that we like. We are pretty open about our song writing.

Kristiana- How did you exactly come together as a band in the first place? We read online that some Craigslist-ing came into play?

Alex- Well basically I moved to San Francisco in the Fall of 2005 and met up with Matt, our guitar player, who I went to high school with for a couple of years. We both sort of moved into the city at the same time and I was like I want to form a band and he was alright with that. We put an ad on Craigslist about forming a “Sweet Country Rock Band” and we met Jesse and Lindsay that way. Then they led us to Justin and Julie. Then about a year later Tim moved to SF from New York and we were looking for steel before we recorded our album. We found him on Craigslist too. He’s a great steel player so we really got lucky.

Kristiana- With that mix of people did you all become friends pretty quickly or was it more of a bonding through the band?

Alex- Band bonding happens a lot more, not all of us go out together all the time. We all have lives; I’m married and some have boyfriends and girlfriends. When we’re home we try to make those people happy and see our friends. But over the years we have toured a lot together and we are definitely like brothers and sisters. We all get along very well and we all like each other. It’s definitely been a process, but I really like the people I’m in the band with.

Haley- When you’re writing songs do you write them so people can relate, or is it a cathartic experience, or something totally different?

Tim- It’s different for everybody because there are 4 of us writing songs and we all come at it with a different approach. For the first record Alex wrote most of the songs. Even though there are 4 different song writers it works because we sound like we’re The Whale when we perform the songs.

Alex- I think the different writers have different things in mind when they’re writing. For me I try to be relatively ambiguous. Ambiguity really allows the listener to put themselves within the context of the song. I always found in hip hop songs when they’re like “yeah! 1994!” I’m like dude, you’re dating yourself! But our songwriting has really developed since when we first started. It’s become a lot more collaborative. We are really trying to work together on the writing and arranging process. We have general ideas of what works in the band and what doesn’t because we have been working together for so long. We know we can’t have like a crazy synth breakdown, even though that would be amazing. We try to tailor to the strengths of the band. Our newest songs are the best arranged that we have ever had. This has been a learning process as we are all becoming better musicians.

Kristiana- So we are both from Northern California originally, then we moved down here for college and it seems like you did the opposite. So what do you miss the most about San Francisco and Nor Cal while you’re on the road?

Tim- Well I miss my cat the most when I’m on tour. But San Francisco really is a special place. There’s a vibe there that I haven’t found many other places. When we’re away we miss the best parts of home like our bed, our friends, our wife; but tour has become a separate kind of thing. I find myself missing tour when we’re at home.

Alex- Yeah, you really have to compartmentalize things. For me there’s no other feeling like coming across the bridge, right past Treasure Island, when you see the city. What a beautiful city we live in. Going on the road can be tough. Many nights with little sleep and waiting in a club until 2 to get paid. It is hectic, but at the same time, that hour when you’re on stage just makes it so worth it. It’s really that good. Especially being in a band you love so much. This is the best band I’ve been in. Playing with these people is, just like you were saying, really cathartic.

Haley- What do you guys listen to before you play?

Alex- It definitely changes tour to tour.

Tim- When we play a lot of shows we meet a lot of bands and we sort of just swap albums. We get to hear a lot of great new music that way. There are some staples, like Magnolia Electric Co, Terry Reid, the Court and Spark, the Maldives- they’re sort of like us, but way hairier and from Seattle.

Kristiana- So you said that you’ve toured a lot; who has been your favorite band to tour with?

Tim- Well the Maldives, Band of Annuals, Leslie and the Badgers, and the Silent Comedy for sure are great. We just got a booking agent so this is a new experience for us still. We’re just getting started.

Haley- On the same note, what are your suggestions for us of bands we might enjoy that you love?

Alex- Well all those bands we just mentioned. Plus there is just so much in San Francisco that is great. We love Birds and Batteries. They are a great blend of Neil Young/country and electro. Stone Foxes are cool for old school rock and roll. The Maldives, our good buddy Erik Clampitt, anything that dude does, the Mother Hips, Sleepy Son.

Kristiana- Thanks! So what are your plans for the future? What’s next?

Alex- We are almost done with our tour now, we have shows through early December. Then we are actually going through some changes. We are probably going back on tour through the spring and getting some new people in the band as well. We would really love to get another record out by the end of next year.

Haley- What’s the story behind your name?

Alex- It’s just the subtitle of Moby Dick. It was originally Moby Dick; or the Whale. Matt was an English major and I think it was he who brought it up. People either love it or hate it, but I would rather people have a strong opinion about it than not remember it. So it works. I think it fits us.

Click here for concert video

– Haley Earl-Lynn