In 2008, Noah & The Whale ignited the nu-folk scene. So why, asks Tom Ellen, are they abandoning the genre they helped create?
Every musical movement needs a rallying point. The New York punks had CBGBs, Merseybeat had The Cavern Club and the London nu-folk scene had the basement of a Cornish pasty shop.
“It’s weird,” ponders Noah & The Whale’s frontman Charlie Fink, one of the pioneers of that sub-pastry- store sound. “How did we go from being this band that played to 10 people below a Kings Road bakery to being booked for David Letterman?”
ShortList assumes that this is a rhetorical question. It’s quite clear how Noah & The Whale went from pie shop based obscurity to US chatshow prominence. They’ve made some cracking tunes. Fellow bakery graduates Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling (Fink’s ex-girlfriend) haven’t done too badly either.
However, recent years have seen the band moving further and further away from the folk-infused sound that made them. Chart-denting single LIFEGOESON boasts an infectious rock chorus that demands immediate air punching and, the new album on which it features, Last Night On Earth, owes more to denim-jacketed arena fillers such as Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen than jerkin-clad folk icons.
As his group stand one Letterman performance away from world domination, ShortList spoke to Fink to find out what prompted the band’s musical sea change…
Last Night On Earth is very different to your previous records. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes. I wanted to write an album that didn’t rely on what I’d done before. Once I’ve got a vision for a record, I don’t consider it in the context of the previous albums. All the records we make are very instinctive, so with this record it was like, “Let’s go away and write some pop songs,” but the next one [album] could end up being a load of 10 minute spoken-word jams [laughs].
Do you feel that you’ve detached yourselves from the nu-folk scene now?
I suppose so. It was a long time ago. Everyone in that scene has moved on and they’re all doing very different things now. It’s exciting to see. I have a lot of respect for those bands and hopefully we’ll get together again at some point.
Do you miss being at the centre of that movement?
I wouldn’t say that I miss it. These things get romanticised a little. I have fond memories of those times and I’m not ashamed of them, but I’m really enjoying what I’m doing now.
There’s been a lot of press about your ‘rivalry’ with Mumford & Sons…
I like that. [Laughs] It’s a good story. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, right?
So there’s no truth in it?
I’m not aware of any rivalry with them. People don’t realise how insular being in a band can be. We’re on the road now for the next year — it’s just me, the band and our crew. So you just focus all your energy on the shows you’re playing. You’ve got no time to think about the outside world when you’re on tour. I don’t look to contemporaries as rivals. I just focus on what I’m doing.
Were you pleased to see them win British Album at the Brit Awards?
Yeah, it was amazing. It’s hard to take in — when we were all starting out a few years ago, it didn’t feel like the scene would blow up in the way it has. I’m proud of that.
Your second album, The First Days Of Spring, focused on your break-up with former NATW backing singer Laura Marling. How did she feel about the record?
She loved it. I took the record to her once it was mastered and said, “If you don’t want this to be released then I won’t release it.” But she liked it, so that was great. I’d recommend songwriting as a cathartic exercise after a break-up. The best way to get over a woman is to turn her into art.
You’ve just played a few dates in the US. Any wild tour stories to report?
Well, the US is a great place because there’s opportunity there to get whatever you want.
That’s an ambiguous statement… What exactly was it you wanted?
[Laughs] Nothing dodgy. I just mean, you can be whoever you want out there. But I’m a consummate professional, so there were no wild antics. But back when we were starting out, I was a mess on the road. There was a lot of red wine involved. I couldn’t tell you anything more, though. My attorney has instructed me against it.
How do you combat boredom on the tour bus?
I watch a lot of films and TV. We’re living in an era of great TV right now. I love Mad Men. Breaking Bad is great too, and I’ve just discovered this great programme called Freaks And Geeks.
You’re fond of guest collaborations — is there anyone you’d love to work with?
Tom Waits is one of my heroes, so to work with him would be incredible. Actually, I recently collaborated with Charlotte Gainsbourg, which was an honour. We wrote a song for her and she wanted to perform it, so we all went out to Paris to record it. The hotel we were staying in had a huge picture of her dad [Serge Gainsbourg] above the bed, which was a bit weird.
You’ve also dabbled in directing — who are your cinematic influences?
David Lynch and Michael Haneke, but I love Wes Anderson too. And I really liked Submarine — Richard Ayoade is
so talented. He’s directed a few great videos for Arctic Monkeys. Talking of collaborations, Ayoade is someone I’d love to work with.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
I really like Anna Calvi’s album, and The Vaccines’ record is great too. Jay Jay Pistolet [The Vaccines’ lead singer] is a good friend — I’ve produced some stuff for him in the past.
Your parents are doctors and your brother left the band to study medicine. Are your family expecting you to give up music and become a doctor at some point?
[Laughs] I think they’ve given up on that now. They’ve accepted that that’s not an option.
Do you have any medical experience at all?
Well, as a kid, I had a job delivering urine and blood samples to a research lab.
Sounds like you were part of an evil underground conspiracy…
I could have been, for all I know.
Noah & The Whale’s new single Tonight’s The Kind Of Night is out on 16 May
(Main images: Rex Features)