The novel and hazy years of student-hood seem an especially fruitful breeding ground for musical endeavours: the kind conceived through intoxicated conversations at house parties, bands lodged between university campuses and squalid student houses. But when a student band becomes more than a casual jam or a string of open mic nights, what then? What process leads to a band really ‘making it’? I chatted to Jack Andrews, bassist in fledgling outfit The Whales and third year Music Technology student at the University of York, to try and find out.
The Whales, Jack informs me, is a project that’s been on the go for years, ever since he and Cambridge schoolmate Peter (Liddiard) began listening to Radiohead and playing guitar together, aged thirteen. “The Whales back then was just us going round each other’s houses and jamming,” he says. ‘It was never really serious.’ In 2013, however, The Whales went on to release their first “serious” songs : Colourblind, full of melodic crooning and lively guitar, and the slower track Aquarius. “Peter had all these songs, and we decided that we’d do them with The Whales, because, you know, it was sounding cool, and we decided to record them,” says Jack. The pair took their material to friend and guitarist Hugo Meredith-Hardy and his wonderland-esque country house. “It’s like this massive mansion,” Jack laughs and shows me a picture. They recorded live here in an ex swimming pool, all floorboards and glass walls, bedecked with ivy and scattered with instruments – not bad for such early days.
Fast-forward to 2015 and Peter and Hugo are studying in Leeds, while Jack is based in York and their drummer Jonny Pyke back in Cambridge. The proximity of the guys is perhaps the master key to their development of The Whales right now, especially with regard to live shows, but it’s still a tricky situation. “The problem is that everyone’s busy at different times, like someone always has an assignment to do or something” Jack tells me. “It’s annoying.” The pressure of academic commitments is a relatable issue for many students, but balancing a collective creative endeavour with this is no mean feat. No wonder The Whales seized their opportunity last summer, where all four members reunited in Cambridge and got down to business. “We just rehearsed loads for our live set and played our first few gigs, and we also wrote a couple of new ones and recorded them at Hugo’s before we came back to uni,” Jack tells me. What caused this sudden surge of activity, I wonder. “It’s been in the works for so long, like we’ve had all of these songs that we’ve recorded and written for a couple of years, but we’ve never been able to play live.” Why? The release of the first two songs was focused online, Jack explains, with little thought of live shows. The band’s internet presence has been recognised, though, with support from FatCat Records and an EP picked up by indie label Tip Top Recordings. “I guess they just saw it on Facebook, or something” comments Jack. Aside from recording and rehearsing, the group had their EP custom-made for cheap on cassette – a funky blue tape featuring artwork by the band’s friends. It’s pleasingly organic, reassuring amongst a plethora of one-hit online sensations.
A busy summer for the band, then. The Whales made their first live appearance in July this year, at a pub in Cambridge. Jack is effusive about the appeal of playing live. “It’s most fun when you just get a small local venue or whatever, and you make it free, or cheap, and get all your friends down, and everyone gets really drunk, and you get to show everyone your songs, and it’s just… it’s just a nice atmosphere. You have a lot of fun.” The band have played in Cambridge and London so far, but this autumn are keen to expand their string of appearances, focussing on the guys’ uni cities, York and Leeds. The Whales are gracing the first bill of The Crescent this November, a working man’s club turned alternative venue, the latest venture of York-based promoters Please Please You. The Whales, like many others, have been using Facebook to promote gigs, with apparently good results, but as with any small band live shows can be a learning curve, and the challenge of getting people to turn up to shows is ever present. I ask Jack how he feels about the next gig. “I’m looking forward to it. Most people in York haven’t ever really seen me play, and it’s such a big part of what I do… it will be nice to actually show people.”
I’m interested in what The Whales have to sing about, whether their status as students or their position in the snug demographic of ‘British youth’ gives rise to any perceptible themes. Jack tells me that Peter, the lyricist, spent some time in Palestine, and wrote single ‘Gently But Fine’ there, based on his experiences. ‘Marguerite’ is about the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, who gained success in the 1950s with the publication of Memoires d’Hadrien. “Pete read this book and, you know, got inspired” comments Jack on the song. There’s definitely an intellectual thread running through their songs, I think, a testament to the circles of academia that they all operate within perhaps. I quiz Jack about the content of The Whales’ music. He contemplates. “A theme that we like to write about quite often is this idea that we came up with when we were young… we were being weird” he says slowly. “There’s a colony of aliens come to earth and integrate into human life, the songs aren’t necessarily about that, but we like to use that in a number of things.” Jack tells me that he and Peter see themselves as the aliens, the outsiders. I ask for more, resisting the temptation to conclude the obvious. “We have an idea to dress up as these aliens so we look really weird onstage,” Jack continues. “We want to just… be, not as weird as possible, but not hold back… for music or for anything, using that alien thing if it feels right.”
Jack’s painted me a suitably intriguing picture of The Whales – a tale of childhood friends, mystical country manors, internet manoeuvres and alien opportunists. I listen to their EP with growing appreciation – could they make it big? Like really big? Regardless, the story of their trajectory is an interesting one, and their progress is only increasing. Anticipation and good luck to The Whales.
The Whales are playing on Friday November 13th The Crescent,York.Maddy Crammond