An electronic indie rock band out of Queens, New York, Freelance Whales made their way down south to the farm in Manchester for their Bonnaroo debut this past weekend.
This four guy, one lady group won’t write for your magazine and aren’t even friends with Shamu, but they did draw some major attention at Bonnaroo during their two live shows, one Thursday in That Tent and another short, 30-minute acoustic set Friday at the Sonic Stage.
Freelance Whales are comprised of five talented musicians: Doris Cellar, Chuck Criss, Judah Dadone, Jacob Hyman and Kevin Read, and they play to a vast array of synthesizers and instruments ranging from the banjo and mandolin to the glockenspiel.
Before making their grand entrance on one of the many Bonnaroo stages, Judah and Kevin sit down with us and fill us in on the origin of their band name, their career thus far, dream journaling, their Weathervanes album and some of their musical—and supernatural—influences.
The name Freelance Whales is undeniably distinctive, and Judah says the band wanted something so unique because, in his words, “It’s the shortest, most important poem you would ever write.”
The origin of the band name comes with several conflicting stories, but Judah clears the air once and for all on the truth of the name’s genesis: “The sensation of the two words,” he says. “Freelance—implying autonomy, self-reliance and free-willingness—and Whales are very musical and very large, but at the same time they are really elusive and are small compared to the big oceans they inhabit.” He also compares the term “whale” to their music, saying, “It is sort of big in certain moments and really small in other moments.”
In just two years’ time, this group has gone from playing subways in New York to playing festivals like South by Southwest and now Bonnaroo.
“It’s an interesting situation to go from playing the subways, where you are forcing your way down there and doing it yourself,” Kevin says. “Sometimes people push you aside and complain about you being there.” Going from subways to music festivals is a huge change of pace to be sure.
“You go someplace where you actually wanted to come and asked to play on these stages, and you just don’t imagine it as something you would actually do. It’s an amazing feeling,” Kevin says.
Judah is the one who does most of the writing for the band, and he says he bases much of his writing on personal memories. He has also been known to do some of what he likes to call “dream journaling,” or recording his dreams. He says dream journaling was very influential to the band’s debut record, as much of the inspiration for that record was drawn from dream logging he had done over the years. “It was something I became very transfixed with,” he says. “I had a professor that suggested I do it, and I took that suggestion really seriously.”
The band actually released their debut album, Weathervanes, twice. The first time around, they self-released the album in 2009 and then in April 2010 they re-released it under their new record label Frenchkiss / Mom & Pop.
This album is something the band feels great pride for, and rightfully so. Instrumentally, Judah says the album tries to reconcile lots of organic sounds and synthetic sounds to make them blur together. And the overall record is not without a plot.
“The songs are telling a story about a young boy who falls in love with a female ghost haunting his home,” Judah adds.
Paranormal activity, ghosts and the supernatural are themes that tend to pop into your mind when you think of Freelance Whales. Those themes ring out in their songwriting, their music and even in their biography.
“I have a very sharp, keen sense for the supernatural,” says Judah. He traces it back to when he was a child. “I was really convinced my house was haunted. I didn’t feel a negative presence, but I was convinced something was there.”
“I also had a nanny who sort of instilled this in me when I was really young,” he adds. “She was half Cherokee Indian, and she suggested to me young kids can sense spirits.” When he was writing for the album, he says he felt that a lot of his dreams kept leading him back to that subject matter.
Ghosts aren’t the only beings that have influenced this band, however; an array of talented musicians have helped sculpt them as well. Trying to think of bands that impacted him at a young age, Kevin says, “Wow, well that starts to become a long list.”
He credits Nirvana with getting him to pick up the guitar and start playing. From there, his influences take on a vast personality, spanning from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf to Lenny Hopkins, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and The Beach Boys. After spouting off several more names, he says, “You know, I really can’t think. There’s too many to pinpoint (laughing).”
Judah chimes in, adding his early influences to the growing list.
“When I first discovered contemporary music, I was really loving a lot of folk, indie or even emo folk when I was in high school,” he says. As he got older, he discovered artists like Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams, Neutral Milk Hotel and Bonnie Prince Billy.
Before the guys head out to play their next show, the thought of the heat hits us like a ton of hot bricks. “Shoot,” Judah says. “This shade is really nice. I’m loving it. I wish this weren’t ending right now.”