Charlie Fink looks exhausted. He walks across the empty Academy to greet me, a somewhat forced smile on his face. I follow him to the interview area, hoping that the events of the past couple of days aren’t taking their toll on him too much. ‘It’ll just be me’ he says, pulling two chairs out into the small, grey corridor where the interview is to take place. Here, jovial technicians will pass us, whistling, throughout the interview.
Fink is subdued and very still. He’s been travelling the country, having just embarked on a tour that will soon take the band to the US. But it’s not just tiredness that’s bothering Fink today. On 29th September the band’s entire trailer of equipment was stolen from a car park in Manchester, where they were playing a gig at the Club Academy. For Fink and his band mates, it was a devastating blow.
‘It’s a hard thing to explain, because there are some bands whose equipment is transient, and you have one guitar the same as another. But our stuff is very specific and very unique. Its stuff that you spend years and years cultivating. You won’t find another version exactly the same, so it’s like starting at the beginning again.’ Fink pauses, his hand almost relentlessly clutching at his hair.
This is clearly something he’s had to explain repeatedly over the last two days. The same sentiments appeared in a BBC online news article, just hours after the theft. Fink insisted that the monetary value of the stolen instruments was nothing compared to their sentimental value. On a website, this may seem like an empty, rehearsed statement. The vacant expression on Fink’s face, however, confirms the truth of the claim.
For many bands this would’ve been an irritating inconvenience, solved by the quick, expensive acquisition of hired instruments. For these boys, it’s a bereavement.
Despite all this, the band is determined to continue their tour using borrowed instruments. The Oxford gig will, in fact, be their first show without their own. This must surely be unsettling, and Fink is clearly preoccupied. He’s trying to remain philosophical about the whole thing, though.
‘It’s one of those things where it’s just going to be different and you can’t think about it being better or worse. You’ve just got to try and make it the best it can be’.
A number of so-called ‘fans’ of Noah and the Whale really know them only as the purveyors of pop-folk hit ‘5 years time’, 2008’s ‘song of the summer’, to which they owe a lot of their fame and success. It often causes bitterness when a song grows bigger than the band that wrote it. Radiohead’s relationship with ‘Creep’ has been famously turbulent. What was it like for Fink, having such a big hit so early on?
‘I guess I kind of enjoyed it a little bit – but not really. It’s one of those things that’s hard to understand, but I don’t think there’s any point being regretful or resentful because we’re in a position now where we can afford to do things we couldn’t do, and [have] the opportunity to play to a wider audience. But it was frightening, I guess, and surprising. I guess you have to try and enjoy things but it wasn’t where we saw ourselves being and I don’t think we’ll be there again.’
Their earlier sound was mostly bouncy, though undeniably intelligent, pop-folk. Laura Marling and Emmy the Great, both remarkable artists in their own right, joined the band for the first album to provide backing vocals, allowing for some fantastic harmonising.
During the making of the first album, Marling and Fink began a relationship, which ended last year. Many critics have been linking the inspiration for the latest album, The First Days of Spring, to their painful break-up. It is, after all, an incredibly raw, emotional album, chronicling the journey through the darkness of heartache; despair, the fumbled mistakes made whilst trying to move on, and finally the elation at the realisation that everything will eventually be alright. In view of this, it is rather difficult not to view the album as a confessional, autobiographical work.
I’m careful not to ask Fink directly about his past relationship. After a week that has included the theft of your most prized possessions and repeated interviews around that subject, who then wants to be prompted to reminisce about heartache? But Fink is well aware about the speculation over his personal life, and does have his worries about the impact it’ll have on how people view the album.
‘A lot of people speculate. A lot of people have written a lot of things but I never discuss it. Artists are people who make things,’ he explains, ‘they’re not necessarily people of action. What’s important is the artefact that is made. Also, people project onto music, and it’s important they do that. It’s important that people have their own reading of it, that they find themselves in it.’
Whilst the tabloidesque speculation about Fink and Marling’s break up is proving a focus of interest for the new album, there is something else remarkable about it; that it is, actually, a remarkably accomplished album. It shows a maturity, skill and musical ambition that can move one to the point of tears. Noah and the Whale negotiate simple melodies, soaring orchestral arrangements, a song that features a full choir, and pull it all together to make something heartbreaking, uplifting and thoroughly impressive. It’s a marked progression from their first album. The First Days of Spring works more as a full piece, with strands of repeated melodies and lyrics threading through the album. ‘Blue Skies’, the climax of the album, pulls together the threads. I mention this to Fink, who states that it was very much a planned move.
‘We wanted to make something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The way music is listened to now – people dissect albums and play what they like. We were trying to make something that was a full piece from beginning to end. You listen to the whole thing, and you take something better from it.’
This can create difficulties for a live show, where songs that work better in sequence have to be pulled out of context and presented individually. Moreover, it’s hard to present such deep and subtle work to live audiences who may still be expecting the same easy pop as promised by ‘5 years time’.
The band started to introduce portions of the new album live over the festival period, unsure as to how the new, more complex material would be received. ‘It’s a hard album to introduce at a festival. I mean, it’s not really festival music, but, you know, people have been listening to it. However, it makes it more rewarding. You come and do these shows because you have an audience that really cares.’
As Charlie Fink shows me back out into the main room of the O2 Academy and ushers in the next interviewer, he seems to be on auto-pilot. There are clearly more pressing issues on his mind.