Walking into the belly of a whale would likely be a frightful experience full of intestinal ooze and devoured fish. But listening to Brooklyn, New York’s Whale Belly is like walking outside into a corn field on an early fall day. There are winding, beaming guitar riffs, powerful, full-ranged vocals, and a violin that creeps in and out of verses, like the sun shooting through distant rows of maize. The general mood of Whale Belly songs is elevated; the songs are mixed well to the extent that everything is pleasantly sharp and clear.
Whale Belly just finished its second full-length record, I Was Once A Bird. To celebrate its completion, the band recently hosted a listening party at the Brooklyn bar Banter. THE BOMBER JACKET was unfortunately unable to attend, but we caught up with the band outside of the event and talked about what it was like to record their new record and what the release for I Was Once A Bird will be like.
Whale Belly recorded its album at Saltlands Studio in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn. They then mastered the record at Salt Mastering in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. Clearly, the group feels at home in the New York borough.
Whale Belly frontman Todd Bogin says of the recording experience at Saltlands:
I absolutely loved working there. I loved that it was in a basement of a big building and we were literally able to just lock the door behind us and go to work, it was like we told the world to leave us alone for a few days, no distractions. And the moments we did go outside to take a break, the beauty of being on the water really calmed our nerves. It was just all very cozy and fun to be there. We used the hallway to cut some acoustic guitars and violins which came out great. Everything was vintage, analogy and warm.
Whale Belly doesn’t have an official release planned yet. Their listening party was a way to get their music off the ground and share it with their friends. I Was Once A Bird was two years in the making for the group. The album proceeds their first full-length, …The Smile at the End of the Slope. The band says they took this release more seriously in terms of their approach to recording, “The recording was pretty much nick on drums, me on acoustic guitar and vocals, all in one take. Then we’d layer and layer and layer and got that huge sound. For this new record, I learned that you don’t necessarily have to get a big sound just by layering instruments, a lot of it is how they’re recorded, mix and how well you play it,” explains Bogin. Bogin credits bandmate and producer Nick Smeraski and bandmates Josh Henderson (violin) and Evan Crane (bass) for helping the album reach its potential in the studio. He describes the whole process as an emotionally physically and mentally “full-on” experience, where they weren’t done recording until they “couldn’t walk anymore.”
“I loved recording in a basement with a steel door to lock behind us. Like goodbye world, we have a record to make!” says Bogin.
Tracks 1 through 5 on I Was Once A Bird are charged with raw emotion, with heavier orchestration, telling their own unique stories. Track 6 through 10 have fewer breaks and string together with their own plot, with the same tuning, same key and same references. There’s some folk songwriting in the mix, but the overall sound is big and has an excellent, polished “in-studio” finish to it. Bogin’s vocals remain very focused and passionately packed throughout the whole record, with extra overdubs accentuating his “all-out” approach.
“This is the first record I made where I didn’t try to hide behind my vocals, where I came out and was like, ‘Here they are, I’m confident in my voice.’ Nick and I live a block away from each other. We spent months [after recording at Saltlands] in his apartment overdubbing vocals and fun percussive stuff and I think a couple acoustic overdubs,” says Bogin.
Aside from putting on finishing touches at Smeraski’s apartment, the band did follow-up work for the record at other likely spaces, including “Katelynn’s Place,” “Boginham Palace.” They named the former space after Nick’s Girlfriend, and the latter space’s title was assigned to Bogin’s parents’ house in Chicago. According to the band, all of the mixing for the album was done at “Katelynn’s Place.”
In terms of writing, Bogin really tried to embraced creative opportunities on the record. “I like thinking up instruments and vocal harmonies to add in, and figuring out how to make the words work and the music work and all of that. I love the writing process. I live to write songs–it’s one of my favorite things in the world,” says Bogin. He elaborates further:
You always have to be on and creative. You can’t turn that stream off or else the album will suck and people can hear when an album ran out of creativity. I enjoyed sitting in my parents’ basement in Chicago and recording demo vocals and then coming upstairs to have a meal and go back down. The whole thing is so cool. You’re creating this thing that is not in existence. Where does it come from? I have no clue but it’s so much fun to create it.
The musician traveled through Europe for a month after finishing most of the record. He says the overall “gloss” to the final product was very much influenced by his travels through Sweden, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. The final changes were alterations with different mixes, instruments, and other minor but productive adjustments:
The song ‘Mette By the Canal’ is sort of based on my friend Mette in Copenhagen. I stayed with her for a few days and she is really beautiful and smart, and the kind of person who inspires poetry. The song was already written and recorded and was going to be called ‘Canal.’ When I got back from Europe I realized that the song title was a cop-out. Just calling it one word that I took from the lyrics, it was lazy and uncreative. One amazing night I had in Copenhagen was a fun beer-drinking, food-eating one on a river with her. I really love the play on words with Met Her By the Canal with ‘Mette By the Canal.’ Mette is one of the most popular female names in Denmark for girls born in the ’80s and ’90s. So it has multiple layers to it.
Just as the production of the album was handled with care, the band is also trying to release the album their own special way. Bogin and Smeraski designed the font and drew the album artwork, which features a colorful monster with nine arms and a ton of eyes, trying to grab at hanging fruit. The art is about going toward–reaching toward–new prospects in life. The musician says the last album’s artwork was cute and he doesn’t want this album to receive the same response. It’s a part of their efforts in moving forward and evolving, Bogin says.
The release might not be until a few months from now, but the band is speaking with people who might help out, including David Noel from SoundCloud, who organized a pre-release premiere stream, where fans can download the album for a low price for just a few days. But Bogin insists that the eventual release will include some vinyl in addition to MP3s, “This is an album that needs to be released on vinyl. It was made for it, side A, side B, the artwork…everything needs that vinyl smell, sound and feel. Hopefully we can get that to the people within a few months on the right label.”
For people who don’t want to wait to hear the album, the band just released a new music video for their song “Water Voices”: