Jake Hyman of Freelance Whales talks about subway busking and road testing songs
Based out of Queens, New York, Freelance Whales (due tonight at the hi-dive with Minature Tigers) play the kind of atmospheric, experimental pop music that is often lumped under the umbrella genre title of "chamber pop." That's probably because the band actually seems to take care to craft songs that are catchy enough, even when they're melancholy, to stick with you well after you hear them.
In the early days of the band, Freelance Whales performed songs on subway platforms in New York City where you're lucky if people give you as little as five minutes to hear a song. But from these sorts of shows and more traditional gigs, the act landed opening slots on tours with other up-and-coming indie rock acts like Fanfarlo, Bear in Heaven and Cymbals Eat Guitars.
This year, the group's 2009 effort, the delicately melodic Weathervanes, was reissued by the two labels Freelance Whales calls home. We spoke with the band's main drummer, Jake Hyman, about those shows busking in the subways of New York and the virtues of road testing songs.
Westword: Is it true that you guys used to busk at subway stations in New York? Why did you do that and what were the most memorable responses you would get?
Jake Hyman: We haven't had to do it too much lately because we've been on the road for so long. But when we were first getting started, it was kind of an unromantic notion about getting people to shows. That was the goal. It wasn't like a money making scheme. It wasn't any way for us to make our living. But it was certainly a way, at a point, to stop having to put so much pressure on our friends to be the only people supporting us. And trying to get out music out there a little more.
It took off in a way we never planned or expected. I think we owe a lot to those... I don't know if you'd call it busking, but we call it public performing and playing for people when they least expected it. It definitely took the average age in the audience up considerably. The responses were incredibly positive.
We selected our locations very carefully and we played places where we knew people were looking to be surprised by something. Like Williamsburg, Brooklyn or the Lower East Side of Manhattan where on any particular night there are a lot of people out and a lot of people are looking to have a good time and willing to give you five minutes.
The very first time we did it, there was a break dancer who came, and he did some break dancing to one of the songs. We had no idea what to expect that first time, and it continued for about eight months until we went on tour.
In that New Dust interview, you said some of your favorite bands road tested material. Who are some of those bands, and what stories of testing out songs are prominent in your memory?
We just started to road test some new songs. Now that we're headlining, we have time to soundcheck and work on new material. One of my favorite bands growing up and still is the Dave Matthews Band, and they are notorious for road testing material. They rarely put out an album that doesn't have songs that haven't been played hundreds of times for people. Phish, also, similar story. Judah and I were big fans of that band. I think it's really cool when a band can take a risk in front of fans.