Charles Bukowski was a writer’s writer. The proudly alcoholic poet/novelist waxed on about the writer’s life and how to distinguish oneself—or, at least, how not to become a cliché.
When Noah & The Whale lyricist Charlie Fink redefined his writing approach for the band’s third album, Last Night on Earth, his muse was Bukowski. One of the poet’s more inspirational lines is quoted on the London-based indie band’s song “Life Is Life.”
“Your life is your life/ know life is your life/ know it while you have it,” Bukowski wrote in “The Laughing Heart.”
“That is basically what the album is about,” says keyboardist/violinist Tom Hobden. The album title is a nod to Bukowski’s collection of poems The Last Night of the Earth, and Fink also read poet Frank O’Hara’s work—emphasis on “Having a Coke With You”—to encourage lyrics to come.
The album’s pervasive theme is the limitless possibilities of the nighttime, he adds.
If that’s vaguely familiar to fans of the Tom Waits canon, the troubadour also served as inspiration for the band’s newfound writing style: delving into personalities and painting intricate scenes. In an interview published in Playboy in March 1988, Waits said, “I’ve learned how to be different musical characters without feeling like I’m eclipsing myself. On the contrary, you discover a whole family living inside you.”
“It was a conscious effort to write these songs in third person and make them relatable to everyone,” Hobden says. “These are everyday characters; they could really be anyone you know or part of you.”
Take one listless traveler on “Tonight’s the Kind of Night,” for example. He sets forth on a nighttime bus bound for anywhere, escaping his life, ready to start anew. That song’s chorus—“Tonight’s the kind of night where everything could change”—was in fact the catalyst for the whole album.
It had been in Fink’s head and, as he rode a train from Wales to London on New Year’s Day in 2010, he wrote the song, finishing by the time he reached London. The band had just finished touring in support of the sophomore release, The First Days of Spring, which was Fink’s autobiographical, heartbreak effort dealing with his breakup with bandmate/girlfriend Laura Marling. It was a necessary time for change, Hobden says.
From there, Fink began illuminating his “family” of nighttime losers, dreamers and prideful characters. Two memorable characters are the woman on “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” who seems transposed from a Bukowski novel, and the girl in “Wild Thing,” who is loosely based on the character Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks.
This album also diverges from previous work in its confidence and sonic experimentation—drum machines and synthesizers find themselves in the mix. But where some bands create a cacophony of sound, Noah and the Whale used the new sonic flares sparsely for an engaging, delicate effect.
“We really wanted to make things as concise as possible. The recording process was all about paring the demos down,” Hobden says. “I think if you listen to most of your favorite songs, you’ll realize they are really minimal.”
They created songs reminiscent of Tom Petty, Lou Reed or Bruce Springsteen—something atypical of their previous records. Hobden also cites Arthur Russell’s experimental use of synth and out-of-the-box compositions as inspiration while recording. The cellist, composer and musician, whose styles varied widely throughout the ’80s and ’90s, was little known until after his death. “He also scored movies. We like that approach—like each song is creating little scenes,” Hobden says.
A cinematic approach seems fitting. They are movie aficionados, and their name comes from combining names of a favorite movie, The Squid and the Whale, and its director, Noah Baumbach.
In early May, Noah & The Whale premiered a behind-the-scenes short about Last Night on Earth’s making, still found at LastNightonEarth.org.
NOAH & THE WHALE
In the Venue
219 S. 600 West
Thursday, June 2, 6:30 p.m.
$15.50 adv./$17.50 day of