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Interview: Chuck Criss Of Freelance Whales

By Joseph Erbentraut in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 16, 2010 5:40PM

2010_03_15_freelancewhales.jpg The "band to watch" story line is an admittedly tired one, worn out by many acts who may or may not have gone on to Apple product-selling fame while sharing any number of common defining characteristics: They meet on Craigslist. They amalgamate a slew of wacky instruments and asymmetrical haircuts. They play in transit stations and PBR-soaked house parties until, one day, they're discovered. It's the modern-day fairy tale of a band born from obscurity and launched into almost-stardom.

But to dismiss Freelance Whales, the Brooklyn pop outfit many predict will soon ascend to the "it band" throne, as overly derivative of other acts or otherwise unworthy would be your loss. On the brink of their SXSW debut this week, followed by the official release of their debut album Weathervanes next month, this band - glockenspiel, dream journal-based lyrics and all - deserves a listen from anyone vaguely attracted to rooftops, night skies or, put less opaquely, good music.

Chicagoist spoke with band member Chuck Criss while the Whales swam their way through the Blue Ridge Mountains en route to their next show on tour with Cymbals Eat Guitars and Bear in Heaven. They will surface in Chicago for an early show at Schubas Tavern on Thursday, April 4.

Chicagoist: I read on the band Twitter that you're currently driving through Pigeon Forge, Tenn., which you described as "the coolest city you've ever driven through." What stood out to the Whales about it?

Chuck Criss: It's crazy, we were in Asheville last night and part of the interstate was closed off because of a rock slide or something. We took a detour through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and ended up in Pigeon Forge on the other side of it. This place has probably four or five mini-golf, laser tag, novelty family fun vacation-type things on every block. And I think Dollywood's somewhere around here. And there's even a bear-petting zoo here, taking advantage of the genius idea of being able to pet a bear!

C: Have you all been able to indulge in any of the family-fun times?

CC: It's really tempting, but we're on a time crunch. We'll have to keep Pigeon Forge in mind on future tours, though.

C: Somehow, picturing you all surrounded by mountains doesn't feel like too big of a stretch. Would you say you're feeling the country twang? Any of Dolly Parton's inner spirit reaching you from the Dollywood grounds?

CC: Certainly. We take everything Dolly Parton says as gospel.

C: We're in absolute agreement at that. How has this latest bunch of tour dates been going for you? Are you pumped to be headed to SXSW?

CC: It feels really good. We love being on the road and don't really know what to expect at SXSW.

C: With so many instruments involved in the Whales' sound, and so many shows scheduled during your stay in Austin, how do you think you'll manage your intricate stage set-up? Or do you pretty much have it down to a science by now?

CC: We're playing three shows-plus a day at this point [at SXSW] and I'd say we have it down to a semi-science. We're definitely getting better at it. At SXSW, we'll have about 20 minutes to set up for each of the shows, so we're kind of fire-drilling it before we get there, making sure we can do it in the shortest amount of time possible. Hopefully we've got it down!

C: Your debut album - Weathervanes - on Frenchkiss was set to be released this month, but the date was pushed forward to April 13. Why did you decide to take more time with it?

CC: We wanted to get some more video content together, and to get a music video [for Generator ^ Second Floor] out before the album's released in stores. The label thought we needed an extra month, but if you pre-ordered it, I think you'll still get it on the original date [March 16]. It actually works out that we'll be playing at the Bowery on the 13th so that will be a nice kind of show and album release party.

C: The album is packed with very dreamy-feeling lyrics and instrumentation, owing to [frontman] Judah [Dadone]'s dream journal-bred lyrics, that I had to wonder: Have you taken a look at an interpretation dictionary to derive some meaning - perhaps like a crystal ball?

CC: It's always a mixed thing, people see recurring images in their dreams and I'm sure there's some childhood regression as a big theme of the album, but we didn't read so much into it. Judah did the dream logging and that was really the lyrical focal point. It's probably unhealthy to analyze it, but there's definitely some meaning there.

C: Well, if you are interested, I looked into some interpretations of a few major recurring images in the album's lyrics: Electricity, staircases and generators. You don't have too much to worry about: Electricity symbolizes vigor and life energy, a need to be revitalized. Staircases represent change and transformation. Generators can be a metaphor that you are creating something new. What do you make of all that?

CC: I guess that sounds pretty accurate. I mean, there's no really unnerving realizations under those. I think another one I'd say - in Hannah - is that fact of not knowing whether you're going up or down. That's the frustration of the dream, the worry of it all.

C: Speaking of worries, there's been a ton of press building on you guys lately, and many writers have taken to the "next big band" label when they refer to you. Do you read your press? What do you think of that label?

CC: We read a little bit here and there. I think a couple months ago, we read all of it, but we've gotten really busy and it's the last thing on our plate. So recently it's been less so. We've been advised not to read our own press but sometimes you can't help yourself, but it seems like a lot of people are responding well to the album. It's such an amazing thing, though, with everyone and their brother having their own music blog, there's a lot out there.

C: And, of course, then the comparison game begins. Two major ones that consistently pop up for the Whales are Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire. What do you think of those comparisons? Has the trend toward comparison in music press driven you crazy yet?

CC: No, I mean, I think it's flattering. I don't think the comparisons are trying to pigeonhole bands. They're just a way of expressing if you like this band or artist, you might like this, too. If that's part of a platform for us to share our music, we're cool with that. A lot of the comparisons don't really stem from the sound of the whole album as much of one section of one song, and that's where we see a Sufjan or Arcade Fire comparison. But it hasn't driven us crazy. There are far worse comparisons writers could be making.