The music journalism world is rife with think pieces detailing the ‘death of the album.’ You know the drill. The internet, Spotify, yada yada. Yet all the while we read reports detailing the resurgence of vinyl records—i.e., people buying tangible albums in droves.
While critics continue the debate over whether or not ‘the album’ is alive or dead, I have simply continued to enjoy albums. Full-length, long-form. 10, 12, 15 tracks. Give me vision and cohesion that stretches across a tracklist and you have my attention (and money).
Enter Whale Bones. As readers know, I love discovering local, unsigned and regional music—in fact, we just launched a column for that purpose—but I’ll be the first to admit unsigned artists rarely deliver on long-form quality. The songs may be there but the production is lacking, or vice versa. Usually, it comes down to budget, time, energy and/or experience restraints.
Where others have failed, Whale Bones have thrived.
Hailing from Indiana, the group is set to self-release their debut LP, Island Fire, on March 23. Sonically, Island Fire borrows from Thrice and Manchester Orchestra, whose recent records both revitalized the long-form album (and their careers) with cohesive texture, thematic lyrics and well-executed material. Island Fire continues in that vein. Its atmospheric texture sustains from start to finish with a top-notch production, breathable, stirring compositions, and an energy that’s both palpable and contagious. Simply put, Island Fire is a rock record that rewards its listeners. The listeners of albums.
Below, Behind the Setlist spoke with writer and producer Nathan Kane, the brainchild of Whale Bones. We discussed the intentional and unintentional themes of his songs, how good production requires sacrifice, and the gear that helped these songs come to life. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you feeling now that the album is on the verge of being released?
It’s really strange transitioning through the different phases of an album. It starts with a lot of solitude in writing and revising, and then goes to recording and mixing. Once the content of the record is done, you flip from a creative mind to a more social one. There’s a lot that goes into setting up a release and organizing tours, etc. It’s nice getting to step back from the work and see what’s been accomplished.
I feel like the record is a great representation of where I am at in life, as a writer, engineer and human. I know some artists are tired of their songs by the time they’re actually released, but I’ve felt refreshed and empowered during the release process.
Talk to me about the history of Island Fire. I love that name.
My grandfather built a cabin in the woods on a lake in Canada. There’s very little ability to communicate with the outside world. You’d have to drive a little over 20 minutes to get to a town. I love going up there to reflect and reset on the world.
The title is in literal reference to a fire that was on an island. We saw smoke in the distance and took a boat out to see what was happening. The album artwork was taken that day after the firemen had taken care of most of the flames.
Is that where these songs come from then, Canada?
Quite a few of the songs on the album were written in Canada over the course of a few years. Other songs were written in Indiana and other Midwestern places.
To me, what really sticks out about this album is its cohesion. There’s atmosphere and texture that connects it all. Was that unintended or intentional?
I think it was a little of both. All of the songs hold different meaning and sentiment, so their intent and purpose is completely different. The ideas, both musically and conceptually, are intended to explore separate veins of the overall story. Stepping back from writing the record, I’ve noticed that a lot of the song concepts circle around different aspects of aloneness and fear. These two concepts come into play in a lot of different contexts, and it seems to be where my mind was headed in my writing.
I’ve grown through the birth of this record, and I’m in a different place than I was when I started, but I’m still me. That’s the main piece that ties things together. I don’t think anyone is able to hide their inherent writing style. That’s what gives an artist his or her unique voice.
Take me from conception to completion.
There’s a lot to unpack with the entire history of the record. Some of these songs have been written for years, and some of these songs were completed during the recording process.
From a songwriting perspective, that was both a challenge to make it feel like my own voice, but also inspiring and creative to work in fresh settings. A lot of these songs remained undeveloped for a long time, but eventually grew into what they are now. I like seeing that natural blossom of an idea, as opposed to forcing it to reach a point of completion. It feels more pure, I guess. Once the songs were finished and I felt like there was a sense of wholeness with the work, we went into the studio to record.
We recorded drums at Primary Sound Studios in Bloomington, Indiana. It’s an old church that has been completely remade into a studio. It’s got a wonderfully cozy vibe that really sets the mood for being creative and comfortable. The room sounds are incredible and the microphone choices are really nice. We tracked all of the drums in two days and then spent a third day tying in auxiliary percussion. I took the files back to my studio in Indianapolis and tracked the rest of the album there. I’ve built a setup that is convenient for my workflow, and I was able to comfortably track the rest of the instruments at my own pace.
Island Fire album cover
You produced the album yourself. Tell me about your history as a producer and engineer. What did you learn through the process of recording and producing Island Fire?
I’ve been recording short demos since high school and went to college for audio engineering. During that time, I built a foundation and understanding of the technical side of recording and producing. I also got to meet a lot of wonderful musicians and engineers, which have been really formative for me in those parts of my life. Since graduating in 2016, I’ve been producing and mixing records for other artists.
Island Fire showcases all aspects of my creativity and skill, so I’m excited to use it for the purpose of a portfolio. I think one of the biggest things I took away from the recording process was patience. The guitars for the first two songs on the record, for example, “Island Fire” and “I’ll Try,” were recorded twice. After finishing recording them the first time through, I decided I wasn’t happy with the tone, so I deleted all of my work from the day and bought a new type of strings. I wasn’t willing to settle for something different than my intention and had to sacrifice more time to making it sound right. It was mildly frustrating, but in the end I’m happy with the result.
There are some killer guitar tones on this record. What gear did you fall in love with during this time that influenced the final product?
My ’72 Thinline Fender Telecaster has served as my main guitar since The Seaside EP. I named it Acacia. It has humbuckers, which give it a really full and powerful tone. I’m super comfortable with this guitar and it’s been my go-to for every setting. I used a different guitar at a show once and it changed the mood of the performance beyond subtle nuance.
Recently, I purchased a Danelectro baritone guitar, which I used for some of the more gritty parts on the record. It has a beautiful low timbre that I’ve been using even more in new writings. I named it Joy. There’s something about using a different guitar that allows you to be creative in a completely different way.
I have a very limited set of pedals right now, but one of my main pedals is my Empress Effects Tape Delay. It has a tap tempo that helps me lock into the song and a natural decay that fits in almost any setting. The majority of songs have that somewhere throughout.
Back to the production, it seems like there must be a balance between making something sound good on both expensive headphones and shitty laptop speakers. Self-produced records often miss the mark, but this sounds good.
Well I appreciate that! There were quite a few revisions and I made sure to cross reference on a lot of different speakers so that I was sure my mix choices were translating appropriately.
It’s been three years since the last Whale Bones release and part of the reason is that I wanted to make sure that my abilities as an engineer were up to my standards as a listener. These songs are incredibly meaningful to me and I wanted to do them justice. There can be a charm to the bedroom-style productions, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for Whale Bones.
“Backyard” strikes me as an uncharacteristic first choice for a single. What is it about that song that made you want to lead with it?
I think it serves as a sort of resolve for The Seaside EP. Whereas the EP focused on my faults and problems, “Backyard” provides a sense of hope and empowerment for the future. It’s a very accessible song and a good reintroduction to Whale Bones.
When my friend Joe Etemadi approached me about doing a music video, “Backyard” was the song I kept coming back to. I also think it has some of the most varied production on the record. The instrumentation changes throughout, and dynamically there is a lot going on. “Backyard” feels to be further along the growth spectrum of Whale Bones and a good indicator of the direction future releases will be taking.
Talk to me about “Contrition.” Is there a story behind that song?
I tend to feel a level of discomfort in more personal interactions, which leads to self-sabotage and shutting down. I’ve come to describe this as some sort of anxiety. While this is debilitating and frustrating for me, I also fear it is a hurtful thing to other people. The overall purpose of the song is to acknowledge how I act and apologize for what it causes other people to feel or experience. I don’t make excuses or try to validate my actions. I want to own it and work to be a better person so that everyone can benefit. Hopefully hearing the song will give people that perspective.
“I’ll Try” and “Contrition” both carry that message of repentance. This theme, in fact, seems to bookend the album. “I was wrong” is not a message you hear very often these days.
It’s funny, my friends point out how often I use the word “wrong” in my songs. It’s not a conscious choice, so I guess it’s just something that’s more inherent to me. I tend to have a lot of self-doubt and guilt about things that don’t actually matter or affect anything. A lot of this album is about processing those feelings and trying to understand where they come from. The over-guilty nature is great for my writing, I guess. I try to use it to express and promote self-betterment. I believe that owning faults and working to be better is important, even if I take it too far sometimes.
It’s true that people are consuming playlists and singles more than ever before, but it’s also true that albums are experiencing a resurgence. As a writer and producer of a new full-length album, any thoughts on the “album is dead” debate?
Great question. I think there are certain styles of music that cater more towards the single format, but in the case of Whale Bones, the flow of the record and the subject matter of each individual song gives context to the others. It’s important to appreciate an artist’s work based on their entire release instead of off singles. The art, in this case, is the entire album. There are details within the album (songs, instrumentation, lyrics), but they should be viewed as a whole, in my opinion.
Throughout the record I can hear influences from Manchester Orchestra, Thrice and maybe the Classic Crime. What are some influences I wouldn’t expect?
I love all of those bands, so I’m grateful you can hear their influence peeking through my music. I grew up on grassroots folk, like Richard Shindell, and I think his songwriting, guitar work and vocal timbre have been formative for me. I have quite a few more folk-oriented songs that haven’t seen the light of day yet.
Underoath has been a huge inspiration for me since middle school. Their production and dedication to art have been really strong forces in my growth and writing. Aesop Rock is one that you probably wouldn’t expect, but his subject matter and perspective have given me really strong insight into my own life.
What does the rest of 2018 look like? Touring?
2018 should be a productive year. We’re hoping to play a few full-band tours and get back to a lot of places we’ve visited in the past. I’d love to do some solo tours as well, so I can play these songs with a different mood and in a different setting. I’ve been working on some new music, and I’m hoping to get the ideas down sometime this year.
Header photo by Michael Herrick Imaging.