Interview: The Whybirds
A tale of four songwriters that became three, stuck together, and managed to create one of the year’s best albums
edford-based alt-country rock band The Whybirds were a unique concept when they emerged in 2007 – four equally-capable musicians who all shared lead vocal and songwriting responsibilities. A tantalising prospect, and with their self-titled debut album in 2008, followed by the critically acclaimed Cold Blue Sky in 2010, it looked like the group would be on an upward trajectory.
Then, just as things were starting to develop, the bassist and key songwriter Taff Thatcher made an amicable exit from the band, leaving the remaining Whybirds – Dave Banks, Ben Haswell and Luke Tuchscherer – to contemplate whether they should continue. In the end, they decided to make it work as a three-piece, took the fan-funding route with Pledge Music, and soldiered on to make their third LP A Little Blood, which found its way to the Songwriting office and achieved top marks in our recent review.
We caught up with the drummer Luke and guitarist Dave relaxing at home, shortly before the release of the album, to discuss their abrupt change in personnel, and how the three remaining songwriters still maintain a collaborative approach.
How did the band start?
Luke Tuchscherer: “Me, Taff and Ben had been playing together since we were about 14 years old, when we were in the band called The View. It was more of a ‘riffy’ kind of thing with Ben writing the music and Alex, the singer, coming up with the melodies, and I’d come up with the lyrics if Alex would be struggling. Dave was a friend we’d known for a long time, so when The View broke up in 2005, we got him in and reformed, then in 2006 we became The Whybirds and took it a bit more seriously.”
With Taff leaving, has the band dynamic shifted in terms of songwriting?
Dave Banks: “Not massively, to be honest. We still bring in our own songs and everyone adds their parts. At least half of the time we’ll start with an almost-finished song, then polish bits up and change a few lyrics in the studio.“
LT: “Me and Taff used to just individually demo songs on our four-tracks – just acoustic guitar and vocals, maybe some harmonies – but Ben and Dave like to bring together something more complete and well-rounded. They’ll go to town with arrangements on a demo, putting on drum tracks, piano, solos and stuff.”
Before recording this album, did you all go away with a theme agreed and write for it, or did it all just come together naturally?[cc_blockquote_right] IF I’M IN A HAPPY MOOD, I WON’T BE BOTHERED ABOUT WRITING. BUT IF I’M GOING THROUGH SOME SORT OF ISSUE IN MY LIFE, THEN THE SONG WILL COME [/cc_blockquote_right]LT: ”It sort of naturally evolved and we picked the songs that fitted. With Taff leaving, we basically had to relearn how to be a band, so there was a year of inactivity when we didn’t do a whole lot, other than practice and practice, to get good as a three-piece. With Cold Blue Sky we were still a four-piece and were working with [Neil Young’s producer] Elliot Mazer. Everything was looking really good – we were getting taken to fancy studios and were promised we’d move to North Carolina and tour the States – but none of that happened in the end. It just fizzled out. Lyrically, the last album was quite happy, whereas there’s not a lot of that going on in this one.”
DB: “Yeah, everything was in a major key, it was all pretty chirpy with songs about getting out of town. Then that didn’t happen, so this one’s kind of the exact opposite!”
That’s interesting, we didn’t hear that self-doubt and negativity. The new album still has a lot of swagger and sounds like a band with a lot of confidence.
LT: “That’ll be the producer, Nick Mailing! Well, you know, our demos – maybe eight or nine songs that ended up on the album – were very much in the Uncle Tupelo, Replacements, raucous alt.country sort of thing – basically, what The Whybirds used to be without an extra guitar. But the producer got us to strip the songs back to their basics and look at the arrangement, and think about things in terms of groove. One of the first things he said was that every song on the record should have one thing that, on first listen, you’d be able to identify it with. So if anything was looking too same-y, we’d work on it, until it had its own identity.”
You can hear a lot of influences on the new album, but who would you say are the main songwriters who genuinely influence your sound?
DB: “Springsteen definitely. Ryan Adams for me.”
LT: “Yeah, and me. Steve Earle, Neil Young, Tom Waits… We’re always going to write that way. The Whybirds were just about playing acoustic songs loudly on electric guitars, which we loved doing, but with this one, [the songs] were a lot more involved, so we ended up using other influences we hadn’t considered before. Me and Ben were big grunge people growing up, so Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney all came out. We even looked at The Black Keys and My Morning Jacket, that Dave loves. There’s all sorts of things that went into this one. Even Nick was throwing references at us like early ZZ Top, that went into a song like The Cure.”
All these references are American, but there’s also a very British tone to the album. Do you have the same reverence to English rock bands?
LT: “I don’t know, but Ben definitely does. I think he loves Oasis and his favourite band hands-down is The Beatles. The only real Britpop band I liked from that era would be Supergrass, but we certainly wouldn’t rule it out. Maybe we have been a bit more English on this, and that might’ve come from working with Nick.”
How do you individually approach writing songs?
LT: “Well, Steve Earle can write on demand where he’ll decide to write a song that day, then sits down and does it. I can’t do that. I’d feel like I’m forcing it, and as soon as I do that I stop. But Earle also has what he calls ‘sky songs’ where they seem to come from nowhere. That’s what happens with me. So normally I’ll have a spare couple of hours and I’ll pick up the guitar and something will come out. It’ll normally happen fairly quickly, but if it doesn’t come I’ll give it a rest and come back to it. I’ve got a digital four-track, so I can always record things pretty quickly and, if I’ve got enough the time, I’ll write it, demo it and send it on to the boys the same day. It tends to be that, if I’m in a happy mood, I won’t be bothered about writing. But if I’m going through some sort of issue in my life, then the song will come.”
DB: “It’s the opposite for me. A lot of the time I’ll come with a chorus, and spend a couple of months churning at it, before showing it to people. Driving as well, I find that’s good for thinking up lyrics.”
LT: “I think Ben’s probably of that school too, where he’ll slave away at things over a long period. Goes to show that different methods work.”
Is it all based around the guitar for you two?
LT: “Yeah, I know about five chords and they’re in all my songs. It’s better than writing on the drumkit! Dave can play anything, so he’ll write on piano or whatever.”
Lyrically, are your songs character-based or more personal stories?
LT: “Cold Blue Sky wasn’t particularly character-based, but there is more of that on A Little Blood. A song like More Than He Can Stand, which Dave wrote the lyrics for, was a story song. Nobody Knows Me is a character song, and Cheating Heart too – Dave wrote that, and he’s the nicest guy you’ll meet, who isn’t going to cheat on his girlfriend! With A Little Blood, Ben had written the original lyric as a love song for his wife, but Nick the producer said it doesn’t really match the music. It sounded like an angry song, and I had some lyrics that was a really nasty song written about a social vampire – which is where the title came from. So we combined the nastiness of my lyrics with Ben’s original, and it turned into this song about going out with someone needy and, no matter how much you give them, they always want more.”[cc_blockquote_right] WHENEVER SOMETHING DIDN’T HAPPEN, OR FIZZLED OUT, WE’D ALWAYS JUST GO, ‘F**K IT, WE’LL DO IT OURSELVES’ [/cc_blockquote_right]How about The Cure?
LT: “That first verse was 100% autobiographical – I was unemployed, drinking a lot, and not in a very good place. But the song just felt like it had to be sad, Dave’s chorus was already about regret, so whereas I found ‘the cure’ and thankfully held onto it, the guy in the song wasn’t so lucky!”
Over what period was A Little Blood written and recorded?
DB: “It was probably about a year ago when we went in to do the first bunch of demos, and that was when they were written, but we did change a lot in the studio.”
You were reportedly close to jacking it in after Taff left and before you started A Little Blood. When did it turn around?
DB: “Probably in the studio. For me, it was a struggle to play as a guitarist without Taff. But once we got in the studio and started changing things around a bit, it clicked and we thought this is actually pretty brilliant!”
LT: “When Taff left, the initial discussion was around getting another bassist. But we didn’t even get to the point of auditioning anyone, because we just thought they’d have to be a brilliant bass player and a brilliant singer, plus Taff was a great songwriter. That’s already pretty big shoes for anyone to fill. On top of that, the rest of us have been playing together for years and are best friends, so no-one would’ve wanted to come into the band. So there appeared to be no other option other than to quit, but then Ben said, ‘Why don’t I play bass?’ That saved the band really.”
You used Pledge Music to raise the funds for this album. What made you go down that route?
DB: “We couldn’t afford to make an album! It was our only option and it didn’t cover everything, but it helped a lot. It’s been a struggle, but we’ve just about managed to do it all ourselves.”
LB: “Before, the band would always sustain itself and we didn’t have to dig into our own pockets, and this time it was kind of the same. But there were extra things we wanted to pay for, like press and getting it really well mastered. We were in the studio for a lot longer than we thought we were going to be, and obviously that can become a bit of a money pit, so the Pledge Music campaign could at least cover our arses.
Why not sign with a label?
LB: “We’d been in that position before where we’d talk to labels, and nothing really panned out. Whenever something that was supposed to happen didn’t, or fizzled out, we’d always just go, ‘F**k it, we’ll do it ourselves.’ We’ve probably shot ourselves in the foot a thousand times, but there you go!”
Interview: Aaron Slater
The outstanding album A Little Blood from The Whybirds is out now and available to buy direct from the band’s site here: www.thewhybirds.com. In the meantime, listen to lead single The Cure below…