Or, the Whale prefers a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll
Back in the early aughts, when he was studying for his bachelor’s degree in history, Alex Robins was playing in a punk band. He recalls—with a chuckle—his passion for a decidedly heavier genre of music than the sometimes woeful, sometimes rollicking brand of alt-country for which his San Francisco group, Or, The Whale, is now known.
“I was super into metal in college,” Robins says. “I was like, ‘More solos! More time changes!’”
These days, while he certainly still appreciates “the physical capabilities of humans being able to shred that hard,” you won’t hear an Or, The Whale song featuring blistering Phrygian sweeps and pinch harmonics screaming out of Mesa Boogie half stacks.
Instead, when Or, The Whale comes to a musical interlude, as it will when the band hits The Crepe Place on Friday, March 11, you are more than likely to hear some old-timey, foot-stomping fiddle runs and mournful pedal steel slides, supported by finger-plucked banjo and sauntering two-step, country bass lines.
Robins, one of three founding members of Or, The Whale—which takes its name from the alternate title to Herman Melville’s classic novel, “Moby Dick”—says that at 28 he is far less interested in crafting complex and hard-hitting tunes than he was in his late teens and early 20s.
“For me, writing a good chorus or a good riff—that’s what I’m good at and that’s what I try to stick to,” he says.
Robins is apt at spinning twangy, sorrowful yarns, as on “Death of Me,” from 2007’s Light Poles and Pines, in which his heartache is as palpable as the presumed hangover that comes after the long nights he spends “keeping his whiskey down” in an effort to cope with his emotional anguish.
Or, The Whale is dynamic—easily alternating between drawling Gillian Welch-esque lamentations and bouncy piano-driven numbers, which recall The Avett Brothers’ I and Love and You. The band is currently supporting its 2009 self-titled release, and just returning to their home state from a tour through the United Kingdom and a stint at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
Robins expresses excitement about touring in England and Scotland. It is the first time Or, The Whale has taken its shows overseas, and, as an added challenge, this will be the first tour with several new members who just joined the band at the end of 2010. “Hopefully people dig it,” he says of the dates in the UK.
Robins isn’t sure when the band will record its third album, but says he is sure that it will be more of a straightforward rock album, with fewer country influences.
One reason for the change in styles, he says, is that Or, The Whale has become a more collaborative group since forming in 2006 and more band members are contributing to the songwriting process. While he names Neil Young amongst his biggest influences at the moment, he acknowledges that every band member has their own unique tastes in music.
It is an evolution he welcomes with open arms. Although each of Or, The Whale’s members may not share in his adulation of Young’s On the Beach, they all share a common vision of what the band ought to be.
“We want to be a big, fun rock ’n’ roll band,” Robins says. “A four-four, mid-tempo song just feels great. It’s so fun to play.”
Or, The Whale performs at 9 p.m. Friday, March 11, at The Crepe Place. Tickets are $8. For more information, call 429-6694.
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