“I met an artist in China, and we were talking about process, and what they told me was, ‘You need to listen to the piece and it will become itself.’ “
Beijing, Spring, 2019: Whale Fall were about to play their first live show in China — and they were horrified.
Erik Tokle, the band’s voluble bass player, recalls the moment. “We walked into the club, and it was a 700-person capacity big room. We’re used to playing small local clubs, 150 to 200-person capacity. We walked into this place, and I remember turning to [drummer Aaron] Farinelli and going, ‘Dude, this place is going to be empty. We’re going to be playing for 10 people.’ I felt horrible. I’m thinking the promoter is going to feel like a jerk, he’s gonna be so pissed. And we walked out on stage and there was a five-foot-tall drum riser for Aaron. I was like ‘Dude, ok, huge amps, drum riser, giant room—it’s gonna be empty. This is going to be a disaster.’ So I was steeling myself for the worst.”
The band was trying to get themselves psyched up for what they thought would be a bomb when the promoter, YiQi Liu, came backstage. “You guys might want to go take a look,” he said, so Tokle poked his head out. “I got out front and there was a line around the block, like, around the block, packed, jam-packed. We all come and take a peek out of the backstage door and the club is filled, filled to capacity. And it was like, oh my god, did we die on the plane on the way over here?” The band went out to play, “and as soon as J. Matt [Greenberg] put the horn to his lips, the crowd erupted, literally just ‘YEAH!!!!’”
Whale Fall had arrived.
At the end of 2018, the band played a rare concert to celebrate the release of their third album, Sondersongs. The small-club Los Angeles show drew an enthusiastic crowd, but their announcement that, in 2019, they would be playing a tour of China was met with polite disbelief. Whale Fall themselves were bemused, but game for an adventure.
It started with an email. “‘My name is Liu, I represent a record label [in China] called Weary Bird Records, and I would love to bring you guys over for a China tour,’” Tokle recounts. “And you know, you get an email like that and your first response is ‘This kind of sounds like nonsense.’ I figured this guy’s got a little label, he’s probably selling 20 CDs a year. He’s going to bring us over and we’ll play some coffee shops for five or 10 American expats.” But the band decided a free trip to China could be fun. “Maybe best-case scenario we play a show for a hundred people, and maybe make a couple of new fans.” They had zero expectations, Greenberg agrees. “Absolutely no idea what was going to happen.”
What did happen “met and exceeded completely every dream I’d ever had of ‘rock stardom,’” Tokle says. Every show was sold out or close to it. “We felt like the Beatles. It was that good. At the end of the tour, we were like, ‘I don’t ever want to play the States, because if we play the States, we’re going to be in a broken-down van, playing for a couple people, maybe get a hot dog before the show.’” On the China tour, the band travelled on a chartered bus, feasted on excellent Chinese food each night, and spent a couple of hours signing autographs after every show, with the young audience members telling the band that Whale Fall (the band’s first release, in 2011) had been the first post-rock album they had ever bought.
In part, this was thanks to Liu, a tireless promoter, who brings bands such as Slowdive to an enthusiastic Chinese audience. But it was also possibly serendipitous timing. The post-rock scene in China developed around the same time as Whale Fall’s first album came out. “I’m guessing,” Tokle hazards, “that our first record came out at just the right time to catch something.”
The music for Whale Fall’s upcoming fourth album, It Will Become Itself, was recorded before that epic China tour—nearly a year earlier, in June of 2018, even before the album release show for their third album where they had announced the trip. Nevertheless, it bears the influence of the trip in several ways, including on the title.
Tokle elaborates, “I met an artist in China, and we were talking about process, and what they told me was, ‘You need to listen to the piece and it will become itself.’ And to me that was a real resonance with the way that this [music] kind of came about, on several levels. First of all, I think conceptually it’s a really beautiful idea that if you are applying your skills to a structure, and you’re authentically engaging with a piece, it’s going to become what it was meant to be; it is going to become itself. Secondly, with our experience in China being that we had no idea what we actually were in China, and then to sort of become what we became—which was, I’d say, a fairly successful performing entity—that really resonated with me.”
“It will become itself” reverberated so strongly that Tokle got a Chinese friend to record himself speaking the phrase in Chinese. Then he added the phrase to the record in post-processing, long after the original music had been recorded.
Another fragment from the trip also became part of the album. As Greenberg recalls it, “Leticia [Greenberg’s wife] and I were walking around Beijing the day of our first show, and we happened on a Buddhist temple. We went in and they were having a ceremony, and we made a little audio recording of part of it. We got back, and first of all played it for the rest of the band. They really loved the sound of it, and then Tokle was able to weave it in the way that you [can hear on the album].”
That field recording isn’t the peaceful chanting an American audience might imagine. Instead it is cacophonous, texturally brash. “It’s like drumming, and a strange kind of reed instrument, and then there’s some talking in the background,” Greenberg says. “And I don’t know how many guys were playing hand cymbals,” Tokle adds. The resulting effect is, surprisingly, almost industrial in nature, adding to the breadth of genres discernible on It Will Become Itself.
It Will Become Itself wasn’t formed in their usual manner, but it captures better some of the natural interactions of the group. As Tokle puts it, “Much of our work on the previous three records is very considered; in some cases I would say overworked?”
Tokle: “Yeah, a little overwrought. So on this release we were saying, ‘Let’s just try to keep this raw and keep it as close to the point of inception as possible.‘ And it wasn’t intended to be a record. The way I look at it is, we’ve got the trilogy of the big three records; this is kind of like ‘Rogue One.’”
Greenberg laughs. “Yeah, it’s ‘A Whale Fall Story.’”
The album was nearly an accident. “This was not recorded as demos for an album, much less an album or anything like that,” says Greenberg. “This was us setting up our studio, and we were very excited about the fact that for the first time we had it where everything was mic’d up and we could record ourselves practicing in real time just to get the ideas down. Because in the past, we’d done something similar where we just threw up a Zoom and just recorded something on that. We had countless, countless, countless recordings like that.
“This was an advanced version of that. We were recording ourselves live to multi-track. And it literally was just lost for six months. We would just record them and just leave them alone on the computer. And then Tokle went back through in December  and discovered it and said, ‘This is great, this might even be worthy of an album.’”
The rest of the band thought so too. Recording as pure rehearsal had allowed them a freedom that their album work had lacked. Greenberg explains, “No one had any thought that anyone else would hear it but us. So we all kind of let our guard down, we threw caution to the wind. And you can really, really hear it, especially in Aaron [Farinelli]’s [drum] playing. His playing is much freer, much less restrained. I think it’s his best playing as far as anything we’ve ever released.”
“That’s a great point.” Tokle nods. “It’s kind of like where you know you’re being filmed; you kind of put a front on to a certain degree. When you know you’re being recorded, you kind of get inside your head a little bit. The fact that we literally turned the tape on and just played—we were loose, we were in the moment. We didn’t have any agenda—like, literally, zero agenda.
“We’ve done that as long as we have been a band. We get together in our studio and just jam, and generally when we are writing, our writing process is [to play] a riff or two, and then present a musical problem and see how we’re going to solve it. And I think because we’re all so in tune with one another, we have a very uncanny ability to catch changes and to catch dynamic shifts and to catch rhythmic shifts. It becomes very nonverbal. I’ve played in a lot of groups with a lot of different musicians, and for my part, this is the most in-tune group of guys I’ve ever played with. And you know we’re great friends, too, which is really helpful. We provide a safe space for ourselves creatively. We are never going to judge an idea until we’ve fully explored it.”
Which is not to say the album is pure improvisation. Greenberg explains, “This was maybe the second or third time we played any of those ideas…we had three basic structures we knew we were going to weave in, but we didn’t know when, we didn’t know how, and we didn’t know where.” Once the recording had been unearthed and selected, they added to it. “There are a number of overdubbed tracks by all of the original band members except for drums. We went back in the studio and said, ‘This is great as it is, but can we enhance it, can we kind of get a hybrid best-of-both-worlds?’ And so there are overdubbed trumpet tracks, there’s some overdubbed guitar—in contradistinction to our other albums where Tokle plays a little bit of guitar on very particular songs, Tokle plays a lot of overdubbed guitar on this record. Dave [Pomeranz] did some overdubbing, Ali [Vazin] did a little bit.”
They also decided to bring in some guests. Tokle says, “We actually just considered keeping it to the core five, and we went back and forth and said, ‘It really doesn’t sound like a Whale Fall record unless there’s cello on it, and we really like saxophone, we should probably get Daniel there…’” Enter Artyom Manukyan, a session cellist, “one of the best cellists in L.A.,” and Daniel Rotem, who adds tenor sax and flute. Manukyan took a similar improvisational approach to that of the band. After listening “a little bit” to the album, he simply began playing along as though he had been in the original jam session, then improvised a second track on top of his first. A long, laborious process of mixing and decision-making—the band makes all musical decisions via consensus—followed. And finally, in early 2020, the album became, well, itself.
The result of all this immediacy and freshness can be heard on Friday, March 27, 2020 when the exquisite It Will Become Itself is released on vinyl, CD and digital here.