Road to the Governors Ball: Freelance Whales

brent johnson speaks with the drummer from Freelance Whales, who just happens to be one of his oldest friends …

These days, Jake Hyman is the bearded drummer for Freelance Whales — one of the most buzzed-about bands to emerge from Brooklyn’s vaunted indie-rock scene.

But a decade ago, I knew Jake Hyman as something else: the drummer in Honorable Blue — one of the most buzzed-about bands at East Brunswick High School in suburban New Jersey.

Years before Freelance Whales graced the pages of Spin and shared festival stages with Beck and Fiona Apple, Jake was one of my closest friends in high school. We had classes together. We bonded over our unbridled love for Dave Matthews. And yes, he played drums in my first band.

Freelance Whales drummer Jake Hyman

Honorable Blue gathered in his basement, arranging our acoustic-driven originals and pounding out covers of Oasis’ ‘Live Forever’ and Third Eye Blind’s ‘Semi-Charmed Life.’ For a group of teenagers, we were pretty good. We played a mean version of ‘All Along The Watchtower,’ and we reigned supreme at nearly every Battle of the Bands we entered.

We owed a good chunk of it to Jake. His playing was fluid, creative, powerful — and he had a lovely voice, to boot. Jake proved the old maxim true: that having a solid drummer makes any band sound better.

But he’s seen a much larger level of success lately. Three years ago, the George Washington University graduate was working at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, while playing music in his spare time. Then came Freelance Whales. Most of the members found each other via Craigslist, though Jake hooked up with the group through a mutual friend.

“I tried out, and that was it,” the 26-year-old recalls.

If you haven’t heard Freelance Whales, it’s likely the guy in flannel and horn-rimmed glasses that sits next to you at work has. The group gained attention for busking in New York City subways before shows, playing pretty folk-pop tunes with an odd array of instruments: banjo, glockenspiel and accordion. And where Jake used to move his arms like a crazed octopus on jammy DMB songs in his basement, you often can find him now keeping a beat on a marching-band bass drum.

Their debut album, Weathervanes, drew praise from Entertainment Weekly. Their music was featured on TV shows Chuck and One Tree Hill, as well as a Chevrolet commercial. And pop fans might be familiar multi-instrumentalist Chuck Criss’ brother: Glee cast member Darren Criss.

Freelance Whales recently finished work on their sophomore record. This weekend, they played the Governors Ball music festival at Governors Island in New York City.

Jake and I caught up on the phone to talk about how to build a fan base by playing in subways, where to find a glockenspiel and how he feels when his group is labeled as a “hipster” band.

Pop-Break: What was your initial reaction to the music when you joined the band?

Jake Hyman: You know me — I was pretty jam-based, coming from a really improvisational standpoint. In college, I studied a lot of jazz and Latin drumming, and orchestral drumming. So, I was trying to approach the band from a more orchestral place, because I had done so much funk and free, show-off drummy stuff before. I guess my idea was to join a band that would cause me to be more disciplined in my parts.

PB: Did you guys really play in subway stations?

JH: When we first started, before every show, we’d go to the subway, either in Bedford or on the Lower East Side, depending on where our show was. We would just play acoustically as sort of a way to hone our skills, get our voices blending well. And eventually, it became a tool to get people out to shows. We tried it randomly one day in Williamsburg on the street, and that day, maybe 15 people came up to us and said they’d come to the show because they’d seen us play on the street. We realized that we were relying only on friends, as most bands do, to come and meet our minimums at these clubs. We realized if we just played on the street for an hour once or twice before a show, we would be warmed up and we would get dozens more people at the show. It eventually became where we’d tell people we’d be going out, and the subway platform would get too crowded, so we couldn’t really do it anymore.

PB: You guys have an interesting array of instruments on your records. But how in the world does one even find a glockenspiel?

JH: They sell glockenspiels all over the place. I think Guitar Center is the only store that doesn’t sell them. It’s something we just sort of came across when we started. I think when Judah was writing the record — the first record — he had a very specific vision for the sound he wanted and the textures he wanted. I think if the part is informing the instrument, you just go find it. And with the Internet being around, it makes it really easy to get whatever you need.

PB: Like you said, you play a different kind of drum style in this band than I remember you playing. Did you have to learn anything new?

JH: I just think I had to adapt to reigning it in a little bit — being sort of minimalist and playing a repetitive part and not varying my approach to the part throughout a song. The drums parts on the first record are pretty steady. They serve a very specific purpose. And if you stray from that purpose, the whole thing can fall apart. I definitely had to re-learn to be Ringo style, in the pocket, all the time. And that’s a really important thing for a drummer to know. And it’s something that when you play in jam bands all the time, it can be very useful, and if you stray away from it, it can make you not that fun to play with.

Recently, for the new record, I have a lot of samples that I play. I now have incorporated a sampler.

PB: So what is up with the sophomore album?

JH: It is done. We don’t have a release date yet. We’re hoping for sometime in the late summer, early fall. Probably the early fall at this point. It’s mastered, it’s mixed. We’re getting the machine up and running again. We’re looking forward to getting out on the road and playing some festivals this summer, and debuting some new tunes.

PB: What’s different about this album than the first one?

JH: I think it’s a much more atmospheric album. There are a lot of grandiose moments where songs start very humbly and then build to these big crescendos that is a consequence of the fact that there are five of us kind of building together. So, it’ll start with the sort of direct, rhythmic interaction you get from the first record, and there’s definitely plenty of that. But that directness kind of blooms, and then there’s a lot of other things going on to hold it up.

PB: We grew up in an age where The Wallflowers and Third Eye Blind were played on popular radio. Do you ever with there was still that kind of diversity on the air — where a band like yours could actually get played? Or does that not matter to you?

JH: It doesn’t matter to me on an emotional level. [laughs] I don’t wish for myself that I could be on the radio. But from a business standpoint, it would be really helpful for bands like us if we could get play on something other than alternative or college radio.

PB: Because you have melodic songs, and there was a time you might have heard that on the air — back when Radiohead got played on Top 40 stations. It seems like that’s gone, and it’s a shame.

JH: Yeah, it’s a shame the cards have been stacked against smaller bands to be able to get on the radio — unless you fit in a certain mold, or unless Dr. Luke wrote your songs. But that being said, even indie labels have entire teams of people that are dedicated to getting their indie bands on the radio. Every once in a while, you’ll get a breakout.

PB: How often do you guys get labeled a hipster band?

JH: I’m not sure. Probably often, but not many people have said it to my face.

PB: That seems like this kind of word that has become polarizing. It seems like a lot of good music becomes pigeonholed because of it. Does that bother you guys?

JH: I think it’s unfortunate when people use a label like “hipster” or “indie” or whatever to describe a band and write them off on one word. Because you can’t really sum up any band in one word. It’s kind of cheesy, but it’s unfair to the band and it’s just kind of ignorant. It’s not really seeing things for what they are — which is that every band has lots of influences, and “hipster” is not one of them.

PB: So am I the asshole that calls you a hipster to your face?

JH: No, it’s fine. I can see why someone would think that hipsters would like our music. I suppose if you could pigeonhole a person into being a hipster, then perhaps that person might like our music. But equally, if a hipster is trying to be counterculture or antiestablishment, then they won’t like our music because it’s easy to like.

PB: Exactly. I don’t understand why music is pigeonholed or someone wouldn’t listen to a style of music because it’s labeled a certain thing. Why not embrace all types of music?

JH: Yeah, I like music. That’s what I like.

PB: And that was one of the cool things about growing up in East Brunswick. That’s a very musical town. It seemed like everyone listened to everything, everyone was in a band, and our school sponsored a slew of music events. We were lucky.

JH: I agree with that. I think we got off easy. You hear horror stories about people in schools liking certain bands and getting picked on for it, or wanting to play a show and getting booed off the stage or something. Music was always totally embraced in East Brunswick.

PB: What’s your favorite venue you’ve played?

JH: The 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. It’s just the best club in the country. The crowd in D.C. is the best crowd, and the club treats you right, and the sound is incredible, and the lighting is perfect. It’s just a perfect venue. There’s nothing wrong with playing there ever.

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