The album has sold around 200 copies on vinyl, of which lead singer and writer Todd Bogin individually painted, and was downloaded around 16,000 times for free on the band's website.
Once a 10-piece community-based music organization, the band has now formed into a more solidified smorgasbord, five-piece quintet.
Backing the lyrics and music of 28-year-old Chicago native Bogin, Whale Belly is now drummer, vocalist, pianist and producer, Nick Smeraski, 26, from Medford, NJ.; violinist Josh Henderson, 26, from Nashville; bassist Evan Crane, 24, from Sydney, Australia; and guitarist Nick Werber, 26, from NYC.
I sat down with Bogen and Smeraski at Kellogg’s Diner at Union and Metropolitan avenues in Williamsburg last week to discuss the band's origins and its upcoming album, “I Was Once A Bird.”
How did Whale Belly first come about?
Nick: Started out from Todd, playing his songs with friends here and there and then we got together and made an album. The band kind of formed from making that album.
Todd: I was just playing around doing acoustic stuff. I had all these demos from doing all these songs and I had an idea for a record, which was just acoustic stuff. I gave it to him one day and was like, “hey, if you ever want to make a record, here are some songs I have.” He came to see a couple of my acoustic shows and I started playing with Josh, who is our violinist, and then we’re like, “let’s make a record.”
We got together without a band name. I played way too many instruments for a guy who’s terrible at playing instruments and we had 20 different people play on it. It was just super organic.
Before the band, what were you doing?
Todd: Before Whale Belly I was just playing acoustic stuff by myself. I was in a couple bands here and there but nothing serious.
Where did you play mostly?
Todd: Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Nick: We both lived in Park Slope, South Slope.
Todd: Within a couple blocks away.
Nick: We had some common friends and stuff, and there was a pretty good little niche down there. We were just hanging out, a bunch of young kids that wanted to hang out in the neighborhood and not really check out the scene.
Is that how the band was formed?
Todd: Yeah, it really formed kind of accidentally. We didn’t even really have a band name when we first started, we just had a really good concept for the first record that was kind of like this group and community that were singing these songs.
So you would write the song and then take it to the studio?
Todd: For that one it was all written, and people would come into the studio and we would have a bassist, this guy Andrew who played a lot of bass on the tracks, and it was the only time he ever played with us. I’d say, “Hey, this is the song, what can you do? I want this kind of sound,” and I’d just let him create what he can do. Everyone on that album pretty much did their own thing and created their own sound on top of my guitar, rhythm guitar and whoever was on drums.
Is that the same for your upcoming album?
Todd: The record that’s coming out soon is much different. The songs are well crafted, thought out actually. It’s called, “I Was Once A Bird.”
When’s that coming out?
Nick: I’d say in the fall, early fall. We’re in the stage now, where the band is something different, and this album is different. We’re trying to take this, make it more organized and hone it to figure out this summer how to push it out there to a larger audience than just Brooklyn area audience.
Where do you guys live now?
Nick: In Greenpoint by McGolrick Park. If anyone wants to come over and bring an instrument they can.
How do you guys get away with the changing music industry where you can’t just sell records anymore?
Nick: Sometimes it’s hard enough to just sell them.
Todd: I don’t think we have any idea. We’re not scene-sters in anyway, but I think the thing that has helped us is that, we just say, “hey, this is our music and we hope you like it.” We make it so good that people can’t deny it. Not that I’m saying that we’re so great, but we aim to be great.
Nick: We put pressure on it, but we do it because we want it to be really fun and great live, and as creative as possible. We know our goals, and we’re just going to keep working on that, but we’re learning along the way, how to make it sustainable.
Todd: We have a licensing thing too, so we’ll probably sell songs to any commercial that asks, unless it’s like the NRA or something.
So you’re not worried about the whole “selling out” thing?
Todd: Nah, that doesn’t exist anymore.
Nick: I think you’d require a hardcore fan base to sell out, which we don’t have.
What are you’re influences?
Todd: For me, my father plays a lot of instruments and I was kind of raised on the classics pretty much. Classic rock like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Cat Stevens.
Nick: The classics, southern rock stuff like that.
Todd: For me also, American songbook stuff.
Nick: I can say though, with our music, it can be easily more described like folk rock, or stuff like that. However, the other guys in the band and us too, it’s not all we listen to. We’re much more diverse than that.
What kind of music do you play?
Todd: We’ve been lumped in a lot of times, especially with our first record maybe more because that was acoustic, we’ve been lumped in as this folk band, which is fine, I don’t really care, but we’re not really a folk band in terms of what folk is. We don’t have banjo players, we don’t dress like were from 1865 and we don’t sing about the river or stuff like that. We are both from the suburbs of large cities so we’re not going to pretend like we’ve been riding trains or whatever people do nowadays. We’ve been lumped in with folk a lot, but the new album is more like classical, folkish rock, (laughs) if you will.
So you’re saying that’s just how people are going to label it?
Todd: Yeah, that’s just how people see it.
Nick: I think it’s easy to label it like that, but I don’t think we need to beat it to death. We portray something that’s not exactly that. I have someone say it’s like folk rock, but it’s not exactly that.
Todd: I think if they’re going to label us, it should be certified organic, FDA approved.
How did you come up with the band name?
Todd: I always knew this would come back to haunt us. (laughs) An ex-girlfriend, who at the time was my girlfriend when the band formed. I’m bad with band names because I always come up with really funny names. When we were writing the first record, I really wanted to call it “Smile At The End of the Slope” and that was based on a Henry Miller book, “The Smile at the Crook of the Ladder,” and for some reason I thought Slope was cool. I don’t even remember how I came up with that.
Nick: Park Slope.
Todd: Oh yeah. Okay, so the album name came first, we were recording it, and I was like, “what should we call this band?” The first album is not biblical, but it does catch on this very Jewish upbringing, if you will, and I wanted something to sound like that. Somehow she came up with that name and she said that it sounds like that, and I was just like yeah, let's do it. Then she broke up with me a couple months later and I’ve been stuck with it for three years.
What kind of venues did you start playing in Brooklyn?
Todd: We started playing at Roots Café (639 5th Ave., Park Slope). They had these acoustic nights and it was actually where some of the musicians came from on the first record.
Nick: He was playing there the first time I saw him play, and I think we played our first show there.
Todd: Or Glasslands (289 Kent Ave., Williamsburg) maybe was one of our first shows, too.
Nick: We also played places in Park Slope like Bar 4 (444 7th Ave., Park Slope), small little joints like that. We moved on to bigger venues once we got the band tighter.
Todd: We played the Bell House (149 7th St., Gowanus) and the Mercury Lounge (217 E. Houston St., Manhattan) a lot.
There are so many options in Brooklyn, how do you see a current scene that’s developing?
Todd: It’s definitely a scene. Sometimes the problem with scenes though is that too many people get too into the scene and not into the art of the music. Sometimes a lot of it blends into itself, to me. I also have slight social anxiety, so I don’t like going out into a scene, because then I just get that nerdy, Jewish kid from the Midwest that overtakes me and I want to go home immediately.
Nick: Our goal isn’t to just play at a good place with a good band, but it’s really to play with a good audience.
What do you hope your audience is taking away from the shows?
Todd: In New York it’s a different beast, especially as a local band. It’s so influenced by bands and art of every kind, but people in New York, even if you put on the greatest show of your life, and it’s packed, they just stare at you and then after the show, they’ll be like, “great set.” In New York, it’s hard. From an egotistical standpoint I hope they would respect us for whatever we are. From an artistic standpoint, honestly, I hope as the “creator,” that they would take something and feel something from the music, and dissect it, download the record and listen to it, and feel like it’s a book almost and something they can divulge into.
Look for Whale Belly’s new album, “I Was Once A Bird” on their website (whalebellymusic.com) and iTunes sometime in early fall.