I Am The Manic Whale recently played at the HRH Prog Festival in North Wales in November 2018 and singer Michael Whiteman met with Leo Trimming of The Progressive Aspect for an interview shortly after their successful and popular performance…
Hi Michael. I Am the Manic Whale have just played Arena 2 at HRH Prog – how do you think it went?
I think it went really well. It was a very enjoyable gig with a lovely atmosphere. A very welcoming festival, very chilled actually. We went straight on stage and were really looked after well by the Tech team who did a great job. We had a great time on stage with a really good reception from the crowd.
I concur with that – I’ve been coming to these festivals for a few years now and the reception you got was exceptional. That’s one of the first times I’ve seen a standing ovation in Arena 2 so you went down very well, especially for a first band on stage. Congratulations.
You’ve had two albums so far – what can you tell us about the latest album?
The latest album is Gathering The Waters. It’s a collection of songs which I mostly wrote – John Murphy (keyboards) wrote one song. There’s a loose sort of theme about water and the sea, but not through all the songs.
Where did you get the name of the band ‘I Am the Manic Whale’?
‘I Am the Manic Whale’ is an anagram of ‘Michael Whiteman’, which is me! It’s a top secret fact (not really). When I started working on the first album it was a solo studio project – just me. I was going to play all the instruments, and it was never going to be a live band or anything. I finished the first song and it really needed a guitar solo. I can play a guitar but I’m not a shredder so I invited my old school friend Dave Addis to play the guitar solo on it and it grew from there.
Open Your Eyes. There’s two versions of that song. The version on the album has the whole band on it. The original version, which you can hear on Bandcamp as a single, is just me playing all the instruments with Dave playing the guitar solo. When we did the album we re-recorded it with the other guys as well. I kind of tricked them into being in the band. I said ‘Can you come and play a guest solo, or a guest song, just one track on this album?’ They’re all very busy so I didn’t want to make it seem like a huge commitment.
Gradually it grew and they were playing on the whole album. Then there was a lot of interest in it. I thought I’d make maybe 100 copies and just give them to friends… and that would be it. It got posted on Facebook groups and shared – we got some nice reviews, and people wanted more copies. I had to get more pressed and there suddenly seemed to be a demand for shows.
That first album got a very good review from Jez Rowden in The Progressive Aspect.
It was a great review.
I am interested in the subjects you choose for your songs. For instance Princess Strange seems to be about social media and bullying. I find what you do in songs interesting. That song starts off like a ‘Bubblegum’ pop song (which is not meant to be a disparaging description), and yet at the end it really rocks out with a fantastic guitar solo. I like that juxtaposition of styles, just throwing things together.
I like to draw on lots of different styles. With that song in particular it has a really contemporary subject, about a girl at school getting ‘cyber-bullied’ so it had to be kind of ‘poppy’ at the start to match the subject matter. It was intentionally a pop-rock thing to begin… and the second half is a massive guitar solo – that’s NOT very pop-rock!
No… it’s Manic Whale, I think. I also like the song The Mess, which I think was written for your daughter – it’s a beautiful song.
That’s a hard song to sing without crying (laughs). I wrote that for her when she was about 3 – she’s 8 now. It’s about childhood and making the most of childhood, not growing up too quickly, and not wanting to move on to the next thing. “Don’t clear up the mess just yet” is the lyric.
That’s a beautiful sentiment. As a fellow father I understand that feeling, although my youngest is 20 now so they make other messes!
Yes, I can imagine! (Laughs)
Manic Whale’s subject matters are varied and some of it is quite bizarre. For instance The Clock of the Long Now – can you tell us about that song?
I get a lot of my ideas for songs from the suggested Wikipedia ‘Article of the Day’ on Facebook.
Are you serious? (Laughing)
It’s true. I’m a 100% serious! Clock of the Long Now from the first album Everything Beautiful In Time and The Lifeboatmen from Gathering the Waters both come from that source. These things come up and I think ‘That looks interesting’, click on it and read it. Ten minutes later I’m writing a song about it. The Clock of the Long Now is a giant mechanical clock being built inside a mountain in Texas. It’s a real thing but sounds like science fiction. All mechanical – no electronic parts. When it’s finished it will keep perfect time for 10,000 years without any kind of human intervention. The Long Now Foundation want to promote long term thinking. They’re all about the future. ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ is a question they ask. That’s such a fascinating thing to think about – Time in that long sense, generations yet to come.
10,000 years is a very long time… what do you think is the future of I Am the Manic Whale?
I can’t talk about 10,000 years from now, but there will definitely be a third Manic Whale album. We’ve started writing for it – in fact we’ve nearly finished the writing. We have 8 hours of demos of new songs. We have some studio time booked in January to start putting real drums down for it – it’s all guide stuff at present. Not sure I’d like to guess when it will be finished – might be 2019, probably more likely to be 2020.
Does it have a theme?
It’s a variety of themes, with a loose concept. The first few songs are about the state of the world, and looking at the world from different perspectives. The second half is about childhood inspired by childhood memories, thinking about things from a child’s perspective. Not sure how those themes are going to fit together yet.
Earlier you mentioned your first album Everything Beautiful In Time which was all written by you – what about the writing for Gathering the Waters?
John Murphy wrote Stand Up and we collaborated on a couple of songs.
I heard Stand Up on a ProgWatch podcast and it stood out for me. The Lifeboatmen particularly stood out in the gig today. In terms of songwriting for you what comes first? Is it the lyrics or is it the music?
It’s the Story. I like to tell a story. I intentionally set out songs about things which others are not writing about. There’s not a lot of love songs in our repertoire because there’s a lot of love songs about.
There’s not many songs about Strandbeests either!
Exactly. I like to write about things which are interesting and inspiring, and things that make me angry. I’ve been writing songs since I was about 10 or so. I had a sort of an epiphany maybe 5 or 6 years ago listening to East Coast Racer by Big Big Train. It was the first of their songs I’d ever heard, and I’m a huge fan of steam engines and ‘Mallard’, which is the subject of that song.
I know – I’ve seen the ‘Mallard’ in York.
It’s quite a wonderful thing. It would never have occurred to me to write a song about a steam engine because… you just don’t write songs about steam engines! That song made me think ‘Yes, you can!’ You can write about anything that’s inspiring and interesting. I heard that song about the time I was writing the Everything Beautiful In Time album so that was real kind of awakening – I don’t have to write just about love. I can write about the history of the printed word (Pages)… or a derelict swimming pool! Pages starts with monks transcribing documents by hand, and then by movable type, and then typewriters and right up to date with computers.
I will listen to Pages with a new insight from now on… and Derelict is about an empty swimming pool?! Hence the cover photo on the album?
Yes, it is – that’s a true story. I don’t think of myself as an ‘urban explorer’ but there was one occasion where I somehow gained entry (I broke in!) to a derelict swimming pool.
We’ll edit that bit out! (Laughing) [Oops… – Ed.]
(Laughing) Yes, I got in to a derelict swimming pool. It’s part of a big leisure complex (a bit like this holiday site for the HRH Prog festival) where they had to keep the swimming pool full because it runs the sprinkler system for the site. However, because it’s not used anymore it’s not heated. To stop it filling with algae they keep all the filters running. So you go in this place and you’ve got a Jacuzzi bubbling away with water jets firing all over the place, and currents moving this water around everywhere like it’s still running. They just use it as a dumping ground so the pool is full of shopping trolleys, broken chairs and tables. It’s a really weird place to go in. It’s been abandoned for about 20 years since they built a new pool down the road. I was in there and it was a really strange experience.
Is it local to where you live in Reading?
It’s not in Reading. I’m not going to say where it is – it’s Top Secret information! If I say where it is they might make it secure and I might not be able to get in again – that place inspired me to write that song.
On your latest album you did Milgram’s Experiment, which you’re probably aware is a subject Peter Gabriel sung about as well?
Yes, he did Milgram’s 37 which is probably a less literal description of the subject. We Do What We’re Told is his lyric.
In some of your songs, particularly Clock of the Long Now, you seem to have the ability to sing quite technical language, which you wouldn’t normally find in a song. You manage to sing it in a melodic way which scans well, which must be quite a challenge.
The middle part of Clock of the Long Now is a description of what all the different parts of the clock are made of – Titanium Pendulum etc, and I kind of did that when I was doing the guide thinking ‘I’m probably going to re-write this at some point’.
Oh No – that’s one of the best bits!
Well, that’s it. I sent it to the other band members saying I’d change that middle bit, and they all said ‘No, keep that, it’s great!’ The guitarist Dave absolutely loves it and always joins in on that bit singing it with me, which is really nice.
That’s interesting in terms of the input into the band. You were the mainman for the first album, clearly, and you wrote most of the second album. What’s the role of the other band members? You were saying they influenced you in NOT changing the guide vocal in Clock of the Long Now, so how would you describe their input, especially for the second album Gathering the Waters?
They do have a creative input. When I’m writing I tend to sketch demos out on my computer and send them off to the band as rough demos. They comment and give me feedback. The songs do evolve as we’re recording them.
How much leeway do they get in terms of solos and other input?
I tend to write ‘beds’. Sometimes it’s quite melodic and I have an idea of how the melody should go. Sometimes I just write a ‘bed’ and say to Dave or John ‘take a solo – you can do what you want with that.’ There’s a lot of leeway for them to do their own stuff. There’s give and take all over the place. On the third album more of the band have contributed ideas. Dave and John have written songs for ‘Manic Whale 3’.
It sounds like you’re forming more as a band now rather than as a solo studio project?
I think so, definitely.
I saw you for your third ever gig (Masquerade 2, London, December 2017) and you’ve done a few more since. What are your future plans for playing live?
As much as we can. We would love to do a lot more gigs but Prog gigs are difficult to get. We’ve done a few around Reading and London mainly near where we live. I would love to get a tour maybe, supporting a more well established Prog band. Whatever opportunities come our way we will grab.
If you meet someone who knows nothing about Manic Whale which song would you choose from your two albums to play them to showcase what is best about the band?
That’s a hard question… I might go with Strandbeest. It’s medium epic of 13 minutes, so you’ll need an attention span to listen to it, but it’s got a lot of different sections. There’s a jazzy opening section, and it’s about an interesting subject.
It’s quite quirky in terms of the time signatures and the whole theme is quite bizarre – you can hear that in the music. When you played it earlier in the gig one could imagine this peculiar creation. Who made them and can you describe them for us?
His name is Theo Jansen from Holland. ‘Strandbeests’ are large mechanical sculptures built out of yellow plastic drainpipes fixed together. He’s designed his own walking mechanism, and makes them walk. The wind blows and so they crawl along the beach – it’s very compelling. The idea for that song came from a school assembly when I was a teacher. One of my colleagues did an assembly about Strandbeests and showed video footage of them which planted the idea for a song. I’ve actually been in touch with Theo Jansen. He’s heard the song and really enjoyed it.
Finally, your personal social media output expresses a Faith based approach to your life. How does that influence you in your music?
My faith is a really big part of my life. I work for my church, and do all the music stuff there. Everything I write for the Manic Whale or other outlets, as I write for the church, is all from that perspective. There’s a Christian faith lens through which I’m looking at the world which informs my writing. It’s not massively obvious. If you know it’s there you can hear it. In fact Derelict, the 22 minute song from Everything Beautiful In Time about the swimming pool, ends with a quotation from a very famous hymn we sing in church:
“When we’ve been here 10,000 years, Bright shining as the Sun, we’ve no fewer days”
and then I take a bit of a liberty with it… “to turn the page and be amazed than when we first begun.”
That’s from Amazing Grace which is one of the most popular hymns of all time… so that faith flows through.
Those lines also connect to Clock of the Long Now – 10,000 years.
Exactly – it all ties it together.
Do you share that faith with your band members?
I don’t want to speak for everyone else but Christian faith is a big part of my life, and for some of the other band members.
You can sense it in the music, but it’s not something which is in your face or overpowers the music.
We don’t want to hammer it home and I know it’s something that can put some people off the music. It’s not an overt agenda we’re looking to push but it’s a big part of my life.
Which clearly inspires you. That’s probably a good place for us to finish.
Thank you Michael and congratulations on a fine gig.
[You can read Leo Trimming’s review of the new live album from I Am the Manic Whale, New Forms – Live At The Oakwood HERE.]