I Am The Manic Whale lynchpin songwriter and frontman Michael Whiteman talks to TPS’s Alex Driessen about the history of the band, the writing process and the strong element of storytelling in the band’s music.
Some time ago, I accidentally stumbled upon the new album from British prog band I Am The Manic Whale, Bumper Book of Mystery Stories. I liked what I heard: very melodic prog, with recognisable and recurring themes, beautiful vocal harmonies, excellent musicianship, strong lyrics about special subjects – and all in the form of a concept album. Enough reason to ask founder/composer/singer/bassist/bandleader Michael Whiteman for an interview and question him about the ins and outs…
Michael, first of all congratulations on the new album. I came across it by accident but I like what I hear. Thanks for allowing me some of your precious time to discuss some topics related to the band and the music.
Can you briefly tell us something about the origins of the band, and maybe introduce yourself and the other members of the band while we’re on the subject.
David Addis (guitar) and myself (bass, lead vocals) met at secondary school and have been playing together in bands for nearly 20 years! We met Ben Hartley (drums) a few years later and John Murphey (keyboards) more recently. When one of my previous bands was drawing to a close I started writing some progressive rock songs for a project that was intended to be a solo EP, but as the recording grew it seemed natural to involve some close friends who were also great musicians.
The band name seems to be an anagram of your name, originally it was supposed to be a solo album. It may sound crazy but this rather peculiar name put me on the wrong foot at first, I certainly didn’t think of a prog band. Why did you choose this particular name?
I think you have answered the question already! The name was chosen because it was an anagram of my name and it was originally a solo project. I like that the name is memorable and unusual and I think it reflects the character of the band.
I hear many influences and references in your music where the comparison with Big Big Train is obvious. But I also hear Neal Morse, The Flower Kings, Moon Safari and even Franck Carducci pass by. How would you describe your music yourself?
I enjoy music by all those artists very much, although my listening tastes are fairly broad and there are elements of jazz, classical and other styles in what we do. We do tend towards Mellotrons and Hammond organs, which is what a lot of people think of as the classic prog rock sound.
What are your main influences in terms of music and lyrics?
I try to write songs about subjects no one else is writing about. There is a strong element of storytelling in our music. I have a keen interest in science and technology and I read a lot. This is the main source of inspiration for my lyrics. My writing process almost always starts with lyrics, and my intention is that the music is inspired by the lyrics or the story too.
How did your collaboration with Rob Aubrey come about and, by extension, how did you come into contact with Sally Minear and Ryo Okumoto?
I reached out to Rob initially when I was working on the first album as I had enjoyed his work with Big Big Train very much. I was delighted that he was happy to mix some of my first recordings with this project back when the band was just me. His feedback was very helpful in improving the quality of what we were recording.
Sally is a friend of John’s. I think they have known each other for some time. Ryo came across Manic Whale in an online music festival and reached out to me on social media afterwards with the invitation to collaborate. I have been a fan of his music for many years so I was extremely excited to accept his invitation!
Take me through the process of writing and recording your music.
I always start with lyrics and then build up a demo in my studio based around that. Then I share it with the band. Sometimes the song will get re-written a number of times before it is ready to record. Then Ben will come over and record drums in my studio. After that I will share the files with John and Dave and they each record their parts in their own studios. At some points during the process I do a final bass and lead vocal, recently this has been quite near the beginning. Then when I get the files from John and Dave I put the whole thing together. Quite often I need to make some producer decisions and some parts have to come out to make everything fit together really well. This is something I’ve got better at with the more recent albums. Eventually when we are all happy with our parts the whole project is sent to Rob. Rob quite often has a production input as well and will suggest changes to us before the final mixes are complete.
I read somewhere that the lyrics and subjects on the new album are based on an old book you came across, is that correct?
The concept of a collection of mystery or adventure stories was inspired by an old book. The lyrical content of the songs themselves is more diverse, being drawn from a variety of places, but I tried to imagine each story fitting in with the concept of a children’s adventure book. The album opens with the song Ghost Train (part 1) and each of the stories represents a different scene on the Ghost Train ride, with themes from that first song recurring in every track. Then the ride ends where it began, bringing you full circle.
You guys are a British band, based in Reading if I understand correctly. Are all of you from this region in South East England and are you professional artists, or are there still a day-jobs?
We are all based in Reading or London. I work in music full time, though Manic Whale is only a small part of that. None of us makes a living from Manic Whale. Three of us teach music lessons as part of our jobs, but in order to maintain a sense of mystery I am not revealing which three.
Do you maintain any contact with other progrock bands/artists and if so, which ones?
We’ve played with a lot of other UK bands and stay in touch with many of them via social media. We are friends with the members of Kyros. Joey Frevola was in Ryo’s band when we played in LA and Shelby Logan Warne flew out to see us. We’ve done a gig with Kyros since then and I hope we can do more in the future.
Are there currently any future projects or recording plans you’d like to share with us?
We’re not really thinking about the next album yet. Most of our focus currently is on our UK tour in November; The Maniacal Mystery Tour, where we will be playing much of the new album live for the first time.
I am very curious about I Am The Manic Whale in a live setting. New Forms of Life from 2019 is a nice preview. You perform regularly, do you have any plans to tour outside the UK?
We would love to do gigs outside the UK. I hope we can make it happen in the future.
To conclude this short interview, is there anything you would like to say to the readers and visitors of The Progressive Aspect website?
Thanks for listening to progressive rock music, and we hope you like our latest album, I Am The Manic Whale’s Bumper Book of Mystery Stories.
Michael, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about yourself, the band and your music. It was very interesting, I look forward to seeing you play live, somewhere in the Netherlands. Good luck with the music, greetings to the other guys.
[You can read Pete Rogers’ review of I Am The Manic Whale’s Bumper Book of Mystery Stories HERE.]