It seemed like an innocent joke at the time, but it set off a bit of a firestorm on YouTube. On September 6, local indie-rock band Said the Whale uploaded its cover version of “The Fox”, the surprise viral hit by Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis, which had been released just a few days prior. Despite having clearly marked it as an “adaptation” of Bård and Vegard Ylvisåker’s original, Said the Whale incurred the wrath of a few folks with its video, which was titled “The Whale”, with lyrical revisions to match.
The response has been mixed, to say the least, with the video getting almost as many thumbs down (1,306 at the time this article was being written) as thumbs up (1,396). YouTube viewer comments have ranged from dismissive (“I already knew what the whale said”) to mean (“Had to watch The Fox to remind me how SHITTY this video is”) to utterly incomprehensible (“You fucking killed assholes and goes up that whales blowholes fuckers”).
“We pissed off half of Norway!” says the Vancouver group’s Ben Worcester, interviewed alongside his co-frontman, Tyler Bancroft, at 33 Acres Brewing Company on one of September’s last gloriously summery afternoons. “But what can you do? We did it for fun, as a joke. We covered a song by comedians, who have a sense of humour, and people took it so personally. It’s so bizarre.”
The timing of things ensured that the divisive video garnered Said the Whale a good deal of attention right before the release of its fourth album, hawaiii, on September 17. But as Bancroft explains, he and Worcester—along with bandmates Spencer Schoening (drums), Nathan Shaw (bass), and Jaycelyn Brown (keyboards)—had their own reasons for changing the song’s key chorus lyric to “What does the whale say?”
Bancroft cites “lazy journalists” as part of the inspiration. “We’ll sit down for an interview and the first question they ask is, ‘So, what did the whale say?’ ” he notes, “Or dads will say that. It’s a common question we’ve been dealing with for six years as a band. So, we heard that song and had to make our own version and answer that question once and for all.”
With more than 176,000 views to date, “The Whale” has been watched more than the video for “I Love You”, the first single off hawaiii, but don’t feel too bad for Said the Whale. “I Love You” has been a massive success for the group, scoring it its very first number-one hit by topping the official Canadian alternative-rock chart, which is based on nationwide airplay. And it’s little wonder: with its chugging pop-punk chords leavened by a new-wave synth hook and Bancroft’s infectiously urgent lead vocal, “I Love You” is an instant earworm.
There’s a lot going on beneath its glossy surface, too. The lyrics were inspired by the brother and sister Bancroft grew up not really knowing, his half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage. Several of the singer-guitarist’s other contributions to hawaiii also touch on family matters.
“It was definitely not a conscious decision at all,” he says. “I don’t come from a touchy-feely, communicative family, really. We’re quite English in the way that we interact with each other. Which is funny, because being in a band with Ben, who is, like, the most huggy, touchy-feely guy…”
“I am all about feely-feels,” Worcester interjects with a nod, before his bandmate picks up the thread: “…I have to force myself to be that way sometimes. So I guess maybe it’s because of the fact that I don’t really speak about that kind of stuff with my family at all that it just sort of came out—for no reason, really, other than that I’m approaching 30 and probably feeling shitty about where I should be.”
Bancroft’s anxiety about maturing is reflected in the lyrics to “Mother”, in which he addresses the tension between wanting to be a fully functioning adult while being drawn to things that don’t fit the standard model of being a grownup—like spending weeks at a time on the road with a pop band, for example.
“Try to always do what people like,” he sings over Shaw’s percolating bass and a perfectly executed group-harmony backing vocal. “And try to be a man that someone might/Look up to in a minute when they’re feeling down/Like maybe I could be somebody that you love/Or maybe I’ll just keep thinking all about me.”
The words to “I Could Smoke” are an even more on-the-nose revelation of Bancroft’s ambivalence: “Maybe I should go and get someone pregnant/Put a little pressure on the situation/Wouldn’t be a bad idea at all/As far as bad ideas go.”
“It’s that time of life where all of our friends are starting to settle down,” he notes. “People are getting engaged, people are getting pregnant. And that is just so far from where my brain is right now, because I’m in a tour van every day and I have no stability in my life at all. It brings out the angst of that, where everybody in my life that I’ve grown up with I see following a certain path. And the path that I’ve chosen is this totally volatile, potential hellhole—but also potentially so fulfilling. So I guess it’s struggling with decisions that I’ve made in my life, and kind of re-evaluating where I think I should be in regards to where all of my friends are.”
If Bancroft has hit his stride as a tunesmith with hawaiii, Worcester proves himself to be every bit his colleague’s equal. His lyrics are more difficult to parse, but they’re undeniably beautiful. The bearded bard often draws upon the natural world for imagery, peppering his songs with references to tides, stars, and mountains. As Said the Whale’s resident folkie, he has, in the past, been reluctant to shape his ideas into readily digestible pop tunes. He admits, however, that he let his guard down when crafting his contributions to the new album. One result of that is the cabaret-tinged “Oh K, Okay”, the bouncy, piano-powered chorus of which might be the catchiest thing he’s sung to date.
“I’d say more than ever on this record I’ve been able to let things go, rather than worry about things and super-edit things and worry about what I’m doing,” Worcester acknowledges. “I just kind of allowed the songs to be what they are—which turned out in a way that gives them more of a poppy feel or a catchy-hook thing, which I’m not really accustomed to in my writing. I don’t really know how to write choruses because I don’t like to repeat the same words—usually when I’m writing it’s a story or something—but I also see the virtue in that, and I love to sing along to things. And I realized it’s almost impossible for people to sing along if there isn’t some repeating chorus.
“So, as a writing experiment, I allowed this to happen, and I just love it,” he continues. “I love how everything turned out, and it feels so good, and it’s something that I’m learning. I hope that I’m learning every time I make an album or write songs, and I feel like with this record I learnt a lot about letting things go in writing. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love it as much, it just means that I let go of some of my apprehensions that I would normally have, and I think that the product turned out good that way.”
As for Bancroft, his approach to shaping new material this time around was to ignore external pressures and just do what comes naturally to him—which, it seems, is creating perfect pop numbers. “When I was sitting down writing the songs that I wrote, I very much was just like, ‘Fuck radio. Fuck everything,’ ” he reveals. “And then it turns out I just really like catchy songs. And then once you’ve written a catchy chorus and a catchy verse, you might as well just go balls-to-the-wall and just make it explode.”
The two men, along with Schoening, took part in an intensive weeklong songwriting retreat at the Banff Centre last winter, emerging with much of the material that would become hawaiii. Recording took place in numerous short bursts at Tom Dobrzanski’s Monarch Studios, with the Zolas member and Bancroft sharing the production credit. Bancroft says he’s no fan of booking a recording facility for weeks at a time and trying to come out at the end of the process with a finished product.
“You’re in the studio for two months, and you’ve got, like, a flow chart of all the things that you still have to do,” he says of the traditional way of doing things. “It’s so daunting. This way, we’d go in, do drums for a day, and then everyone would just kind of wander in whenever they felt like it and record some stuff. It went so casually. At the end of six months, we just accidentally had a record. And there’s still five songs that didn’t even make it on the record.”
In case you’re wondering, no, “The Whale” is not on the album, nor is it likely to appear on any future releases. But, if you absolutely must know exactly what it is the whale says, the answer is right there in the video’s subtitles: “Oooo-oooooo-eeeooooooo-uhhhhoooo/Oooo-oooooo-eeeooooooo-uhhhhoooo/Oooo-oooooo-eeeooooooo-uhhhhoooo,” is apparently the definitive answer. Any further questions?
Said the Whale's new album, hawaiii, is out now on Hidden Pony Records.