It’s called American Bison Charge Through Heavy Snow in Yellowstone National Park, November 1967, and the photograph—shot by veteran lensman William Albert Allard and featured on the front of the new Said the Whale album—shows just that. The band’s Tyler Bancroft found the photo on Reddit and was struck by it immediately. He showed it to his bandmates, fellow singer-guitarist Ben Worcester and keyboardist Jaycelyn Brown, and they loved it enough to put it on the cover of As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide.
“It came from a list of the top photos taken by National Geographic photographers that were never published in a magazine,” says Bancroft, interviewed alongside Worcester at Railtown Café on a rare sunny April morning. “We thought it was kind of relevant that there were three buffalo in the front, charging forward, and in the background you can’t really see how many there are—there’s a few, so that was sort of like the supporting cast of our band currently. I thought that the three charging forward was kind of poignant.”
It’s certainly a fitting image: this past January, Said the Whale announced the departure of drummer Spencer Schoening, who left the band roughly a year after bassist Nathan Shaw also made his exit. This left Bancroft, Worcester, and Brown to soldier on as a trio. Both partings were amicable; Shaw left to pursue his burgeoning electronic-music project, Ekali, while Schoening needed a break from the physical and mental strain that goes along with playing drums in a popular touring act for nearly a decade.
Released at the end of March, As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide is the first we’ve heard from the newly streamlined band. The record bears the usual hallmarks, including gorgeous multipart vocal harmonies and stellar songwriting contributions from both Worcester and Bancroft, but this isn’t exactly the Said the Whale of old.
Working in (and out) of the studio with We Are the City’s Cayne McKenzie, the trio found itself free to experiment with its sound, pushing it beyond its indie-pop comfort zone with drum loops, buzzing bass synthesizers, and shimmering electronic textures that surround and support the melodies.
Says Worcester: “It felt different in the recording process, but it was also kind of a throwback to how we first started recording, Tyler and I together, just the two of us coming up with ideas and using lots of strange sounds to fill in the gaps.”
“A sonic shift is natural for any band,” adds Bancroft, who offers precisely zero apologies for changing things up. “It’s extremely boring to play the same music over and over again. And also, tastes change. We’ve had maybe a few people say that they’re lamenting for how our band used to sound 10 years ago, but you can’t expect a group of people to continue making the same music for 10 years. It’s tiring.”
The sounds have changed, but the heart of Said the Whale has always been the songwriting of its equally engaging frontmen. In the almost four years since the release of the group’s last album, hawaiii, the two have had no shortage of real-life material from which to draw inspiration. As documented in the emotionally potent lyrics to “Step Into the Darkness”, Worcester’s relationship with his long-time girlfriend broke down and ended, although the two later reconnected and are, happily, still together. Bancroft and his own partner, meanwhile, experienced both the emotional devastation of losing a child (as detailed on “Miscarriage”) and the joy of bringing one into the world. Other songs—specifically Bancroft’s “Emily Rose” and Worcester’s “Heaven”—were written in response to the deaths of friends.
“We’ve gone through a lot of shit in the past few years,” Worcester acknowledges. “We took some time off and had a lot of personal experiences, which gave a lot of emotion to the writing, and we had a lot of messages to say, finally. When you’re playing music constantly and you sit down to write songs, you think, ‘What do I write songs about?’ Time passes, you have all these feelings, and then the songs start flowing.”
The record takes the listener to some raw and painful places, but the net effect of listening to As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide is, mercifully, not akin to binge-watching 13 Reasons Why. Its message seems to be that even the worst events in life provide an opportunity to reflect on the things that truly matter, and to appreciate the people and places you love while they’re still around.
“Obviously, thematically it’s super heavy, and there are songs about people dying—yeah, it’s a very, very sad record,” Bancroft admits. “But there’s an underlying hopefulness. There are some songs that are upbeat sonically that are tackling sad subjects. And even lyrically I think we’re both pretty positive people, and I think that shines through in the lyrics. Even the saddest songs on the record have a light that shines through at the end.”
Tapping into the feelings that inspired these songs in order to perform them live might seem daunting, but Bancroft insists that it’s a necessary aspect of giving the audience an authentic emotional experience.
“I think you want to be experiencing those feelings when you’re performing,” he says. “It makes it so much more worthwhile to be sitting in a van all day and setting up and sound-checking and putting on a show. Meaning what you say is something we’ve all strived for, and it feels so much better. It feels like you’re making a difference and it feels like you’re doing something important. If we were just singing vapid songs without meaning, it would start to get empty pretty quick.”
Worcester agrees, but he notes that he would keep doing what he does even if there were no one listening. “I don’t sit and try and write songs every day to make a hit to get on the radio or something like that,” he says. “I write songs because it’s a part of me. I would do it whether I was in a band or not. When I feel whole and all the other holes are filled in my life, I just produce music. So I try to keep that up—keep my well filled.”
Said the Whale plays the Vogue Theatre on Saturday (April 29).