Seeking Standards

Or, the Whale brings its country-rock chemistry back to the Old Pueblo

The San Francisco-based country-rock band Or, The Whale is trying to create music that will be appreciated decades from now. After all, singer, guitarist and de facto leader Alex Robins doesn't listen to a lot of music that has been made since, say, 1984.

"So much of the best rock 'n' roll music is from 1967 to 1977. It's kind of undeniable," Robins said during a recent telephone interview. "Our music is not trying to be contemporary. Our influences are much older, rooted in folk songs and country songs of the past. Hank Williams is still relevant 50 to 60 years later, and Neil Young and Bob Dylan—that music never becomes stale."

The result is a combination of The Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Buffalo Springfield and classic rock, infused with four-part, male-female harmonies, and with influences ranging from old-time Appalachia and the Carter Family to Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.

Or, The Whale will return to Tucson for a gig next Thursday night at Plush. Two of Tucson's better young singer-songwriters—Courtney Robbins and Leila Lopez—will open the show, performing with full backing bands.

Robins said any musicians who aren't trying to create music that will last are fooling themselves.

"Every band that is serious about what it's doing is writing songs for the purpose of having them become standards. You don't want them to have an expiration date. And the more nonspecific that song can be means it can exist in 30 years and still be relevant. Someone can pick that record up then, and it can mean something to them as much as it does to someone who comes to our show in Tucson in a few weeks."

Or, The Whale has released two albums on the independent Seany Records—the first being Light Poles and Pines, and the second, now nearly a year old, simply titled Or, The Whale.

"With these records, we have created something that's going to exist forever, I hope. That trumps the idea of promotion and distribution, which are so rooted in the here and now. None of that affects how much a kid in his room is going to feel when he puts on the album."

Beyond making music for posterity, Or, The Whale recognizes the significance of contributing to important causes. The band supports the Seany Foundation through its record label of the same name.

Robins explained, "My family created the Seany Foundation for pediatric cancer research. My little brother (Sean) passed away from cancer almost three years ago. He was almost 23. We're really trying to raise money and awareness. Breast cancer and prostate cancer get lots of attention, and they should. Pediatric cancer gets a lot less than you think. The foundation is trying to have my brother's legacy help other kids who have cancer. And Or, The Whale gets to be part of this, because the label gives half of its profits to the foundation. It's nice to be a part of something like that, with your earnings and hard work going into helping out."

According to popular legend, Or, The Whale came together when Robins posted a notice on Craigslist saying he was looking to form a "sweet country-rock band." But that's only part of the story.

Robins and guitarist Matt Sartain knew each other before Or, The Whale, having attended high school together in San Diego. After each of them finished college at separate schools, they both found themselves in San Francisco in 2005.

"We both moved to the city at the same time and sort of renewed our friendship and hung out a few times. I said, 'Would you like to play in this band I am starting?' So the day I got my Internet hooked up, I put that ad on Craigslist, looking for people who were into Gram Parsons, The Band and the Stones."

Drummer Jesse Hunt responded to the ad, and he was in. The rest of the band started coming together in other ways. Sartain had played before with bassist Justin Fantl, so he was recruited, and Robins met vocalist Lindsay Garfield when he responded to her ad seeking a guitar player.

"I played Lindsay some songs, and she said, 'Maybe I'll just join what you guys are doing.' She was a singing waitress when I met her, and she had a friend named Julie who she worked with, who was a keyboard player and sang as well." Thus, into the fold came Julie Ann Thomasson.

The missing link was Tim Marcus, an amazing pedal-steel guitarist who joined about a year after the formation of Or, The Whale, replacing the band's original lap-steel player.

Anyone who has seen the band perform live can attest to Marcus' impressive abilities. Actually, the whole band charges along, riding wave after wave of rockin' energy with songwriting smarts, achingly beautiful harmonies and dynamic interaction among the players.

The word "chemistry" often is used to describe bands in which the members work well together, but it's especially true of Or, The Whale. The group is a test tube in which elements that might otherwise be considered safe and plain are combined to create a new compound that is always surprising and occasionally combustible.

That lightning-in-a-bottle effect was obvious when Or, The Whale last played Tucson, at Club Congress in March during the West by Southwest festival. That gig—between excellent sets by Delta Spirit and the Maldives—actually was the fourth concert Or, The Whale had played in Tucson during the last two years.

Robins said the band members are well aware of, and feel lucky about, their chemistry.

"It's definitely been apparent for us from the beginning, even when we started out, and we weren't that good. Even then, when people came to the shows, they said we really seemed to have a good time up there.

"And when you turn off what's in front of you and how many people are at the show, it's all about you playing with your friends. We aren't even really trying to impress our audiences; we're trying to impress each other. The best shows are when we're so into playing that the set's half over before we even realize it."