Berlin Whale is an indie rock band consisting of singer/keyboardist/guitarist Trevor Berkholtz, guitarist/singer Nate Bethel, bassist/singer Jesse Loeffler and drummer Matt Walk. There's no obvious comparison for the Berlin Whale sound, but it includes healthy doses of buzzing keyboards, hyperactive guitar melodies, frantic disco beats and driving bass. Lots of shouts and claps and crowd participation combined with a rhythm section that seems to be out to set a new land-speed record for dance rock makes for one of the most consistently energetic live shows you're likely to see in St. Louis.
I became an unabashed fan of Berlin Whale early last year when I followed a random MySpace bulletin to one of the many basement shows with which the band began its career. This was before the group changed its name from The August in December, a time when a full three-fourths of the band were too young to legally drink at their own shows. Now composed entirely of legal adults, Berlin Whale is preparing to release its self-titled debut album (recorded with So Many Dynamos guitarist Ryan Wasoba), so I was duly excited to sit down with Nate and Trevor and let them tell the story of the band and the new record in their own words.
Mike Cracchiolo: Back before Nate joined the band, you guys were a three-piece called the Forest Green. Had you played with Matt or Jesse prior to that?
Trevor Berkholtz: No. I met Matt at a solo gig I had that [my and Nate's] old band, Hazel Would, was supposed to play, and he was there watching the band I was opening for. We started IMing each other after that. I've known Jesse through mutual friends for a while, and I knew he played bass.
So when you formed the Forest Green, what was the goal?
Berkholtz: Hazel Would had broken up, and I didn't want to get in the habit of not playing music. I had some songs half-written, and decided to find a drummer and a bass player and just record an album. We did that before we ever started playing out; we recorded a five-song EP. It was really just to keep me busy musically.
I've heard that record, and it sounds very different from Berlin Whale, there's kind of a Pedro the Lion influence....
Berkholtz: I was listening to pretty much only Pedro the Lion then.
Right. But it's a really solid record, good songs. So even though it's very different stylistically, you guys were doing well with it. What prompted the change in the sound?
Nate Bethel: Me and Jesse became better friends through Trevor, and we would hang out and listen to punk rock music, and we thought it was really fun and funny that we were listening to it. We were always like, "Oh man, to be in a really crazy band would be really funny." And it just became what we wanted to do, and we started writing little things together. Me and Trevor had moved into a house together, and the Forest Green sound had changed by that point. That's when we changed the name to the August in December, when I joined, because I hated the name Forest Green. Trevor had taken an interest in playing Casio because he'd always played keyboards, and it just worked. When we started playing shows, we realized that those songs were way more fun to play, and we were getting a way bigger response from the crowd than any of our previous efforts ever had.
I realized that we [The Bureau] actually played the first show you guys ever played as Berlin Whale [a disastrous gig at the now-defunct Hi-Pointe]. Why the name change?
Bethel: August in December was a mistake. I'll take credit for that. [It] was a stupid name I'd come up with, and we were getting little comments from people like, "Oh, I always thought you were an emo band," and we were like, "Oh, bummer." That was totally not the intention of that name. So it became apparent that the name was more of a hindrance then anything else. We had a few different options but Berlin Whale just did it, and a lot of people said that it worked for us.
You mentioned the Casiotone, which is obviously a big component of your sound. At the same time it's also one of the shittiest, clunkiest keyboards you could ever dig out of a Dumpster (and I know because my band dug one out of a Dumpster). But you guys totally make it work for you, and there's that whole cult following around that keyboard nowadays. How important is the Casiotone to your sound as a creative element?
Berkholtz: Well, for starters it was just a convenience. My dad had bought a Casiotone 101 when he was younger, in the '70s or '80s, so that's what I learned to play piano on. We just had it around, and when we started using keys it was the only keyboard that we had. Then we realized it kind of helped develop our sound because of how weird and shitty it is.
So were you actually playing on that keyboard when you were a kid, then?
Berkholtz: Yeah, it's been around since I was born. I started playing when I was five. Except that the one we originally had broke, and we had to replace it with the 301.
I always hate it when an interviewer thinks they know what a band's about, and you end up getting an answer where the subject is trying to politely tell the interviewer he's an idiot. That said, as far as your lyrics go, it seems like a lot of yours are fairly melancholy. But when you when you put them in the context of this really upbeat, crazy band it becomes somewhat ambiguous, and maybe a little more positive, a little more hopeful. Are your lyrics coming from a more negative place?
Bethel: You put that well. You really did.
Bethel: Hit that on the head. [Laughs]
Berkholtz: The lyrics are kind of melancholy and....I wouldn't say depressing, but on the album that's coming out, I wrote a lot of those songs during a rough part of my life. But I wrote them the way they were because knowing the kind of music we were going to be playing with, it wouldn't come off as depressing, it would almost come off as sarcastic. I'm not gonna write depressing shit my whole life, but that's where I was when I wrote the album. I don't really think about the content of what I'm writing a lot of the time.
Are there clear-cut inspirations for what you write?
Berkholtz: It's very impressionistic, almost. There's really no format. I know what I'm thinking at the time, and I write down things that come to mind, whatever's affecting me at the time, and that will be what inspires the song. But then a lot of the time the lyrics don't seem to have anything to do with that. Like, nothing really tells a story; it's just a bunch of images and feelings.
Can you give us any examples?
Berkholtz: The song "Cancel the Parade," for instance, I wrote it when Nate and I were living together, during a time....
Bethel: We were really, really poor.
Berkholtz: Yeah. We were all really poor, and my car was breaking down, and my dad and I weren't that cool, and I had a one-year-old [kid]. Stuff that was pretty disheartening, I guess. The verses of that song touch on all that stuff. And the chorus is kind of like, I don't really need to give a fuck about what's going on in my life like, shit happens, you know? And I'm not really trying to prove anything by that, or take any kind of stand. It's just what I wrote. It definitely gives you a sense of release when you write stuff like that, but I don't want people to think I have something to prove, like, "Oh, my life sucks."
You're not trying to be a role model for emo kids?
Berkholtz: I'm not trying to be Simple Plan. Not too much, anyway.
Bethel: I'm only trying to be Simple Plan with my guitar riffs.