“A Sense of Grandeur Is in My DNA”: An Interview with Lighthouse & the Whaler

The Lighthouse and the Whaler
This Is an Adventure

When you first get your hands on a copy of This Is an Adventure, the latest album from Cleveland’s Lighthouse and the Whaler, lead singer Michael LoPresti wants you to know they’re out there giving a hand up to the album as a lost art. Having studied literature and theology while in college, he sees the band’s music as an opportunity to give fans a look into how the melody and structure of a series of songs can make an album into more than the sum of its parts.

If that sounds pretentious to you, you haven’t heard the band’s blend of folk-pop, which blends the danceable hooks of the Wombats with the melodic structure of Arcade Fire, with hints throughout of the folk spirituality which lives behind the scenes in every Mumford & Sons song. This blend is anything but pretentious, inviting first-time listeners into a world where we hear the truth from the lips of a man who simply writes music because nothing else resonates.

This Is an Adventure, out since late last fall, has introduced the band to a wider audience than they’d been able to garner through 2008’s A Whisper, A Glamour EP and the following year’s self-titled full-length. Seattlest praised their “triumphant live performance coupled with a powerfully intoxicating album,” and they’ve built a reputation for a unique ability to combine sweeping grandiose arrangements with lyrics which maintain a sense of “I’m right there hearing him sing” intimacy.

LoPresti spoke with PopMatters about the new album, dissecting his own songwriting process and what he feels sets great albums apart from just those with a few solid songs. Along the way he breaks down why genre really doesn’t matter, and why if you’re going to really make it as a musician, you have to be willing to sacrifice for what you love …

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It’s been an exciting time for folk-based pop music. Do you think the success of Mumford & Sons with Babel and the mainstream appeal of bands like the Lumineers cross over to bands like Lighthouse and the Whaler?

I think it shows that bands like us can be successful on a larger scale, which is exciting. I think there’s hope that the wave will continue. There can be a moment which you have to take advantage of before it passes, where those who get in the door find success and those who don’t miss out. That’s what we’re trying to do, get in the door. With any luck people will enjoy what we do.

You had told Stereo Subversion that you think there’s something really special about full albums. In today’s climate where you have to release singles as fast as you can, does that make it more difficult to focus on the album as an art-form?

I think it does. One of the things we’ve heard a lot is that people want to hear a song that succeeds beyond the rest, but I don’t really think that’s what this is really about. I really admire Death Cab for Cutie because they’ve managed to have “that song” on their albums, but I think overall their albums are just great, every song. And when it comes to music we make, we try really hard to make sure every song on the album is a good song, a strong song which would enhance the album experience as opposed to just trying to write a hit song. I guess sometimes that means maybe there isn’t a hit song on an album, but I think if an album is cohesive and works from beginning to end and you get the full experience from it, that’s what’s meaningful particularly as an art-form. And if that’s being lost in our culture I hope eventually bands can work on bringing that back, because I think that’s more important than coming out with a hit single.

I like that “This Is An Adventure,” your title track, it has a complicated arrangement in the vein of Mumford & Sons or the Arcade Fire, but it also had a pop hook which reminded me of the Wombats. They usually put a thicker drum-beat behind it, but you still have the same elements there. So even if it’s not a “hit” you could still fit it into the pop radio format.

I think that’s something that is what’s cool about being able to create an experience in an album. There are opportunities where you can stay true to what you think is going to make a good album versus what makes just a good song. We tried to put hooks in there, and we want songs to be catchy. Usually when I write a song I’ll take the melody and I’ll sit on it for like three or four months sometimes and then I’ll come back to it and if I still think it’s good after all that time I’ll say “this is one we need to focus on.” It definitely has something if I’m still engaged after letting it settle. I think it’s really cool that we have the opportunity to get a song that could work with radio, but I’d never want to compromise what I feel about an album for that.

That’s the thing. I read Bob Lefsetz’s column and he’s repeatedly said if you email him something you’re lucky if you get 15 seconds. You’ve got to hit somebody that fast because it isn’t that we have short attention spans. It’s more that there’s just so much competing for our attention, we no longer have to waste our time on anything that isn’t good.

That’s part of the game. There’s a tough balance between creating art and making something people can enjoy and that gets attention. I think that’s why an album is so awesome. The whole thing doesn’t have to be about creating something just to get their attention, you can really make it something special and put that extra art in there without losing who you are. And when you can do that and catch people’s attention at the same time, like you said, in those fifteen seconds you can show you’ve got something special.

Can you give us a window into your songwriting process? Are you a music first writer or do you come up with lyrics before the music?

I’m a music first writer, absolutely. I think creating the music first really helps to get to the mood of the song, and then writing the lyrics after you can then match what the song is about with the way the music feels. So with this record especially, it helped me that the music came first so we could really put together an adventure inside an album, creating something meaningful and with lyrical purpose.

Do you prefer fleshing songs out in the studio first, or working on them live?

A little bit of both. I think working on them live you really get the heartbeat of the song, you really feel it in your chest and get to know it for what it really is, but in the studio you can then strip it down to its bare minimum. Sometimes that can expose things you wouldn’t otherwise catch. But a good balance of both is important to make for really strong songs.

You’ve said you want people to listen to your music and grow from it. How would you say your music has grown over the years?

It’s grown a lot, our sound has gotten a lot bigger for sure. We started out with three people and now we’re a five person band during live performances. The sound has just grown so much we’ve experimented with different instruments and sounds, and we’re already working on some new songs to push the envelope even further than we did on This Is An Adventure. But for this record especially we really wanted to establish that we have a sound which is not just big but also broad. We’re not just limited to one aspect.

You’ve referenced David Bazan, Mumford & Sons, and Brand New as bands which resonated with you because of their understated references to faith. What role do you feel spirituality plays in folk music, and is that crossing into the pop realm?

I think it plays a huge role, since what people believe has to come out in their music even if they don’t realize it, whether that’s good or bad. I don’t think you can separate someone’s beliefs from the art they create, especially in folk music because there’s something so raw about it, so unforgiving, you have to pour out whatever’s inside of you. I think that’s starting to come out in pop music because people are craving this sense of reality in their music. They don’t want songs about meaningless things, they want to feel something through music. And as our culture evolves and people begin to discover this indie movement and all these bands around the country, I think they’ll really begin to crave that genuine depth in those songs they choose to listen to.

I noticed you’re from Cleveland. That scene in particular played a huge role in the development of punk and new-wave music. What’s the scene there like now?

I think it’s really strong. People don’t really realize that Cleveland has such a strong music scene. It’s still a major stop on most tours, and there are a ton of great bands in Cleveland who may be phenomenal but they don’t get the attention they deserve because it’s such a small market. For us we were lucky to move out of Cleveland, at least when we play shows … we’d never want to actually leave Cleveland … but we get the opportunity to travel around, so people realize “Hey, there’s really something special going on up there!” The scene’s really strong considering that Cleveland’s a really small city, so we get a close-knit group of people who always go to shows and play in bands. We’re all together, and if one person does well, everyone’s excited about that sense of wider recognition. The people in Cleveland really get behind whatever’s happening here.

There’s that manufacturing history, the idea that it’s a blue-collar population. It seems to me people would really be focused on the bands coming up in the area.

Right, people really care about it, particularly about what we’re doing. Every outlet in Cleveland covered our album release show, and people really get behind a movement. People here want to know they’ve built a winner, especially since our sports teams are kind of crappy. When people do well in Cleveland, the people who live here and love the city appreciate when someone built up here does well.

Looking at the direction you’ve taken on the new album, who have you been listening to who has pushed you to try new things?

I’ve really been into M83’s album a lot. I think the danger of it, it’s really cool and I’d love to emulate a little of that on our next album. I love how impressively big the album feels. I’m the kind of person who really gets into an album one at a time. I’ll listen to one album for four or five months and not listen to anything else, just diving into it, that’s my personality. That’s been an overarching theme for me over the past few years. I recently walked across Maine with my wife, and I listened to a lot of music over that journey. I think a sense of grandeur is in my DNA. Any big song which feels huge, not for the sake of it but just because they have to be epic, that’s just really cool.

You’ve talked a lot in the past about not believing genre labels ever tell you what you need to know about a band. What should fans be looking for to understand if your band has something to offer them?

I definitely don’t think they should look at the genre, because I don’t think that does justice to bands most times. I think if a fan really wants to know what we’re all about, they should definitely come see a live show. In that setting they can really get to know us for who we are. I think if you see us live you’ll either love us or hate us. But if you don’t want to put that much effort in, I’d say just go to our website and check out some of the videos we have online. That’ll give you a real idea of who we are as people.

Do you think fans even care about genre, or is that more of a “music critic” thing?

I don’t think so. I don’t. Whenever I listen to a band, if someone tells me they’re this style I’ll just go listen to them myself and judge. Whether I like the music has nothing to do with the style or genre, at least not for me. I understand why there are genres, and why people want to break it down like that, but I really just want to listen to a band because they write great music. You could say they’re chamber pop, and I’m like “I don’t really care about that, I have no idea what that means.” What matters is just is it good? If so, I’m behind it.

What do you look for when you’re searching for meaningful music?

Oh, man … I don’t really pay attention to lyrics much, so what I look for is music that moves me personally. I love when a song just gets me and hits me in my chest, makes me feel there’s something greater than just what I’m doing at that moment. Or if it makes me feel cooler. Those kind of songs are hard to come by, but when you find them you really just know. It makes everything better about your day. Another thing that gets me is when I find my head bobbing, when I’m driving or out for a run or something and I feel like I could just go forever. A song like that you won’t want to pass on.

Now that you’ve released This Is an Adventure, what’s the next adventure on your horizon?

Definitely look for a lot of touring. We’ll also be working on new music once we get off tour. I already have ideas I’ve been working on, but as a band we’ll be writing new stuff. And we put out a special Christmas EP just as something fun for our fans to enjoy, so we’ve always got something up our sleeve.

What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?

I wish someone would ask me how long and how hard it was to get to the point where we are now. I wish people would ask more questions about the journey, because a lot of times bands are seen as something that’s there, they’re cool, but no one talks about how hard it was to get there. When you understand how much a band had to sacrifice to find success, you appreciate the music more.

The culture today seems to focus on instant gratification. You want to be able to go on The X-Factor and get that $5 million contract and find sudden instant fame. But you lose something in not going out on tour, not learning your instrument, by not playing in front of people and making the mistakes that make you a stronger performer.

Definitely. It builds character, it’s a part of what makes good music, especially a good live show. You’ve got to get out there and have your guitar, have stuff falling over on stage, let all that stuff happen. Because it makes you a better band, and I think part of the reason we have bands that maybe grow too fast when they aren’t ready is because they don’t put the time in to earn it. You get that million dollar contract but you never had to drive cross-country in a tiny little minivan in the freezing cold with no heat, when you’re all bundled up in blankets, but that builds character within a band. When people are willing to dedicate that much of themselves and give up other job opportunities to chase that dream, I think those sacrifices comes through in the music.

I remember a band I interviewed when I was at Ball State, I followed them around for a day and they’d talked about the time they scraped together just enough to go to New York City and play CBGBs. They thought that was going to be their big moment because of the history of that place. Instead, they get there, the crowd practically boos them off the stage, their gear gets stolen, they get stiffed by the owners, and they have to live off $3 a day of McDonald’s until they can drive their van back to Muncie. But the way they talked about it, that was the experience of their lives.

Yeah, man, that’s it right there! That’s the real life of bands who are trying to make it. You struggle, struggle, struggle, and work hard every day, and that’s what makes being in a band so great. If you love something you’ll want to work for it, that’s how it is in any field. People don’t realize how hard good bands have to work, and I think if people could really see that more, maybe they wouldn’t pirate music so much. Maybe they’d come out to live shows more. But we have a culture in America where we assume everyone out there is a rock star with no problems, and that’s not really true. A lot of people are out there trying to create good music and it’s tough. That’s the sacrifice.