Very Small Animal: Our music is more about blowing up a room

Very Small Animal: Our music is more about blowing up a room
Photo by David McCrindle

All of the right ingredients were always there on Very Small Animal's first EP, Starlings. But their follow-up album, Port of Call, sits more heavily and mature than their debut. These indie folk songs will dissolve, but hold you rapt long after listening.

Before the band's album release at Icehouse on Saturday, Gimme Noise spoke with the core writers Patrick Noonan and Tim Harlan-Marks on the additions to the band and the stories behind Port of Call.
Band Members: Tim Harlan-Marks, Patrick Noonan, Brian Laidlaw, Sean Geraty, Lora Strey

Gimme Noise: Since the last album, you guys have had a bit of a lineup change. How have the newest members added to the sound? Patrick Noonan: It's confusing to explain the history of all this. We were a trio when we recorded Starlings -- me, Tim, and Charles Capistrant on drums. But Starlings wasn't ready for release until a year later, and by then Charles had moved on, and Sean and Brian had joined. We patched in Brian's guitar tracks months after the original recording. Both Brian and Sean played at the Starlings CD release; Lora started singing with the band a bit later. I'd say our sound is a lot bigger now than it was when we were still a three-piece. It's more straight rock and roll. Charles was almost like a jazz drummer; he brought a really interesting, really inspired interpretation of the songs we were playing, but people had to listen close to catch all the nuances. The name Very Small Animal was probably a lot more fitting then. These days we're more about blowing up a room. Sean has brought us great dynamic range, a lot of explosive energy and exuberance that's also very tight, which is not an easy balance to strike. He made me love rock again. Brian has truly amazing instincts in terms of coming up with rhythmic arrangements to complement a song -- probably because he is also an extremely talented songwriter. Lora just has a beautiful voice and adds a whole new dimension in terms of vocal possibilities. Tim Harlan-Marks: Since the band formed in 2010 we've actually added three members. Lora Strey has joined as an additional vocalist and has opened up the range and breadth of the harmonies we've been able to produce. Brian Laidlaw (a singer/songwriter in his own right) has joined on electric guitar and has really influenced the range of dynamics we're able to create. And Sean Geraty has joined on drums, replacing original percussionist, Charles Capistrant. Sean's addition is perhaps the one that has had the most influence on our sound. Sean is rock 'n' roll, through and through. Given the democratic nature by which we go about arranging our songs everyone's taste and intuition ends up influencing the final product. Sean has given our tunes big beats like we'd never known before, and on top of that beefy foundation we've pushed for bigger arrangements all around. We are grateful to all our members for their unique contributions. Each song would not have evolved to its current form without their willingness to reach into the darkness with us and paw around for what feels right.

Gimme Noise: How has the sound progressed since Starlings? Do you feel it was properly captured on Port of Call?Tim Harlan-Marks: By the time we put out Starlings, Sean and Brian were already playing with us, and a lot of folks who saw our live show later commented that the record didn't do it justice. We feel like we got it right on this record. It's still a little ragged around the edges in a way that feels right for us, but it's definitively a more energetic, more rock 'n' roll effort. We owe a debt of gratitude to our friends Eric Frame and Chris Spetcher from (now defunct) Albion Studios for collaborating with us to capture our sound. We really owe them around one thousand hugs and twice as many beers to make up for what we were not able to give them financially. Patrick Noonan: It's certainly a larger, fuller rock sound. This is mostly good but comes with some tradeoffs. On one hand it's a lot easier to fill a room with sound and sort of knock people out of their seats. That's worked to our advantage a lot, and it's incredibly fun. On the other hand, it's not as much of an intimate or personal experience for the listener as it was when we recorded Starlings.

Gimme Noise: At times, there's almost a choir-like feel to the vocals. How did you come to having so many voices at one time on the tracks? Tim Harlan-Marks: Pat and Lora are choir people by training. I grew up singing Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young covers with my folk dad and brother -- who are both folk musicians -- in my family's living room. We've all kind of got vocal arrangements on the brain. I personally feel like the human voice communicates emotion unlike any instrument. I like instrumental music, don't get me wrong, but I think it's no coincidence that many listeners gravitate toward music with human vocals even in instances when they can't understand the words being sung, take Sigur Ros for example: it's something powerful when people sing together. Come to think of it, this might explain why every action movie preview is accompanied by choral singing. Patrick Noonan: Because harmonies are really, really fun to sing.
Gimme Noise: There's a lot of dark story lines in some of the songs like "Buried Alive" and "Original Crime Scene." What headspace were you in when you wrote these?
Patrick Noonan: Wow, good question. I think all my lyrics are autobiographical on a level I'm not quite aware of at the time of writing. I wrote "Original Crime Scene" after quitting a sort of soul-sucking corporate job. I'm not saying all corporate jobs are soul-sucking, just that this one was. So I had saved a bunch of money and spent most of that summer writing songs -- a lot of which are on Starlings -- and probably drinking too heavily. I think "Original Crime Scene" was about depression resulting from that general situation, feeling fairly hopeless and needing someone else to keep you afloat emotionally. "Buried Alive" was written during a different summer, in which Lora and I got married and bought a house together within the span of two months. I have no regrets about either decision, but it was very stressful! So I think the song is really just about making one's self overly busy with fulfilling societal expectations and looking forward to a time when you can just relax and live your life again.

Tim Harlan-Marks: Patrick and I don't write songs together; we write them individually and then bring them to each other to get a second opinion. If we both like a song, the natural next question is, "Iis this a Very Small Animal song?" Oddly enough, we often find that we end up writing and choosing songs for the band that speak to similar emotions in similar periods of time. When we took a step back and looked at all the songs we had, these nine all seemed to be asking the same questions: What now? Where do we go from here? Is this the life I thought I was signing up for? If not, is there even something better out there?

Gimme Noise: What's the story behind the name Port of Call?

Tim Harlan-Marks: We came to like the idea of this mythical port of call, a place where life makes sense and isn't marred by the usual pains of being human. Seems like everyone we know is seeking this place, each in our own way, even as we doubt its existence. Different songs on the record offer different approaches for reaching it: Korea = running away, One Propeller = falling in love, Lullabies = lying to yourself, Wolf = living a different life in your dreams, to name a few.

Patrick Noonan: It was another unintentionally autobiographical song. "Port of Call" was written while Lora and I were settling into the new house, with a new dog, new marriage, trying to maintain a sense of identity in the midst of all those changes. A "port of call" is a place of arriving, and the song expresses a feeling like you either haven't arrived yet, or you have arrived, and it's not what you expected it to be. We chose that as the title track because we found that this sense of having not-quite-satisfied expectations was a common thread that ran through a lot of the songs.

Gimme Noise: What can we expect to see at the album release show? Tim Harlan-Marks: A lot of sweat. A lot of joy. Probably Elliot [Tickle Torture] taking his clothes off in the DJ booth. Wait, don't print that last part or my parents might stay home!

Patrick Noonan:

We're just going to play our songs and pour our hearts out and have an awesome time. Also, DJ Tickle Torture and Red Daughters!

Very Small Animal will release Port of Call at Icehouse on Saturday, November 30, 2013 with Tickle Torture and Red Daughters.
21+, $6, 10 pm

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