“There was an interruption to a news broadcast with the voice of this alien… I thought, ‘What if it were real?’” I Am The Manic Whale bring an old storybook to life

I Am the Manic Whale
(Image credit: Future)

It all began with a book that, like a faded, wrinkled treasure map discovered in a dusty attic, inspired Michael Whiteman and I Am The Manic Whale to undertake their latest musical adventure. The quartet’s fourth album, Bumper Book Of Mystery Stories, grew out of Whiteman’s love for tales of the uncanny, inspired by the 1963 Boys’ Life Book Of Mystery Stories.

“I found a copy of that in a spooky, dusty secondhand bookshop when I was a teenager,” says Whiteman. “It’s probably a bit dated now but I’ve always loved reading ghost stories and spooky stories. I found the book again a couple of years ago, re-read it and thought this would be a great theme for an album. We already had a couple of songs about some quite wacky things, so I thought: why don’t we write a few more songs about mysterious circumstances and put them all together?”

Each of the eight tracks on Bumper Book Of Mystery Stories weaves a tale of the fantastic, all linked together by the Ghost Train, which is the title of the album’s opening song.

“The idea is that you’re on this ride, the train is taking you around, and each scene is a different mysterious story and song,” says Whiteman. “The themes from Ghost Train come back loads of times throughout the album to remind you that you’re on this continuous ride. It’s not a super-coherent narrative like some concept albums, but every song has an element of the Ghost Train song somewhere.”

The track Nautilus is a homage to Jules Verne’s sci-fi classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. “I’m very happy with that song – that’s the big 15-minute epic on the album,” says Whiteman. “I was reading that book at the time we were working on this album. I’ve always been fascinated by submarines; I love submarine films, I love the atmosphere of being enclosed and separated from the world, a locked- off community. That’s the track with Ryo Okumoto on; it was great to have him involved. He did a fantastic job.”

The connection between Whiteman and the Spock’s Beard keyboardist began when Okumoto saw a video that Manic Whale made for the Fusion Online Christmas Cracker event on YouTube during lockdown in 2020. The band performed their own One (Hopeful Song) and Chris Squire and Alan White’s Run With The Fox, catching Okumoto’s attention.

“He reached out to me and said, ‘I really like the Manic Whale video; do you want to write something together?’” recalls Whiteman. That initially led to Whiteman working on Okumoto’s solo album, The Myth Of Mostrophus. “It really was the dream. The people on the album are a ‘who’s who’ in the prog world. I can almost not believe that I’m singing a song that’s got Steve Hackett playing guitar on it. Then he had me over to LA last year and we did the album live with a phenomenal all-star band – we did two nights in a studio near where he lives. That was incredible.”

In the case of Nautilus, Okumoto went above and beyond what Whiteman was expecting. “Initially I just asked him to do a Hammond organ solo,” says Whiteman, “but then he said, ‘Can I do the piano as well?’ ‘Go for it!’ And it came back with piano, Hammond organ, a Moog solo, so it was great. I didn’t want to ask too much of him, but he was very happy to go to town on it.”

The subject matter on Bumper Book... is nothing if not varied. Ernö’s Magic Cube, written by Whiteman and guitarist David Addis, was inspired by Ernö Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s Cube. Released as the album’s main single and video in June, lyrics proved to be a mouthful and a half.

“The lyric at the end is about how many combinations there are on the Cube, and trying to memorise that was hard work,” says Whiteman. “‘Forty-three-quintillion, 252 quadrillion, zero- zero-three trillion, 274 billion, 489 million, 856 thousand-times combinations....’ That’s a tough lyric to learn!”

We Interrupt This Broadcast, which closes the album, returns to the realm of science fiction with its tale of an abortive alien invasion. “It’s based on a real circumstance,” says Whiteman. “In the late 70s there was an interruption to a news broadcast with the voice of this alien, almost certainly a hoax recorded by a guy with a tape machine and a transmitter when television was a bit less digital and less secure than it is now. It spooked some people who took it seriously. Most thought it was a hoax, but I thought, ‘What if it were real?’ and tried to think about the reasons this alien invasion was threatened then never happened. It’s a silly song really but it was a lot of fun.”

From puzzles to deep sea voyages and aliens, the lyrical content is an expression of Whiteman’s realisation that there’s no limit to what you can write about. He credits this approach to the example of Big Big Train and their song East Coast Racer about Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive.

“I’m a huge fan of trains, particularly steam trains and Mallard, which that song is about, and I’d never thought, ‘Why don’t I write about steam trains?’” he says “Everyone is writing love songs and clichéd lyrics – why don’t I write about stuff that I’m passionate about? I’m not shy about admitting to being a massive geek. I’m interested in science and technology, stories and science fiction, why not write about that? And that realisation was the birth of Manic Whale. It was a key moment for me.”

The album release is accompanied by a limited-edition book of the same name, containing 16 short stories written by the band members. “Every story connects with the album – some very obviously, some more subtly,” says Whiteman. “I wrote a story that connected with a couple of the songs on the album, and I thought, ‘Let’s put this in the booklet.’ The story just kept growing; it got to around 5,000 words and we realised we’d need three booklets to fit it in.”

The book ties the whole concept back to its roots and that dusty bookshop, before the next stage in the promotional process: the Maniacal Mystery Tour to promote the album and book. “We’ve got five dates in the calendar; we’re hoping to put in a couple more,” says Whiteman. “Early November, we’re going to be in London, in Leicester, in Lockerbie – that’s a first for us; we’ve not been up in Scotland before – and there are a few others in the pipeline we’re working out details for. We’ve done festivals and one-off gigs, this’ll be our first UK tour, which is exciting.”

The final piece of the picture will be choosing what music to present live. Whiteman is keen to play the new material, but aware that if they perform the whole album, there will be little time left for anything else fans may want to hear.

“We’re still working that out,” he says. “We want to come back with an almost completely new set, because we’ve been playing the same set for the last couple of years since Things Unseen came out. We probably will do a couple of songs from Things Unseen, but then the other songs we’ve been playing from the previous albums we’re probably going to drop and pick different songs so it’s going to be quite a fresh set. People who’ve seen us at any point in the last five years or so are going to see something quite different in November, I hope.”

David West

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.