Earlier in the month, we spoke with Katy, Dave and Luke from Bristol based alt-electronic trio Elder Island. Through last year, the band were hunkered down in their home basement studio working on their sophomore album, Swimming Static, which is poised for release in May. The three singles that have been shared from the album so far have won plaudits across the industry, with regular BBC 6 Music play and support from Radio 1.
Speaking with Elder Island, it’s immediately clear how close the group are, on both a musical and emotional level. With one album already under their belt, several international tours completed and a DIY ethos that has steadied the band throughout their success, the group appear to be steadfast in their dedication to the music they make: always experimenting, always growing and always moving forward.
In our conversation, we discuss their creative process, how the band have been impacted by the coronavirus restrictions in creating their new album and, with an eye to future European tours, the effects of Brexit.
Unlike many bands, Elder Island create music without a sense of individual ownership for any particular track. Their approach is a group effort in its truest sense, with each member possessing an equal stake in the geneses of their output. The respect the members of Elder Island hold for each other is palpable, in conversation and on record; that sense of trust shines through the music the band create, which defies genre and is wholly their own.
Hi Elder Island. How are you? How’s the response been to the run of singles leading up to the album so far?
Dave: It’s going pretty well! They got some serious play counts. Especially Feral. There was quite a dead period for us when we’d finished touring on the back of the Omnitone Collection. After the last show of that tour, we went into album writing mode, then lockdown happened.
How did you find writing the album in lockdown?
Katy: I think at first it didn’t affect us too much, because we’d planned to hide ourselves away and make music. The first period was so intense. We played music all day, all week, so our heads were down. But after that, we experienced what many did in thinking, ‘When is this going to end?’
Dave: For the first period of writing, we did a month solidly. Recording, playing and jamming every day, seeing what happened. During that month, there was no lockdown, so we didn’t experience the outside influence of that. A week after that, we were in full lockdown.
Katy: If it hadn’t have happened, we probably would have gone to other places to produce and work on it. As we couldn’t do that, we decided to do all the work here, in our basement studio. So, that did shape the album in a way.
What impact does being able to record at home have on your work, as opposed to a studio that you’re paying for by the hour?
Luke: We do most of our work from the basement generally, so we’re very good at holding on to new music, letting in stew, then coming back to it, seeing if it’s right. When we do go into the studio, it sets a firework up us because you’re paying all that money.
How has recording your sophomore album differed from your debut (the Omnitone Collection)?
Luke: It’s been a lot more intense.
Dave: It’s the first time we’ve worked as full-time musicians. Before, we’ve all been keeping down different jobs with different hours. This is the first album that we’ve worked on from scratch, building the album as a whole in one go. There’s no old ideas in it. It’s a great feeling.
You met as students and have gone through the process of fitting music around your jobs and now, of course, you are full-time musicians. How have your relationships changed in that time and how has that influenced the music you create?
Katy: I suppose that our bond has become stronger and more tolerant. We’ve always been close. When we met at university, we formed strong friendships straight away. Playing music, playing live, long tours, that all brings you even closer together.
Dave: Me and Luke have known each other since we were three years old. We went to the same reception together. We saw a lot of each other growing up. We started playing music together at 16, then went off to university together and formed the band. Music was always for fun, something we’d do together whilst hanging out. That’s the way we’ve tried to keep it, more like a friendship.
Katy: This period’s been a test of that, but I think we’ve come through it.
Luke: Yeah, all the working and touring we’ve done together over the years has made this experience much easier. It’s a testament to that.
That closeness really does come across in the music you create. It sounds very collaborative, that you all have an equal footing creatively. Would you say that’s accurate?
Dave: Because we don’t focus on trying to write a fully formed song when we rehearse together, there’s no focus on prescribed roles. We don’t each come to a practise with the skeleton of a song formed, it’s something we work out together.
Katy: Yes, we write the skeletons of songs together, so there isn’t a sense of ownership.
Dave: Definitely, anything goes with us. For example, Katy bought a bass synth, so she’s been using that to write bass lines with our new material. We like to experiment with new sounds when we rehearse. We use loop stations when we write, so we experiment with lots of different instruments until we find something that works. It’s as simple as that.
So, the structure of a song follows that period of experimentation?
Dave: Yeah, absolutely. That sets the theme, tone and mood of the track. There might be some strong melodies or chord progressions that come from it, or a strong beat. There are often a few key parts that form the core basis of a track. With this album, we sat at the piano, having transcribed all the chords and melodies, to look at it from a theory-based point of view. We used that approach to arrange the tracks and break down the sections born out of the experimentation period.
I suppose it’s the ‘campfire’ method of looking at a song: does a track hold your attention when it’s broken down into its simplest form.
Compared to your previous releases, there’s a darker, perhaps more introspective sound to the new album. How has that come about?
Katy: Thematically, we were exploring things in a deeper way. The times that we made the album in have probably had an impact on that too.
Dave: I think it’s a question of taste too. Katy in particular leans towards darker music and I think that’s had an influence on our new album. I’m more into the happy, upbeat, disco world, but we’ve definitely used darker scales and engaged with our more introspective influences. There was a lot of talk of Kate Bush when we started this album and other longer-term artists who have that darker edge.
To what extent does the lineage of the Bristol music scene have an impact on the music you create?
Luke: It’s more that we listen to those bands rather than them having a big influence on our sound. Massive Attack use looping and production in a very interesting way. It’s enjoyable to listen to and deconstruct their music from that perspective. There’s so much going on in Bristol at the moment in terms of sounds. Lots of experimental stuff and local radio stations that play dub, roots and reggae.
Dave: It’s definitely played a big part in our education. From being here at university, coming to a bigger city like Bristol, there’s usually a music night on every night, of any variety you can think of. It really expanded our understanding of music.
You were quoted in an interview around the time of your debut album as saying that your music can take a long time to come together and that you often rework tracks. Was that the case with this album?
Luke: Some songs took longer than others.
Katy: It did take a long time to finish. I think it’s the finishing that we struggle with. We grow so attached to the tracks and push them around for ages. I remember getting a text from my dad towards the end of the process, saying, ‘Stop polishing them with your fancy cloth. You just need to release them!’
Dave: Yeah, it’s that last point. I’m never happy with a track until we have the raw emotion of the demo. When we get to that point, that’s the point that I think it’s finished. That can sometimes take rerecording a track 15 or 20 times over until it feels right.
Katy: We definitely have ‘demo-titis’. The feeling when you have a demo that’s raw and emotional that you keep going back to when you’re recording for real.
I do feel like I let some things go on this one though. I feel like it was easier to let go of the minor details that most people wouldn’t be able to hear.
What are you most looking forward to when shows can start happening again and what have you missed the most?
Dave: I’m looking forward to that energy that’s going to be in the room. It’s incredible. The energy when shows are back on is going to be off the chain.
Luke: I miss that low frequency feel from subs. That visceral ‘woosh’ that you get.
Katy: When we play live, Luke has to have a special bass amp by him. He doesn’t feel connected with the music if that amp’s not next to him.
Luke: I’ve been finding myself in our studio turning up the sub and closing my eyes for a minute. It can get very loud.
Dave: Yeah, I went to the shop the other day and when I was coming back I could hear the sub from all the way down the street.
You’ve toured extensively across the world and particularly in Europe. What are your thoughts on the difficulties performers now face because of Brexit in touring across the EU? Has it impacted your plans yet?
Dave: In the past when we’ve done tours, we’ve done Europe and have then gone to Switzerland. So, we know from that how difficult it can be to get into a country with all the visas and documents you need. With Brexit, it’s going to be like that but worse, and you’ll have to do that with each individual country you visit. It’s going to be slow and messy.
Katy: The margins of trying to get from gig to gig are already so tight, even without Brexit. It’s made us hold off announcing gigs until we know how its going to pan out.
Luke: It would be good to have visas for artists. It makes huge sense for us. If we’re only in the country for a day or two days, it doesn’t make sense to have to go through so much red tape. It’s going to have a huge impact.
I don’t know if it’s Boris’ government, but there seems to be a massive neglect of performance artists and musicians. It brings a lot in financially speaking.
We’ve always been known as a country that makes great music. Countries all over the world listen to British music. It’s one of our best exports. It’s a waste if the government is bankrupting a lot of people from being able to share their music across the EU.
Have you found other ways of connecting with fans whilst you haven’t been able to tour?
Luke: That’s something that we’re trying to focus on a lot more this year. Now we’ve finished the album, we’re thinking about how we can engage with people.
Dave: It’s interesting because you’re limited creatively in what you can do, but there’s still some really interesting things that can be done within those limitations. It’s quite a nice challenge.
Katy: We’re looking to do some nice studio recordings. We’ve also been working with a web team to design a pairs game.
Luke: We’re going to run tournaments and get fans engaging with each other. That should be coming soon.
Katy: Of course, social media is a really good tool in terms on keeping in touch with fans. It’s also given us time to think about what our shows will be like when they return. We want to experiment more with the stage craft and the idea putting on a spectacle, making the shows bigger and more immersive.