After reviewing Elephant Revival’s last visit to Boston, I was thrilled by the opportunity to interview some members of the band before their recent show in Boston. Jeremy and I sat down with Bonnie (vocals, percussion, musical saw) and Dango (vocals, bass) on a tapestry they graciously offered, and chatted to the tune of their openers, Mike and Ruthy.
The show which followed truly demonstrated the growth the band has seen over the course of just one year – the venue and their audience were both larger this time around, and they reflected this with a stage presence that was only topped by…a baby! That’s right, Mike and Ruthy blessed us with the vocals of their darling daughter during the anthem, “Grace of Woman.” Not more than two years old, she clutched onto the microphone and clapped away onstage to the joy of band members and the audience.
Any Bostonians who missed this show had best know better next time, and to those in cities where Elephant Revival is heading for the remainder of their tour – you’ve got a lot to look forward to!
Many thanks to Bonnie, Dango, and their manager Tanya for this interview, and to all the other talented artists who graced the stage!
I was lucky enough to see you perform recently, at the Freshgrass Music Festival in Northampton, MA, where Bonnie played the musical saw. Bonnie, where did you learn to play such an unusual instrument?
Bonnie: My friend Bruce Townshend taught me – we played in a band together with one of my sisters, and he gave me my first musical saw.
You all play a number of instruments, as well as all sing. What is your songwriting process like with so much possibility?
Bonnie: It’s different for all of us, but for me it’s finding a space to listen for different melodies to come through. I usually try to find a space where there is some kind of white noise rhythm like a river or rain – water is particularly inspiring. You’ll hear a pattern and start fitting of the melody into that.
Do you usually start with the music and then add the lyrics?
Bonnie: Oh, it changes.
Dango: Yes, it comes both ways. When the melody is there, then finding the syllable patterns in words – the pentameter – comes next.
So more often than not do you write the songs together or will someone come to the group with something they are working on?
Bonnie: There’s some collaboration, but usually someone will bring a song to the table and everyone else will write their own parts to it, with some big guideline, like, “Oh I really hear strings in this particular part.” We try to be really receptive to each other so that everyone can have their creative freedom. It makes the song more interesting.
Dango: Like she said, we all come to the band with music. We assimilate a lot when we are off the road, and then we bring it all together. And at other times songs really thrive off collaboration in the beginning, that creation phase.
Your collective musicianship really shines on your new album, These Changing Skies. This is your third full-length album in the seven years you’ve been together, and comes on the heels of your EP, It’s Alive, last year. What is motivating you to produce so much new music right now? Have you been holding on to this new material, waiting for your fanbase to grow?
Bonnie: We just have a lot of materials to share, and it fun to get the songs out there. There’s five songwriters so naturally there’s a plethora of songs. We could still make five more albums!
Dango: I want to mention that with Its Alive we had a great opportunity to record in DSD technology, which is a superaudio. There’s a lot pioneers of that in Boulder, CO, and we were lucky enough to have relationships with them in a positive way where we got to collaborate. Soon Its Alive is going to be re-released in superaudio in Europe, which is awesome. So the recording quality of that album, which many of our fans don’t realize, is far above the other recording qualities which are out there on the market. That happened sort of serendipitously and then with our recent album, These Changing Skies, running into Bear Creek Studios, and Ryan Hadlock our producer, all around the same time in the development process was serendipitous as well. It just all lined up.
The title of These Changing Skies reflects two themes I hear you all consistently addressing – nature and change. These are some pretty powerful forces – how do you guys translate those into such succinct but insightful songs?
Bonnie: We try to immerse ourselves in natural environments. The title of These Changing Skies is a line from our song, Remembering a Beginning. Its sort of a reminder of perspective, in that the skies are something that encompass everything. It puts us all on the same team in a way – the idea of what the skies have witnessed throughout all the changes that have taken place. We are lucky enough to have been a little part of that.
You guys have been touring so much so often, and obviously being away from home must be hard. How do you stay grounded and support each other on the road?
Dango: This specific tour has been very difficult with the flooding [In CO], which happened right after we left, leaving us to witness it from social media and streams from news footage. That has been hard because our community has been directly affected. We’re helping out with relief as best we can from the road by collecting donations. That being said, the communities of Lyons, Jamestown, Sylna – who have been really hit hard – we have dedicated this whole tour to them back home. Its been a lot, but we all support each other – we’re friends that have become a family. The same dynamics that exist in families and life exist for us on the road. We are patient and value each other and our personal growth, our space and boundaries, commitments, kindness, speaking and communication…all these things in interpersonal dynamics become very present when you are together in a van for a really long time.
Bonnie: Supporting quiet spaces helps too. We heard the news of the floods, and for the three days that we were first processing that, the van was really loud pretty consistently – with music and good things, but it was pretty unusual for us. After three days I realized, “Wow, we haven’t had any silence to really take this in.” Silence is a great tool for really conceptualizing and finding your peace with something and sending your love and condolences to people. That was an epiphanal moment for us, as simple as it seems – realizing that was a way of supporting each other – to respect silence in particularly trying times.
How did you all end up settling in Colorado? Bonnie, I know you are from Oklahoma originally. And how has Colorado nurtured you as a group?
Dango: I had lived in CO from 2001 to 2005, and I actually only left to join our openers tonight, Mike and Ruthie, who are from Woodstock NY. I joined their band The Mammals in October 2004. Then I relocated to Oklahoma. I knew that CO was where the fertile ground was. Bonnie and Daniel was connected with Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon.
Bonnie: Yes, and Yonder have also become very good friends of ours, and of course String Cheese Incident.
Dango: I remember in 2000, Yonder was playing in Santa Cruz, CA, and I just remember they were playing a song about the Colorado Pines. I was just traveling, but had heard about Nedfest, you know, and I kind of just hopped on tour with them on the road to Colorado. I went to Nedfest, RIP Michigan Mike, you know we miss him a lot, and everything fell into place up there. A few months later I was on the road playing appalachian string band music, and I think that worked for all of us. The community, the environment, the nature, the camaraderie, the music, the friendship, we just all really love it there.
We were so happy to see you at Horning’s Hideout this year. What was it like to play with Cheese, Bonnie – have you performed with them before?
Bonnie: Not with the full group. We’ve all played with individual members of the band but not with the full group. That was really the best, to be on stage right next to Del McCoury and Jason Carter – it was amazing and a great honor.
Did you have a lot of prep or did they just throw in you in?
Bonnie: Billy Nershi pulled me aside and said hey – come play with us! As they were about to go out onstage, actually, and we’re trying to warm up songs with Del Mccoury, and I was just thinking, is this the song I want to play? Trying to listen and prepare myself…
We saw you at Club Passim last year, which was great because your music is so moving in such a small setting, What helps you connect with the larger audiences at festivals – you’ve been playing so many of them. Do you prefer the smaller crowds or thrive with those bigger ones?
Bonnie: I like both. I like when we mix it up. And if it gets to be a really big crowd, I like to imagine – and this might sound cheesy – everybody’s hearts being a little light, that lights up with the music, and it keeps them from seeming threatening or me getting nervous. I imagine that those lights just grow and grow and at the very end I imagine a very big white out!
Dango: Its all visualization. Its just like that sort of vacuum effect that happens in meditation – this pulsating – and finding that within the crowd. Its about finding the focal point of that energy and letting it expand and becoming one with it. And I know that kind of sounds cliche, but it really is true – we’re all joined by the experience and we’re all part of it equally.
Going back to what I asked you about earlier – You have these beautiful messages about nature and change that you’re trying to express, and as your fanbase grows, more and more people are hearing these messages. Is there one single concept you want audiences and listeners to take away from your music?
Bonnie: One thing is that everywhere you go is a sacred circle. You know, even the tiles on the floor we’re sitting on are really cool. I mean, I could connect with grass – I just love things that are taking in oxygen, or producing oxygen or whatever – that are living things – not to say that these things (pointing to the floor) aren’t living either – sorry, I feel like I’m insulting the tiles right now! But just the sense that you are in a sacred space wherever you go if you’re open to it, and to have a sense of reverence for different kinds of existence, not just things that are similar to you. To find a sense of awe in all the different ways of being, can inspire a lot of music endlessly.
Dango: That’s great, that works for me.
October 11 /// Phoenix, AZ /// Crescent Ballroom
October 12 /// Joshua Tree, CA /// Joshua Tree Music Festival
October 15 & 16 /// Austin, TX /// Cactus Café
October 17 /// Dallas, TX /// Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge
October 18 & 19 /// Ozark, AR /// Mulberry Mt. Harvest Festival
October 24 /// Seattle, WA /// Tractor Tavern
October 25 /// Portland, OR /// Aladdin Theater
October 27 /// Placerville, CA /// Hangtown Halloween Ball
October 30 /// Riverside, CA /// The Barn
October 31 /// San Francisco, CA /// The Independent
November 1 & 2 /// Moab, UT /// Moab Folk Festival
November 8 /// Denver, CO /// Ogden Theatre
November 9 /// Boulder, CO /// Boulder Theater