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Interview: UK-based Elder Island talk dexterously lush electronic LP ‘Swimming Static’



Featured Image by Nic Kane

Last month UK-based electronic group Elder Island released their newest hypnotic LP Swimming Static. Their otherworldly synths and building terraced entrances add power to the reputation of creatives based out of Bristol. Lead singer and cellist, Katy Sargent, brings a much-needed lower tone of voice to the electronic genre. This trio’s dextrous application of tension and release is highlighted even further when they underscore Sargent’s alto sections with deep bass backing vocals. We caught up with Elder Island members Sargent, Luke Thornton (bassist, beat maestro), and David Havard (guitarist, synth master) to discuss their artistic inspiration and the technical elements that play in bringing their music to life.

Congratulations on the release of Swimming Static! Your album covers topics like myth and memory in relation to childhood, which are beautifully complex senses to recapture. What challenges did you three come across in bringing these ideas to life? 

A mixture of technical and cerebral! The technical trial came in the form of a dodgy interface that distorted many of our original live recordings and meant we had to re-record and re-think parts of the album. It shaped the album into something way more considered in the end. The main challenge, I suppose, is how to transcribe an idea into sound. Many aspects of this process are a mystery to me and I hope to never fully understand it. We did however work with a stronger shared idea of imagery with this album. Something that we had started to nurture a little on The Omnitone Collection. We used lyrical content and live soundscapes we recorded together, to create a shared vision of what the track was about.  A place, a memory, a myth, a set of emotions. It was then easier to then tease out the fundamentals of these ideas to translate the subject into sound. Say one of the tracks is about feeling like you’re going out of control- like a cannonball flying off course and plunging into the abyss. There you have water, the sound of creaking ships, metal on metal, a waiting stillness, a brief explosion, and an eerie sinking. It’s a lot to work within the end but it makes the process more interesting.

So many of your songs, especially “Feral”, feel confrontational and warm at the same time. Tell us a little bit about your songwriting process.

It always starts open-ended. With this album we started completely fresh and spent the first month recording the initial sessions, sometimes as many as 5 sessions would happen in a day. Form these birthed the mood and feel of a track. Feral came out quite quickly and was just a Rhythm Ace, BassStation, and a Modular Synth. The main beat is slightly jaunty but the bassline sets a dark driving tone. The two juxtaposed to create a kind of aggressive cheeriness.

Who are some of your influences?

Ok off the top of my head and in no particular order – Little Dragon, Caribou/ Daphni, Darkside, Can, Bowie, Hiatus Kaiyote, The Books, Roxy Music, Tame Impala, Nao, Romare, Four Tet, Smiths, Jean Michel J, Daft Punk, Air and the rest of the gang in the French electronic music movement, Zappa, Floating Points, Hot Chip, Coco Rosie, Metronomy, Kate Bush, Late Night Tales compilations, Dylan Thomas, Beatles, Laurie Anderson….I should stop.

Bristol is famous for its dynamic music scene and vivid street art. How has the area affected your creativity?

Obviously, there is Bristol’s prevalent history in trip-hop that you can still feel a connection to today with members of Massive Attack and Portishead still about. Early on though, when we were first getting together, nights out seeing electronic club acts in warehouses and dubstep nights in damp cramped cellars hugely affected our earlier musical upbringing. There’s a huge variety of cultures here that add their musical differences to the city. It creates a rich heritage of music that you feel you belong to. I think now we go to a greater range of shows and absorb more of what the city has to offer. It’s a highly creative and experimental scene that encourages exploration in sound, pushing the boundaries. Pre lockdown, being able to go to a show where you stand in a crypt listening to sounds that feel like someone is going at your eardrums with 24 grit sandpaper, making you feel all gooey really opens your horizons.

Can you talk about the striking color profile in the “Purely Educational” music video?

We shot the video in a wonderfully traditional community hall. As soon as we saw pictures of it whilst searching for locations we knew it was the one we wanted. Amazingly dated with faded red/pinks, oranges, rich wood tones.  We loved the palette and wanted to borrow from that for the costumes, but we also wanted to keep Bethany (the dancer) the main focus so she was always highlighted and standing out in the shot. Working on this with lighting and in the final grading so she ‘popped’. The sparkly numbers were a nod to ‘that party feeling’ and ‘lights shining’.

There are so many active elements occurring simultaneously in your songs. As a trio, how comfortable are you with on-stage improvisation?

We’ve always used loopers and sequencers when performing live. It’s taken many years to get everything working smoothly with each other, but now we have so much freedom when performing live. Everything is built around looping parts and layers and having more control over what is performed and allowing us to extend or reimagine tracks depending on how we’re feeling that night, feeding off the response we’re getting from the audience. It’s how we create the music initially and is very important to us. It beats following a backing track and having a fixed performance.

How do you imagine the future of electronic music?

elder island swimming static

Image by Nic Kane 

Very dynamic and expressive. The amount of electronic instruments released in the last couple of years is out of control. It’s possible to create any sound imaginable now with hardware or plugins, and with the introduction of MIDI 2.0 and many new MPE controllers, the level of expression of these sounds will be close to that of playing real instruments. That level of control over synthesized sounds will really open up what’s possible with electronic music.

You can stream Swimming Static on Spotify.

Can’t wait to see the band live? Don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long. The band is hitting the road in North America this December and November, and just announced a 2022 UK tour.

North America tour 2021 w/ support from CLAVVS

11/09   Boston, MA @ Sinclair
11/10   Washington DC @ Union Stage
11/11   New York, NY @ Irving Plaza
11/13   Montreal, QC @ Fairmount
11/15   Toronto, ON @ Mod Club
11/16   Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
11/18   Boulder, CO @ The Fox Theater
11/19   Denver, CO @ Bluebird
11/22   Vancouver, BC @ Imperial
11/23   Seattle, WA @ Neumos
11/24   Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
11/26   San Francisco, CA @ Regency
11/27   San Diego, CA @ Music Box
11/28   Los Angeles, CA @ Fonda
11/30   Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
12/02   Dallas, TX @ Deep Ellum Art Co.
12/03   Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
12/04   Austin, TX @ The Parish
12/06   Nashville, TN @ Basement East
12/08   Atlanta, GA @ The Earl

EU tour 2022

02/01   Amsterdam, NL @ Melkweg
02/02   Cologne, DE @ Kulturkirche
02/03   Brussels, BE @ Botanique – Orangerie
02/05   Hamburg, DE @ Mojo Club
02/08   Copenhagen, DK @ VEGA
02/09   Oslo, NO @ Parkteatret
02/11   Stockholm, SW @ Nalen Klubb
02/13   Berlin, DE @ Metropol
02/15   Warsaw, PO @ Praga Centrum
02/17   Frankfurt, DE @ Zoom
02/19   Prague, CZ @ Café V Lese
02/21   Vienna, AT @ Fluc
02/22   Munich, DE @ Ampere, Muffatwerk
02/23   Zürich, CH @ Mascotte
02/25   Barcelona, ES @ Razzmatazz 2
02/26   Madrid, ES @ Independance
03/01   Paris, FR @ La Bellevilloise

Grab your tickets here.

Follow Elder Island on their socials:

Facebook   Twitter   Instagram   Youtube

Irene got her B.A. in English and Music Industry from UCLA. She has an affinity towards film music, her piano, and embracing her Armenian identity. Instagram | @theonewhereireneisfine

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