Photos: Ash Holdsworth
“I could see all the people to the back and they were just having it.”
True creativity is at the centre of Elder Island. Each of their tracks is the result of days, months, even years of first jamming, then looping, layering and tinkering to a vast degree of intricacy. Their electronic pop is woven with soul and often backed by a deep groove, whilst remaining rooted in earthy textures, as they seem to harness a kind of organic magic. Nestled in Bristol’s Café Kino, Katy, Luke and Dave talk me through their live performance, upcoming debut album and an integrity that sees them embrace the old and new alike.
Elder Island have just finished a sold-out UK tour, bar Cardiff, an anomaly I put down to poor taste. Gig venues have been transformed into illuminated dancefloors as they go. Lead vocalist, Katy, describes the reception: “On this tour, more than any of the others, people were up for a dance. We started in Dublin after a bank holiday, so you would’ve thought people were a bit worse for wear, but they were straight in.” Luke describes their final homecoming gig at Trinity as one of his favourites: “Definitely the top show in Bristol that we’ve done. The vibe was amazing. The energy was just… I could see all the people to the back and they were just having it. It was nice seeing this flow of dancing just happen.”
Their live show is charged with energy, becoming almost osmotic as the band react to the crowd and vice versa. Luke explains: “There are points where we have to improvise, or we’re extending the songs, and you can really tell how the night is going because when it’s going well that just works, it gels, whereas on the nights that aren’t going so well we’re just like let’s… get off!” Katy is laughing: “Cut it short, cut it short!” She goes on to explain, “It’s also like what you think people are listening out for. If people are really bubbling you’ll elongate the dance section, and I can tell Luke is watching and he’ll keep the kick in for longer and he’ll push it a bit more, but if it’s a listening crowd you can push the ones that are a bit more noisy with lots of layers.” The same intuition (and decent monitoring) means the band members can respond to each other with the same level of empathy and presence in the moment.
“We need a sound, it needs to come in here, it’s kind of high… What about THIS?!”
The live setting is all the more exceptional when you understand their recording process. Luke explains just what went in to their debut. “We’ve used a lot of layers, there’s a lot of synthesis, vocals and harmonies, a fuck ton of drums, electronic drums, real drums, and it’s very full bodied…” Performing is therefore, as Katy puts it, “trying to recreate that richness but… live… with three people.” Laughing at the challenge, they also happily recount the success of the four (out of ten) songs they’ve played live from the album so far. They’ve all been well received, especially the groovy ‘Kape Fear’, one of Luke’s favourites and their soon-to-be-released single.
At this point, the band can’t wait to get their debut album, The Omnitone Collection, out in February. Dave describes their debut as “a journey. Plenty of highs and lows. Definitely some stuff you wouldn’t expect, and weird soundscape-y moments in there as well”. With recent single ‘Don’t Lose’ having a pop structure unlike that of their previous work, along with a distinct and satisfying groove, I ask if the group are moving away from their free-flowing electronic format. Dave ponders on this: “It’s very eclectic…I suppose there has been more of a songwriting focus this time round. We’ve obviously still recorded and made it in the same way – which is very loop-based and experimental – but then working with [producer] Ali Chant, it is definitely kind of sculpted.”
Katy goes on to describe the wonders of Ali’s PlayPen studio and how its allowed for maximum ad libbing: “You have racks of synths and keys, boxes full of weird instruments, and a guzheng standing in one corner, and all of this sort of stuff, and it’s all linked up already. So, we’re like ‘we need a sound, it needs to come in here, it’s kind of high’, and then you’re like, ‘What about THIS?!’” she laughs. “‘Yeah, record it.’ It became really natural and playful, which I think comes out in a lot of the tracks.”
“It’s more reassuring when you can see someone working away at something and using each piece of equipment, rather than a laptop.”
Besides the plethora of instruments, the studio was also home to various old-school equipment, a preference over a purely digital set up. Luke explains, “We know [old equipment] is built to last, it can be repaired, as opposed to something that’s digital and more throwaway and it also sounds much nicer. [Performing live], it’s more reassuring when you can see someone working away at something and using each piece of equipment, rather than using a laptop.” Katy adds, “It’s more tactile, otherwise you’re very hemmed in”.
It’s clear the band love the nostalgic feel of trusty gear, whether it’s gushing over the satisfying clunk of a cassette tape – “and the old twisteroo!” – or repairing old hi-fis with the help of brochures from the 70s and 80s. The graphics of the latter inspired the video for ‘Don’t Lose’, as well as the semi-vintage style of their new artwork. When discussing this style they struggle for a definition, bandying around “neo-vintage”, “neo-retro-vintage” and “future-vintage-twist!”, before happily settling on “Future-retro”. Whatever you call it, it’s resulted in a clean, distinctive design that brings the old with it to the new.
It’s the level of care that goes in to the production of old artefacts that they aim to mirror in everything they create. From their music to their merch, they assert that a meticulous approach and a lack of compromise go hand in hand with sustainability. Dave explains their thinking: “Okay we’re making this track, how many times can I listen to it before it’s tired? If it doesn’t tire, then great. We spend enough time with it so that we never question it again.” Through attention to detail they defy a throwaway culture. Kate describes her wish for the album to be listened to like a classic vinyl – in its entirety – and summarises: “I suppose you put in time for people to then get time out of it. Which I’ve never thought about before but that’s quite nice.”
Patience and zero compromise have resulted in an album they’re all truly proud of. Part devoted mechanics, part inspired artists, Elder Island combine the worlds of technology and soul, manifesting something unique, beautiful, and most of all – alive. With so much invention, there really is no telling where their long-awaited debut may take us, but with a voltaic live performance and a keen method behind the scenes, I’m sure it’s a world we’ll want to explore from start to finish, again and again.
Elder Island release a special ‘Christmas present’ track soon, with personalised cassettes available via their Pledge campaign. Third single, ‘Kape Fear’ is out next month.
See Elder Island play ‘Bonfires’ live here: