Womadelaide 2018. Euan Smillie and Alasdair Taylor. 16 Jan 2018
Appearing at WOMADelaide as part of the 2018 line-up, Elephant Sessions are excited to be coming down under for the first time. “None of us in the band have ever been before, so we’re buzzing, can’t wait!” says fiddle player, Euan Smillie.
The group will be following up their WOMADelaide appearance with a string of performances in other capital cities. “We are over for around about a month,” says Euan, “Going down the East Coast doing Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, [and] Byron bay. We are doing quite a few dates, festivals and venues”
Described as a modern folk quintet, the group is a hybrid between old styles and new sounds including funk and electronica.
“We have all been brought up playing traditional music, on a very traditional level” says mandolin player, Alasdair Taylor.
“From a very young age we were having lessons and were in classes.”
“You’re always going to start – if you’re playing the fiddle or the mandolin – from a very traditional point of view” adds Euan, “But as we got older and we went to study music in the various places around the country, and started getting a bit more experience in writing our own music and listening to other people play from all genres, we started getting an idea of the kind of thing we personally enjoyed listening to, which is also going to reflect in what you’re playing as well.”
Those other sounds from their personal listening experiences added flavour to their folk music.
“The thing is we all listen to various kinds of music from funk to electronic and rock music, so [when you] combine that with the folky roots that we have, [it] sort of lent itself to the sound we have now” Euan says.
The band have put out two studio albums in All We Have Is Now and The Elusive Highland Beauty, but their sound has really matured from the first award winner to the second.
“The first album was a bit more traditional”, Euan tells us, “There was less electronic sounds, but [when] comparing that to the second, that is the one that we unanimously prefer, it sounds a bit more us, and I think we’ve really found our sound now, so we are excited to write even more stuff using the sounds that we have and the style that we play”.
The five piece group have long been friends but they haven’t always been together as an ensemble.
“This line-up has been together for four years” Alasdair says.
“Our base player Seth (Tinsley) was the last to join. Me, Euan and Greg (Barry) started the band and the trio very quickly got Mark (Bruce) on guitar.”
“We always had a vision that we wanted to have a bigger, bulkier sound”, Euan adds. “[This music] is what we want to hear... and what we enjoy playing [and] its really nice that other people seem to enjoy listening to it.”
When it comes to their writing process, there isn’t one fixed technique they employ.
“We’ve done the process where someone brings a tune, or [where] me and Euan; me and Seth; or Seth and Euan have written collaboratively”, says Alasdiar, “But we’ve also just all got in a room and started with nothing and started from scratch with a bass riff, or a drum pattern, or a guitar riff”.
“Traditionally in a folk band the usual way to build a set would be for the tune player to come with a tune and then the band then accompanies that tune.” Says Euan.
“We found that more recently, [and] again with the second album, that we were more interested in the groove and the feel of the tune as a whole.”
Occasionally the group will start off with the drummer, Greg, and take any grooves, sounds or a feel that he might like to work to build a base for a track.
“That’s the bones. That’s the meat of the track”, says Euan, “And then it gives us something to work with. You get a totally different feel than if you just had a fiddle tune and then the base joining in. Everyone gets a little bit of the focus, and it gives everyone a specific part.”
The band certainly hasn’t set out to modernise folk music though; that has just been a symptom of their external musical influences.
“At the core it is folk music”, says Alasdair, “But it's taking it to a different level”.
“It is definitely what we would like to hear” adds Euan. “We have a lot of fun playing it and we have a lot of fun writing it. We never know where a track is going to end up. It often starts off at a very different point to where it finishes”.
The group remain pragmatic about fame, but also count their blessings that they have these amazing opportunities to play music they love, with their best mates, at gigs all over the world.
“You never think when you start a band that it’s going to go well”, says Alasdair. “You never assume that you’re going to make it because the statistics show that just doesn’t happen really. We’ve been going for a few years and we are now doing this pretty much professionally and we love it, but you never think it’s going to go like this, and I certainly never thought I was going to be going to Australia, and America, and Europe so we cannot believe, really, where we are now.”
“When we first started we just enjoyed playing music together” adds Euan. “We were friends anyway, we knew each other and would hang out and have a drink together, but when you’re young and you’re a musician and you go and have a drink with somebody quite often you find yourself writing stuff, and playing in a really relaxed environment, so you don’t really see it coming.”
“We started this in the shed, in the highlands of Scotland, drinking beer with our friends!” says Euan.
“We never went hunting for gigs,” adds Alasdair. “We knew a few people locally who put on shows and very small festivals and things and they gave us a shot and it just built gradually.”
“There’s no, kind of ‘X-Factor’ in folk music, so it doesn’t just happen” laughs Euan. “If your focus is on trying to make it then your focus is in the wrong place.”
With two albums under their belt, the group aren’t about to stop now.
“We have started writing a third album over the last three months” says Alasdair. “We have a few tracks now that we have been trialling at gigs. Hopefully we will have a few more by Adelaide. Over the next six months or so we are going to keep writing in between touring; 2019 is the sort of a rough date when we reckon we might release the third album”.
The next album will really be a focussing of the group’s new sound, taking what they have developed over The Elusive Highland Beauty and adding to it.
“The big change was really between the first and the second album”, says Euan. “Most of the band feels we have found our sound now so in theory it should be a development from that again. We have more experience using the instruments, the technology, we will probably be working with similar teams… so hopefully the third album will be a development from the second.”
“We enjoy writing to perform,” adds Alasdair, “So we write with a live view and the audience in mind… in the same way that a DJ will build a set we try to do the same thing to lift and drop an audience with us, which means that we can write music over the year, perform it and tweak it, so by the time it actually gets to the album you find that the sets are tried and tested and that people will listen to it and relate to it in a live setting.”
Elephant Sessions will be playing two sets over the WOMADelaide weekend, on the Moreton Bay Stage at 2.30pm on Saturday and on the Zoo Stage at 10.00am on Sunday. They will also appear at Taste The World on Monday.
WOMADelaide ticket bookings and the full program can be found online.
When: 9 to 12 Mar
Where: Botanic Park, Adelaide