Elder Island On Their Album-Oriented Creative Process

Swimming Static comes two years after The Omnitone Collection. Has anything really changed over time? Aside from a global pandemic and the lack of playing live, Elder Island has maintained their exploratory folk pop sound and remains dedicated to shifting the narrative of what electronica can sound like.

Elder Island’s sophomore record is even more reflective and atmospheric than any of their previous releases combined. It’s also the product of true collaboration between the trio and the mutual goal of creating art as the means of a package. What you get from this Bristol-based group is thoughtful, “digestible,” and danceable music. As much as you can simply love the chill, comprehensible folksy dance group, you can also look to them for introspective pondering and contemplation. For Luke Thornton, Katy Sargent, and David Harvard, it’s all about the balance of simplicity and complexity when embarking on a new, full-fledged, artistic endeavor.

Swimming Static is just 10 days away from being released into the world. I know I am thrilled for it to come out, but what about the rest of you? What are you hoping people take away from this sophomore album of yours?

Luke: Ooh, that’s a hard question. What I hope people take away from it… I hope people enjoy it. I hope people can hear the progression that we’ve tried to create. I hope people can just listen to it once and go “Jesus Christ, I want to listen to that again!” because there is a lot in there that I think people will miss the first time round and after you hear it a few times you’ll catch it – quite a lot of our songs are like that. I feel like the album is something you need to listen to a few times and then you’ll really be hooked. That’s what I think, anyway.

Progression is so correct, as it’s very clear to me, as a fan and as a journalist, to see the heart you put into this – and all that you do. 

Katy: We’re always glad that people can see that, because that’s how it is all of that time.

Absolutely. Prior to the album dropping, you released four singles: all memorable, each filled with melody, and one even more enthralling and engaging than the next. When it comes to choosing the perfect songs to release as a single, what’s the process? Is it solely up to you guys? Do you shop it around?

David: It’s a bit of both. We kind of have a sense for it to start off with. We will all know that one feels big thinking, “This one’s a single, this has got like all the catchy hooks,” but then there’s also a combination of the industry side of it, as well. Once we pass it to the management and distributors, they’ve got their ideas of what could be good to lead with in what kind of order, so it’s kind of a bit of a mix between the two.

Luke: I know that with “Feral,” we thought it would be like the third song and then we sent it to everyone and they were like, “No, this should be the first single!” And we were like, “Oh, okay. Yeah… we’ll finish that… right away.” [Laughs]

I love that because it shows that, like you said, as much as you all have your own thoughts on the music you make, you still pay attention to the audience perspective, because that is who’s going to be listening to this record at the end of the day.

Katy: Totally, and you can’t really anticipate some song’s success and which tracks people will actually kind of come back to a lot. With the last album, I think one of the top plays – there’s obviously “Kape Fear” which was a single, but the second one, the one that is listened to the most, is “Wasteland.” For us, that’s not a single and we wouldn’t put it out, but that is the second most popular and we could never have anticipated that, which is quite nice. It’s all about the unpredictability of audiences sometimes.

Every single thing Elder Island does is mesmerizingly laced with introspection and reflection. Fans of all backgrounds, all ages, all interests can hear your songs and see themselves in it, as well as see all of you in it. I have to know, do you set out to craft songs like this and with this air of sentimentality? Or does this just come up organically as you write and record?

Katy: I think I do. We do try and make it a bit ambiguous, to not kind of focus on one point or one event, so it appeals to a greater audience. Also, so people can take away what they want from it or what they need even from it. Keeping it quite open is a plan, to kind of write something that might make a connection… and then maybe we kind of round it off a bit for the topic, so it’s less – or more – ambiguous. 

What steps do you each take in creating these genre-bending, story-telling soundscapes? What roles do you individually play in building these songs from the ground up?

David: We start with us jamming any way we can – just us in a room doing the initial jamming stages, just to kind of flush out any ideas about any preconceptions, as well. We see what is still quite fresh and quite like whatever we’re feeling at that point in time. That’s where I think a lot of diversity comes in, because kind of just be influenced by something that day or the night before or the week before that bleeds in. It’s quite a long process after that, just sort of working on parts, figuring parts out, taking ideas away, being like “That looks great. That melody sounds great. That needs to be expanded on these things,” and how to piece them back together again, after that point.

I love that it’s collaborative between the three of you. I think that’s important and helps the music sound so robust for a trio, but also so simple and stirring.

Luke: You nailed it! We do cross paths with our instrumentation and the way that we write. It is a three-way project. Maybe somebody is playing one instrument, but it doesn’t mean somebody else can’t be playing that same instrument when recording. We’ve said it quite a few times, we let the music dictate and not the instruments. We let what’s been written dictate how further it goes rather than it being our personal “No, I’m doing this,” to explain it in a more thoughtful way.

Katy: I suppose we are kind of bullied along by most of the tracks. It’s not really us, is it? The tracks kind of dictate what they need and we’re just servants to the track I reckon – but it’s good, because we kind of cross over, which means you can kind of confer about things. I can come to the guys and be like, “What do you think about this melody and these words together?” They can give me feedback rather than kind of sticking to our own paths, which is nice. It’s a better way of making music, I guess. 

How important is it to you guys to have such creative people to work alongside and have people just are on that same wavelength of what you want in the outcome of this art, because music really is an art form at the end of the day.

Luke: It’s hugely important. We feed off that really – having us three being able to analyze and help each other with what we’re doing. We’ve had some external help, like Omnitone and this album, as well, with Allie Chon on on the similar things where, you know, we’re banging our head against the wall being like, “We’ve been working on this for six months now, what is that extra push?” And sometimes you definitely need, if it is going that way where you can’t figure it out, you need that extra person with ears to say, “Oh, have you thought about that?” Even friends of ours who have done our music videos or management, we’ve gone to them and we’ve said, “Hey, these are the songs that we’ve got. What do you think of what we’ve got so far?” And they’ve given us nice feedback to really just open new doors to what we hadn’t thought about. It’s like anything, you do need that sometimes – you need that outside perspective or somebody else’s perspective to really develop on what’s there.

On that note, I would adore to know more about “Purely Educational.” The song – and it’s video – is so immersive. It’s slick and elegant, but also truly such a vibe and so-very down-to-earth. As a fan, I think it encompasses much of what you do best. How did this particular track come about? 

David: That one was actually off the back end of Omnitone. It was like the last thing we wrote while making that album; essentially we’d already kind of produced and had most of it written and we were kind of finishing, but we were still jamming a few, thinking that we needed the next track or two for the album. That was like the jam when this came up. Kind of the idea was there earlier with Omnitone, so it was kind of similar to what we did on that, but we took it into Swimming Static sort of in-between touring just to see if we could make some headway with it. We ended up pushing it in a much more poppy direction than we ever anticipated, but the track felt like it deserved it. It was much more of a challenging one for us to kind of get comfortable with, because it was reaching into a direction that we hadn’t touched on before, but it helped us then set up for making a whole new album. Essentially it kind of pushed us in that direction a bit more going from album to album looking at more pop arrangements a bit deeper than we had done previously.

Absolutely! I, too, think it’s a wonderful bridge between the records. It’s kind of fun and groovy in the pop sense – but it’s also not! You could still step away from it and be like, “This is still just a really chill kind of song.”

Luke: Yes, which I think we don’t know how we quite do it, but we certainly can bring songs to where it can be quite dancy and still can actually be quite chill. When we play perform live, you sort of see much more in the dancey field. It’s finding that balance in the recording studio, too.

Speaking of songs I love, do you each have any favorites from this record that fans haven’t heard, but you are itching for them to? Out of the ten tracks that I was so lucky to hear ahead of the release, I’m thinking “Here Am I”  will be a fan favorite. It’s understated, but beat-driven. Groovy, without being over-the-top. Heartfelt, yet not quite complex. That’s just my opinion, though. What are your favorites?

Luke: Yeah. I’m glad you said “Here Am I,” because I was going to say that, as well. “Here Am I” is an interesting track because it’s quite true to the original creation that we made. We overlaid a little bit and condensed it, but there’s a sense of cosmic freedom to it that I really love. I really hope that captures people’s interests. I really like that one.

David: “Queen and King” comes to mind for a favorite track. I don’t actually feel like we’ve written a track as complex as that in arrangement or something, at least in quite a while. We were listening back to old stuff trying and figure live songs out for sometime soon, but listening to some of those old songs and their setup and the arrangement, we see what was deviated back then to have a mix of arrangements and go on different journeys and different platforms that it can take you on, “Queen and King” is kind of similar in that vein where it really travels through many different ideas and tries to get them all across in a digestible capacity that you can listen to and enjoy while always feeling like you know what’s going on here.

Sort of going off that, I want to ask about Spotify and tracks you’ve had success with. You three have done exponentially well on the streaming platform much to the success of certain singles, playlists inclusion, and other things like that. When it comes to releasing music, such as an LP like Swimming Static, what is your perspective on things like Spotify, where it seems that smaller, more singular releases are the draw rather than the intricately crafted, passion projects that are full-length records?

David: It’s weird at the moment, because we love albums. We love the idea of an album and that body of work. That’s always the drive behind what we are doing: to make a body of work and create a really strong collection of music. The album will never die in that capacity. So when we make an album, we don’t do it with the platform in mind, we make it with the music in mind and essentially using the old format of a record’s two sides: 10 tracks, 40 minutes. That’s your kind of classic format. You can fit that on a record. We work with that in mind and Spotify is the outlet, which is the digital kind of radio as this modern generator of radio where you can listen to an artist and it takes you off on tangent into all these different platforms. It’s just an output for us. Obviously it works well for us and it is what’s sustaining us to have a career right now, but we won’t ever focus on creating for it. We won’t ever want to design or make music for a platform in that capacity. It’s just a good outlet for what we are thoughtfully, classically creating.