Sparse & Bombastic: Ben Elkins Of ELEL Opens Up Before Thursday’s Show At Strange Matter

by | Feb 24, 2015 | MUSIC

So much has been written about the Nashville music scene, both good and bad, but the city still carries enough weight to make you turn your head when a new band from the area is coming out. The indie pop collective known as ELEL is just another one of those bands to make you turn your head.

So much has been written about the Nashville music scene, both good and bad, but the city still carries enough weight to make you turn your head when a new band from the area is coming out. The indie pop collective known as ELEL is just another one of those bands to make you turn your head. With the release of their first single, “40 Watt,” though, there’s clearly enough there for your whole body to turn as well.

Formed by Ben Elkins, who previously led the band Heypenny for close to seven years, ELEL came to flourish in the aftermath of Heypenny disbanding. However, ELEL is anything but a rehashed version of Heypenny, and with eight people contributing to the sonic direction, there’s enough diversity to make sure the band’s sound cannot be summed up in one thought. Now signed to Mom + Pop Records, the band has an EP and album coming out over the next few months, both of which are primed to make ELEL one of the bands to look out for in 2015.

This Wednesday, ELEL will come to Strange Matter alongside Richmond powerhouses Avers and Sleepwalkers. Before their show, band leader Ben Elkins chatted with us about the difference between Heypenny and ELEL, as well as the craziness of working in a band with eight people.

So, first question–why name the band after your wife?

Strictly brownie points, of course. Actually, I kind of went through this musical transition that was almost completely influenced by her about three or four years ago. It wasn’t extremely drastic, but she was playing calmer, kind of groovy music for me that I hadn’t really gotten into in the past – some of it really new and some of it really old. New stuff like Beach House and Toro Y Moi, some of those groove-type bands. Older bands would be like Chaka Khan or slower Aretha Franklin.

When I first met her, she was really striking to me in a lot of ways. I just thought that whatever she was playing or suggesting to me is probably right for me. Before that, I was writing a little bit more aggressive and frantic styles of music. Still fun music, but I just slowed and calmed it down for ELEL. In saying that, I will say that our song “40 Watt” is not calm, but it still has this delicateness to it especially with the verses. I was toying around with starting a new project, and toying around with different names. I don’t remember the moment it hit, but it sounded nice and I liked the vibe so that’s how the name came about.

You were in a band in Nashville for a while before ELEL called Heypenny. At what point when Heypenny broke up did ELEL come about?

ELEL was initially a side project where I just wanted to work with a different sound and a different band. My initial idea was to keep both going at the same time, but like most band stories, Heypenny fizzled and I wanted to give all my attention to this. As fun as Heypenny was – and I loved playing with those guys and playing those songs – we had been doing it for a long time, and had plateaued. Sometimes you need a fresh start, and it quickly became all ELEL.

As far as I understand it, no one in ELEL currently was involved in Heypenny. Do you have any desire to work with any of the Heypenny guys again?

Well, the bass player, DJ [Murphy], was one of the first members in Heypenny outside of myself and Kevin [Bevil] since we started it. DJ & I were together for like six or seven years and that still feels like a musical brotherhood. I don’t know if I’ll ever lose that feeling about him because I just love playing music with him and I’ve known him for a long time. I do miss him, and he initially helped me start ELEL and played bass with us at first, but then he had to move to Atlanta unfortunately. I do think about him from time to time and want to do something with him because I miss playing with him. He’s just such a force on stage.

What were some of the things you tried to do differently with ELEL as opposed to Heypenny?

A million things really. Business-wise, there were a lot of things that we missed out on in terms of promotion and marketing. You and I are talking about ELEL now, and we never really talked about Heypenny because there was no team around it to help that. We were very independent. I also learned from the mistakes we made. As far as the live shows, we did a lot of themed stuff. We would wear outfits or dress really similarly. Around the Cop Car EP, we were wearing robot costumes like in the “Cop Car” video. I still love that kind of stuff, but so far with this band, I’ve really taken my hands off of that part of it and let everyone bring their own style and personality to the band. They’re a very diverse group aesthetically and culturally so it has to happen that way.

Early on, I had to make the decision as to whether or not I was going to control the personality of the band or just let it happen. It was difficult for me sometimes, but I’ve just let it happen and I think it kind of works, at least for this group. It’s interesting for people that see us. I’m sure they’re thinking, “How are all these vastly different people doing these songs together?” That’s what I love about being in this group. So many personalities and cultures together, and we hop in the van and just work it out. It’s so fun.

Musically, I really wanted to just risk being calm and quiet on stage. There’s definitely three or four huge, full sounding moments in the show, but there’s a really lot of sparse and quiet moments. Probably a lot more of that. That’s really much more challenging for me than being big and bombastic because you’re not demanding anything from the crowd at that point. You’re just quietly doing your thing. If people pay attention, they do. You’re not saying, “Listen to us! We’re really loud!” That can be more comfortable in a way, but we’ve been doing it this way for a year and a half now and it seems to really resonate with people. I know if I’m an audience member, I really like that style. Heypenny was very visually and sonically in your face. We had these TVs we put on the stage that synced up with videos and were bright and flashy. It was a lot of fun, but this was a different approach and it works for us completely.

With so many people in the band, how does the songwriting process come together?

Mostly, I provide the foundation and other members add their stuff on top of that. I write the songs and kind of do computer-y recorded versions of them up to a point. Now that we’ve been playing right around two years together, it’s gotten to the point that I know who’s good at doing this or good at thinking about this part. I’m working on a couple new songs right now and Tim [Cook], our guitarist, who also does all the visual stuff, he’s working on those parts. I’m not even saying anything to him so it is transitioning to it being more open. So far though, I’ve been pretty much handing on the parts and telling them to learn it, as harsh as that sounds. I’m excited to get everybody more involved to some extent. I think it will always be something I’m marginally creating from the foundation. I notice sometimes when I let it be too equal, the end product seems confusing and not very focused. It’s definitely an interesting balancing act at the moment because these songs would absolutely not be as good without the band’s input, but if it goes too much in that direction, I don’t think it would be as good either. It’s an interesting and constant challenge.

You’ve got an EP coming out soon and then a full length shortly afterwards. Is that EP just going to be album tracks then?

“40 Watt” and a remix by New York’s Daytrip will be on the EP. “Geode” and “Cherokee” from the album are on it and Geode is actually the name of the album coming out this summer. We were actually going to release the album this last summer. I mixed it myself and we got it mastered really cheap. We even got a few hundred vinyl records of it pressed. A few weeks before our release show, we got signed to Mom + Pop Records and they told us to not put anything else out there. They were going to set this up and release it properly. I’ve been writing a few songs since then and we’ve been learning them since, so I think the album might end up changing. These few hundred vinyls that I have in my basement might be this weird not-quite actual version of the album. Honestly, I’m not sure completely that the EP is made up of album tracks since they are the old recordings. It could change a lot actually. We’re going to revisit some mixes now that we have some support instead of it being all DIY. I can’t wait for the album to come out though. It’s a challenge trying to play these songs live to people who have never heard it. It works – it’s just a little bit harder when every song is new. I think it will be more exciting once the record is out.

Hopefully those few hundred records will become some kind of collector’s item down the road.

I think that’s what we have in mind. We’re going to sit them on for a while because you never know what’s going to happen. The ones we have are in two different types; one of them is translucent gold and the other is translucent blue – they call it coke bottle blue. I think at some point people will appreciate them for what they are, but we’re just going to sit on them and see what happens.

So how did you get hooked up with Richmond’s own Avers as far as the tour goes?

Our manger Jeff O’Neill is friends with the drummer, Tyler Williams, who’s also in The Head And The Heart. I have actually not met any of them yet and I don’t know any of them, but I can’t wait. I think it’s going to be fun – they’re a really fun crew.

With so many people in the band, I imagine it’s nuts on the road. Any interesting stories to share in that regard?

It can be insane. Luckily, everyone expects it to be insane so everyone is on extra calm behavior for the most part. This last tour that we went on had this really chaotic day for us. We were opening for Moon Taxi, these friends of ours from Nashville. We played in Mobile, Alabama one night and then we were driving through New Orleans just to do it since a lot of us hadn’t been there yet. We were just going to get some lunch and then head on to our show down in Baton Rouge that night. We were driving over this long bridge with a swampy marsh-ness underneath and we stopped because the back right tire was wobbling a little bit. We saw one of the springs was a little broken so we hammered it back into place so it kind of wedged right in. We got back in and were driving fine for a while. There had been a number of hiccups already so I look at Tim and say, “well, at least we know 100% nothing else bad is going to happen.” Literally, within four minutes of me saying that, the back of the van exploded. The whole tire section blew up and rattled really loudly against the bottom of the van.

We pulled over to the side safely, thankfully. We got out and it was just this mess with the spring and tire being destroyed. It’s not like we could put a new tire on and drive it. The sun was coming down and it was getting dark and we were on the side of this crazy interstate bridge. There’s eight of us and we’re stranded about 70 miles from Baton Rouge with a broken van and trailer and we’re supposed to sound check in about forty-five minutes. The tow truck can only take two of us so we have to coordinate with some taxis so we all left at the same time. Then we had to figure out how to get the trailer there since they were going to tow just the van. We ended up leaving the trailer on the road and got all the gear in the van by taking out all of the seats in the van so the gear would fit in. We were supposed to start at 9 and we showed up about 8:50. In front of a sold out show of about 500 college kids, we just loaded directly onto the stage and just started our set from there. It was so strange to go from four and half hours of tension straight to the show.

The interesting thing was that everyone kept their cool and rolled with it. It was impressive with that many people and it made me really thankful for these people. That’s more of a tragic story than a funny one, but I think it sums up a lot, especially about how great this group is and how experiences like this really make us a family.

——

ELEL will be at Strange Matter this Thursday night, February 26th, alongside Richmond favorites Avers and Sleepwalkers. For more information on the show, and to buy tickets, click here.

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.




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