By Brian F. Johnson
Over and over again on Elephant Revival’s newest album Petals the band’s lyrics address the passage of time, the lessons learned and those still to come.
“On and On” features the line, “in our eternal flame and fire our bodies wax and wane, and it goes on and on.” “Raindrops” offers the advice “As the day breaks, stop and listen,” while “Home In Your Heart” suggests “don’t force nothing and something will come around.”
“Season Song” counts the years with the lyric, “And we spin another day, another dawn, another year, another song.”
The re-occurring theme is not only prevalent in Elephant Revival’s latest songs but also describes their current lives as the band celebrates a decade together with a world of experiences under their belt and optimistic glances forward at opportunities still to come.
“Ten years or not, I feel like everything is so new and that new feeling is everything I felt in the very beginning. I feel that so strongly and I know that there’s going to be a lot more that comes from this that will be life fulfilling for us,” said guitarist/vocalist Daniel Rodriquez during a recent interview with The Marquee which was conducted just days away from the 10th anniversary of the band’s very first performance together.
The group, which originally started out as Elephant Revival Concept, played that first show at the famed Gold Hill Inn on October 21, 2006. While Elephant Revival has released an impressive discography, logged countless miles and played hundreds upon hundreds of shows — including their debut headlining show at Red Rocks this summer — its members are still very much perpetual students, learning what new struggles and possibilities lie around every corner, and figuring out how to handle each of them with grace and compassion.
This summer, while on tour in Hickory, N.C., Elephant Revival had one of its most-high profile learning experiences when an electrical fire aboard their tour bus nearly took a member’s life and went on to annihilate their treasure trove of rare, and expensive instruments.
The fire started in Rodriguez’s bunk, at his feet, while he was sleeping in the early morning hours and had it not been for the well-timed desperate screams of “smoke, smoke, smoke” from vocalist Bonnie Paine, Rodriguez simply would not have escaped. Seconds after Paine cried out, the entire bunk was engulfed in flames and just a few moments after that, once the members had fled the inferno, it became obvious that while they had made it out intact, all of their belongings were now gone.
Not surprisingly, Elephant Revival — which also includes vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Bonnie Paine, bassist/mandolinist Dango Rose, fiddler Bridget Law and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Rose —handled the situation with complete elegance, even going so far as to play their scheduled show that night on borrowed and quickly purchased replacement instruments and wardrobes. “It was a form of a restart button,” Paine told The Marquee. “I think the most profound thing that came out of that experience — and I felt it almost immediately as we were watching our bus burning — was just the outpouring of people wanting to be helpful and just being so kind. I was just really touched by it. I think most people have this innate sense of kindness and giving-ness in them. I just kind of watched and observed the feeling of giving and how people just lit up whenever they had that kind of a connection to each other. Everybody was so sweet from the first note. I looked out — it was an all ages shows, which I love — and it just felt like everyone was embracing each other in a really sweet way; not physically, but there was a very supporting and loving togetherness that was really sweet.”
The fire ended up being a bit of a gut-check moment for the band as the members individually and collectively asked the age-old question touring bands eventually ask after traumatic experiences on the road: “What are we doing out here?”
“I’m always paying attention to omen — or ‘omen’ maybe sounds too intense — but for signals for which direction I should go and I’ve had pretty good luck with that — noticing an experience and then checking in with myself for how I feel like I might be directed by that experience,” Paine said. “In the long run it helped me believe more in the music in a different light, just seeing the sweetness that it brings into other peoples lives as well as our own lives. One of the things that I liked about what the fire did was the sense of opening up. I used to be really, really nervous and shy, even to the point of saying ‘Here’ in the classroom made me feel like I had to throw up, you know? And getting on stage I get this sensation sometimes of being one organism with everybody and it just sheds all of that instantly. It’s funny the first time I felt not nervous in company and in public was when I played music with my sisters on stage. Suddenly seeing everybody moving to the same thing it became obvious that we’re all this really neat organism and the music was part of the pulse of this organism.”
Likewise, this many months later, Rodriguez also feels that the incident had a silver lining despite initially having what he called a fatalistic reaction to the blaze. “I was feeling pretty dark and gloomy but I think it was necessary in order to just come out of the ashes and question ‘What are we doing?’ ‘What are our intentions?’ After 10 years so much has changed,” he said. “I really feel like the fire in this kind of dark way gave us an opportunity to reshape with a tabula rasa — you know, a blank slate — and it wasn’t easy, but man I’m feeling really good about things. Sometimes it takes a life and death situation and to lose a lot of stuff to realize what you have in the moment and seize that. It sounds cliché but sometimes clichés are spot on,” he said.
Currently Elephant Revival is focused on seizing the opportunity to again play with the Colorado Symphony at the end of this month. The band has had the chance to do this before, but this time around they’re working on some new arrangements, including a few where Paine is enlisting the help of a few musical friends. “It’s pretty exciting and giving a whole nother dimension to the songs. My friend Enion [Pelta-Tiller of Taarka] is orchestrating an instrumental I wrote called ‘Flight Patterns Weather’ and she is treating it like an orchestral piece rather than a song backed by an orchestra.”
The song is built around the thought that a butterfly can survive a storm, and as Paine continued to speak she abruptly stopped mid-sentence, quietly gasped and then delicately exclaimed “Oh, there’s a Monarch butterfly that just landed on me… squirrel!” After a chuckle and a few quiet moments she continued, “Eric Thorin [Matt Flinner Trio] is working on another piece as well. So that will be neat. It’s pretty fun. It’s great because I speak that written music language, but really, really slowly and so to have sort of a translator for musical ideas where I can say, you know, ‘Put a buh-buh-buh-bum here or a triplet here,’ and ‘Is that a bass drum or a timpani?’ and to have people who speak that language put ideas into play, and then have their own ideas too it’s just amazing,” she said.
Rodriguez agreed and added that the involvement of the symphony takes the music to another level that gives him the chills. “We’re a five, sometimes six-piece,” he said, referring to the band’s recent collaborations with percussionist Darren Garvey [Cameron McGill & What Army]. “We do what we can to fill the sound out, but oh my god when you have 30 other folks and the melodic inter-weavings and rhythmic inter-weavings that can happen with a symphony, it’s just so goose bumpy. I’m so grateful that all these great musical minds are willing to put up with all these simple things that we’ve done and make them so incredible. You know, we only get one, maybe two rehearsals with the symphony before the show. You don’t get very much time which is both intimidating but also reassuring like, ‘OK these guys are so badass that they don’t even need to rehearse. They just read the sheet music and play the crap out of it,’” Rodriguez laughed.
With a decade plus a few weeks now behind them Elephant Revival plans to continue delving deeper into the meaning of the journey we’re all on, and finding ways to do so as gracefully as the butterfly in the storm. They sum it up perfectly on their rabble-rousing anthem “When I Fall,” which speaks to transcending grief and loss with the wise enlightenment: “We start, where we find ourselves, in heartbreak, doubt and pain. It is here within these walls that we transcend and being again.”
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