Elder Island

ALL AGES

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Union Stage

740 Water Street SW

Washington, DC 20024

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• Full dinner and drink menu available

• The Premier Plus section is a raised area with reserved seats and tables. There is a dedicated server for faster service

Elder Island

Beware before entering Elder Island’s world because once you’re in you won’t want to leave. Be prepared to be led down paths from which you can’t come back, to be captivated by sensual, soulful, shapeshifting songs, to encounter lyrics littered with clues.

There is magic in Elder Island’s music and perhaps a little witchcraft. Trying to pin the Bristol trio’s sound down is pointless because the usual pop rules don’t apply. Textures matter as much as melodies. Genres bend and blend. Electronics rub shoulders with odd instruments. Katy Sargent sings as though casting a spell.

They are songs to lose yourself in, to be swept away by, to send shivers up your spine. What they mean is for the listener to decipher. There are signposts, of course – alluring lyrics, telling atmospherics, tantalising sonic twists and turns, tempo-changing beats – but these lovingly-crafted life stories aren’t literal. They’re far too smart for that.

Formed six years ago as an experiment-come-university hobby, Elder Island are singer and cellist Katy, bassist and beats maker Luke Thornton and guitarist and synth wizard David Havard. None hail from Bristol, but the city was what brought them together and its genre-mashing scene was what inspired them to start Elder Island.

Luke and Dave grew up as mates in Bournemouth where both were in indie bands. A shared love of Arctic Monkeys convinced them to team up in their late teens and briefly took them on tour, but their band broke up when Dave left for Bristol to study graphic design and Luke went to Wales to learn documentary photography.

Birmingham-born pop fan and lapsed school cello player Katy, studying fine art, found Dave in a flat-share where Luke spent weekends sleeping in the kitchen (Bristol’s nightlife having more to offer than Newport’s). Luke had bought a drum kit, Dave was DJ’ing and when the pair heard Katy practising her newly-purchased cello in the bathroom of the flat (acoustics, apparently), a sonic seed was planted.

The trio of Four Tet fans started out with jam sessions at home, adding weird percussion to Luke’s loops and stitching field recordings in to their soundscapey songs. What was supposed to be for fun suddenly got serious when, in 2014, a debut EP they stuck up on Soundcloud took off.

A fellow student studying music management had the EP pressed on to vinyl and, to the band’s surprise, it was picked up by Majestic Casual and played by Gilles Peterson on BBC 6Music, BBC Introducing and Amazing Radio. By then Elder Island had played just a handful of gigs.

“We had no expectations for the EP at all,” admits Luke. “And we were clueless as to the industry. Even playing live was a struggle because the songs were tricky to recreate and Katy was a nervous wreck”. “I was terrified,” confirms Katy. “I’d always loved singing, but I’d never been in a band before. The only time I’d been on stage was in a Martin Luther King musical at school. At our early gigs, I’d be glued to the spot. It took me a long time to learn to loosen up.”

Both Katy and Dave were off travelling when their debut EP started to snowball – Katy in Japan, Luke in Mongolia. On their return, they poured their experiences in to a second EP, 2016’s Seeds In Sand, a more structured, at times dancey five tracks that found fans in Beats 1’s Zane Lowe, and Tom Robinson and Radio 1’s Huw Stephens. Festivals came calling. The band sold out a headline UK tour. Their streams started to spiral, most notably on Spotify.

“Production-wise, Seeds In Sand was where we found out feet,” says Dave. “The songs were more complex and coherent and less ambient. The final song, Key One, was the most upbeat we’d ever been and that became for our cue for the album. Live, it always the song that started the dancing.”

The magic in Elder Island’s music has its roots in the trio’s strange, painstaking songwriting process. Every song starts as a jam in to which ideas and instruments are thrown. The jams, recorded in Luke’s basement studio, can last for 20 minutes or several hours. Lyrics might arrive at the same time or take months to enter the fray.

Post-jam, the band begin the arduous task of sifting out the best bits. Often, they’re obvious. Occasionally they require trawling. From there it’s a lengthy journey that begins by stitching the parts together then cutting the resulting songs down.

“We had ten versions of Don’t Lose. I think we came close to shelving the song before Ali stepped in. Wasteland was stuck on eight minutes for ages. We couldn’t agree on how to edit it because we all loved different parts.”

The playful Don’t Lose is about books including Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Sultry album closer Find Greatness In The Small began as a voice message and ended with a Guzheng, a sort of Chinese harp. The album’s oldest song is the glitchy, strings-assisted spine-chiller I Fold You, already earmarked for syncs.

The dancefloor-friendly You And I is about battling with different sides of yourself – or quite possibly, chatting to oneself when drunk. The finished song, complete with vibraphone, boasts its original vocals recorded in Luke’s basement.

“As much as we could, we kept original song parts and produced them, rather than re-record,” says Luke. “Some of what’s on the album is the first time we ever played it, completely improvised.

The funky, percussion-heavy Kape Fear was begun by Dave on synths and guitar before the trio jammed it out. Dave gave the song its title, but refused to reveal what it was meant to represent. Katy decided on sun worship.

The dancefloor-friendly You And I is about battling with different sides of yourself – or quite possibly, chatting to oneself when drunk. The finished song, complete with vibraphone, boasts its original vocals recorded in Luke’s basement.

“As much as we could, we kept original song parts and produced them, rather than re-record,” says Luke. “Some of what’s on the album is the first time we ever played it, completely improvised.

“The piano ditty at the end of I Fold You dates back to when I first moved in to my house and the place was falling apart. We put a piano in the kitchen and threw a party. Everyone was drinking wine and suddenly the ceiling fell down. We didn’t put that on the song, obviously, but you can hear people chatting in the background. We could never recreate that – it wouldn’t be the same.”

Since 2016, Elder Island have sold out every show they’ve played bar 2. A UK and European tour with Glass Animals taught them to perform in front of ever bigger crowds – “A baptism of fire” as Katy calls it. They still recreate every note of their music live, without the aid of laptops, but now they do it dancing.

Their streams have exploded to more than 60 million and they’ve found a huge fan base in the UK, USA, as well as across Europe.

“We have to pinch ourselves”. Shrugs Dave. “And now we have an album we thought we’d never finish. We’re very excited for what the future holds.”

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Union Stage

740 Water Street SW

Washington, DC 20024

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