On the day Elephant Tree’s Habits is released I speak to guitarist/vocalist Jack Townley late-afternoon in the midst of isolation. He’s sat in his garden having a beer, partly to give him some Dutch courage before the Q&A his band are doing on Twitch that evening, and partly to celebrate the fact that the album has been so well received by fans, critics and just about everyone who’s heard it. “I thought it was going to go down well, but I didn’t think this well,” he says. “People are saying they’ve listened to it numerous times already and are getting more and more out of it with each listen. I think anyone who releases a record and says ‘oh I don’t care what people think’… well they do, or they wouldn’t have put it out. I definitely care what people think, and I know Riley [MacIntyre, producer/extra instrumentation] does. I’ve been checking all the reviews and watching the streaming numbers go up all day.”
Later that day I hook up with the whole band on Zoom. The beers have clearly been flowing. Pete Holland (bass/vocals) is on particularly good form as he slowly loses the power of speech. Sam Hart (drums) is wearing sunglasses and a sombrero and is enunciating every word as if he’s on a West End stage tackling a particularly tricky Shakespearean script, whilst regularly topping up his glass with whatever his poison is this evening.
During the Twitch Q&A we learned that Jack and Sam first met at work having moved to London, bumped into an inebriated Pete at a bar and – being big fans of his other band Trippy Wicked & The Cosmic Children Of The Knight – asked him if he fancied jamming sometime. Thus, Elephant Tree was born, with the band name coming from a Google book search.
It’s been four long years since the band’s eponymous full-length debut album (their sophomore effort following on from 2014’s Theia mini-LP) was released. Since then John Slattery (synths, guitars) has joined to fatten out their sound and the band has toured like dogs. You have to wonder why Habits has taken so long, and if it was a pleasure to put together or more akin to pulling teeth?
“It’s been a bit of both,” answers Jack. “I’m a man of little patience. With the self-titled album, we had a clear idea about what we wanted to do – we recorded it, we added a bit more to it, and it was done. With Habits, well we started demoing it back in 2016. ‘Bird’ and ‘Faceless’ were demoed in 2017. We’ve been listening to those tracks and working on them since then. Riley had ideas; we all did. There was a lot of… not arguing, but everyone’s an individual in this band. It was a steep learning curve for me. Tracks like ‘Sails’ and ‘Bird’ went through a lot of arrangement changes, and ‘Wasted’ we spent the most time obsessing over. We’d change it, then there was a lot of going back and forth with us wondering, ‘Is it better now?’”
“It became like you’re in a bit of an echo chamber and we lost the plot a bit, I guess,” he continues. “We were getting to the point where you think it’s great, then a week later the conversation became, ‘Is this actually what we want it to sound like?’. Me and Riley were having 2am Messenger conversations almost to the point of paranoia over things we’d done and then changing them. Like with Pete’s bass – we tracked it all live, he played his parts note-for-note perfect, but then there was a conversation about how maybe we could change the bass tone slightly. Pete’s an old-school musician in the sense he can go lay down a Trippy Wicked track in one session and it be amazing, and we’re there going, ‘You need to retrack every part of this album because there’s one tiny aspect of the bass sound I think we can improve on.’ Sam was there as the voice of reason at times. Once I’d got over my ego and patience issues and realised it was going to take ages to finish, I really got into it.”
“It probably felt like pulling teeth to the other guys,” begins Riley. “Because I had a disproportionate amount of control over it because I had the files in the studio [The Church Studios in London where U2, Paul McCartney and Radiohead have recorded] and my access to the studio is really limited because I’m super busy doing my regular job. I can only run the sessions here when I have free time and I have very little free time. I was definitely obsessing over it when they were done recording it. I’m used to working with artists who have huge budgets and can hang out in the studio for months and just tinker with stuff, so it’s what I do naturally. So, it was like, ‘We’ll just change it, we’ll keep that bit of drums and just hack out all the guitars and bass.’ But with everyone having real jobs and lives, and me being busy, that might mean another month of production due to the logistics of us all getting in here together.”
“I would agree with all that,” Pete concurs. “After recording was the hard part. You have to let it go. You put it all down in that moment and you do your thing and it’s like, ‘Ah, it’s really good,’ and then you look back and everyone’s like… ‘We’re gonna do that again.’”
Riley encapsulates it thus: “To put this in context we recorded the live instrumentation of this stuff in about six days back in 2019. That’s what’s on the record. Six days of recording extended into eight months of post-production, so you can understand why the dudes who played on the initial recording are like ‘what the fuck.’”
So, with all that in mind, one has to wonder, are the band themselves happy with how Habits turned out?
“We came back from a festival in Poland, we got the masters as we were driving back from the airport and we listened and we were all pretty happy,” says John.
For Jack it’s clear: “The whole point when we started this was it sort of had to have a classic feel, to be an album you listen to all the way through, a really strong album, and I knew we could do that. And I think we did.”
Of course, to those unburdened by the stress of creating it, Habits sounds like a hundred million dollars, a real five-course meal of an album. It’s musically uplifting and wondrous. The lyrics, however, are in polar opposite territory. This is one very dark record. Thematically it touches on loss, regret, fucking up, self-loathing, depression, loneliness, anxiety, paranoia and the inevitability of death. Only ‘Bird’ – with its refrain of “soft wings brush the cloud up above, soaring high – welcome rays of sun, fly, fly” – offers any respite from the emotional murk and melancholy.
“That track’s very personal to me,” reveals Jack. “I brought the lyrics in; the demo was a lullaby for my daughter. Then Sam had a big input on those words. We started playing ‘Bird’ live on the Stoned Jesus tour when she was a month old. ‘Broken Nails’ lyrically is more of a wider general worry about global issues and the paranoia you can get from that when you have a child. Having a daughter was a big shift for me. Something I worked into. I think I’m a better person for it.”
Riley agrees that Habits is indeed a dark album. “I do remember saying to the guys, ‘The album’s fucking miserable, it’s my only regret.’ But then we went, ‘Well maybe there’s moments of it not being that.’ ‘Sails’ for example is about losing somebody, somebody fading out of existence and watching that happen, but being happy about the memories you have about that person. Interestingly so many people have said the album is uplifting, we couldn’t see the woods for the trees on that until now.”
“The one thing we knew from the get-go was we wanted the album to be about real shit,” Riley continues. “Jack had just had a baby, he had also lost a grandfather he was close to, there were relationship break-ups going down, members losing people to Alzheimer’s, boring life shit. It was meant to be real. Sam wrote the lyrics for ‘Faceless’ which is about a mundane office job – the mindless office drone. I think that track is a good example of what we were trying to go for thematically.”
“It’s open and honest,” agrees Pete. “You realise this when you get older. You get it when you experience it from people dying. It’s so sad but that is the honest truth. The only way you can experience the sadness is through personal experience.”
Indeed, ‘Faceless’ is a clear highlight on an album lined with them. “Me and Pete started ‘Faceless’,” says Sam. “Pete had a riff which fitted in with a weird drum beat I was working on, then Jack had a nu metal riff which was perfect for it. We wanted to do something that sounded like Om.”
“On the demo it was written about something different,” interjects Riley.
“Yeah, it was based around Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?“ says Sam. “But then Limb wrote a song about that so we had to change it. We named the heavy drop part in the song ‘Chocolate Starfish’ in honour of Limp Bizkit.”
And with that early ‘00s reference, our time is up. The alcohol is starting to take effect. Pete has lost the power of speech and is starting to nod off. Jack disappears for a comfort break. It’s time to leave them be. But I have one final question. This one took four years to do. Will we have to wait four more years for the next Elephant Tree album?
“Yeah probably,” Sam admits frankly.
“It would be nice if it didn’t have to take four years,” suggests John.
“I think it would be nice if it did,” Sam replies.
The last word goes to Riley. “I said today I think doing an album is a bit like childbirth. When we finished this one, I was like, ‘Never again, that’s my last Elephant Tree record.’ And then it came out today and I’m just thinking, ‘Let’s fucking get back in boys!” Something goes off in your brain that lets you forget the pain of it.”
Habits is out now on Holy Roar Records and Deathwish Inc. Order here.
Words: Andrew Field