Tradition is never safe in the hands of young people. Elephant Sessions is proving that with an exclamation point.
The five-piece band with its beginnings in Inverness, the biggest (little) city in the Scottish Highlands, last month won Best Album of the Year for their second album, All We Have Now, at the BBC Scots Trad awards. In 2014 they were named Up and Coming Artist of the year at the Trad Awards.
The band founders were Alasdair Taylor, who plays mandolin, and Euan Smillie, who plays fiddle. They met in fiddle class when Taylor was 12 and Smillie was nine and they’ve played in bands together pretty much since that time.
“Early on I wanted to do music,” Taylor says over the phone, huddled down at home late on wintry Inverness night last week. “I grew up playing folk music from a young age. And early on I decided I wanted to give it a shot.”
Drummer Greg Barry joined the pair in Inverness, then Taylor met guitarist Mark Bruce and bass player Seth Tinsley when he attended the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne.
Elephant Sessions have toured extensively, building their brand and reaching as many parts of the UK and Europe as possible.
“We built our name on touring, relentlessly getting as much work as we can,” Taylor says. “We would take gigs wherever we could, as many as possible. All over England. Then Europe.
“We had a desire to keep going. We didn’t mind driving overnight for 20 hours. We were loving it.”
Playing means practising, and their unique, built on traditional roots but with distinctly contemporary beats added, found a crowd – new fans who connected with the Trad and the new in their music.
One news feature on the band noted of their show: “the raw energy on display has seen a much younger audience than might traditionally be expected at folk music gigs outside the Highlands”.
While the music – all original – is built on the mandolin and fiddle setting the pace and melody, the second album has seen a change of direction.
“More often than not, we started with backline,” Taylor says of songs on the second album. “We heard a groove, or a bass line, that felt funky or groovy,and worked on it. It’s a bit unorthodox, not normal for a folk band, but we found a new sound.”
The nine songs on All We Have Now have no vocals, but the music is sharp and shiny. Summer, which runs over five minutes, has been compared to the sound of The XX – pretty good company for comparison.
Taylor and Smillie were reluctant to describe their fans, because their music (“Neo-Trad”) crosses borders. Folk music is attracting a younger crowd these days, they say, but the age of their fans makes no difference to them.
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