Interview: Elder Island on set lists, drunk fans, and why they love Spotify

Elder IslandElder Island's bassist, Luke Thornton, is sat nursing his second Guinness in Dublin Airport, after travelling to Ireland to see Radiohead the night before. Amid the discordant ricochet of the universally standard female flight announcer’s voice on the PA, Thornton shyly avers that he might have lost count of the dark stuff he’s had since arriving at the beginning of the week. “You gotta do it though, haven’t you?” he chuckles. "Can’t tell yourself you’ll just have one.”

There is a strong sense that the interview, although arranged, has interrupted Thornton’s ongoing entrancement by Johnny Greenwood. “Incredible. Incredible. As usual,” Luke says, his voice carrying the religious fervour that Radiohead gather before them. “Weirdly intimate as well.” Supported by the luxury of carbon-free tech assistance, Radiohead now play entirely empty stages, wheeling on gear (or Greenwood’s “two-grand modular system”) as and when the song requires it. Presenting just themselves on stage, no pomp and minimal lighting is a typically subtle stroke, but one where the removal of anything extraneous leaves the band in an almost abstract, vulnerable space, allowing them to play intimate gigs to 50,00 people. Luke, apologising (unnecessarily) for proselytizing about Radiohead, mentions that he recently heard that they never play the same set twice. “Fair enough when you look at their back catalogue, but just being able to make that work is amazing.” It’s an early point in our discussion but retrospectively emerges as a telling anecdote; not of Luke’s respect for Radiohead’s need to keep things interesting, but as a comment on how his own band’s absolute mania for control of every aspect of their output would prevent this sort of improvisation.


Elder Island are a technological marvel. Their songs unfold and reform, break gently out and then re-anneal into a separate form. They are an electronic band. After that, everything is up for grabs. Singer Katy Sargent has called what they do “organic dance”. In almost every piece of writing the band has merited, their work receives pop appellations: soul-pop, neo-pop, spiritual-pop, karma-pop. All of which are dissatisfying; firstly and always because even the best language can never capture the experience of listening to an extraordinary piece of music, but also because their songs are little ready-mades, composed of fluid sections and very distinct, separate courses: Luke speaks of playing "Welcome State" live as the pre-closing song as a “palette cleanser”.

Undeniably all music is composed of linked sections, but Elder Island use technology not merely to record their music, but to actively shape it. Hours of recorded jams are soberly pored over before sonic sections are stitched together to make their songs. In a very obvious sense, this is the antithesis of Katy’s “organic dance”, but somewhere in ordering the progression of distinct, abstract sections into a final “natural” song is where Elder Island’s essence is. Take "Bamboo". The band wrote a working version they loved in two days, then spent four months trying to rearrange it and ponder how to “get to the ending” they had written. Thornton sounds more than a little haunted when admitting, frankly, that they “nearly lost their minds trying to get it right”. It was only once they played the version they had to their management, and had it mixed by Metropolis, that they decided they were happy to release it. The end result is a curated gem, but it’s ironic that the luxury of being a full-time band with deadlines to meet would have prevented such precise agonies.

Playing live isn’t any less exhausting; when preparing for a specific live set, Thornton admits the trio will purposefully “build a set for the crowd we’re playing to”. In some ways, it could be argued this is an exercise in absurdity: it isn’t inevitable that a crowd who attend a messy festival will a) all be messy, or b) if they are messy, have a priority of care about the arrangement of a five-song set played by an unknown band. But it isn’t strictly about that. Their willingness to spend days arranging a more introspective set for a literary festival at Ross-On Wye is an extension of their love of the material, and their desire to give people a “truly great time”. But how do you do that, when by Luke’s own admission the songs “are not made to be blended”? Patient agony runs in lines to the horizon. The band have just come off a tour with Glass Animals, an experience which Luke confirms was a study of craft for them. “We learned a hell of a lot just from how they are as people when they come off stage. But it’s also important to enjoy the music that you’re making. Everything we make happens organically, and we want to have that in a live sense as much as possible.” As much as possible being the key words, when your freedom to cut loose is restricted by programmed drum beats. They can go wild, but only within the confines of their instruments. Playing live, Elder Island songs become beautiful prisons, something which Luke acknowledges: “On a personal level, it can be frustrating to remain stationary.”



For a band so indebted to technology, the band are unsurprisingly big fans of Spotify. “Spotify’s been amazing to us. It’s how people find us.” He talks of how they’ve gone into pubs and heard an Elder Island song come on, assuming one of their friends has plugged it, only to learn it’s come on through Spotify’s “friend” feature Discover Weekly. Your taste can be reduced to a programmable algorithm, and you won’t necessarily resent it. They haven’t got big enough yet to resent the financial face of the beast. We talk briefly about the music industry, Thornton observing that he’s finding his way in, but that it can be “quite a deadly place”. He talks of how fickle it is, and mentions the disappearance of the puritanical folk resurgence characterised by Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons. Merciful deaths in the interest of the nation. Luke believes that “to continue to do well, you’ve got to be well marketed”. And while this is true to a point, there's only so long you can flog product. Eventually, people were going to realise Mumford & Sons only had one song. Elder Island do not have that problem, though they do have some others.

Short term, Elder Island’s summer is full of curated festival spots. Shambala ought to be a strange highlight. In August they’ve got another single coming out. “It’s ready,” Luke remarks with relief. “A self-release. We’ve been playing it live. It’s far more of a party goer, quite loose. Been playing it live 6 months and are still trying to figure out the best way to play it live.” That sounds about right. Looking to the post-festival future, things are less clear. The ultimate goal is to “write an album that’s well received and people enjoy. That’s the only goal for me.” Elder Island are caught in that halfway house of full-time work and their passion. Two of the band members (Katy and Dave) work full time, and they are acutely aware that time management will be key to this. “After Seeds in Sand, all three of us looked at each other and said, 'That took too long'.” To release a full album by devotedly exhausting themselves would surely require a break before the catharsis of the tour.

After an hour on the phone, what emerges most clearly is the love for the music they make. I ask him what the best thing that’s happened recently is. The line goes static briefly and then Luke tells a story about being on the merch stall after a Glass Animals gig recently. A drunk came staggering up and said that he’d just come back from South Africa, that he’d booked the Glass Animals tickets months ago, but had really gotten into Elder Island’s set when they began playing "Welcome State", a song which he’d been running to on repeat while in Africa. There’s a Spotify ad right there, but it’s a beautiful story before that. It’s clear the sheer force of the memory’s emotion is moving Luke as he recollects it. The universally standard female flight announcer’s voice on the PA calls out that Luke’s flight is boarding. Take-off imminent.


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