GETTING NOSTALGIC WITH WHITE ELEPHANT
At the heart of Boston, four Emerson College kids and one Berklee grad are coming together to make dreamy, groovy, retro rock that takes a pointed look at nostalgia and our tendency to idealize the past. I had the privilege of sitting down with Tim Gamache, Mike Gilchrist, Molly Pope, Samuel Stroup, and their manager, Jake Nelson, to talk about how White Elephant is evaluating the darkness within and bringing the feel-good tunes of the 60’s into the 21st century. See White Elephant live in their upcoming summer tour and watch out for their first album, coming out in August!
HOW DID WHITE ELEPHANT BEGIN?
TIM: It started with Mike and I. Mike, Jake, and I met like first day of freshman year. We lived next door to each other.
JAKE: Played cards against humanity.
MIKE: Crazy first night of college.
TIM: We started making music about a year later. Then, I went to Spain and while I was in Spain I finished editing our first demo. Then I met these two clowns [motions to Sam and Molly] and…the rest is history!
MIKE: A lot of growing pains – just trying to figure out what we were doing. ‘Cuz like, that’s a pretty weird way to form a band – like, two kids in a basement, writing one song, and then he goes across the world and finds two other people, and then brings them back and introduces them to his friend – who he played the music with in the basement – and they have to get to know each other. And then the original two kids’ roommate from freshman year who’s in LA is booking shows from across the country while they’re trying to figure out how to put music together. So, it was a whole thing!
SAM: It took awhile for it to make sense, definitely.
MIKE: Because then we’re also recording the songs like while we’re writing them – which was good because it forced us to really like get into the studio and figure our shit out. Whereas if we didn’t have these self-imposed – or Jake-imposed [all laugh] – deadlines, then like nothing probably would’ve gotten done. So, there was this whole crazy process of just trying to figure out what and who we are. And then there was this one practice right before we went on this tour, the January tour, where finally Jake showed up in the living room – because he had been in LA – and we were all there, and it just all made sense all of a sudden. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is what the band is.’
WHITE ELEPHANT HAS THIS VERY RETRO, BEACH BOYS, 1960’s VIBE. WHERE DID THE INSPIRATION FOR THAT AESTHETIC COME FROM, AND WHAT DREW YOU TO THAT ERA IN PARTICULAR?
MIKE: Tim and I are just losers.
TIM: We grew up on our parents’ music and we love that stuff. That’s always been our dream, to play music like that. I think it’s hard to find someone else that wants to do that, so finding a whole band of people that want to do that is like a dream come true.
MIKE: A thing that Sam and I have in common, too, is that when we were kids the only two bands we would ever listen to were the Beatles and the Monkeys. I know for me, growing up, I just thought that those were just like…the only two. [laughs]
SAM: Yeah, I just thought the two great rock bands of history were the Beatles and the Monkeys.
TIM: [to Mike] You loved the Beach Boys a lot more than I did.
MIKE: Yeah. Well, that came later. I actually didn’t even get into the Beach Boys until my senior year of high school. I didn’t even discover them, because I just wrote them off as like the ‘fun fun fun!’, take-my-dad’s-car-for-a-spin thing. And then I was at the beach one day and I discovered the album Smiley Smile which is this really weird conglomeration of these like recordings that Brian Wilson made when he was in his crazy state. That was the first moment where I was like, ‘Oh, this music has these weird dark undertones because it’s coming from this really dark place but it has this façade of artificial forced happiness,’ and that was really intriguing to me.
TIM: As much as we take influence from retro music, we definitely make an effort to bring it into modern day. A lot of the bands that I love are retro-indie, like Lord Huron and Tennis –bands who start out playing more retro sounds, but gradually find creative ways of interpreting that in 2019. I’d like to think that that’s what we did with Pont Neuf especially. As inspired as we are by the old stuff, we’re also inspired by this new stuff…that’s also inspired by the old stuff, haha.
SAM: I think the more that we play, the more honest that becomes – not having to force it to be really modern but just to let our own touch be integrated in the music we play.
JAKE: And from a management standpoint, having that solid of a brand is just a total dream. Because for so many bands it’s just so ambiguous, they just kind of have to make it up and find their own identity. Whereas with having such firm inspirations, you can really draw from old posters from the 60s, aesthetics from the 60s, text, colors, outfits. We’re able to really tie that all together, which is super helpful.
DO YOU GUYS EVER EXPERIENT WITH OLD METHODS OF RECORDING OR PRODUCTION WHEN YOU’RE MAKING MUSIC?
TIM: When we made the first demo, we went into it saying lo-fi. But I wanted a very specific kind of lo-fi – not like cassette tape lo-fi, not like vinyl lo-fi. I thought, ‘We live in an age when we have access to a couple of crappy microphones but also these really great DAW’s.’ So, I was like, ‘I’m gonna use Pro Tools for the first time and I’m gonna try and make something that uses a lot of artifacts from digital production.’
JAKE: Which is another way of saying that recording in analog is really expensive. [all laugh]
TIM: I also think that people look back at things like lofi tape and they go, ‘wow it sounds so cool,’ but when people are making things on tape that sounded lofi, they were like, ‘damn, I wish this sounded like lofi vinyl.’ You know, they were going back. But now, people go back to that, and they say, “I love the way that this old warbly tape sounds.’ I wonder if one day people are gonna go back and say like, ‘I love the way this really early digital stuff sounds.’
MOLLY: I mean, there are already certain effect processors that are made to emulate early, really compressed mp3s. I think it’s evidence that what you’re saying is true – people are already nostalgic for that. At a certain age, you’re consuming music in that kind of way so the association with [older recording forms] is already there. I think it’s cool. I listen to really compressed mp3s, and I’m like, ‘Ooh, my old iPod Nano.’
TIM: Yeah, it’s just got a feeling to it. Got that nostalgia.
WHAT HAS BEEN EACH OF YOUR FAVORITE SONG TO WORK ON? MAYBE YOUR FAVORITE TO PERFORM, OR A SONG YOU HAD TO WORK REALLY HARD ON BUT WAS SUPER REWARDING TO FINISH?
TIM: I mean, we’re all thinking it.
MIKE: I love Dinnertime, that’s like my favorite one. After Pont Neuf, that was the first song that I wrote. It’s like three years old. From the inception to where it is now, it’s gone through so much. I wrote it in a very specific place, by myself, in this small little beach town. It’s just interesting how it’s evolved.
TIM: Pont Neuf is more or less the same. It hasn’t changed that much since that demo. And we made Dinnertime on that same day that we made the demo of Pont Neuf, and that sounds entirely different.
MOLLY: We’ve done it at totally different tempos; there’s this slow-down section that used to have this loud guitar effect, and now it’s all harmonies, which wasn’t even a part of it at the time.
TIM: Yeah, originally it was supposed to be this super psychedelic kind of thing. Now it’s not at all, which I think is a lot better, it’s a lot more dynamic now.
SO, YOUR COLLECTIVE FAVORITE IS DINNERTIME?
MOLLY: It’s hard to choose! I think for different settings I have different ones. When we’re practicing, I love the song Waterloo – it’s so calm, and it’s on the moodier side, and I like sad music so that’s probably mine. But I love playing Take Her with You.
MOLLY: Take Her with You is so fun! First of all, I think it’s the easiest for us all to harmonize on. So, when it’s live there’s so much confidence when we sing, and it’s my most fun on guitar – I get to be super Mac-Demarco-y.
ARE THOSE NEW SONGS?
TIM: Yeah! We’ve got an album, and the four singles that we’ve released are all songs from that album. The album should be released in August, when we go on tour! The album is going to be like revisited versions of those songs with updated, higher-quality drum recordings and different guitar solos, and some different mixing.
JAKE: Sort of taking another step in the direction of modernizing that sound.
TIM: And just being more professional about it.
SAM: Something that represents us.
MIKE: I’m excited too, about these new recordings. Because, like we were saying earlier, the process of recording these first four songs was really strange, because we were recording them as we were writing them. We were recording songs that we hadn’t even played live before! So now, after playing them to so many different crowds, we know the songs so much better and they’ve all grown so much, even just in the past three months. So, I think these [new versions] will be truer to how we intend them to be.
MOLLY: Especially after the January tour. It felt like we actually learned the songs, and we were like, ‘Oh, now we know them.’
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO GO ON TOUR? ANY CRAZY CONCERT STORIES?
MOLLY: It’s all Jake’s fault.
TIM: Jake was so wonderful and made that so much fun.
SAM: Yeah, that was like the most fun week I’ve had in my life.
JAKE: I had moved out to Los Angeles, and I was working out there, finishing up my degree. And I was booking the tour at the time. It was a lot of communication back and forth – there were definitely like 600 or 700 emails. Not anything I’d ever done before, but it went better than I think any of us could have expected. I approached it pretty strategically: I was like, ‘okay, this band has no music out, so who’s gonna come out to see them?’ Friends and family. When are family and friends gonna be spread out? – when they’re not in school, over the holiday. Okay, where do they live? – let’s target those towns. So, we went to most of our hometowns. We played for our family and our friends and everyone that they could bring out. As far as crazy concert stories…
MIKE: The craziest-feeling concert was definitely the New York one, only because the room was like so small and it was like 100 degrees and I thought I was gonna pass out halfway through the set.
TIM: That gig actually fell through the week before. We freaked out and tried to find somewhere else to play. And then we were like ‘Bowery Electric wants us?? It’s in Noho, we have to go play there!’ And it was…not the big room, it was the little room.
JAKE: But it was a big turnout.
TIM: It felt like a big turnout!
SAM: But it was really fun.
MIKE: Yeah, so fun.
TIM: I’ve been on tour a couple times before, but this experience…it was surreal. It topped them all. Every single show was spectacular. We never played to an empty room.
I HEARD YOU GUYS WERE SHOOTING A MUSIC VIDEO LAST WEEKEND! HOW WAS THAT EXPERIENCE?
MIKE: Yeah! It’s for Passing Glance.
JAKE: This really awesome director/producer Olivia came up to us and was like, ‘Hey, can we produce a music video for Passing Glance?’ which was so cool. It went really smoothly.
TIM: Really talented crew. It was just a really great experience. Every day was super easy.
SAM: It was the only time I haven’t hated being on set.
JAKE: We shot at a beach and a couple old 60’s theaters to fit the aesthetic and a bunch of other sweet spots. I’m excited to see the final cut.
TIM: Do we know when that’s going to be released?
JAKE: Definitely sometime this summer.
MIKE: Coming soon.
DO YOU GUYS PREFER WRITING AND RECORDING YOUR MUSIC OR PERFORMING IT LIVE?
SAM: Nothing compares to the feeling of playing live. It’s the most fun I could ever have playing music.
MOLLY: This band has totally revitalized that for me. I’m very much a studio musician, always recording and comping and singing it a million times, so that’s usually where I feel comfortable. But now, with this band, I love playing live so much more than I ever have.
MIKE: I used to be way more into the writing and recording thing just because I didn’t have much experience playing live. It’s become one of my favorite things.
TIM: I think mixing is the most fun because as much fun as it is to play something live, I’m really a perfectionist. The ability to see something through from a very messy stage where you have no idea how the song’s going to turn out to this polished thing that’s better than we could ever do live, that’s my favorite part of the process.
IS THERE SOMETHING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO FEEL OR UNDERSTAND WHEN THEY LISTEN TO WHITE ELEPHANT?
MIKE: I think the biggest thing is nostalgia. And that can manifest in a bunch of different ways. It can be pure happiness or happy memories – if people listen to the music over the summer and think of their fun high school summers, then that’s awesome. If they listen to our music and think of their past that has some sad memories along with it, that would also be a success. The fun thing about creating music with nostalgia is that it can mean so many different things to different people. To some people, a classic sound means happiness, but there are also so many layers.
SAM: The way I’m thinking about it now is as a critical examination of nostalgia and finding moments of darkness or quirky idiosyncrasies in this aesthetic. Bringing moments of the present into music that are reminiscent of the past and evaluating nostalgia in that lens.
MOLLY: I had a friend who’s a little older come to our gig Friday night, and he said, ‘I don’t usually listen to this kind of stuff because it reminds me of my childhood.’ Just by virtue of it being nostalgic it’s kind of unpredictable what that might evoke for someone. I think that’s pretty cool. It’s something you can dig into but you can also just have fun.
JAKE: I love watching the audience hear the songs for the first time and seeing their first reactions. It’s generally pretty happy music, and certainly pretty easy listening. It’s stuff you can put in your headphones and get lost in nostalgically, but it’s also stuff you can dance to with your friends and have a really great time. And seeing people say, ‘I’ve never heard this live before. I’ve heard old recordings that sound like this, but I’ve never partied to this kind of music,’ it’s so unique and so special. That’s definitely my favorite part.
TIM: For my two cents – like we said, we were just losers who grew up wishing that we were born in the 60’s instead of going to school dances that played ‘boots with the fur’ or whatever that song is.
MOLLY: That song is so good though.
TIM: That’s not what I wanted to be doing when I was that age. I wanted to go somewhere and listen to the kind of the music I listened to in the car with my parents. I think making music and playing live music at a party and having everyone dance to this old-school rock is really fun. It’s got that nostalgic happiness. But there’s also a darkness within it sometimes, when you listen to some really happy music from the 60’s, when you listen to like Roy Orbison or something. It could be a song that everyone dances to when it comes on – but you listen to it in headphones and it’ll just bring you to tears, because there’s a darkness within that happiness and I think that’s worth exploring, as well.
JAKE: Specifically, because that time just had a lot of dark aspects to it; war, and a lot of other prominent social issues.
MIKE: Yeah, and all that music was just a desperate attempt to glue people’s happiness together. Just slap this porcelain mask on your face and pretend that you’re smiling when the fuckin’ Vietnam War is happening.
TIM: Music from the 50’s that’s nostalgic is trying very hard, I think, to cover up a lot of inequality and a lot of disparity. It’s very evident sometimes, and I think that’s what I love about it. I love the darkness within this porcelain-mask sort of thing.
SAM: We try to make an effort to underscore that idea.
SO, DO YOU FEEL LIKE THAT FAKE-HAPPY, PORCELAIN-MASK SORT OF THEME IN YOUR MUSIC CARRIES OVER INTO YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIVES?
MIKE: Totally. [ALL LAUGH]
SORRY, THAT WASN’T MEANT TO BE SO DARK.
TIM: Yeah, I think everyone feels like that. Very much like they need to put on this happy front or need to pretend they’re coming off a certain way. Like, we love Mad Men.
TIM: And we love Don Draper and how Don Draper is someone who’s constantly trying to uphold something that he just isn’t. And I think that exploring that aspect of nostalgia is something that I’m definitely trying to accomplish, in my writing for this band and in my contributions.
SAM: I think the porcelain-mask aspect and having such a refined or deliberate aesthetic and sound, I think that’s there with other artists, too. I think that’s just something that we’ve made the decision to be a little more on the nose about and to have it be a critical component of the music. You can really dig into any artist’s music and be like, ‘are they fronting? What does this mean?’ I think that’s something that we call attention to.
JAKE: I also think it’s something that a lot of people can relate to.
TIM: Like nostalgia. Always looks better in the past. Everything always seems a little bit better than it was.
ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT MELTED READERS TO KNOW?
SAM: That we love them.
TIM: That Rhode Island is awesome.
JAKE: Also, in August we’re going out to Los Angeles to do a cross-country North America tour. We’re doing everything from house shows to formal venues to lawns. It’s gonna be all over the place but it’s gonna be a lot of fun.