Interview Elephants Of Scotland

"Yes, it is very important to never take ourselves too seriously"

(June 2015, text Henri Strik, pictures website Elephants Of Scotland)

Elephants Of Scotland was formed in 2010 in Burlington, Vermont in the USA. Ornan McLean (drums, percussion), Adam Rabin (vocals, keyboards), Dan MacDonald (bass, vocals) and John Whyte (guitar, vocals) already released two studio albums. Namely Home Away From Home (2013) and Execute And Breathe (2014). However still the band isn't that well known in the progressive rock scene. Hopefully this will change with the release of Good Morning, Gettysburg - Live At RoSFest 2014 (see review). Recorded at the RoSfest Festival in 2014. One of the bands founding members Adam Rabin was willing to tell a bit more about the bands history and releases.

It seems the origin of the band comes from the cover band Hot Neon Magic. Can you tell a bit more about this period?
That's how I met Ornan and John. In fact, they still play with that band. It was a lot of fun for me and it's a great way to keep busy as a musician. The original material we do in Elephants Of Scotland will always mean more to us but having the consistent stage time and the extra few bucks from the cover band gig schedule is worthwhile.
The cover band also helped me a lot with Elephants Of Scotland. It's so easy with progressive rock to get lost in all the notes and intricacies. Hot Neon Magic showed me how important it is to maintain contact with the audience. Songs, melodies, and rhythm are essential to connecting with the listener.

  Ornan McLean:
John Whyte:
guitar, vocals
Dan MacDonald:
bass, vocals
Adam Rabin:
vocals, keyboards

How did bass player Dan MacDonald become a member of the band?
For the first year or two, the band was a trio. After John replaced our original guitarist, I started thinking that I'd like to bring in a bass player to give the rhythm section more life and energy. It would also give me more freedom on my keyboard parts. That same week, Dan placed an ad online looking for a band and I gave him a call. It was really that easy. He fit in right away and we all knew it. We are all extremely lucky to have found each other.

Playing Rush covers certainly did lead to a musical style in which this influence is very much notable. Do you agree and which bands do you regard as other possible influences?
We all have different influences but Rush was the one band we had in common so it made for a good starting point. As a result, there are a few spots here and there where you can hear their influence but, like any other band, you should be able to hear lots of other influences infused with our own personal styles. I hear everything in our music like Billy Joel, Sparks, Tangerine Dream, Kansas, and many others.
And as we develop our own sound more and more, you'll be hearing much less of our influences and more of just who we are.

How difficult was it to record your first album Home Away From Home and did it contain compositions written years before the album was recorded?
There were certain challenges in recording the first album, definitely. We didn't have the money to record and mix it all in the studio so we had to learn quite a bit on our own but it was mostly just technical stuff. Now that we've started recording our third studio album, everything we learned from those first two albums is paying off. We're all a lot more confident and comfortable with the process.
Regarding the age of the songs, it was about half and half. Some of the songs I wrote with the band and some were built on ideas I'd had for years. Before forming Elephants Of Scotland I had my own studio project called Mailbox that was more poppy and fun and only occasionally leaned toward the prog sound. I did write a few songs over the years that I wanted to record as Mailbox but I knew that I couldn't do them justice as a one-man band. I knew I needed a live band to join me. So, songs like Full Power, Errol McSquisitor, and Endless (pt. 2) sat around for ten years (sometimes longer) before I could fully realize them.

How important is Greg Skillman for the band and how did he get involved with the band?
Greg is an essential part of the band. He doesn't write every single lyric but even on the lyrics that I've written he has provided the direction or template for what we want to say and how we want to say it.
Greg and I have been writing songs together since 1991 when we first met. Going back to Mailbox, he wrote many of the lyrics for that project including some of the songs I mentioned just before that needed the full band sound. As a lyricist that isn't part of the performing band and - to be honest - not as steeped in the prog world, he has a real freedom to write in his own style. His influences are so different from the rest of us and that's a big part of what makes our sound our own.
Greg is a great songwriter and guitarist himself. He and I have worked together on other music projects over the years. In fact, we have started working on an EP of his material under the name Neb Crabula that we hope to have out by the end of this year that will feature the rest of the guys in Elephants Of Scotland also.

Does Home Away From Home have a certain concept or does every track tell a different story?
Each track is its own self-contained story. As with the follow up album Execute And Breathe, there are ideas and themes that give the album its focus and flow but there's no single narrative or idea that runs through the whole album. I know this might be controversial to say but I feel that the concept album is more often than not a liability. I'd rather let each song develop on its own and, more importantly, be able to stand on its own.
The album-long concept can open up some paths that you wouldn't have otherwise found but it always just felt limiting to me. And as a listener, I often find many of the tracks on such an album tedious upon repeated listens.
Maybe someday we will find ourselves recording a concept album but it will be as a result of writing a bunch of songs that, after the fact, turn out to tell a single story or single message.

Home Away From Home has a beautiful cover of a ship leaving a planet into the universe? Who came up with this idea and made the art work?
Thank you for saying that. I made this album cover as a visual representation of the track Starboard. I can't paint or draw very well but I enjoy piecing images together and treating them with Photoshop. Getting back to the question of themes and concepts, the cover speaks to the messages of Geograph and Home Away From Home.

The band has three excellent singers. Who decides to sing the lead vocals?
I bring in most of the songs and based on their feel and the vocal range I suggest who I think should sing the song. We have to try it out as a band before we all agree to who sings it. John has a higher range than Dan and me so with something like Starboard I knew he'd be the right one. Dan and I have similar note ranges but he has a grittier hard rock feel to his voice than me so something like A Different Machine is more suited to him. I tend to take the quirkier or softer tunes.

How difficult was it to come up with a second album and does Execute And Breathe have a concept?
We had a lot of pressure to get that album done and released in time for our appearance at RoSFest but, fortunately, we already had about half of the songs written even before the first album came out. We worked hard to write and perfect those tracks and get them recorded but it was very rewarding.
Again, there's no concept to the album but we do touch on technology and its place in our lives on many of the tracks.

Do you think you made with Execute And Breathe a better album compared to your debut Home Away From Home?
It's funny you ask that because when our fans tell us which album they like better we get half saying the first album and half saying they prefer the second album. I think Execute And Breathe better represents who
we are because it was all arranged with the current members. The first album was mostly written as a trio with our first guitar player.
I couldn't say one was better because they're so different. That's what I aim for when putting new songs or a new album together - change and progress. I can guarantee that the third album will have its own unique sound. That's what keeps me excited and engaged in the process.

A robot with a fishbowl in his hands can be seen on the cover of Execute And Breathe. Who was responsible for this great picture and what does it mean?
I found that image while searching online for some ideas. The artist lives in Russia so I've never met him but his work tends to feature robots and other futuristic ideas. I don't see the image as a having a specific meaning, though. Honestly, an album cover's primary goal is to look cool. Again, I don't want to get tied down to a particular concept or else I'd be limiting myself.
When I saw the image of a robot with a goldfish I loved it right away. There are a few ways to read the image and it's whimsical without being silly. Is it a robot that despite all of its technical marvel is still confounded by basic organic life? Or does it mean something else entirely?

Is it true that you wrote and recorded Execute And Breathe to have more songs and a larger back catalogue before you took the stage for the annual RoSfest Festival in 2014?
That was why we pushed so hard to finish the album, yes. That said, we loved working on the new material and were eager to record and release them anyway. The festival just pushed up the timeline a bit.

Did you plan to record the show you were going to do at the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg and are you satisfied with the way the DVD and CD recordings of this show turned out on Good Morning, Gettysburg - Live At RoSFest 2014?
We did plan on recording the show after we learned that it was an option. I was nervous about recording the performance at first. We had never played to such a big crowd so we felt a lot of pressure to put on a great show. Recording the show added even more pressure. But I'm so glad we recorded it. The live album, to me, has the definitive versions of those songs more than the studio albums. It captures our energy and our sound in a way that is so difficult to do in the studio sometimes.

How early did you get on stage and was it difficult to play at that time of the day?
Our set was at 11 in the morning. That was a weird experience having only ever played evening shows. You would think playing so early would change the mood and have a little less intensity to it but when you're in the indoor theatre and the lights and the big sound system are going, time of day means nothing. Everybody was just that much more awake and attentive. We wouldn't change a thing about that experience.

As for myself I would have loved to have better close ups of the keyboards. Do you agree?
Definitely. I completely agree. Unfortunately, the video crew was only able to set up the three cameras in the crowd and one backstage to focus on Ornan behind the drum kit. Keyboards and drums are the two instruments that face away from the crowd, right? The backstage camera was able to get most of what Ornan was doing. Hopefully, if we video another show I can get a GoPro or some other camera trained on what I'm doing.

Humour seemed to be very important while playing on stage. During Home Away From Home everybody was wearing a Viking helmet. Who came up with this idea?
Yes, it is very important to never take ourselves too seriously. We are always serious about writing and playing our music but how we present ourselves is also important. We're putting on a show; we're there to entertain and connect with the crowd. So if that means wearing a hat or telling a few jokes between songs then I'm all for it. And it's who we are as people. Nobody is serious all the time so that's how we are on stage.
John was over in Sweden a few years ago and bought those hats at a gift shop for each of us. It was just meant as a funny gift for us but then we started wearing them on stage and it became a tradition.


While watching you playing behind the keyboards wearing a cap on your head it made me think about former IQ keyboard player Martin Orford. A coincidence or was it deliberately done?
It was deliberately done to cover my balding head! That's about it. (laughs)

The extra DVD footage includes a studio recording of Geograph which only features drummer Ornan McLean. Why did you add this to this release?
That was a stroke of luck, really. I forget if it was me or Dan who set up the video recorder in the studio when Ornan was recording his parts but Ornan nailed that song on the first take. The footage just sat on my computer since then. When we were putting the DVD together I knew that Geograph was the one song of ours that we didn't perform at the concert so I thought it'd be a nice feature to show off Ornan's skills on the kit and give our fans a more complete package.

How has the response been to your releases so far and are you already working on a third studio album?
Very positive. People really seem to be appreciating what we're doing and that is encouraging. We have just begun recording our third album. I now have a permanent studio set up in my home so we'll be that much more focused and free to try new ideas. We'll also have all the time we need to make it just right.
The song we're working on this week Swing The Gavel is for the third Decameron compilation from Musea Records. I think that's coming out later in 2015. We'll also be including it on our next album. We have two other songs, Counting On A Ghost and Sun-Dipped Orphans And The Wizard's Teapot, that we've performed a few times already that we're eager to record. And we have at least three other songs that are at much earlier stages in development. It's too early to know when the next album will be done but if I were to guess, I'd say early 2016.
For us in the band, there is always excitement in learning and writing new songs. Having the continued positive feedback from fans gets us even more excited to start recording again.

Do you have plans to come to Europe and would you like to say something to your European fans?
We don't have any plans but we would love to be able to play Europe at some point. Looking just at our CD orders, most of our fans are in The Netherlands and United Kingdom so it makes sense for us to get over there. We would probably need to play one of the prog festivals to make it affordable for us so we'll just have to see what we're able to do.
The one thing that amazes all of us is how we're reaching music fans from all over the world - not just in the USA. It is humbling, encouraging, and exciting. We are so grateful for the support we get from everybody out there.

Thanks for doing this interview!
My pleasure.

More info about Elephants Of Scotland on the Internet:

       review DVD 'Good Morning, Gettysburg Live At Rosfest 2014'

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