Inside the dream world of the experimental Elephant

by January 4, 2015
Elephant (2013), via Facebook

Elephant’s Amelia Rivas and Christian Pinchbeck (promotional photo) (2013)

It was around 8:00 a.m, and the two members of London-based trip-hop duo Elephant lay beside each other in bed, listening to what they had conceived the night before. The room was dark. The sounds wafting over them were “Torn Tongues” and an early demo of what would later become “Skyscraper.”

This marks the moment they knew they had achieved a level of musical symbiosis. This post-musical lounging became the pair’s ritual in their early days of song generation—one that can be described as an all-night, mind-altering state of creativity.

“We had this fucking weird vibe where we would half-party and half-write at the same time, switching between over the course of a night, usually packing it up after we had an EP done. Then [we’d] listen to it as we fell asleep,” said Christian Pinchbeck, who makes up one part of Elephant and mans the guitar and computers.

Pinchbeck met Elephant vocalist Amelia Rivas in the wee hours of the night in May 2010, at a party at his home. Rivas hails from Pontefract, a historic market town in West Yorkshire, UK. Originally from Bristol, Pinchbeck swears he never lets northerners in his house, but remembers being drawn to Rivas’ “kind face” – an attribute that is evident when you watch her sway introspectively during a live performance. At the time, Pinchbeck was fed up with making what he would describe as “shit music,” and he was in search of a female vocalist. The members of Rivas’ former band UltCult, an experimental quartet for which she played keyboard, organ and glockenspiel, had gone their separate ways. UltCult had supported Tokyo Police Club in the mid-2000s, but the band was dissolved just as it was about to be signed by British independent record label (and Elephant’s current producer), Memphis Industries.

The four years that followed their meeting rolled by like a creative maelstrom. The duo’s aptly-named debut album, Sky Swimming, reflects this turbulent time in their lives. While making the album, Pinchbeck even remembers calling it quits—twice. But, unable to stay away, his departures would only last for about a day before he’d get back to his computer and begin to work feverishly on the next song.

Pinchbeck and Rivas experimented with different sounds and genres as they pieced the album together. At one point during its development, the band revealed on social media that Sky Swimming sounded like a cross between Sade and Twin Peaks with “a spice of ‘90s dance if it was born in Paris circa 1960,” a comparison well-received by fans.

Sky Swimming is a 12-track journey through beautiful and sombre minds slowly unwinding, using day-dreamy vocals and quavering keys. It begins with “Assembly,” three and a half minutes of up-tempo synth-pop, perfect for sunny day driving with the windows down. “Skyscraper’s” doo-wop styling calls on a time when malt shops and milkmen ruled suburban streets. The song successfully balances a Pleasantville melody set to poignant lyrics like “hear the thunder/rattle my bones/I feel haunted/I feel at home.” (The sound is unsurprising, given Pinchbeck attributes sparks of inspiration to old romantic swing songs and the work of American singer-song writer Burt Bacharach). “Shapeshifter” floats aching, melancholic lyrics over a landscape of haunting violins and phantasmal backup vocals. The album is best absorbedthe way Rivas and Pinchbeck originally experienced it: in the stillness of a dark room, allowing the ebb and flow of each song to wash over you, .

With the album having been released last spring, the duo are relieved they can finally look toward the future. “I feel like such a weight has been lifted now that the debut is under lock and key,” said Pinchbeck. “It was such a strain on my well-being the past few years. It’s taken four years, ruined and re-built our relationship, broken our banks and been a subconscious diary of Amelia’s teenage years and me trying to find myself, musically.”

As with many male-female duos before them, there has been speculation about the nature of their relationship beyond the music. If there was ever a question as to whether the passion that bleeds through many of the band’s tracks exists between its members, the answer can be found in Elephant’s video for the stripped down and wistful “Allured.” The video features Pinchbeck and a topless Rivas sharing an intimate and deeply connected kiss in a dimly-lit room. According to Rivas, the song is about a boy she was infatuated with when she was sixteen. Interviews with Rivas and Pinchbeck confirm they were romantically involved, but the couple split up in 2011.

Although there is no tour yet in the works, the duo is hoping to muster enough success through the release of their album to focus solely on music and enjoy a bottle of wine at the end of the day. At the moment, both have full-time jobs. Rivas works for a recruitment agency and Pinchbeck is a designer for a film distributor. He’s created much of Elephant’s art, and he dreams of one day having a home studio and the freedom to fill his days with writing.

“We aren’t even bothered about making money if we are on the road,” he says. In the meantime, Elephant will continue making music that bleeds through the boundaries of genre, offering listeners a peek into their hazy dream-like world, and leaving them wanting more.