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Modern Folk: Elephant Sessions on Blending Old & New Sounds 

Blending traditional and electronic music, Scottish band Elephant Sessions have created a compulsively foot-tapping sound. We caught up with fiddler Euan Smillie & drummer Greg Barry to get their take on reinterpreting traditions, finding their passion, and why they’re not interested in any more inflatable elephants.

How was Elephant Sessions formed? 

Greg: “We met when we were 15 years old at a summer school for playing and learning about traditional music in the Highlands called Fèis Ros. For some reason we just got on, which I think is probably quite important for the longevity of the band.”

Euan: “Mates first, band second! Three of us are all from the same area north of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, and I’ve known and been playing with one of the guys since I was ten. Last year was our tenth year.”

 Where does the name come from?  

Greg: “We were on our way to our first show, and we were listening to a band called Croft No. 5, who had a track called Elephant. We wanted something that didn’t have traditional Scottish roots, and someone came up with Elephant Sessions, which just sort of stuck. And actually, one of the guys from Croft No. 5 produced our most recent album, so it’s all kind of come around.”

Where do you want to get to with it? What’s the dream?  

Euan: “In our genre, the aim isn’t to get a number one album. We're not pop musicians, so we're never going to get a multi-million chart topper, that scenario just doesn’t exist. What we can do though is get to that middle point where you're touring, you're earning a living, you're busy, you're on the circuit. And you're not famous, but you're doing it. And it's a job and it's true, and you love it.”

How do you feel about what you do?  

Greg: “We feel very fortunate that we’re doing this. I often say it’s the best job in the world because you get to travel around with your mates and just do interesting things. It’s a free ticket to explore unique places. You get to play your instrument every day. What could be better?“

Euan: “I never would have thought when I was playing the fiddle in school that I’d be slinging it around my shoulder and heading around the world. It’s amazing though.”

What have been some of your favorite places to travel? 

Greg: “Europe’s obviously great, but we absolutely love it in Australia, and we’ve been there quite a bit.

Euan: “Food’s good, weather’s nice, people are nice, and there’s so many people with Scottish roots. You’ll turn up at a random place and someone’ll say ‘Ah my grandad was from just north of Inverness, Johnny McInnes?” which is quite funny.”

Your sound fuses traditional Scottish Cèilidh music with more modern elements like electronic beats and indie. Where did this come from?  

Greg: “There's always an element of pushing the boundaries and experimenting with tradition. But ultimately, I think it's just based on what feels good to us.”

Euan: “For the first two or three years, we just played traditional acoustic folk music. But we loved different genres like funk, rock, dance, and techno, which fed into what we were writing. Our melodies are still rooted in folk music, but now we put synth, and things like electric drums and guitar on top. It comes from the heart. Basically, we just want to people to have fun and get them really fucking going for it.”

Greg: “We offended quite a lot of traditionalists in the early days, I remember people walking out of our gigs and complaining that we weren’t playing the music in the correct way. My take on it is that traditions have to evolve to survive. The tradition of 100 years ago is not the same as the tradition of 100 years before that.”

Where did you find your inspiration for your music? 

Euan: “Within the Scottish folk music scene, there was Martin Bennett, who was an amazing artist who was one of the first to experiment with electronic sounds. Our job was a lot easier because of people like him, who’d already blended electronic with folk music.”

Where does your interest in traditional music come from?  

Greg: “We were surrounded by traditional music when we were growing up. You hear it a lot, you learn it in school. For me, I just kind of fell into playing the drums. My brother wanted a drum kit and never played it. I was kind of lucky that we lived in the countryside, so I didn’t have any neighbors to annoy. Drummers always have to live somewhere remote.”

Euan: “And have big cars! I used to live in America, and I started playing classical violin when I was eight, partly because my granny played and passed down her instrument to my mum. And I hated it. But when we moved back to Scotland, I picked up the traditional fiddle, and the teaching was much more about playing than the theory, which I enjoyed a lot more.

I definitely needed a kick up the arse from my parents though! I wouldn’t have been able to turn it into a profession without them. When you’re 15, you just want to hang out with the boys and get up to no good, the last thing you want to do is go play fucking violin!”

What does Cèilidh music mean to Scottish people?   

Greg: “I think we're lucky in Scotland because it’s culturally significant and people put a lot of value in it. Across the country, there's quite a lot of young people interested in it.”

Euan: “The resurgence in Scotland happened probably 20-30 years ago with bands like Croft No. 5, Peat Bog Faeries, and Shooglenifty, who were people that we really looked up to. There are festivals in Scotland where you look at the lineup and it’s only folk bands and DJs. And I’ve never seen that mix anywhere else in the world.

Greg: “It basically all comes down to dancing and having fun.”

How do people react to your music?   

Euan: “We’ve had people come up to us before and say that they don’t like folk music, but they liked us. People have this image in their head of what they think traditional music is, so I think it’s just about making it more accessible for people. We don’t wear kilts and sing Scottish songs when we’re abroad, that’s not what we’re about.”

Greg: “I like to think that if people can come to one of our shows and forget about the real world for an hour, then we’ve done our job.”

What are some of the biggest challenges? 

Greg: “It’s a fun job, but it’s tough going because it’s not an easy way to make money. Trying to make a sort of annual income comparable to working in a supermarket or something is quite difficult, particularly in this genre.

There’s a lot of extra work that goes into this level of touring. Everyone in the band has to have multiple jobs. You’re playing your instrument but at the same time you have to be an accountant, a graphic designer, web designer, social media, travel agent.”

Euan: “Balancing the investment is hard because we’re the only ones fronting it. And there’s a lot of mouths to feed.”

Greg: “Sometimes when the touring is hard you do think ‘Oh please for the love of God, make it stop’. But then, touring and music are really important to who we are. You attach a lot of your self-worth to touring. We’ll always play in some way, but age might catch up with us one day.”

What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you that we can publish without getting complaints? 

Euan: “We got this inflatable elephant for a big show recently, like a pool toy. And this thing is massive. The idea was I’d crowd surf at the end of the show on this elephant, and it would be amazing. We come to the last track and we’re building up, and building up, and the security guys, who’ve done this big risk assessment, take me to a balcony at the back of the venue. Everyone’s standing by, and I leap off the balcony onto the elephant, and for like a split second it’s brilliant. But then, obviously, I bounce straight off and land in the middle of the crowd, and it’s like the fail of the century, just an absolute disaster.

Greg: “It’s alright, it’s not like everyone was watching you. There’s about ten different angles of it on video.”

Rolling Stone have described you as “Scots using instruments like weapons to destroy clichés.” How did that come about?  

Euan: “We were at this huge festival in France, which I think is the biggest Celtic music festival in the world with about 800,000 people. We played two shows a day for ten days in a tent for about 3,000 people. It was wild, and we wanted to make the highest energy show we could. The whole crowd was so up for it that the floor actually broke because of people bouncing around. So, the journalists loved that! I think it really signifies what we’re trying to do.”

Listen to Elephant Sessions on Spotify, follow them on Instagram @elephantsessions, or keep up to date with tour news on their site.