When a band gets its name from a Seamus Heaney poem, you know there has to be something special about them. But, there’s more to Brooklyn-based band Great Elk than just their name. Although it seems to fit somehow, as their music evokes a close-to-nature feeling.
So how does a Brooklyn indie rock band come to be named Great Elk? And what is indie rock, anyway? Check out our interview with Great Elk’s singer Paul Basile to find out.
Crushable: Tell me a little bit about the band. How did you guys get together?
Paul Basile: Patrick, the guitar player, and I were introduced by a friend in common in 2007. And he and I played together under a couple different names, with a bunch of different guys. And then in 2009, we took the name Great Elk and started recording our first EP. For about two and a half years now it’s been the same five guys, just musicians around New York City that we were connected to one way or another. So, since about the time that EP was released, in early 2010, we’ve been playing with this lineup.
Your first full-length album, Autogeography, came out in May. Could you tell me a little bit about it?
This time last year, we went to a studio in Woodstock, New York, and in the months preceding that had gone through a very intensive writing period where we wrote most of the songs on the album. A couple of them are a little older. Most of the songs were written and arranged in the course of a month or two. And then in June last year, we were in the studio for a week, so it’s been about a year since we did most of the recording. We did a little bit more recording in the studio in the fall, and mixing and mastering and all that.
Do you have a favorite song from the album?
Yeah, I think I do. It changes over time, but I think my most consistent favorite is the song “I’m Going to Bend.” I just feel like that’s one where I said all I wanted to say, and when I brought it to the band, arranging it and getting it to sound the way it does from where it was with me and a guitar in my bedroom, was a pretty dramatic change. And we’re just really happy with the way it ended up sounding.
How would you describe your sound for someone who had never heard your music before?
That’s really hard. We usually put ourselves under the indie rock genre name, but you know, I’m not particularly sure what indie rock is. I usually say rock music with some noise instead of… you know, the easiest thing I guess to do is to compare yourself to other bands. I’ve been saying lately that we’re similar to Wilco and Death Cab for Cutie. Something like that.
You raised funds to record your album through a Kickstarter campaign. How do you think platforms like Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing and social media sites have changed the music industry?
Sure. First and foremost, really we’re just unbelievably grateful for the generosity of the people who supported us in our Kickstarter campaign. You know, it was something that I felt pretty conflicted about for a little while. Some of my friends here in New York, other musicians and artists have used Kickstarter or other crowdsourcing things. And it’s a little weird to me at first, but you know, I warmed up to the idea obviously. For me, I could talk about it forever, but so much has changed in music and everything in the last fifteen years or twenty years. And on one hand, it’s so much harder for a band like us to break through, because anybody with a computer can make a pretty good recording in their home. So there’s a huge amount of music out there, more than there maybe has ever been, at least in terms of modern pop music. But at the same time, it’s a really liberating thing, because people who don’t have a lot of money, and don’t have the support of a major record label, can have the opportunity to make something really great. And so all of us in the band have done our share of home recording, and kind of hodgepodge studio recording, and made things that we’re proud of. But that Kickstarter money, we went into it with almost 11,000 dollars, and that led to being able to go into a professional studio and with a producer. And I think for anybody who’s been listening to us for a while and heard our earlier stuff, and they’re now hearing this, that money really enabled us to make a big leap. I think that’s a pretty special thing.
I read that you worked as a sled dog handler for a while in Alaska. Tell me a little bit more about that.
For about four or four and a half years I lived in rural Alaska, in a town called Bethel. And I did a bunch of things while I was there. I was there first as a volunteer, and was working with mentally ill adults. But then I decided to stay after my volunteer term was done, and just found myself getting involved in lots of things. So, one of those things for about two and a half of those years was taking care of a sled dog kennel, then eventually training them and racing them.
Who are a few of your favorite artists to listen to?
Well I suppose the standby for me is Neil Young. I listen to a lot of Neil Young. But you know, most of the big guys of rock and roll music from the sixties and seventies. The Beatles and that kind of stuff. And more contemporary favorites are Radiohead and Wilco.
Where did the name Great Elk come from?
There’s an extinct animal commonly called the Great Irish Elk. And I first learned about the Great Irish Elk in a poem by Seamus Heaney. When I was in college I was living in Ireland studying Ireland and got really into Seamus Heaney and he has this one poem called “Bogland” if I remember right. And he refers to the Great Irish Elk in it, and finding these skeletons of the Great Irish Elk in the bogs perfectly preserved. For whatever reason that image and the symbolism of it and the context of that poem made a really lasting impression on me. And so years later, trying to name the band, which is just the hardest and most miserable thing to do, I remembered that and we just omitted the “Irish” because we didn’t want to confuse anyone. It seems to have confused people anyway.
How would you define success for yourselves as a band?
I think that’s a changing thing. Above all I think we’d all love to be in a position where we’re making a living making music that we want to make. All of us in the band, in one way or another, either have a day job, or bartending shifts, or work as session musicians playing whatever gigs they can get. So I think ultimately if we could find ourselves in a position that – I don’t think any of us want to be rich or on the cover of Rolling Stone or anything – but if we could make a decent living making this music that we love to make, that would count as success.
For more on Great Elk, check out their website.