The first time I saw Elk was during 2011’s Tramlines Festival in the foyer of The Showroom Cinema. Not your immediate go-to gigging environment, but the subdued lighting and hustle-bustle popping of corn kernals proved the perfect setting to witness the trio in action. The three-piece cite influences far-spread as Smart Went Crazy, Q & Not U and Faraquet, adopting a playing style that’s both charmingly light yet serious and moody when it needs to be. I caught up with Glenn (bass, vocals) to get the low-down on their new album Herd Songs, living far apart and the lure of Grimsby.
Hi! There are three of you, who are you?
Hello. Yes, we are three. Tom plays guitar, Ritchie deals with the drums and I take care of the bass. We all sing. Or at least Tom and Ritchie sing. I kind of speak. Though we are three, I do think Karl has an influence too – he’s the producer on our record. He denies it, but he is a bit of a wizard.
Two of you used to be in Andy, Glenn & Ritch, what happened to Andy?
Yup. Me and Ritchie were the Glenn and Ritch of Andy, Glenn and Ritch. Andy is now a protector of our liberty. He sails the high seas, carrying riffs to the world. At least, that’s what we like to imagine. In actual fact, he’s an engineer in the navy.
AGR ended at a time when we were kind of figuring out what to do with our lives and, after a busy few years – and having all our equipment stolen – we took a break. Like At-the-Drive-in, but with fewer afros.
After a year or two me and Ritchie, who lived together at the time, got itchy and realised we needed to start playing music again. Or at least, do something other than watch films and drink. The details are misty now, but it coincided with Tom being back in Grimsby. Tom actually taught me to play bass at school and had been in AGR before we were AGR. So it was all very natural.
We started playing again and tried to figure out what kind of band to be. Through a couple of thematic false starts, we ended up as Elk.
You all live quite far apart (Manchester, Grimsby and London to be precise), do you find it tough to practise?
Very much so. Though, I kind of like the fact that it’s such a challenge. It makes it more of an achievement when we do push ourselves to do as much as we do. I guess we got together just as our lives were maturing. Tom moved out west to teach people about Nietzsche, I moved to London to be a writer and Ritch stayed in GY to man the fort.
At the same time, a lot of the GY scene (of our era) had moved to Sheffield (via Leeds) and Luke had set up a base for The Audacious Art Experiment in Sheffield. So, we tend to practice around there mostly – or wherever we might have a gig that night. As you get older, the UK seems to get a bit smaller.
Tell us a bit more about the writing of your new album Herd Songs?
Yes – it’s taken us a while. Part of that is down to the distance thing. But it’s compounded by the fact that we’re so particular about our songs. We’ve written a lot of stuff, to the point of writing a full song, but then just dumping it the following practice because it isn’t right.
Actually, ‘dumping’ isn’t quite accurate. Those songs are shelved and little bits of them might resurface in other songs. We end up writing quite organically. That sounds pretentious – and it is – but it is true. With AGR we used to write the hardest riff we could and then stick it on to another fancy riff while Ritchie went mental on the drums. We did that for seven minutes and ta-da: you have a math-rock song. It worked at the time. It was fun. But a lot of modern math bands still do exactly that (and, fair play, get many plaudits for doing so).
We seem to have naturally decided not to do that with Elk. I’m not sure we ever agreed out loud, but that’s what’s happened.
We’re attempting to write music that is interesting, but flows naturally. We don’t want to be showy for the sake of being so. That might mean we play a weird ‘mathy’ hook once and then it’s never heard again. Recently we started panicking because we wondered if we’d ever be able to go from one riff to another without it being cheesy. We’re strange people.
Anyway, it was all this for a number of years as we slowly amassed 10 songs that we thought were good. I’m pleased with what we’ve done. Very pleased actually: it’s the first band I’ve played in that I don’t have to explain to normal people what we’re trying to do before I play it to them.
As for interesting tales? Hmm. We’ve kind of grown into old, slightly cynical drunks now who don’t do too much crazy stuff. On tour with the Jesus Years many years ago, you’d have found Ritch and Ollie wearing duvets in the middle of stage, singing. More recently, Ritch and me went to Tenerife and he ate too much and had to go to bed.
Are you one of those bands that look back at their older stuff and shudders, like 2011’s First Love and 2010’s Reading Habits, that song song Strictly Die is still up there for me.
Some songs we still like, other songs not so much. As I say, we steal a lot of our own stuff. So we might like a bit in an old song and bring it back to life in something new.
Those first two EPs were more about us finding our feet, I think. It was new for us all to be doing vocals, as well as playing. And we didn’t really know what kind of band to be. The very first practices – this was in GY – we sounded like Mogwai. Completely instrumental ten-minute odyssey stuff. Then we realised that Mogwai had already written those songs and there wasn’t any need to write them again.
I think we’re getting closer now to having our own sound. We’ve been discussing how to tackle the next record and it’s something we’re conscious of – not just being a duplication of the bands we like. Essentially, we just want to play something that we enjoy playing – and if other people like it too, that’s great.
You must see articles about Elk pop up quite frequently (not just because you have Google alerts set up), like when you learn to drive and you see a ton of other learner drivers on the road. Do you sometimes think people are talking about your band when they actually aren’t?
I’m hoping one day we will replace actual Elk as the top Google search result for the word Elk. North American school kids will be thrown into a state of constant confusion as they ask their parents why their teacher said an Elk was like a Moose, but the Internet says an Elk is actually three aging post-rock guys from Grimsby, England.
What bands are you digging right now?
We all listen to different stuff, but the bands we all like? Well…
Me and Tom went to see the new Battles stuff at Tufnell Park Dome recently, which was both ridiculous and brilliant. We’ve all been a bit moved by The Staves, who are just achingly good singers. Ritchie posted a picture of an old Queen album on Instagram last night, so I assume he’s listening to that again. Bill Wells and Aiden Moffat are very enjoyable at the moment. I’ve been listening a lot to the new Jim O’Rourke album, which is great. And we all tend to like everything the annoyingly talented Brewis brothers touch.
Please include a YouTube video that encapsulates everything Elk stand for?
Jesus. That’s a difficult one. But then, weirdly, I opened up YouTube and for some reason the first thing that came into my mind was this and I reckon Tom and Ritchie would say it was a pretty good call:
Herd Songs is out now on 12″ via The Audacious Art Experiment now, go grab it.