Travel is important to Luke Thornton, one of the three Bristol dream-pop alchemists who make up Elder Island. Reached at home in England, the bassist and beatmaker is happy to talk about the joy of living out of a suitcase, and not just when on tour with singer Katy Sargent and synth player David Havard.
Places he’s ticked off include Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Thailand, and China. On this side of the pond, he’s had his mind blown by Vancouver and the windswept shores of Tofino.
What’s interesting about much of Elder Island’s debut album, The Omnitone Collection, is the meditative quality of the songs. Built on layers of ghostly synths, heartbeat percussion, and soft-soul vocals, the record’s perfect for magically solitary moments when you’re lucky to find yourself on what seems like the edge of the world—whether on Canada’s west coast or in the jungles of Asia. The next time you’re walking Tofino’s epic Long Beach at sunset, cue up Elder Island’s gorgeously introspective “Wasteland”. The wild side of Vancouver Island might be about as far as one can get from a wasteland, but Thornton acknowledges that the away-from-it-all vibe still fits.
“It’s amazing that you said that, because that’s exactly what we were after,” he remarks, taking a break from packing for Elder Island’s upcoming North American tour. “The way that song came about was very organic, with a lot coming from one take that we layered over and over. The intention of the song was to conjure up the idea of a vast wasteland that we take you through. And then you leave and go to a place that’s really ethereal.”
Elder Island coalesced around Thornton and Havard, who met during their preschool years, and later played in bands in their teens. After hooking up with Sargent, they named themselves after an island in the north of Canada, figuring that the remote landscape matched what they were after sonically.
An eponymous debut EP in 2014 established Elder Island as a group drawing from numerous corners of pop-music history, with English alternative soul as important to its sound as classic Bristol trip-hop and early Ninja Tune electronica. The Omnitone Collection builds on those elements. At times Elder Island is happy on the dance floor; “Kape Fear” is made for nights salted with the likes of Roxy Music and FKA Twigs. But the band’s just as likely to veer into more sombre and exotic territory, as “I Fold You” is coloured by November-skies cello and “Find Greatness in the Small” transports listeners with Far East strings.
Part of the fun of being in Elder Island, Thornton says, is that Havard in particular has a thing for building synths and pedals, giving the group its own sound.
Thornton agrees that, in some ways, the band is out of step with the current climate in England, where history-making events like Brexit have everyone angry for different reasons.
“In Britain there’s quite an unstable buzz, and the music is showing it a lot at the moment,” he says. “There are amazing bands full of aggression who are also taking a really poignant way of looking at what’s going on. Idles, which is another Bristol band, is for example just really killing it.”
From Idles to Kinlaw & Franco Franco, Elder Island sounds little like the other acts that currently call Bristol home, which might explain why the trio’s often pigeonholed as a band impossible to pigeonhole. That, quite rightly, makes Thornton proud.
“We’re listening to Idles, but at the same time listening to Nigerian soul and blues and old folk,” he says. “Combine that range of influences with us always being excited and turned on by new technology. So we’re not only into experimenting with anything that we can get our hands on, but also trying to add as much analogue feel and as much realness to music as possible. Hopefully, we give people a place to escape to.”
Elder Island plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Thursday (September 12) as part of Westward Music Festival.