When we were starting," recalls Dango Rose of Elephant Revival, "there was a back-and-forth on the actual name of the band. For a short period of time, we had the idea of the name It's Evolving."
Seven years later, Rose, who sings and plays double bass, mandolin and banjo in the folk quintet, still speaks of the potential handle with a notable air of attachment. And when you listen to the Nederland-based act's new album — the aptly titled These Changing Skies — and compare it to past releases, you can see why. That name still seems to capture something vital about the group. "It's such a true term for the music, and our growth as a band," notes Rose.
Elephant Revival was founded in 2006 and has steadily been gaining national renown since then, having shared bills with heavyweights like Béla Fleck, the Avett Brothers, Little Feat and Railroad Earth. The band, whose members hail from Colorado, Kansas and Chicago, has embraced the all-encompassing label of folk, but really, an array of styles, from jazz and Celtic to hip-hop and gypsy, all figure prominently in their sound.
The players themselves possess a shared proficiency that's just as diverse. Multi-instrumentalists abound in this band — Rose, Bonnie Paine, Sage Cook, Daniel Rodriguez and Bridget Law all tackle different instruments and take turns at songwriting — and their specialties include washboard, djembe, musical saw, electric banjo, viola and violin.
Somehow, out of this seemingly overwhelming mix, the group has settled on a functional formula, one that manages to draw on all the creative chaos of their component parts. "After seven years of working with these people and traveling like we have, it's not about each of our egos," Law explains. "It really comes down to what the entity of Elephant Revival wants to say. The songwriting process and our rehearsal process has gently evolved and changed over time to really support the sound that we want to have."
Part of that development is the result of the band's environment. Elephant Revival has roots in Paine's home town of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but for the past seven years, Boulder County has served as its base of operations, and that's where the diverse set of musical voices and ambitious mix of styles has really coalesced. "Before," says Law, "we were a bunch of traveling musicians from all over the country, seeking something. But we are a Colorado band because it's the scene that nurtured us."
"Colorado cradled us," Rose adds. "It nestled us."
The growth can be heard distinctly on These Changing Skies, a record produced and mixed by Ryan Hadlock at Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, Washington. While the band's previous releases — 2008's Elephant Revival, 2010's Break in the Clouds and last year's live EP It's Alive — seemed to revel in a wide-ranging stylistic hodgepodge, These Changing Skies feels much more focused.
That's no accident. The new record, the outfit's best effort to date, represents a long-term push toward a more refined sound. To that end, the act purposely held back older songs, deliberately reserving its strongest material for this album, one they hoped would define a new era in their development.
"This was a long time coming," confirms Rose. "We've been excited about getting into the studio for a destination record. Many of the songs have been in our repertoire for the past nine months or so. A lot of them have been developed through live performance, but we also got a chance to home in."
A lot of that focus came from the studio itself and the personnel behind the album. Bear Creek, located in a barn on a ten-acre farm in a rural stretch of Washington, has hosted artists such as Eric Clapton, James Brown and the Foo Fighters. Hadlock, who's produced acts including the Lumineers and Brandi Carlile at the studio, was a last-minute choice for Elephant Revival.
"In the months coming up on the time we'd allowed in our schedule to record," Law recalls, "we weren't exactly sure how we were going to do it." But then Hadlock came up as a possibility a mere three months before the recording session. "Bonnie was reading an article about where Brandi Carlile makes her records," Law remembers, "and it was like, 'Wow, that's what we should do.'"
And that's exactly what they did. The result is a twelve-track musical treatise on change, community and the power of intention. "Remembering a Beginning," written by Paine, features lyrics about the album's title and the final destination of the wind, over dense and harmonious string work from the ensemble. Daniel Rodriguez's "Spinning" tells of angels and devils dancing between the sky and the moon, Sage Cook's "Down to the Sea" is steeped in the transition of a changing relationship, and the album's opener, "Birds and Stars," speaks of the push and pull of the elements.
The transformations wrought by time and nature play a big role on the album, and that's precisely as intended. "This particular record is the one we felt we had the potential to make when we all got together," Law says. "It's almost like we could hear it in our dreams already. It just holds that sense of presence and sound. It's the culmination of all five of our energies and hard work."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Interestingly, the whole thing started with just Rose, busking for zoo visitors on the north side of Chicago. That's where the band's name comes from: an empty elephant pen at Lincoln Park Zoo. The bare cage and the story behind it left a deep impact on Rose. The pair of elephants who'd lived in that cage had both died after a sudden separation. Suddenly, turning his impromptu solo performances for street crowds into something more formal became a priority for Rose. "It was this planted seed, this call to arms," he says. "It was the spark of an idea: 'Let's get the band together.'"
Nearly a decade later, that inspiration to move from solo improvisation to a musical collective has left an indelible mark on the band and its players. Still, those first ideas about calling the group It's Evolving persist. These Changing Skies will be released on Itz Evolving Records, through the larger Thirty Tigers label. It's a reminder of the band's meandering journey, one that took them from being a group of roving musicians to being a community solidly rooted in the mountains in Nederland, where the evolution will continue.
"Now that we've got the sound and we can understand how it can be experienced," says Rose, citing a recent gig at Chautauqua that featured full orchestral accompaniment, "there's room to expound upon it."