North Melbourne Institute of TAFE has a great reputation for producing confident, business-savvy performers and arrangers, yet the fact that the members of Elephant Eyes all met and created their band while in its warm embrace still seems serendipitous. Even meeting truly like-minded friends at high school is hard enough, when you’re still very malleable and don’t think pretending to like this or that thing is selling out. But the band have managed to navigate that gauntlet and their gorgeous, thoughtfully-paced, Portishead-ish sounds are rapidly winning fans.
“Three out of the four of us have finished now [at NMIT],” says vocalist Kate McMahon, who originally hails from Ballarat; since completing the course she has collected many friends and contacts resulting in Elephant Eyes playing a variety of different gigs. One of these was a performance in her hometown, several videos of which are up on YouTube. Introducing the track A Sinking Ship, McMahon explains: “It’s about a job that I quit not that long ago, and how essentially everyone else was quitting and I was the only one left.” It’s these little things that ground Elephant Eyes’ sultry style, which takes the listener through whimsy but always has its feet planted in genuine feeling.
Perhaps that’s also why the band name seems so apt; elephants are enormous and exotic, but purposeful in their movements and very wise in the eyes. “I originally came up with ‘White Elephant’,” says McMahon, “which is a term for something you have that’s a burden or hard to upkeep.” She thought this was an interesting concept, and through a mutative process the group settled on its current title.
This method is mirrored in the way the tunes are created. “I’ll come up with chord progressions; I write them on piano,” McMahon explains, “and then I’ll come to the band with a ‘skeleton’ of a song. Then they might say ‘How about this chord here or this one instead of that,’ to give it a twist or make it a bit more interesting.” McMahon studied voice and is self-taught on the piano, so appreciates hearing the others’ input and ideas which are based around their own areas of musicianship.
Drummer Stu Hazelman is a decided “multi-instrumentalist,” whose deep singing voice beautifully accompanies McMahon’s on their track I Want To Know. Opening with bassist Tom Fraser’s sweet, slow groove, Hazelman plays with brushes while keys player Michael Mazziotta leans in to his bells sound, to create a simple beauty. During an instrumental in the middle of the song, the clip shows McMahon swaying gracefully down to the ground where she sits like a dropped feather. “I don’t like feeling useless!” she laughs, admitting that she is not playing some out-of-sight glockenspiel during this section.
Along with I Want To Know and the stunning Wake Up (which has a cute stop-motion clip created by McMahon up on YouTube), Elephant Eyes’ next stand out is their single Mother Said which is to be released this Friday. The track has some great background harmonies going on and Mazziotta’s rich piano sounds amazing with Hazelman’s rim-clicking, tambourine accented drums. McMahon’s vocals are particularly mesmerising; she is definitely channelling Emiliana Torrini here. The release is to be a pretty grand affair, with music management group Maths and Magic putting on a ‘showcase’ which comprises Elephant Eyes, young chanteuse Siobhan and the talented Pete Uhlenbruch performing as Owls Of The Swamp.
Uhlenbruch has just arrived back in the country from Berlin where he’s spent the last year or so, and McMahon is stoked he will be performing. “He began the International Melodica Festival,” she enthuses, and it’s clear that the sense of community which events like this provide is important to the band’s ethos. Earlier this year Elephant Eyes played at Moomba, which McMahon describes as a fantastic experience even though many people have misconceptions of the event (such as it being all showbags, goat-patting and those sparkly cellophane wigs). “It was very family oriented,” she says. “We had some little kids dancing along to our set so that was really cute. But it was a great lineup: Josh Pyke played, and The Bamboos. I think [the organisers] are trying to shake off that old idea of Moomba.” It’s true that the infrastructure for the large, outdoor event open to a varied audience is already in place, so why not expand the live music side to include some of Melbourne’s great emerging artists? Not everyone likes goats, and those cellophane wigs can burn your optic nerve right out if the sun’s glinting off them at eye-angle. Elephant Eyes will do nothing so horrifying to your biology but they will definitely affect your mental state in an uplifting, arresting and wistful way.
BY ZOË RADAS
ELEPHANT EYES release their single Mother Said on Friday June 8, at The Grace Darling in Collingwood (9pm). A presale ticket from Moshtix will get you a three-track Maths And Magic sampler; tickets are also on the door for $10.