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Colorado's Elephant Revival transcend their folk origins



There are no discernible traces of irony in his voice when Elephant Revival's Dango Rose talks about being part of a "sustainable tribe" or making daily pilgrimages into nature in order to absorb negative ions. Nor does he balk at using the term "politically correct" to describe the Nederland, Colorado band's motivations, even if the term is more commonly used as a pejorative these days.

In fact, it's easy to imagine the five bandmates tripping out in some remote desert locale, with Carlos Castaneda, Gram Parsons and Tony Rice all serving as their spirit guides. Once you factor in fiddles, washboards and three years of touring in a vegetable oil-powered school bus, you can be forgiven for thinking of them as latter-day, commune-dwelling hippies.

Except they're not.

For one thing, the band members don't live together, except while they're out on the road. And while their instrumentation may hark back to some Appalachian mountain hoedown, they can discuss the Direct Stream Digital technology used to record their 2012 It's Alive EP as easily as the rustic farmhouse where they recorded last year's full-length These Changing Skies.

They also know how to play their instruments, and lots of them: Bonnie Paine handles the washboard, djembe, musical saw and stomp-box. Daniel Rodriguez plays guitar, banjo and bass. Sage Cook provides electric banjo, electric guitar, mandolin and viola. Rose takes care of upright bass, mandolin and claw-hammer banjo. And Bridget Law plays a prominent roll in the band's traditional sound with her octave violin and fiddle. All five members share vocals.

While the future collaborators were initially spread out in different parts of the country, they would keep running into each other at various folk and jam-band festivals. After discovering shared influences ranging from Django Reinhardt to the Incredible String Band — along with Celtic, bluegrass, jazz and reggae music — they gradually migrated to Nederland, a small Colorado town that hosts nationally known jam bands at its annual NedFest.

Nearly a decade later, Elephant Revival has grown from playing intimate Colorado venues to large-scale gatherings, including Glasgow's Celtic Connection Festival, last summer's MeadowGrass Festival (which they headlined) and a "2015 Jam Cruise" that will set sail out of Miami in January. The band will also return to Colorado Springs for two nights at Stargazers this weekend.

Three albums into their career, Elephant Revival are earning international acclaim for their songwriting, arrangements and dynamic live performances. But even with a rapidly rising profile, they have no intention of leaving an adopted home where Rocky Mountains and legalized pot continue to attract like-minded folks from around the country.

Over the course of a 40-minute phone call, I can't help but notice when the recently awoken Dango pauses for a couple of minor coughing fits, the kind people have after inhaling a little more than, say, Bill Clinton.

"I wasn't even drinking coffee or tea," he says with a conspiratorial laugh near the conclusion of our mid-morning conversation. "This was all on ... uh ... on ... uh ...

"Anyway ..."

In the following interview, the musician holds forth on the band's invention of the word "Gyptic," the advantages of New York state over New York City, the pros and cons of smaller venues, and Elephant Revival's continuing shift from transcendental folk toward more electric and energetic stage shows.

Indy: I saw a poster from back when you were still calling yourselves the Elephant Revival Concept, and it described the band as "Funky Gyptic Soul-Folk." So my first question is: What exactly is Gyptic?

Dango Rose: Well, let me just explain that in context for you. Yeah, in that timeframe, in 2007, we were wondering what to call our music. Because at that point in time, nobody had heard of us. And even for us, we were still just a concept. Hence the name Elephant Revival Concept. We had met in sort of like traveling arrays of musicality, and were pretty much crisscrossing the country, the continent, even the world, as individuals, and we made intentions to connect as often as we could. And when we wrote "Gyptic" on that little handbill that you're referring to, we recognized that it was a made-up word.

I pretty much assumed that.

And we didn't mind that. But, simply stated, you can relate that back to a time of people known as Gypsies, who had lived on the road and played a lot of music. But in reference to that, we didn't hold on to it — for the sake of being politically correct. None of us are Gypsies. So that didn't last very long.

Was coining the word also a way of distancing yourselves from that music?

We just want to have a lot of respect for all the races and religions of the world. So, when you talk about Gypsy music, you've got Django Reinhardt as the leader of that. And maybe we did play a little bit more Gypsy music at the beginning, because Bridget Law played a lot of those old gypsy jazz tunes, right? But I guess, in our development, we didn't really necessarily hone in on that as one of our main focuses. But, as you know, we're just a traveling band of gypsies, just like Jimi Hendrix. [Laughs.]

Who sounded nothing like Gypsy music.

Right, he sounded nothing like Gypsy music. But really it all comes down to respect in relation to being Gypsies, because none of us are.

Although it seems like every indie-folk band in the world now includes "gypsy" when they describe their music.

But it's not true, you know? That's what gets me. I mean, if we look into a historical context, yes, you can play Gypsy music. I mean, people do play Gypsy music. But we're actually talking about a people, you know what I mean? And not only a people, we're talking about a group of people that were heavily persecuted.

I do have just one more Gypsy question. Your name is one letter short of Django. Is that your given name, or what's the derivation of that?

The "j" is just silent, you know? With Dango, the "j" is silent.

Wait, I'm lost.

I'm just joking. You know how in Django Unchained, the Quentin Tarantino movie, all the white people are calling the main character Duh-Jango? And then he'll shoot them and say, "The D is silent." So now when people ask me, I'll just say the "j" is silent.

No, but my name comes from when I was living in Oregon. I was part of a music community. It was sort of a sustainable tribe, a performing arts group. It was really interesting. But I was really young at the time and I used to just disappear without letting people know. And usually I would disappear to the McKenzie River or go on these rafting trips or just go off in the wilderness. But I wouldn't let people know.

So back at the ranch, it just became, "Where did Dan go?" Yeah, so it just really stuck, Dan-go. And when I got back from one of these river trips, everybody was just calling me Dango. And I like it. It works.

As far as your nature pilgrimages back then, Nederland has, I'm guessing, maybe 1,500 people in it? Is the nature surrounding you guys a big part of what keeps you there?

Yeah, Nederland has about 2,300 people. We're spread around Boulder County. Right now, I'm the only one living in Nederland specifically. I live on the creek, and I make sure to get out in nature once a day when I'm home.

And on the road, we always plan in nature stops, I guess you would say. You know, because you're on the bus for so long, or in a van, or whatever vehicle we're in, and just being able to get down to a river or spend a little bit of time in the trees, it kind of resets the nervous system. I mean it really does. And it resets, you know, the negative ions, you know? Just the trees and the air.

You know, again, we're just talking about going outside — and making it into a bigger conversation — but it is really important to us. And I think it's heavily influenced the way we write music, for sure.

So your music would be more agitated if you didn't?

Well, I mean, think about The Ramones, right? Where did they live? Was that London? Or were The Ramones in New York. Or both. I can't remember.

Yeah, I don't know what borough they lived in, but it must have been pretty intense.

Yeah, city energy. But it's really all relative. You know, it's all together. There's some cities that we love, too: Portland, Seattle, New Orleans, there's great cities out there. But yeah, you know, we live where we live by choice. And we're really lucky. And we're really grateful. The entire state of Colorado is an amazing place, and we're very fortunate.

When it comes to arrangements and song-craft, your music has a considerable dynamic range. Was that your goal from the beginning, or is it something that's expanded over the years?

I believe that has a lot to do with developing relationships over time, and knowing each other really well. Because as a band, we've become like a family, you know? However you want to say it, a tribe, a family. But we're very close, after spending so much time together, and so we can follow each other really well. We sort of sense when we're bringing something down and then raising it up.

And you know, I believe in many respects this has to do with connection. So was it something that we meant to do from the beginning? I'd have to say yes, because I think we were drawn to each other at the beginning. And then all of that energy that comes through the music was inherent in our attraction to each other and our decision to become a band.

In what ways has that developed in terms of the interplay of the instruments?

Well, the more you play with each other, the more you know each others' styles. And things become second nature. You know how, in playing an instrument, you develop muscle memory?


So you know where the notes are, and your fingers just move there. And sometimes it becomes like second nature. And I believe that that's the same aspect that develops, you know, between people. And that's connection. And so musically, you reach a point where you know where everybody is going. Which is not to say that we don't work on it still, if something doesn't fit. It also takes a lot of hard work and focus and dedication.

So when you were putting songs and arrangements together, was there a point on These Changing Skies where you just felt like, "Hey, no one's ever done this"? Or, at least, "WE'VE never done this."

Yeah, there's always been great surprising moments in the recording process. Just like in live shows where, as a band, you do something that wasn't planned, that comes about in the moment and in the interaction with the crowd. In the studio, there's magic that happens as well, where things just seem to develop out of the ether, you know? And sometimes that has to do with the environment, too. You know, there's environmental factors.

And for These Changing Skies, specifically being at Bear Creek in that old barn where so much music has taken place — and with the Olympic Forest and all the evergreen trees — all that contributes as well. Which brings us back to the topic of nature and how that contributes to the music.

But you know, like on the first track, "Birds and Stars," the build at the end instrumentally, between the banjo and the fiddle, it's like this creative spark happened in the studio and it's like, 'Whoa, that just happened!' And the energy rises. And the arrangement for the tune on the album, "The Pasture," you know, that arrangement came about very holistically.

Cool stuff happens in the studio. And I see it all the time. I mean, I see it working with other bands, too. We love the studio. We're a live band and we're also a studio band. We find solace in both.

When I read originally that you recorded at Bear Creek, I immediately thought of the Bear Creek in Woodstock rather than the one in Washington. Back when Levon Helm was still doing his barn shows up there, did you ever get a chance to go to one? Or were you always somewhere else?

Well, you know, I lived in Woodstock. And Daniel was out there with me quite a bit as well. But most recently, we just got together with [Bob Dylan and Phil Lesh producer] Larry Campbell and Justin Guip, and recorded a track in Woodstock back in September. But we never made it to the barn.

You know, we're friends with [Levon's daughter] Amy. That whole upstate New York community is really, really tight. But working with Larry Campbell and Justin Guip, they did Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, you know, Levon's two most recent Grammy Award-winning albums. And working with them was just a great, great pleasure.

But, to specifically answer your question, no we never made it to the barn. We still have an invitation to, and we have some great friends up there, including Mike and Ruthy — Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar...

Is she related to Jay Ungar, by any chance?

Oh yeah, that's Jay's daughter. I lived with them. I also spent Thanksgiving with Jay when I got back from Africa in 2002, and yeah, I played with the Mammals, which was Jay Ungar's daughter and Mike Merenda and Tao Seeger. And you know, Pete Seeger was up there in Beacon. And that man, talk about open people. I mean, if somebody came to Pete Seeger's door, he would just invite them in for dinner. You know? Like beautiful, beautiful people up there, and just really gracious.

Now that the band is getting bigger — I don't know if you've noticed that — do you miss the intimacy of playing a house show or, you know, some place where there's 12 people?

Twelve people — I don't know if we ever played a show that small. [Laughs.] But yeah. And the thing is, we still do it. Out in California, we made it a point to do a house concert. And that was probably about a hundred people. We still make every effort and take every opportunity we can to connect with our friends and fans.

And we'll still do the late-night "picks" — you know, we'll still jam around campfires — we'll play in living rooms, and do our side projects, like solo and duo stuff. We'll do those in cafés. And if the opportunity presents itself in the right way, we'll play for, you know, 75 people.

But personally, I'm more nervous in those small rooms than I am in front of a thousand or two thousand people.

It's that eye contact.

Yeah, it is. It's like they can see the sweat. You can smell each other.

Well, maybe at the shows YOU go to.

I'm just kidding around. But yeah, there's more vulnerability at the small shows. So yeah, we miss them, but we still do them. We're pretty happy with everything right now. Everything's going really well.

I understand that your last album's producer, Ryan Hadlock, was also involved with The Lumineers' production. Is that true?

Yeah, he produced the Lumineers' last album, the one that sort of blew up.

The one with the song that's stuck in your head for the rest of your life.

Yeah, it's a really good song. You know, I listen to their lyrics in that song, and I'm just so glad they've reached so many people with it. I like those guys.

A lot of people, especially outside the state, think of the Lumineers, and DeVotchKa, and you guys as all being part of the same Colorado scene. Is that something that you feel, as well?

You know, we're just really grateful and honored to be able to call Colorado home. There's so much support in Colorado for music, through the people and also through the industry. And it's a reason why we came back to Colorado to start the band, is because of the networks that exist here, as well as the nature and the people.

So it's no surprise that there's been a lot of great bands out of Colorado. And, you know, when you mention our names in the list that you just told to me, you know, we're just really thankful to be included with some of those other great bands that have come out of here.

I also wanted to ask about your hometown event, NedFest. When did Elephant Revival first play that?

I forget. It was maybe 2008 or 2009 or something.

It seems like most of the bands they book now play electric. Have you ever been tempted to move more in that direction, especially when you're playing in kind of a jam-band environment?

Well, you know, we are more and more electric, as things evolve. I mean, up here at NedFest, it's pretty much all jam-band music. Like all the String Cheese, Yonder Mountain, and Leftover Salmon side projects. That's really what NedFest grew out of, was the Nederland music scene. And it very much changed in the last couple of years, too.

Just in terms of bringing in more outsiders?

Well, the presenter committed suicide three or four years ago. And then it was taken over by a committee. And the committee sort of changed the way it was operating. So it used to be more experimental. And also there used to be more people. But that's another story altogether.

But yeah, we just do what we do. We are electric, you know? And we all plug in. Onstage, Daniel has the electric banjo, Bridget's running through tons of effects — you know, she's got delays and reverb — Sage's pedal board is huge. I'm playing the electric upright bass now. So I mean, pretty much, we're an electric-acoustic experimental group that's based in folk traditions.

Albeit not Gyptic.

Albeit. But you know, you can totally call us Gyptic. That's fine.

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