Hanging on the 'Phone

Bay Area band Elephone evade the expected

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It's hard to take Elephone seriously — not just because of their whimsical name, but because with this San Francisco quintet, what you see definitely isn't what you get.

Witness vocalist Ryan Lambert and guitarist Terry Ashkinos out of what you might assume was their natural habitat. The duo looked strangely at home in the lobby bar at the Fairmont Hotel, where the soft tinkle of piano keys polluted the air and floor-length fur coats were as ubiquitous as they are politically incorrect. Instead of looking awkward, the two seemed relaxed as they sipped on cocktails and joked among themselves last month — not what you expect from your typical Bay Area indie rockers.

And like many musicians who create contemplative and darkly melodic material, you might expect the demeanor of Elephone's members to be as brooding as their elegantly macabre sound, which has drawn frequent comparisons to those august melancholic revelers the Cure. But with Elephone this isn't the case, and it's easy to separate the art from the artists after spending a rather rollicking evening with Lambert and Ashkinos.

Thorough Internet research would have you believe the name Elephone is derived from a quirky, Dr. Seuss–esque nonsense poem, an obscure literary nod which would support the already established notion of Elephone as a thinking music fan's band. In reality, the moniker wasn't inspired by absurdist poetry, and instead the group discovered its name serendipitously after a night of drinking and cavorting with an animatronic elephant.

"We have told people in the past that it is a combination of our favorite meat and our favorite thing to throw," the dry-witted Ashkinos said. "The truth is we were watching this animatronic elephant at this bar. As we became drunker and drunker, we started riffing on the word 'elephant' and came up with Elephone. We don't really know what it means, but it meant something to us at the time."

The impossibility of pinning down the many faces of Elephone appears to be a pattern for the musical mythological beast created by longtime friends Lambert and Ashkinos. That creature continues to metamorphose: the current lineup includes bassist Dan Settle in addition to keyboardist Sierra Frost and drummer Lily Fadden from the band Two Seconds.

When asked to define their sound, Lambert and Ashkinos make it very clear they abhor any kind of musical comparison that might confine them to a certain genre and instead opt for literary references such as Tom Robbins, Ernest Hemingway, and Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

"A love and respect of literature is like the brotherhood of the band," Ashkinos explained. "We all have a literary outlook of the world, viewing it as an ongoing story or as a drama unfolding. That's how we like to write songs."

Not to be outdone, Lambert drolly chimed in about his aversion to being influenced by other bands: "I can't play music like any other musician. Like, if someone were to ask, 'Play this like so-and-so from that influential band,' I wouldn't be able to. I can only play how I play. Now, I could understand if I was asked to make a song feel like Charlie Chaplin. That I could understand."

On Elephone's sophomore full-length, The Camera behind the Camera behind the Camera (Three Ring), haunting guitars, swirling keyboards, and Lambert's austere vocals give their overall sound an enveloping cinematic quality comparable to the refined bombast of Radiohead and the eccentric capriciousness of the Arcade Fire. Lyrically, they wear bleeding hearts on their tattered blazer sleeves, with songs about extreme isolation and the difficult task of putting the pieces back together after an emotional fallout.

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