Continuing our series of written interviews with unsigned and independent acts, we had the opportunity to submit questions to Ralph Beeby & the Elephant Collective.
How did you get the idea to start this project?
It’s been lurking at the back of my mind for some time. I’ve played in a lot of different groups, particularly over the last ten years or so, and whilst it’s been wonderful to be involved with such a wide and varied range of music, I’ve always had the feeling that, at some point, it would be nice to do something which was truly my own. For the last eight years I’ve played bass with a female-fronted rock group called Cherry White, which became my main focus, and this gave me a lot of creative freedom. I guessed that helped to suppress the urge to sneak off for a solo project, but more recently I’ve felt like if I was serious about doing it “at some point,” then I probably ought to start soon! So I dusted off the acoustic guitars, dug out the notebooks full of old ideas and started bringing it all together.
How would you describe your music?
If I’m pressed for a short answer: “Folk, Blues and Beyond.” If anyone’s got time for a longer answer, I go off on one explaining how it starts the virtuoso acoustic guitarists from the ’60s folk scene – Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Davy Graham – the latter being best known for an album called “Folk, Blues and Beyond.” But whereas Davy Graham’s “Beyond” was an exploration of different world music influences, mine is more to do with taking that music down a darker path. Artists like The Doors, Tom Waits and Nick Cave struck a particular chord with me – stylistically and thematically, but also as a steer for what I could do with a deeper vocal register. So I think of it as a meeting point of those two elements.
Where did the name come from?
“Ralph Beeby & the Elephant Collective”? Well, the first part was easy enough..the second part alludes to a blues-rock trio I played with at university. We called ourselves White Elephant, and I always thought it was a shame that we never managed to finish a proper recording of ourselves together. This new project revives a few of the songs I wrote back then, which I’ve adapted for solo guitar and feature in the live set – in fact, “Animal,” my first solo single, began life as a crudely sketched-out idea I brought along to one of our last rehearsals.
So the “Elephant” element is a nod to that old group. But I also decided that this might work better if the lineup were flexible: I wanted to be able to do this on my own terms, so I decided it would be better to have a roster of musicians I could call in for gigs, as opposed to trying to retain a regular band lineup – hence the idea of it being a “collective” rather than a band. I’ve played a couple of small gigs with these “ad hoc” lineups, and I’m pleased to say they’ve gone pretty well. The music I’ve released so far has just been me with a guitar, but that’s not to say it always will be…
Tell us about your latest release…
The second EP (“An Imperfect Cadence of Gloom and Ennui”) will be finished soon, and “Our Man Stan” is the lead single from it. It’s about an ordinary young man, just doing as he’s told, doing what society might expect of him…until there’s an accident at work. His injury means he can’t do his old job, but ultimately the powers-that-be declare him “fit for work” and cut off his support so they can meet their targets. Universal Credit has been cropping up in the news more and more as they’ve tried to roll it out in various areas, and the stories of human misery from all the cruel sanctions and administrative cock-ups drove the lyrics behind this one. (I haven’t actually managed to see it yet, but I gather the themes are not a million miles away from those brought up in “I, Daniel Blake”.) I often find lyrics hard to finish, but sometimes, if a subject makes me angry enough, it’s amazing how quickly they can all tumble out. I think what particularly struck me was seeing figures about the numbers of people who are working full-time jobs that don’t cover their rent, or how many people are just a couple of delayed payslips away from losing their tenancy, and realising that “Stan” could be any one of us.
Musically, I’ve had the tune knocking around for a little while, but I was struggling to get it working with just a lone acoustic guitar. Quite recently I was experimenting with some different tunings, and I came across one variously known as “Sailor’s Tuning” or “Pirate Tuning.” Just as I was getting comfortable with it, I had the idea to try “Our Man Stan” again, and suddenly it all just fell into place.
Still, it’s out now on Bandcamp (http://ralphbeeby.bandcamp.com) and should start popping up on Spotify, iTunes, and all the rest very soon.
Do you play gigs?
Indeed I do. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve done a few appearances with different combinations of full band lineups, but so far it’s mostly been solo stuff. I’ve been thinking about doing more band-oriented stuff in the future, but actually, there has been something quite liberating about being able to just rock up with a couple of acoustic guitars and be ready to go! More importantly, I’m trying to be more selective about the gigs I do. I feel like I’ve paid my dues on London’s “toilet circuit” with all the previous bands, and I want to try and choose opportunities that are more likely to be enjoyable and a bit different. The most recent one was a nice example: I played at a library down near Crystal Palace, where Galina Rin (Death Ingloria) has just started running a series of open mic nights. They invited me along to be the featured artist for the evening; it was certainly a bit different to be playing surrounded by bookshelves, and the crowd were lovely. I’m tempted to see if any other libraries fancy having me in to entertain their punters for an evening…