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By Andy Argyrakis
A Celtic flavored combination
of rock n' roll and storybook songwriting
Feb. 1, 2008
Despite its Celtic flavored rock n' roll sounds that often serve as the perfect soundtrack for St. Patrick's Day (or a pub crawl any night of the week), only one member of The Elders actually hails from Ireland. In fact, the other five players come from the unlikely geographic location of Kansas City, Missouri, though they still managed to establish themselves on both sides of the sea since forming ten years ago. Though the band mostly tours throughout America (thanks in part to its concert special Live At the Gem airing on over 100 PBS stations), it also has a large fan base throughout Ireland and Scotland. But no matter what the territory, the players boldly champion their catch phrase "arse kickin' music from the heartland," often supplemented by engaging storylines gleaned from the last decade on the road. Guitarist/mandolin player Steve Phillips recently checked in from home to chat about the band's current tour, last year's Racing the Tide CD, a constantly expanding artistic niche, plus remembrances of major label life (when he was with roots rock band The Rainmakers).
Livewire: How did everyone's diverse backgrounds lead to a Celtic rock sound?
Phillips: We all came from different backgrounds- from rock bands to blues, jazz and country rock, but eventually all teamed up to do this, partially to get back to our roots. I used to play bluegrass years ago, but would often throw in old Irish songs, so I could relate, plus there's always been a kinship between bluegrass and mountain music to old Irish songs. In this group, there are four songwriters and we all get together every Tuesday to create something new. It's basically storytelling through the influence of Irish music in terms of the rhythm and melody, but it's always fun to try a new template.
Livewire: Ten years is a long time to be active, especially when you're doing something that seems somewhat out of the ordinary.
Phillips: There have been a number of factors to our longevity, starting with the fact that this music is timeless. It's not affected by fads or trends and some of these tunes that have inspired us were written one or two hundred years ago. But storytelling never gets old because there's always something we're experiencing on the road and writing about.
Livewire: What's the topical spread throughout Racing the Tide?
Phillips: Every one of the songs talks about something different, kind of like a different set of myths. We have a lot of songs about relationships, family bonds, spirituality and civil wars- nothing is really off the table! When we get together and write, it's a collaborative effort and we really do hang our egos at the door!
Livewire: How about the make up of your fan base on the road?
Phillips: If you go to one of our shows, you'll see people with gray hair down to eight year old kids who all love the music genuinely. They're not just there because someone brought them, but they're jumping up and down and they're singing with the songs they know from our CDs. When we first started, we throughout it would be fun to play on the weekends, but we had no idea it would blossom to the rest of the country, let alone Ireland and Scotland!
Livewire: To what degrees has PBS widened your audience?
Phillips: We filmed that special, which is also a DVD, about four years ago and we still play most of those songs, though we've also written a new record since then, plus a half dozen even newer songs. But it's seriously been played so many times and people already know about us before we even get to town. We also find ourselves getting emails from places we've never even been, especially around St. Patrick's Day.
Livewire: With March right around the corner, does the band's schedule start getting crazy?
Phillips: We used to do four St Patrick's Day gigs in that one day! We'd do a parade on a float, some place in a tent and then a couple other shows later in the evening, but it got too crazy. Now we set up for one huge show with the School of Irish Dance (called The Elders' Irish Hooley) and it's a ton of fun. We sell out every time and have been told it's becoming as common as the first pitch thrown out on opening day for the Kansas City Royals.
Livewire: How do The Elders fit in with other Celtic rockers like The Pogues or Dropkick Murphys and to what degrees are you all able to expand the genre's niche?
Phillips: When we first started out, we used The Pogues as the model of a group who could take old fiddle songs and fashion new songs around them. Sometimes they weren't even old fiddle songs but just sounded like they were! Then you have a band like the Dropkick Murphys that are a little harder edged, but if you strip it down, the melodies, chord changes and stories are all still there! We've also played several shows with Enter the Haggis and it's one of those cases where everybody's doing something cool and different enough to all be on the same bill without stepping on each other stylistically. The main thing is to gain new fans all along the way and get the word out. We don't get a lot of radio airplay, outside of a few niche markets who might play Celtic music on Sundays. But it's really growing on the live scene and that's the main thing in spreading this type of sound.
Livewire: Do you miss the days of major label life?
Phillips: When I was with The Rainmakers, we were signed to Mercury/Polygram [from 1986-1989] and the president of the company genuinely liked the band. It let to getting us on the radio, an article in Newsweek and review in Rolling Stone, which you certainly can't get on your own. But there was also a lot of staying in fancy hotels and going out to dinner with people from the record label, which we didn't have to pay out of pocket up front, but all came out of our CD sales.
Livewire: How is the indie circuit treating you these days?
Phillips: With The Elders, we release all the projects on our independent label Pub Tone and we take home one hundred percent of the profits, minus the expense of making it. We have all the control of our artistic direction and whatever we do from there. In order to truly go worldwide, a record company would have to pump a bunch of money into us and I honestly don't know what that would look like within the context of this band. But this is the way we've always worked and we love having the control.