Elephant Revival have had an amazing year of triumphs and tragedies already, and we’ve only just passed the halfway point. After seeing their first headlining show at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre sell out in May, one month later the band awoke to acrid smoke and a life or death fire on their tour bus. Luckily, all band and crew made it out of the inferno safely, though all their instruments and personal belongings were burnt to a crisp. The band soldiered on, playing not only their show that night but the rest of the run as well, on time and smiling.
After having a few weeks to take stock and and put their upcoming festival appearances and summer shows in perspective, our own Rex Thomson had a chat with guitarist and core song writer for Elephant Revival Daniel Rodriguez about his terrifying awakening, the lessons he learned and the spirit that keeps him going.
Live For Live Music: So… a lot has happened since the last time we chatted. You released a new album, Petals, headlined Red Rocks and survived a very scary bus fire. You folks seem to like to keep it exciting.
Daniel Rodriguez: Oh yeah, all the time. The fire was not planned…the album was.
L4LM: We’re very happy that you made it out okay. I hate to ask you to relive such a scary moment, but can you give us a little context on how it all happened?
DR: The band flew into Nashville while our bus driver left Boulder to pick us up in there. We go onto the bus around ten o’clock at night and started heading towards Hickory, North Carolina. It’s probably a seven or an eight hour drive. On that drive, through the night…the AC units were fighting it. They were taking more power than the bus could give them and tripped the breakers. That was a uncomfortable night because the air wasn’t moving through the bunk area. But people needed to sleep so eventually we all drifted off despite all that.
When it came close to time to wake up, around quarter to nine o’clock I woke up to Bonnie yelling “Smoke Smoke Smoke!’ Everybody yelling “Smoke!” That prompted me to wake up when I did I awoke to…an inferno. It was an electrical fire so it was burning crazy hot…it was just…uncontrollable. My blanket and sleeping bag were just raging on fire. I went into flight or flight mode and just got out of there in what I sleep in, which is just my underwear.
We lost everything that was inside of the bus, minus a thing or two. Just…just a crazy scenario though. A bit traumatic for me, y’know…I woke up…basically in hell but the town of Hickory was so nice and kind. The fire department was amazing, the local stores that pitched in and the venue that we played. But yeah, we got out an got far enough away but we watched the insides just…go up in flames. Smoke billowing out.
Our bus driver Carl…he was such a hero. He went into all the storage bays and got out all our amps. We kept yelling “Get the fuck away from the bus! Get the fuck away from the bus!” but he just kept going and saved all of our amps. Sadly all of our instruments and belongings inside just went up in flames.
Telling the story is actually is getting easier and easier. After it first happened, for like, the first week…I would tell the story and my adrenal glands would open up and I would be right back there. Now I can tell it and just see it in my mind instead of feeling it all over.
L4LM: It’s pretty impressive that you managed to play your show that night on borrowed instruments and a day of craziness. What was that show like for you?
DR: It was just wild, given the circumstances of what had happened. We didn’t have any belongings or instruments except for a couple amps. The opening band, the Forlorn Strangers featuring the West End String Band, loaned us all their instruments. Bridget was on a fiddle she had never played before, I was on a guitar I’d never played before…They were all just so kind. The audience that night was incredibly ecstatic.
One interesting thing…during sound check…the lighting guy decided to check out the smoke machines. I freaked a bit and snapped “Turn those f@#$ing things off!” He was really cool about it and realized I wasn’t being a jerk, I was just kinda on edge. But the show itself… it was beautiful. The whole community came out. Everyone who had helped us came out.
It was a truly powerful show. Everyone gave us so much energy and we gave what little we had left back to them. It was really magical…a magical night. We played again the next day and by the end we played all the shows we had set out to do. It didn’t feel like we were doing anything too amazing…we just did what we do.
L4LM: Sometimes, in facing death unexpectedly like you did, perspectives change. Any altering of your world views you care to share?
DR: I never really knew what trauma felt like, until that night, after the show. I just busted out in uncontrollable crying. The week following there were times when my muscles would just…release. And it just made me think of all the refugees and innocent people in the world who are experiencing war, or waking up to bombs being dropped. Seeing their family and friends killed.
I was able to go home eventually. Sleep in. Get a massage. But there are too many people out there who don’t get that. They have to get up and walk to whatever country will take them in. These people saw their communities destroyed, saw the people they love die. That really puts the world into perspective. What we dealt with is nothing compared to what a lot of people face daily.
I just hope all those people have the same chance we did. To finally come out of what they’re going through and make it to the other side. To be able to smile.
L4LM: Speaking of special shows…how was it walking out on the Red Rocks stage as the headliner?
DR: Man…Red Rocks was just amazing. In a way, it feels like the whole year builds to Red Rocks. I don’t want to say anything to diminish the importance of all of our shows…but there’s just something about Red Rocks. The natural wonder of the place. I tried not to think about it leading up to the show because I didn’t want to get my nerves up.
When we walked out the general admission had sold out…the opening bands had just played their hearts out…the crowd, they were ready for us. When we got out there under that full moon…Ahhhh. Everything was just…I don’t really know how to put it into words. Now I can’t wait for the next Red Rocks show.
L4LM: The new album, Petals, is a step forward for the band musically and production wise. How happy are you with the record?
DR: I don’t tend to listen to it. Every time we’ve recorded an album I haven’t listened to it much after we’re done. I remember having the sense of it feeling and sounding adventurous. It has a completely different sound than our previous albums. It was the first album with since our friend Sage left the band…our first album with our newest member Charlie.
It was a bunch of new tunes…tunes we hadn’t really played live before. The previous albums there were songs we had played for years…we had them down, and arranged. But these were new, and we were new. so we took the songs and said “Well, what are we going to do with them?” We went into the studio with that attitude and we came out with Petals.
In some senses it feels under-produced, but I love that. I definitely prefer under-produced as opposed to over-produced. It’s that space, in songs…I like open spaces. I’d rather have space than clutter. I’ve fallen in love with all the songs. I’m incredibly excited to see how they develop live. People already seem to be receiving them well, which is nice. I’m pretty happy with what we did.
L4LM: Multi-instrumentalist Charlie Rose has joined the band and brought a few new sounds to performances with his banjo, mandolin and pedal steel work. He’s a longtime band friend…how are you finding life with him as a part of Elephant Revival ensemble?
DR: It’s really great with Charlie. He’s a solid professional and a good hang. Phenomenal musician. He can write a good song too. He came in with a very positive attitude. He was happy to come into a project that already had some momentum, and he really wanted to add to it. He’s added a real energy and pizzaz which I think is exciting.
And the pedal steel…it’s such a god sound. So powerful and ethereal. After a decade with the same ingredients it was enlightening to add to the mix.
L4LM: It seems that, with the exception of fiddler Bridget Law, everybody in the band has multiple instruments they can play with equal skill. Heck, Bonnie Paine alone plays like forty different things! Did you guys work out some kind of deal where you get paid more by the piece?
DR: I think Bridget, Dango and I would get the short end of the stick on that one so I certainly don’t think I endorse that idea. We’re always just so grateful and in awe of all the things that Bonnie plays and Charlie plays. She sings like no one else you’ve ever heard…she sings like an angel. Then she sits down and plays the saw, and if she didn’t already have your undivided attention, she had it for sure then.
But as for getting paid more for playing more things…I don’t know about all that one…
L4LM: Sometimes Elephant Revival even goes in the opposite direction and does the occasional number a cappella. Are you just trying to catch your breath during an intense show?
DR: Well, it is nice to put down your gear every once in a while. Really, I think we’ve grown to understand the power of these A Capella songs that Bonnie writes. Even when we’re playing all out on our instruments there are still people distracted, talking, looking at their phones. This or that, y’know. Aware but not fully present. But what’s remarkable to me is if we do an a cappella number and Bonnie’s voice rings out…everybody is with us, everybody is there. It has revealed itself as one of the most powerful parts of our sets. The harmonies, which we’re getting better at…when Bonnie’s voice is the only thing that carries out…it’s just awesome.
Listen to the band show off their pipes on an exclusive video of the new a cappella tune “I Won’t Die Early.”
L4LM: Fair enough. You occasionally get pulled away from your six string duties to play a little percussion. Is this a welcome break for you or would you rather be strumming?
DR: Oh, I love percussion. One of my favorite things to do is play percussion. The djembe. I used to play in a drum group back on the East Coast. It was one of my first instruments. It brings a new element to my energy at live gigs. I know it’s just usually one song but I get so pumped up. “Rouge River” is such an energetic song to play.
L4LM: Everybody likes to hit things!
DR: Yeah it’s fun man! I know it’s only one song but I get so jazzed. I always come away with like a bruised knuckle or a cut…
L4LM: The music on Petals seem a bit darker and more deliberate. Would you say that’s a fair assessment of the tone of the material and was this a conscious decision to head in this direction?
DR: I think it’s safe to say that. We came to our producer Sam Kassirer with around forty songs. It could have been just the mood he was in that he picked this batch of tunes. It may have helped thjat he was a fan of some of our slower stuff, which can feel darker at times. Overall, there’s kind of a darker tone. On our past releases we’ve always thrown in a couple of naturey songs that kinda lift the tone. On this one we just went with what the producer was picking.
L4LM: How hard is it to write a song for the band when you have so many possible dimensions available at the same time? And do you tailor your writing to the band’s sound, or do you feel like your contributions to the band reflect your voice basically?
DR: I have like, a hundred songs. I pretty much just bring songs to the table, whatever people react to the most joyously, whatever fits in most with the ER sound…we just go with that. Sometimes I’ll be writing and I’ll feel one coming out as a perfect Elephant Revival songs…other times not so much. But then on occasion everyone likes a song I was sure wasn’t gonna go over well so…You just never know.
Listen to “Stolen,” a sad song of the sea from the album Petals Below:
L4LM: Elephant Revival’s fan base is a dedicated and soulful bunch. What’s it like, watching your fans go on an emotional journey from laughter to tears and back again during your shows?
DR: Amazing. To just witness how our music affects our fans. Sometimes I’ll look over and Bonnie will be crying during our shows. We all feel the emotions of our music strongly. It’s the state we were creating this music from, and a place we revisit when we play it. Our fans go right along with us. I love our fans. They’re the best, I would say. They seem to come to our shows for all the right reasons.
They seem to be in touch with the power. The power of what music can do. It’s about more than just being entertained. I’m sure they like being entertained as well, but our fans seem to really enjoy getting swept away in the emotion we’re sharing with them. That’s what we want! We love our fans. I’m a fan of our fans.
L4LM: Since the band seems to enjoy taking things to extremes, when are you guys going to go full opposite and incorporate some turntables and sequencers? Drop the bass already!
DR: I just saw Paul Simon onstage the other day before we played Red Rocks, and he had a computer onstage with him. I don’t know man…if Paul Simon is doing it, I think it might be okay…
L4LM: If Paul Simon jumped off a cliff, would you?
DR: Depends on what he was playing. Maybe we’ll keep it old school and bring one of those original computers that took up huge rooms. We could load that into an eighteen wheeler and haul it on the road with us…
L4LM: You could actually play ON the computer!
DR: Yeah…we could set up on top of the computer! We could give away punch cards…
L4LM: We’re doing this interview at the High Sierra Music Festival where you were joined by the patron saint of festivals himself, Vince Herman. Can you tell us a bit about his relationship with the band?
DR: Vince has been a mentor of sorts…to us all. I think Dango was the first one who came into contact with him. He was playing in a bluegrass band up in Nederland and Vince was a mentor to them before any of us met. And then Bonnie came into Vince’s world through a parade he had at a festival. It just so happens that the house we had was right next door to his. So for a couple years it was just great…hanging out with him, playing with him, eating meals with him.
We just learned so much. He had all these records from all these bands…he would have these incredible picks over at his house…it was like going to college, those years. All these amazing players would come over…he has all this gravity, in life but especially in the music world. It was captivating to watch him be himself those years. He’s a mentor that turned into one of our best friends. Love that guy.
L4LM: Is there ever a situation that couldn’t be improved by adding Vince Herman?
DR: Vince Herman’s spirit could improve any place or any time.
L4LM: Well, for Live For Live Music and myself I want to say we’re glad you made it out of your ordeal shaken but unscathed and we can’t wait to hear what you do next. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us!
DR: Thank you! Thanks for listening.
A fan based Go Fund Me has been started to help the band replace some of the more personal items, especially the many hand crafted instruments lost in the blaze. You can donate to them HERE.