Dunedin electronic trio Elan Vital make synth-based music that washes all around you in the manner of the waves at St Kilda on a post dance party Sunday. Occasionally the water is calm and warmly familiar, sometimes it sweeps you to a place of future clarity far beyond, or equally perhaps the anxious confusion of a malevolent rip, while at others you are sucked and tumbled right back onto that ’80s/’90s dance floor. Quippy commentators have tagged it ‘gothtronica’ which may help, but, as Vital-ists Renee Barrance, Danny Brady and Nikolai Sim advise NZM’s Amanda Mills, that is not a beach towel they choose to lie on.
Élan Vital are a new name on the local electronica scene, but not so new in Dunedin, where they have been stealthily working on their debut album, a collection of darkwave synth-based dance-pop. Élan Vital’s three members – Renee Barrance (keys/synths/vocals), Danny Brady (vocals/drum machines/programming) and Nikolai Sim (bass) – have been familiar faces in the local underground scene, and ‘Shadow Self’ is their first recorded statement as a trio.
All three have a musical history, with instruments and music lessons being a staple of their upbringing. Sim started playing music around the age of 13.
“My dad always had lots of instruments… folk instruments, like bouzoukis and mandolins and guitars. I guess at a certain point I got interested.”
Barrance has a similar tale, starting around the age of 10.
“There was a piano at my grandparents’ house and they kindly paid for piano lessons for four or five years.”
Brady describes himself more like a failed guitarist, saying he was always getting guitar lessons at a young age, but never really stuck to it. However, one guitar teacher, Matty Warmington, opened his eyes to production and sound manipulation.
“He was like, ‘Here’s a four-track, this is how we record a song. We find anything that’s lying around and start banging on a banjo… Let’s make a song and record it.’ Then I decided that’s what I need, a four-track.”
Each are Dunedinites by choice rather than birth. Sim has lived there since childhood, while Aucklander Barrance and Wellingtonian Brady (who met and bonded earlier in their careers) both moved south after returning from Berlin at different times.
“I came to Dunedin straight after Berlin,” Brady explains. “I felt like I had a strong support network of friends… it was different and a change.”
Barrance’s motivations for moving were partially financial, and she arrived in Dunedin’s None Gallery mid-2015. Brady lived there too and before long Élan Vital was born.
“We started jamming, and then realised it would be great to have bass. So Nikolai joined.”
Their first gig as a trio was in August 2015, and they soon signed to Dunedin’s Fishrider Records.
Barrance reveals the story behind the unlikely choice of name.
“There was a book kicking around None Gallery called Poetics of Space which mentioned a philosopher, Henri Bergson, and his theory of élan vital – which is ‘life force’ in French. It just resonated… we were doing electronic music, but… we had this human element within it.”
The album title, ‘Shadow Self’, follows on from this.
“Some of it is personal lyrical content, and I guess some of the material is subconscious, coming from dreams and nightmares,” Barrance muses. “Unknowingly, it turns out that ‘shadow self’ is a Carl Jungian term, but we didn’t know that when we coined the title. It also had for me some horror movie references as well, and I’m a big fan of John Carpenter, that kind of stuff, so it… just seemed right.”
A cursory reading of the Jungian concept resonates: the shadow aspect, or shadow self, refers to dark and unknown parts of the personality, which are in contrast to conscious ego or personality.
Stylistic buzzwords appear around the group when describing their approach – ’60s garage rock, European synth pop, analogue drum machines, dystopian sci-fi, dream-pop, industrial – all play a part in creating an image of the band. However they all dislike the ‘gothtronica’ tag.
“I’ve never liked that term, because I feel it’s somewhat redundant,” Sim snorts. “I don’t feel like at any point did goths not use electronic instruments, like the synthesiser, keyboards… Maybe our sound has a Gothic feel to it, but it’s not goth.”
“Also we’re not a goth band!” Barrance laughs. “We might have goth influences, but our sound is always shifting, and taking on a variety… We wouldn’t categorise ourselves within any genre, except we’re into dance music – and we play electronic instruments.”
The discussion on their sound brings up other interesting perspectives.
“I like… this idea of hauntology, this idea of the future being haunted by a past that never existed,” Sim enthuses. “This idea that we might potentially sound like the past’s vision of the future, kind of this retro-futuristic sound.”
Élan Vital have developed their sound and the songs on new instruments over the last year and a half, as Barrance explains.
“When we recorded the album… I was using a couple of ’80s synthesisers [notably a Korg Poly-800] that we no longer use when we play live.”
Because of such equipment changes, Barrance agrees they won’t entirely sound the same as they did during their early days, but the tonalities and the bones of the songs remain. Their music’s fluidity means they aren’t locked into one particular genre, another reason they object to tags.
“We don’t have one specific genre, that’s why I object to Gothtronica!” Barrance enthuses. “I’m a keyboard player, I used to play in garage bands, so I’m really inspired by garage music. So for listeners, if we were just to isolate the keys, they’d be like, ‘That’s a garage keyboard riff’!”
‘Shadow Self’ was compiled over the last 18 months since the band’s inception, with tracks recorded at None Gallery in February last year. The band wrote the songs together, with production by Brady and mastering handled by Dunedin legend Forbes Williams.
“A lot of that was written pretty quickly, because Renee and Danny had a show booked before before they had got a live set,” Sim explains. “It became more a live set when I joined… it’s a snapshot of a certain time, because we were still quite fresh.”
Their music has enjoyed some local success, Dreams taking the top spot in Radio One’s Top 11 for five weeks.
‘Shadow Self’ is spectral, often chilling, dark sci-fi electronica, thematically dealing with subconscious thought and dream-states. The album’s sound is also something left-field.
“The way Danny’s mixed it, he’s done an awesome job, but it’s like pretty crazy at points. The way it uses the stereo spectrum, the vocals are all through, all left and right,” Sim explains.
The songs are inspired by a variation of themes. Albtraum (German for nightmare) refers to nightmares and sleep paralysis, while
Dreams is darker, part love song, part break-up song. Possession is inspired by the 1984 Sam Neill film, others are less personal.
“Another would be like a hologram, it’s kind of this ’80s, sci-fi sound, you can’t even hear what I’m singing about, because we’re using a vocoder, but I’m actually just talking… as if I’m reading a list about how scientists made holograms.”
That song is Janina, the first track they made a promo video for. A stylish noir short, it was made by Erica Sklenars at None Gallery, and featured styling by former Dunedin fashion designer Julia Palm.
“We actually solidified the way we play that song the day we recorded it, because it was always tough,” admits Sim. “I felt the bassline needed to walk rather than be kind of steady.”
The trio see ‘Shadow Self’ as representative of their diversity, even recording some of their own samples, for instance ocean sounds in Janina that were captured at Tunnel Beach.
“The trains at the beginning… me and Danny sat round Port Chalmers for hours and hours, drinking red wine and waiting for this train.
As we got back we saw a train go past,” he laughs.
This authenticity speaks to the band’s aesthetic, and to the human element of their sound.
“You can get the ocean noise perfect, you can get those drums, you can pitch your voice to be on every note… but we’re a band, and we don’t always play perfectly in time, we don’t always sing perfectly,” Sim notes.
“Those imperfections… show we are human, because we aren’t all perfect,” Brady reiterates.
Élan Vital are cementing their place in Dunedin’s music scene, and the buzz around ‘Shadow Self’ leaves them happy, though a little bemused about their unofficial status as the city’s ‘next big thing’. However they are still developing their fan base.
“I personally find it awesome to play to new audiences, because we just play to a similar audience, like our friends’ bands,” Barrance smiles. With a tour to follow their late April album release gig the trio are hoping that they will attract new audiences, though Sim reckons that isn’t their end game.
“There’s no real audience to try and capture, you’re just making music… because that’s what you’re doing.”