On another cold winter day in Montreal, Joey Langlois and Alanna Martin warmly invite me into their home for tea and conversation. What If Elephants are a Montreal based Indie Pop band. Like the elephant, once you hear them…you won’t forget that sound.
We talk about meowing cats doing Christmas songs, using Pop music to not only express feelings but move to action and see how much they know about Elephant facts?
Montreal Rocks: I’m going to start with a line from your lyrics which states: “Everyone just wants to hear words that sound good in their ears.” That’s from your latest single, “Middle Ground.” I think that describes well your music. It just sounds good.
Joey: Oh wow!
MR: Everything that I listened to so far was extremely catchy. Not only with you, but all the bands on the bill on February 8th (La Vitrola with Vikki Gilmore and Port Cities).
Joey: One of the reasons we are super excited because we love the music and the musicians that will be there that night, including our bandmates. We love all our musicians. (laughs)
MR: A lot has to do with making good music because it’s not something everyone is good at. It takes talent to make it rise above the mediocrity.
I’m going to ask: What is your intro song? What is the song that people should listen to if they don’t know you yet, that represents your sound? Your elevator pitch song.
Joey: I think now, our elevator pitch song is our single “Elastic Band.” It was very collaborative in the way it came about which is What If Elephants was born out of, to have a collective sound that came out of all of us. It’s got the upbeatness, it’s got the drive from the bass.
Joey: One of our friends, who engineered the pre-production of that song, told us: You guys are like a drum and bass band with guitars and keyboards that color in the lines.
Alanna: Support it…
Joey: Yeah, support it. I love that because I’m all about making people move. That’s the elevator pitch song.
MR: I’m not a musician, but I’ve learned lately how close the bass and drums are. They work together, they are the backbone of the band. They carry the song. Of course, when you’re solo with a guitar (looking at Vikki Gilmore), you are your own drum and bass. (laughs)
All superheroes have origin stories…
Joey: Oh boy…I like what I hear.
MR: What is the origin story of What If Elephants?
Alanna: Joey and Justin our drummer were students at Recording Arts Canada doing a recording program back in 2011. The two of them started doing some work with Joey’s solo project, under Joey’s name. A year later, I was here to study classical piano. Joey asked me if I would be interested in adding some keyboard. A year later, we added a bassist, who was with us for a couple of years. That’s how we all met. You want to add some details?
Joey: Oh…I’ve got to add some details! We were Alanna’s first Pop Rock project outside of the classical world. At our first gig together, under my solo project, she was shyly sitting in the corner playing piano.
Alanna: My background is all classical, so this was something totally different.
Joey: So, we got there, plugged in the keyboard and got midi stuff going. She sat and played the parts to a perfect T. It’s been really exciting as we develop as a band, Alanna is one of our lead singers…shaking the tambourine, grabbing the microphone, taking center stage. I had to add that detail.
Eric, who’s been our bassist since 2013, responded to an add on Kijiji. So, we found our bassist on Kijiji!
MR: What did you put on the ad?
Joey: He responded to it, back when it was still a solo project. I just said I’m looking for a bassist and it’s a plus if you can sing. We started making three-part harmonies in our band.
Alanna: Added bonus.
Joey: Also, when Alanna auditioned to be in the band, I didn’t tell her it was an audition. I just asked her if she wanted to come jam.
MR: And then you were judged… (laughs)
Joey: And then I judged her. I wasn’t sure of bringing Alanna in the band, but then Justin said: Dude, she just aced that so good. He was right.
MR: You have something in common with Port Cities. For her (Breagh), she’s educated as a Jazz pianist that then changed to the Pop genre. So, you have some similarities there you can talk about when you are at the show.
How good is your knowledge of elephants?
Joey: Not excellent.
MR: I have some elephant facts. How can you tell the difference between African elephants and Asian elephants?
It’s not the accent…
Joey: Is this a joke?
MR: No…the ears are shaped like the continents. African elephants have ears that are shaped like the continent of Africa and Asian elephants are shaped like the continent of India. I did not know this…
Joey: That’s incredible.
MR: The others will be easier to answer. Another fact. Elephants spend between 12 to 18 hours a day eating. What I wanted to ask is what music do you consume that is not your own? Do you listen to 12 to 18 hours of music a day?
Alanna: Almost. I work in a café and we play music in the background. We play a varying range of different kinds of music for clients. They also like to request music.
Joey: What did you guys used to like…there was this Christmas cat album? Cats meowing Christmas songs. They get pretty quirky sometimes.
<<Montreal Rocks Warning: Do not Google this…if you want to retain your sanity.>>
Alanna: My boss isn’t a fan of that. Personally, Indie Pop Rock.
Joey: That’s our genre.
MR: Have you ever snuck one of your own songs in the playlist?
Alanna: Yeah, for sure. We have playlists that people like, and I add a couple.
I’m a big fan of Hey Rosetta! Just their varying ways that they include instruments. It feels like there’s a lot of layers, not just something super simple. They have a story behind them and there is more than just flat lines.
Joey: Hey Rosetta! is kind of like the intersection of all of the member’s taste. They surprised me for my birthday once and brought me to a Hey Rosetta! concert. It was pretty amazing.
My new year’s resolution for 2018 was to listen to music. For most of my life, I simply did not. I heard music and got a gist of what the top 40 was, or whatever was playing on the radio. Now that I’m listening to music, I’m still listening to a lot of Pop. I’m kind of up to date and know what’s going on. I know this is a big blanket statement, but my favorite songwriter now, at least in the Pop genre is Julia Michaels. She really pushes the boundaries in ways that I love. She breaks songwriting rules. You know you try to pronounce words correctly and she will purposefully crush a word into a phrase, but excellently.
MR: With style.
Joey: Oh yeah. In Pop, there is often repetition. You try to make things super obvious and bold. She does incredible things with subtlety. Seemingly random, but it just works. It sticks. I’ve been avidly studying her.
Zedd is pushing the boundaries on production. I feel everybody is following the Zedd trail. He’s done a collaboration with Alessia Cara: “Stay”
Joey: I was in HMV and heard that song and I was like: Everybody STOP! Don’t move…listen.
Alanna: You need to hear this!
Joey: Since then, I’ve been intently following that.
MR: Have you ventured into territory that you haven’t gone into yet, just for exploration’s sake?
Joey: Yeah. I’ve started listening to a little bit more Hip-Hop and Rap. Bill Withers. I heard someone cover of one of his songs and I’ve played one of his songs before. He’s got so much depth to his lyrics and with so much accessibility, which Pop also has, but with Soul. I love that. That’s outside of what I usually listen to.
I also grew up with a lot of Rock, which my brother listened to, as well as Pop Rock. That’s my roots.
MR: Going deeper into that, I find that a lot of people have one experience or one person that introduced them to or triggered that love of music. Going down the rabbit hole. Who or what was that for you? What created that spark that made you say: I want to do this for a living.
Joey: I don’t know if I can give credit to a person for sparking doing music with my life, but the most pivotal person, aside from my mother for giving birth to me, would be my older brother. He kicked my butt to practice guitar in the beginning. He knew I wanted to do it, but I just sucked at discipline. He singlehandedly funded my first recording project and release concert…which I don’t even know if I ever paid back.
MR: Note to your brother that there might be loan payment coming back to you! (laughs)
Joey: He played bass for me and was my manager. I get checks from SOCAN and he’s the one who signed me up for that, 12 years ago. He really got me going. Every time we reconnect, it’s just a good reminder of that time. That would be the person.
MR: And the occasional wedgie.
Joey: You know what? He was really nice to me. No occasional wedgie, but when I was between seven and fourteen, man did I get a good dose of sarcasm. Degrading sarcasm. It was a war.
MR: A growing moment.
Joey: Yes, it was a growing moment.
MR: My next fact: Because of all that eating…we talked about 12 to 18 hours of eating…you get a lot of poo. One tonne per week.
Alanna: Oh my goodness.
MR: Not to say that you guys put out a lot of crap…
MR: What are you currently producing? What are you creating with all that you are consuming?
Joey: I wish we could mimic the quantity of what elephants pump out. (laughs)
Alanna: I don’t know if it would be special, though.
Joey: I don’t know how that works, quantity vs quality, but we have a single now that we just tracked lead vocals for, which Alanna is on. We are really excited to release it. It’s actually a song I wrote the lyrics for. Usually, I have the melody and chords ready to go and with the band, we arrange together. I just sent the lyrics over to our bassist and he did the melody and the chords, and we refined it together afterwards. We played it live a few times. It has a great vibe. I’m excited to feature Alanna’s vocals again. Another song called “Building Me Up” which we are excited to put out. We don’t know when, but it was written with our friend Bayla, who’s put out some great pop music in the past few years. It covers the last year, where I had a big downer.
Alanna and I are married, and she was present and supportive during that time. It talks about someone not afraid of entering the mess that we’re in. The fact that they are not afraid to get into that mess is a life saver.
MR: So, inspiring yourself out of all that…poo. (laughs)
Joey: Yeah, exactly. We hope those will maybe…drop like a tonne! (laughs) That’s about as close as we want to get to the elephant’s production.
MR: Another fact. We know that elephants never forget, but they are also the most social, creative and benevolent creatures on the earth. Does that describe you guys as a band?
Joey: I hope so. That would be a wonderful description. If we could be described as that, we’d feel like at least we are doing part of our job well, on the other side of the music.
I work with Justin. Our day job is together, and he gets raving reviews from clients. He’s just one of the most wonderful people to encounter.
MR: He’s always smiling.
Joey: He’s always smiling and super excited to engage with people. Alanna and I put a lot of importance interacting with people and building strong relationships. So, I hope so. That’s what we are working towards.
MR: Going in the same vein, elephants will actually change the landscape because of how they dig waterholes and create footpaths. What changes do you hope to make in this world with your music?
Joey: The whole idea behind What If Elephants is to address things that people don’t really want to talk about. A lot of the time, music, movies and comedy will aim to help us forget our troubles, get away from them and escape. This could be helpful, but we hope to provide a musical ambience where people can escape to a place where they can deal with their problems, hopefully with the message in the lyrics. We want to put a positive perspective on the difficult things people go through in life. Acknowledge that, yeah, life can really suck. Maybe you are going through a hard time with a pain that no one can understand. Then leaving people with more than just expressing that pain…
MR: And actually, working through it.
Joey: Working through it and highlighting that there is hope. That is one of the biggest things we want to give people.
MR: It’s interesting because I was watching a Netflix documentary about Avicii. He was very candid about the darkness he felt, leading up to him taking his own life. It was sad the amount of stress he put on himself or was put on him. It was overwhelming. He didn’t know how to deal with it.
It’s interesting to see that you can take that hope and put into Pop, or Indie Pop. Some Pop, almost like Bubblegum Pop is bland and talking about liking a boy, or something. It’s very simple. But when you can weave a more realistic story, it will rise above.
Joey: We are human beings. New Year’s resolutions started in January and people are working out super hard. If we approach music that way…
MR: It’s already mid-January, so the resolutions are all broken. (laughs)
Joey: Exactly. Baby steps are so important. You don’t necessarily need to solve the world’s problems. If you take, for instance, liking a boy…well…what do you do? How do you handle this? There are a lot of ways you can go about living your life when you like a boy or like a girl. I think Pop can address this differently, helping people constructively building towards something, instead of simply putting out the feeling. If I didn’t have discipline in my life. If I just did what I felt like, I wouldn’t be playing guitar. You need people, like my brother, helping me deal with how I felt. That’s one of the things we like to do.
MR: Like Malcolm Gladwell with the 10,000 hours. You’ve got to put in the work.
Joey: You’ve got to put in the work. I think that Pop music outlines the work that you need to do, but it doesn’t push people to put in the work. We’re experimenting with how to do that.
MR: As a culture, it’s getting harder and harder. For one thing, because of social media, you are bombarded with people’s opinions. In the past, you didn’t have all that noise around you. You could live your life without knowing everyone’s opinions. Now, it’s becoming a focus and if you place too much importance to that, you can be in a really dark place quickly. Especially if you are dealing with immature people around you. Let’s say you are a teenager in school, surrounded by immature people bashing you because of the color of your hair. That can be very dark.
Music can be that one escape. When I was a child, Punk was starting and that’s where I escaped to and began to form my own identity. Then I evolved into different types of music along the years.
Do you think this type of landscape if ripe for helping people deal with day to day problems by having these conversations in music and lyrics?
Joey: I think so. The vision we have as a band I had when I was 9 years old when I started in music. I wanted to write songs that had an impact. I feel that Pop music has actually improved, already. Alessia Cara, I mentioned earlier, comes to mind, who are putting out those positive, constructive messages.
MR: That is the end of my Elephant quiz.
Joey: That was, wow, insightful.
MR: You were finalists for CBC Searchlight for a few years and some of your songs have been used in commercials. Which accomplishment are you most proud of?
Joey: It’s tough to trace back. We’ve been together for 5 years. So much has happened in between, even outside of music. I think because I can’t think of a specific one…I think that my brain would just go to the most recent thing where the feeling is most fresh.
I think the accomplishment with our band is that we are still playing music together. We still really enjoy it. We still want to do it for a purpose & significance.
We won the RBC Emerging Musician Program Showcase in 2018. That was exciting for me. I had stopped submitting to competitions because I lost a few times when I was a kid.
MR: It’s nice to get validation.
Joey: Yes, it’s nice to get validation.
MR: But it should not be the goal. To have a certain number of followers for example. You nailed it when you said you still love playing music as a band. The creation of music is still a passion. To me, that is success.
MR: Going back to the documentary, at the end, Avicci could not stand performing. It became too much stress and pressure. He didn’t want that anymore. He tried to cancel all his gigs. When you lose that love of playing, it must be hard to put on that fake front and go in front of the audience. You can’t connect. You can’t be authentic when you are not digging what you are doing. People must see that.
Obviously, people don’t see that with you now, and they won’t see that in February.
Joey: Exactly. We are just so excited to play this show. It’s our first time playing with Vikki. We’ve heard her music and seen her play a few times. When we met Port Cities at Canadian Music Week, a few years ago, we just loved their music. They’ve got such positive vibes as well. I want more people to hear their music, you know? Excited to have them here in Montreal.
MR: The one thing that will be very important on February 8th at La Vitriola is to arrive early because all three bands will be great! First of all, get your ticket before the event, because you never know…it could be sold out.
Joey: I’ve been really excited from the response of people buying tickets already. Even for those that have been to La Vitrola for another show, I can promise that this will be an experience like nothing before.
MR: So get your ticket, come early and make sure to buy merch so these bands can continue to make great music.
Joey: You will walk in the door and you will feel the difference. You will see it, it will be in the air.
MR: And…you will walk out with a smile.
Joey: Oh man, yes! Your life will change. (laughs)