Hills Like Elephants is working on its sixth album, which is expected to be a further enhancement of their melodic rock vibes with a touch of pop that has kept audiences in San Diego, and across the country, hooked.
Band members Mike Hams, Greg Thielmann, Andrew Armerding, Sean Davenport and Bobby Roquero at down with DiscoverSD at Fall Brewing to talk about their recording methods, new music and taking success one day at a time.
How did you guys all meet one another?
Mike: Well the two of us [Mike and Bobby] came to San Diego from Minnesota. I moved to Seattle and then down here after my brother convinced me to, and Bobby was already living down here.
Bobby: Yep, and then we met the other guys at Lestat’s, also about 10 years ago. Except for Sean, who we met later.
Sean: Hills started in 2011. It was just me who did the album originally, I booked a show with Little Hurricane, but I didn’t have a band. The initial people we had are gone, except for Andrew and myself. We switched drummers and got Mikey on our side two years ago. We were friends with Greg through mutual friends. One drunken night, I called up Greg and left him this long-winded message about wanting him to be on board and then everyone was in.
Are you guys working on anything post “Tell Tales,” your 2015 album?
Sean: Yeah we are. We have about four songs that are looking real good. We have a bunch of other songs on the agenda. We aren’t sure whether it’s going to be a full album or a series of different EPs just yet.
Greg: We just know new music is coming and coming very soon in a couple of months.
What is the album sounding like?
Mike: With our last album, we really wanted to capture that live sound. With this latest one, at least to me, I feel like we’re trying to balance that. Like, we have some songs that are very much how we sound live, and we’re also exploring the studio as an instrument. We’re really trying to find the right sound and voice for the songs. At least at this point, we have 12 songs in different stages.
Greg: It sounds like us, but we are trying to push ourselves. We brought in some outside singers like Dani Bell. We’ve focused more on lyrics and things that we maybe haven’t pushed towards in the past.
What’s the recording process like since you are all very busy with other full-time jobs, families, etc?
Mike: We are all really busy. We don’t have the luxury to get together every day. We do a lot of our note-taking on our own and then we hash out ideas when we get together. We try to use that group time to further the process.
Where do you record?
Mike: Our studio is set up in Bobby and my brother’s house, which they’ve lived in since 2003. We have a friend from Minnesota who does construction, and he built a fish tank-like set-up. It’s walls within walls.
Bobby: We can play music 24/7 there and no one hears us. We’ve had several bands come through besides our own, like A Scribe Amidst the Lions and A Summer Knowledge. People record drums at our studio because that’s something they can’t do at their own house. It’s been a blast.
What has it been like trying to gain success in San Diego?
Sean: It kind of depends on what you’re going for. At the end of the day now, we have played shows that we want to play. We do exactly what we want to do. So far, we have been flown out to SXSW. Right now, we haven’t been touring as much, which has given us the opportunity to do more writing. We have stayed really busy and the local support we have gotten has been overwhelming.
Greg: The city is supportive. People aren’t in competition here. You are limited here, and there are certain thresholds of being noticed. I think we have done great with what we have and get to play shows to our fans, and that has been fantastic.
Mike: It’s great because we can really try things out here and see what works for us or for our fans. It’s easier to feel out each song this way on this platform.
What are your favorite local bands to listen to or go see?
Mike: Omega3 I like, they’re more on the aggressive side but they are phenomenal. I love Greg’s other band, Summer Knowledge, too.
Greg: Wild Wild Wets have always been helpful to us and are great musicians.
What’s been the most challenging part about creating music?
Sean: The personal changes are what is hard. For example, when I met Greg he was a paralegal and now he owns a bookstore. For me, I’m getting married soon. These kinds of things.
Mike: This newest recording stuff is the hard yet interesting part to me. We are in a somewhat more mature place. We have grown up a little bit which is reflective in our sound I think.
Bobby: Yeah, you can really hear the gray hair on this album.
Greg: Yeah, it’s becoming dad rock. Steely Dan, watch out.
What artists/bands have inspired Hills Like Elephants’ melodic sound?
Mike: I like Here We Go Magic and Woods. I listen to a lot of salsa music, too. I’m a drummer so I listen to a lot of drum-type stuff like Radiohead and Talking Heads.
Greg: What has influenced me most in Hills Like Elephants is post-punk stuff. Wire, for some of our guitar stuff. I also like Joy Division, that Factory Records sound. Also, like ‘70s New York music.
Does Hills Like Elephants have a long-term goal in mind?
Sean: Life has been pretty good, I take it day to day. I used to get hung up on long-term stuff and things got stressful at that time. If it doesn’t happen, things seem like a big let-down. Now that we have all been in bands for as long as we’ve done it, I don’t think it’s bad to set goals, but I do think you should focus on what you’re doing: Making the music as good as you can. The longevity we have is based on the fact that I enjoy being with everyone here.
Greg: Artistic performance is the most important thing. Of course, you also think, “How do we obtain these monetary goals?” but it’s not front-of-mind.
Mike: I try to not think in terms of long-term. We have a show tonight and my only goal is to make sure every song is as good as it can be. It’s an opportunity for us to collectively express ourselves. For me, if I maintain that short-term goal, like at our practices and shows, then I think the long-term stuff will work itself out.
- Bird Rock show at Balboa Park, July 9
- Casbah with The Donkeys, Aug.13