music | 8th february 2017
élan Vital make feeling cold seem pretty damn cool. The Dunedin based trio, made up of Renée Barrance, Danny Brady and Nikolai Sim make cold-wave synth-pop straight from the bottom of the world. we caught up with them at the impossible-to-heat None Gallery, where they’ve been recording their debut album, Shadow Self.
words: gussie larkin
photographs: russell kleyn
As a teenager, my weekends were occupied with concocting elaborate lies to tell my parents, all so I could get my bratty self to Wellington’s grottiest of house parties. I would absolutely froth over the bands that played: the most important of them being Thought Creature. Long days were spent driving around with my pals listening to their album Teleport Palace on repeat, singing all of the words and dreaming of being psych rock queens. Thought Creature have long since disbanded, but the band’s sonic master Danny Brady has continued to bend minds in Dunedin, with Death and The Maiden and now his latest project, Élan Vital. Joined by Renée on keys/vocals and Nikolai on bass, Élan Vital sounds like the Knight Rider theme walked into a vampire stripclub. There’s reverb-soaked drums, a growling bass guitar and an 80’s organ that Dracula would kill for. The band was formed in mid 2015 amongst the lived-in confines of Stafford Street’s None gallery - an artist-run residential studio and gallery complex. Originally used as a pharmaceuticals factory and then a strip club, the building is the place to be for artists wanting to produce work and collaborate. Danny snagged a studio space around four years ago, and as the venue’s sound engineer he rarely leaves the building.
“I always think the people who are around you influence what you create”
Ideas move through Dunedin’s small interconnected community of artists and musicians like one cold, gothic organism. Whether it’s jarring walls of noise or hypnotic projections - as a creative resident of None gallery it’s pretty much impossible to avoid the work of those around you. Late into the night Danny huddles over his synths and drum machines while the experimental sounds of his neighbours seep through the wall and into his fingertips. Élan Vital write and rehearse in the gallery, and their upcoming album was recorded over two weeks in Danny’s studio: “I always think the people who are around you influence what you create,” he says, “So the people who were working here at the time definitely influenced the writing.” The building’s close quarters can be both inspiring and a little burdensome: “You might feel under a bit of pressure here,” he says, “You don’t want to be making happy sparkly pop music at None Gallery.”
The trio’s first single “Janina” is anything but sparkly, with Renee’s cold vocal delivery and dark swirling keyboard lines keeping it alive. The track is punctuated by the chilling soundscape of waves sweeping across a beach, taking the listener on a trip to gothtropical island. For the song’s music video, Elan Vital kept it local. They collaborated with fellow None resident Erica Sklenars aka Lady Lazerlight, to create a no-budget black and white video, complete with ocean projections, black palm trees, and billowing clouds of smoke. Styled strictly in black by fashion designer JPalm, the band oozes cool, although Nikolai adds, “Our collective attire was worth more than all our music gear.”
There’s a good reason why so many artists and musicians find themselves living in Dunedin - it’s really cheap. For Renee, who recently made the move from Auckland, the city lets her prioritize creativity: “It’s a combination of living in a city that’s cheap, so I don’t have to work 40 hours a week to get by. I’ve got a great space that I can use all the time.” Having struggled in other cities like Wellington, the band no longer feel limited by their surroundings, as they all live with other musicians in semi-commercial spaces. “You do feel like you’re able to generate noise and be loud and practice. [You can] take your time with things to manifest and muck around,” says Renée, “There isn’t that pressure of a practice time slot.”
“There’s always a dark vibe about None Gallery”
None Gallery is a rare gem, in that they don’t operate with commercialism in mind, serving instead as a place for those that might not otherwise find a space to do things. Although they’ve been bombarded with gig bookings since the closure of iconic venue Chicks Hotel, None’s events aren’t focussed on the dollar bills. The gallery was founded on the principle that its purpose should be undefined: “It’s gone through a lot of transitions,” says Danny, “It all depends on who’s living here.” No matter who’s jamming next door, there’s no question Elan Vital will be staying on the dark side, Nikolai says, “There’s always a dark vibe about None Gallery.”
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