March 20 2013 08:15 AM

Local rockers explore the realm between indie and pop

From left: David Tye, Sean Davenport, Daniel Gallo and Andrew Armerding
At first glance, Sean Davenport seems like a fairly serious songwriter. His band, Hills Like Elephants, takes its name from the title of a short story by Ernest Hemingway. His music, guided by his slurring vocal delivery and soulful keyboard parts, offers a sophisticated, eclectic take on modern-day pop-rock. 

But when I sit down with Davenport and his bandmate, Andrew Armerding, at Old Mill Cafe in North Park, I quickly learn that Davenport doesn't take his band too seriously. In an hour-long interview, the two musicians knock back Heinekens and share an oversized turkey sandwich as we crack jokes and tell funny stories.

When I finally get around to asking a standard band-interview question—"What is Hills Like Elephants all about?"—Davenport doesn't skip a beat before serving up a crude, facetious response.

"Tits in a blender," he says. 

Hills Like Elephants—Davenport (keyboards, vocals), Armerding (guitar), Gregory Theilmann (synth, guitar), Daniel Gallo (bass), David Tye (drums)—is the type of band that fits comfortably in the space between "indie" and "pop." They have a knack for catchy hooks. They have interesting textures and thoughtful lyrics. But they aren't opposed to being a little crude or engaging in some drunken debauchery.

Their new album, Feral Flocks, finds them honing a luminous sound full of electro-infused grooves and big, satisfying rave-ups. The catchy opener, "Ninjavitus," sets things off at a sprightly pace, with a driving beat and jaunty guitar plucks punctuated by a cheery vocal sample. But perhaps it's the song's adorable music video that really sets the mood.

Created by local group The Visualists, the video shows the band waving around a big Hills Like Elephants sign (the type normally used by sign-spinners) on the streets of North Park. Then, they head to Armerding's apartment to throw a party with all their friends. As Davenport boogies down in a silly outfit—women's sunglasses, white blazer with no shirt underneath, a scarf bearing a piano-keys pattern—it looks like he doesn't have a care in the world.

Feral Flocks, which comes out on March 26 via Requiemme Records / BMG Chrysalis, was recorded in five days by engineer Christopher Hoffee. The band laid down all of the tracks live, using minimal overdubs, which helps make for a loose, streamlined vibe.

"It's just kind of how it naturally happened," Armerding says. "We never had any sort of moment where we sat down and [said], ‘OK, what kind of direction do we want to go on this album? What kind of thing are we going for?' It was more like, ‘We want to record, and we currently have enough songs that we've written that we're playing to make an album, so let's just record them.'" 

The album is more upbeat than Hills Like Elephants' 2012 debut, The Endless Charade. With the earlier one, working in the studio with Hoffee and some local musicians, Davenport ended up with an album that's crammed with interesting ideas but low on hummable melodies. Even he seems to acknowledge that it's not as much fun to listen to as Feral Flocks.

"The Endless Charade was me very bummed out about a certain girl situation," he says. Feral Flocks "was like me having a very fun time with my buddies."

Hills Like Elephants started in late 2011, after the dissolution of Davenport's previous band, Gun Runner. Though his new project started as a solo effort, it soon expanded into a full band. They've since gained a lot of buzz in the local scene, winning the trophy for Best New Artist at last year's San Diego Music Awards.

Theilmann and Armerding are both seasoned local musicians—Theilmann also plays in the indie-electro group Odd Shapes, while Armerding plays with folkies River City and recently started a band called Champ—and they've helped give Hills Like Elephants a pulsing, atmospheric sound. Meanwhile, on the album, Gallo and former drummer Juan Carlos Ortiz lay down nice, danceable rhythms.

"I take my hands off the keyboards at times and listen to it and go, ‘This is really cool what you guys are doing,'" Davenport says about their rehearsals. "‘I'm gonna get a glass of water. You keep doing that.'" 

These days, the lines between pop and indie often seem to blur, and some artists appeal to both worlds. Clearly, though, Hills Like Elephants lean more toward indie—Davenport makes it clear that he'd never want the band to make ultra-polished pop songs in the vein of a hit-maker like Taylor Swift.

"I can't let anything ever be like that," he says, "so I do everything I can not to make it that."

If anything, the band wants to offer a good alternative. 

"You can have fun without listening to Taylor Swift," Armerding counsels. "You want to get into some good music? Hey, instead of listening to Taylor Swift, why not listen to Hills Like Elephants?" 

Hills Like Elephants play with Barbarian and Keith Sweaty at Bar Pink on Friday, March 29. 

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.


See all events on Friday, Dec 2