When I spoke to Paul Basile the other day, a band leader and songwriter for the indie-folk band Great Elk, I wasn’t expecting him to mention Billy Joel as an influential artist. But when he did, the insight brought a smile to my face and revived memories of seeing a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden.
I didn’t tell Paul, who was calling from his home in Cheshire, Ore., that Joel occupies an embarrassingly large part of my ancient CD and record collection, but in hindsight, I probably should have.
The funny thing about mentioning this influence stems from the fact that before Billy Joel became a superstar, he was a guest musician on a record for a band called the Earl Scruggs Revue. (Note: I believe me and 4 other people own this record.)
The Earl Scruggs Revue, which featured bluegrass banjo-pioneer Earl Scruggs, was a band from the 70s that, in my opinion, were a pre-cursor to the kinds of alt-country bands Basile later became interested in when he started getting serious about writing songs.
I’d bet that Paul, who grew up on Long Island, did not fathom any connection between Billy Joel and Earl Scruggs. But later in the interview, Paul said something that I think is important. He said he believes everything you hear probably has an influence in what you wind up doing musically.
And after hearing Joel’s contribution to the Earl Scruggs record, I believe that.
Interview with Paul Basile of Great Elk
Welcome back to Hood River. You’ve been through the Gorge fairly recently?
I passed through solo, several times in the last year and I love Hood River. I’ve been lucky to live in Oregon now, and I guess cumulatively over the last few years I’ve spent a few weeks in Hood River. I like to visit, there’s a coffee shop I go to, and a certain place to get a sandwich. It’s an interesting and vibrant community, so I always look forward to stopping there.
Your bio says you relocated from Brooklyn.
Yes, my wife and I came here last September, after about 7 years in New York.
So how does a band with the name Great Elk evolve from a place like Brooklyn?
(Laughs) Well, the back story is the band name relates to a Seamus Heaney poem, a reference to the Great Irish Elk, which is an extinct species. Some of our songs pre-date me living in Brooklyn, I lived in Alaska for a while, and there seems to be a lot of bands with animal names these days (laughs).
This time around you’ve got the full band for the show at River City on Aug. 2.
Yes, all the guys are flying out and we’re doing a week of shows in the Northwest, and then we fly up to Alaska for three weeks.
Please talk about your new album “Star Stuff.”
(laughs) You must have been online today, since we just posted that. Just this morning we launched the presale of the new record which we’ve been working on for about a year. It has been an interesting process because we started this project before I moved, so we had to chip away at it and exchange ideas over the internet. I went back to New York a couple of months ago and we finished up the tracking and we’re just excited to get it out there.
“Star Stuff” is something we’re pretty proud of and it’s going to be a few more months before it’s actually released, but it’s always exciting to have some new material to share. We’ll definitely be playing some of these new songs at the shows. The first song that we’re going to release is called “In My Eyes.”
When did you start playing music?
I grew up playing the saxophone, so I’ve been playing music one way or another since I was 8 or 9. Early on in college I picked up the guitar, and as soon as I could put some chords together I started writing songs. At first, music was just a casual hobby and something to do for fun. Then, in my mid-twenties, I started getting more serious about it. So I’ve been super serous about this since 2006.
Is Great Elk working out as a full time job for you?
Well, we’ve had the same lineup for 4 years now, which is pretty miraculous for an independent band. I think one of the reasons is it’s a really great group of guys, we like playing together, and each of us has a different musical background. All of these guys have degrees in music — they’re trained jazz musicians, one comes from a funk/R&B background, and I come at things from a more folk and classic rock background. When you combine all that, you end up with something unique, at least that’s what I hope we have. The chemistry of the band couldn’t be better, we just love playing.
So even though there’s some distance between where your bandmates live, there’s still a strong enough connection to continue the band?
Yes, absolutely, of course, but we have to change the way we do it. We do tours like this one, where we rendezvous, we rehearse for a day or two and play shows for 4 weeks. So it’s certainly possible to keep things together. Since I moved, I haven’t even entertained the idea of finding other guys to play with.
How do you find the music scene here compared to the East coast?
It’s been really great to meet musicians and songwriters in Portland and in Oregon in general, there’s a really great community of musicians. It’s been easy to connect with people, and say “hey, do you want to play this show with us, or hey, can you recommend a venue in Bend.” People seem to always be looking out for each other.
I get the feeling you would enjoy the Sisters folk festival, have you ever been there?
Someone was just telling me about that. I was just in Enterprise, playing a show and the guy at Terminal Gravity was telling me about it, it sounds awesome, but I haven’t made it yet. The other thing I’d like to check out is the annual Pickathon.
Can you talk about musicians or bands that have influenced you along the way?
I tend to believe that everything you hear gets in there and influences what you do. It all goes back to being a little kid and having older siblings who were playing R.E.M. and Depeche Mode around the house. That, and growing up on Long Island and being a huge Billy Joel fan when I was a kid. I was influenced by a lot of the obvious stuff, the Beatles, Neil Young, but I think a formative sub-genre for me was the alt-country stuff of the mid-late nineties, with bands like Son Volt, Wilco and the Jayhawks.
That’s the music I really dug into when I was a teenager and into my early 20s. Those bands, more than anything, formed the way I put songs together.
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