“What’s the angle of this article? Three washed up rockers to play final show?” It’s a Sunday afternoon and Scott Whitten, the drummer of Elephant Child, invited me over to his house where the band is preparing to practice for their last show. Bassist Aaron Propst is in the basement setting up while John Hostetter, the group’s guitar player and vocalist, arrives soon after. Scott’s wife and honorary fourth member, Valerie, offers me a beer before the interview, which I decline until Scott takes one. Moments later, we all have a beer in hand and the interview is less about me asking questions and more about listening to three best friends reminisce about the past seven years as a band and, in a wider sense, their entire lives together.
There’s an air of calm and acceptance in the house, home to the basement where the band has practiced since the beginning. Life happens, of course, and for a group of men who have experienced nearly every formative moment of their lives together, the end of the Elephant Child is as logical as it is inevitable. “We’ve been playing music for our entire lives together,” said Hostetter. “I don’t know if we thought that Elephant Child would last as long as it has, but I think to some extent I always knew we’d be playing music in some form or another.” Propst agrees, adding, “It’s becoming real that we’re not going to do it. It sucks, we’re disappointed, but we’ve gone in and out through our whole lives. I can’t imagine that it’s not going to happen again.”
Elephant Child played their first show at a MACRoCk showcase in 2009, but the band’s roots can be traced back by decades, when Propst and Whitten became friends in their first grade classroom. After meeting Hostetter in middle school, the three of them played in various bands together throughout their teenage years, taking advantage of Harrisonburg’s thriving house show scene of the early 2000s. “We came up in high school sneaking out and going to those shows,” said Whitten. “People were, for the most part, really welcoming and inviting. I think that stayed with us as we got older. We wanted to be able to provide opportunities to kids coming up and make everyone feel welcome. I think we recognize that that’s how you keep a scene going.”
“We just did that to do it, just to see what would happen.”
That’s what makes Elephant Child special to me personally. With the notable exception of Valkyrie, they’re the last remaining link I have to my own glory days at those beer-soaked house shows, a musical vestige of a time when the only thing that mattered was knowing when the next party was happening. What makes Elephant Child important as a band, besides their longevity and impressive body of work, is their lack of pretense. Elephant Child played straight ahead, no bullshit rock and roll music that was inspired and perpetuated by the community they grew up in. It was music in its purest form, the audial equivalent of eating at a Michelin restaurant that uses no more ingredients than absolutely necessary.
“I think, in a sense, we paced ourselves,” said Whitten, speaking to the band’s lifespan. “We were never sprinting to any goal besides drinking beer in the basement, making some new songs, and if we were lucky, getting in front of a crowd with our friends and just having a good time.” In between those shows were moments that endeared the band to Harrisonburg, ensuring their legacy. Whitten randomly applied the band for studio time at Converse’s Rubber Track Studios; they won, and the songs they recorded were featured in commercials for Foot Locker and Fred Meyer.
In another story of legend, the group was asked to play a backyard show for a local boy’s tenth birthday after he shared that Elephant Child was one of his favorites. “I was very sick for that one,” said Hostetter, “but I remember drinking gallons of water the week before to make sure I was ready because there was no way I was going to back out of that show. We weren’t going to suck for that birthday party.” Despite the preparations, the police arrived after just two songs, much to the protests of all involved.
In 2010, the band hatched a plan to play a guerilla show on the quad of James Madison University. “It was orientation and we played this surprise show,” said Propst. “We scoped it out and they had plugs. We tested them out and they were live.” The band loaded their gear up in a cart, rushed the quad with a group of about ten people, and played a handful of songs before they were forced to leave. “I think that scenario almost perfectly describes our band,” said Propst. “We just did that to do it, just to see what would happen.”
As the band grew older, so did its members, and the predictable responsibilities of adulthood came to the forefront. Hostetter got married and recently had a child, Whitten and Valerie started the Larkin Arts gallery and arts supply shop, and Propst is about to move to Tennessee with his wife. The basement practices are coming to a close. Whitten remarked, “A lot of people have asked me if John and I would get a new bass player, and that has been out of the question for both of us.” He continued, “The band is the three of us, it’s never going to be anything different. We’ve all been really laid back about this project. Ultimately, it’s for ourselves. We always figured if some of our friends come out and get rowdy with us, that’s great, but ultimately we’re in it because we love each other and we like playing music.”
Elephant Child played their final show on July 23 at The Golden Pony. To hear a special selection of re-masters and previously unreleased material prepared for the event, visit elephantchild.bandcamp.com.
Photography by Brandy Somers