Chat! Josh Royse of Naked Elephant

Of all the 500 or so musicians and bands playing at this year’s Great Escape, the one I was most looking forward to seeing was Naked Elephant. Hotly tipped to be the next big band out of Las Vegas following in the footsteps of The Killers and Imagine Dragons, they were the one that had caught both my eye and ear. A 12:30 Saturday afternoon slot at the intimate Hope & Ruin was far from the ideal time or place to make your European debut, but like everyone else on the bill, Naked Elephant had no say when and where they were performing. They rose to the challenge and put on a storming 30-minute show, running out of time to even get to play their debut single ‘Raspberry Kiss’. Immediately afterwards, I sat in the Brighton sunshine with lead singer Josh Royse to find out more about the band and its frontman.

Is this your first time in the UK?

JR: This is not my first time here, although it’s the first time I’ve been to Brighton. I had a girlfriend in Sheffield so I spent some time up there, but that was a while ago.

Coming to the Great Escape, what were you most looking forward to experiencing?

JR: I was really interested in the fact there are so many venues so close to one another and the fact it takes place every year is great. What interested me about Brighton was the unique shops in the North Laine — I love one-off things made by artists and any area that fosters independent artists is cool with us.

How important is it for a new band like Naked Elephant that there is a festival dedicated to promoting new music?

JR: It’s always exciting to see somewhere that’s fostering new music because discovering new bands and artists all playing in one town over a couple of days is magical.

It’s a long way to come to play for just 30 minutes, how do you maximise the opportunity?

JR: By doing exactly what we love with all the passion we’ve got! I’ve learned with this band that when we show up with everything we’ve got, beautiful things happen.

Presumably, you’re not just coming over just to play Brighton?

JR: No, we’re playing a show in London as well.

How did Naked Elephant get together?

JR: I’ve been playing with our lead guitarist for over ten years, twelve I think. Back then I was a singer/songwriter. The band traces its history back about three years actually. We’re still fairly new.

As a new band, how challenging is it to sustain yourselves economically, without big record sales or having a big fanbase to buy merch?

JR: We’re quite a unique band in that we met in California, but we moved over to Vegas where there are so many venues that consistently support our independent ventures and for a while we played cover gigs which kept us alive financially. Vegas is where it all started for us, but it wasn’t until we actually gave up that security and signed with a label that things began to take off. We’re signed to Virgin Records who now support us. That was a difficult step. A lot of bands want to remain independent, but the reality is you need to have a team supporting you who are ready to hassle and help you grow that fanbase. The way to build that is by throwing everything into a van and playing everywhere you can.

Do you have your own van?

JR: We do. It’s an Airstream actually — very Vegas. It’s great!

So what are your ambitions as a band?

JR: We want to fill arenas! It’s what we’ve wanted from the very beginning. Before every show we put our hands together and day “biggest band in the world!” It’s not simply because we want to be the biggest band in the world, but because we need to always keep in mind that that’s the crowd that’s out there every show we play.

Do you have a plan for achieving this worldwide domination?

JR: I don’t, but I hope Virgin does. They’re a great team. They’re more than we could’ve ever dreamed of. Most important, they let us do whatever we want creatively and that’s great. For example, we do a lot of 360 degree reality stuff. I’m really a tech guy and spend a lot of time experimenting with things that can really fail and Virgin supports that.

It also means it gets you publicity beyond the music as it’s newsworthy.

JR: Exactly.

Let’s go back. You’re an Okie…

JR: I am!

You hail from a tiny town…

JR: That’s right. Turpin, Oklahoma, population 500. It’s in the middle of nowhere!

Is it anywhere near where JJ Cale came from?

JR: Who?

JJ Cale. Isn’t he the most famous Oklahoman musician? He even had an album called Okie.

JR: I don’t know. I don’t know anything about music or pop culture! As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio. There were probably just 18 of us in my graduating class. Imagine going through kindergarden all the way through graduating without ever leaving that town!

So what was your first exposure to music?

JR: This is the weirdest thing. We were all going to church, so gospel was a big thing for me. My grandma however played Frank Sinatra on the record player, so I was always singing along and singing in the shower. That’s where I learned I could sing. Then I got a guitar and I was soon playing music at church — worship music. So it was gospel that really got me into music.

What bands did you then start listening to?

JR: Back then it was DC Talk with Jesus Freak, they were a Christian rock band that blew my mind. I’d never heard anything like it! Then came Papa Roach. I secretly recorded one their songs on a tape from the radio because I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music. I would hide in my closet and listen to that song on repeat. My family were all Southern Baptists, so I’m a long, long way from home now!

So what music influenced your current music style?

JR: As a band, we all listen to different stuff. For example, on the way down Taylor our guitarist was rapping an entire 7-minute song, whilst another one of us was listening to Katy Perry. For me personally, I love Radiohead as well as rockers like AC/DC and Aerosmith. But more than anything, I’m crazy about Coldplay, in particular, Chris Martin’s lyrics. As a writer, I focus on the words and the melody which is why I got very obsessed with Chris Martin’s lyrics. What he was saying was resonating with what I was going through in my own life.

So what was your first live music experience outside of church?

JR: My dad was in an 80s hairband — a Christian rock band — and I was the water boy running back and forth for them. He played the keytar and wore tight green zebra skin pants and had a huge perm!

So there was music in the family.

JR: There was, but it all remained in the church. It was all Christian rock.

So what made you want to form a band?

JR: I remember walking into a massive Christian rock festival when I was a kid and Audio Adrenaline was playing. They were a band I loved back then and I saw my dad loading up a converted bus. They’d cut out the seats and put beds in, it looked like a spaceship to me. They took all this gear out and put it on a stage. That whole lifestyle instantly appealed to me. It was the camaraderie that I saw, the crazy sounds that I heard. That’s what did it for me. I was in love with music.

Someone recently described Naked Elephant as being “sonically adventurous cosmic heretics.” How accurate is that description?

JR: I love that!

How would you describe yourselves?

JR: I would quote that! Cosmic heretics is awesome!

Turning to something more serious, yesterday’s school shooting in Santa Fe was yet another mass shooting in America. Of course, just last year in Vegas, that city witnessed a mass shooting at a country music festival. What do you recall of that terrible day?

JR: Two of our band members were at that festival. I had just landed in London when news of the shooting came up on all the screens as we walked off the plane. I called all of our friends, nobody was answering their phones. Our drummer Chas was right in the line of fire. He felt the bullets hitting the ground around him. He saw people being shot right next to him. It was a very traumatic experience for him and everyone who was there.

How is the city now? Have they had any festivals since the shooting?

JR: There are now so many groups helping people with their trauma. Everywhere you see the hashtag #vegasstrong. There have been a few festivals. We played one just a week afterwards and many people had to leave the venue. It was too soon and really hard for them. But at the same time, they didn’t want to be defeated. No one wants to stop, no one wants to be consumed by fear. The Vegas community has really come together around the idea of #vegasstrong.

Talking of Vegas, I hear there are plans for an exciting new music venue, a huge 18,000-seater dome called the MSG Sphere…

JR: That’s right. Funnily enough, they are going to do virtual reality experiences there which is right up our alley. We already have material prepared for it! It’s one of our goals to be among the first bands to play there. I think Coldplay are already slotted for the opening show.

Apparently, the whole of the outside can change its appearance…

JR: That’s right. It would be like playing inside our own music video! I actually spoke to Chris (Martin) and I told him that we are going to be playing with Coldplay. He said “Oh, is that right?” I took off my sunglasses and looked him dead in the eye — this is in Malibu, he has a house there and we have a house and studio there as well. He’s grabbing a smoothie and I stopped him. We talked for about fifteen minutes and I said one day we’d be playing with Coldplay. He said “Alright mate. Good luck!” and I said “No luck, we are gonna play with you!”

Well, that says everything about the size of your ambition…

JR: I just wanted him to remember that moment, that time when I told him that Naked Elephant would one day share the stage with him.

Today, Vegas is also at the forefront of a new type of live show — the long-term residency. Celine Dion and Elton John are two established artists with Vegas residencies and Queen are about to do something similar later this year. Coincidentally, Britney Spears who has a Vegas residency right now, is bringing that show to Europe with the first performance being right here in Brighton at the Pride festival this August. What are your thoughts on residencies?

JR: I can’t stand them! I hate the concept. I love travelling. In fact, I’m so blessed to have this group of guys who share the same love for touring that I do. Back in Vegas, bands and musicians can make really good money doing residencies, especially in casinos. When we formed Naked Elephant we cancelled over five years of contracts which had taken us years to get in the first place. Among us, we had all kinds of casino gigs, but we took the risk because we all wanted to part of a travelling band. So the whole notion of residencies is something none of us are interested in at all.

So what’s next for Naked Elephant? What can we expect in the coming months?

JR: Definitely an album. Before that, we’ll be releasing a music video for Sun Kissed which we filmed in Thailand — with elephants! I directed and produced it myself.

Were they naked elephants?

JR: Actually, they weren’t, they were wearing humans! There’s a village there called Kanchanaburi that’s home to an elephant sanctuary. They rescue elephants from the circus and treat them very well. We were so moved by what we saw that we decided to sponsor their work. So we'll give a percentage of our merch sales to them.

And what about the album?

JR: I don’t know when that will be released. It’s all done, approved and ready to go. It’s self-produced and self-recorded and it will be self-titled. And we mixed it too! We built our own studio in Vegas, then moved it over to Malibu.

So it that where you’re now based?

JR: We spend three days in Malibu, followed by three or four in Vegas. Like I said, we love to travel!

“To me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image.”

When can we expect you back in the UK?

JR: Soon I hope. We really feel the love here, so I think we may make this our launching pad. The idea is to come here and play as much as we can and then bounce back to Vegas. In time, we’d love to put on a big show with aerial dancers. I need lots of space to run around and I’d really love to be able to use video to portray what I’m saying, because I intentionally keep my lyrics simple.

When you’re not doing music, what do you like to do in your spare time?

JR: I like to watch the birds. I think they’re magical. I also love the ocean. I love to surf and to hike.

I can see why Malibu appeals!

JR: Yeah, but Vegas also has some wonderful outdoors. There’s Red Rocks just outside the city which is outstandingly gorgeous and of course there’s the Grand Canyon. And you can go wakeboarding on Lake George.

And what don’t you like doing?

JR: I don’t like drinking, going to clubs or being in really packed spaces. They freak me out unless I’m performing onstage. Sometimes, even walking along a crowded street is difficult for me. I’ve many different characters that are very much real and alive and very much at odds with each other. My California character would just to love to surf all day! I feel very in tune with the ocean and the movement of the waves. It’s my special place.

Josh Royse was interviewed by Gary Marlowe in Brighton on 19 May 2018

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