A Band Called Elephant Shelf

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Today London - tomorrow the world? Playing their own unique brand of R'n'B (with a hint of burlesque), the eclectic and "unconventional Elephant Shelf have a snowballing following on the live music circuit around the South East. SHM editor, Annie, went to investigate this new musical phenomenon.

It's Saturday night in North London and the Salisbury Hotel - a fabulous Victorian gin palace on Green Lanes, Harringay - is filling up. A band called Elephant Shelf will be performing in the back lounge - and just as it's no ordinary pub, this is no common-or-garden pub band. 'The Shelf ' are in a class of their own - one which defies definition - and they're getting a name around London and the South East as the best R'n'B band who haven't got a recording deal.

I've seen them before - quite a few times, in fact - so I know what to expect, but the uninitiated are about to witness a band as unconventional as their name. The line-up can vary from three players to seven (or more with guests), but the key founder member is Miss Vicky Martin, and I introduce myself as the one who'd emailed about writing a feature. While the road manager sorts out the sound set-up, the band's signature decor is laid out on the front speaker - some rather fabulous stilettos in white and cerise, a few feather boas and, curiously, some Scoobystyle soft toys, are laid out, and a shopwindow torso in a tight, bejewelled red sleeveless top, appears on a side speaker.
Vicky introduces me to another core member of the band, 'Princess' Diana Stone, then we talk briefly and fix a date to meet - but the show is about to begin. Vicky welcomes the audience to the sound of the old BBC radio classic, 'Worker's Playtime', followed by some 'teen-angel' style 50s songs which transport me back to 'Happy Days' and Arnold's burger bar - but this is all a feint - Elephant Shelf are about R'n' B, raunchy, gutsy and delivered with unique style.

Getting started

They kick off with some familiar classics - Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower', featuring 'Princess' Di on keyboards and, spectacularly, violin. On to 'Route 66', and Jessie Pie makes her appearance. At first sight, Jessie bears more than a passing resemblance to the elfin, enigmatic Charlotte Rampling in her 'Night Porter' role - until she starts to sing. She has an amazing voice - powerful, clear, with extraordinary range, soaring between a rich sexy growl and clear, jazzy upper reaches - but for her first number she warms up the vocal cords on some harmonies with Martin, the band's road manager. Seems like everyone can get a look in if they've got the talent.
Once Jessie is warmed up, the band moves on to some of their own compositions. New initiates get the impression that they already know the songs - they sound somehow familiar - but that's because they are in a classic, R'n' B style. The Shelf stamp their character on every number with their own brand of raunchy swing. They rip into 'Snake Bite', 'Wicked World', 'Bed of Nails' (are you getting the flavour?), and some glorious trad numbers such as 'Highway Blues' and 'Walking Blues'. Jessie cranks it up, writhing, gyrating and swinging her mane of thick brown hair in wild circles. The men in the audience are transfixed, spellbound - and so are the women. The band seem to be loving every minute too. Throughout the evening each member gets in the spotlight - but there are no egos evident. They really are 'together', both musically and personally. I look forward immensely to talking to Vicky and finding out more.

Behind the scenes

At the designated time I arrive at Vicky's flat and am introduced to drummer Terry McInerny, then ushered into the front room - which is full of guitars, a drum kit, amps, speakers and recording equipment. Elephant Shelf produce their studio-quality recordings and, on their own mini production line, run off their cds. (Did I mention that, for some insane reason, they don't have a recording deal...?) The band in its current form is around three and a half years old. In a previous incarnation a crisis hit the band and a number of members left, so Vicky advertised for players, and Elephant Shelf was born. Why 'Elephant Shelf'? It stemmed from a misheard conversation - Vicky overheard two people discussing a Gershwin song: 'I only know the Elephant Shelf version', one said. So Ella Fitzgerald became Elephant Shelf and so did the new band. As Vicky explains, 'It's completely daft - just two unconnected words, and I thought i t would make a good band name - unforgettable.' And so it does - but like any name (Beatles; Half Man, Half Biscuit; Pink Floyd; ZZ Top, etc), familiarity dulls the oddness very quickly.

A band in the making

Vicky's advert yielded results and the band took shape - Vicky Martin on guitar and vocals, Terry McInerny on drums, 'Desperate' Dan Foster on harmonica and percussion, 'Red Hot' Robbie Charles on bass and Glenn Bassett on rhythm guitar. It was through a transgender website that Vicky and Diana Stone got in contact. Both Vicky and Terry cite Miles Davies and drummer Tony Williams as key influences in their music - however, Diana's style was quite different from what the band were developing. Even so, with her extraordinary talent on keyboards and violin, it wasn't long before she was an integral part of the group, bringing a whole new dimension to their sound.
Vicky recalls that when Diana first joined, she was desperately nervous: 'You just go sit in the corner and plink away, out of the spotlight, until you feel happy', Vicky advised... After months of practice, the band were just about ready to go out and face the public, but there was one element from the current line-up still missing.
Vicky was scanning the pages of 'Loot' magazine and saw an ad placed by one 'Jessie Pie', seeking a pianist familiar with the fetish scene. She rang the number and the rest is Elephant Shelf history. Jessie had been performing on the fetish club circuit with her own brand of burlesque, and she brought something to the band which cultivated and enhanced their unconventional personality. So back to rehearsals - writing more songs and developing their performance - then Elephant Shelf started taking bookings. In two and a half years they've played a staggering 258 gigs (at the time of writing) - and established themselves in music venues all over London, the home counties and south coast and, occasionally, in the north. Vicky Martin abandoned for ever the construction industry - where she owns she was never really happy - and, ever a frustrated artist and Jessie studied web and graphic design. The band is now a very self-sufficient unit; Vicky designs all the publicity and posters, Diana manages the website and deals with sound mixing and production, and, following some exasperating experiences with bookings, they have formed 'Shelf Life Productions' to handle their bookings and those of a number of other bands too. Despite their high profile around local venues, no-one with influence in music circles has been prepared to give their demo disc a listen - or come to one of their gigs to give them a chance. In spite of this, their fame is spreading - Terry recalled a couple at a gig in Manchester who had travelled all the way from Gloucester to hear them.

Although Diana Stone plays only keyboards and violin with Elephant Shelf, she also plays guitar and bass and has composed a lot of her own songs and instrumental numbers. Tradition has it that there were music hall performers in her family, back in the 1900s - which given her entirely selftaught talent, may well be the case. Diana owns to having suffered from sporadic depression over a number of years. Perhaps, she reflects now, this was related to gender identity issues, and it seems no co-incidence that, having come out as transgendered some ten years ago, life has got much better. Encouragingly, on the whole people are not phased by this, and now she has the Elephant Shelf 'family' for support: "I expected that we would do a couple of gigs a month max, and I can remember walking in to one or two really rough-looking pubs with knees knocking just a bit. But we seem to be well-accepted almost everywhere, and friends in the trans community have really been quite surprised by this. We don't actually get much support from that area, and we perform in mainstream venues.' She cites an incident from one of The Shelf 's gigs: 'One of my work colleagues turned up - who was not aware of me being trans - and I didn't recognise her at first, as her hair was so different from how she wore it in the office. She came over at the break and said, "You'll have to give up the day job." I said all the usual thank-yous - then recognised who she was. I laughed when I realised - and then her next comment was, "I never knew you played the violin". So maybe being transgendered is pretty mainstream these days!'

Out and about with 'The Shelf'

I ask if they have targeted TG and gay venues to play - but in fact, Vicky explains, 'the TG community has indicated that it doesn't want to know, and the gay scene is obsessed with disco and drag queens' - so The Shelf doesn't fit. Quite rightly, Elephant Shelf see no reason to adapt their unique style to pander to any particular niche audience - their music exists in its own right, and it's on its strength that their reputation is spreading. However, Jessie Pie's fetish and burlesque background bubbles ever near the surface. The Shelf have played the Skin 2 Rubber Ball, Winter Pride 07 at Brighton's Joogleberry Playhouse, and the Torture Garden, among other fetish venues, and on their pub gigs the signature feather boas, stilettos etc are a pointer to something darker. As Vicky puts it, 'There's a dark side that comes out in Jessie's songs, and the props are a little hint of the forbidden.' The band doesn't always play as a six-piece (Bassett is no longer a regular player). Sometimes they go out as 'The Vicky Martin Trio' - Vicky with Terry on drums and Robbie on bass - or as 'Jessie Pie's Cleavage of Death' (Jessie, Vicky and Diana). The band is now diversifying and increasingly will feature other vocalists, such as dynamic Black R'n' B singer, Jenny Mac. I make a mental note to catch one of these events at the earliest opportunity.
But no matter what the line-up, it's a mystery to me and everyone else I know who has seen The Shelf, that they've not been snapped up and rocketed to stardom. Vicky is increasingly cynical - promises of a tour supporting Eddie Izzard came to nothing - noone with any clout seems prepared to take a risk with a band that can't be shoe-horned into any tidy niche or genre. (There's a sad suspicion that this is a very British narrowmindedness - wouldn't happen abroad.) Terry too is under no illusions - a lifelong musician, he's seen it all and gone through the musical mill. Sure, with Elephant Shelf he's aware of the unique quality of the band, but talent doesn't always get what it deserves. 'We SHOULD be playing the 100 Club and Ronnie Scotts ... Give us centre stage at Glastonbury and we'd blow the audience away. That's how confident we are.' They may not be getting the recognition they deserve, but Elephant Shelf play because they love to perform. They've no time for the apologetic performance of your run-of-the-mill pub band - the four blokes in T-shirts and jeans, playing at ear-splitting volume who have no connection to the audience and seem transfixed by their boots ('shoegazers', they theagree). They're passionate about playing and every performance is an event. Vicky admits, ironically, that even if they made it big and could take their pick of monster venues, it would be very hard to beat the sheer thrill she gets now, playing to an audience. 'Perhaps', she muses, 'we'll start producing our own shelves - signed by the band. Terry could have his own-style shelf, with his face on it. And then there could be Elephant Shelf handbags - and clothes pegs'. On a less flippant note, however, apart from new vocal influences for the band, they're also going to do more gigs as a five-piece, Vicky and Diana leading, to give all the members of the band an opportunity to develop their music.

The Shelf family

The band is, risking a cliche here, much more than the sum of its parts. They are a mutual support group, full of enthusiasm and admiration for each other's talents - and it's a positive policy to nurture each other's musical skills - not just the band themselves, but everyone associated with them. Hence road manager Martin's vocal harmonies when I saw them last. Robbie, apparently, isn't just a cracking bass player - he's a dab at stand-up comedy too, and has a great singing voice - and Dan is featuring more and more on harmonica. Thinking back to their last gig, Vicky reflects, 'In fact, I think Dan played the best of all of us that evening' - no good performance is ignored, no inspiration goes unappreciated.
There's something else about this close-knit unit - Vicky calls it a healing spirit. All the members have suffered traumas - Vicky underwent a family break-up due to transgender issues; Diana has come through serious illness, Terry has tackled and beaten addictions, and Robbie and Dan have dealt with their own struggles and lows in making a living out of their music and, as Vicky says, 'and Jessie Pie - well, she's Jessie Pie'. And through it all, they've bolstered each other up, given moral support and encouragement - and brought each other through.
Perhaps it's this mutual support and empathy which gives the band so much energy and momentum. Vicky founded Elephant Shelf and they've developed through the course of over 250 gigs - but she's the first to recognise that things would never have come together like this under her lead alone. 'Di has been my confidante and righthand, all through. She is a great musical talent and has already recorded a huge number of her own tunes. With regard to the band, Di is a perfect complement to me - I float ideas, inspirations - and she puts everything in its right perspective and ensures it stays grounded and on course.'
So there's more than music which binds this eclectic bunch of personalities together - no egos, but a balance of people who complement each other and create the kind of sounds that make the hairs on my arms stand on end with pure pleasure. See them if you can.